10 NHL Players Poised for Breakout Seasons in 2017-18

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistAugust 3, 2017

10 NHL Players Poised for Breakout Seasons in 2017-18

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Carolina Hurricanes right wing Sebastian Aho and Pittsburgh Penguins forward Jake Guentzel enjoyed promising NHL debuts last season. They're among several players potentially on the verge of breakout performances in 2017-18. 

    Aho and Guentzel are gifted youngsters projected to become NHL stars. They will be expected to build upon the encouraging starts to their respective careers.

    Others, such as Hurricanes goaltender Scott Darling and Washington Capitals winger Andre Burakovsky, have several years of NHL experience. This season could see them emerge as full-fledged stars.

    Here's a look at the 10 NHL players poised for breakout seasons in 2017-18. We'll examine their strengths and weaknesses, as well as expectations for next season. You can express your opinions on this topic in the comments section below.

10. Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The Tampa Bay Lightning struggled through a disappointing 2016-17 season, but rookie Brayden Point was among the few highlights. The 21-year-old center's 18 goals and 40 points put him among the Lightning's leading scorers. He also finished eighth among last season's rookie scoring leaders. 

    Point is a hardworking two-way forward who can play at center or on the wing. He appeared to have little difficulty adjusting to the NHL pace.

    At 5'10" and 166 pounds, Point's lack of size could hamper his efforts to build upon last season's numbers. He should also work on his skating.

    If Point remains at center, he'll see third-line duty behind Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson. However, he could move up if one of them gets hurt. Point could benefit from moving to right wing on the second line, especially if veteran Ryan Callahan shows signs of declining.

9. Nick Schmaltz, Chicago Blackhawks

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    Injuries throughout the Chicago Blackhawks roster led to center Nick Schmaltz getting some ice time on the top two lines last term. The 21-year-old played on center Jonathan Toews' wing and also filled in for sidelined center Artem Anisimov. He finished with 22 assists and 28 points in 61 games.

    Schmaltz is a skilled and creative playmaker who sees the ice well. His ability to skate at center or wing proved invaluable to the Blackhawks when injuries struck last season.

    The 6'0", 177-pounder is lean for a forward by NHL standards. He could use some strength and bulk to avoid being outmuscled by larger opponents.

    With Toews and Anisimov ahead of Schmaltz in the depth chart, he seems destined to be Chicago's third-line center this season. But with Marian Hossa sidelined next season for medical reasons, Schmaltz could see top-six minutes at right wing.

8. Andre Burakovsky, Washington Capitals

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    After three NHL seasons, Burakovsky could be poised for a breakout performance in 2017-18 with the Washington Capitals. The offseason departures of wingers Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson provide the 22-year-old with a great chance to establish himself as a top-six forward.

    The 6'3", 205-pound Burakovsky has a big frame, skates well and has the potential to become a reliable offensive winger. He can play either wing and at center if necessary.

    He's shown flashes of his offensive ability but has yet to establish himself as a reliable scorer. He must make the most of his opportunities this season.

    Burakovsky showed promising chemistry with playmaking center Nicklas Backstrom during the 2017 playoffs. He could start the season behind top-line left wing Alex Ovechkin. Should promising left wing Jakub Vrana cracks the roster on a full-time basis, Burakovsky could slide over into the second-line right wing position.

7. Christian Dvorak, Arizona Coyotes

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Last season was another disappointing campaign for the Arizona Coyotes, but one bright spot was the play of rookie center Christian Dvorak. With 15 goals and 33 points in 78 games, the 21-year-old finished fourth in goals and sixth in points among Coyotes scorers.

    Dvorak is a strong skater with great offensive instincts and two-way ability. He also has potential in the faceoff circle, finishing second on the Coyotes last term, with 471 faceoff wins.

    At 6'0" and 187 pounds, Dvorak must bulk up to compete well against larger opponents. Though he has promise as a faceoff man, his win percentage last season (46.8) indicates he still has room for improvement.

    Having progressed promisingly through his rookie campaign, Dvorak can expect more playing time and responsibilities in 2017-18. With the Coyotes acquiring Derek Stepan from the New York Rangers, Dvorak could be put into the second-line center role.

6. Anthony Mantha, Detroit Red Wings

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    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    In his first full NHL season, right wing Anthony Mantha put up decent numbers for the retooling Detroit Red Wings. With 17 goals and 19 assists for 36 points in 60 games, the 22-year-old tied for second with Andreas Athanasiou in game-winning goals (three). He also tied for sixth with defenseman Mike Green among the Wings' leading scorers.

    The 6'5" 221-pound Mantha skates well for a big forward and possesses considerable scoring potential. He can play on either wing, giving the Red Wings some versatility with their attack.

