Ranking the Top Breakout Players of the 2014-15 NHL Season So Far

Allan Mitchell@@Lowetide_Featured ColumnistJanuary 17, 2015

Ranking the Top Breakout Players of the 2014-15 NHL Season So Far

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    Karl B DeBlaker/Associated Press

    NHL teams structure their rosters each summer based on established levels of ability, but every year, there are players who miss the mark. The negatives often outnumber the positives, but in a few cases, a team can move up the standings because specific players wildly exceed expectations.

    Some of these players are in new cities, while others are productive in new situations. All of the players on this list are on their way to massive paydays if they continue their current pace.

    Here are the top breakout players in the NHL this season and what their futures look like.

9. Braden Holtby, G, Washington Capitals

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    Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press

    What Was His Established Level Of Ability? Braden Holtby is still trending upward as a player. He was a fourth-round pick in 2008 and took a goalie's time to develop—meaning it took awhile. He first played in the NHL in 2010-11 and played more in 2012-13. Last season, he played in more than half the games, winning 23 contests. 

    What Stands Out From This Season? Halfway through the year, Holtby is playing a lot and having a major impact. He is among the NHL's leaders in save percentage and wins

    Can He Sustain It? Holtby's career path is fairly typical, and he should be able to play at a high level through the rest of this decade. Goalies are the least predictable hockey players, but Holtby's numbers suggest he can play at this level consistently.

8. Johnny Gaudreau, LW, Calgary Flames

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    Gerry Thomas/Getty Images

    What Was His Established Level Of Ability? Johnny Gaudreau was an impact NCAA player for Boston College, and his final season there is one of the best of all time. 

    What Stands Out From This Season? The expectations for Gaudreau were high, but few predicted such an immediate impact. He is currently No. 2 in the NHL's rookie scoring race and could win the Calder Trophy.

    Can He Sustain It? Gaudreau is a good bet to sustain a high level of offense if he can stay healthy and withstand the rigors of a long season. He's an older rookie—he'll turn 22 in August—and his quick adjustment to the NHL suggests he's going to handle this level even better as he ages.

7. John Carlson, D, Washington Capitals

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    What Was His Established Level Of Ability? John Carlson was a first-round pick in 2008 and has established himself as a solid young two-way defender in the NHL. He played over 300 NHL games before the start of this season. 

    What Stands Out From This Season? Carlson is flourishing in Washington this year. He is among the top scoring defenders in the NHL and is especially effective at even-strength scoring.

    Can He Sustain It? Carlson is at the point in his career where the difficult lessons of playing defense have been learned, and the consistency is there. If he avoids injury, the Capitals should have an outstanding player for many years.

6. Aaron Ekblad, D, Florida Panthers

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    Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

    What Was His Established Level Of Ability? Aaron Ekblad is one of the best stories in the NHL this season. As the No. 1 overall selection in the 2014 draft, he was an elite-level junior hockey player.

    What Stands Out From This Season? Ekblad is a very rare item, able to handle playing NHL defense as a teenager and flourish. Among his most impressive accomplishments: playing 22 minutes a night and ranking No. 3 in rookie scoring.

    Can He Sustain It? The only worry would appear to be injury. Ekblad isn't an established player yet—and veteran Brian Campbell is an enormous factor in his success—but he does appear to be that rare defenseman who can step in and make a difference right away.

5. Tyler Johnson, C, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Scott Audette/Getty Images

    What Was His Established Level Of Ability? Tyler Johnson of the Tampa Bay Lightning came out of nowhere—well, almost nowhere—to emerge as an effective NHL center. He was not drafted, spent most of two seasons in the AHL and emerged fully formed as a useful player in 2013-14. 

    What Stands Out From This Season? Johnson scored 50 points in 82 games last season, but this year he's approaching that number at the halfway point. He is on pace for close to 90 points in 2014-15.

    Can He Sustain It? We're probably two years away from being able to call him one of the best young forwards in the game. He is most of two full seasons into his NHL career now and has been exceptional. Johnson leads all NHL forwards in points-per-60 minutes at five-by-five and is a reliable performer for the Lightning.

4. Filip Forsberg, F, Nashville Predators

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    John Russell/Getty Images

    What Was His Established Level Of Ability? Filip Forbserg of the Nashville Predators had played only 18 NHL games before this season began, so he was somewhat unknown beyond his first-round draft pedigree.

    What Stands Out From This Season? From the very start of the season, he's been one of the prominent scorers for a strong Nashville club. He leads all rookies in points and is considered a strong contender at midseason for the Calder Trophy.

    Can He Sustain It? It's always a risk projecting rookies beyond their first success, but Forsberg was a first-round pick and scored well at every step of his development. He's a good bet to hit 60 or more points this season and to have a successful career.

3. Mark Giordano, D, Calgary Flames

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    What Was His Established Level Of Ability? Mark Giordano of the Calgary Flames played 449 games before the start of this season. He was considered a quality two-way defender and an established player.

    What Stands Out From This Season? Giordano is quality across the board in 2014-15. His offense is among the league's best, his zone starts are difficult and he faces tough opponents. Despite the tough sledding, his possession stats are more than respectable considering the quality of his team.

    Can He Sustain It? Giordano has been sustaining a high level of play for years, but this season is special. He should be a strong contender for the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman. It isn't certain if the peak performance can be repeated, but he's a good bet to play at a similar level for the next several seasons.

2. Vladimir Tarasenko, RW, St. Louis Blues

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    Scott Kane/Associated Press

    What Was His Established Level Of Ability? Vladimir Tarasenko of the St. Louis Blues scored 43 points in 2013-14, his first full season. It usually takes three seasons to establish a consistent level, so predicting his production was a moving target. 

    What Stands Out From This Season? Tarasenko is enjoying a breakout season with the Blues, and The Hockey News projects him to score 45 goals. He's among the NHL's top 10 in points and a major part of the success in St. Louis this year.

    Can He Sustain It? Tarasenko is 23 and a former first-round selection, and this is his third NHL season. We won't know with certainty where he'll land as a player for several seasons, but this spike in offense at his age and experience suggests he may well be an impact NHL player.

1. Jakub Voracek, RW, Philadelphia Flyers

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    What Was His Established Level Of Ability? Jakub Voracek of the Philadelphia Flyers was just shy of a point-per-game in 2012-13 and scored 62 points in 82 games last season.

    What Stands Out From This Season? Voracek exploded this year and currently leads the entire NHL in points. His emergence as a top-flight scorer has been a major reason Philadelphia hasn't fallen to the bottom of NHL standings.

    Can He Sustain It? As long as Voracek is playing with Claude Giroux, good things should happen. It is unrealistic to expect him to lead the league in points in 2014-15. He would have to play at this level for a couple of more years for him to be a proven player at this level.

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