NHL Preseason: Potential Surprise Player for Every Team

Everybody loves an underdog. And every fall, there are successful underdog stories coming out of NHL training camps.

When the 31 teams declare their 23-man rosters on Oct. 1, there will be several surprises again this year.

Unheralded prospects making the cut. Minor-leaguers taking the next step. Journeymen sticking in new situations. Europeans exceeding expectations in North America. Professional tryouts earning contracts. Overpaid veterans getting demoted to the AHL.

All of those scenarios could play out across the league, as competition for jobs will be fierce over the next couple weeks.

With the puck dropping on the preseason — there is a full slate of games on the schedule today — here is a look at the potential surprise players for every team.

Anaheim Ducks — Andrew Poturalski, RC/RW

Honourable Mention(s): Jani Hakanpaa, RD

ANALYSIS: Poturalski is 25 years old and it’s probably “now or never” for him. He’s arriving in Anaheim on a high as the playoff MVP for AHL champion Charlotte. He’s been productive for a few years at that level but couldn’t crack Carolina’s roster due to the depth there. His skating has also held him back, but this will be Poturalski’s best chance to date — especially if the Ducks end up trading Ondrej Kase to his former team for Justin Faulk. That would open up another right-wing spot, with Poturalski capable of capitalizing on that opportunity. Poturalski has flown under the radar with plenty of hype surrounding Anaheim’s top prospects — Sam Steel and Isac Lundestrom as centres, Troy Terry, Daniel Sprong and even Kiefer Sherwood as right-wingers — but don’t be shocked if Poturalski is on the Ducks’ opening-night roster.

Arizona Coyotes — Aaron Ness, LD

Honourable Mention(s): Victor Soderstrom, RD; Nick Merkley, RW

ANALYSIS: Ness’ signing — a two-year pact on July 1 — didn’t move the needle on the opening day of free agency but could prove to be a sneaky good acquisition for Arizona. He’s 29 and considered a career minor-leaguer after spending the bulk of the past four seasons with Washington’s affiliate, AHL Hershey — only getting into 18 total NHL games with the Capitals and none last season. But Ness has always passed the eye test and must have intriguing underlying numbers to get the attention of John Chayka’s analytically-inclined staff. Ness is no doubt down the depth chart for the Coyotes, but his playing style is comparable to Jordan Oesterle, who is carving out a career for himself in the desert. There might not be room for both of them — and Soderstrom will be the fancy new toy in training camp — but Ness could quietly hang around until the final cuts. And who knows, he might just stick around to start the season.

Washington Capitals defensemen Aaron Ness
Aaron Ness (55) is moving on from Washington to Arizona, recording an assist and finishing with a plus-1 rating in the Coyotes’ preseason opener yesterday — a 6-2 loss to Vegas. (James Guillory/USA TODAY Sports)

Boston Bruins — Oskar Steen, RW

Honourable Mention(s): Jack Studnicka, RC; Jeremy Lauzon, LD

ANALYSIS: Steen is now 21 years old and has been trending well ever since getting drafted in 2016. He’s already overachieving for a sixth-round pick — having scored 17 goals in Sweden’s top league last season, tied for seventh and just six back of the leader’s 23 — but that draft position has kept Steen a secret outside of Boston. He’s been impressive at international tournaments against the best of his age group and has had success against men back home, so this preseason could be Steen’s coming-out party in North America. He is expected to challenge for a roster spot.

Worth noting, Connor Clifton is no longer a surprise — not after becoming a playoff revelation and looking like the real deal in Boston’s run to the final — so it wouldn’t be shocking to see him start with the Bruins, especially if Brandon Carlo remains unsigned.  

