With the start of the NHL season only days away (finally), we asked some of our staff members to name 3 players who they feel will be breakout stars during the upcoming season, and there's a guy at the end too...
Nail Yakupov - Edmonton Oilers
This guy is a former #1 overall pick and his highlight reel was insane. Since arriving in Edmonton he has been an absolute disaster. No one benefits more from the arrival of Connor McDavid than Yakupov. Suddenly, the spotlight is totally off him and he can simply get back to playing hockey. The skill is still there and I think this is the year he reminds us all why he was taken #1 overall.
Nikolaj Ehlers - Winnipeg Jets
The Winnipeg Jets have all kinds of great young talent and no one may be more talented than Nikolaj Ehlers. The Dashing Dane put up back to back 100+ point seasons in the Q and is ready to make the jump to the NHL. With all eyes on McDavid and Eichel, Ehlers could be the surprise rookie that snags the Calder.
Jonathan Huberdeau - Florida Panthers
Jonathan Huberdeau - Huberdeau makes this list not just because my dog answers to the name Huberdeau or because he is an alum of my favorite CHL team (the Sea Dogs). Huberdeau makes this list because after a great rookie year he struggled as a sophomore. I expect him to rebound in a big way on a dramatically improved Panthers squad.
Evgeny Kuznetsov - Washington Capitals
Kuznetsov enjoyed a coming out party late in the season last year, culminating with the five markers he potted in the postseason. Initially, he'll be counted on to center the top line until Nicklas Backstrom returns from hip surgery. After that, the two will serve as a one-two punch at center for one of the most lethal top-six units in the league. And, between Kuznetsov's electric skill and the talent he will find himself surrounded with, it's not difficult to imagine a big season on the horizon for the young pivot.
Jonathan Drouin - Tampa Bay Lightning
During last year's rookie campaign, there was little doubt Drouin possessed the talent; he just hadn't earned Jon Cooper's trust. Look for that to change this season as Drouin hopes to entrench himself in Tampa's top-six, likely skating alongside Steven Stamkos. Because, once the Bolts start regularly deploying him alongside the club's other skilled plyers, it isn't difficult to envision a more mature Drouin building on the four tallies and 28 helpers he posted last year.
Jonathan Huberdeau - Florida Panthers
After snagging the Calder Trophy in his rookie campaign, Huberdeau endured a bit of a roller coaster ride over the next two years. He followed up a disappointing sophomore season with a team-leading 54 points in 2014-15. But it was Jaromir Jagr's near-deadline arrival that really served as the springboard for success. Huberdeau, Jagr and Aleksander Barkov clicked immediately, forming a potent trio the Panthers hope they can count on in the coming campaign. If they can sustain last year's late-season success, Huberdeau and the Panthers could find themselves in store for a breakout year.
Evgeny Kuznetsov - Washington Capitals
The playoffs gave us a small taste of what this guy can do. He has the ability to score highlight reel goals on a nightly basis and is poised to make the next step with another full year in the states under his belt.
Seth Jones - Nashville Predators
Jones is that steady-as-she-goes type player that already logs big minutes in the second pairing on the Nashville blue line, but is just kind of boring. I think that changes this year. Look for him to start using his size to play a more physical game and to contribute more offensively. It's hard to believe that he is only 20 years old.
Jakob Silfverberg - Anaheim Ducks
Much like Kuznetzov, Silfverberg dazzled in the playoffs and that may have been a sign that he too is ready to make the next step toward super-stardom. Playing on a line with Ryan Kesler certainly helps and a 30 goal season is not out of the realm of possibility.
Being on the Ducks top two lines will definitely help his productivity this year. Being over 50% in most fancy stat categories (51.9%FF/51.5 CF%) means he makes shit happen. 18 pts in 16 playoff games certainly helps. Slated this year to wing for Perry and Getzlaf will make this kid a perennial name in the league for years to come.
Valeri Nichushkin - Dallas Stars
The 2014-15 season was not kind to Valeri as an injury cost him his sophomore year with the Stars. The team has him flanking Seguin and Benn this year, two players that were in the Top 10 in scoring last year. It will be easy for him to eclipse his 14 goal rookie season with a healthy hip and lethal line-mates.
Nikita Kucherov - Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning really hit gold in their 2014-15 season. The emergence of Tyler Johnson almost had Kucherov fly under the radar last year. An outstanding playoff performance finishing 3rd in the league in scoring, Kucherov netted 29 goals last year in the league's highest powered offense has nothing but youth and a good supporting cast to score even more.
Tomas Hertl - San Jose Sharks
Tomas Hertl is right at the top of my list of players who could breakout this season. Hertl is a speedy center with filthy hands and a knack for scoring. He's 6'2" 200 lbs, a good size for a young NHL forward, and played his first full season last year with the Sharks after his rookie campaign was cut short after a knee injury. The shakeup in San Jose, along with another year of experience, should benefit him greatly.
Olli Maatta - Pittsburgh Penguins
Olli Maatta is the second player that comes to mind for me. He's still young, in terms of NHL Defensemen, but will likely being seeing a lot of TOI this season. One of Maatta's best qualities lies between his ears which says a lot given the skill set he's displayed in 98 NHL regular season games so far. That "hockey IQ" coupled with receiving top-pairing minutes this season (and the Power Play time that will go with it) will take Maatta from being viewed as a "nice player" to fans outside of Pittsburgh to being the "elite young defenseman" that we already believe he is.
Chris Kreider - New York Rangers
Chris Kreider has quickly become a pain in the ass to play against. In his third year, that feeling will only get worse for everybody who plays the New York Rangers. Many faces have departed that locker room and the team will call on the 24 year old to use his speed and 6'3" 225 lb frame to wreak havoc in front of the net. Last season, he scored 21, including 7 on the power play, in 80 games. That total - and his 46 points - will likely be paltry compared to what he'll put up this season (I'm calling 65-70 points). As long as Rick Nash and Henrik Lundqvist are in town, Kreider will never be the biggest name in blue, but he won't be an afterthought after this season.
Chris Pronger - Arizona Coyotes
Chris Pronger was at one time a perennial favorite to win the Norris Trophy. After concussions sidelined him 13 games into the 2011-12 NHL season, Philadelphia utilized his injury as a "salary cap mask." Essentially, they kept him on the payroll because, if he were to retire, his $4.94 million salary would go against the cap. Instead, they would immediately place him on the LTIR list and spend that money freely. Arizona, however did not see Pronger in that light. Instead, they've elected to see him in the 100% opposite manner, a way to reach the NHL's salary floor of $52.8 million. With Pronger in the lineup and NOT placed on LTIR, Arizona will squeak by that salary rule by right around $1.75 million, not including potential performance bonuses. There's been no word on whether Pronger will retain his spot with the NHL's Department of Player Safety while being a regular scratch for the Coyotes.