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Breakout Candidates in the Metropolitan Division

Tony Ferrari looks at which players are poised for a breakout season from each Metro Division team.
Dawson Mercer

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:

Carolina Hurricanes: Seth Jarvis, RW

The Hurricanes’ young winger had spurts of star play last season, putting up 40 points as a rookie and following that up with eight points in 14 playoff games for Carolina. Jarvis is a high-octane winger – the kind of offensive talent the Canes have been missing until recent years. His tendency to use his agility and puck skill to burst off the wall and attack the middle lane makes him a threat to score every time he’s on the ice.

His rookie season was quite good, and had it not been an absolutely loaded rookie class, Jarvis may have been a finalist for the Calder. Instead, he flew a bit under the radar, with many mentioning him as an afterthought among the NHL’s freshman group. Jarvis will be given an opportunity to play with Carolina’s best forwards yet again this season, and his ferocity and never-say-die attitude combined with his offensive prowess should continue to give Canes’ coach Rod Brind’Amour no reason to push him down the lineup. Jarvis could be in for a big pop, possibly coming close to doubling his point totals from his rookie year.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Cole Sillinger, C

The only player from the 2021 NHL draft to stick in the NHL from start to finish last season, Sillinger gave the Blue Jackets good minutes and played center for a team desperate for pivots. Sillinger is a big physical center that has all of the offensive tools that you could ask for from a teenager. His shot was very clearly NHL-caliber, jumping off his stick whether he was taking a snap shot off the rush or winding up for a one-time blast from the faceoff circle. His playmaking ability was never in question because of his inability to pass the puck but rather a penchant for wanting to do it all himself. That wasn’t a problem in the NHL.

Sillinger is an incredibly talented offensive player who showed great development in his own zone throughout last season. He may never be the primary option in transition, but his mobility looked up to par in the NHL last season as well. With the ability to put up 31 points across 79 games as an 18-year-old center, the sky is the limit for the 11th overall pick in 2021. Continued physical maturation and a more developed understanding of the NHL game should only make him more of a threat this upcoming season. Sixty points aren’t out of the question with top-six minutes and an improved supporting cast.

New Jersey Devils: Dawson Mercer, RW

Although he isn’t playing at center the way many thought he would in the NHL, Mercer has become an excellent scoring option off the wing for the Devils. His understanding of timing and spatial awareness has given him the ability to create space while his natural offensive instincts and skill as a shooter and passer have allowed him to take advantage of those opportunities.

Much like Jarvis, in a typical season, there would have been much more attention given to Mercer for the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie last year had the class not been loaded. Mercer was a reliable and consistent depth scorer who put up 42 points last year, and with a good summer of training and injuries to key members of the Devils hopefully not being as big of a factor this season, Mercer should be poised to put up some bigger numbers this year.

New York Islanders: Oliver Wahlstrom, RW

Could this finally be the season where the 6-foot-2 shooter breaks out? His season was up and down last year with plenty of stints on the fourth line. Wahlstrom never really seemed to mesh with the previous coaching staff, so a fresh start with a new group more focused on opening the game up offensively could finally see the young Swedish-American thrive.

Wahlstrom has a good shot and confidence in his blend of power and skill. The Islanders’ top pick in 2018 was seen as an offensive force heading into the draft, and he has flashed it at the AHL and NHL levels at times, but the consistency hasn’t been there. The fresh start may be all that he needs to figure his game out and break out as an NHL goal-scorer.

New York Rangers: Alexis Lafreniere, LW

The 2020 first overall pick has been a bit underwhelming as an NHLer so far with brief flashes of the star potential that we all saw in the former QMJHL star. Lafreniere is strong on his skates and works so incredibly well in the cycle while using his puck skill and vision to become a playmaker off the wall and into space. As a shooter, he picks his spots and gets to dangerous areas to unload a heavy wrister or quick snap shot.

Aside from his natural abilities, the biggest sign of an impending breakout is the way the winger looked in the playoffs this past spring. Lafreniere looked like a man on a mission and a player who had put the pieces together more consistently. There were nights where, aside from goaltending phenom Igor Shesterkin, Lafreniere was the Rangers’ best player. A breakout is expected from the first overall pick and this season very well could be it.

Philadelphia Flyers: Morgan Frost, C

The Flyers are entering a new era of Philadelphia hockey and Morgan Frost has the chance to make sure that he is a major part of it moving forward. The young pivot should be in an opportune position to earn himself top-six minutes with the Flyers as they are depleted from losing players to trade and more recently, long-term injury. Frost is a slick and precise playmaker who reads the ice at a very high level.

A shoulder injury that required surgery two seasons ago ended his year prematurely, which stunted his development a bit at just 21 years old. His season last year was split between the NHL and AHL, finally settling into the NHL lineup full-time in March. Frost will be asked to do a lot this year as top center Sean Couturier is slated to be out for a large chunk of time to start the year. This could be the opportunity needed for Frost to finally take his place in Philly’s top six now that he’s fully healthy and has the opportunity to take it on.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Ty Smith, D

Smith is getting a fresh start after getting traded to Pittsburgh from the New Jersey Devils, and the 17th overall pick from 2018 needed it. He seemed to take a small step back last year, failing to find the consistency he had as a rookie. Smith’s ability to play on the power play should give the Penguins a bit more of a dangerous option on the second unit and a bit more dynamic insurance for Kris Letang.

Smith is an excellent passer from the back end who isn’t going to waste too much time taking shots from the blueline, rather opting for more dangerous plays. Smith threads the needle and uses his mobility to change the angle and find passing lanes. He's also a strong player in transition, skating the puck out of trouble and making a good first pass out of the zone. The Penguins' blueline isn’t loaded by any means, but Smith will have to earn the minutes that he gets.

Washington Capitals: Connor McMichael, C/LW

Currently engaged in a battle for the second-line center role, McMichael is going to get the opportunity to play up in the Washington lineup to start the year with Niklas Backstrom sidelined after hip surgery. The opportunity for McMichael to take a step after playing the full year in the NHL last year is going to be excellent for his development.

McMichael is a strong finisher who plays a bit bigger than he is. The former London Knights center is a versatile offensive player who should be able to fit in and play a variety of roles on a line. He had his best stretch of the year last season when he was able to play down the middle. A full year at the position could mean big things and a season where he pushes 50 points or more. 

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