Buffalo Sabres — Rasmus Asplund, LC

Honourable Mention(s): John Gilmour, LD; Curtis Lazar, RC/RW; Arttu Ruotsalainen, LW/LC

ANALYSIS: Asplund is a long-shot to make the Sabres — they are quite deep up front, with plenty of more experienced bottom-six options — but he came on strong in the second half of last season after adjusting to the North American game and could be in the mix longer than most expect. He has the smarts and the skills to make a positive first impression on new coach Ralph Krueger. Asplund could be an upgrade on fellow Swede Johan Larsson at some point this season and he’ll use the rest of this month to plant that seed. Even if Asplund doesn’t start the campaign in Buffalo, he could emerge as the first call-up ahead of his 22nd birthday in December.

Rasmus Asplund Sabres
Rasmus Asplund poses after being selected 33rd overall by the Buffalo Sabres in 2016. (Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

Calgary Flames — Devante Smith-Pelly, RW

Honourable Mention(s): Glenn Gawdin, RC/RW; Artyom Zagidulin, G; Andrew MacDonald, LD

ANALYSIS: Smith-Pelly is on a PTO, trying to re-establish himself as an NHLer. He spent much of last season in the minors after previously playing a pretty big role — and scoring some pretty big goals — in Washington’s championship run. He has that experience and he also has the size that the Flames are lacking in a smaller forward group. Calgary made the Milan Lucic move to address that weakness and signing Smith-Pelly could give them another bigger body for when the games get tougher in the playoffs. Not that Smith-Pelly plays overly physical, but he has some power elements to his game that could complement Calgary’s current group. Of the half-dozen PTOs there, Smith-Pelly probably has the best chance of earning a contract ahead of Tobias Rieder.

Devante Smith-Pelly
Devante Smith-Pelly is a likeable player who has had a hard time staying in the NHL. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Ross D. Franklin)

Carolina Hurricanes — Morgan Geekie, RC/RW

Honourable Mention(s): Chase Priskie, RD; Gustav Forsling, LD; Janne Kuokkanen, LW

ANALYSIS: Geekie’s stock has been soaring and he took his game to another level in the AHL playoffs, becoming a force to be reckoned with as a rookie pro. He was a third-round pick as an overager in 2017 but is suddenly looking like a steal relevant to his draft position. Another year in the AHL wouldn’t be the worst thing for Geekie — he’s only 21 — but he’ll be pushing hard to stay in Carolina with hopes of making his NHL debut in October. The Hurricanes are deep up front — and will be deeper if they deal Faulk for a forward — so that will be a difficult lineup to crack, but don’t count out Geekie. He’s rising fast.

Morgan Geekie developed into a dangerous scorer in the WHL. (Doug Love/Tri-City Americans)

Chicago Blackhawks — Alex Nylander, RW

Honourable Mention(s): Dominik Kubalik, LW; Philip Holm, LD; Aleksi Saarela, LW

ANALYSIS: Nylander was thrilled to be traded to Chicago — one of his dad Michael’s old teams — and to get out of a situation that wasn’t working for him in Buffalo. The Sabres may have mishandled Nylander’s development to some degree, but he was mostly mediocre through three AHL seasons. However, the AHL isn’t an easy league for teenagers and the Blackhawks could be getting Nylander at the perfect time now that he’s 21. There was an uptick in production at that level last season — some encouraging signs — and Nylander has the talent to be a hit in Chicago. He’ll get every opportunity in camp and could totally make the most of it. Some have already written off this Nylander, but that would be a mistake.

Alexander Nylander Sabres
Alex Nylander makes his way to the ice to play his first career NHL game with the Buffalo Sabres. He got into a grand total of 19 games with that franchise before getting traded this summer. (Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY Sports)

Saarela is more of a sleeper — more of an underdog heading into the preseason — since there has been far less buzz about him than Nylander among Chicago’s offseason acquisitions. Saarela scored 30 goals for AHL champion Charlotte last season and should be very close to NHL-ready at 22 years old with more than 175 AHL games on his resume.