    Despite his size and offensive promise, Mantha struggled with consistency last season. He must also learn to avoid being goaded into taking bad penalties.

    With the Wings in the midst of a roster rebuild, they'll be leaning more on younger talent such as Mantha. He could improve with more playing time and power-play duty this season. If he gets regular ice time on their top two lines in 2017-18, he could reach 25 goals and over 50 points.

5. Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche

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    Right wing Mikko Rantanen's rookie performance was among the few highlights in an otherwise miserable 2016-17 season for the Colorado Avalanche. His 20 goals led the Avs and ranked fifth among NHL rookies. The 20-year-old also finished tied with Tyson Barrie for third among Avalanche scorers with 38 points. 

    At 6'4" and 211 pounds, Rantanen is a big, smooth-skating forward who can play wing or center. He possesses solid offensive ability and has the potential to blossom into a top-line forward.

    Despite his size, he's not a physical presence. He must learn to use his frame to his advantage.

    For the struggling Avalanche, Rantanen brings the promise of better days. He'll be among their top six forwards in 2017-18 and will have plenty of chances to build upon last season's numbers.

4. Matthew Tkachuk, Calgary Flames

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    In his first NHL season, left wing Matthew Tkachuk wasted little time making an impression with the Calgary Flames. In 76 games, the feisty youngster led the Flames and all NHL rookies in PIMs (105). He was third on the team in assists (35) and fifth in points (48). He also finished sixth among the league's rookie scorers. 

    The son of former NHL star Keith Tkachuk, the 19-year-old shares some of the same power-forward traits as his father. At 6'2" and 202 lbs, he has good size and is most effective creating traffic in front of the opposing goaltender.

    At times, however, Tkachuk can be undisciplined. He received a two-game suspension last season for elbowing Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty. He must work on his skating and become a more disciplined physical presence.

    Tkachuk could blossom into a reliable power forward. He'll likely begin this season on Calgary's second line alongside center Mikael Backlund and right wing Michael Frolik.

3. Scott Darling, Carolina Hurricanes

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    After spending the past three seasons as a backup goaltender with the Chicago Blackhawks, Darling gets his chance to become a starter with the Carolina Hurricanes. On Apr. 28, the Hurricanes acquired the 28-year-old from the Blackhawks. A week later, they signed him to a four-year contract.

    During his tenure in Chicago, Darling put up solid numbers. He won 39 of 64 career starts, with a 2.37 goals-against average, a .923 save percentage and four shutouts. At 6'6" and 232 lbs, he covers a lot of the net and has considerable poise.

    Despite those impressive numbers,  Darling has never been a full-time starting goalie at the NHL level. The Hurricanes will be counting on him to help them end their eight-year playoff drought. He will be under considerable pressure to prove himself. 

    But as the Raleigh News & Observer's Luke DeCock observed on May 10, Darling overcame early-career adversity to reach the NHL. That determination should serve him well with the Hurricanes. Playing behind a solid core of talented young defensemen should help him grow into the starter's job. 

2. Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    With 33 points in 40 regular-season games, Guentzel had an admirable NHL debut with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The 22-year-old took his play to a higher level during the 2017 playoffs, leading all postseason scorers in goals (13) while helping the Penguins win their second consecutive Stanley Cup.

    A versatile forward who can play center or wing, Guentzel displayed considerable offensive upside last season. He meshed well with Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and adapted to the pressure of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

    Guentzel will face considerable pressure to match his 2017 postseason effort throughout his first full NHL regular-season campaign. He should work on adding some strength and size to his 5'11", 180-pound frame.

    With his speed, scoring skills and ability to adapt to pressure, Guentzel should be able to cope with those heightened expectations. Having a linemate as talented as Crosby doesn't hurt. If their playoff chemistry carries over into 2017-18, Guentzel won't have any problem avoiding a sophomore slump.

1. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes

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    Aho was a welcome addition to the Carolina Hurricanes in 2016-17. The Finnish winger scored 24 goals and collected 25 assists for 49 points. He led the Hurricanes in power-play points (17) and finished second in goals and points. Among league rookies, he was third in goals and fifth in points.

    Listed as a right wing, the 20-year-old Aho also skates on the left side. He's a speedy forward with slick playmaking ability. The young Finn adjusted well to his first season in the NHL, taking a second-line role and averaging 16 minutes and 47 seconds of time on ice per game.

    The 5'11", 172-pound Aho is small by NHL standards. Given his performance last season, he'll have to deal with additional attention from opposing defenders. He must also work on improving his defensive play.

    Aho has the ability to reach 30 goals and 60 points this season. He will likely receive more power-play time. If he remains at left wing, he's unlikely to unseat Jeff Skinner on the first line. If necessary, he could be moved over to the right side.


    Player stats via NHL.com.


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