It’s always difficult to identify breakout players; by definition, these are individuals who have never in prior seasons accomplished the things they are about to accomplish. However, analytics offers us some hints as to which individuals might be on the cusp of a revelatory performance. The following are five candidates for big seasons.
Nazem Kadri, Toronto Maple Leafs
Kadri, who will turn 25 in October, is poised to take over the first line centreposition in Toronto. That increased opportunity, along with his own development, makes him a prime candidate for an offensive breakthrough.
He should quickly pass Tyler Bozak for the No. 1 job. Over the past three seasons, Bozak’s per-minute offensive point production at even-strength was nearly 40 percent lower when he played without Phil Kessel, and he won’t have him this year. In contrast, Kadri’s totals were strong with and without Toronto’s former star winger; it’s a good bet he’ll adjust to a post-Kessel world a lot faster than his competitor does.
Kadri’s also coming off particularly poor years on the power play and in terms of personal shooting percentage. Those numbers tend to be highly variable; any individual doesn’t play a lot of minutes on the power play over a single season and shooting percentage is always all over the map. He should rebound in both categories.
Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
MacKinnon is the kind of player who might get the “sophomore slump” label after falling from 63 points as a rookie to 38 a year ago. It’s unfair, because he was a dramatically better player in Year 2 of his NHL career. His line (with Ryan O’Reilly and Gabriel Landeskog) improved according to every five-on-five metric we have available.
Consider shots. In an average hour with MacKinnon on the ice, the Avs went from being out-shot 33-30 to outshooting the opposition 33-31, going from just below team average to well above it (as Colorado tends to get out-shot). His personal five-on-five scoring numbers were almost identical year-over-year, and he shot the puck far more frequently, almost 20 percent more than he did as a rookie.
Why did his scoring fall? Colorado’s power play imploded, with the unit’s goal production down nearly 30 percent from the previous season, and MacKinnon’s personal shooting percentage fell markedly, down from a reasonable 10 percent to a lousy 7.3 percent.
He’s 20 years old, all of his personal performance markers at even-strength are pointing in the right direction, and he’s coming off a year where everything went wrong on both the power play and as a shooter. He shouldn’t just match his rookie scoring totals, he should blow past them.
Justin Schultz, Edmonton Oilers
An important thing to remember with defencemen is just how vital power play points are to their overall offensive game; far more than forwards, they depend on getting a lot of minutes on a good power play unit to rack up goals and assists.
As a rookie pro in 2012-13, Schultz destroyed the lockout-strengthened AHL, posting 48 points in 34 games. He then produced some really good numbers on the Oilers’ power play, scoring 5.97 points/hour; for the sake of context just four defencemen in the league managed to play 100 power play minutes and post a better number than that last season.
Schultz struggled badly during the coaching tenure of Dallas Eakins, whose teams have historically had poor power plays even in the AHL. Under Eakins, Schultz’s production fell to 2.74 points/hour. From January 1 on, however, as the Oilers’ power play rebounded under Todd Nelson, Schultz scored 4.27 points/hour the rest of the way.
Edmonton’s new coaches have a track record of success on the man advantage, and if Schultz can just match the work he did under Nelson over a full season under Todd McLellan, the 25-year-old should easily set new career-highs in scoring.
Jakob Silfverberg, Anaheim Ducks
Silfverberg’s dramatic emergence as an offensive weapon in the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs isn’t likely to be sustainable over an 82-game season, but along with other factors it suggests the 24-year-old still has untapped offensive potential.
Silfverberg’s 39 points last season came with virtually no role on the power play; in fact, he managed to equal the four points he scored on the man-advantage unit all season in just 16 playoff games. With a more regular power play role, his offensive numbers should improve. His individual shot rate is climbing, too; in 2014-15 he had nearly 10 percent more shot attempts (on a per-minute basis) than he had in 2013-14, but a poor shooting percentage hid much of the improvement.
Because Silfverberg was a better than point-per-game player in a feature role in the playoffs, he’s more likely to get offensive minutes in 2015-16. That, combined with his steady increases offensively and a bounce-back in shooting percentage, should allow him to eclipse his career-high totals from last season.
Ryan Strome, New York Islanders
In some ways, Strome has already had a breakthrough, but limited opportunity means it was overlooked. Strome ranked sixth among regular Islanders forwards in terms of even-strength ice-time, but he led them in points/hour at five-on-five.
It’s telling when you compare him to John Tavares at five-on-five. Tavares, an undeniably brilliant offensive player, put up 47 points in just under 1,300 minutes of five-on-five play. Strome managed 40 points in less than 1,000 minutes.
New York has its No. 2 centre. The 22-year-old Strome is just entering the prime years of his career and already he’s a strong complement to Tavares at even-strength. With increased minutes both there and on the power play he could explode.