Colorado Avalanche — Calle Rosen, LD

Honourable Mention(s): Conor Timmins, RD; Pavel Francouz, G; Valeri Nichushkin, LW

ANALYSIS: Rosen isn’t going to replace Tyson Barrie, but he’ll prove more than a throw-in from that trade. In fact, Rosen is primed for a breakout campaign at 25 years old after becoming a dominant player in the AHL last season. He’ll be overshadowed in the preseason by rookie sensations Cale Makar and Bowen Byram — both fourth overall picks in recent years — but Rosen is a good bet to make the Avs and then make some waves. Especially since he can play the right side, a position of need on Colorado’s defence.

Calle Rosen, Toronto Maple Leafs, SHL, NHL
Calle Rosen didn’t get much opportunity in Toronto, but that should change in Colorado. (Photo by Vaxjo Lakers/Champions Hockey League via Getty Images)

Columbus Blue Jackets — Alexandre Texier, LW/LC

Honourable Mention(s): Emil Bemstrom, RW; Elvis Merzlikins, G; Veini Vehvilainen, G

ANALYSIS: Texier stepped right in — and stepped right up — for Columbus in the playoffs, gaining valuable experience and confidence for the season to come. He didn’t look out of place and wasn’t intimidated by the stage, so expect Texier to shine as a rookie. Columbus has a lot of holes up front and he’ll be thrust into one of them. But if those eight playoff games were any indication, Texier appears ready for primetime despite just turning 20 this month.

Columbus Blue Jackets Alexandre Texier
Alexandre Texier (42) celebrates his first career NHL goal with the Blue Jackets’ bench. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)

Dallas Stars — Denis Gurianov, LW

Honourable Mention(s): Scottie Upshall, RW; Andrej Sekera, LD

ANALYSIS: Gurianov has the tools to be a top-six forward — certainly a top-nine option this season — and he took motivation from watching Roope Hintz thrive in the playoffs. Gurianov will be hoping for a similar coming-out party in the preseason to earn a roster spot in Dallas. The buyout of fellow Russian winger Valeri Nichushkin could open the door for Gurianov. They were both top-15 picks — Nichushkin 10th in 2013 and Gurianov 12th in 2015 — and the Stars will be looking for better results from Gurianov once he makes the leap to the NHL. That could be this fall, with Gurianov getting a chance to impress while Corey Perry recovers from a broken foot.

Denis Gurianov
Denis Gurianov has played 22 NHL games to date while excelling with the AHL’s Texas Stars. (Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)

Detroit Red Wings — Oliwer Kaski, RD

Honourable Mention(s): Michael Rasmussen, LC; Taro Hirose, LW

ANALYSIS: Kaski is a late-blooming 24-year-old who exploded in the Finnish Liiga last season to become one of the most sought after European free agents. Detroit won those sweepstakes after Kaski helped Finland win the world championship in May. That was a while ago and there doesn’t seem to be as much talk about him outside of Detroit these days. Kaski is still coming into the NHL a little under the radar. The transition to North America and the smaller ice surface will be intriguing to watch in the preseason, but Kaski possesses the size and skill-set to be successful on this side of the pond with the rebuilding Red Wings.


Edmonton Oilers — Tomas Jurco, LW/RW

Honourable Mention(s): Joel Persson, RD; Joakim Nygard, LW

ANALYSIS: Jurco has enjoyed a ton of success in the AHL — winning his second Calder Cup championship this spring as a ringer for Charlotte and producing around a point per game at that level — but hasn’t been able to translate his offensive abilities to the NHL yet. Now 26 — turning 27 in December — Jurco should be entering his prime and Edmonton could be the perfect place to realize his potential since the Oilers are lacking in scoring wingers. He’ll have plenty of competition, with Edmonton having a surplus of bottom-six forwards, but Jurco could win a roster spot and perhaps slot as high as the second line with a stellar preseason.

