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Five sophomores who could be in line for breakout seasons

Several of 2015-16’s high-scoring rookies are going to be worrying about hitting a sophomore slump, but there are also a handful of players heading into their second seasons who are ready to take the next step and become key contributors.
The Hockey News

The Hockey News

There’s nothing worse than the dreaded sophomore slump, and there are several players who are going to be fighting against a down year after bursting onto the NHL scene this past season.

Take Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel and Calder Trophy winner Artemi Panarin for example. Each came in with significant amounts of hype — McDavid the phenom, Eichel the Hobey Baker winner and Panarin the Russian standout — and each delivered with stellar performances in their rookie seasons. Because of that, the upcoming campaign is going to be their chance to prove that the 2015-16 season was no fluke and that the production was a sign of things to come.

The same goes for defensive talents such as Colton Parayko and Shayne Gostisbehere. Parayko came in as a relative unknown and turned into a top-four defenseman for the St. Louis Blues and already looks to be a member of the core group that will lead the team forward. As for Gostisbehere, his high-scoring ways made him a sensation and Philadelphia Flyers fans can’t wait to see if he can do it all again.

But there are also several rookies who had good — not great — rookie campaigns and could take a major step forward this coming season. Here are five sophomore players in line for a breakout year in 2016-17:

5. Conor Sheary, Pittsburgh Penguins

Sheary wasn’t a household name before the 2015-16 post-season began, and that’s largely because he didn’t see the ice often in Pittsburgh. He played more than half the season for the Penguins, skating in 44 games, but he averaged less than 10 minutes of ice time. However, in the post-season, Sheary got the chance to contribute in a middle-six role and made the most of it.

In 23 playoff games, Sheary scored four goals and 10 points and was a big part of the depth attack that helped the Penguins to the Stanley Cup. Sheary may not slot in as a top-six winger, but as a third-line forward he has the chance to contribute as a 15-goal, 30-point player. Pittsburgh needs cheap depth talent, and the 24-year-old is almost certain to provide that.

4. Andreas Athanasiou, Detroit Red Wings

Opportunity seems to be only thing standing between Athanasiou and an impressive second season. During his rookie campaign, he contributed nine goals and 14 points in 37 games, but he averaged nine minutes of ice time per game. That’s barely even fourth-line minutes, but he was incredibly productive when he got his chances.

Think about it this way: Dylan Larkin was the most impressive rookie the Red Wings have had in years, and he scored at a rate of 2.01 points per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time. Granted it’s a much smaller sample size — Larkin played 1,074 minutes to Athanasiou’s 302 — but the 22-year-old winger scored 2.38 points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5.

Speed can be lethal in today’s game and Athanasiou has it. Given more time to shine, Athanasiou could be a real threat for Detroit.

3. Darnell Nurse, Edmonton Oilers

Nurse started the 2015-16 campaign in the AHL, was brought up to the Oilers by the end of October and became an important part of the team’s top-four by season’s end. That alone was a significant rise from where his year started, but he only stands to improve in Year Two in Edmonton.

While it’s not hard to argue the Oilers got the bad end of the Taylor Hall-Adam Larsson trade, the silver lining for Edmonton is that it sets the top four and will give Nurse a steady partner, whether it be Larsson, Andrej Sekera or Oscar Klefbom. That can only help his development, especially if he plays alongside someone as responsible at both ends of the ice as Sekera.

Nurse projects to be one of the faces of the Edmonton blueline down the road, and this could be the first year he really, truly asserts himself as part of the Oilers’ core.

2. Joonas Donskoi, San Jose Sharks

Two good years in Finland’s Liiga earned Donskoi, 24, an NHL deal with the Sharks, and he made San Jose look brilliant in the post-season as he was a big part of the franchise’s first Western Conference title and berth into the Stanley Cup final. He scored six goals and 12 points in 24 playoff games, which was the second-best post-season production for any rookie. That sets the table for a stellar sophomore season.

And while he may not seem the type to improve all that much from an 11-goal, 36-point season, Donskoi can become a standout player for the Sharks if he’s given a bigger role and still puts up something in the 45-point range. He’s not a pure scorer, but he’s fleet of foot and a versatile player who could see more opportunity on the power play this season.

1. Robby Fabbri, St. Louis Blues

An honest argument could be made that Fabbri was the best Blues forward in the post-season. He tied for the team’s playoff points lead with 15 points and he did it while skating 14:21 per night for coach Ken Hitchcock, which was up slightly from the 13:18 he averaged in the regular season. However, with the departures of Troy Brouwer and David Backes this off-season, Fabbri’s role with the Blues is about to get much, much bigger.

There’s almost no doubt that the 20-year-old winger will take on a top-six role this season and with the way he shone in the playoffs, there’s reason to believe he could be a 50- to 60-point player in 2016-17. Consider that he scored 18 goals and 37 points while skating third- and fourth-line minutes, and you have an idea of what kind of contributions Fabbri stands to make.

Fabbri may have finished 10th in rookie scoring during the past season, but he could very well be the second- or third-highest scoring sophomore once the coming campaign is through.

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