Every team has them. Some teams have more than one. That player who has either exceeded expectations, has fallen short of those goals or seems on the verge of something but you’re just not sure how it will turn out.
So who are these players? And how important will they be to their teams going forward? Well, that depends upon the player, the team and their current situation.
Here’s a look at a key player to watch for every team and the potential impact they could have on their clubs.
How we rank: A panel of ESPN hockey commentators, analysts, reporters and editors rates teams against one another — taking into account game results, injuries and upcoming schedule — and those results are tabulated to produce the list featured here.
Note: Previous ranking for each team refers to the most recent edition, published Jan. 27. Points percentages are through Thursday’s games.
Previous ranking: 1
Points percentage: 81.37%
Next seven days: vs. WSH (Feb. 11), @ DAL (Feb. 14), @ NSH (Feb. 16)
Jake DeBrusk. We know David Pastrnak is going to score more than 100 points in his contract year, while Linus Ullmark is the front-runner for the Vezina Trophy. That said, DeBrusk was having the strongest season of his career before sustaining a lower-body injury during the Winter Classic. DeBrusk should be back in the next week or so, and when he returns he’ll give the already dangerous Bruins another weapon, a forward who is averaging 0.83 points per game this season.
Previous ranking: 2
Points percentage: 74.51%
Next seven days: vs. NYR (Feb. 11), @ WSH (Feb. 14), vs. MTL (Feb. 16)
Jordan Martinook. He entered the first week after the All-Star break with 11 goals. If he scores five more goals, he’ll have a career high. Even if Martinook scores two more goals, he’ll have more goals this season than he had in his past three seasons … combined. Oh, and he also needs one more point to set a career high in that department. He’s also second among all forwards in short-handed ice time, which further underscores how valuable he has been.
Previous ranking: 3
Points percentage: 70.59%
Next seven days: @ MIN (Feb. 11), @ CBJ (Feb. 14), @ STL (Feb. 16)
Luke Hughes. First-round picks who go the collegiate route are starting to leave school after their sophomore seasons. Defensemen such as Quinn Hughes, Cale Makar, Charlie McAvoy, Owen Power and Zach Werenski, among others, have followed that path. So what’s stopping Luke Hughes from doing the same once the University of Michigan concludes its season? Hughes has 32 points in 28 games for the Wolverines. His potential arrival could give the Devils another puck-moving option who also projects as a top-four defenseman … just in time for the playoffs.
Previous ranking: 4
Points percentage: 67.31%
Next seven days: @ CBJ (Feb. 10), vs. CBJ (Feb. 11), vs. CHI (Feb. 15)
Conor Timmins. He’s played a fraction of the games, yet is already fifth among Leafs defensemen in points. Timmins has given the Leafs another puck-moving option who has 12 points in 18 games since coming over in a trade with the Coyotes earlier this season. Timmins gives the Leafs depth. But he also gives them another contributor on a team-friendly deal. He was a pending RFA, but the Leafs announced Thursday they had signed Timmins, a second-round pick in 2017, to a two-year deal worth $1.1 million in each season.
Previous ranking: 6
Points percentage: 66.04%
Next seven days: vs. TB (Feb. 11), vs. BOS (Feb. 14)
Jason Robertson. Picking Robertson? How groundbreaking. But here’s why his season continues to matter. Sure, he has a legit shot at 50 goals and 50 assists. But he’s also projected to finish with 106 points. Let’s say those projections hold. It would amount to Robertson having one of the best seasons in franchise history. No, really. That’s not hyperbole. He’d be the fifth player in North Stars/Stars history to score 50 and be the first player in Dallas Stars history with 100 points in a season.
Previous ranking: 5
Points percentage: 66.67%
Next seven days: @ DAL (Feb. 11), @ COL (Feb. 14), @ ARI (Feb. 15)
Brandon Hagel. And in the latest chapter of “The Lightning Are A Cheat Code” comes the season Hagel is having. He’s projected to have 31 goals and 67 points, which both would be career highs. But it’s the context around those numbers that potentially make what he could do even more notable. Hagel had 68 career points coming into this season, yet he could score nearly that many in an 82-game campaign. And the Lightning have him under contract for one more year at $1.5 million.