Tomas Jurco
Tomas Jurco didn’t pan out in Detroit but has reunited with Ken Holland in Edmonton. (James Guillory/USA TODAY Sports)

Florida Panthers — Aleksi Heponiemi, RW

Honourable Mention(s): Kevin Roy, LC/LW; Brady Keeper, RD

ANALYSIS: Heponiemi has high-end skill and could complement fellow Finn Henrik Borgstrom to form a third scoring line for Florida sooner than later. If that chance comes during training camp, Heponiemi could capitalize and stick with the Panthers to start the regular season. He’s not new to North America, having played junior with WHL Swift Current before going home to light up the Liiga last season, so Heponiemi should be able to hit the ground running with the right linemates. Look for Joel Quenneville to help him find his footing by pairing Heponiemi with Borgstrom or perhaps even Finnish captain Aleksander Barkov for parts of the preseason. If he excels, Heponiemi could become a Calder sleeper amongst a terrific rookie class.

Aleksi Heponiemi of the Swift Current Broncos
Aleksi Heponiemi put up 118 points for the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos two seasons ago. (Darwin Knelsen/Swift Current Broncos)

Los Angeles Kings — Jaret Anderson-Dolan, LC

Honourable Mention(s): Mario Kempe, LW; Martin Frk, RW

ANALYSIS: Anderson-Dolan won’t take long to win over new coach Todd McLellan. He’s a work-horse with all the tools to be a successful pro. The Kings are going to work in some fresh faces this season and Anderson-Dolan could prove to be one of the most ready thanks to his versatility and well-rounded game. He might not score a ton at the NHL level — at least not as a 20-year-old rookie — but Anderson-Dolan can be effective in a variety of roles, which should help his chances of cracking the opening-night roster for the second year in a row. He’s obviously not as much of an underdog as he was a year ago and getting sent back to junior last season helped grow his game as a go-to guy offensively, but Anderson-Dolan will be a two-way force during his NHL career and that could start this season.

Jaret Anderson-Dolan
Jaret Anderson-Dolan took another step in his development with the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs last season, but now he’s ready to turn pro. (Larry Brunt/Spokane Chiefs)

Kempe, the “other” brother, and Frk will be battling for bottom-six forward spots as bigger underdogs. The Kings united the Kempe brothers this summer, but Mario will be hard pressed to join his younger sibling, Adrian, as a regular on L.A.’s roster. Mario has some high-end skill — as evidenced by his highlight-reel clips from practice — but he wasn’t able to pull off many of those moves during games with Arizona. Frk has a heavy shot and could be a weapon for L.A.’s power play but didn’t produced much at even strength during his Detroit days.

Minnesota Wild — Kaapo Kahkonen, G

Honourable Mention(s): Brennan Menell, RD; Nico Sturm, LC; Gerald Mayhew, RW

ANALYSIS: Kahkonen, at 23 years old, is coming off a solid first season in North America and will be coming to camp to steal the backup job behind Devan Dubnyk — perhaps even pushing him for the starting role as the season progresses. Alex Stalock, a local Minnesota boy, is the incumbent backup, but if Kahkonen is the future in goal for the Wild, he should get ample opportunity in the preseason to prove he’s ready for the NHL. That should be an open competition for the backup spot, but if the plan is to saddle Dubnyk with a heavy workload again this season, then Kahkonen might be better served by starting another campaign in the AHL.

Kaapo Kahkonen Iowa Wild
Kaapo Kahkonen posted a .908 save percentage over 39 appearances with the AHL’s Iowa Wild last season. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Montreal Canadiens — Ryan Poehling, LC

Honourable Mention(s): Jordan Weal, RW; Josh Brook, RD; Otto Leskinen, LD

ANALYSIS: Poehling would have been more of an underdog had he not debuted with a hat-trick to end last season. That was unexpected coming out of college and now expectations are quite high for Poehling to make an immediate impact for Montreal. First, he has to make the cut for the Canadiens, but Poehling should be able to rise to the occasion in the preseason. He won’t be lacking in confidence and he’s not the cocky type, so Poehling shouldn’t disappoint. He’ll be an underdog when it comes to the Calder — despite those hat-trick heroics — but Poehling could work his way into that conversation too.

