Every NHL season we see old stars fall and new stars emerge, and 2013-14 should be a ripe with players looking to establish themselves as forces to be reckoned with.
Last season in the East, players like the New York Rangers’ Derek Stepan, Nazem Kadri of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban of the Montreal Candiens, among others, had breakout campaigns.
Those players were difference-makers, and a new crop of difference-makers is set to emerge.
With that, here’s a look at some players on Eastern Conference teams primed to have breakout seasons.
Stephen Weiss, Detroit Red Wings
The former fourth-overall pick in the 2001 NHL Draft had some solid seasons with the Florida Panthers and has been consistent throughout his career. But now, with the chance to play alongside the likes of Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel Alfredsson and Johan Franzen, his game should go to another level.
Weiss won’t be expected to bear the load like he was in the Sunshine State, and that will play to his advantage. He’s very skilled down the middle, and the thought of him playing in between Franzen and Alfie should have Wings fans salivating.
The Panthers squads Weiss played on weren’t playoff-calibre teams – apart from in 2011-12 – but Detroit is a perennial contender. It will be exciting to see if Weiss can flourish on a mature team with a coach like Mike Babcock.
Jake Gardiner, Toronto Maple Leafs
If the Jake Gardiner that took control whenever he was on the ice during the Leafs’ playoff series with the Boston Bruins shows up this regular season, the 23-year-old will be regarded as one of the best defencemen in the NHL by the end of the year.
He only registered four assists in 12 regular season games in 2012-13, but his time with the big club was limited after suffering a concussion while playing with the AHL Toronto Marlies during the lockout. The good news for the Leafs? Gardiner is entering this season healthy, and that could spell trouble for opponents.
The Minnesota native has excellent hockey sense, terrific skating ability, and the patience of a savvy veteran. If he can cut down on untimely and risky turnovers, there’s no reason why the skilled blue-liner couldn’t log more than 20 minutes each night for the Blue and White.
Expect a career year from Gardiner, which could potentially lead to a spot on Team USA at the Sochi 2014 Olympics.
Derick Brassard, New York Rangers
Derick Brassard showed plenty of potential in his first five-and-a-half NHL seasons with the Blue Jackets. But when the former sixth-overall pick was traded to the New York Rangers in the spring as part of the deal that sent Marian Gaborik to Columbus, Brassard lit it up on Broadway.
He had had 11 points in 13 regular-season games with the Rangers before averaging a point per game through their 12-game playoff run.
He developed good chemistry with Rick Nash, and if they can build off the success they found late last season, Brassard might put up some huge numbers for the Rangers and new head coach Alain Vigneault.
Mikhail Grabovski, Washington Capitals
There’s no doubt the speedy Belarusian underperformed with the Leafs last season, leading to GM Dave Nonis’s buying out the remainder of his contract. That certainly doesn’t mean Grabovski can no longer produce at a high level.
All the pressure is on Alex Ovechkin in Washington, and Grabovski won’t be scrutinized in the media the way he was on a daily basis in Toronto.
Just as centre Mike Ribeiro excelled with the Caps last season, Grabovski could do the same.
He may not play regularly on a line with the Great 8, but he could do well with players like Martin Erat or Troy Bouwer, providing key secondary scoring for the Caps. His speed, skill and grit will be well served under coach Adam Oates.
Cody Hodgson, Buffalo Sabres
Fresh off his six-year, $25.5-million contract signing, Hodgson will be counted on to be one of the Sabres’ top producers, right alongside Tomas Vanek and Ryan Miller.
In 48 games in the shortened 2012-13 season, the 23-year-old finished second on the Sabres behind Vanek in goals (15) and points (34), and that trend should continue.
Buffalo fans can expect Hodgson’s points per game to increase, and the former Brampton Battalion standout should also begin to emerge as a leader on and off the ice.
It might be a rough year for the Sabres, as they’re not projected by most to make the playoffs, but a strong season from Hodgson will be a positive sign for the franchise.
Adam Henrique, New Jersey Devils
The Brantford, Ont., native struggled in his sophomore season after a terrific 51-point rookie year in 2011-12. He was injured to start last season and never really got into a groove.
With the likes of Ilya Kovalchuk and David Clarkson no longer around, Henrique will be counted on to step up and play a bigger role on a much different-looking Devils team.
After signing a six-year, $24-million contract in August, the pressure is on — though it should be lessened if new additions Michael Ryder and Ryane Clowe can remain the quality goal scorers they have been in recent years.
Henrique is a good two-way player and certainly has the ability to take his game to the next level.
Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Ottawa Senators – There’s a reason fans chanted his name throughout the playoffs last season. If he can find a permanent spot on the Sens roster, there are a lot of talented wingers for the young centre to play with.
Alex Galchenyuk, Montreal Canadiens – Don’t expect this 19-year-old to suffer a sophomore slump. Subtle improvements in the off-season will lead to more ice time that will result in more offensive production.
Justin Faulk, Carolina Hurricanes – He’s solid defensively, and if he continues to improve, the youngster could wind up being one of the highest-scoring blue-liners in the East. He was one of only a handful of Hurricanes who had a positive plus/minus rating in 2013.
Ben Bishop, Tampa Bay Lightning – He’ll likely split time with Anders Lindback, but Bishop has progressed nicely since being drafted by the Blues in 2005.
Casey Cizikas, New York Islanders – The former Team Canada junior standout impressed with his forechecking and grit in the playoffs. This could be the year he emerges as a solid third-line centre.
Shawn Matthias, Florida Panthers – The Mississauga, Ont., native was arguably the Panthers’ best player down the stretch, registering a career high 14 goals. With Weiss gone, the opportunity is there to build off that momentum.
Artem Anisimov, Columbus Blue Jackets – Playing with and learning from a sniper like Marian Gaborik will only help him this season.
Johnny Boychuk, Boston Bruins – He was an absolute beast on the back end in the playoffs and can add offence with his bomb of a slap shot from the point.
Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers – This could be the year he emerges as a serious two-way threat. He’ll learn a lot from a leader like Vincent Lecavalier as well.
Simon Despres, Pittsburgh Penguins – The young defenceman with tons of potential had a positive impact for the Pens in most games he appeared in last season. A plus-9 in 33 regular-season games.