NHL Players Who Could Break out in 2016-17

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistMarch 21, 2016

NHL Players Who Could Break out in 2016-17

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    The NHL's top teams are preparing for their respective playoff pushes as the 2015-16 regular season enters its final weeks.

    For clubs that won't reach the postseason, talent evaluations have already begun in earnest for next year's rosters. On playoff teams, young players will have the opportunity to use the bright spotlight to try to continue to build their professional reputations.

    It will be many months before we can see who steps forward as a breakout star in the NHL's 2016-17 season.

    The players on this list are all under 25; some are already quite well-established at the NHL level while others are still finding their way. The qualities they share are that their play has trended in a positive direction this year and they have the potential to take a giant step forward next season.

    Players are listed alphabetically. Who else do you expect will break out next year?

Question Marks

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    These two young players have plenty of promise, but for different reasons, the evolution of their careers next season may not be as smooth as those of some of their counterparts.

    Jonathan Drouin: Tampa Bay Lightning

    After demanding a trade earlier in the season, 2013's third overall pick Jonathan Drouin has returned to the AHL's Syracuse Crunch and is on better terms with Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman.

    If a favorable trade could be worked out for Drouin, he has the potential to take a big step forward next season, much like Tyler Seguin did when he joined the Dallas Stars from the Boston Bruins as a 21-year-old in 2013.

    With six goals and 40 points in 89 NHL games to date, Drouin's resume doesn't stand up to Seguin's 121 points in 203 regular-season NHL games with Boston, but a change of scenery could be the first step toward realizing the potential that saw him named CHL Player of the Year in 2012-13.

    Shayne Gostisbehere: Philadelphia Flyers

    There's no doubt Shayne Gostibehere has had a huge positive impact on the Philadelphia Flyers since being called up from the AHL's Lehigh Valley Phantoms in mid-November.

    But after quickly becoming the Flyers' top-scoring defensemen and climbing to fifth place in rookie scoring, Ghost is surely pretty close to emptying his bag of tricks?

    In the best-case scenario, he'll keep delivering next season. But after such an effective debut, a player such as Gostisbehere could be setting himself up for the dreaded sophomore slump in 2016-17.

Charlie Coyle, Minnesota Wild

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    Age: 24

    2015-16 Stats: 73 GP, 21-18-39

    Why He'll Break Out Next Season

    Drafted 28th overall in 2010, Charlie Coyle barely makes the age requirement for this list. But he deserves recognition for his evolution as a goal-scoring power forward this season and is showing promise that his game will continue to develop going forward.

    Coyle was still in college when the San Jose Sharks included him as part of their trade package to acquire Brent Burns during the summer of 2011. The 6'3", 218-pound Massachusetts native didn't become a full-time NHL player until the 2013-14 season, and it has taken him three years to put his game together.

    On a Minnesota Wild team that always seems to be starved for offense, Coyle leads the way with 21 goals this season and has also hit a new career high with 39 points. He's using his big body to drive to the net while also showing silky-soft hands, such as when he scored the crucial shootout-winning goal over the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday to help keep his team's playoff hopes alive.

    Expect to see Coyle jump into the ranks of the game's top power forwards in 2016-17.

Anthony Duclair, Arizona Coyotes

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    Age: 20

    2015-16 Stats: 71 GP, 17-30-37

    Why He'll Break Out Next Season

    The Arizona Coyotes' rebuilding plan got a kick-start in 2015-16 thanks to a quicker-than-expected return on investment on prize rookies Anthony Duclair and Max Domi.

    After starring on Team Canada's gold medal-winning squad at the 2015 World Junior Championship, the pair showed enough offensive flair to jump straight into the Coyotes lineup this year. With 17 goals each, they have ranked among their team's top scorers, but both players have cooled off in March as Arizona has fallen out of playoff contention.

    With a full year of NHL experience under their belts, expect to see both players come back even stronger next season. Duclair gets the nod here because, as a third-rounder compared to Domi's status as the 12th overall pick from 2013, his progress has been a little more of a pleasant surprise.

Robby Fabbri, St. Louis Blues

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    Age: 20

    2015-16 Stats: 67 GP, 16-19-35

    Why He'll Break Out Next Season

    He's not as high-profile as fellow 2014 first-rounders such as Aaron Ekblad, Dylan Larkin and David Pastrnak, but St. Louis Blues forward Robby Fabbri has quietly put together a solid rookie season. His 16 goals tie him with Gostisbehere for seventh among all first-year players, and unlike many of his fellow greenhorns, he's improved as the year has worn on.

    Fabbri has picked up 17 of his 35 points since Feb. 1, including nine points in his last nine games, adding youthful exuberance to the Blues' second line alongside Paul Stastny and Troy Brouwer. If that trio stays hot, it could go a long way toward helping to snap the Blues' three-year streak of first-round playoff exits.

    In turn, that would set the table nicely for Fabbri to take another step forward in 2016-17.