Ryan Poehling Canadiens
Ryan Poehling has a bright future ahead with the Montreal Canadiens. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Weal is more of a sleeper in Montreal, now viewed as more of a journeyman than a top prospect. But he put up big numbers back in junior and also in the AHL, so Weal could be in for breakout campaign after seeing an uptick in his offensive contributions towards the end of last season — producing 10 points in 16 games with the Canadiens. Could Weal become this season’s Jonathan Marchessault or Yanni Gourde? That seems unlikely, but he could surprise to some degree.

Nashville Predators — Eeli Tolvanen, LW

Honourable Mention(s): Rem Pitlick, LC; Daniel Carr, LW; Jeremy Davies, LD

ANALYSIS: Tolvanen is another top prospect and first-round pick that had his struggles in the AHL last season and thus isn’t top of mind when thinking about Nashville this fall. But he’s coming back bigger, faster, stronger by all accounts and could force his way onto the Predators’ roster with a productive preseason. Tolvanen is a scorer and teams will always make room for scorers if and when they are ready. That’s a deep forward group without any rookies, so Tolvanen will be in tough, but he could blow everyone away and steal a spot.

Eeli Tolvanen, Nashville Predators
Eeli Tolvanen’s best asset is his shot and he’ll hope to showcase that during the preseason. (Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Davies is a bigger underdog to make Nashville, but he’s a very intriguing prospect and could prove to be the key piece in return for P.K. Subban. Davies is turning pro after a tremendous college career and will look to continue overachieving as a seventh-round pick from 2016. He’ll turn 23 in December, so Davies could be mature enough to play in the NHL at some point this season. David Poile could look like a genius for this acquisition a year from now.

New Jersey Devils — Jesper Boqvist, LW/RW

Honourable Mention(s): Joey Anderson, RW

ANALYSIS: Boqvist will be battling Anderson, among other prospects, for the lone forward opening in New Jersey. The Devils added an entire line in the offseason by drafting Jack Hughes first overall, acquiring Nikita Gusev from Vegas and signing Wayne Simmonds as a free agent, so those three — along with P.K. Subban on defence — will get most of the preseason press. Boqvist won’t be in the spotlight — not unless he’s scoring in bunches during exhibition — but he could end up on the roster reminiscent of fellow Swede Jesper Bratt a couple years ago.

Jesper Boqvist turned heads at the New Jersey Devils’ development camp. (New Jersey Devils/Patrick Dodson)

New York Islanders — Oliver Wahlstrom, RW

Honourable Mention(s): Josh Ho-Sang, RW; Michael Dal Colle, LW; Kieffer Bellows, LW

ANALYSIS: The winger battles will be fascinating for the Islanders, with several prospects trying to fill a couple spots — perhaps flanking newcomer Derick Brassard. Wahlstrom is coming off a strange season where he had more success as a pro, in the AHL, than he did in college. Could he possibly be NHL-ready after only 10 AHL games? That will be determined in the preseason, but Wahlstrom possesses an NHL-calibre shot and the Islanders will need all the goals they can get, so he’ll get a long look. If he gets a look alongside Matt Barzal, they could form a dynamic duo for the next decade.

Oliver Wahlstrom Islanders
Oliver Wahlstrom was drafted 11th overall by the New York Islanders in 2018. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Ho-Sang is an underdog since he’s spent most of his Islanders’ career in the doghouse — be it with Garth Snow, Jack Capuano, Doug Weight, Lou Lamoriello or Barry Trotz. Ho-Sang has the talent and the tools to claim one of those spots, but the attitude and ability to adapt keeps holding him back. Lamoriello and Trotz are running a tight ship, so he’ll need to shape up or ship out this fall. This could be a make-or-break campaign for Ho-Sang, though a change of scenery might also be beneficial for him. That could be coming if he doesn’t make the Islanders out of camp.

