Each season we see a handful of established stars begin to plateau or decline, while on the flip side a new crop of young talent emerges and takes its game to a new level.
Last season in the West, players like Tyler Seguin, Alexander Steen, Mikael Granlund and Tyson Barrie, among others, had breakout campaigns. Those players were impactful on their respective teams, and a new group of difference-makers is sure to emerge in 2014-15.
Here’s a look at one skater from each Western Conference team primed to have a breakout season.
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Valeri Nichushkin. Whether it’s Tyler Seguin on the top line or newly acquired Jason Spezza on the second unit, the young Russian will always be playing alongside a top-flight centre. His ceiling is higher than that of most young players in the league, and as he continues to grow into his six-foot-four frame, he’ll become more and more dangerous. He played a small part in getting the Stars back into the playoffs last season, but in 2014-15 he should be a difference-maker and one who can help the Stars become a viable contender in the West.
Patrick Maroon. Fresh off a three-year contract extension, the 26-year-old was excellent late last season and in the playoffs. Just like faces of the franchise Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, Maroon is a big body who plays physical and can chip in offensively. His combination of size, skill, grit and aggression coincides perfectly with the type of team the Ducks are. When the prototypical power forward shared ice time with Perry and Getzlaf, he made the most of it. If he lands a spot on the top line out of camp, or is saddled up beside Ryan Kesler, he could be in for a monster season.
Sam Gagner. When the London, Ont., native was drafted sixth overall by the Oilers in 2007, the expectation was he would develop into a No. 1 centre. That hasn’t happened yet, but Gagner has the opportunity to do so with his new team. The 24-year-old (he turns 25 on Aug. 10) has proven to be a consistent producer. And with Mike Ribeiro out of the picture, the Coyotes need Gagner to put up points.
Jonas Brodin. After a solid rookie campaign in 2012-13, the big Swede displayed a steady progression last season. Brodin is an intelligent, smooth skater who can chew up big minutes. There’s no reason why his progression would stagnate. Playing alongside Ryan Suter certainly doesn’t hurt his cause for a breakout season.
Tyler Toffoli. At just 22, Toffoli already has one of the best releases in the game and is a 30-goal scorer in the making. He was outstanding playing on a line with Jeff Carter and Tanner Pearson in the spring en route to hoisting the Stanley Cup. If that unit sticks together and builds on what they were able to do in the spring, the trio could become one of the best second lines in hockey.
Jori Lehtera. With Vladimir Sobotka bolting to the KHL to receive a massive salary increase, Lehtera will be relied upon for his solid two-way game. He’s the type of player who can be trusted in any situation, which is something Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock loves. The Olympic bronze medallist has been one of the best players in the KHL since 2010. We’ll soon find out if that will carry over to North America.
Nikita Nikitin. Many questioned the two-year, $9-million contract he was given in June. Yes, that is a steep price for a blueliner who hasn’t exactly proven himself, but if the Russian plays to his potential, fans will quickly forget about his lofty $4.5-million cap hit. He plays his best hockey in five-on-five situations, which is a positive sign for the Oilers since the team had the second worst five-on-five goals for/against ratio in the league last season.
Jacob Trouba. Things could get ugly in Winnipeg this season, but one bright spot should be Trouba. Looking to build off an outstanding rookie season, the 20-year-old has all the makings of a future star.
Joe Colborne. Sean Monahan and Mikael Backlund garner more attention than Colborne in Calgary because they were first-round selections of the Flames. However, Colborne, a first-round pick of the Bruins in 2008, will play a big part in turning Brad Treliving’s team around. By the end of the 2013-14 campaign, Colborne was logging nearly 20 minutes a game and has shown glimpses of becoming a serious threat in the offensive zone.
Nick Bonino. The centre was overshadowed in Anaheim but provided solid secondary scoring. He’ll be expected to at least match the career high 22 goals and 27 assists he put up last season. He might not have the defensive chops that Ryan Kesler brought to the Canucks, but Bonino does have the chance to break through as a clear-cut No. 2 centre.
Matt Nieto. The Long Beach, Calif., native showed last season he has the raw speed and skill to be an impact player. After a strong showing in seven post-season games against the Kings, don’t expect a sophomore slump from the winger.
Colin Wilson. The same way Craig Smith had a breakout performance last season, Wilson will need to step up. The Predators have a solid defensive corps and one of the best goalies in the league in Pekka Rinne (when he’s healthy), but they lack stars up front. With Mike Fisher out with an Achilles injury and question marks surrounding Mike Ribeiro and Derek Roy, Wilson can establish himself a go-to guy down the middle.
Nick Holden. The undrafted blueliner burst onto the scene and was a pleasant surprise in the remarkable Avalanche turnaround. He will look to prove he’s not a one-season wonder and raise his game just like teammate Tyson Barrie did last season.
Jeremy Morin. The young winger closed out the 2013-14 regular season with seven points in his final seven games and can be a catalyst for energy in a bottom-six role on the Central Division contender.