Previous ranking: 7
Points percentage: 62.50%
Next seven days: vs. CHI (Feb. 11), vs. SEA (Feb. 14), @ CBJ (Feb. 16)
Nikolaj Ehlers. Yes, there’s the Norris hopeful (Josh Morrissey). The Vezina winner who is trying to claim a second one (Connor Hellebuyck). The 31-goal scorer who is flirting with 50 (Mark Scheifele). The forward with the slow start who has since torn people apart to be on pace for a 93-point season (Kyle Connor). There’s the other forward having a career year who is a pending RFA (Pierre-Luc Dubois). There’s the rookie who could also chase down Seattle’s Matty Beniers in the points race (Cole Perfetti). Clearly, the Jets have a lot of depth and it’s what makes Ehlers returning to the lineup fascinating. He is averaging more than a point per game through his first 18 games and gives a team that once struggled to score another player who makes it even more dangerous.
Previous ranking: 9
Points percentage: 64.71%
Next seven days: vs. SEA (Feb. 10), @ CAR (Feb. 11), @ VAN (Feb. 15)
Vladimir Tarasenko. Trading for one of the most coveted forwards ahead of the deadline was a move that signals the Rangers’ postseason intentions while also adding another top-six forward. A source told ESPN’s Emily Kaplan that the Rangers were looking at Patrick Kane and Timo Meier but had concerns about salary cap implications and Kane’s hip injury. Getting Tarasenko, who is a pending UFA, comes with the expectation that getting a six-time 30-goal scorer who already has a Stanley Cup is only going to make the Rangers even more formidable throughout the season and potentially the playoffs.
Previous ranking: 8
Points percentage: 61.76%
Next seven days: @ NYR (Feb. 10), @ PHI (Feb. 12), @ WPG (Feb. 14), vs. PHI (Feb. 16)
Chris Driedger. Now, the Kraken are about to face yet another question with their goaltending: What will they do whenever Driedger is healthy? He sustained a torn ACL representing Canada at last year’s IIHF Men’s World Championships and hasn’t played this season. The Kraken signed Martin Jones in free agency and have watched him win 23 games. Philipp Grubauer played only four games in January but had a .940 save percentage, the best he has had in any month since joining the Kraken. A healthy Driedger gives them three options, but which one gets the most playing time?
Previous ranking: 10
Points percentage: 62.26%
Next seven days: vs. ANA (Feb. 12), vs. SJ (Feb. 16)
Mark Stone. This is more about what the Golden Knights do to fill in for Stone rather than Stone himself. The Golden Knights announced earlier this month Stone would be out indefinitely after having a second back procedure since May 2022. Golden Knights coach Bruce Cassidy told reporters he was told there is an opportunity for Stone to return at some point this season. Even if Stone returns eventually, his absence creates questions about how Vegas will fill the void left by not having its second-leading goal scorer while trying to retain a grip on a playoff spot in the competitive Pacific Division.
Previous ranking: 14
Points percentage: 60.58%
Next seven days: @ OTT (Feb. 11), @ MTL (Feb. 12), vs. DET (Feb. 15)
Jack Campbell. What Campbell did throughout January and in his first start after the All-Star break has led to questions about a potential turnaround. Campbell finished January with a .913 save percentage, his first month with a better one than .900 this season. Consistency has been an issue for Campbell and that is evidenced by his .889 save percentage on the season. But if he can find some consistency and the Oilers can harness that in addition to what they have in rookie All-Star Stuart Skinner, it could help them remain in contention to win the Pacific Division.
Previous ranking: 11
Points percentage: 58.00%
Next seven days: @ FLA (Feb. 11), vs. TB (Feb. 14), @ MIN (Feb. 15)
Bowen Byram. Staying healthy has been the greatest barrier when it comes to seeing what the Avs truly possess with Byram. They saw it during their Stanley Cup run and when Byram opened this season with five points in 10 games while averaging more than 20 minutes before he was injured. A return to health and some consistency from Byram, who is a pending restricted free agent, could help the Avs return to the playoffs.
