Four underrated forwards set to break out in 2016-17

Take a look at the starting lineup of potential breakout players in the NHL. Who do you think we missed?

Here is what I call the ‘All-Hipster Team’, a collection of players who are linked by the discrepancy between their level of play and their name recognition. The common thread that unites the names below is they’re players I’d consider to be underappreciated commodities across the league.

The track record of players who have appeared on the list in years past is mixed. For every Brandon Saad there’s a Zemgus Girgensons, and for every Kyle Palmieri there’s a Marko Dano. Such is the inherent risk you’re taking when making a leap of faith on players who haven’t yet firmly established themselves as known assets in the league.

But it’s a new season and with that comes an opportunity to speculate on a new set of players who could take the next step in their progression towards the mainstream radar. Just remember that we liked them before it was cool.

First up: the forwards. Defence and goaltenders to come later.

VINCENT TROCHECK, FLORIDA

One of the best stories in the NHL last season was the emergence of the Florida Panthers as a legitimate contender after they parlayed a 12-game winning streak and a rare trade deadline period, in which they acted as buyers, into the first 100-point campaign in franchise history.

From legends seemingly impervious to normal aging curves (Roberto Luongo, Jaromir Jagr, Brian Campbell) to the fruits of years of losing (Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau), the eclectic mix of talent on the roster gelled nicely.

Yet, despite all of those more highly regarded names on the roster, it was actually a surprising one that emerged to not only lead the Panthers in five-on-five production, but also be one of the league’s most efficient scorers:

PLAYER PRIMARY PTS/60
M. Cammalleri 2.37
B. Wheeler 2.2
P. Kane 2.15
J. Tavares 2.11
E. Kuznetsov 2.11
M. Scheifele 2.09
T. Hall 2.04
J. Skinner 2.03
J. Jagr 2.03
C. McDavid 2.01
J. Hansen 1.97
S. Crosby 1.92
J. Spezza 1.92
V. Trocheck 1.91
A. Barkov 1.89
T. Seguin 1.87
D. Krejci 1.85
C. Smith 1.84
J. Pavelski 1.8

Trocheck’s 2015-16 was awfully impressive from start to finish, beginning the year with a four-point night and stepping up as the team’s No. 1 option down the middle during a near month-long absence for Barkov. The combination of Trocheck, Jussi Jokinen and Reilly Smith quietly ran roughshod on the rest of the league, controlling north of 58 per cent of shots, 60 per cent of scoring chances, and 72 per cent of goals whenever they were on the ice together.

While he may have slipped under the radar in some circles with everything else going on around him, Trocheck’s sparkling play last year certainly didn’t go unnoticed by Panthers brass after they rewarded him for it with a six-year extension following the season.

JEFF SKINNER, CAROLINA

This one might be cheating a little bit. After all, Skinner was a seventh overall pick who has two 30-goal campaigns under his belt, and put together one of the most productive 18-year-old seasons in the history of the NHL.

But that was six years ago. Through no fault of Skinner’s, it’s been a long six years. There was the string of terrifying head injuries threatening to derail an immensely promising young career. And the Hurricanes franchise has gone through a lot of losing and mediocrity in recent years, which has made it easy to forget just how good Skinner has been.

These days, though, things appear to be headed in the right direction for a Hurricanes team that’s quietly been hoarding young talent through the draft and trades. Skinner mirrored that upswing in 2015-16, cobbling together a remarkably effective season at five-on-five:

PLAYER PRIMARY PTS
P. Kane 46
T. Hall 42
B. Wheeler 42
J. Tavares 42
E. Kuznetsov 40
S. Crosby 38
J. Skinner 37
J. Jagr 36
M. Scheifele 35
J. Pavelski 35
J. Gaudreau 34
M. Lucic 34
M. Zuccarello 34
V. Tarasenko 33
T. Seguin 33

What makes Skinner a particularly effective player beyond just the raw scoring totals is his innate ability to sucker the opposition into taking a high volume of penalties. In fact, he’s been the Penalty Differential King ever since he came into the league in 2010:

