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Breakout Candidates in the Central Division

Tony Ferrari looks at which players in the Central Division are likely to step it up in 2022-23.
Barrett Hayton

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 Central Division team who look likely to step up their game:

Arizona Coyotes: Barrett Hayton, C

The hero of the 2020 World Junior Championship for Team Canada hasn’t quite been able to get his NHL career going full force as of yet. In 60 games last season, Hayton was inconsistent offensively but found ways to affect the game in other ways. His defensive engagement was solid, and he began to show that he's a capable transition player as the primary puck carrier, entering the zone with control at an above-average level.

Hayton has the shooting prowess and passing ability to be a better scorer at the NHL level. But every time he seems to get going, his body seems to break down in some way. 

His injury history has been well documented, and it goes back to his junior career. Being drafted in the top five comes with expectations, and Hayton could finally get on track toward fulfilling the Coyotes' hopes for him.

Colorado Avalanche: Alex Newhook, C

After a 33-point rookie campaign and ending the year with his name etched into the Stanley Cup, Alex Newhook is probably pretty pumped to get back on the ice for the upcoming season. The speedy forward will once again suit up for a powerhouse Avalanche squad but this year, he could see his role expand in a big way. With Nazem Kadri gone, it could be Newhook that’s looked to as the pivot on the second line.

Newhook plays with incredible pace and should help the Avs provide their opponents with a second helping of high-octane play after the first line – centered by the newly extended Nathan MacKinnon – forces them onto their heels. It was evident that Newhook had more to give but, the ability to leave him lower in the lineup as a rookie allowed him to get his feet wet in the NHL. Now that he’s been there and done that, he should be poised to take on a much bigger role and explode offensively.

Chicago Blackhawks: Taylor Raddysh, LW

After years of biding his time in Tampa Bay’s system, Raddysh was traded to Chicago in the Brandon Hagel deal at last season’s trade deadline. With Chicago in a rebuild, it’s the polar opposite of the situation that the 2016 second-round pick was dealing with as Tampa was competing for Cups the last half-decade.

After posting 12 points across 53 games in a limited role down south, Raddysh nearly matched the total with 10 points in just 21 games in Chicago. Although he won’t find the same team success in Chicago, Raddysh has waited patiently for his opportunity for years. He's shown he can be a very good offensive player at just about every level aside from the NHL. Raddysh is a big winger who has a nose for the net and some sneaky good hands, especially in tight. With the opportunity readily available, it’s now or never for the 24-year-old.

Dallas Stars: Thomas Harley, D

Harley has done all that he needs to do in the AHL with two successful stints in the league and a promising, albeit quiet, run in the NHL last year. This season should give him ample opportunity to earn a bigger role on the Stars, especially considering the departure of John Klingberg vacates a spot on the power play. Harley should be able to convert his puck skill and offensive mind into some power play time.

The Stars have flirted with having Harley on their roster since he was drafted, almost making the team in training camp and then getting into a playoff game in the 2019-20 season. Harley is a crisp and effortless skater who understands how to manage his gaps and knows when to pressure the puck carrier in his own zone. His ability to pass and skate the puck in transition is NHL-ready, and his offensive game is maturing into the NHL game. With newfound opportunity, this could be his year.

Minnesota Wild: Filip Gustavsson, G

Despite his raw statistics not looking particularly great last season with the Senators, Gustavsson has a chance to really take on a big role on a good team with Minnesota. 'Gus the Bus' has always had the talent to be a solid NHLer but fought his way onto the Senators roster where their defensive depth was unimpressive, to say the least. He has stretches of extremely good play.

The Swedish netminder has shown he is a high-end AHL netminder with impressive showings in the past two seasons, and now, a role as an NHL backup with a strong Wild team seems like an excellent opportunity. The 24-year-old is going to back up Marc-Andre Fleury – who isn’t a spring chicken anymore – so the more Gustavsson can play, the better it will end up being for the Wild in the long run.

Nashville Predators: Philip Tomasino, RW

Tomasino had a decent rookie season after a solid stint in the AHL the year before. He didn’t see a ton of top-six time as a rookie, but that should change as the season kicks off this year. He's set to get a chance with Nino Niederreiter and Ryan Johansen on the second line as the Predators look for Tomasino to take that next step.

The former OHL star has the offensive tools as a dual-threat attacker to be a difference-maker in the NHL, but it’s going to be about him proving that his skill and speed can work with his new linemates. Tomasino managed to put up 32 points in 76 games despite playing under 12 minutes a night. If his ice time gets a boost to 16 or 17 minutes a night, it’s not impossible that he breaks the 50-point mark.

St. Louis Blues: Logan Brown, RW

The 24-year-old finally seems to have found a semblance of consistency and understanding of what he needs to do at the NHL level. Brown has never fully embraced using his huge frame but seems to have found the power element in his game that made him an 11th overall pick all the way back in 2016. After needing a change of scenery while toiling in the Ottawa Senators' system, Brown split last season between the Blues and AHL Springfield. With his play so far in the pre-season, he may not have to spend much – if any time – in the AHL this year.

Coach Craig Berube praised the hulking forward for his ability to stay on the puck and make plays the way he always looked to be able to do in flashes. The 6-foot-6 forward is looking to crack the Blues’ top nine, and if he does, he could be an integral piece towards making them a competitive team once again in the Western Conference. 

Primarily a playmaker, he has used his powerful frame to leverage some more goal scoring ability. If Brown can capture some of the potential he was once said to have, the Blues could be a scary squad yet again this year.

Winnipeg Jets: Ville Heinola, D

Heinola came into this training camp and was looking to win a job, no easy task with a new coaching staff and a bit of a rocky relationship with the club. To say he’s done wonders for his chances would be an understatement. Heinola has been one of the best stories of Jets' camp so far with his high-level puck-moving ability on display shift after shift.

Heinola has been quite productive every chance he’s had at NHL time, but he’s been sent back down due to the former coaching staff's insistence on not using him in the lineup regularly. With a fresh start and new coaching staff, a more mature approach to the game, and the same flair and skill that he’s always brought to the ice, it could be time for Heinola to not only take an NHL role full-time but also showcase the fact that he can be one of Winnipeg’s best defenders. 

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