NHL Power Rankings: The driving force for all 31 teams

With 10 goals in his first seven games, Auston Matthews is the offensive engine driving the Maple Leafs to impressive heights thus far this season. Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

The 2018-19 season has begun to take shape and teams are beginning to form identities. For this week's ESPN NHL Power Rankings -- voted on as always by ESPN's panel of experts -- we identified the one thing carrying each of the 31 teams early in the season.

Note: These rankings reflect which teams our voters think would win head-to-head matchups. Higher-ranked teams would be favored against lower-ranked teams.

1. Toronto Maple Leafs

Previous ranking: 1

The entire offense looks terrific (4.71 goals per game), but let's be honest: It has been the Auston Matthews show in the Six. With 10 goals in his first seven games, it's a true coming-out party for the young American. He's on pace for 117 goals this season. He won't hit that but should improve on his career-best 40 from 2016-17.

2. Nashville Predators

Previous ranking: 2

The Preds have won three straight but even better is the feeling that skilled top-line winger Filip Forsberg is just starting to heat up. He has three goals in his past two games and four on the season. He might just be the first 40-goal scorer in franchise history.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning

Previous ranking: 4

The Lightning still have a small sample size (only four games played), but the penalty kill has been absolutely lethal. Tampa Bay has yet to give up a power-play goal in 18 opportunities. Oh, and they've scored two shorties, too.

4. Boston Bruins

Previous ranking: 6

The top line on this team is oh so dangerous. In a four-game winning streak prior to Wednesday's loss, Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak had combined for 30 points (13 goals, 17 assists). No other Bruins forward has more than five points on the season.

5. New Jersey Devils

Previous ranking: 15

The how-are-they-still-undefeated young Devils are getting their biggest boost from vet Kyle Palmieri's seven goals. The man strikes early. Palmieri is now the first player in NHL history to score his team's opening goal in four consecutive games to begin a season.

6. Anaheim Ducks

Previous ranking: 7

The early, early, early Vezina Trophy front-runner? That's American John Gibson. He has been sensational -- facing a whopping 213 shots, he's boasting a .948 save percentage and a 1.89 goals-against average.

7. Carolina Hurricanes

Previous ranking: 9

The fresh-faced Canes are all about embracing the fun. But this is a dangerous team that has scored a league-high 20 even-strength goals and is firing a league-high 42 shots per game. Even with a new coach, some things never change: Carolina is dominating in possession metrics (it currently ranks first in the NHL in Corsi for percentage).

8. Winnipeg Jets

Previous ranking: 5

Mark Scheifele might not have the production we expect from him just yet, but the No. 1 center is shouldering the workload. He's averaging 17:44 of even-strength ice time per game, which trails only Connor McDavid and Patrick Kane among all forwards.

9. Washington Capitals

Previous ranking: 3

Even without Tom Wilson, the top line is shining. A lot of that has to do with Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has four goals and six assists in his first six games. His four power-play goals pace the team, which has been dynamite with a 39.1 power-play percentage.

10. Chicago Blackhawks

Previous ranking: 16

Brandon Saad was brought back to be Jonathan Toews' sidekick. Instead, it has been youngster Alex DeBrincat shining alongside the captain. DeBrincat, Patrick Kane and Toews have combined for 26 points as Chicago is off to a better-than-expected start -- and now welcomes back Corey Crawford.

11. Colorado Avalanche

Previous ranking: 14

It was supposed to be a season where he surrendered the No. 1 goalie job to Philipp Grubauer. Instead, Semyon Varlamov hasn't let up his grip. In five starts, Varlamov has not let in more than two goals in regulation; he has posted at least a .927 save percentage in every game in which he has played.

12. Columbus Blue Jackets

Previous ranking: 10

Remember last season when it was the Artemi Panarin show, with a very limited supporting offensive cast? Panarin still rules, but through five games there have been nine Blue Jackets forwards to score, a welcome development.

13. Pittsburgh Penguins

Previous ranking: 8

The Penguins might acquire defensive help after Justin Schultz's long-term injury, but the re-emergence of Kris Letang as a legit No. 1 makes the situation less dire. Letang is averaging 21:03 in even-strength ice time while tallying six points (three goals, three assists) in five games.

14. Calgary Flames

Previous ranking: 21

The Flames look leaky on defense, giving up at least four goals in half of their games. But they've found results from their dynamic offense. The Flames have a league-high 11 goals in the third period.

15. Philadelphia Flyers

Previous ranking: 17

Bad news: the Flyers have given up the first goal in each of their first six games. They lead the league by giving up nine first-period goals this season. Good news: Philadelphia has found a way to win half of those games.