Previous ranking: 15
Points percentage: 59.00%
Next seven days: @ ANA (Feb. 10), @ LA (Feb. 11), @ SJ (Feb. 14)
Tristan Jarry. Nine wins, 11 losses and five overtime defeats. That is the Penguins’ record when Jarry is out of the lineup. Adjusting to life without their No. 1 goalie has been a theme as of late. He was out for two weeks after getting injured in the Winter Classic, returned for two games but remained out of the lineup until after the All-Star break. Jarry was moved to injured reserve Feb. 7, but was still working out. He’s been listed as day-to-day with the notion his eventual return could aid the Penguins’ fight to make the postseason.
Previous ranking: 12
Points percentage: 59.43%
Next seven days: vs. PIT (Feb. 11), vs. BUF (Feb. 13)
Pheonix Copley. His seven wins in January alone are one fewer than what Jonathan Quick has had all season. That’s how important Copley has been to a team that, like a few of their counterparts, can score but has had trouble receiving consistent goaltending. Even though Copley had a .889 save percentage in January, his efforts are why the Kings have remained in the Pacific Division fight and will look to do so in what is shaping up to be the NHL’s most competitive race.
Previous ranking: 13
Points percentage: 56.86%
Next seven days: vs. NJ (Feb. 11), vs. FLA (Feb. 13), vs. COL (Feb. 15)
Matt Dumba. Does he stay? Does he go? Those seem to be the most notable questions facing the Wild defenseman. Dumba is a pending UFA who the Wild could move at the trade deadline in exchange for some scoring help.
Previous ranking: 20
Points percentage: 53.70%
Next seven days: vs. COL (Feb. 11), @ MIN (Feb. 13), @ STL (Feb. 14), @ WSH (Feb. 16)
Sergei Bobrovsky/Spencer Knight. Scoring is not the issue with the Panthers this season. Only the Bruins, Oilers and Sabres had scored more goals as of Feb. 8 than the Panthers this season. Allowing goals, however, has remained an issue to the point the Panthers are seventh in goals allowed. This is why they have only a plus-1 goal differential. It’s also what makes the contributions from Bobrovsky and a healthy Knight critical. Getting consistent performances from them not only makes the Panthers even more formidable, but it also helps strengthen their chances in a wild-card race where five teams are separated by four points.
Previous ranking: 17
Points percentage: 56.60%
Next seven days: @ BOS (Feb. 11), vs. SJ (Feb. 12), vs. CAR (Feb. 14), vs. FLA (Feb. 16)
Nicklas Backstrom. Other than Alex Ovechkin‘s chase for the most goals in NHL history? The most notable narrative facing the Capitals is the mounting injuries while trying to secure another playoff berth. Backstrom’s return to the lineup gives the Caps depth down the middle while also providing them with a veteran playmaker capable of creating scoring chances for others and himself. Having a healthy Backstrom coupled with the eventual return of John Carlson further strengthens their roster in a bid to capture a ninth straight postseason appearance.
Previous ranking: 18
Points percentage: 56.00%
Next seven days: vs. CGY (Feb. 11), @ LA (Feb. 13), @ ANA (Feb. 15)
Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. One of the narratives around the Sabres this season has been the progress made by their youth movement and what it could mean for them going forward. Luukkonen falls into that conversation. He has given the Sabres a chance to win, which has helped them push back into the wild-card race while potentially showing he has made a breakthrough.
Previous ranking: 16
Points percentage: 55.77%
Next seven days: @ BUF (Feb. 11), @ OTT (Feb. 13), vs. DET (Feb. 16)
Jacob Markstrom. Look at the Flames’ underlying defensive metrics per 60 in 5-on-5 situations. They are in the top five in shots allowed and scoring chances allowed while ranked sixth in high-danger chances allowed. It’s what makes the disconnect with Markstrom so jarring given he’s on his third stretch of more than five straight losses this season. The Flames need him if they are going in their bid for a playoff spot.
