Recently the question was posed to me, "who are your top five breakout players for the upcoming season"?
Great question. Before I answer, I first need to make sure we are on the same page as to what a "breakout" is, and who qualifies. For purpose of this article, my criteria for a "breakout" are as follows.
For a player to have a breakout season he has to have played at least one full season in the NHL. This excludes rookies. I will also not consider players like Zach Parise who missed last year with an injury or other players who have had success in the past but slumped last year. Those are "rebounds" and for another article and another day. My top five breakout players for 2011 are:
5. Evander Kane, Winnipeg
Kane was drafted in the fourth over all in 2009 by Atlanta and made the NHL in his rookie season. At twenty years old Kane is still growing, physically and professionally. Kane is a power forward and at 6-2, 195 he is small by NHL power forward standards but plays a physical, big mans game. Kanes assets are his aggressiveness, skating, and skill. A strong skater who protects the puck well and is elusive. Skating continues to improve as Kane gets stronger and faster. Kane has natural goal scoring instincts and has a nose for the net. Seems to sniff out scoring opportunities and scoring lanes. Can find his way to the goal off the rush, or muscle his way there from the boards. If no lane is open, Kane is an accomplished passer while under pressure. In his rookie season Kane scored 26 points for 0.39 points per game playing 13:59 a game and getting off 127 shots. Those stats rose significantly in his sophomore season scoring 43 points for 0.59 points per game, playing 22:09 a game and had 234 shots. No sophomore jinx there! Expect even more improvement for Kane as his role increases.
Kane has continued to improve and there is still room for improvement in terms of his hockey sense on the defensive side of the puck.
I forecast another 15-20 point increase this season for Kane. 25 goals 40 assists for 65 points is high end, but within reach of this rising star.
4. Alex Edler, Vancouver
Edler is entering his prime and looks to be ready to assume the mantle of undisputed number one defender on the power house Canucks. At 25 and entering his sixth season the conditions are never going to be better for Edler to breakout. Edler missed thirty one games last season, but still amassed thirty three points for a high of 0.65 points per game. With Christian Ehrhoff departing to Buffalo via UFA, Edler has the opportunity to play all key situations including prime time on the PP with the Sedin twins. Edler lacks elite skating and speed, and fails to utilize his size. Edler has made improvements in his consistency in terms of his defensive game, and has begun to show signs of taking advantage of his size. Signs that show he is beginning to put it all together. Edler is a smart player who reads plays well especially offensively as he makes smart pinches and combines his stick skills to find either open ice or team mates. Great vision and skills and improving skating combined with ideal circumstances tell me this is the year Edler breaks out and puts up a sixty point season.
I forecast 15 goals and 45 assists
3. Erik Johnson, Colorado
Johnson is a former first overall draft selection who had his development interrupted by missing an entire season to a fluke injury. Now three years later and about to enter his fourth season and still only twenty three, Johnson is ready to take the next step. Johnson was involved in a blockbuster trade last season that had him move from St. Louis to Colorado and went from scoring 0.35 to 0.45 points per game! In St. Louis Johnson was competing with Alex Pietrangelo for prime time minutes. In Colorado, it was the Erik Johnson show! His game was dramatically improved. Johnson was clearly running the power play. Johnson was carrying the puck up the ice with confidence and frequency. I have watched this player for years now and have seen him dominate games. Playing for U.S. internationally Johnson has shown why he was first overall in his draft year. With St. Louis there has been a few signs of his talent and potential but it seems that Colorado has unleashed all of his potential.
For a big man Johnson is a very impressive skater and has a lethal shot. Johnson can rush the puck using his puck handling skills and skating simultaneously. The power play in Colorado will be all Johnson, as John-Michael Liles was recently moved out to Toronto. Johnson has a great point shot, makes smooth passes and pinches effectively. Johnson has had two modest point totals over the past two seasons, scoring twenty nine and twenty one points. Expect a twenty point jump, nearly doubling his points this year!
I forecast 15 goals and 35 assists for a monster 50 point season as a max upside and at least 10goals and 30 assists for 40 points minimum!
2. Jakub Voracek, Philadelphia
Voracek has been targeted for a breakout by many for two years now. So what is different this year that I think he actually may do it? He got out of Columbus this off season and now plays for the very deep and offensively focused Philadelphia flyers. Voracek is a supremely talented playmaker with hands of gold, and great offensive vision. No longer counted on as one of two options to carry the team. In Philadelphia Voracek will have the opportunity to play with quality line mates under less pressure and may not face opposing teams premier defenders as consistently. Entering his fourth NHL season Voracek is set up for a massive break out season. Voracek lacks elite level skating but is improving, otherwise consistency is the only thing holding him back from greatness. The last two seasons Voracek scored 50 and 46 points in Columbus. In Philadelphia an 70 point season is well within grasp!
I forecast 25 goals and 45 assists
1. Jamie Benn, Dallas
As a fifth round pick, Benn is a steal! His development over the last four years is incredible! In his rookie season Benn played all 82 games and scored 41 points (including 22 goals) for an impressive 0.5 points per game. Then avoided the sophomore jinx by scoring 56 points (again scoring 22 times) in only 69 games last season for 0.81 points per game. This summers hottest UFA player was Brad Richards who left Dallas for the New York Rangers, leaving Benn to compete with Mike Ribeiro for the number one center position. No contest! Benn has all the tools, he is big and skates well with deceptive top speed. Handles and controls the puck very well. A better shooter than passer as illustrated by his back to back 22 goal seasons. Benn is a smart player also as he makes sound decisions both offensively and defensively. Not very good at face-offs averaging only 43.1% last season, but at only 22 years old there is plenty of time to refine that weakness. Many feel Dallas had to let Richards go due to ownership issues, but perhaps knowing Benn is ready to take over as the franchise player had some influence as well, and make no mistake Benn is the franchise player for Dallas.
I forecast Benn to deliver 30 goals and 50 assists for 80 points
These are my top five candidates for a breakout this season. Not all may achieve my forecast of course but I choose these players for similar reasons. They all posses at least two or three of the core components of skill, skating, speed, and smarts. But most importantly, I choose these five players because they all share one very important factor. Opportunity! Every one of these players has a different opportunity this season than they did this time last year. Every one of these players is a clear top player in their position for their team and, if healthy has an excellent opportunity to have a break out season.