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Five players who have had the biggest breakouts this season

Big things are always expected out of the league's best, but here are five players who've turned heads and established themselves as breakout studs or burgeoning stars.

In his sophomore season, Connor McDavid has more than proven he’s the real deal. He holds a six-point lead in the race for the Art Ross Trophy, has the second-best points per game of any contender in the scoring race, is playing massive minutes down the middle for the Oilers and has powered Edmonton to what is set to be their first post-season appearance in a decade.

But it’d be hard to call this season a breakout campaign. Sure, McDavid is on pace to double his point total from the previous season, but he had already dazzled and shown he had big league ability in a rookie season that was nothing short of spectacular. In fact, McDavid was so good during the 2015-16 campaign that he finished third in Calder Trophy voting and earned 25 first-place votes despite playing little more than half the season.

So, an excellent season from McDavid? No doubt. A breakout year, though? Not quite. We knew what we were going to be getting from the Oilers phenom this season, and he’s delivered.

There are a handful of players this season who have far exceeded expectations, though. From afterthought signings to players who had a chance to step into a bigger role and made the most of their opportunity, here are five players who have had breakout years in 2016-17:

5. Richard Panik, Chicago Blackhawks

Midway through 2015-16, Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman made a seemingly innocuous swap of AHL wingers with the Maple Leafs. Heading to Toronto was Jeremy Morin, who had bounced around the minors for much of his career, and coming back Chicago’s way was Panik, who had managed to crack the NHL lineup for a full season prior but hadn’t seen big league action in 2015-16. That changed in the Windy City as Panik found a spot in the Blackhawks’ bottom six and slowly moved up the lineup thanks to coach Joel Quenneville’s proclivity for scrambling his lines.

The line blender eventually found Panik playing alongside Jonathan Toews, and that has been a fantastic situation for the 26-year-old. Early in the campaign, Panik caught fire playing with Chicago’s captain. Panik had six goals in his first nine games, matching his mark from the previous season, and set a new career high with 12 goals by early February. Now, with the season nearly over, Panik has 20 goals for the first time in his career and has managed 40 points.

He’s still bouncing up and down the lineup, but Panik’s on pace to double his previous career-best goal total and his 44-point pace has him set to eclipse his previous career-high by 27 points.

4. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers

Some might call Draisaitl’s improvement this season the natural progression of his career, but considering he’s close to a full 20 points ahead of where he was at this point last season, it seems Draisaitl is proving he’s set to become a yearly 75- to 80-point player. That seems somewhat incredible considering it was only two seasons ago there were serious concerns about how ready he was to compete at the NHL level and worries the fast-tracking to the big league may have hurt his development.

During his sophomore campaign in 2015-16, Draisaitl put up some stellar numbers. His 19 goals were a vast improvement over the two he managed to chip in across 37 games the year prior, and his 51 points were 42 more than he had produced in 2014-15. This season, though, he’s set to blow both of those totals out of the water.

With seven games left on the schedule, Draisaitl, 21, has his sights set on reaching the 30-goal plateau in his third NHL campaign and he’s inching ever-closer to the 80-point mark. He’s also taking on more minutes on a playoff-bound Oilers team and proving to be the perfect No. 2 for Edmonton’s one-two offensive punch.

3. David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins

Brad Marchand is having the best offensive season of any Bruin. There’s no debate about that. But after Marchand broke out for the first huge year of his career in 2015-16, the honor has gone to Pastrnak this season. And Boston’s 20-year-old scorer is doing so in style.

After posting a mediocre 15 goals and 26 points in 51 games during his sophomore year, Pastrnak entered the 2016-17 campaign with the chance to take on a much bigger role. Pastrnak earned himself a spot in the top six early on and he hasn’t looked back. In 68 games, Pastrnak has managed to more than double his goal total from the year prior — he’s up to 32 after netting 15 last season — and isn’t that far off from tripling his 26-point total. Pastrnak is on pace for 70 points, which would be eight shy of three-times what he posted in 2015-16.

Here’s the best part for Bruins fans: there’s no reason to believe this is a one-off. In fact, there’s a chance Pastrnak even improves. His shooting percentage has dipped slightly this season, and he’s produced this much in a campaign where Boston’s offense has struggled greatly at times.

2. Viktor Arvidsson, Nashville Predators

Arvidsson doesn’t get near the press he deserves for the season he’s had. The 23-year-old came into the year with little fanfare, playing mostly fourth-line minutes during the 2015-16 season and seeing roughly the same amount of ice time during the post-season. He’s worked his way up the lineup this season, though, and he’s skating regular top-six minutes and contributing at an impressive rate.

Through 72 games this season, Arvidsson has lit the lamp 28 times and posted 55 points. Not only does that put him 20 goals clear of his career high of eight set in 2015-16, but he’s more than tripled his career-high point total, which was 16 heading into the season. A big part of that has been the increased opportunity. Arvidsson is skating more than 17 minutes per game, which is nearly five additional minutes of ice time per game.

Arvidsson isn’t just a steady scorer, though. He’s making a name for himself as an incredibly reliable forward and one who’s dangerous anytime he’s on the ice. That he has 19 goals at even strength, four on the power play and a league-leading five shorthanded is all the proof one needs of how much damage Arvidsson can do when he’s out there.

1. Jonathan Marchessault, Florida Panthers

Undrafted, traded and then eventually signed in Florida for close to league minimum on a two-year deal. That was Marchessault’s career heading into 2016-17. Much of his time as a pro had been spent in the AHL and, at 26, the thought was the Panthers had brought him in as a bottom-six contributor. Not even the most optimistic Florida fan would have foretold the season Marchessault has had, though.

Coming into the campaign, Marchessault had eight goals total to his name across 49 games. His big season had come when he got a chance as a bottom-six fixture for the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2015-16, but that only resulted in seven goals and 18 points for Marchessault. He probably would have stayed in a similar role in Florida had it not been for a rash of early season injuries, but those ailments opened the door for the 26-year-old to move up the lineup and he’s made the most of his chance.

Marchessault was scoring early and often when the campaign began and he had already set a new career-high with eight goals 15 games into the season. By his 24th game of his time with the Panthers, Marchessault had picked up his 19th point to set a new career-best in that category, as well. And now, with the season winding down, Marchessault has the chance to hit a few impressive marks.

After netting five goals in his past two games, Marchessault is on track for a 31-goal season, meaning he would hit the 10-, 20- and 30-goal marks for the first time in his career in the same season. Marchessault is also on pace for 53 points, meaning he’d have hit 20, 30, 40 and 50 points in the same year for the first time. And almost all of that is thanks to the opportunity he’s been given. His average ice time has increased by five minutes from the past season, and Marchessault has made the most of every second.

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