Which players on the verge of stardom replace the likes of Martin Jones and Evgeny Kuznetsov and bust out in 2016-17?
Martin Jones was a revelation in the San Jose Sharks’ crease last season. He appeared n more games than all but four goalies. He finished second in the NHL in shutouts, third in wins and seventh in goals-against average. His sample size entering 2015-16, after the L.A. Kings traded him, was tiny, but Jones generated plenty of buzz nonetheless. There was a reason Sharks GM Doug Wilson felt Jones was worth a first-round pick. Plenty of prognosticators expected Jones would bust out, and he did.
Who will take the mantle from Jones and become a star in 2016-17? Let’s look at some breakthrough performers from last season and who might follow in their footsteps next.
Who is this year’s Martin Jones?
Jones was more than just a sleeper last season, because the Sharks’ intentions for him were so transparent. They paid a hefty price to acquire him and immediately inked him to a three-year, $9-million deal.
That’s why big-time talents Connor Hellebuyck and Andrei Vasilevskiy don’t quite fit this category. Their paths to starting gigs are still blocked by the veterans around them. They’re more likely to be this year’s Matt Murray, a.k.a. NHL-ready guys who get a late-season opportunity as a result of an injury or other changes in circumstance. I’d put Colorado’s Calvin Pickard, impeded by Semyon Varlamov, in that group, too.
This year’s Jones has a clear commitment from his team to play him as the No. 1 goalie. That honor, then, goes to the St. Louis Blues’ Jake Allen. General manager Doug Armstrong thinks so highly of Allen that he was willing to trade Brian Elliott after Elliott played as well as any goalie in hockey last season. The Blues re-upped Allen with a four-year, $17.4-million extension in July. He’s The Man now. And the investment makes sense. Allen is five years younger than Elliott and has shown steady progression.
What I love about Allen is that, as his sample size has increased each season from 15 to 37 to 47 games, his save percentage has risen from .905 to .913 to .920. He gets better with increased exposure. His 5-on-5 save percentage was .929 last year, placing him 17th among the 29 goalies with 40 or more starts, in between Jonathan Quick and Tuukka Rask. Allen is ready to be a starter.
Honorable mentions: John Gibson (Ducks), Frederik Andersen (Maple Leafs)
Who is this year’s Evgeny Kuznetsov?
The Kuznetsov breakout was telegraphed. He was a first-round pick, a powerhouse KHL player, and our THN scouting panel of NHL scouts and team executives ranked him the No. 1 prospect in the game in Future Watch two straight years. So it wasn’t a shocker when Kuznetsov exploded for 77 points and cracked the top 10 in league scoring last season.
The guy who should make a similar leap? Aleksander Barkov, assuming he can play a full season. He ripped off 28 goals and 59 points in 66 games centering Jonathan Huberdeau and Jaromir Jagr on Florida’s top line. Barkov had 15 goals and 28 points in 27 games after the all-star break. Triple that line and you get 45 goals and 84 points in 81 games. That’s the type of upside Barkov has this year. He’s a big, strong center with a deft two-way game akin to Anze Kopitar’s. Barkov regularly faces opponents’ top lines yet still manages to generate major offense. He’s still a baby at 20 years old, too. He could contend for the Selke Trophy and other major NHL awards as soon as this season.
Honorable mentions: Mark Scheifele (Jets), Jack Eichel (Sabres)
Who is this year’s Mark Scheifele?
Scheifele teased star-level production for stretches the season prior but cemented himself as the Winnipeg Jets’ franchise center in 2015-16 with a second-half tear. Ascending to the No. 1 pivot role after Bryan Little’s season-ending injury, Scheifele went bananas with 32 points in his final 25 games. Jets fans should be giddy about his 2016-17 prospects.
A guy I like to make a similar leap this year? The St. Louis Blues’ Robby Fabbri. Ex-captain David Backes’ departure leaves the depth chart in flux. Jori Lehtera will likely get his usual chance to center the top unit between Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz, but Lehtera has been rather unproductive considering the company he keeps. Paul Stastny could get a chance in the plum spot, as could Alexander Steen, who can play center and wing. And what about the feisty Fabbri? He spent his rookie campaign as a left winger but was drafted as a center. He notched 18 goals in 72 games and followed with five goals and 15 points in 20 post-season games.
If we subscribe to the theory that talent rises to the top, it’ll be hard for coaches Ken Hitchcock and Mike Yeo not to give Fabbri a major role. Fabbri is arguably the second-most skilled forward on the team after Tarasenko. It wouldn’t be remotely surprising to see Fabbri become a franchise pillar in 2016-17.
Honorable mentions: Jonathan Drouin (Lightning), David Pastrnak (Bruins)
Who is this year’s Artemi Panarin?
No one. There’s no KHL import arriving under similar circumstances to Panarin’s a year ago. Alexander Radulov doesn’t count. He has a solid sample size of NHL duty. We know he can play. That doesn’t mean Radulov will dominate, but it does mean he won’t be Sergei Plotnikov.
Who is this year’s Shayne Gostisbehere?
The best way to describe ‘Ghost Bear’ a year ago: he was a known commodity in hockey insider circles, a promising puck-moving defenseman, but he was, at best, the Flyers’ No. 3 blueline prospect after Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim. Gostisbehere was older and thus jumped the line. He posted the highest points per game by a rookie NHL defenseman since Vladimir Malakhov 23 years ago.
So who’s a Ghost Bear analog for 2016-17, a guy diehards and hockey media know about but who isn’t a household name yet among casual fans?
I’m looking at you, Esa Lindell. He has a significant opportunity on a Dallas Stars blueline ready to go young, as GM Jim Nill told me last week. The Finnish national team thought highly enough to include him on the World Cup squad for this September even though he has just four NHL games to his name. Lindell has scored a ton wherever he plays, including in the Finnish League and the AHL, two of the top five or six pro leagues on Earth. The Stars have only one major offensive weapon on defense right now in John Klingberg, and the older, thicker Lindell has a leg up on fellow blue-chip puck mover Julius Honka developmentally. If Lindell shows enough in camp to make the team, he becomes a deep Calder Trophy dark horse.
Honorable mentions: Shea Theodore (Ducks), Madison Bowey (Capitals)
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin