Before I begin, it should be noted that “breakout” is a bit of a loose term here. This is more of a list of young and exciting players that I like a lot. Some of these players are trying to make the step from talented promising youngster to certified NHL player. Some are trying to prove they can be a consistent point producer in the big leagues. Some are looking to make the jump from “ya, he’s pretty good” to “this guy is fucking unreal.” I was going to review a player from each team, but then I realized that it would take me a day and I have midterms coming up so 12 players are what you get. Disclaimer: This is not in order, just by random. No matter what category the player is in, everyone should keep an eye out for these 12 players this season.
Sam Steel is a player who is part of Anaheim’s new crop of promising youngsters. Anaheim was, to put it simply, just not a good team last season and are in the midst of an on the fly rebuild of sorts. Steel is a playmaking centre who has very high passing skills and a wicked shot when he gets the chance to let it loose. Steel, the last pick in the first round in the 2016 draft, was called up by the Ducks late last season to get some experience and to show what he can do. He performed quite impressively for a guy being called up during an ultra-competitive part of the season leading up to the playoffs, putting up 11 points in 22 games with 6 goals. He also got a hattrick during this time, scoring 3 against the Canucks in late March. Steel had some encouraging analytics and some not so encouraging ones, but his nearly 50 percent mark at the faceoff dot is very promising. Steel started the year on the second line but sustained a lower-body injury in the first game. He missed 4 games but is back now and is looking to solidify himself as a top-six forward for the Ducks. The Ducks are quite loaded through the middle with Getzlaf and Adam Henrique, so Steel should be able to get good matchups every night and just dominate the lower lines of opposing teams. To get 20 goals and 45 points would be an extremely successful season for Steel and I expect he does it.
Victor Olofson/Casey Mittelsdat
This is a bit of a cop-out but look, I couldn’t pick one when both are just this good so Sabres fans (all three of you) it is your lucky day. Let’s start with Olofson, the guy taking the hockey world by storm. Olofson has started out the season red hot with 5 goals and 7 points in 6 games. All 5 goals on the power play, all coming from his wicked shot. Olofson, already 24, spent his last four seasons playing with men in Sweden and the AHL lighting it up everywhere he went. He scored 30 goals and dished out 33 assists in 66 games last year in Rochester before getting called up and finishing the season with the big club. He started the 2019/20 season on the first line with Eichel and Reinhart playing around 18 minutes a game. Safe to say he is taking his opportunity, Olofson’s passing ability has been overlooked too, he has linked up very well with his linemates and stud countrymen D-man Rasmus Dahlin on multiple occasions. There could be some worry about his ability to produce five on five, which is fair but the fact he is scoring goals right now is all that matters. Look for him to hit 25, MAAAYBE 30 goals this year, with Eichel as his centre anything is possible.
Simply put, Casey Mittelstadt’s skill level is through the absolute roof. The 8th overall pick in the 2017 draft, Mittelstadt went on to be the best player in the World Juniors that winter and was subsequently called up to the Sabres late in the season. Coming out of the hockey hotbed that is Minnesota, Mittelstadt has been the most talented player everywhere he went, until the NHL. Mittelstadt made the Sabres out of camp last season and had 25 points in 77 games, but there were flashes of brilliance in his play. He came into this season as the Sabres third-line centre and as their main guy on the second power play. He is only playing 10 minutes a night, but his faceoff percentage is way better than last year (albeit in small sample size) and he looks a lot more driven this year. There is no question the talent is there for Mittelstadt, his success in this league will depend upon his determination, opportunity and end product. A season of 35-40 points would be very promising for the 20-year-old.
