The NHL Preview series continues with the players most likely to have break out campaigns. The kind of seasons that launch them from a regular player to a star player. Go from “a guy” to “the guy”.
So I set a little criteria for this. First, the player has to have not scored 20 goals or cracked 40 points in a season. Second, they had to be 25 or under.
By: Adam Pyde – @Adam_Pyde
Time to rock’n’roll.
Honourable Mention: Nail Yakupov, Emerson Etem, Ryan Strome
Yakupov: Had the Oiler‘s felt so inclined to drop a few spare pennies on someone like Derek Roy then you could pencil Yakupov in for a solid season. Right now, the second line centre looks to be Mark Arcobello or Leon Draisaitl. Mixed with a coach who seems to have no idea how to properly deploy the talented forward and you don’t have a recipe for success.
Etem: He hasn’t quite been able to break through and prove he’s got the scorers touch he showed in junior and the minors. Anaheim lost almost the entire middle of their forward roster this off-season so a spot on Ryan Kesler’s wing would provide him with a great opportunity in the top six, but Kesler’s not known for sharing the puck. Things just don’t quite appear to be falling into place yet this year.
Strome: The talent and the ability is there but unfortunately for him, the Islanders added some quality players to their forwards with Mikhail Grabovksi and Nikolai Kulemin. All of a sudden playing time in the top nine has become a bit more sparse. It’s not impossible to see Strome start the season in the AHL again and that keeps him from making the list.
5. Zack Kassian
He proved last year to be a positive possession player, even without any real playing time with good players. He posted a points per 60 minutes and an individual points percentage that had him as one of the top players on the Canucks, and well ahead of former centre and “star” player Ryan Kesler.
On paper, the Canucks look to have only one other right-handed shot in their top six, and with the proven futility of Jannik Hansen anywhere but the third line, you can pencil Kassian into the second line and second powerplay unit on opening night.
All that with a coach more committed to an open style should be indicative of success. If new Canucks’ head coach Willie Desjardins is willing to let Kassian go wild, even if it means some giveaways and bad penalties, then the stage is set for Kassian to prove why the Canucks traded for him.
4. Mika Zibanejad
With the departure of long time centre Jason Spezza, a spot has opened up in Ottawa for Zibanejad to continue his impressive development. He will start the season in the #2 spot and he proved last season he is arriving as a go-to scorer.
He does one thing especially well, and that is he generates shots at a high rate. He averages almost 9 shots per 60 minutes, and posts a 53% possession rate. Those numbers rank him with Patrick Marleau, Corey Perry, Rick Nash and other star forwards.
He’s also only 20 years old and generates scoring chances at a similar rate to Patrick Kane, Blake Wheeler and Carl Hagelin. The Senators look to have a pretty special player on their hands and a 22 goal, 55 point season is within reason.
- He had five points in the first 24 games
- He posted 13 points in his next 14 games
- Then managed 16 points in his final 25 games
He wasn’t as bad as his first 24 games, nor as good as his next 14. But he closed the season right down the middle of those. If you take his last 39 games, he was on pace for 61 points per 82 games.
With all the nothing that the Jets did to improve their roster during the off-season, their playoff hopes ride on his ability to provide secondary scoring. If he gets favourable deployment and continues to develop he’s primed for a breakout campaign.
2. Mikael Backlund
Backlund was the tale of two players last season. To start the year, the bottom 6 centre who played with garbage wingers, played okay and looked to be a solid 3rd line centre. Then in the second half from about New Years on, who played with top six wingers and had a staggering performance.
You don’t believe me? From The Hockey Writers:
Five-on-five, each of the three players are possession dynamos. When you combine them, they’re downright dominant.
- Mark Giordano alone has 53.3% Corsi, Mikael Backlund alone has 51.7% Corsi, and T.J. Brodie alone has 51.5% Corsi.
- In pairs? Giordano and Brodie are 56.2%, Brodie and Backlund are 59.4%, and Giordano and Backlund are also 59.4%.
Per a tweet by Tyler Dellow (@mc79hockey), without any of the three on the ice, the team’s Corsi is 42%. When all three of them are on the ice together generates 63.7% Corsi.
The combinations of a Chara-Bergeron/Doughty-Kopitar turn in a 58-61% Corsi. So Backlund was playing on a comparable level to the centerpieces of Stanley Cup contenders.
He should be Calgary’s number one center on opening night and expect him to set career highs in offence with the opportunities top spot provides.
1. Valeri Nichushkin
As a raw 18-year-old rookie he was able to put up a very respectable 14 goals and 34 points splitting time between the non-existent 2nd line and the impressive top line in Dallas.
With a 6-foot-4 frame he possesses size to drool over and already has NHL speed and hands. There were plenty of “Oh!” moments with him last year where he would just miss on a great scoring chance and those misses will decrease as he develops.
This season, whether it’s Tyler Seguin on the top line or new addition Jason Spezza on the second, he will be playing next to a top-notch pivot. Plus with some more power play time, the stage is set for him to be a star.