Last season, when the campaign got underway, Jonathan Marchessault was one of the most incredible stories in the league.
A relative unknown outside of Florida, where he had played for the Tampa Bay Lightning the two seasons prior, Marchessault was shot out of a cannon to start the season and scored at an incredible pace. Before October was over, Marchessault already had six goals and 11 points, one tally and seven points shy of his career-best marks to that point. By the time the season ended, Marchessault had put himself on the map with a 30-goal, 51-point campaign. It would be safe to say he was one of the biggest breakout stars of the season. But teams will be watching for Marchessault this season, and after his breakout year, he’s not exactly going to be flying under the radar.
So, who is the breakout star this season? Well, it’s unlikely anyone has quite the leap in production that Marchessault did — overnight 30-goal sensations don’t come around too often these days — but there are a few second-, third- or fourth-year players who could be primed to put it all together this season en route to opening some eyes and raising some eyebrows with their performance in 2017-18.
ANAHEIM DUCKS: Nick Ritchie had an uptick in performance as a sophomore, scoring 14 goals and 28 points, but he’s looking at an increased role this season. If he slides into the top six — and that is a possibility — Ritchie could be a 20-goal, 40-point threat.
ARIZONA COYOTES: In his half-season stint last campaign, Brendan Perlini shot out the lights. He scored 14 goals in 57 games largely thanks to a 15.2 percent shooting efficiency. That number could take a dip, but his opportunity should increase significantly allowing him to set new career marks as a sneaky weapon in the desert.
BOSTON BRUINS: Frank Vatrano battled a foot injury before getting into the lineup last season and then ended up sidelined again with an upper-body injury later in the season. He did still score 10 goals and 18 points in 44 games, but with his shot, Vatrano can be a 25-goal scorer if he stays healthy.
BUFFALO SABRES: The Sabres are going to be looking for more from Johan Larsson and don’t put it past him to provide it. He probably won’t end up cracking the Sabres’ top five scorers, but his sound defensive game and offensive ability can make him a two-way threat and a standout for those who watch him closely.
CALGARY FLAMES: It took Sam Bennett until early September to sign a new deal, and now’s his chance to show the Flames he was worth the hard bargaining. He took a step back offensively as a sophomore, but don’t count on that continuing. He has the skill to be a 20-goal scorer and he can do it this season.
CAROLINA HURRICANES: The Hurricanes aren’t just hoping for Scott Darling to breakout, they’re expecting it. That’s why he was signed to a four-year, $16.6-million deal without ever being a No. 1 goaltender before. Darling has all the tools to be a success, though, including a massive 6-foot-6 frame and a skilled blueline insulating him from opposition shooters.
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: On Jan. 15, Nick Schmaltz returned to the NHL full-time from an AHL stint, and from that point on, he was the fifth-highest scoring Blackhawk with five goals and 24 points. He’s a gifted playmaker and has potential to center Patrick Kane this season. Those two things could add up to one heck of a season for Schmaltz.
COLORADO AVALANCHE: Is it cheating to say Mikko Rantanen? If it is, it shouldn’t be. He played well on a bad Avalanche team last season, but he’s going to take it to the next level this season. Put Rantanen alongside Nathan MacKinnon all season and let the two build some chemistry. They’re the future of this offense and it starts this season.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS: Oliver Bjorkstrand is flying under the radar in Columbus. He was a half-point per game player in 26 outings last year and is projected to play second-line minutes this time around. If Bjorkstrand can make the most of his opportunity, there’s no reason to doubt he could be a top-five scorer for the Blue Jackets.
DALLAS STARS: Those outside of Dallas may have forgotten about Mattias Janmark. He did miss the entire 2016-17 campaign, after all. But Janmark is back and primed for a top-six opportunity. He scored 14 goals and 29 points in 2014-15, so give him some minutes with Jason Spezza and Janmark might be staring down a 20-goal, 40-point campaign, at minimum.
DETROIT RED WINGS: You could argue Anthony Mantha broke out last season when he scored 17 goals and 36 points. That would be fair. However, he can take it to another level this year. Mantha isn’t going to start in the AHL and he’s not going to have to fight his way up the depth chart. A first-liner out of the gate, Mantha has potential to be the league’s most surprising scorer.
EDMONTON OILERS: He has one 50-point season under his belt, but Ryan Strome still hasn’t really fulfilled his potential. In Edmonton, though, he can do that. Strome is going to be part of an offensive juggernaut and could get the chance to play alongside one of Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl. That could be a points party for all.
FLORIDA PANTHERS: A rocky year in the Sunshine State didn’t allow for Mike Matheson to get much credit for his performance, but the Panthers rearguard was good. This year, he can be even better, especially given the chance to spend the entire year alongside Aaron Ekblad. Matheson still has some untapped offense, too, and he’s already putting up points in pre-season.
LOS ANGELES KINGS: Derek Forbort was partnered with Drew Doughty for much of last season and impressed as a top-unit rearguard. Now, he’s going to be asked to take another step forward. That means being even more reliable on the blueline and allowing Doughty to jump into the offense more often. Forbort won’t score a ton, but his value could skyrocket.
