10 NHL Players Who Will Have Breakout Performances in 2020-21

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistJanuary 14, 2021

10 NHL Players Who Will Have Breakout Performances in 2020-21

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    In every NHL season, several promising young players break out as stars. We can expect the same during this truncated 2020-21 campaign.

    Fans usually focus on top rookies or sophomore players who can build upon their promising debuts. However, there are various players entering their third or fourth seasons who could join the ranks of the game's best players.

    Some of them, such as Ottawa Senators left winger Brady Tkachuk, are taking on larger roles and responsibilities. Others, like Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry, are taking over for departed or sidelined teammates.

    Here's our list of 10 players we anticipate will break out this season. We've excluded rookies and sophomores, focusing on players who already have at least two years of NHL experience. 

Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres

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    Selected first overall in the 2018 NHL draft, Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin had high expectations coming out of the draft. He was a finalist for the Calder Memorial Trophy in 2018-19 but struggled at times during his sophomore campaign. However, the 20-year-old blueliner should be headed for big things in his third NHL season.

    Two injuries, including a concussion, cost Dahlin 10 games last year. He also needed time to adjust to first-year Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger's system. He finished last season as the Sabres' points leader among defensemen (40), was fourth on the team in scoring overall and third in power-play ice time per game (3:22). However, he averaged only 19:18 in ice time and barely saw the ice in short-handed situations.

    After gaining maturity and confidence, Dahlin should be ready for greater ice time and defensive responsibilities this season. The offseason additions of winger Taylor Hall and center Eric Staal will also provide a significant boost to his offensive numbers.

Kevin Fiala, Minnesota Wild

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    Kevin Fiala enjoyed a solid performance in his first full season with the Minnesota Wild. He matched his previous career high of 23 goals and reached a career-high 54 points in 2019-20. The 24-year-old winger finished the season as his club's leading scorer.

    Fiala was considered a promising offensive forward when the Nashville Predators selected him with the 11th overall pick in the 2014 NHL draft. He seemed poised for a breakout following a 48-point output in 2017-18 but struggled to regain his form following a leg injury. That led to his trade to the Wild at the Feb. 25 trade deadline.

    Having become a more confident performer with the Wild, Fiala's challenge this season is finding offensive chemistry with new linemates Nick Bonino and Marcus Johansson. If he rises to the occasion as expected, the Wild will have a full-fledged scoring star on their hands.

Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Salary-cap constraints forced the Pittsburgh Penguins to ship goaltender Matt Murray to the Ottawa Senators in October. The move provides an opportunity for Tristan Jarry to establish himself as an NHL starter.

    Jarry, 25, spent three seasons bouncing between the Penguins and their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Last season, he finally secured the role as Murray's backup. By midseason, he was outperforming Murray. While both goalies finished with 20 wins, Jarry's stats (2.43 goals-against average, .921 save percentage) were better than Murray's (2.87 GAA and .899 SP).

    Signed to an affordable three-year, $10.5 million contract in October, Jarry is a skillful puck-handler with solid rebound control. A strong performance on his part could keep the Penguins in the Stanley Cup hunt and vault him into the ranks of the NHL's top goalies.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Montreal Canadiens

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    Selected third overall in the 2018 NHL draft, Jesperi Kotkaniemi cracked the Montreal Canadiens roster as an 18-year-old rookie in 2018-19. Despite a respectable 34-point debut, he slumped during his sophomore campaign with just eight points in 36 games. Following a demotion to the minors, Kotkaniemi salvaged his season with a strong effort in the 2020 playoffs.

    No longer a lanky kid, the 20-year-old Kotkaniemi is a 6'2", 201-pound center. He's unafraid to throw his weight around, leading all Canadiens forwards with 36 hits during last year's playoffs. He also scored four goals to tie Nick Suzuki as the Habs' postseason leader.

    On Jan. 12, Daily Faceoff indicated Kotkaniemi will begin this season centering fellow Finn Joel Armia and offseason acquisition Tyler Toffoli. Given the tantalizing glimpse of his potential in the 2020 playoffs, the youngster should blossom into a significant two-way force for the Canadiens.

Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins

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    Entering his fourth NHL season, Charlie McAvoy has established himself as the Boston Bruins' best all-around defenseman. In 2020-21, the 23-year-old should emerge among the league's elite defenders.

    Over the past three seasons, McAvoy benefited from having Zdeno Chara as his defense partner. While he led the Bruins last season in time on ice per game (23 minutes and 10 seconds), he saw limited action on their top power-play and penalty-killing units. He averaged just 1:21 with the man advantage and 1:49 on the penalty kill.

