It’s one of the most exciting times of the year as all of the 31 NHL franchises are brimming with optimism. With no games played yet, everyone gets a fresh start – either to shake off the demons of the previous campaign or to get back at it and build on positive momentum.
For a player, a long break waiting to get back into action – currently amplified by the unusual circumstances of the past 12 months – can be challenging. Even more so when you think you can do better than you showed last season. As a fan or an analyst, that time off has been spent predicting which players will have a massive turnaround and become a key contributor to their team, and this year is no different.
We always get a few breakout players each season, Last year, Carolina’s Andrei Svechnikov, Minnesota’s Kevin Fiala, Pittsburgh’s Bryan Rust, and Vancouver’s JT Miller were the best examples. So who will it be this time around? Let’s take a look at five strong candidates to have a breakout run in 2020-21:
Jesse Puljujärvi, RW, Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers have had no shortage of polarizing figures in the past and Puljujärvi is definitely one of them. After going fourth overall at the 2016 draft, Puljujärvi was rushed into the lineup and struggled to find any consistency despite playing key minutes right out of the gate. He bounced between Edmonton and Bakersfield before eventually getting loaned out to Karpat of the Finnish Liiga, where he was a star with 53 points in 56 games for his childhood organization.
Puljujärvi is back in the fray for 2020-21 and, if it all works out, he will have a chance to fit in the top six and play with either Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl. The Oilers are hoping Puljujärvi will have a showing similar to last year’s performance from Kailer Yamamoto, who had 26 points in 27 games to end the season after taking a couple of years to find his footing in the NHL.
Puljujärvi will need to act quickly, though. This is a shortened season and, given his lack of success in his original three-year run with the team, the Oilers may not be willing to give him opportunities if he doesn’t figure things out quickly. But with a solid season in his native land under his belt, hopefully that confidence and momentum will carry over and Puljujärvi will become a long-term solution on the wing – a position the Oilers simply haven’t figured out over the past 10 years.
Jack Hughes, C, New Jersey Devils
Expectations are almost never fair for a first overall pick in his rookie season, especially one with an older brother running for the Calder Trophy at the same time. Quinn Hughes went on to be a finalist for the Calder after one of the best rookie seasons by a defenseman in quite a long time, while Jack had one of the weakest debut seasons by a first overall draft pick in over 20 years, notching a mere 21 points in 61 games.
The younger Hughes is too talented of a player to see that happen again. He should remain on the second line for the upcoming season, skating alongside Andreas Johnsson – another player coming off of a rough season plagued by injuries, who could spice things up if he stays healthy. Hughes won a ton of awards in junior hockey and is one of the best prospects the US National Development Team Program has ever had. At the NHL level, he simply needs to find his confidence. Now that he’s added some muscle to his game, he should be able to hold his own physically against some of the bigger, stronger opponents in the league. Given the shorter schedule, a 40-point season would be a huge achievement for Hughes.
Meanwhile, watch out for fellow Devil Nikita Gusev, a long-time KHL star who had some high moments as a rookie last year but struggled to stay consistent. In a full season, a 55-point campaign would be a reasonable expectation for Gusev.
Ilya Samsonov, G, Washington Capitals
It’s been five years since the Capitals selected Samsonov in the first round of the NHL draft and essentially made him their goaltender of the future. Now that Braden Holtby is out of the fray, and with no real competition behind him, Samsonov has a chance to finally live up to his projections.
A year ago, Samsonov was many steps ahead of Holtby statistically, but he never appeared to be “the guy” in spite of an impressive 16-6-2 record. With Henrik Lundqvist out of the picture for 2020-21, the Capitals tried out Craig Anderson as a mentor during training camp, with a chance to sign for a full-time position to help alleviate some of the starts along the way. But Samsonov, at 23 years old, proved he can handle a solid workload in Washington, having also posted a handful of strong campaigns in the KHL before heading over.
The Capitals are still a championship contender so this is a big responsibility for Samsonov, who has never played 40 games in a season since turning pro. In the big leagues, playing a shortened season no less, he’ll have to be fantastic. This is the time for that to happen because there isn’t a better alternative for the Caps to fall back on. No pressure or anything.
Robert Thomas, C, St. Louis Blues
Not to be confused with the Matchbox 20 singer, Thomas was a surprising addition to the Blues two years ago at the age of 19, and he’s done a fantastic job of keeping himself in the lineup ever since. Thomas had 33 points in a 70-game run as a rookie then upped that to 42 points in 66 games in an increased role, with injuries taking key players out of the lineup at points. Thomas appears ready to assume the second-line center spot, though he could play on the wing if the Blues need it.
With Thomas in a contract year, this will be the time for him to prove he’ll be a long-term, high-value offensive contributor to a team that’s still in Stanley Cup contention. If Thomas stays in the top six (perhaps even seeing some top-line ice time later on) and skates during some power-plays along the way, that’s a big bonus for the Blues, who’ll have to find offense in the wake of losing Vladimir Tarasenko for a large portion of the regular season.
Denis Gurianov, RW, Dallas Stars
With nine goals and 17 points during the post-season, Gurianov was the NHL’s top rookie scorer over the summer and one of just three – behind Dominik Kubalik (30) and Victor Olofsson (20) – to hit the 20-goal mark. Among players with at least 35 games played, Kubalik (1.7) was the only player to top Gurianov (1.08) in goals-per-60 and Ilya Mikheyev (9.77) was the lone freshman to beat Gurianov’s 8.88 shots-per-60 stat – but Mikheyev played less than half the season, so that smaller sample size would inflate the numbers a bit.
So what do all those numbers mean? Well, Gurianov made the most of his opportunities in limited ice time (an average of 12:59 per game) and is a prime candidate to increase his play higher in the lineup this season. The Stars are a bit weak on the left side and Gurianov should be able to snag the second line spot quite easily, with opportunities to play on the top line when needed. If you’re looking for a good bang-for-your-buck player in fantasy hockey, Gurianov’s role on a contender should excite you.