Some players take a little longer to develop than others, and the 2015–16 season brought with it a slew of NHLers who rounded into form. Penguins goalie Matt Murray went from third-stringer to Stanley Cup-winning heir apparent, and Vincent Trocheck earned himself a sizable new contract on the heels of a 25-goal, 53-point season with the Panthers. Up in Winnipeg, Mark Scheifele took over the Jets’ No. 1 center spot with 29-goal season that included a 14–13–27 line over the team’s final 21 games.
With the page turning to a new season, SI’s NHL staffers decided to predict the 2016–17 season’s breakout stars.
Before the Young Guns took over the game, there was supposed to be another one in the mix. Nikolaj Ehlers of Winnipeg entered last season as a 19-year-old with high expectations. The ninth overall pick in the 2014 draft, Ehlers had a very solid rookie season, scoring 15 goals and adding 23 assists. He had been getting first line looks with Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler. Now with uber-rookie Patrik Laine in the mix, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Danish winger on the second line, perhaps with Little and Drew Stafford. With teams loading up to stop a top line of Laine, Mark Scheifele and Wheeler, Ehlers should see some favorable matchups. And that power-play is loaded—Ehlers, Scheifele, Wheeler, Laine and Byfuglien.
Laine will get a lot of the attention in Winnipeg, and rightfully so. But Ehlers has high-level skill, a history of junior production (205 points in 114 games in the Q) and a nice supporting cast. In his second season, he could be headed for stardom.
Boring as many believe he is, Sean Monahan could do big things in Calgary this season. His overall PPG and even-strength P/60 have increased every season since his rookie year and now, in his fourth season, he could come into his own as a premier center. Monahan figures to stay on a line with Johnny Gaudreau, another player whose offensive production figures to see a bump. The Flames did their part to instill the necessary confidence in him with a 7-year, $44.625M contract this summer as well. What's more, by bringing in goalie Brian Elliott, the Flames hope to be a more well-rounded team defensively which could also allow Monahan to increase his focus towards contributing offensively. I like Monahan to hit 75 points quietly.
There are a number of solid breakout candidates, but I'm going with Morgan Rielly in Toronto. He's already one of the best puck-movers in the game, but points have been tougher to come by on the talent-starved Maple Leafs. The additions of Auston Matthews and (likely) Mitch Marner, plus a full season with William Nylander, should ramp up his production, now that he has players to feed the puck to that know what do when they get it. I think he breaks the 40-point mark and comes close to 50.
Jonathan Drouin was a pretty well-known name after being the No. 3 pick in the 2013 draft, and he became notorious during a roller-coaster 2015–16 season in which he held out for a trade after getting limited minutes in the Tampa Bay Lightning lineup. The Bolts, however, didn't trade him, and he made the most of his minutes in the lineup after Steven Stamkos’s season came to an end due to blood clots. He put his oodles of skill, speed and play-making ability on display down the stretch and was one of the team’s biggest contributors during a 17-game playoff run, posting five goals and 14 points. You can bet he's earned himself a sizable role on a serious Stanley Cup contender this season, and he's got all the tools to stand out on a stacked roster, in a contract season, no less.
It’s not like the Capitals are hurting for scoring options, but Andre Burakovsky has all the pieces in place for a big leap in his second full NHL season. Entering the final year of his entry-level deal, the 21-year-old winger has a spot on the second line to call his own and a hot streak down the stretch of last season (13 goals in the final 37 regular season games) to build upon. The only thing holding his numbers back is the glut of offensive weapons in Washington—there’s no guarantee he’ll wrest a significant share of the chances away from the team’s stars. Still, if he can stick on the power play all year, his feel in front of the net and quick release should push him close to a 30-goal season. He stands to be a lot richer a year from now once he becomes a restricted free agent for the first time.