Barry's Best: Most important player for each team

From ESPN - October 13, 2017

We asked ESPN analyst Barry Melrose to go coast-to-coast and name the most important player for each team this season. Who will be on the spot -- and in the spotlight -- for each squad?

The former NHL coach and defenseman dished out some surprises -- and even coined a new superlative for Connor McDavid. Here's Melrose's take on who will be each franchise's difference-maker over the next six months.

Eastern Conference

Toronto Maple Leafs: Auston Matthews. He's a not a flash in the plan; he's the real deal. The Leafs have a lot of other good young players. But he's gonna be the guy who stirs the drink for a long, long time in Toronto.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Victor Hedman. The Lightning have great forwards who can score goals. But the Nashville Predators showed us last year that a good defense can almost win you a Stanley Cup. And Tampa Bay's defense will be better than Nashville's was. If Hedman is not the best defenseman in the world, he's in the top two.

Detroit Red Wings: The sad part is, it's still Henrik Zetterberg. And that's why Detroit is struggling. The Red Wings have to find young players who can become the leaders of that team, and someone else to be that go-to guy. They have not been able to do that yet.

Ottawa Senators: Erik Karlsson. Like I said above, if Hedman is not the best defenseman in the world, it's this guy. You saw how, in the playoffs last year, on a bad ankle, he almost single-handedly got Ottawa to the Stanley Cup Final. They lost in overtime in a Game 7. He's great, no doubt about it.

Florida Panthers: I think it's Aleksander Barkov. He was drafted second overall in 2013, so the expectations are high. The Panthers have some good, young players. But Barkov is going to have to be the guy who changes Florida's fortunes.

Boston Bruins: Charlie McAvoy. This kid is great. He's 19, so I am going future here. It's a lot harder to be a young defenseman in the NHL than to be a young forward. But I think he will be the next Ray Bourque for the Boston Bruins.

Montreal Canadiens: Carey Price. This team ca not score, so Price is going to have to win games for it. He will have to be the best goaltender in the world for Montreal to have any chance of making the playoffs. The Canadiens have started the season slowly, so if his save percentage and goals-against average are not the best, the Habs will have a tough, tough year.

Buffalo Sabres: Jack Eichel. He is the key. He just signed a big, new deal. As the old saying goes, "The more God gives you, the more God expects." Eichel has been given a lot. There was talk that there was trouble between him and [former Sabres coach] Dan Bylsma. I do not know about that. But it's very clear that this is Eichel's team now. It's different now, with this contract and the pressure that he's under. If the team struggles, Eichel will take some heat.

New Jersey Devils: Nico Hischier. I know his numbers so far do not show it, but he's a heck of a player. I have been very impressed with him. It would be easy to say Jesper Bratt; I really like him, too. Bratt's a diamond in the rough that the Devils have found. But I think this Hischier kid will turn out to be a heck of a pick and a heck of a player for New Jersey.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Sidney Crosby. He's the best leader in hockey. He's already won three Cups. The guy just wins. He and the Penguins won without Kris Letang in the lineup last year. It's amazing what his teams have accomplished, both internationally and with the Penguins. He's the best.

Washington Capitals: It's Ovi. [Alex Ovechkin] gets too much of the blame. But it's a lot like Jack Eichel's situation. You are one of the highest-paid players in the league. You are one of the most talented men in the world. You have had a good supporting cast but you have not won. So you have to take some of the blame.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Zach Werenski, for a lot of the same reasons I mentioned about Charlie McAvoy. This kid is great. He's a special defenseman. To play the way he did last season at his age (19), for a team that made the playoffs, was very impressive. The Blue Jackets have other good players, depth players. But I think Werenski is the guy who will end up being the real leader of this group.

Philadelphia Flyers: It's still Claude Giroux. I know he had a bad year last season, but as he goes, the Flyers go. He needs to rebound and become Claude Giroux again and play the way Claude Giroux can. If he does regain that form, I think the Flyers are going to be a tough team to play against.

Carolina Hurricanes: Jeff Skinner. If you look at last season, when the Hurricanes got things going in the second half, Skinner was the guy. He got really hot and scored a ton of goals. He's an elite scorer. He plays hard. The Hurricanes have a great, young defense. But when the going gets tough, they look to Skinner to put puck in the net.

New York Islanders: John Tavares. I do not know for how long. This will be a story we are gonna follow the whole year. The Islanders have to get a new building. They ca not let this guy go. But they have to get him signed. So they are fighting a three-front battle: they have to win, they have to get a rink and they have to keep Tavares.

Western Conference


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