While many breakout candidates are circled in red before the NHL season begins, sometimes they still come out of the blue.
At this point in 2021, Mason Marchment was an undrafted 26-year-old winger with 37 games and two goals on his NHL career résumé. But Marchment unlocked something last season with the Florida Panthers, notching four points in his first four games of the campaign and finishing up an injury-shortened season with 47 points in 54 games. Now he’s a 27-year-old member of the Dallas Stars hoping to justify that team’s $18-million investment in him.
By contrast, St. Louis Blues centre Robert Thomas had likely gone a little too high in fantasy drafts as early as 2019. First-round pedigree and a promising rookie season meant a lot of people believed Thomas was on the cusp of hitting it big. He remained perched on the edge a little longer than we expected, though, working through a couple uneven years before establishing himself as a point-per-game guy in his age-22 season last year.
As we speed toward the start of another NHL season, as always, it’s a titillating endeavour to try and figure out which players might become the best version of themselves this year. Certainly there are a few in the Thomas mould; high-ceiling guys who could be ready to make good on their talent. By definition, the surprise guys are a little tougher to spot. But as we compile a list of breakout candidates to keep an eye on, we’ll take a shot at identifying one or two flying well under the radar.
Tim Stützle, Ottawa Senators
The young German finished last season — his sophomore year — with a flourish, netting 31 points in his final 27 outings. Now he’s back, armed with a brand new contract extension and surrounded by a ton of talent in Ottawa’s top-six forward group. The third-overall pick from 2020 is primed to be the point-per-game guy Ottawa believed it was getting when it drafted him.
Alexis Lafrenière, New York Rangers
Speaking of the 2020 draft, the first-overall selection from that event hasn’t exactly wowed audiences through two NHL seasons. Flat as Lafrenière’s early tenure has been, though, there’s still plenty of hope for the winger to find his way. Early in camp, the left-shooting Lafrenière was lining up on the right side with newcomer Vincent Trocheck at centre and points machine Artemi Panarin on the left. If he makes good on some opportunities early in the year, you know the Rangers are going to try and let him run.
Sean Durzi, Los Angeles Kings
Durzi made his NHL debut last year in his age-23 season and demonstrated why the Kings wanted him from Toronto three years ago in the deal that sent Jake Muzzin east. After beginning the year in the AHL, Durzi basically scored at a 35-point pace in the NHL through 64 contests. As a right-shot defenceman with good offensive instincts, he could be one of the pieces that drives this on-the-rise Kings squad.
Spencer Knight, Florida Panthers
This is a pedigree pick. Knight’s rookie season was actually a little disappointing, as the 13th-overall pick from 2019 posted a pedestrian .908 save percentage. That said, Knight just turned 21 in April and everybody looking at him sees a goalie with huge potential — as well as a brand new contract extension signed during camp. We’re also now in Year 4 of the Sergei Bobrovsky tenure in South Florida and while he was better last season than his first two with the Cats, nothing is going to be handed to the veteran at this point — especially with new coach Paul Maurice at the helm following a humiliating four-game sweep by the Tampa Bay Lightning five months ago.
Cole Caufield, Montreal Canadiens
By now, you probably know Caufield’s coaching splits last season: One goal in 30 outings under Dominique Ducharme, then 22 goals in 37 games playing for Martin St. Louis, including a hat trick in the season finale. Will the little guy continue to light it up playing for a man who managed to win an MVP and scoring title at 5-foot-8? Don’t bet against it.
Adam Boqvist, Columbus Blue Jackets
Remember last summer when the Chicago Blackhawks were actually trading away futures to try and be competitive? Wow, does that feel like a hockey lifetime ago. The Hawks sent Boqvist to Columbus in the Seth Jones deal and while vintage Jones-level play might be a reach for the undersized, right-shot D-man, this is an eighth-overall pick (2018) who trades on creating offence. Boqvist ran into some injury troubles to end his debut season in Ohio, but he played at a 35-point pace in 52 games. To date, he’s never skated in more contests than that in a single NHL season, so if the 22-year-old puts it all together this year we could be looking at a leap forward.
Matt Boldy, Minnesota Wild
You could make a case he already busted loose last year, but I just wanted to make sure Boldy’s name gets on a list of guys to watch because he won’t be part of any rookie-of-the-year buzz thanks to the fact he’s Calder Trophy ineligible after playing 47 games last year following a mid-season callup from the AHL. By the way, he netted 15 goals and 39 points in those outings, so even a slight improvement in that scoring clip will make him a 75-point player. Bottom line, Boldy could be a household name by the New Year.
Eric Comrie, Buffalo Sabres
OK, here’s our deep cut. If you know anything about Comrie it’s likely the fact he’s hopped on and off the waiver wire with the same frequency as a kid with a Euro Rail Pass hops on and off trains. But there’s a reason teams — specifically the Winnipeg Jets — kept claiming him. This past summer he got one of those deals — $3.6 million for two years — that even as a non-partial observer, you’re just happy the player received. That money came largely because Comrie — now nine years removed from being a second-round pick in 2013 — posted a .920 save percentage in 19 games for Winnipeg last year. And he certainly wouldn’t be the first goalie to start playing his best hockey at 27 years old. Also, he’s sharing the net with 41-year-old Craig Anderson and, as wonderful as the veteran has been for Buffalo, it obviously behooves the Sabres to give Comrie as much opportunity as possible to prove he can help the organization beyond the length of his current contract.