Six early NHL breakout candidates to watch in 2018-19

Montreal Canadiens left-winger Charles Hudon (54) celebrates a goal. (Paul Sancya/AP)

If you’re a dedicated fantasy hockey player, you may already be doing your research ahead of next season and trying to pinpoint a few select breakout candidates who you can pick up at great value. If fantasy isn’t your thing, by reading this article in July you are likely a rabid hockey fan trying to figure out who next year’s surprises will be.

We’re here to help.

What we’re looking for are guys who played lower in the lineup last season, but showed something that made a case to take on a greater role in 2018-19.

Rookies won’t appear here, so while the likes of Elias Pettersson or Casey Mittelstadt could come straight to the NHL with breakout years, we’ve already given first-year players their own list.

This is also not a list of bounce-back players (find that one here), so anyone who’s had a strong season and then regressed will not show up here either.

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Ondrej Kase, Anaheim Ducks

At the end of the season Ducks GM Bob Murray talked about the need for his team to get faster next season and do things a bit differently. So if you’re looking for a player internally who might benefit from a potential shift, 22-year-old Ondrej Kase could be it.

He averaged the ninth-most minutes among Ducks forwards last season, but was among the league’s elite in goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5.

PLAYER Goals/60 SH%
Auston Matthews 1.68 18.44
William Karlsson 1.38 20.31
Alex Ovechkin 1.37 12.79
Connor McDavid 1.34 14.56
Nikita Kucherov 1.32 15
Nathan MacKinnon 1.31 11.82
James van Riemsdyk 1.29 12.8
Ondrej Kase 1.28 13.49
Brock Boeser 1.26 15.38
Patrik Laine 1.26 14.47

Considering Kase converted on just 6.5 per cent of his shots in 2016-17 you might think he’s more likely to level off, however in 40 AHL games across two seasons, Kase’s shooting percentage was up over 16, so there might be some level of sustainability here.

And even if we assume his goal rate will drop, there’s also reason to believe his assist totals should come up if he’s promoted in the lineup. While Kase ranked fourth on the Ducks in primary assists per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, he didn’t rank within even the top 10 when looking at secondary assists.

When you put it all together, Kase was producing at a first-line rate and earned a bigger role in next year’s Ducks lineup. The GM has talked about moving in that direction, so the question now is if coach Randy Carlyle will entrust the young player with those minutes on the regular.

DUCKS PLAYER 5on5 Points/60
Ryan Getzlaf 2.52
Rickard Rakell 2.22
Ondrej Kase 2.18
Corey Perry 2.03

Andreas Athanasiou, Detroit Red Wings

There is some speculation that the Red Wings could still trade Athanasiou before the start of next season as their group of forwards gets a little more crowded with the additions of Filip Zadina and Thomas Vanek. His explosive speed makes him exciting to watch and the offensive upside is still there — the question is whether Athanasiou’s defensive game will become strong enough that a coach can comfortably make him a top-six player.

In Athanasiou’s first two NHL seasons, his shooting percentages were 17 and 15, but that dropped to 9.4 in 2017-18 as he registered 16 goals. It’s fair to say that over a full season he should be at least a 20-goal scorer with the possibility for more.

Remember, too, that the 23-year-old missed training camp and the first 10 games in 2017 due to a contract dispute and that often leads to an underwhelming season. Now he’s locked in with a two-year, $6 million deal so should get off to a better start. On top of that, only three of his 33 points came on the power play despite averaging 1:44 PP minutes per game, so there could be an uptick there as well. The crux of Athanasiou’s breakout candidacy is in how much ice time the Red Wings (or an acquiring team) give him.

If his goals come up as expected, can his assists and ice time rise to a level that allows him to have a true breakout?

PLAYER 5on5 Points/60 Average TOI/game
Dylan Larkin 2.27 19:51
Anthony Mantha 1.88 17:18
Andreas Athanasiou 1.81 15:19
Martin Frk 1.69 10:17
Henrik Zetterberg 1.65 19:30
Gustav Nyquist 1.59 17:51

Charles Hudon, Montreal Canadiens

The 24-year-old has been a significant producer at every level, from the QMJHL, to AHL and perhaps now in the NHL. In his final AHL season, Hudon budded into a player who scored a goal nearly every other game, and though that didn’t transition immediately to the NHL, there is every reason to believe Hudon will improve on his 10-goal rookie year.

Hudon operated with a 5.6 shooting percentage in 2017-18, which is extremely low for a player who projects as a goal scorer — in his last two AHL seasons Hudon converted on more than 15 per cent of his shots. He, like many of the Habs, was snake-bitten all season but Hudon showed promise, especially when he got time alongside the likes of Phillip Danault and Max Pacioretty in the top six. While his possession metrics were good even when he played lower in the lineup with Tomas Plekanec, the goals dried up.

