Every NHL season marks an opportunity for new stars to shine.

Sometimes it’s an unheralded depth contributor like Carter Verhaeghe or William Karlsson in 2017-18 that’s gifted with opportunity on a new team and emerges as a core piece seemingly out of nowhere. Other times it can be an already established talent like Jakob Chychrun or Adam Fox that opens the hockey world’s eyes by elevating into an elite force.

Sometimes these breakouts are difficult to predict. Other times you can see them coming.

The goal of today’s piece is to scan around the league in search of hockey’s next breakout players. This could be a bottom-six forward or bottom pair defenceman that moves up the lineup and becomes a crucial cog for his team’s success or it could be a high profile young gun that explodes closer to their ceiling. In either case, it’s about targeting substantial year-over-year improvement.

Here are some of the important attributes I looked for in potential candidates.

A bigger role/increased ice-time (look no further than Vegas’ inaugural season and how many breakouts they produced)

An opportunity to play with an elite linemate or two

Age-related growth potential

Underlying indicators that suggest the player is capable of producing more (e.g. strong play-driving numbers or microstats like zone entries and shot assists)

To make this a little more interesting, we’re going to exclude rookies as well as second-year players under the age of 25. This eliminates the likes of Alexis Lafrenière and Tim Stützle so that our list isn’t entirely filled with former lottery picks.

Without further ado, let’s get into our top 10, listed in no particular order.

 

Jack Hughes, C, New Jersey Devils

Expectations for Jack Hughes were sky-high after the hockey world watched preceding No. 1 picks electrify from the start. Rasmus Dahlin (2018) had scored the second-most points of an 18-year-old defenceman in NHL history, Auston Matthews (2016) scored 40 goals as a rookie and Connor McDavid (2015) was… well Connor McDavid from day one. And while Nico Hischier (2017) was sandwiched in between with a more modest rookie campaign, he too managed an impressive 20 goals and 52 points in year one.

Hughes, on the other hand, struggled mightily as a rookie; registering just 21 points in 61 games with the Devils getting outscored 33-17 during his five-on-five minutes. He turned it around in his sophomore season where he managed 31 points in 56 games, but he’s still yet to emerge as a game-breaker.

That should change this year — it wouldn’t be surprising to see him explode and flirt with the point-per-game mark.

The bottom line results in the points column may not be there for Hughes quite yet but almost every other element of his game looks extremely encouraging. He’s dominating possession, creating scoring chances and driving the bus for his line. Physically, he’s put on a lot of muscle — he’s not the slight rookie that was easily pushed off the puck anymore. Hughes led the Devils in virtually every play-driving category, helping an otherwise weak team control 54 percent of five-on-five shot attempts and nearly 56 percent of five-on-five scoring chances.

Specifically, he’s already emerged as one of the NHL’s best offensive zone entry creators. According to the InStat data shared by JFresh, Hughes was behind only Mathew Barzal in terms of the rate at which he engineered successful entries last season.

Hughes has so much creative skill that he’ll eventually convert more of these plays into points, even if he never finds an elite sniper to pass the puck to. The power play is another area where he could stand to produce more, an endeavour that should be aided by Dougie Hamilton’s addition.

Strong underlying numbers and transitional microstats are often a precursor to breakouts. Just ask Kevin Fiala who fell into this category for years before finally putting it all together in 2019-20 with 54 points in 64 games.

 

Jakub Vrana, LW, Detroit Red Wings

There are pros and cons to playing on a bad team from an individual production standpoint. Sure, there will be little help around you and the power-play unit you’re on probably won’t have enough weapons to score often but opportunities will at least be abundant.

That last part will be welcome news for Jakub Vrana. Since the 2018-19 season, only 12 NHL forwards have scored five-on-five points at a more efficient rate than the former Washington Capital.