New York Rangers — Vitali Kravtsov, RW

Honourable Mention(s): Lias Andersson, LC; Brendan Lemieux, LW; Tarmo Reunanen, LD

ANALYSIS: Kravtsov is a heralded prospect — not unheralded, as a top-10 pick — but he’s going to be overshadowed amongst all the other new faces for the Rangers, including fellow rookies Kaapo Kakko and Adam Fox in addition to Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba. With that many big names coming to the Big Apple, Kravtsov might not get much attention in the preseason, but he’s another potential star in the making and another potential Calder candidate. It’s not unfathomable that there could be two finalists from the same team in Kakko and Kravtsov. The latter will learn a ton from Russian teammates Panarin, Pavel Buchnevich and Vladislav Namestnikov, which should make for a fairly smooth transition to North America and perhaps instant success in the preseason.

Vitali Kravtsov New York Rangers Draft
Vitali Kravtsov was drafted ninth overall by the New York Rangers in 2018. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

If Kravtsov doesn’t count as an underdog, Reunanen surely does. The 21-year-old blueliner totally fits the bill as a preseason sleeper, albeit a long-shot to stick with the Rangers to start the regular season. Reunanen will also be overshadowed by Fox as the sexiest defence prospect and he’d have to beat out the likes of Libor Hajek, Yegor Rykov, Ryan Lindgren, Brandon Crawley and Joe Morrow, who joined the Rangers on a PTO, but Reunanen broke out playing pro back home in Finland last season and shouldn’t be ruled out.

Ottawa Senators — Connor Brown, RW

Honourable Mention(s): Vitaly Abramov, RW/LW; Nick Ebert, RD

ANALYSIS: Brown is going to get more offensive opportunity in Ottawa under a familiar coach in D.J. Smith, who also made the move from Toronto. Brown has always possessed offensive upside but was stuck down the depth chart with the Leafs. This is his chance to break out with the Senators and secure a top-six role. Nobody knows what to expect from Ottawa this season — though most are anticipating a lottery team — but this group of misfits and promising prospects have the potential to overachieve. The whole team is underdogs in a sense and Brown will be hungry to prove he can be productive. Watch him lead the preseason in scoring.

Connor Brown, Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL
Connor Brown netted 20 goals as a rookie with Toronto in 2016-17 but dipped to 14 in 2017-18 and down to eight in 2018-19 before getting traded to Ottawa. (John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports)

Ebert is the ultimate underdog, a 25-year-old who was once highly touted while playing junior for Smith. Ebert had a rough draft year and really fell off the radar, getting written off as a bust before getting a resurgence in Sweden where he was a dominant defenceman last season. Ottawa has a couple openings on the back end and that familiarity with Smith could certainly bode well for Ebert’s chances.

Philadelphia Flyers — German Rubtsov, LC/LW

Honourable Mention(s): Tyler Pitlick, RW; Andy Welinski, RD

ANALYSIS: The Flyers have a few big-name prospects pushing for spots — Morgan Frost, Joel Farabee and Isaac Ratcliffe — but don’t forget about Rubtsov, their first-rounder from 2016. He is easily forgotten since Rubtsov missed most of last season with a shoulder injury. However, prior to getting hurt, he was coming on strong in the AHL and looking more and more like an NHL player in the making. Rubtsov is healthy again and hoping to pick up where he left off. There are a couple forward openings in Philadelphia and also a completely new coaching staff, so Rubtsov could win them over and win a spot with a productive preseason. He shouldn’t be overlooked.