    With the offseason departures of Chara and blue-line points leader Torey Krug, McAvoy will take over a larger role with the Bruins. He'll be expected to step up in a leadership capacity on the blue line and log big minutes on their special teams. No longer skating in Chara's immense shadow, McAvoy is primed to join the league's elite defensemen.

Dylan Strome, Chicago Blackhawks

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    The Chicago Blackhawks enter this season with Jonathan Toews sidelined indefinitely by a mysterious illness and Kirby Dach out four to five months following wrist surgery. Their absences move Dylan Strome into the first-line center position.

    Strome, 25, netted 51 points in 58 games with the Blackhawks after being acquired from the Arizona Coyotes early in 2018-19. However, his production slipped last season to 38 points in 58 games, missing four games to a concussion and seven to an ankle injury.

    Signed on Jan. 3 to a two-year, $6 million contract, Strome has a chance to get back on track this season. The 6'3", 200-pounder is expected to center the Blackhawks' top line alongside Alex DeBrincat and superstar Patrick Kane. This is his opportunity to establish himself as a reliable scoring-line center.

Mikhail Sergachev, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Mikhail Sergachev has steadily developed over the past three years into a skillful puck-moving defenseman for the Tampa Bay Lightning. The 22-year-old's overall performance during last year's Stanley Cup run signals the bigger role he will play this season.

    Sergachev exceeded 30 points in each of the past three seasons but saw sheltered minutes as the Lightning worked to improve his defensive game. The development of his all-around game was evident in the 2020 playoffs. Sergachev's average ice time (22:37) was third among Bolts skaters. He was fourth in blocked shots (41) and led all Lightning defenders with 63 hits.

    All-Star Victor Hedman and veteran Ryan McDonagh remain the Lightning's top defensemen. Nevertheless, Sergachev's ongoing development should see him rise up their depth chart this season. Expect the young blueliner to take on a larger role.

Robert Thomas, St. Louis Blues

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    The St. Louis Blues eased Robert Thomas into their lineup over the past two seasons, giving him more playing time and increasing his role. The 21-year-old center should be primed for a breakout season as the Blues adjust to the absences of retired Alexander Steen and sidelined sniper Vladimir Tarasenko.

    Making his NHL debut in 2018-19, Thomas netted a respectable 33 points in 70 games. He followed up with a solid sophomore performance, tallying 42 points in 66 games. A skillful playmaker with good defensive abilities, Thomas has the tools to become a reliable first- or second-line center.

    On Jan. 6, KSDK-TV's Lou Korac reported Thomas could start this season centering Jaden Schwartz and free-agent acquisition Mike Hoffman. Skating with those proficient wingers will give a big boost to the young center's production while enhancing his value as a top-six forward.

Brady Tkachuk, Ottawa Senators

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    Brady Tkachuk was among the few bright spots for the rebuilding Ottawa Senators over the past two seasons. Overshadowed by older brother Matthew Tkachuk of the Calgary Flames, this season should see the 21-year-old left winger blossom into a star in his own right.

    The Senators' first-round pick (fourth overall) in the 2018 NHL draft, Tkachuk enjoyed a solid 2018-19 rookie campaign with 22 goals and 45 points in 71 games. He followed up with almost identical numbers in as many games (21 goals, 44 points) as a sophomore, finishing as the Senators' leading scorer.

    Tkachuk has already taken a leadership role with the Senators, becoming one of their alternate captains. The 6'4", 212-pounder's aggressive physical style and offensive skills should propel him into the ranks of the NHL's best power forwards.

Devon Toews, Colorado Avalanche

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    Following two seasons with the New York Islanders, Devon Toews was traded in October to the Colorado Avalanche. The move should elevate the 26-year-old to the fore as a skilled, mobile defenseman.

    A versatile all-rounder who can line up on either side of the blue line, Toews enjoyed a solid sophomore campaign last season with 28 points in 68 games. He seemed to have a bright future with the Islanders, but the cap-strapped club shipped him to the Avalanche, who signed him to a four-year, $16.4 million contract.

    Shifting from the defense-minded Isles to the Avs' uptempo offensive system should suit Toews' puck-moving and playmaking abilities, especially if young star Cale Makar becomes his full-time defense partner. That duo could become one of the NHL's best blue-line pairings, elevating Toews' profile and helping him put up 40 to 50 points this season. 

                  

    Stats (as of Jan. 12) via NHL.com. Salary info via CapFriendly.