Every NHL season, there are a handful of players who rise from their previous ranks to establish themselves as stars. Some do it right out of the gate (hello, Nathan MacKinnon) and some take a few years of development before they burst onto the scene (Tomas Tatar).
Heading into the 2014/15 season, there are more than a few candidates ready to assume breakout status. Some are even on the same team. But for this piece, we’ll focus on the five biggest potential impacts, both on an individual and a team level.
Brandon Saad, Chicago Blackhawks
One of the favorites to hit it big this coming season, Saad was already pretty impressive last season. He definitely avoided the sophomore slump, notching 47 points and another 16 more in 19 playoff games. He’s big, he’s strong and he plays on a great team. That would be enough to sell you, right?
Oh yeah, he’s also going to play with offensive dynamo Patrick Kane and the suddenly-underrated Brad Richards. Kane is one of the top point producers in the game by himself and the addition of Richards, who was once an elite scoring center before his tenure in New York, there will be plenty of pucks to find their way to Saad’s stick.
Expect a 30-plus goal, 60-plus point season out of Saad as he helps give the Blackhawks two dynamic scoring lines and helps make them even more formidable, which is saying something considering they’re already among the handful of favorites for the Stanley Cup already. The rich just keep finding a way to get richer.
Brock Nelson, New York Islanders
Nelson was slow out of the gates as a rookie in 2013/14, but he picked up the pace as the year went on. He wound up finishing with 14 goals and 26 points, showing strong potential as a two-way force along the way.
He’s got tremendous size (6’3”, 196) and hands for said size. There’s also a vacancy on the Islanders’ top line with the departure of Thomas Vanek and Nelson certainly has the skill set to mesh with stars Kyle Okposo and John Tavares.
Add in the fact that the talented Nelson will likely see some power play time and there’s a big improvement ahead in 2013/14. Depending on who he sees the ice with and what kind of power play time he gets, look for Nelson to crack the 25 goal/50 point threshold and potentially more if he really does end up playing next to Tavares (a bona fied superstar).
Valeri Nichushkin, Dallas Stars
The 10th overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, Nischushkin entered last season as a rookie with a boatload of talent, but a boatload of questions. It’s safe to say that he addressed those questions with his efforts last year. He tallied 14 goals and 34 points on the offensively-thin (past the top line) Stars and provided a few highlight-reel goals along the way.
This season, though, things look much brighter in Big D. The team acquired Jason Spezza for practically nothing from the Ottawa Senators and now have one of the best one-two center punches in the game with he and Tyler Seguin. They didn’t stop there, either, bringing in veteran playmaking winger Ales Hemsky in as well. Suddenly, the second line looks pretty nasty.
Hemsky and Spezza’s natural playmaking abilities should do wonders for the big sniper. He had 35-plus goal potential written all over him well before those two showed up, but now with two experienced, talented playmakers on his side and a dangerous top line to take the pressure off, the big Russian is set for big things.
Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers
Speaking of big Euros, Barkov also debuted during the 2013/14 season after being selected fourth in the 2013 Draft. He stepped into the woeful Panthers lineup and was immediately being touted as a front-runner for the Calder Trophy.
Unfortunately, Barkov dealt with injuries and just being a Florida Panther, finishing with eight goals and 16 points in 54 games. He did, however, display a fine two-way game unseen in many players his age. If he’s fully recovered from a knee injury that cost him the rest of his season from the Olympic break on, he can be a dominant player in the NHL.
The additions and improvements in Florida will no doubt help him, including fellow Finn and underrated goal scorer Jussi Jokinen. With another year under his belt and added support, Barkov could jump into the 50-point range with a huge year three looming ahead.
Ryan Murray, Columbus Blue Jackets
The second overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft made his debut last year and already looked like a poised veteran at just 20 years old. He posted the third-best Corsi Close mark on the rising Blue Jackets and looks to be one of the most important cogs on that defense.
While he may not be the offensive player many projected when he entered the draft, he still has all the makings of a two-way workhorse on the blueline in the mold of Ryan Suter. Suter, as you might recall, is arguably one of the top five defensemen in the game today. Not a bad comparison.
His minutes will likely climb this year thanks to his sterling possession numbers, though he’s still got James Wisniewski and Jack Johnson in front of him for power play minutes. With an increased role, this will be the year you hear Murray’s name mentioned with some of the best young blueliners in the game.