Previous ranking: 22
Points percentage: 53.64%
Next seven days: @ MTL (Feb. 11), vs. OTT (Feb. 14)
Bo Horvat. Come on, now. Let’s be real here. The Islanders parted with quite a bit to get Horvat, signed him to a long-term deal worth a lot of money and did this for what they believe can be an instant and lasting impact. Of all the teams challenging for the wild-card spot in the East, the Islanders have scored the fewest goals. Horvat has 32 goals through 51 games and he’s projected to score 51 this season. The Isles’ power play, which ranks 31st, has amounted to 24 goals this season whereas Horvat has scored 11 goals and also has seven assists on the man advantage alone this season. Horvat presents the Isles with a player who can fill needs all while being a top-six center who strengthens what they have down the middle and giving their dressing room a former captain.
Previous ranking: 21
Points percentage: 52.00%
Next seven days: vs. VAN (Feb. 11), @ VAN (Feb. 13), @ EDM (Feb. 15), @ CGY (Feb. 16)
Dylan Larkin. An argument could be had that this might be Larkin’s best and most important season for a few reasons. He’s currently projected to score what would be a career-high 75 points. He also leads the team in power-play ice time while being second in 5-on-5 and short-handed minutes. Those items, his stature within the franchise and the fact he is a pending unrestricted free agent whose future has attracted attention is what makes Larkin a player to watch for the remainder of the season.
Previous ranking: 23
Points percentage: 48.04%
Next seven days: vs. ARI (Feb. 11), vs. FLA (Feb. 14), vs. NJ (Feb. 16)
Ryan O’Reilly. Now that Tarasenko is with the Rangers, the attention shifts to what will happen with the Blues captain. He’s currently on injured reserve and continues to work his way back from a broken foot. A number of outcomes could happen with O’Reilly. The first is he could be traded. As of Feb. 9, the Blues were nine points out of the final wild-card spot and they could be in a position to start thinking about their future considering O’Reilly is a pending UFA. So what’s the second? He could stay with the Blues through the deadline, potentially sign a new contract with the team and be part of that future.
Previous ranking: 19
Points percentage: 55.10%
Next seven days: @ PHI (Feb. 11), vs. ARI (Feb. 13), vs. BOS (Feb. 16)
Juuso Parssinen. Getting five points in his first seven games created the belief the Predators might have found another offensive contributor — only to see him muster just four points in 14 games in December. Yet, Parssinen followed that with 12 points in 13 games in January. Those contributions helped the Preds win nine games and allowed them to stay within range of challenging for the final wild-card spot after the All-Star break.
Previous ranking: 25
Points percentage: 51.00%
Next seven days: vs. EDM (Feb. 11), vs. CGY (Feb. 13), @ NYI (Feb. 14)
Alex DeBrincat. His first season in Ottawa might not see him hit the 70-point mark for the third time in his career. But DeBrincat is on pace for what would be his third-best season in terms of points and could make a run at a 30-goal season. The intrigue, however, lies in what happens with his contract situation at the end of the season. He’s a pending RFA with one year of team control before he becomes a UFA in 2024. Does he join Drake Batherson, Thomas Chabot, Josh Norris, Brady Tkachuk and Tim Stutzle as current Sens on a long-term deal? Or could he sign on a one-year deal and see what the open market presents?
Previous ranking: 24
Points percentage: 50.00%
Next seven days: vs. NSH (Feb. 11), vs. SEA (Feb. 12), @ SEA (Feb. 16)
James van Riemsdyk. There is the question of where van Riemsdyk will ultimately end up. But there is also the question of what the Flyers could receive in exchange for van Riemsdyk if he is traded. He presents any playoff-bound team with a proven scorer who can bolster their top-six or top-nine group with a veteran option. Whatever the Flyers get in return for van Riemsdyk is expected to help aid them in their rebuilding efforts after what’s looking like the third straight season without making the playoffs.
