Predicting the Most Improved Players for the 2015-16 NHL Season
As the NHL offseason winds into the dog days of summer, transactions among teams start to slow to a trickle. During their downtime, players rest their bones, spend time with their families and friends and hit the gym in an effort to come back better than ever next year.
When 2015-16 gets underway, expect to see the most improved performances of the new season coming from the 25-and-under set. Some will be reclamation projects looking to make the most of what might be their last chance at ice hockey's top level, while others will be high-level prospects realizing their potential and a select few young guns will take aim at superstar status.
In an effort to keep a reasonably level playing field, this slideshow does not consider raw rookies without NHL experience for the title of "most improved."
The focus here is on players who will take the biggest steps forward in their games next season—all around the ice—to be a part of the NHL's 2015-16 All-Improved Team.
Who else do think will surprise us with their play next season?
Jakob Silfverberg: Anaheim Ducks
2014-15 Stats: 81 GP, 13-26-39; playoffs 16 GP, 4-14-18
Why He'll Improve: Look at those numbers from last season—Jakob Silfverberg finished third on the Anaheim Ducks in playoff scoring, tied with Corey Perry with 18 points.
Silfverberg has been brought along slowly in his NHL development and should become a consistent second-line threat for the Ducks next season, once again playing alongside Ryan Kesler.
He's also a shootout sniper who led the league last season with nine goals and an impressive 69.2 percent success rate.
Projection for 2015-16: Silfverberg's currently a restricted free agent. Assuming the Ducks can get him signed to a reasonable contract, expect to see him lurking just behind Getzlaf and Perry with 70 points or more among the league's top 20 scorers next season.
Sam Gagner: Philadelphia Flyers
2014-15 Stats: 81 GP, 15-26-41
Why He'll Improve: Blessed with great creativity and playmaking skills, Sam Gagner has struggled to live up to expectations since scoring a career-high 49 points with the Edmonton Oilers as an 18-year-old rookie.
When Gagner was dealt to the Philadephia Flyers as part of the package that saw Chris Pronger's contract traded to the Arizona Coyotes on June 27, many onlookers assumed that he'd be bought out of the last year of his contract.
Flyers general manager Ron Hextall elected to hang onto Gagner and his $3.2 million cap hit, saying, "It upgrades the skill level of our team. It's a one-year deal, which was attractive to us. We're good with it, and quite frankly I've always admired Sam's skill," according to Adam Kimelman of NHL.com.
Projection for 2015-16: New Flyers coach Dave Hakstol may shuffle Gagner from center to the wing, but his smaller stature won't be as much of an issue in the Eastern Conference as it was in the big, bad West.
With good linemates and quality ice time on a resurgent Flyers squad, Gagner has a chance to reach the 50-point plateau for the first time in his NHL career.
Vladimir Tarasenko: St. Louis Blues
2014-15 Stats: 77 GP, 37-36-73; Playoffs 6 GP, 6-1-7
Why He'll Improve: In his first three seasons in the NHL, Vladimir Tarasenko has shown he has what it takes to become the next top-level scoring sensation.
His 37 goals in 2014-15 tied him for fifth place in the league—and he would have had more if he hadn't missed five games with a lower-body injury toward the end of the season.
Projection for 2015-16: On July 7, Tarasenko got paid like one of the top scorers in the league when he signed an eight-year deal with the St. Louis Blues worth $60 million, per NHL.com.
Expect to see more spectacular Tarasenko goals on the nightly highlight packages as he storms his way into the NHL's top five scorers next season.
Derrick Pouliot: Pittsburgh Penguins
2014-15 Stats: 34 GP, 2-5-7
Why He'll Improve: Chosen eighth overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2012, Derrick Pouliot made his NHL debut in 2014-15. He'll figure even more prominently in the Penguins blue line next season after the departures of unrestricted free agents Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff.
Pouliot also has an in with the coach. Mike Johnston was his bench boss in junior hockey with the WHL's Portland Winterhawks. His name has been mentioned as potential trade bait over the last few months, particularly leading up to the Phil Kessel deal on July 1.
"There was plenty of interest in Pouliot among potential suitors, but general manager Jim Rutherford held strong, kept his two best assets, and now Pouliot is ticketed for a much bigger role come September," reported Jason Mackey of Trib Total Media, who added that Pouliot is working out with noted trainer Gary Roberts in Toronto this summer.
Projection for 2015-16: With an improved skill set and high-intensity ice time up for grabs, expect to see Pouliot take on a more prominent role in Pittsburgh next season, especially on the power play.
A jump to 30 points is well within reach as part of the high-powered Penguins offense.
Matt Dumba: Minnesota Wild
2014-15 Stats: 58 GP, 8-8-16; Playoffs 10 GP, 2-2-4
Why He'll Improve: Without a clear definition of his role with the Minnesota Wild in 2014-15, Matt Dumba ended up sticking with the big club for most of the season and through the playoffs, putting up some decent numbers along the way.
Coming out of junior as a big hitter with a hard point shot, Dumba's first year has set the stage for him to take more responsibility next season—especially with the man advantage.
Projection for 2015-16: With a power play that ranked 27th in the NHL last season, Minnesota should be keen to give Dumba a bigger look on the point in 2015-16, given he tallied two power-play goals in 10 playoff games.
Expect to see Dumba become a top power-play producer from the blue line, scoring upward of 15 goals next season.
Petr Mrazek: Detroit Red Wings
2014-15 Stats: 29 GP, 16-9-2, 2.38 GAA, .918 save percentage; Playoffs 7 GP, 3-4, 2.11 GAA, .925 save percentage
Why He'll Improve: Despite being a rookie goaltender on an inexpensive entry-level contract, Petr Mrazek earned the trust of coach Mike Babcock going into the 2015 playoffs and played all but one period of the Red Wings' first-round playoff series, which they ultimately lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Mrazek spent parts of three seasons with Grand Rapids of the AHL under new Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill. He has shown he can thrive under pressure at hockey's highest level.
Projection for 2015-16: In spite of Jimmy Howard's $5.3 million cap hit, which stretches over the next four seasons, expect to see Mrazek get the lion's share of the work in Detroit as the team leans more and more heavily on its younger players.
The balance of power will shift over the course of the season, with Mrazek eventually taking over the No. 1 spot, leaving Howard as possible trade bait heading into the playoffs.