A new hockey season is upon us. One of the most charming things about that statement is the type of hopeful, visceral reaction it elicits amongst fans all over the spectrum, regardless of their rooting interests and allegiances.
Part of the reason that optimism exists is because of the cyclical nature of the calendar. Every summer the standings and stat sheets are scrubbed clean and every fall we see a number of unfamiliar faces rise up from obscurity to take advantage of the opportunity a clean slate provides.
Last season further reinforced that notion when Viktor Arvidsson made the leap, forced himself on to everyone’s radar, and cemented himself as a household name. Jonathan Marchessault did the same and was one of the best stories of the bunch in 2016-17.
While Marchessault’s road to this point was longer and surely featured more bumpy bus rides during his four-plus years in the AHL, both players shared a similar profile in that it felt more a matter of ‘when’ than ‘if’ they would arrive. Well before they rewarded their teams with 30-goal seasons (an increasingly rare feat in today’s NHL), both had been earmarked as tantalizing breakout candidates due to their impressive offensive outputs at lower levels and productive results in limited NHL viewings.
In the spirit of the new season, let’s spin things forward by learning from past history and applying our findings in the pursuit of uncovering who the next set of breakout players could be.
As such, we’re looking for a few things in particular:
1a. A history of success at lower levels: It’s true that history is littered with countless examples of AAAA players who weren’t able to maintain their success once the speed of the game ramped up and the level of competition skyrocketed.
Still, the NHL is the cream of the crop. As such a general rule of thumb is that players who didn’t stand out amongst their peers in Major Junior and European leagues typically don’t wind up magically discovering the ability to suddenly do so after making the leap to the NHL. That’s why if you look around the league, you’ll notice that third and fourth lines are typically composed of former top prospects who eventually settled into those roles.
1b. A history of success in limited NHL appearances: Rate stats can be tricky because we can’t just assume that a player’s output in a small sample can be proportionately stretched out under heavier usage. With that said, highlighting who has managed to do a lot with a little is a useful tactic for figuring out who could be in line to benefit most with greater opportunity.
2. A repeatable and translatable skillset: Where there’s smoke there’s fire, and where there are shots there are goals. There’s an established relationship between shots, goals, and ultimately wins. Hockey at its core is a game of percentages, and by honing in on shot volume all we’re really doing is trying to put those percentages in our favour.
The list of players who generated shots with the highest frequency last season is rather telling in that regard. It’s littered with a collection of the best goal scorers in the NHL. There’s also a couple of potentially surprising younger forwards who warrant closer inspection (along with a few others whose names keep popping up whenever I take a deeper look at these things):
|Player||5v5 Shot Attempts/Hour|
|James van Riemdsyk||16.78|
TIMO MEIER, SAN JOSE SHARKS
We only have 39 games worth of NHL data (including the post-season) to work with on Meier, but considering his personal history of being a shot-generating maven in both the QMJHL and AHL, I’m much more willing to buy into what he’s done so far in his young pro career as a trend rather than an aberration.
Ryan Stimson has been doing immensely valuable work in the field of labelling and quantifying player types by putting concrete data to ideas we’ve considered intuitive for years. Putting those ideas into practice by optimizing line combinations based on individual skillsets, it feels like Meier was created in a lab to get a chance to play next to someone with Joe Thornton’s historically great passing prowess. Your move, Mr. DeBoer.
ARTTURI LEHKONEN, MONTREAL CANADIENS
This one feels like it’s cheating a bit because he already sneakily had 20 goals in 79 combined regular season and playoff games as a 21-year old last year, but it feels like even that only scratched the surface on what he’s potentially capable of.
Last season Lehkonen was one of only 39 players to score more than one goal per every hour of 5-on-5 action, tying him with the likes of Patrick Kane, David Pastrnak and Rick Nash. With additional opportunity, particularly on the power play where his shot and proclivity for hanging around the net seems like a natural fit, the raw totals should rise even more.
Jonathan Drouin has stolen most of the headlines and buzz in Montreal this summer, but Lehkonen may very well wind up being the young Canadiens forward worth monitoring most in 2017-18.
OLIVER BJORKSTRAND, COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
|League||Games Played||Goals||Goals/82 Games|
Regardless of where he plays, all Bjorkstrand does is score goals at a high rate. While we still don’t really know exactly what he’ll be in the NHL, this is purely a bet on talent winning out over time, and the trend of him being a dominant goal scorer throughout his young career carrying over to the NHL as well.
This is especially true if he ever gets to nuzzle up on the wing next to Alexander Wennberg, who is quickly establishing himself as one of the league’s most prolific passers.
THE RITCHIE BROTHERS (NICK AND BRETT)
|Player||Shots/Hour||Chances/Hour||High Danger Attempts/Hour|
(League ranks for the 2016-17, all stats are during 5-on-5 play and via Natural Stat Trick)
It’s common for brothers to inherit certain looks or other personality traits that have been passed down through their genes. In the Ritchie family, that shared quality was evidently the ability to get in tight and shoot the puck from prime scoring areas as frequently as possible.
While I’ve been a believer in Brett for a while dating back to his impressive AHL days, I’ve been slower to come around on Nick. If it felt like he was being overrated as a prospect at the time of his draft because of his size and place of birth, those concerns have slowly washed away as he’s proven that above all else he can also legitimately play.
Jordan Weal, Philadelphia Flyers – I’m slightly wary of heaping too much praise on him because he’s already 25 years old and was ninth in the league in shooting percentage at 5-on-5 with an unsustainably high rate well north of 18 per cent. But he’s also a player who profiles similarly to Marchessault in that he was outstanding through Major Junior before spending four years cutting his teeth as a point-per-game player in the AHL. He drew a ton of interest around the league this summer during his free agency tour before ultimately circling back to the Flyers, so I’m curious to see if there’s something there or if the productive 23-game run he had at the end of 2016-17 was just a throwaway at the end of a lost season in Philadelphia.
Andre Burakovsky, Washington Capitals – My thoughts and love for Burakovsky are already well-documented, but I couldn’t help myself here. It looks like he’ll play next to Nicklas Backstrom to start the year as Washington attempts to spread the wealth and become harder to load up against. Regardless of where he slots into the lineup, Burakovsky’s talent is undeniable and I’m a firm believer the Capitals will wind up immensely regretting their decision to forego locking him up long-term in favour of a bridge contract this summer.
Kevin Fiala, Nashville Predators – Read: Burakovsky, Andre. They accomplish it in different ways, but I’ve already said my piece. Now it’s just a matter of sitting back, eating some popcorn, and enjoying the ride.
Ondrej Kase, Anaheim – This is admittedly more of an anecdotal hunch than anything else, but every time I watched the Ducks play last season Kase stood out as one of those unique players who always seems to be around the action in the right place at the right time. He was excellent in his brief stint down in the AHL last year, and despite not putting up notable offensive numbers in Anaheim, the team’s underlying numbers at five-on-five with him on the ice was stellar. Just a sneaky under-the-radar name to keep in mind moving forward.
Since I know there will be questions about this, let’s address it preemptively here: I’ve intentionally tried to go off the map a bit with this list, focusing on players who hopefully aren’t completely obvious candidates to explode this season. Which is to say that I’m a big fan of guys like Clayton Keller, Tyson Jost, Matt Barzal, and [Insert Your Favourite Team’s Top Prospect], but everyone already knows about them so where’s the fun in that?