NHL Power Rankings: Players who made the leap this season

Florida Panthers centre Sam Bennett shoots against the Nashville Predators in the third period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, April 27, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

When it comes to coach speak, few phrases get tossed around more than, “We’re just trying to get better every day.”

Trite as it may seem, there’s a basic truth in there. And, of course, team improvement is a direct result of individuals on that squad upping their game. Look around the league each year and you’ll find a variety of guys trying to get to the next level. Some are attempting to get from good to great, while others are simply working to establish themselves as full-time NHLers.

With a week left in the regular season, our power rankings identify one player from each team who made a leap this year, whether that be from second line to first, or healthy scratch to starter.

1. Florida Panthers (55-15-6)

Sam Bennett was always viewed as a valuable playoff-style player, but the 25-year-old broke through this year — who didn’t on Florida? — and found the net at a 34-goal pace after previously never hitting the 20-goal mark. Honourable mention to Jonathan Huberdeau, who transitioned from fantastic player to potentially winning the scoring race.

2. Colorado Avalanche (55-16-6)

Devon Toews (presently out with an undisclosed injury) looked like a steal from the moment the Avs got him in a swap from the Islanders and Year 2 in Colorado has only solidified that viewpoint. Just six defenceman in the league have a higher points-per-game mark than the 28-year-old (0.89)

3. Toronto Maple Leafs (51-20-6)

Michael Bunting and Jack Campbell have to be co-winners, partially because both guys took extended dips in the second half of the season. Bunting had 26 career NHL games on his resume prior to this season and for all the jokes about the 26-year-old barely qualifying for rookie designation, he was brought in to play with really good players and could finish the season with 70 points. As for the 30-year-old Campbell, he’s basically starting twice as many games as he ever has before and could very conceivably post a save percentage between .915 and .920 when it’s all said and done.

4. New York Rangers (50-21-6)

If Chris Kreider can finish with four goals in his final four contests, he’ll equal Jaromir Jagr’s franchise record of 54 goals. That from a guy who never scored more than 28 previously.

5. St. Louis Blues (46-20-11)

Between Robert Thomas, Jordan Kyrou and Pavel Buchnevich, the Blues could change their name to Team Take The Leap. Thomas has to be the winner, though, as he’s gone crazy in the second half and become one of the most productive players in the league.

6. Carolina Hurricanes (49-20-8)

This is an in-season award for rookie Seth Jarvis. Through 44 contests, Jarvis scored at a 35-point pace. In his past 19 outings, though, he’s been humming along at a 69-point clip as the guy who played much of this year as a teenager finds his NHL sea legs.

7. Minnesota Wild (48-21-7)

Undrafted Frederick Gaudreau had fewer than 100 career NHL games on his resume prior to this season. Today, he’s playing between two scoring whizzes in Kevin Fiala and Matt Boldy on the Wild’s second line. The 28-year-old has already posted 40 points in 70 contests this season, 22 more than his previous entire body of NHL work.

8. Calgary Flames (47-20-10)

You knew somebody was going to have to step up on the blueline when longtime captain Mark Giordano was lost in the expansion draft. Two Swedes — Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington — have done just that. Andersson has more than doubled his previous career high for points and Kylington is playing about five minutes more per night than ever before.

9. Tampa Bay Lightning (46-22-8)

The Bolts lost their entire third line from the past two championship seasons, so they needed some depth guys to find a new gear. Enter Ross Colton, a 25-year-old sophomore and 2016 fourth-rounder who needs just one more goal to hit 20 this season.

10. Washington Capitals (43-23-11)

What the Caps could really use is a goalie to step up, but neither Vitek Vanecek nor Ilya Samsonov have done that in a meaningful way. Washington will have to settle for the growth of defenceman Martin Fehervary, who has played on the top pair with John Carlson as a 22-year-old rookie.

11. Boston Bruins (47-24-5)

Jeremy Swayman showed well in 10 games last year, but it was hard to imagine him playing the bulk of the Bruins games this year. The freshman has had some rough patches, but overall he’s been a crease savior for Boston.

12. Edmonton Oilers (45-26-6)

Evan Bouchard has been highly regarded since the Oilers took him 10th overall four years ago. While his play is predictably uneven for an offence-first young D-man, we’re starting to see projections turn into reality as Bouchard has played all but one contest for Edmonton and put up 40 points already.

13. Pittsburgh Penguins (43-23-11)

Evan Rodrigues may be your winner here by default. The 28-year-old — who’d previously never bagged more than nine goals in a season — has twice that many with a handful of games to go. That said, Rodrigues had a hot start and has hit paydirt just three times in his past 44 outings.

14. Nashville Predators (44-28-5)

It’s not that Juuse Saros wasn’t performing at a high level in past years, it’s just the ask on him has gone to a whole other level. Nashville’s No. 1 could very well play more games than any other tender in the league this year after appearing in no more than 40 contests previously.

