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Breakout Candidates in the Atlantic Division

Tony Ferrari looks at a player on each Atlantic Division team who's looking to break out in 2022-23.
Dylan Cozens

Every year, players break out all over the NHL.

Sometimes, it’s young players making the jump to full-time NHL status and scoring at the rate expected of them. Other times, it's under-the-radar players who just find themselves in an opportune position with a new team. These aren’t rookies vying for the Calder – rather, they're players looking to prove they belong in their respective club’s plans.

Here are players from each Atlantic Division team who look likely to step up their game:

Boston Bruins: Jake DeBrusk, RW

The relationship between DeBrusk and the Bruins has been rocky, to say the least. But the 25-year-old winger seems to be happy with where he’s at, how the staff is approaching his game this upcoming season and how he fits into Boston’s plans moving forward. With Patrice Bergeron putting off retirement and David Krejci back in the fold, DeBrusk is going to be given an opportunity in the Bruins’ top six with a very talented center.

DeBrusk has been a fairly consistent 40-point player, but now with a more stable situation and a likely defined role in the lineup, he could finally break out and eclipse not only the 50-point mark but possibly challenge 60. The Bruins’ top six will be heavily leaned upon to produce the bulk of the offense. They are truly in the twilight of their winning window and questions of whether this will be the year they fall off from contender status have already sprung up. DeBrusk breaking out could ease the veterans’ workload and help expand the window one more year.

Buffalo Sabres: Dylan Cozens, C/RW

Having played in the NHL for the last two years, Cozens is poised for a breakout. The 21-year-old forward has steadily improved with his offensive game showing more consistent flashes of the skill and playmaking ability he was drafted for at seventh overall in 2019.

His performance at the World Championship after last season – where he had 13 points in 10 games – may have been a preview of what’s to come. With an improved roster and maturing young talent surrounding Cozens, he should have all of the tools at his disposal for an offensive breakout. With the possibility that he could find playing time with fellow youngsters Peyton Krebs or Jack Quinn, as well as the opportunity to play with the Sabres’ newest fan favorite in Alex Tuch, Cozens could assert himself as the Sabres’ top center this year.

Detroit Red Wings: Filip Zadina, RW

It feels as if the Red Wings have been waiting for Zadina to fulfill the promise he made on draft night of “filling their nets with pucks.” The former QMJHL sniper has struggled to find his way offensively at the NHL level, but he has done so much to improve his game in other aspects. Zadina has become a confident puck carrier through the neutral zone, and his ability to play at the defensive end of the ice has improved greatly.

These traits could help him become a bigger force offensively under a new coaching staff. Zadina has the playmaking ability to produce if given top-six minutes. He had success in short stints with Jakub Vrana, so that could be a nice pairing. New coach Derek Lalonde seems to be intrigued by the raw talent that Zadina has, and experimenting with his lines and the combinations that he puts together will be something to watch in training camp.

Florida Panthers: Spencer Knight, G

The 21-year-old netminder was 19-9-3 in his rookie season as he backed up the perennially unpredictable Sergei Bobrovsky, showing that if Bob falters, the Panthers had a Knight in shining armor to save the day. The Panthers didn’t need Knight to save the day too often though with Bobrovsky having his best season as a Panther. That said, who knows exactly what Bobrovsky Florida will get this season?

Even if Knight doesn’t take over the starter role this season, he should see more time in net this year as he proved more than capable of winning games at the NHL level in big moments. If Knight earns his way to splitting the starts by season’s end, it could be the young American that winds up the starter for the Cats in the playoffs, signalling Knight’s true arrival to the NHL.

Montreal Canadiens: Cole Caufield, RW

This one is simple. Under Dominique Ducharme to start the season, Caufield was given questionable deployment and underwhelming opportunities. Because of that, he wound up having just eight points in 30 games. When the coaching change was made and Martin St. Louis joined the Habs as their new bench boss, Caufield put up 35 in 37 games. To say that Caufield is primed for a breakout is an understatement.

The young American sniper is one of the game's most exciting young players with a shot that can beat a goalie from literally anywhere in the offensive zone and underrated playmaking ability. Caufield’s skating and agility have improved since his draft year, and he’s become a much more capable puck carrier and transporter as well. He isn’t afraid of skating himself into positions where he can create a better scoring chance and isn’t reliant on a dominant playmaker to get him his opportunities. Caufield could be in line to challenge 35 or 40 goals this season if he stays healthy.

Ottawa Senators: Erik Brannstrom, D

The prized piece in the Mark Stone trade, Brannstrom has been in and out of the Senators' lineup, and his coach has admitted to being discontent with his game at times. Brannstrom seemed to really find his footing at the NHL level late last season though as he routinely played over 21 minutes a night and made strides on the defensive end of the ice, where Sens coach DJ Smith was most critical in the early going.

Brannstrom is a highly skilled puck-moving defenseman who has the hands and passing ability to be a beast in the transition game and really showcase his difference-making ability in the offensive zone. The young Swede is such a highly intelligent offensive player that when he runs a power play, he makes everyone around him better. He should get more opportunities this year to do that, and if he does, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him eclipse the 40-point mark as a defenseman. It will be all dependent on him continuing to earn the coaching staff’s trust.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Cal Foote, D

Cal Foote may not put up massive counting stats or the numbers you’d typically associate with “breakout candidates,” but he should establish himself as a full-time defender for a championship-level squad in Tampa. The Lightning have gotten Foote into games over the last two seasons, and this upcoming year could be his first full season.

Foote plays a solid two-way game, understanding how to get the puck back and move it up ice to his skilled teammates at the forward position. Continuing to establish himself as a reliable two-way defenseman with the ability to break the puck out cleanly and efficiently isn’t as sexy as scoring 30 goals or wracking up 70 points, but it’s a necessary role for any team and Foote could be doing so on a squad on their way to a third championship in four years.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Nick Robertson, LW

The Toronto Maple Leafs are going to need some highly capable offensive talent on the cheap thanks to the flat cap world NHL teams are operating in at the moment. Robertson may very well be the answer to those questions. Despite his skating not being the most technically sound stride, he plays with pace and pep, attacking every play as if it were his last.

Robertson is a highly skilled shooter who can pick corners from a variety of areas on the ice. His passing ability is silky, and he shouldn’t have the issue of becoming a “one trick pony.” Robertson could find himself in the Leafs’ top six, playing alongside John Tavares and William Nylander. If he does, watch out – this young talent could challenge 30 goals and 30 assists this season. 

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