Even before the puck dropped on the 2018-19 campaign, the stage was set for Timo Meier to take a considerable step forward. The departure of Mikkel Boedker had opened up a clear-cut spot in the middle six and the expectation was that Meier, fresh off of a 20-goal, 36-point season, would step into those minutes and become another weapon in the Sharks’ arsenal. Few would have expected him to take as great a stride forward as he did, however.
Last season, Meier was something of a revelation in San Jose, putting himself not only front and center in the Sharks’ attack but on the league-wide radar as a consistent triggerman who could be a threat night in and night out. By the time the campaign closed, Meier had reached the 30-goal plateau, more than doubled his assist output from the campaign prior and had registered 66 points on the campaign. His 30-point rise was among the highest in the league.
Of course, he wasn’t the only pre-season breakout candidate who came through. Others, such as Brayden Point and Sebastian Aho, continued to build on the stellar work they had done during their rookie and sophomore campaigns. Elias Lindholm went from reliable third-liner to lethal second-line pivot, increasing his 2017-18 output by 34 points. And there were others – Mika Zibanejad, Max Domi and Meier’s teammate, Tomas Hertl – who went from steady contributor to top-six caliber scorer.
But which players take a major step come the 2019-20 campaign? Here’s a look at one breakout candidate from each club ahead of the coming season:
Anaheim Ducks: Troy Terry dipped his toe in the NHL water last season with a 32-game stint in Anaheim, during which he scored four goals and 13 points. If his 41 points in 41 AHL games are any indication, though, he’s ready for full-time duty and a standout performance as part of the next wave of Ducks.
Arizona Coyotes: Sure, he had a 50-point season with the Chicago Blackhawks, but after recovering from injury, Nick Schmaltz is primed to take a steady top-six scoring role in Arizona, and if he finds good chemistry with either Phill Kessel or Clayton Keller, look out.
Boston Bruins: Maybe “breakout” is a misnomer after consecutive 40-point seasons, but the next Bruin who appears ready to take the next step in his development is Jake DeBrusk. He’s primed for top-six minutes and if he stays healthy, he should be able to easily hit 50 points and could flirt with the 60-point plateau.
Buffalo Sabres: Those who picked Casey Mittelstadt to challenge for the Calder Trophy last season were disappointed in his performance, but he started to find his game in the back half of the season. He was one of the top NHL prospects for a reason.
Calgary Flames: Rasmus Andersson was an every-game rearguard last season and he could be on the cusp of graduating to second-pairing duty. If the Flames make a cap-clearing deal before the season begins, Andersson is the likely first choice to move up. If Calgary doesn’t, it’s still not far-fetched to envision him stealing minutes on the second unit.
Carolina Hurricanes: No need to get cute. Andrei Svechnikov picked up steam as the season rolled along and he was excellent in the post-season. He’s set to move up the Carolina lineup to begin next season and he’s got top-six production written all over him following a 20-goal, 37-point campaign.
Chicago Blackhawks: He doesn’t yet have a contract, but Brendan Perlini stands to benefit from Chicago’s thin top six. He scored a dozen goals in 46 games with the Blackhawks last season and could challenge for a steady role alongside Jonathan Toews this coming season. If Perlini lands there and sticks, a 20-goal, 40-point campaign isn’t out of the question.
Colorado Avalanche: All eyes are on Cale Makar, but his success is expected. The real breakout star stands to be Samuel Girard, who is among the most underrated defensemen in the NHL. He averaged nearly 20 minutes per night last season and posted four goals and 27 points. He’s going to turn heads on a Colorado team that appears ready to contend.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Oliver Bjorkstrand has spent the past two seasons as a full-time NHLer and he’s posted a combined 34 goals and 76 points over those two campaigns, but he has more to give offensively. He registered five points in 10 playoff games, and if he gets increased minutes, he has the offensive acumen to be lethal up top.
Dallas Stars: Though everyone in Dallas is already aware of his ability, Roope Hintz is going to put himself on the greater NHL radar this coming season. He played bottom-six minutes across his 58 games in Dallas last season, but he’s going to have a case to play on the second line next season. Only six Stars had a higher average ice time than Hintz in the post-season.
Detroit Red Wings: Filip Zadina is ready. He fired home 16 goals and 35 points in the AHL last season and got a nine-game look with the Red Wings, during which he scored one goal and three points. He’s a full-timer come the season, though, and a dark horse for the Calder Trophy.
Edmonton Oilers: He cracked the lineup following his draft year, but Kailer Yamamoto spent last season bouncing between the AHL and NHL. If the Oilers give him a chance in the middle-six this year, they might be surprised. He isn’t the biggest or fastest, but he possesses enough scoring touch to get the job done.
Florida Panthers: There’s a logjam in the middle of the ice that is going to prevent Henrik Borgstrom from stepping into second-line duty, but it shouldn’t stop him from becoming an effective middle-six scorer and power play contributor. He put up eight goals and 18 points in 50 games last season with little ice time.
Los Angeles Kings: A new coach and new opportunity could be just what Adrian Kempe needs to unlock his offensive upside. He’s been OK in his two full seasons in the NHL – seasons of 37 and 28 points – but more is expected, and the 2019-20 season is the prime opportunity for him to take a bigger role and run with it.
