Heading into the 2014-15 NHL season, a handful of established stars are bound to plateau or begin to decline, but on the flipside a group of young stars should emerge and take their games to a new level.
NHL breakout players: Western Conference
Last season in the East, players such as Gustav Nyquist, Victor Hedman, Ryan Johansen and Mats Zuccarello, among others, had breakout campaigns. Those players had major impacts on their respective teams and a new crop of difference-makers is set to light it up in 2014-15.
Here’s a look at one skater from each Eastern Conference team primed to have a breakout campaign.
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Alex Galchenyuk. Heading into the 2012 NHL draft, Galchenyuk was considered a possible first-overall pick, but went third to the Canadiens behind Nail Yakupov and Ryan Murray. In his first two seasons he has shown glimpses of superstar potential while working out the kinks in his game. The 20-year-old only averaged 14:23 of ice-time last season, but that will increase along with his point totals. He’s got the speed, the creativity, the vision and he seems to truly enjoy the game. The sky’s the limit for the former Sarnia Sting standout.
Ryan McDonagh. There’s no doubt the standout blueliner had a breakout performance last year, but all signs point to him reaching an even higher level in 2014-15. McDonagh should not only be the Rangers’ best player, but a serious Norris Trophy contender. While the likes of P.K. Subban, Erik Karlsson and Zdeno Chara might garner more attention heading into the season, don’t be surprised if McDonagh emerges as the best defenceman in the East. He has steadily progressed throughout his first four seasons in the NHL and was truly remarkable during the Rangers’ run to the Cup final.
Patric Hornqvist. He was “Mr. Irrelevant” in the 2005 NHL Draft but luckily for him he hasn’t lived up (or down) to that moniker. The Swede is a perennial 20-goal scorer and with the opportunity to play alongside either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, Hornqvist has a real chance to set career highs in both goals and points. He doesn’t quite have the offensive acumen of James Neal -- the man he was traded for at the draft in June -- but he is better in the defensive areas and far more disciplined.
Reilly Smith. The 23-year-old burst onto the scene in his first full NHL season and there’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to improve on his 20 goals and 31 assists. The Bruins have done virtually nothing this off-season apart from losing 30-goal man Jarome Iginla to free agency. Smith’s hockey IQ is extremely high and he has a nose for the net. He displayed solid chemistry alongside Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand on one of the best two-way lines in hockey and if he builds on the momentum he generated last season he might even emerge as a Lady Byng contender.
Rasmus Ristolainen. The 19-year-old is one of the best young blueliners in the game. He is a reliable player that won’t shuck his defensive responsibilities for the sake of personal stats. Still, he managed to put up 20 points in 34 games with the Rochester Americans (AHL) last season and he was a revelation for Finland at the world juniors. The Sabres added veterans Josh Gorges and Andrej Meszaros who can act as mentors for Ristolainen. He can also heed advice from Tyler Myers, who knows all about being a tall, right-handed defensive prospect with high expectations.
Nick Bjugstad. On paper, the Panthers are a bit of a mystery, but down the middle they are one of the stronger teams in the East. Bjugstad is a big part of that -- literally, he’s one of the tallest players in the league at six-foot-six. He is terrific at protecting the puck when he takes it wide and is surrounded by some burgeoning talent up front in Florida, which could result in an even better season than the 16-goal, 38-point effort he had in 2013-14.
Ryan Murray. The Blue Jackets are ripe with young talent – Ryan Johansen, Boone Jenner, Cam Atkinson, Jack Johnson and Sergei Bobrovsky among them -- and Murray’s ceiling might be the highest of the group. Playing beside James Wisniewski should result in impressive numbers and as Murray gets stronger he’ll begin to win more battles in the corners.
Evgeny Kuznetsov. With Mikhail Grabovski gone, Kuznetsov will have a bigger role in Washington. He has more offensive upside than fellow centres Brooks Laich and Marcus Johansson and is dangerous with the man advantage. By all indications he has improved his physique this off-season, which should pay dividends on the ice.
Riley Sheahan. He, along with role players like Luke Glendening (one of the only right-handed shots on Detroit), was one of the youngsters that stepped up in a big way when the Red Wings’ veterans were banged up last season. Sheahan has the ability to alleviate some pressure off Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg when it comes to creating offence, which makes him all the more valuable to Mike Babcock.
Alex Chiasson. The right winger has a great opportunity to become a go-to goal scorer on his new club. Chiasson was effective on the power play last year with the Stars, but also had one of the worst plus/minus ratings in the NHL at minus-21. He’ll play on the top two lines and will be expected to immediately produce.
Daniel Winnik. The Leafs are "In It to Winnik!" Boom. There’s your fantasy hockey team name this year, Leafs fans. You can thank Sportsnet’s Jeff Simmons for that one. With Jay McClement gone, Winnik will be vital on the penalty kill and in the defensive zone like he was in Anaheim and Colorado. He’s extremely underrated, accustomed to competing in the tougher Western Conference and the fact he’s playing for his hometown team could give him a boost of energy. The Leafs adding Winnik could prove to be one of the best off-season acquisitions made by any team in the East.
Travis Hamonic. It’s no secret the Islanders have high hopes for the 23-year-old after rewarding him with a seven-year, $27-million contract prior to last season. With Andrew MacDonald now in Philly, Hamonic will be expected to lead a group that also features impressive young d-men Thomas Hickey, Calvin de Haan and top prospect Griffin Reinhart.
Elias Lindholm. The young Swede had a solid rookie campaign with 21 points in 58 games and received increased ice-time late in the season following a brief stint in the AHL. He doesn’t play a physical game and needs to improve in the faceoff circle, but he is a threat in the offensive zone.
Adam Larsson. With Mark Fayne and Anton Volchenkov gone, Larsson has an opportunity to establish himself as one of the top young defencemen in the NHL. The fourth-overall pick in 2011 has never played a full season and this is the year to show what he can do.
Andrew MacDonald. Was acquired from the Islanders in March and rewarded with a lucrative six-year extension in April. Coming off a career high in points, MacDonald can break through as an elite defenceman in the East. Kimmo Timonen’s health is an issue, so MacDonald will likely quarterback the top power-play unit.
Nikita Kucherov. The Lightning are thin down the right side, which leaves an opportunity for the 21-year-old Moscow native to stand out. Kucherov has tremendous speed and a great shot.