Pittsburgh Penguins — John Marino, RD

Honourable Mention(s): Juuso Riikola, LD; Dominik Kahun, LW; Kasper Bjorkqvist, LW/RW

ANALYSIS: Marino was deemed expendable by Edmonton — the Oilers are very deep in defence prospects — but he could be close to NHL-ready coming out of Harvard at 22 years old. Marino’s NCAA career was good, not great, but he’s a smooth skater with the all-around tools and intelligence to be a successful pro. He could surprise for Pittsburgh and prove to be a steal, only costing the Penguins a sixth-round pick in 2021. By then, Marino could be in their lineup and pushing for a top-four role, but let’s first see how he fares in the preseason.

San Jose Sharks — Dylan Gambrell, RW/RC

Honourable Mention(s): Mario Ferraro, LD; Noah Gregor, LC; Josef Korenar, G

ANALYSIS: The Sharks have so many honourable mentions — also including Jonny Brodzinski, Alex True, Sasha Chmelevski, Ivan Checkhovich, Joachim Blichfeld, Jayden Halbgewachs, Tim Heed and Andrew Shortridge — and San Jose’s camp is going to be extremely competitive at every position. Gambrell got a leg up with an impressive playoff appearance this spring, giving him the best odds for filling one of three holes in the top nine that were vacated by Joe Pavelski, Joonas Donskoi and Gustav Nyquist. The internal options to replace that trio are plentiful, so Gambrell isn’t guaranteed a spot, but he’s a legit prospect who could surprise this season. San Jose does well drafting outside the first round and developing that talent, with Gambrell definitely trending well as a second-round pick from 2016. He’s 23 years old now and primed to make an impact.

Dylan Gambrell San Jose Sharks
Dylan Gambrell could get a spin on the San Jose Sharks’ second line with Tomas Hertl and Evander Kane in the preseason. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

St. Louis Blues — Sammy Blais, LW

Honourable Mention(s): Mitch Reinke, RD; Ville Husso, G

ANALYSIS: The Blues’ roster is pretty set — as to be expected for the defending champions — but Blais is one player who could take a big step forward this season. He showed off his physical side in the playoffs — making his presence felt by piling up the hits — but Blais has decent offensive upside too, with a hard shot and soft hands around the net. He’ll get a chance to replace Patrick Maroon and could replicate his contributions. A strong preseason could set Blais up for a breakout campaign.

St. Louis Blues Samuel Blais
Sammy Blais has only managed four goals over 58 combined NHL games with the St. Louis Blues but has potential for many more. (Billy Hurst/USA TODAY Sports)

Tampa Bay Lightning — Carter Verhaeghe, LC/LW

Honourable Mention(s): Alex Barre-Boulet, LC/LW; Luke Schenn, RD

ANALYSIS: Verhaeghe is one of those minor-leaguers that just continues to improve. Tampa Bay is terrific at identifying those under-the-radar talents — as evidenced by the aforementioned Marchessault and Gourde — but it remains to be seen whether Verhaeghe has what it takes to succeed at the highest level. Now 24 and fresh off leading the AHL in scoring last season, many teams will be keeping a close watch on Verhaeghe during the preseason. That’s because he’ll require waivers if he doesn’t make the cut in Tampa. The vultures will be circling, but the Lightning will likely find a role for Verhaeghe if he’s looking like the real deal this fall.

Toronto Maple Leafs — Kevin Gravel, LD

Honourable Mention(s): Nic Petan, LW/LC; Teemu Kivihalme, LD

ANALYSIS: The Leafs are another team with a ton of honourable mentions — a list that goes on to include Trevor Moore, Nick Shore, Pontus Aberg, Kenny Agostino, Kalle Kossila, Mason Marchment, Jeremy Bracco, Pierre Engvall and Jordan Schmaltz — but Gravel stands out as a guy who was extremely serviceable for Edmonton last season. His efforts for the Oilers were very underrated, but Toronto obviously took notice. The Leafs have several defenders vying for a couple open spots — one of them only short term until Travis Dermott is ready to return — but Gravel could quietly carve out a role in the preseason. He’s not a flashy player by any means, but he’s effective and Mike Babcock will want dependable types on that third pairing.

