10 Breakout NHL Players for the 2017/2018 Season
By: Nate Lewis
10) Mikko Rantanen – RW, Colorado Avalanche
Rantanen was the 10th overall pick of the woeful Colorado Avalanche in 2015. He played a full season for the Ave’s last year, a team with the worst point percentage total in the shootout era (ie. post-2004). Rantanen posted a respectable 39 points in 75 games, a rare bright spot in Colorado’s season, finishing tied for 3rd in team scoring. Colorado are not as bad as they played last year and will undoubtedly rebound as Jared Bednar resets from his dreadful first year as head coach. The trade rumours around both Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog have been pernicious, but regardless of whether they’re traded, Colorado has some major assets to play with. Rantanen could begin the season outside of the Avalanche’s top-six, but if he continues his strong play, there is no reason he wouldn’t get time with the likes of Duchene, Landeskog, and Nathan McKinnon on the power play and top two lines.
9) Brayden Point – C, Tampa Bay Lightning
The former captain of Canada's 2015-2016 WJC team earned a spot on the Lightning's talent laden roster last season. Point potted 18 goals to go along with 22 assists in just 68 games in his first pro season, playing alongside Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov, and occasionally Alex Killorn. Tampa Bay will continue to put Point in quality situations with their other top players, the number two centre position behind Steven Stamkos and some second unit power-play time. Point is undersized at 5’11”, 165 pounds so a full offseason could go a long way in adding a bit of weight and strength for the 19 year-old. Point will likely play with a combination of Palat, Killorn, and Tyler Johnson, that is if Jon Cooper sticks to his preseason lines and keeps Stamkos and Kucherov together. Look for Point to continue his rugged two-way game and have an offensive uptick to around 50 points.
8) Markus Granlund – C, Vancouver Canucks
Granlund is coming off a season in which he scored a career-high 19 goals and 32 points while missing 13 games with a wrist injury. This was also on a Canuck offense that finished the season ranked 29th in scoring. If Granlund can stay healthy, continue to see looks with the Sedins, and get time on the second unit powerplay (as he did in the second half of last season), he can be a 20 goal, 40 point player or better. It remains to be seen if Granlund can earn new coach Travis Green’s trust in same way he had ensconced himself in Willie Desjardins’ good graces. However, given his grinding style and knack for timely goals, it isn’t hard to imagine Granlund being inserted as a spark plug up and down the Canucks' lineup, taking over the role from the departed and much-beloved Jannik Hansen. This is exactly what he did after Hansen was traded at the deadline last year and he should continue to do so on a Canucks team who have the potential to be more offensively exciting this season.
7) Josh Manson – D, Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks did some serious dealing with the Vegas Golden Knights around the expansion draft to protect their cornucopia of up and coming defensive talent. Though they did end up losing promising defenseman Shea Theodore to the Knights, they still have a young core that includes Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen, and Hampus Lindholm. The 4th corner of this vaunted square of the Ducks foundation is Josh Manson. Drafted in the 6th round in 2011, Manson is entering his 3rd full season with the Ducks and has propelled himself into Anahiem’s top pairing. Manson plays a rugged, physical game, making the most of his 6’3”, 215 lbs frame by delivering punishing hits. Manson’s feisty streak resulted in 82 PIM’s last season, good for third on the Ducks. Expect Manson to see a lot of work to start the season with both Lindholm and Vatanen out for at least the first month. Given their absence, Manson could see some 2nd unit power play time to start the year. Manson is highly unlikely to put up large numbers (32 points total in the last two seasons), particularly when his offensively inclined counterparts return to the lineup, but look for him to be a physical and stabilizing force on one of the best d-corps in the league.
6) Dylan Strome – C, Arizona Coyotes
Strome was drafted by Arizona 3rd overall in 2015, and is poised to take his position in the ‘Yotes top-6. Strome will likely be sheltered in his first full season on the second line behind veteran centre Derek Stepan. Strome has put up mammoth numbers for the OHL’s Erie Otters, racking up 186 points in 91 games, good for an average of 2.08 points per game. Granted, Major Junior is at a lower competitive level than someone playing in the AHL but these are still massive numbers. Playing for the same team from 2013 to 2015, Connor McDavid put up 219 points in 103 games, only .05 higher PPG than Strome at 2.13. Along with Strome, Arizona’s prospect cupboard overflows with other blue-chip prospects such as Max Domi, Christian Dvorak, and Clayton Keller who offer a glimpse of better times for the Coyotes franchise. The Coyotes are still sub-par, but Strome and company should inject some dynamic energy and production into their lineup, and could eventually turn them into a contender.