I’m not going to lie here, Andersson is one of my favourite young D-man in the show, so if you sense some bias that’s the reason. Rasmus is slotted as the third pair right side defencemen on the Flames depth chart, but he is flying up the ranks and could soon be recognized as their best defencemen on the right side. Andersson’s ice time so far this year has gone up to 18 and a half minutes a night after playing around 16 last year. He was one of the few Flames players who had a good playoff notching 3 points in 5 games. Andersson will hit the 100 game mark soon and I think he is done getting his feet wet; he should become a bonafide top-four defenceman this season. He loves to join the rush and his ability to skate so well allows him to do so, he is by no means a defensive juggernaut, but his hockey sense allows him to be competent in his own end. He does everything a modern D-man should be able to do exceptionally well, whether that be head-manning the puck, finding an open forward via the stretch pass, quarterbacking a power play or getting his point shots through to the net. Expect a big year from Rasmus Andersson.
The Canes have started the season on fire, as has 2017 first-round pick Necas. The centre turned right-winger (for now) has started off his first full season in the NHL with 4 points in 6 games on the third line. The Czech native is a smooth player who loves to pick up the puck in his own end and drive through the neutral zone with speed. He has played with men since he was 17 in the Czech league and is adapting well to the speed of the NHL. A useful weapon on the power play, Necas is very adept at finding the seam to feed to his teammates one-timers in the man advantage and is equally able to finish them off himself. He is a solid forechecker when he wants to be and should be able to move to the centre position when he is ready. A 30 assist, 40 point season may be asking a lot for a guy in his rookie season, but Necas definitely has that ability. Keep an eye out for him.
Now here’s a guy (Chris Collinsworth voice) who is the definition of a late bloomer. Erik Gustafsson was drafted all the way back in 2012 with the 94th pick by Edmonton, the Oilers, notoriously known for keeping and developing their top prospects (not) allowed him to go UNSIGNED. He waited three years and in 2015 he signed an ELC with the Blackhawks. He played 41 games in 15-16, none in 16-17 and then 35 in 17-18. Overall in those two stints with the big club, he had 30 points in 76 games, a decent tally for a young defenceman. The 18-19 season though was when he truly broke out. He finished last year with 17 goals, 60 points while averaging 23 minutes a game. A defenceman with forward like offensive ability, the Swede is a crazy smooth skater and has an absolute bomb from the point as evident by his three game-winners, all one-timers. He is up there as one of the best powerplay QBs in the league
Now onto probably my favourite defensemen in the Western Conference. Sam Girard stands just 5’10 and uses probably the shortest stick I have ever seen, but he is an absolute joy to watch and is becoming one of the most underrated defensemen in the league. I could talk about this guy for hours, Girard is just 21 and yet he is already logging 22 minutes a game so far to start the year and is effective every single second. He is an incredible skater, has that special ability to get pucks through to the net instead of being forced to put it in the corner or shoot it into the forward’s shin pads. Another guy who is a great power-play weapon, his ability to make something out of nothing with his skating and puck-moving ability is ludicrous for a guy his age. Girard is not bad defensively, but he can improve. Being focused on defence before offence is an important mindset for him to have and he needs to work on that. He only put up 27 points last year in a full season and for a guy with his skill set, he should hit at least 40 points this year. This is his breakout season, he got locked up to a 7 year 35-million-dollar contract in the summer and he will prove this year that the Avs got another absolute robbery of a contract.
Roope Hintz was the breakout star of the Stars impressive run to game 7 of the second round last spring. He scored 5 goals and 8 points in 13 games and he has continued his hot form into the start of this season. The big, bulking Finn charts in at 6’3, 215 LBS and he has been the lone bright spot to the Stars season so far with 4 goals and 5 points in 7 games. Hintz is a responsible two-way centre who is surprisingly fast, has a great wrister, underrated passing ability and can throw the body. Hintz is an exciting player and he is a perfect example of what happens when you are patient with your early-round picks. A second-round pick in 2015, Hintz stayed in Finland until the 17-18 season when he played a full AHL year. Last year he started in the AHL, put up a point per game for two months and was subsequently called up. Now he is the second-line centre. A solid 40 point season should be Hintz’s floor this season.