15. Vancouver Canucks (38-28-11)

Just when you think J.T. Miller has hit his top gear, the guy just keeps smashing ceilings. He was a fantastic player — basically point-per-game — in his first two years with Vancouver, but this season the ever-improving Yank could get to 100 points.

16. Los Angeles Kings (41-27-10)

L.A. is another squad with a few candidates; first-year King Phillip Danault already has 25 goals, 12 more than his previous best with the Canadiens. After starting the year in the AHL for the third straight season, Sean Durzi came up in late November and the blue-liner has been a mainstay ever since. That said, Adrian Kempe’s 34 tallies put him in a goal-scoring class he never approached during his first four NHL seasons.

17. Dallas Stars (43-29-5)

It might seem odd to give this to a guy who had almost 400 career goals before the season started, but Joe Pavelski has made the leap to “How is this guy somehow getting better?” territory with his play this year and last in Dallas. From the start of the 2020-21 season to today, Pavelski — who turns 38 in July — has 127 points in 133 games for a rate of 0.95 points-per-game. That’s a better clip than he scored at in all but two of his 13 seasons with the San Jose Sharks. This year’s average of 0.99 is his best ever.

18. Vegas Golden Knights (42-31-5)

The Knights really needed some guys to take bigger roles with all the injuries they’ve had and one person who went to another level was 24-year-old Nicolas Roy. The centre could push right up to 40 points with a strong finish after playing at a 25-point clip last year.

19. New York Islanders (35-31-10)

Noah Dobson has been pegged for big things for a while and, as a third-year NHLer, he’s making good on that promise by logging five more minutes a night than last year and putting up 43 points in 74 contests.

20. Winnipeg Jets (35-31-11)

Anyone who’s followed the NHL waiver wire closely in the past number of seasons knows Eric Comrie has crisscrossed the continent looking for a home. This year — after never playing more than three games in a season — he’s appeared in 16 as Connor Hellebuyck’s backup and posted a .914 save percentage.

21. Columbus Blue Jackets (35-36-6)

Big, right-shot D-man Andrew Peeke is playing over 21 minutes per night for the Jackets in his third year with the club.

22. Buffalo Sabres (29-38-11)

Maybe that Ryan O’Reilly trade could yet work out? Tage Thompson is showing us all what the Blues saw in him when they drafted him in the first round eight years ago. The six-foot-7 centre has 36 goals on the season, obliterating his previous career best of eight (!) from last season.

23. Detroit Red Wings (30-37-10)

Can we make sure to get Jakub Vrana a full year with the Wings to see what this guy can do in 82? Since being acquired from the Caps at the 2021 trade deadline, Vrana has 20 goals in 32 games for the Winged Wheel. He missed the bulk of this year recovering from shoulder surgery, but has 12 tallies in 21 contests since hitting the ice on March 8.

24. Ottawa Senators (29-41-7)

Josh Norris looked like a keeper last year when he scored at a 25-goal pace and finished fourth in Calder voting. This season, Norris looks like a No. 1 stud while scoring at a 44-goal rate.

25. Anaheim Ducks (30-34-14)

Troy Terry, 24, could never make his college and AHL production translate to the NHL until he went off this year and popped 36 goals through 71 outings.

26. San Jose Sharks (30-34-12)

At 27, Alexander Barabanov has finally established himself as a full-time NHLer. The former Leaf (who’s dinged up right now) has 37 points in 65 games.

27. Seattle Kraken (26-44-6)

I guess the leap from NCAA to “The Show” was no trouble for Matty Beniers; the second-overall pick from the 2021 NHL Draft and former Michigan Wolverine has registered one point in each of his first four NHL games.

28. New Jersey Devils (27-42-7)

Year 3 has been a coming out party for 2019 first-overall pick Jack Hughes, who’s averaging 1.2 points-per-game in 2022.

29. Chicago Blackhawks (26-40-11)

Maybe the Hawks sold high on their leap guy? Brandon Hagel had 21 goals in 55 games for Chicago when they shipped him to Tampa at the deadline. The 23-year-old has just three in 16 games in his new home.

30. Philadelphia Flyers (23-43-11)

Not much has gone right in Philly this year, but 25-year-old tough guy Zack MacEwen has played 70 games, 15 more than the Prince Edward Islander suited up for in the previous three seasons with Vancouver combined.

31. Montreal Canadiens (20-46-11)

The Alexander Romanov experience can still be a harrowing one, but the exuberant Russian is showing top-four potential in his second year in the league.

32. Arizona Coyotes (22-49-6)

It took a couple years, but Clayton Keller was living up to his big contract this year before a broken leg brought about an early and unfortunate end to a season in which he was nearly registering a point-per-game for an offensively challenged club.

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