5) Rasmus Ristolainen – D, Buffalo Sabres
Since being drafted 8th overall by the Sabres in 2014, Ristolainen has consistently improved his point totals (20 in 2014-15 to 45 in 2016-17) and plus minus (-32 in 2014-15 to -9 in 2016-17). He’s done this while playing on a below average Sabres team, who have increasingly relied on him to munch top pair minutes and quarterback last year’s #1 overall power play unit. Despite having the best power play in the league, the Sabres really struggled to find the back of the net in 2016-17, finishing 5th lowest in goals scored. Look for Ristolainen's assist totals to continue to rise from the 39 he posted last season as the young, talented forward group around him continues to improve, and he keeps being put in positions to succeed.
4) William Nylander – RW, Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Mathews. Morgan Reilly. Mitch Marner. These are the Maple Leaf's top-10 picks who have relieved long-suffering fans and shown the legitimate potential to end their 50-year cup drought. William Nylander is another often mentioned Leafs top 10 pick who, alongside Auston Mathews, established his credibility as a top line player, amassing 61 points in 81 games last season. Look for Nylander to continue to trend upward, both in offensive production and in ice-time. Going into training camp he’s penciled in to play on the top line with Mathews and the newly acquired, deadly consistent veteran Patrick Marleau, as well as on the 1st powerplay unit. Head coach Mike Babcock is not one to give unwarranted opportunities, but if Nylander keeps improving as expected, don’t be surprised to see him step into a central role for the Buds.
3) Sebastian Aho – RW, Carolina Hurricanes
Aho is a very exciting player who first got widespread attention for his heroic performance for Finland in the 2015-16 World Junior Championships. Aho scored 5 goals and 14 points in 7 games, including a goal and an assist in the final, leading the host nation Fins to the gold medal. Aho had a productive first season for the Carolina Hurricanes, with 49 points over a full campaign, in a situation where he needs to create a lot of his own opportunities. Jordan Staal will likely be his pivot on the 2nd line, with Elias Lindholm drawing in on the opposite wing. Playing with Staal gives Aho substantial license to take offensive chances, as well as learning from Staal in the development of his two-way game. Look for Aho to substantially increase his point totals for Carolina this season, continue to see time on the top powerplay, and cement his status as a go-to player for the ‘Canes.
2) Alexander Wennberg – C, Columbus Blue Jackets
Wennberg put up 59 points last year for the formidable Blue Jackets. Newly acquired Artemi Panarin could line up alongside Wennberg on the top line, but there are plenty of other linemates for Torts to try the 22 year-old Swede with. Wennberg found chemistry on the wing last year with Nick Foligno and the departed Brandon Saad. It will be interesting to see if Columbus can build on their wildly successful regular season last year in a division that promises to be formidable again. If Wennberg can find chemistry with the sniper Panarin, the Jackets could expect the fourth year pro to eclipse the 60-point mark for the first time in his career.
1) Leon Draisatl – C/W, Edmonton Oilers
Draisaitl was a sensation in the 2017 playoffs for the Oilers, amassing 16 points over 13 games, and rocketing into the Robin role to McSaviour’s Batman. Draisaitl is certainly profiting on his stellar playoffs last spring, signing a new 8-year, $68 M contract paying him $8.5 M per season. Playing in Edmonton for the foreseeable future, Draisaitl will have the benefit of facing second defensive pairs all season as teams attempt to slow down #97. It may seem like a stretch to call someone who registered 77 points over a full 82 games last year a potential breakout player, but Draisaitl could shatter that number this year. The forecast for the 21 year-old German is sunny, given his continued development, recently acquired contractual stability, and the prospect of playing behind the incumbent best player in the world. He could be one of two 100-point players in Edmonton by this spring.
Just Missed: Josh Morrissey, Jesse Puljajarvi, the Winnipeg Jets
Salary data accessed from CapFriendly.com
Player stats accessed from HockeyDB.com
NHL Standings accessed from NHL.com
2016-17 Power Play Rankings accessed from SportingCharts.com Injury reports access from Rotoworld.com