Previous ranking: 27
Points percentage: 43.14%
Next seven days: vs. NYI (Feb. 11), vs. EDM (Feb. 12), vs. CHI (Feb. 14), @ CAR (Feb. 16)
Rafael Harvey-Pinard. Injuries have been a major part of the Canadiens’ season. Those injuries have led to others getting chances, and Harvey-Pinard has turned his into registering six points in his first seven games. Granted, it is a small sample size. But Harvey-Pinard was a productive AHL player who averaged 0.71 points in 142 games. Is it possible he can parlay that success into something sustainable in the NHL and give the Canadiens another young player who could factor into their future plans?
Previous ranking: 26
Points percentage: 40.57%
Next seven days: @ WSH (Feb. 12), vs. PIT (Feb. 14), @ VGK (Feb. 16)
Timo Meier. The Tarasenko trade provided an indication that the Sharks are seeking something substantial in exchange for Meier. Seeing what the Islanders parted with to land Horvat before signing him to a long-term deal was thought to provide a blueprint for teams in a similar situation. Meier has one more year of team control before he is set to become a UFA in 2024. Furthermore, the discussion around Meier’s future converges right as he is having the strongest season of his career; he is projected to finish with what would be his first 80-point campaign.
Previous ranking: 28
Points percentage: 44.23%
Next seven days: @ DET (Feb. 11), vs. DET (Feb. 13), vs. NYR (Feb. 15)
Brock Boeser. Their decision to trade Horvat to the Islanders showed the Canucks are indeed open for business. So is it possible that Boeser could be the next player who moves on from the Canucks? If so, any team interested in Boeser would be getting a four-time 20-goal scorer who is on pace to finish with 15 goals this season. But the other item they’d be receiving is the two years at $6.665 million AAV Boeser has left on the three-year extension he signed last July.
Previous ranking: 29
Points percentage: 39.22%
Next seven days: @ CHI (Feb. 10), @ STL (Feb. 11), @ NSH (Feb. 13), vs. TB (Feb. 15)
Barrett Hayton. Much has been said about the Coyotes’ future and where Hayton fits within that plan. His career 0.33 points per game average coming into this season has fallen short of what comes with being a former No. 5 pick. But Hayton did finish January with eight points. Could it be the start of something for a player who is still just 22? Or if it’s not Hayton? There is that matter of what the Coyotes could potentially receive at the deadline in return for Jakob Chychrun and/or Shayne Gostisbehere.
Previous ranking: 30
Points percentage: 35.71%
Next seven days: vs. ARI (Feb. 10), @ WPG (Feb. 11), @ MTL (Feb. 14), @ TOR (Feb. 15)
Connor Bedard. Poet laureate Rihanna once said, “Baby, this is what you came for,” and if that’s true, why dance around the subject? The reason everyone continues to ask about the collective futures of Max Domi, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews stems from the need to have the strongest possible odds to land Bedard. That, and seeing what additional draft capital the Blackhawks can attain in the process. Still, having the fewest points does not guarantee getting the No. 1 pick. But it doesn’t hurt either.
Previous ranking: 31
Points percentage: 38.46%
Next seven days: vs. PIT (Feb. 10), @ VGK (Feb. 12), vs. BUF (Feb. 15)
John Klingberg. There were a number of possibilities presented when Klingberg signed a one-year deal with the Ducks. One of them was he could be moved at the trade deadline, and it appears that’s what could happen. If so, it would give his future team a top-four defenseman in need of a new contract while giving the Ducks draft capital for what they believe can be a brighter future.
Previous ranking: 32
Points percentage: 33.33%
Next seven days: vs. TOR (Feb. 10), @ TOR (Feb. 11), vs. NJ (Feb. 14), vs. WPG (Feb. 16)
Kirill Marchenko. Like the Blackhawks, the Blue Jackets are also a serious player in the Bedard sweepstakes. The biggest selling point for having the No. 1 pick is the promise of the future, and Marchenko appears to be part of those plans. His 13 goals in 28 games has him on pace to finish with 21 goals in 45 games. Marchenko’s exploits have led to him emerging as a serious contender to win the rookie goal-scoring race while also making a case for the Calder Trophy.