MINNESOTA WILD: Minnesota had to make a choice on the blueline and the final decision was to keep Matt Dumba around. That’s going to pay dividends this season. Dumba had 11 goals and 34 points last season and those totals are bound to increase with a bigger role. Even with Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin in town, Dumba could be the top scoring defender.
MONTREAL CANADIENS: Artturi Lehkonen’s 18-goal performance last season was impressive and a lack of depth up front in Montreal is going to allow him to prove it was no fluke. He should be skating top-six minutes early in the season and, if he finds a fit up front, could be just the secondary scoring punch the Canadiens need.
NASHVILLE PREDATORS: A broken leg cost Kevin Fiala most of the post-season, but he had moments of brilliance in the early part of the Predators’ run. After posting some good totals in the AHL, and 11 goals in 54 games with Nashville last season, Fiala is ready to show he can contribute on a nightly basis at the highest level.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS: Travis Zajac’s injury puts Nico Hischier up to the top line but also gives Pavel Zacha a shot at second-line minutes. Truth is Zacha was only OK last season — not good or great — but he has all the potential to be a stud offensive producer when he puts his game together, and that could very well be this season.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS: Nine goals and 24 points after making the team out of training camp made for a decent rookie year for Anthony Beauvillier. This season, though, he projects to line up with Mat Barzal and Josh Ho-Sang, two highly skilled forwards. Getting to scoring areas could be all Beauvillier needs to do to bust out career highs in his second campaign.
NEW YORK RANGERS: Sure, Mika Zibanejad had a 51-point season just two seasons back, but the breakout this year could see him hit the 60- or even 70-point mark. The door is wide open for Zibanejad with Derek Stepan shipped off to Arizona and the No. 1 center role vacated. The Rangers always have a knack for offense and Zibanejad can be the catalyst for the attack this year.
OTTAWA SENATORS: Playing alongside Erik Karlsson is a gift and Fredrik Claesson could be the lucky recipient this season. The two skated alongside one another, and to some success, with regularity in the post-season and that’s a good sign. Claesson isn’t the most hyped Senators defenseman heading into the year — hello, Thomas Chabot — but he could be the most surprising.
PHILADELPHIA FLYERS: Travis Konecny posted 11 goals and 28 points while skating 14 minutes per night last season. This year, it’s not far-fetched to suggest he’s going to be getting top-line minutes alongside Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek. That’s going to do wonders for his game, and with Brayden Schenn gone, the Flyers are looking for their next scoring option. Konecny is perfect to fill the role.
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: Remember when we asked if it was cheating to pick Rantanen? Well, picking Jake Guentzel might . He broke out in the playoffs, scoring 13 goals after putting up 16 in 40 regular season games. But that means Guentzel has honest-to-goodness potential to be a 30-goal scorer. He has the undervalued ability to play with other skill players, and being Sidney Crosby’s triggerman is about as good a job as any in the league.
SAN JOSE SHARKS: Timo Meier skated fourth-line minutes for the Sharks last season, but he’s set to rocket up the depth chart to the top-six — and maybe even top line — in 2017-18. That would see him potentially skate with Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski. It’s a nice fit for Meier and a great opportunity for him to showcase his massive offensive upside.
ST. LOUIS BLUES: Robby Fabbri missed nearly half the campaign last season and that put a damper on what should have been an excellent season. That just means this is the year Fabbri puts himself on the map, though. He improved his points per game from .51 to .57 in his sophomore season, so an uptick and finish in the 55-point range seems more than reasonable.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: Trading Jonathan Drouin opens up more space for Brayden Point at the top of the lineup and the line combinations in Tampa Bay are tantalizing. Imagine Point playing alongside Steven Stamkos? If he works out as the setup man for a returning Stamkos, Point could be well on his way to a career year before we hit the all-star break.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: First and foremost, Kasperi Kapanen has to make the Maple Leafs. But if, or when, he manages to do so, look out. He was a near point per game player in the AHL last season and scored twice in Toronto’s first round series against the Washington Capitals. Give him third-line minutes and watch him go.
VANCOUVER CANUCKS: There wasn’t much to be excited about in Vancouver last season, but Troy Stecher was one of the lone bright spots. The diminutive defender came aboard and managed to produce three goals and 24 points from the blueline and, with some additional help up front and on the back end, he should be able to further bolster his offensive totals.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS: Shea Theodore has all the makings of a top blueliner. He has good size, mobility, smarts and can put points on the board, too. And that’s why he could potentially be a top-pairing defenseman early in the Golden Knights’ inaugural season. Things could get rocky in Vegas, but Theodore’s play should be one reason for fans to be excited no matter where the team finishes.
WASHINGTON CAPITALS: Andre Burakovsky’s leap up the lineup is going to be noticeable. He was never more than a bottom-six contributor over the past three seasons, but if he could put up 29 goals and 73 points in his past 143 games while averaging 13 minutes a night, imagine what Burakovsky can do given an extra few minutes a night and higher-skill linemates.
WINNIPEG JETS: The Jets have their share of young guns and that allows Joel Armia to fly under the radar. The skill he displays with the puck on his stick can be awe-inspiring and he’s not afraid to use his big frame, either. Don’t be surprised if he blows his 10-goal, 19-point career highs out of the water.
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