At the very least Hudon’s percentages should rise next season because of his raw skill alone. In that sense, he could approach a 20-goal total that would double his rookie output. And if he plays high up in the lineup for a prolonged period, Hudon could see his point total go even higher than 40.

Jakub Vrana, Washington Capitals

The young Stanley Cup champion is having a great summer so far.

On the ice from an individual perspective, next season could go even better for him.

Breaking into the NHL as a full-timer last season, many expected Vrana to burst on to the scene in 2017-18 as a rookie. The 13th overall pick from 2014 scored 13 goals and 27 points so it didn’t really come to fruition, but there’s reason to believe he could take that step in Year 2.

First off, he’s a quick player, which is a good place to start from these days. Likely because of this, Vrana is great at creating high-danger chances, a skill that was on full display in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but had been evident most of the season.

According to Natural Stat Trick, Vrana ranked up among the best Capitals in shots off the rush per 60, individual high-danger chances per 60 and team high-danger chances when he’s on the ice per 60. His 12:30 of ice time per game was on par with a third-liner and he did go long stretches without scoring this past season. But his role is likely to rise after a strong playoff showing, so if he can continue wreaking havoc with speed, more goals and assists should come.

PLAYER iHDCF/60 HDCF/60 (team chances) Rush attempts/60
Jakub Vrana 4.98 12.2 0.7
Alex Ovechkin 4.61 12.31 0.64
Evgeny Kuznetsov 3.18 12.41 0.53
Lars Eller 3.37 9.67 0.64
Tom Wilson 3.62 11.52 0.28

Oliver Bjorkstrand, Columbus Blue Jackets

Too many Columbus players had down years in 2017-18 for them to take the division, but that could change next season. The whole team is bound to bounce back with better years from Cam Atkinson and Alexander Wennberg, season-long production from Pierre-Luc Dubois — and perhaps a breakout from Bjorkstrand.

A third-round pick in 2013, Bjorkstrand exceeded 100 points in the WHL both seasons after his draft year and then scored 10 goals in his first 38 NHL games that were spread across two seasons. But last season his shooting percentage dipped all the way to 6.7 on 163 shots and he struggled to earn a more substantial role in coach John Tortorella’s lineup, averaging 14:18 minutes per game.

It’s reasonable to expect Bjorkstrand’s shooting percentage to rise back to 10 or above and Tortorella has spoken highly of the player in the past. The things the coach says about Bjorkstrand having to develop his two-way game are common refrains when talking about young players, so as Tortorella becomes more comfortable with the budding Bjorkstrand you can see a path to more ice time.

“He’s a goal-scorer, he’s got a big-league shot. But he’s got to learn the other part of the game, too,” Tortorella said in November.

There’s been some question whether Bjorkstrand can come along as a scorer on a similar trajectory as Cam Atkinson — including this breakdown — another late-round pick who became a fixture in the top-six.

Bjorkstrand is now under contract for another three years and could possibly take that next step in 2018-19.

Vinnie Hinostroza, Arizona Coyotes

The Blackhawks elected to shed Marian Hossa’s contract, possibly to free up enough room to chase a veteran scorer such as Jeff Skinner in trade, but it may have cost them a breakout star in 2018-19.

Hinostroza averaged 13:49 of ice time per game for the Blackhawks last season, which ranked eighth among their forwards. He earned some power-play time in there, but got only five points on the man advantage, so nearly every positive sign he showed came at even strength.

First off, if Hinostroza breaks out he’ll likely need at least one goal-scoring linemate because he’s a playmaker first and foremost. But he did still manage seven goals on a wholly sustainable 8.1 shooting percentage in 50 games. Playing a full season will boost that total.

But his playmaking is what will turn your head. Hinostroza was 25th NHL-wide in primary assists per 60 minutes, which led the Blackhawks, and kept great company in the stat.

PLAYER Primary Assists/60
Nico Hischier 1.02
Sean Couturier 1.02
Jakub Voracek 1
Vinnie Hinostroza 0.99
David Krejci 0.98
Alexander Radulov 0.98
Sebastian Aho 0.97

With 25 points in 50 games, Hinostroza has good per-game numbers already but could fly under the radar due to his lack of games played. His 1.99 points/60 minutes played ranks around the likes of Nicklas Backstrom, Patrik Laine and Matt Duchene in the NHL.

If Hinostroza gets put on a line with Alex Galchenyuk, a one-time 30-goal scorer with the potential to bounce back to that level, we could see big things.

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