PLAYER PENALTIES TAKEN PENALTIES DRAWN PENALTY DIFFERENTIAL
J. Skinner 54 155 101
D. Helm 28 95 67
D. Brown 72 139 67
N. Kadri 71 133 62
P. Hornqvist 45 104 59
M. St. Louis 18 76 58
M. Duchene 37 91 54
J. Pominville 19 68 49
M. Johansson 17 64 47
M. Boedker 25 69 44
A. Kopitar 40 83 43
C. Giroux 61 104 43
P. Datsyuk 23 66 43
V. Tarasenko 26 68 42
J. Toews 53 93 40

You can’t overstate the hidden value of a player who routinely provides his team with power play opportunities, particularly during a time in which the game frequently gets bogged down in gridlock whenever both teams are at full strength.

VIKTOR ARVIDSSON, NASHVILLE

If you haven’t been paying attention for the past couple years, Nashville’s complete facelift is startling. Once a defensively minded team that lacked any discernible top-end talent up front under Barry Trotz, the Predators are suddenly brimming with dynamic game-changers up and down the lineup.

Under the watchful eye of Peter Laviolette, the Predators are now a team equipped and willing to push the pace. They’re essentially able to roll four lines, all of which boast speed and skill, which makes them a matchup nightmare on most nights.

One of the key depth players holding down their bottom-six last season was Viktor Arvidsson, who proved to be a shot generation machine in his first full campaign in the league. He found himself among some illustrious company with only shooters like Max Pacioretty, Alex Ovechkin, Dustin Brown and Evander Kane ahead of him in shots on goal per hour of play. The attempts themselves tell a similar story:

PLAYER INDIVIDUAL SHOTS/60
A. Ovechkin 23.23
M. Pacioretty 21.86
V. Tarasenko 20.95
E. Kane 20.35
B. Burns 20.24
V. Arvidsson 19.74
R. Nash 19.6
J. Spezza 19.42
F. Forsberg 19.17
N. Kadri 19.13
J. Carter 19.11
B. Gallagher 18.92
D. Brown 18.85
T. Toffoli 18.6
F. Vatrano 18.58
J. Skinner 18.3

He continued to terrorize both the Ducks and Sharks in the post-season, routinely being in the middle of everything. While his box car numbers weren’t necessarily all that impressive (just eight goals and 16 points in 56 games), if he continues to generate this many shots he’ll eventually stumble into a few more lucky bounces. It’s unlikely he’ll shoot just 5.5 per cent, especially as a player who’s clearly not lacking in talent.

The fact that he slipped through the draft a couple of times before finally being taken by the Predators in the fourth round as a 21-year-old is a good reminder of why it’s a mistake to write off a player just because he’s small.

ANDREAS ATHANASIOU, DETROIT

Every defenceman has a plan for defending Athanasiou until they find themselves on their heels when he bears down on them in full flight.

What could make Athanasiou special is that unlike most players who possess the speed he does (think: Carl Hagelin or Michael Grabner), he also seems to have a competent finishing ability. His 1.40 goals per hour at five-on-five paced the league for players with at least 250 minutes of ice-time, just slightly ahead of someone named Alex Ovechkin.

Small sample size and inflated shooting percentage aside, it’s abundantly clear Athanasiou presents a unique problem for the opposition. In just 37 games with limited ice-time, he managed to draw 11 penalties as defenders scratched and clawed and did everything in their power to stay close to him (or at least avoid winding up on a highlight reel).

Acknowledging that, like most young players, he’s got some work to do refining his defensive game, there’s no excuse for utilizing him as infrequently as Jeff Blashill did last season. Hockey, by nature, tends to be an overly conservative game, as the people involved can be guilty of playing it safe (i.e. trying not to lose rather than trying to win). For every mistake Athanasiou may make on occasion in his own end, he possesses the game-breaking talent to make up for it and then some.

Honourable Mention: Rickard Rakell, Cam Atkinson, Tobias Rieder