2021 Season NHL breakouts

It’s so easy for hockey fans to overreact to small sample sizes. It’s even easier to do so during a pandemic when there’s less stuff going on and many fanbases were starved for action for a 10-month span.

But, we’re going to play into the overreactions a bit today – specifically, players off to hot starts to kick off the 2020-21 season. There’s still a ton of hockey left to be played, but we’re already past the 10 percent point of the NHL season, so, again, there isn’t much time to waste.

Let’s have some fun: here’s a look at five players having breakout starts to the season – some are sophomores proving their worth, others are depth guys finally get a shot and even a Masterton Trophy winner having the time of his life:

Jack Hughes, C, New Jersey Devils

A few weeks ago, I wrote that Hughes was set to be a breakout candidate this year after a disappointing rookie season. In fact, he 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. It’s not often you have to face your brother in the Calder Trophy race, but defenseman Quinn Hughes was one of Vancouver’s best players this year and was a runner-up to Cale Makar in the voting process. 

But the start of the 2020-21 season has been anything but disappointing for the middle Hughes brother. Through five games for the mid-pack East Division team, Hughes has three goals and seven points in his first five games to easily be New Jersey’s most valuable forward. Hughes’ 4.06 total-points-per-60 is second on the Devils behind rookie defender Ty Smith (more on him later) and first among NHLers averaging at least 14 minutes a night. This is exactly what we were hoping to see out of someone who smashed multiple United States National Team Development Program records while playing for the best lineup the program has ever iced. It’s also a sign that you shouldn’t give up hope for a top prospect after a bad debut season – it’s quite the adjustment from junior to pro, after all.

Ty Smith, D, New Jersey Devils

The lone rookie on this list, I don’t think people expected Smith to be this good this early. The 20-year-old has points in his first five games, including a goal in his debut against Boston and a two-assist effort against the New York Islanders on Sunday. This, of course, is happening while playing on the third defensive pairing with Matt Tennyson, someone who isn’t exactly known for being a big-time offensive contributor. 

The Devils are going to rely on Smith a lot in the future, with the young defender likely going to get some top-pairing minutes at some point later in the year. Smith’s biggest talents are his puck-moving abilities and his fantastic wrist shot, but he’s undersized at 5-foot-10 and can be outmuscled along the boards. In a normal year, Smith may have been sent down to the AHL in an effort to get more playing time. But with teams holding an extended roster due to COVID-19, the opportunity for Smith to steal a spot and prove himself was open and he’s done everything possible to show he’s a star in the making.

Jordan Kyrou, C, St. Louis Blues

Is it time to really take Kyrou seriously? You betcha. The Blues are without Vladimir Tarasenko for most of the regular season, so the team needed its secondary scorers to step up. Kyrou currently leads the Blues with six points in five games, leading the way with four assists and a solid 13.3 shooting percentage early on.

It’s been a somewhat long road for Kyrou. who couldn’t crack the Blues full-time the past two seasons, but put up nice numbers with the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage. It looks like he’s here for good, capitalizing on the praise put on him after a tremendous OHL career with the Sarnia Sting. Kyrou has the second-highest expected goals-for percentage among Blues players with a 64.87 rating, a staggeringly high number for someone getting their first legit taste of top-six action? Will it last, we’ll see, but the Blues seem to find no issue producing high-quality depth pieces year after year that turn out to put up nice numbers.

Real Kyper at Noon

Andrew Copp, LW, Winnipeg Jets

With all the drama surrounding the trade of Patrik Laine to Columbus, the Jets needed to find a way to generate some extra offense. Copp, a seven-year NHLer that has spent most of his career toiling around in Winnipeg’s bottom-six, jumped up to the second line with Paul Stastny and Nikolaj Ehlers and is playing some of the best hockey of his career with two goals and five points in his first six games.

Copp isn’t much of a big-time offensive player. Where Copp makes himself useful is playing a reliable two-way game while adding grit and the occasional scoring flash. Copp has seen his ice time jump to 18:10 a night – way above his career average of 12:44 – and has been such a nice revelation for a team that has a shot at first in the North Division. I don’t expect the hot start to ride into the future, but he’s a fan favorite in Winnipeg and it’s hard to hate someone who has made a career working so hard.

Bobby Ryan, RW, Detroit Red Wings

Compared to the others on this list, Ryan definitely is in a much different situation. For starters, he has over 800 NHL games under his belt and has an NHL all-star game appearance and an Olympic silver medal to his credit. But if you know his story, you know everything Ryan has gone through in his career. Ryan overcame alcohol addiction and time away from the sport to rejuvenate his career, winning the Masterton Trophy last year after a triumphant return. 

The Ottawa Senators let him go during the off-season, leaving Ryan to find a new home in Detroit. So far, so good, as Ryan has been Detroit’s most impressive forward with four goals and five points in as many games for a team that’s in desperate need of offense. While we’re not expecting more 70-point seasons from the guy who was selected one spot after Sidney Crosby in 2005, this is a player who hasn’t hit the 50-point mark since 2015-16 and struggled to be an everyday NHLer ever since. It’s nice to see a sober, happy Ryan thriving like he is right now and I fully hope it continues.