Barry Melrose: The key player in the spotlight -- and on the spot -- for each team

Melrose's marathon of a day (0:56)

Barry Melrose appeared on ESPN networks once every hour on Thursday, check out how he did jumping from studio to studio. Watch hockey wherever you are with NHL.TV. (0:56)

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.


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Tampa Bay Lightning: Victor Hedman. The Lightning have great forwards who can score goals. But the Nashville Predators showed us last season 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 haven't been able to do that yet.

Ottawa Senators: Erik Karlsson. If Hedman is not the best defenseman in the world, it's this guy. You saw how, in the playoffs last season, 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'm 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 can't score, so Price is going to have to win games for it. He'll 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 aren't 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 don't 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.


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New Jersey Devils: Nico Hischier. I know his numbers so far don't show it, but he's a heck of a player. I've 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.

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 season. It's amazing what his teams have accomplished, both internationally and with the Penguins. He's the best.


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Washington Capitals: It's Ovi. [Alex Ovechkin] gets too much of the blame. But it's a lot like Jack Eichel's situation. You're one of the highest-paid players in the league. You're one of the most talented men in the world. You've had a good supporting cast, but you haven't 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'll 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 don't know for how long. This will be a story we're gonna follow the whole season. The Islanders have to get a new building. They can't let this guy go. But they have to get him signed. So they're fighting a three-front battle: they have to win, they have to get a rink and they have to keep Tavares.

New York Rangers: It's still Henrik Lundqvist. But the window is closing for Hank. He's great, but he hasn't pushed them over the top. You look at the other goaltenders who have won Stanley Cups -- Corey Crawford, Marc-Andre Fleury, Matt Murray, Jonathan Quick. Hank hasn't. You never want to be on the list of the best goaltenders who never won a Stanley Cup. Hank would probably be the leader of that group right now.

Western Conference

St. Louis Blues: Vladimir Tarasenko. I think it's amazing what St. Louis has done this season, considering the injuries the Blues have had. It seems like every night a defenseman scores a goal -- and Tarasenko scores a goal. He's a gifted goal scorer and one of the four or five guys who have a chance of getting 50 this season.

Chicago Blackhawks: I'm going to say Patrick Kane. I could easily say Jonathan Toews. They're interchangeable. But Kane just changes the game when he's out there, skating and passing behind his back and doing his spin-o-ramas. He just calms everybody else on the team down because he's so skilled with the puck and has so much confidence.

Colorado Avalanche: Nathan MacKinnon. This team has surprised everyone by starting the season with three wins, which is a great story. No one is talking about it because it's the Avalanche. But they've weathered the [Matt] Duchene story. And they're playing really well. It's nice to hear some positive news out of Colorado.

Dallas Stars: Jamie Benn. I love watching him play. Dallas had a terrible year last year -- offensively, defensively, goaltending. But the Stars spent money this offseason and now they should win. So there's pressure on Benn and his group of buddies, probably for the first time since [GM] Jim Nill took over.

Nashville Predators: Roman Josi. The Predators named him captain after Mike Fisher retired. They have some good forwards on that team, but Josi played so well in the playoffs last season and he will face the other team's best player every night.

Winnipeg Jets: Dustin Byfuglien. He's so dynamic. There's nobody in the world like him at his size (6-foot-5, 265 pounds) -- nobody who skates the way he does, is as physical or shoots as well. But he's one of the league leaders -- if not the leader -- in minor penalties. He's very undisciplined at times, and that has to change.

Minnesota Wild: Ryan Suter. He's the best player, plays the most minutes, plays against the other team's best player. Zach Parise is a heart-and-soul type of guy, but he's hurt so much. It's tough to be a leader when you're out of the lineup. There are so many good teams in the West, so to win in that conference you have to have the whole package -- good goaltending, good special teams and some luck avoiding injuries. Suter is the face of Minnesota hockey.

Vegas Golden Knights: James Neal. You could put Fleury in there, but I think Neal is the guy -- he has two winners in OT, he has five goals. He's a goal scorer, has a great shot, is a real competitor. He makes people mad when they play against him.

Calgary Flames: Mark Giordano. Other people get more ink than him, and get talked about more, but he's a defenseman who takes on the other team's best player. He plays on the power play, kills penalties. He's a great skater, as are all the defensemen for Calgary. He's really the calming influence for the Flames.

Los Angeles Kings: Anze Kopitar. I think Drew Doughty is right there, [Jonathan] Quick is right there. The years that the Kings won the Stanley Cup, however, Kopitar was a big factor. He had 25-35 goals. Last season, he had a terrible year. L.A. had a terrible year. This year Kopitar is off to a good start (three goals, two assists). L.A. is 2-0-1. He is playing much better. He dictates a lot of how L.A. plays. I think Kopitar is the leader of that team.

Anaheim Ducks: Ryan Getzlaf. He's been there a long time, but he's still a warrior. The Ducks are still a dangerous team. They have a great defense, good goaltending and a good group of forwards. So they're right in the mix again. Getzlaf is the guy who makes things happen in Anaheim.

Vancouver Canucks: The Sedins. Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin have been grouped together since they were 18. Is [coach] Travis Green gonna play them more? Play them less? They're not gonna be traded. So Green has has to find a way to get them on the ice. It's gonna be a very interesting scenario. They've started well, which is a bonus for Green. Are they still elite players? We'll find out. The answer will affect the future of the Canucks, big time.

Edmonton Oilers: Connor McDavid. There's no doubt about it. The kid's great. He's just an immense talent. In a league with a lot of young, immense talent, he's the immensement. He's great.

Arizona Coyotes: Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The Coyotes have young forwards. They're so young -- I think we saw that youth after the ceremony in Vegas [for the Golden Knights' first game]. The moment seemed to really overwhelm Arizona. The Coyotes never got onboard and lost the game in first period. Ekman-Larsson is one of the best defensemen in the league. He's gong to have to be a great leader and a great player to turn that team around.

San Jose Sharks: Brent Burns. We know what we're going to get out of Joe [Thornton], [Joe] Pavelski and [Logan] Couture Burns had 28 goals last season and won the Norris Trophy. That's what they have to get out of him again this season. He needs to have another jaw-dropping, eye-opening year. He has to be around that 30-goal mark, play 5-on-5 really well, play a ton of minutes. He's the most important part of that team.