Minnesota Wild: By no means is Ryan Donato going to score at the rate he did last season after his arrival in the State of Hockey, but utilizing top-six minutes to double his point total from the career-high 25 he set in 2018-19 isn’t out of the question. He’s going to be one of the Wild’s key youngsters moving forward.
Montreal Canadiens: Is Jesperi Kotkaniemi an easy answer? You bet. But sometimes the easy answer is also the right one. Despite averaging a little less than 14 minutes per game last season, he managed 11 goals and 34 points. Add in a summer of training and one campaign of NHL experience and Kotkaniemi could be primed for a steady top-six role and 50-some points next season.
Nashville Predators: Attempting to predict a goaltender’s performance is generally a fool’s errand, but there’s every reason to believe Juuse Saros can start making a play for Pekka Rinne’s No. 1 job this coming season. The two posted similar base numbers in 2018-19 and the transition in the Predators crease has to begin before Rinne’s contract is up in two years’ time.
New Jersey Devils: Nikita Gusev didn’t even see the ice with the Vegas Golden Knights, but he’s found himself a home in New Jersey and he’s ready to go to work. A stud scorer in the KHL who is right in his prime, the 27-year-old could be the Devils’ version of the Panthers’ Evgenii Dadonov.
New York Islanders: How familiar are non-Islanders fans with Devon Toews? Likely not familiar enough. He’s worked hard and developed well in the AHL and spent more than half the campaign with New York last season. He moves well, can put up points and has potential to be a surprise for many.
New York Rangers: It depends how the lines shake out for the Blueshirts, but Filip Chytil appears to be a safe bet to build upon his 11-goal, 23-point rookie season. Chances are he’ll beat out Ryan Strome for the second-line center job at some point and chemistry with Pavel Buchnevich could give the Rangers’ second line some serious punch.
Ottawa Senators: Drake Batherson’s development has been remarkable. A fourth-round pick by the Senators in 2017, he ran roughshod over the AHL as a rookie, netting 22 goals and 62 points in 59 games. If he continues on that path, he’ll be a top-six NHLer next season and could be a sneaky Calder Trophy contender.
Philadelphia Flyers: Back-to-back 24-goal seasons hasn’t earned Travis Konecny the love he’s deserved, but he’s going to get it this coming campaign. He’s a lock to skate in the top six and possibly earn a spot on the top line. If that’s the case and he plays alongside Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier, a 30-goal, 60-point season is attainable.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Acquired from the Blackhawks, Dominik Kahun isn’t projected to skate in the top six, but all it takes is one injury or slip for the late-bloomer to get a shot to play alongside Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby. He posted a quiet 37 points last season, but the German Olympic standout could be a revelation if he works his way up the lineup.
San Jose Sharks: Radek Simek stepped into the Sharks’ lineup midway through the season and became a roster mainstay from that point onward. He’s not going to put up a monster point total, but he will surprise with his consistency and value on the back end.
St. Louis Blues: Quick. Guess Robert Thomas’ rookie point total. The answer? Nine goals and 33 points. Higher than most outside St. Louis expected, right? It’s a sign of things to come, too. Thomas was effective during the Blues’ run to the Stanley Cup final and he’s ready to take that next step forward.
Tampa Bay Lightning: The vaunted Lightning offense gets the spotlight, but Erik Cernak is going to be an important part of Tampa Bay’s success. He averaged upwards of 19 minutes per night in 58 games as a rookie rearguard last season and drove play well, all the while putting up five goals and 16 points.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Let’s call it the Center of the Universe effect. Alex Kerfoot was excellent in Colorado, a two-time 40-point player, but he’s really going to get some love in Toronto, where he’s the perfect fit for third-line duty and could even flirt with the first 20-goal campaign of his career as part of the high-powered Maple Leafs’ attack.
Vancouver Canucks: Can we just pick Elias Pettersson, project an 80-point season and be done with it? If that would fly, we’d go ahead and do that now, but the Calder Trophy winner has already broken out enough that he should be excluded here. Thus, let’s put the spotlight on Thatcher Demko, who has every opportunity to step into the Canucks’ crease and steal the starting job. He’s one of the premier goaltending prospects in the world.
Vegas Golden Knights: Is it finally time for the long-awaited Brandon Pirri breakout? He’s had his moments, but has never played more than 60 games in a season. Vegas’ need for bottom-six wingers opens up an opportunity, and he has the hands to turn a full-time job into 20-goal, 40-point season. He’s never cracked the 30-point plateau.
Washington Capitals: Step One for Jakub Vrana was becoming an NHL regular. Step Two was hitting the 20-goal and 40-point plateaus. And now, the hope is that he can move on to Step Three, which is becoming a top-six fixture and a nightly threat for the Capitals. If he builds off of last season, 30 goals and 60 points are within reach.
Winnipeg Jets: Andrew Copp has been a Swiss Army Knife of sorts through the early part of his career, but the 2019-20 campaign brings with it an opportunity for him to step into a larger role. He had five points in six post-season games, proof positive that he has more offensive upside than he’s shown in his young career.
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