Alex Galchenyuk, Montreal Canadiens

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    Age: 22

    2015-16 Stats: 73 GP, 26-22-48

    Why He'll Break Out Next Season 

    Chosen third overall by the Montreal Canadiens in 2012, Alex Galchenyuk already has 265 games of NHL experience on his resume over four seasons.

    His play continues to improve each year as he matures and his two-way game develops, and he's already at a career-high 26 goals this season—leading the Montreal Canadiens with nine games left on the team's schedule.

    In a down year for most of his teammates, Galchenyuk's progress this season has been impressive. He is showing he can handle increased ice time and more responsibility, which should see him settled comfortably into the role as one of the team's top centers straight out of training camp next season.

Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

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    Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 19

    2015-16 Stats: 37 GP, 14-25-39

    Why He'll Break Out Next Season 

    The McSavior didn't instantly turn around the fortunes of the Edmonton Oilers, but he has been terrific when he has been in the lineup, especially for a player straight out of the draft.

    Connor McDavid missed 37 games this season after breaking his left clavicle in early November, but his 1.05 points per game when he has been in the lineup comfortably leads all rookies—and ranks him fourth in the entire NHL behind Patrick Kane, Jamie Benn and Sidney Crosby.

    If McDavid stays healthy next season, expect to see his name among the contenders for the 2017 Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's leading scorer.

Valeri Nichushkin, Dallas Stars

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    Age: 21

    2015-16 Stats: 70 GP, 9-18-27

    Why He'll Break Out Next Season

    In three seasons since he was drafted 10th overall by the Dallas Stars in 2013, the career development path of Valeri Nichushkin has been jagged. He has shown enough flashes of potential to tease that he could be something special once he puts it all together.

    No less an authority than Jaromir Jagr suggested in Nichushkin's rookie season that, "Maybe it was his best [three] games I watched, but I said, ‘This guy is going to be the best in the world one day,’" according to Tom Gulitti of the Record. With good mobility for his size and his ability to use his 6'4" frame to shield the puck from defenders, Nichshuskin's style when he's on his game echoes that of Jagr.

    Nichushkin got a taste of playoff action in his rookie season, when the Stars bowed out to the Anaheim Ducks in a hard-fought six-game series. This spring, he'll get a chance to be an impact player when a better-balanced Stars team returns to the postseason, setting the stage for a permanent spot in Dallas' top six next year.

Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Age: 22

    2015-16 Stats: 71 GP, 8-23-31

    Why He'll Break Out Next Season

    During a season when not much has gone right in Toronto, one bright spot for the Maple Leafs has been the emergence of Morgan Rielly as an anchor on the blue line.

    A steady presence with a well-rounded game, the fifth overall pick from 2012 has won the trust of coach Mike Babcock. Rielly's progression is part of the reason why the Leafs were able to trade their former captain Dion Phaneuf to the Ottawa Senators in early February.

    Rielly leads his team in ice time at 23:01 per game—an average that has been increasing as he has taken on more responsibility since Phaneuf's departure. On March 13, Rielly reached a new career high with 31:14 of playing time in the Leafs' 1-0 win over the Detroit Red Wings.

    Next season, Rielly will start the year on the top pairing of a Leafs squad that should be better after a year in transition. He's on his way to becoming one of the top blueliners in the game.

Rasmus Ristolainen, Buffalo Sabres

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    Age: 21

    2015-16 Stats: 73 GP, 9-30-39

    Why He'll Break Out Next Season

    In just his second NHL campaign, the 21-year-old Rasmus Ristolainen has established himself as the future leader on the blue line for a young Buffalo Sabres squad.

    Like Morgan Rielly, Ristolainen leads his team in ice time, averaging 25:15 per game, and he has seen his responsibilities increase as the season has worn on. The offensive side of his game is also progressing nicely; the rangy Finn has jumped from 8-12-20 in his rookie season to 9-30-39 in 73 games so far this year thanks in large part to 20 power-play points.

    The Sabres will be a better team next season as their young core continues to develop. Ristolainen will be a key part of that evolution.

Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Age: 21

    2015-16 Stats: 20 GP, 11-7-0, 2.63 goals-against average, .915 save percentage

    Why He'll Break Out Next Season

    Tampa Bay Lightning starting goaltender Ben Bishop is headed for unrestricted free agency at the end of the 2016-17 season, per General Fanager. At that time, he'll be 30 years old and most likely looking for a raise on his current contract, which carries a cap hit of $5.9 million per season.

    With Victor Hedman also scheduled to become a UFA and new contracts also required in 2017 for restricted free agents such as Tyler Johnson and Cedric Paquette, GM Yzerman would do well to hand more responsibility to his young backup goaltender, Andrei Vasilevskiy, next season.

    Still just 21, Vasilevskiy has a strong pedigree and has shown flashes of greatness in his limited NHL career to date. If he can stay healthy and dial in some consistency next season, he could fast-track himself to becoming the Lightning's new starter—keeping the goaltending at a high level while helping to rid the team of a bulky contract.

    All stats courtesy of NHL.com, current through games complete Sunday, March 20.