Two sentences on 15 potential NHL breakout candidates in 2021

Sportsnet Hockey analyst Brian Burke weighs on the NHL's new North Division on Tim and Sid, discussing which Canadian franchises will make the postseason and which teams will come up short.

If I may comically understate it, the year 2020 hasn’t exactly been laden with great news. We’re basically a plague of locusts away from labelling this thing a disaster of biblical proportions. But because it’s all burned down the NHL season appears to be making like the Phoenix and rising from the smouldering ashes, bringing with it the first hints of positive news.

The year 2021 is bringing us hockey, and hockey with some fun twists.

There will be the much-hyped Canadian Division (“much-hyped” in Canada anyway), and there will be a re-seeding of the divisions in the playoffs once divisional champions have been crowned. The latter part means a team like the Bruins could make the Cup Final and draw … the Leafs, or the Habs, or the Lightning, competitive rivals that used to be divisional foes.

There are new storylines ahead, and many of those will be written not just by the player names you already know, but by the up-and-coming names ready to break through to their own measure of stardom. Pre-season is a great time to shape expectations, and with the names below, lemme tell ya, I’ve got a lot.

I’ll include a whole mittful of names that could be breakout players in 2021, followed by those I’m most confident will take that step. And to be clear, I’m aware that “breakout” is subjective, so the goal here is kinda like buying stocks – you can expect upticks from the below players, however you value their current status.

The three groups will be the “maybes” first, the “didn’t they already break outs?,” then my top-five. Because there’s a lot of names, every player gets a whopping two sentences.

[snippet id=3816507]

The 5 Maybes

Filip Zadina, age 21, Detroit: He’s proven he can score basically everywhere, and though he’s played less than 40 NHL games, he’s already averaging about a goal for every four outings so far – a pretty nice pace. Detroit is dying for some offence, so he should be given chances to produce, which put together is a recipe for meaningful totals.

Kirby Dach, age 19 (20 in January), Chicago: I see a guy poised to become an extremely valuable NHLer walking into some favourable conditions. He’s gaining valuable experience captaining Team Canada at the World Juniors, he’ll likely play with Patrick Kane this year, and he’ll likely get real PP time in a division with a few weaker opponents.

Sam Steel, age 22, Anaheim: This is a guy who put up 338 points over 258 WHL games (including a 50-goal, 131-point season), who put up 20 goals in 53 AHL games, and who’s been stuck on a pretty bad Anaheim team. His numbers last season reflected the last part there (22 points in 65 games), but a lot of that season was played nearly a year ago – a year of growth and more opportunity in a soft division, and I don’t think doubling that point-per-game output or more is out of the question.

Ilya Samsonov, age 23, Washington: With Henrik Lundqvist retiring, the stage is set for Samsonov, who pitched a .913 in the NHL last season while winning 16 of his 22 decisions. The Capitals are legit as always, which puts him in a position to be a big success or failure, and everything about his career to date suggests it’ll be the former.

Ilya Sorokin, age 25, NY Islanders: Here’s the thing with Sorokin: his numbers from the KHL are comically good, cartoonishly good, and he’s won just about every trophy there is to win over there. He’s going to play behind one of the NHL’s best teams at preventing goals, so if he’s even close to what the team expects, he could be poised for a big season.

Corey Hirsch:'I think Demko is ready to breakout.. I expect him to have a fantastic year'
December 16 2020

The 5 “didn’t they break out already” breakouts

Victor Olofsson, age 25, Buffalo: Olofsson was second in goals among rookies last year with 20, and made himself a staple on the power play. And now, there’s at least a chance he could flip to the other wing and play with Jack Eichel and Taylor Hall with another nine months of development behind him – it seems like that would be good?

Andrei Svechnikov, age 20, Carolina: This one feels like the stupidest name to put on the list, because the kid is 20 and scored 61 points in 68 games last season, but basically the bet here is that his ceiling isn’t like, one point per game, but well above that. You have the chutzpah to bet against him?

Charlie McAvoy, age 23 (as of Dec. 21st), Boston: It seems like he’s been around forever, but the kid just turned 23 on Monday, and he had 32 points last season for a team that just lost offensive minutes-eater Torey Krug. He’s gonna get all the PP time and all the minutes on a still-quite-good Bruins team.

Denis Gurianov, age 23, Dallas: Who among us doesn’t know the following old saying by heart: “If you score 20 goals at age 22 for a team that struggles to score goals, when you turn 23, they’re going to give you a lot more opportunity to score goals.”

Kevin Fiala, age 24, Minnesota: There’s a strong case to be made that the breakout for Fiala happened last year, scoring 54 points in 64 games for the Wild. I guess this bet is that this is a player who’s legitimately found “it” at the NHL level and I think he sustains last season’s step from “maybe he’ll be good one day” to “legitimately really good” over a larger sample.

[snippet id=4167285]

The 5 breakout candidates

Adam Fox, age 22, NY Rangers: This is a guy who’s put up gaudy stats from the back-end basically everywhere he’s been, including 42 in 70 games as a rookie for the Rangers. But last year he was only fourth among Rangers D in time-on-ice per game, and I’m guessing the chance to move well north of 18:54 a night (and all that comes with that on a good offensive team) leads to even bigger numbers still.

Igor Shesterkin, age 24, NY Rangers: I don’t claim to know everything about goaltending, but I’m pretty comfortable forecasting this guy as the real deal. I’m basing that on a combination of the eyeball test and oh, roughly every stat he’s ever put up – playing more than 12 games at the NHL level is the only thing that will qualify it as a “breakout.”

Robert Thomas, age 21, St. Louis: Thomas is a visibly talented creator who seems to me to be a guy who, once he’s physically at the level of his opponents, should be able to do what he wants to do. He got warm to the NHL in his first year, he looked more able and dangerous in his second year, and he’s one of the few offensive threats on a team that needs them, meaning something approaching a point-per-game isn’t out of the question.

Kailer Yamamoto, age 22, Edmonton: This is less about his numbers last season (nearly a point per game but in a small sample) and more about the combination of his ability and the opportunity about to be handed to him. He’ll inevitably be playing with some of the game’s best offensive creators, he’s a little older and stronger now, and so combined with his offensive mind and creating abilities, I see some numbers in his future.

Nick Suzuki, age 21, Montreal: Man, Montreal Canadiens fans had to be pleased watching the strides Suzuki made between the March pause and those playoffs just months later in 2020. He put up huge numbers in junior, but only scored 13 times in 71 games for the Habs last regular season, a total which I feel EXTREMELY confident he’ll blow by (could he come close to doubling?) even in just a 56-game season.


When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.