Jonathan Marchessault’s 30-goal, 51-point campaign with the Florida Panthers in 2016-17 put him on the radar. It opened eyes as to what the then-26-year-old winger was capable of doing at the NHL level. But it could safely be said that Marchessault wasn’t what one would consider a real star in the league until he followed up his stunning breakout season with a 27-goal, 75-point performance and another eight goals and 21 points in 20 post-season contests.
Marchessault wasn’t the only player to assert himself as a star last season, though. We saw a true breakout season from Columbus Blue Jackets rearguard Seth Jones, the coming-out party of Philadelphia Flyers center Sean Couturier and proof that youth production was a sign of greater things to come from Boston Bruins winger David Pastrnak. And that’s only to name a few.
The coming campaign brings with it the chance for more players to establish themselves as the next wave of NHL stars, and the opportunity to join the yearly conversation about who belongs to be mentioned with the best of the best. And while it would be easy to declare a few high-flying sophomores — the Mathew Barzals, Brock Boesers and Clayton Kellers — or a couple of fresh faces such as Elias Pettersson or Casey Mittelstadt as the players most likely to achieve stardom this season, you’ll find below several players who are set to compete in their third season, at the very least, who could prove once and for all that they deserve mention on a list of bright lights in the NHL:
VINCENT TROCHECK, FLORIDA PANTHERS
Another season comes with reason to believe we’re about to witness another breakout performer in Florida. Last season, it was Aleksander Barkov who cemented himself as the undeniable force behind the Panthers’ offense, and this time around we’re set to see Trocheck prove he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath.
If this was based on offense alone, Trocheck, 25, would likely be in the conversation. His career-best 31-goal, 75-point season is enough evidence that he can be a near point-per-game performer. What sets Trocheck apart from other scoresheet stuffers, however, is his two-way game and dominance on the dot. Trocheck finished just outside the top 15 in takeaways last season and landed 14th in faceoff percentage among players with at least 1,000 faceoffs. He’s exactly the type of player 30 other teams wish they could have in their lineup, and there’s little doubt he’s going to prove why without another outstanding season in 2018-19.
BRAYDEN POINT, TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
It’s hard to shine brighter than Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, and awfully difficult to be the face of the franchise when the blueline has its own supernova in Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman. But as if the Lightning weren’t already impactful enough, it seems only a matter of time before Point, 22, goes from high-scoring contributor to the type of player opposing coaches are actively game-planning against.
Last season, Point smashed expectations when he lit the lamp 32 times in a 66-point season, but what was equally, if not more impressive about the young pivot was his impact at both ends of the ice. He was excellent on the penalty kill — a legitimate scoring threat shorthanded, too — and dynamite at five-a-side. The wealth of talent Tampa Bay boasts already borders on ludicrous, but Point has all the trappings of a star given his speed, shiftiness and mind for the game.
SEBASTIAN AHO, CAROLINA HURRICANES
Jeff Skinner’s departure from the Hurricanes has left some wondering from where the offense will come, but Aho looks primed to become the kind of offensive force Carolina hasn’t had in its lineup since Eric Staal was in his prime. Having just recently celebrated his 21st birthday in July, Aho made a mockery of the idea of a sophomore slump last season when he improved upon his 24-goal, 49-point rookie campaign with a 29-goal, 65-point season. So, what gives us reason to believe his senior year can be that much better?
Well, how about the fact that Aho went to the World Championship as a member of the Finnish national team and proceeded to pick the competition apart. In eight games, Aho scored nine goals and 18 points while playing alongside Teuvo Tervainen, who just so happens to be Aho’s linemate in Carolina. He was named the tournament’s top forward and with good reason as only one player in the past 20 years has matched Aho’s 2.25 points-per-game output at the worlds with at least eight games played.
IVAN PROVOROV, PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
Philadelphia’s faithful fans no doubt already consider Provorov, 21, one of the best rearguards in the league, but the Flyers blueline is one of the best-kept secrets league-wide. In just two seasons, he has risen from promising rookie to stud sophomore, his ice time increasing to an average upwards of 24 minutes last season as he scored a whopping 17 goals and 41 points.
Provorov is so supremely offensively gifted that it wouldn’t be far-fetched to imagine him chase the scoring lead among defensemen as early as this season. He can already expertly quarterback a power play and he’s got a knack for getting pucks through to the net. He took 203 shots last season, making him one of only 19 blueliners to crack the 200-shot mark. With the way Provorov moves, too, he’s going to age into his prime like a fine wine: better with each passing year. And this could be the campaign he establishes himself as a force to be reckoned with on the back end.
ANTTI RAANTA, ARIZONA COYOTES
Raanta has been around the league for some time now, first popping up as an unheralded backup behind Corey Crawford with the Chicago Blackhawks and later proving his value behind Henrik Lundqvist with the New York Rangers. Stepping into a starting role for the first time in his career last season, though, Raanta made some waves despite fighting injury for much of the campaign. Among netminders with 41 games played, Raanta finished atop the league in both save percentage (.930) and goals-against average (2.24). The Coyotes, who finished 12 games below .500, were four games above the break-even mark with Raanta in goal.
Now’s his time to shine, too. Given the keys to the crease by way of a three-year contract extension, the 29-year-old keeper is staring down what he hopes will be his first complete campaign as a No. 1 netminder, and if he puts up anything close to his career average, Raanta won’t only enter the consciousness of the casual fan but potentially insert himself into the Vezina Trophy hunt.