Fact: By the end of the season, a few barely rated guys will be playing significant roles on contending teams. Here's our list of candidates poised for a breakout.

PLAYERS ARE EITHER ON THEIR WAY UP or on their way down—either rising or in decline. And if a contender is going to try to get over the top during a season, it almost always has to look to a player to raise his game and fill a larger role.

The seven players included on these pages are among those trending up for teams in the league’s elite. They are far from the biggest names on their rosters—casual fans have no trouble picking out Alex Ovechkin and Jamie Benn, but even dedicated ones might not know much about Dmitry Orlov and Mattias Janmark. They range from a heralded rookie who has yet to play a professional game to a 25-year-old on a bridge contract. But all of them have their best hockey ahead of them, and their teams are banking on nothing less.

1 Jonathan Drouin, Tampa Bay Lightning
LW | 5-11 | 188 LB. | AGE 21

Drouin, the third-overall pick in the 2013 draft, grew tired of having to wait his turn with the Tampa Bay Lightning and decided not to report when assigned to the AHL in mid-season last winter. It looked like he’d played his last game with the Bolts and would be moved at the trade deadline, but he remained property of Tampa Bay and, chastened and contrite, returned to the team in March. A good thing for all involved, as it turns out, given Steven Stamkos’s absence from the lineup after being diagnosed with a blood clot. In 17 playoff games last spring, Drouin picked up five goals and nine assists, and was his team’s best player on at least a couple of nights.

Drouin heads into the season with a bit of a head start—he skated with Team North America in the World Cup. With his entry-level contract expiring next spring, he’s motivated and surrounded by talent on a team that is no worse than a co-favourite in the Eastern Conference.

2 Robby Fabbri, St. Louis Blues
C | 5-10 | 180 LB. | AGE 20

Said one NHL pro scout: “Fabbri is just an old-school player. Coming out of junior, he wasn’t the most skilled player in the draft, but he was more skilled than people gave him credit for. Nobody competed harder or smarter, and that all carried over [to the NHL].”

Fabbri was good for a 19-year-old rookie last season (18 goals and 19 assists in 72 games), with ice time opening up on the left side because of injuries that kept wingers Jaden Schwartz and Patrik Berglund on the sidelines for significant periods. Upon Schwartz’s return, Fabbri raised his game, picking up 15 points in 20 playoff games.

With David Backes moving on to Boston, it seems there’s an opportunity at centre. Whether Fabbri’s on the left wing or playing his preferred position in the middle, the Blues are going to bump up his TOI (an average of 13:18 last season).

He's (finally) No. 1
With Frederick Andersen now in Toronto, Gibson will get the Ducks' crease all to himself in 2016–17 for the first time

3 John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks
G | 6-3 | 226 LB. | AGE 23

The trade of Frederik Andersen to the Leafs in the off-season clears the way for Gibson to become the No. 1 for the first time in his career. Before the Ducks selected him out of the USA Hockey under-18 program in the second round of the 2011 draft, Gibson had been overshadowed by and compared unfavourably to Jack Campbell, who was a year ahead of the Pittsburgh native. As a pro, though, Gibson has thrown Campbell, the 10th pick of the 2010 draft, into utter eclipse. Gibson was just 20 when the Ducks put him into four post-season games in the spring of 2014, and his numbers have been impressive at both the AHL and NHL levels (he had a .920 save percentage in 40 games with Anaheim last year).

The old saying holds that a team with two No. 1 goaltenders doesn’t have one at all. The Ducks, a 103-point team that was bumped out in the first round last spring, seem to have come around to that philosophy. And at a cap-friendly $2.3 million per year for the next three seasons, Gibson gives the Ducks payroll flexibility.

“Fabbri is just an old-school player. Coming out of junior, nobody competed harder or smarter, and that all carried over to the NHL.”

4 Alan Quine, New York Islanders
C | 6-0 | 200 LB. | AGE 23

OK, this is not to say that the 23-year-old centre will land on the top two lines in Brooklyn this season. In his NHL career, he’s played all of two regular-season games. Still, he achieved folk-hero status—or at least folk-hero-lite status—when he scored the winning goal in the second period of overtime in game five of the Islanders’ first-round series against Florida. Fans will remember that goal but probably didn’t notice that Quine played a full 10 games for New York in the playoffs. It was cause enough for GM Garth Snow to sign Quine to a two-year, one-way contract—not a big-ticket item at under $700,000 per but a decent-enough reward for patiently putting in three seasons in the AHL and scoring a goal that put the Islanders within a game of advancing. To that point, Quine had looked like a young journeyman in the making—he was originally drafted and left unsigned by Detroit, then re-entered the draft and was picked in the sixth round by the Islanders in 2013. But look at his past two years in Bridgeport and his offensive numbers jump out: 42 goals and 109 points in 131 games. Stats aside, this one is more for the heart than the head, a story worth pulling for.

5 Mattias Janmark, Dallas Stars
C | 6-1 | 195 LB. | AGE 23

Those who know Dallas GM Jim Nill never really believed that Janmark was just a throw-in on a deadline deal that sent Erik Cole to Detroit a couple of years back. Nill had spent years managing the Wings draft war room, and it was under his watch that Detroit drafted Janmark out of AIK in the Swedish Hockey League in the third round in 2013. (Janmark had gone unselected in his first two years of draft eligibility.) In his rookie season with the Stars, with no real apprenticeship in the American Hockey League, the speedy centre stepped directly into the lineup and posted solid numbers in a third-line role: 15 goals and 14 assists with a plus-12 in 73 games. He logged more than 14 minutes a game behind Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza last season and will likely see a bit more ice time this year, trying to lighten the workload of the latter.

6 Dmitry Orlov, Washington Capitals
D | 6-0 | 212 LB. | AGE 25

Orlov went into the World Cup without a contract, and it was a bit of a head-scratcher. He was coming off his entry deal and his best year—eight goals, 21 assists and a plus-8 in 16 minutes of ice time per game. A smooth-skating left-side defenceman with high-level puck skills, the 25-year-old looked like a valuable asset, someone you’d want around long-term. (Factor into the equation that the left side of Washington’s blueline features 36-year-old Brooks Orpik and the likes of Nate Schmidt and Taylor Chorney, and it seemed even more necessary to lock up Orlov.) Despite all that, he managed to get just a one-year deal done with Washington at $2.57 million. He had good and bad moments with Team Russia at the World Cup, but at least he’ll begin the regular season with his game legs under him and motivated to play for his next contract.

Next man up
The Blackhawks' top pick in 2014, Schmaltz could play a big role this year if Toews or Anisimov miss time due to injury

7 Nick Schmaltz, Chicago Blackhawks
C | 6-0 | 177 LB. | AGE 20

The Blackhawks had to pay a heavy price to get out of a payroll crisis in the off-season. Chicago GM Stan Bowman off-loaded the $4-million cap hit of Bryan Bickell, who was a useful forward a few seasons ago but is now in sharp decline. Carolina had room for Bickell, but Bowman had to throw in the flashy Teuvo Teravainen, who, in 2014, at the age of 20, played a prominent role in a Stanley Cup run in his first NHL season.

The Hawks were able to sacrifice the Finn because they’ll have another young forward on an entry-level deal in their lineup this year: 20-year-old Schmaltz, Chicago’s first-round pick in 2014, who led North Dakota to a national championship in 2015–16, putting up 11 goals and 35 assists in 37 games. Jonathan Toews and Artem Anisimov have the top two slots down the middle wrapped up, but Schmaltz would be the Hawks’ choice to step up in the event of injury and spell the veterans during the regular season.

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