16. Vancouver Canucks

Previous ranking: 27

He's out right now because of a concussion, but rookie sensation Elias Pettersson has carried the load in terms of giving this franchise hope. Petterson aside, the Canucks have won three straight games and are off to a surprising 4-2 start. It helps when Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat are starting to score, too.

17. Dallas Stars

Previous ranking: 13

Home cooking is what's propelling the Stars. Dallas won three of its four home games, then dropped two straight on the road -- unfortunately, a troublesome holdover trend. The Stars are 28-44-10 on the road over the past two seasons (and 48-25-9 in their own barn).

18. Minnesota Wild

Previous ranking: 19

The Wild rank second in the league by surrendering a whopping 38.2 shots per game, meaning they're super reliant on their goaltenders. Devan Dubnyk, however, has been quite good in five starts, posting a 2.32 goals-against average and .940 save percentage.

19. Montreal Canadiens

Previous ranking: 25

Tomas Tatar had a rough 2017-18 -- being traded away from the Red Wings only to be a healthy scratch in Las Vegas. His career might be revived in Montreal after leading the team with three goals and four assists in his first five games.

20. San Jose Sharks

Previous ranking: 11

The much-hyped Sharks don't have the results we expected early -- and we're still waiting for the power play to click. But San Jose has controlled possession and offensive-zone time -- surely in no small part to import Erik Karlsson -- which signals it's not time to fret just yet.

21. Vegas Golden Knights

Previous ranking: 20

The Golden Knights have been banged up, but their 5-on-5 numbers are OK, their top line is still intact (and producing) and they've played five of their six games on the road. So don't be so quick to say that other teams have found the cure to the Vegas Flu.

22. St. Louis Blues

Previous ranking: 18

The Blues are off to a sluggish start, but here's welcome news. Their power play -- which was at times dreadful last season, with the second-to-worst percentage in the league -- looks all right. St. Louis already has nine power-play goals in 28 opportunities, good for a 32.1 percentage that is fifth in the league.

23. Buffalo Sabres

Previous ranking: 24

Last season, the Sabres didn't get a goal by a defenseman until Dec. 5. Offensive production from defensemen should no longer be a worry. Rasmus Dahlin already has his first NHL goal, and fellow blueliners Marco Scandella and Nathan Beaulieu have already found the back of the net, too.

24. Ottawa Senators

Previous ranking: 28

The surprising start for the Senators has been thanks to some sparkling youngsters. Now that Brady Tkachuk (three goals, three assists in his first four games) is sidelined a month, all eyes are on 22-year-old D-man Thomas Chabot, who looks to be the real deal.

25. New York Islanders

Previous ranking: 22

Sentences we thought we'd never write: The Islanders have been stingy in the goal-suppression department, giving up only 2.8 per game, the 10th-best mark in the league. The platoon of Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner is going better than expected, and certainly better than last year's tandem.

26. Los Angeles Kings

Previous ranking: 12

A star is born in Los Angeles! No Jonathan Quick, no problem, as Jack Campbell plowed through five starts with a .922 save percentage -- despite entering the season with only five NHL starts. If only the power play was as impressive (it's currently 0-for-16).

27. Edmonton Oilers

Previous ranking: 31

Does a player have to be on a playoff team to win MVP? Let's cue up the debate again, as Connor McDavid broke an NHL record for scoring or assisting on each of his team's first nine goals to start the season. "I'm not overly proud of it," McDavid told reporters. "I don't think it's a stat we should be proud of either."

28. New York Rangers

Previous ranking: 30

This is the state of affairs with the Rangers these days. On a team not generating much offense -- 2.43 goals per game -- the King reigns. Henrik Lundqvist's even-strength save percentage is at .957, which is third highest among goalies with at least three games played.

29. Arizona Coyotes

Previous ranking: 26

It's definitely not the offense giving Arizona an early push; the Yotes rank dead last in the league, averaging 0.60 goals per game. The one thing stabilizing the team is the belief that things have to be better than this. Also, Alex Galchenyuk was recently cleared for contact.

30. Florida Panthers

Previous ranking: 23

It has been a winless month for the Panthers (at 0-2-2, it matches the worst start in franchise history), but success will come as long as the top two centers perform. Aleksander Barkov has three goals in his first four games, as both he and Vincent Trocheck are averaging more than 22 minutes.

31. Detroit Red Wings

Previous ranking: 29

There are troubling signs in Detroit, which has lost six straight games to begin a season for the first time in its 92-season franchise history. One thing keeping the Red Wings afloat? A decent power play: five goals in 17 opportunities.