Devon Toews is quickly becoming one of the best defensemen in the Metro Division. Toews got called up to the Isles in late December last season after impressing in the AHL. He put up 18 points in 48 regular-season games, 5 points in 8 playoff games and overall his analytical numbers were off the charts. Toews also showed his ability to run a power play from the point, he has that natural skill of being able to get pucks through traffic to the net for tips and he has a pinpoint one time half slapper. What impressed me most with Toews last year was his play defensively. The fourth-round pick in the 2014 draft is very smart with his stick and has shown his ability to anticipate play as he regularly jumps in front of stretch passes to pick them off and sen his team the other way. He can make crazy stretch passes off his back foot, he never panics, he keeps it simple when he needs to and of course, is a heck of a skater. He has 4 points in his first 6 this year and is playing 20 minutes a night. It is clear the Isles want him to be their top guy and he definitely has shown that he can do it thus far. A 50 point season would be a major step for Toews this year.
Anthony Cirelli wasn’t even drafted to the OHL, now he plays on the first power-play unit on the best team in the NHL with Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman. It has been a long road for the 22-year-old from Etobicoke, he made the Oshawa Generals as a walk-on and impressed the Bolts enough for him to be taken by them in the 3rd round back in 2015. Part of the reason why they took him is due to Cirelli’s work ethic, he is the hardest worker every night for the Lightning but he can score too. 19 goals and 39 points in his first full NHL season last year proved that. Now he is being looked upon by the Lightning to take on a much bigger role, Cirelli has played around 18 minutes a night as the second-line centre and has started off the year well, with 4 points in 6. One area Cirelli can work on is his faceoffs, he has only been 50 percent or better once this year in 6 games. He is an elite penalty killer though, scoring 5 shorties last year. A player with Cirelli’s all-around package should be able to hit 25 goals and 50 points this year on a high scoring team.
Vince Dunn is another one of those modern defensemen with a skillset that just gets you excited to see what they do every night. Dunn put up 24 and then 35 in his first two seasons in the league and should be able to hit the 40 point mark this year. An insanely talented skater, Dunn uses his edgework and speed to evade forecheckers and has the puck-moving ability to then find an open team in stride. Dunn, for now, only plays 17 minutes a night due to how good the Blues D core is, but that means he gets easier matchups and more time and space. He also runs the second power-play unit (a theme amongst these breakout D men) and is really good at getting shots through and letting go of his wicked one-timer. Dunn does have questions about his commitment to defending in his own end and can lose focus at times. But a player of his age and ability going forward is bound to have growing pains, with Alex Pietrangelo looking set to hit the free agency market this summer, Dunn could start to become an even bigger piece of that Blues D core.
The Vegas Golden Knights are just absolutely loaded upfront. So loaded that Cody Glass can’t even get into their top 6. Glass, Vegas’ first-ever draft selection back in 2017, was taken with the 6th pick. He has been waiting and improving for the last two years in juniors putting up 102 points in 64 games in 17-18 and then 69 points (nice) in his first 34 games last year before an injury sidelined him for a while. He came back and was called up for the Knights AHL team’s playoff run, where he put up 15 points in 22 games in his first action in the pros. Everyone was excited to see what Glass would do this year and after making the team out of camp, Glass has started the year on fire. Coach Gerrard Gallant has put his faith in Glass by playing him on the first power-play unit and Glass has shown he deserves to be there putting up 2 PP points in his first 7 games. Overall, Glass has 2 goals and 5 points in 7 and looks really good on that Vegas third line. A good two-way player, Glass is not scared of crashing the net and causing havoc. He has a really good shot and is great at cycling the puck down low. A nightmare for any checking line to have to deal with, I think Glass is a darkhorse for the Calder this year due to just how many goals Vegas scores. A 55 point season is not out of the realm of possibility and a player this talented has a real chance at hitting that marker.