Anaheim Ducks' Brian Gibbons Edmonton Oilers' Kevin Gravel Cam Talbot
Kevin Gravel (5) trips up Brian Gibbons to prevent a goal last season. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Vancouver Canucks — Justin Bailey, RW

Honourable Mention(s): Oscar Fantenberg, LD; Reid Boucher, LW; Francis Perron, LW

ANALYSIS: The Canucks have far too many forwards — just with their returnees — but Bailey is one of the new faces of note. He’ll have to beat out a half-dozen players who are familiar to Travis Green in order to win a job in Vancouver — and avoid a ticket to Utica — but Bailey will be in the mix throughout the preseason. He showed up in great shape — compared to Jake Virtanen — and has been making a strong first impression, but Bailey will need to keep the pedal down in exhibition play to make the final decisions difficult for Jim Benning. Bailey has the size and speed to be an NHLer, but he needs to maintain his consistency and finish more of his chances to stay in the big league.

Justin Bailey spent three-plus seasons in the Buffalo Sabres’ organization before finishing last season with the Philadelphia Flyers. (Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY Sports)

Vegas Golden Knights — Valentin Zykov, LW/RW

Honourable Mention(s): Dylan Coghlan, RD; Nicolas Roy, RC/RW; Tyrell Goulbourne, LW

ANALYSIS: The most intriguing preseason battle for Vegas will be on the blue line — with Coghlan competing against Nic Hague, Jimmy Schuldt, Zach Whitecloud, Jake Bischoff and Jaycob Megna for a single spot — but Zykov is one of the players to watch up front. A sniper in the AHL, Zykov has struggled to score at the NHL level because he’s been a half-step behind in adjusting to the faster pace. If his foot speed improved over the summer, Zykov could fill the net in the preseason and fill the role that the Golden Knights had envisioned for a fellow Russian in Nikita Gusev. He proved too pricey for Vegas, but Zykov could be a bargain contributor.

Vegas Golden Knights Valentin Zykov
Valentin Zykov only got into 10 games with the Vegas Golden Knights last season, scoring two goals. (Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY)

Washington Capitals — Brendan Leipsic, LW

Honourable Mention(s): Jonas Siegenthaler, LD; Shane Gersich, LW; Brett Leason, RW; Ilya Samsonov, G

Brendan Leipsic
Brendan Leipsic wasn’t able to stick with the Vancouver Canucks despite playing for his former junior coach Travis Green. (Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

ANALYSIS: Leipsic has bounced around the league — Washington is already his sixth team at just 25 years old — but he’ll eventually find a more permanent landing spot. That could be with the Capitals, where his energy and peskiness will be a welcome addition to their bottom six. Leipsic still has the potential to be a poor man’s Brad Marchand — his scoring touch has yet to translate from junior to pro — but he’s been more of a role-playing agitator thus far. It’ll be difficult to climb the depth chart in Washington, but the Capitals would be pleasantly surprised if Leipsic proves capable of chipping in offensively. A productive preseason could provide the confidence boost he needs.

Winnipeg Jets — Tucker Poolman, RD

Honourable Mention(s): Nathan Beaulieu, LD; Andrei Chibisov, RW; Joona Luoto, LW

Tucker Poolman Winnipeg Jets
Tucker Poolman will be trying to prove he belongs in the NHL during the preseason. (Sergei Belski/USA TODAY Sports)

ANALYSIS: The Jets are going to be breaking in a couple new blueliners — with a couple others taking on bigger roles from last season — and Poolman could be one of them. He’s 26 years old and hardly a rookie, getting into 26 NHL games two seasons ago before growing his offensive game in the AHL last season. There are higher expectations for Sami Niku as an offensive defender, but Poolman’s all-around ability could make him more of a regular in Winnipeg’s lineup this season. They will both get every opportunity to establish themselves in the preseason.