As the offseason winds down and teams prepare for October, many young players are training hard to increase their impact on the ice. We will look at players under the age of 23 that are poised to have a breakout season in no particular order. In this article, the focus will be placed on Eastern Conference athletes.
Breakout Players in the Eastern Conference
Disclaimer: This article is about young players with breakout potential, however, obvious candidates such as Rasmus Dahlin and Auston Matthews will be omitted. The ones covered here will be lesser known or talked about in order to avoid regurgitating the same talking points.
When Filip Chytil was drafted 21st overall in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, many were surprised. The majority of the hockey community said that the Rangers reached with their second first-round pick of the night. However, the Czech centre has since silenced the doubters with his strong season in the AHL. With the Hartford Wolf Pack, Chytil posted an impressive 11 goals and 31 points over a span of 46 games at just 18 years old. His stats compare to the likes of David Pastrnak‘s and William Nylander‘s at 18. Chytil has not only dazzled in the AHL but also has shown much promise on the international stage. He made a name for himself at the World Junior Championship this January in Buffalo. Further solidifying his elite potential, the 6-foot-2 skater became the youngest member of the Czech roster at the World Championships this May in Denmark.
While the Rangers continue to undergo the next stage in their rebuild, they will primarily look to Filip Chytil to anchor their youth movement. He’s widely regarded as their best prospect and one of the best in the NHL as a whole. It’s expected that he will earn a spot on the Opening Night roster in October and should make an immediate impact on their second or third line. He may require more time to develop in Hartford but being NHL ready is not far off at all.
— Alex Nunn (@aj_ranger) May 13, 2018
Among defensemen within the Senators organization, Thomas Chabot is one that Ottawa fans can feel good about. At 21-years-old, he spent much of this year playing on the top pair alongside the greatest defenseman in the world, Erik Karlsson. With 63 games played in the NHL last season, he is no longer a rookie. The 18th overall selection of the 2015 Draft scored nine goals and 16 assists for 25 points. Obviously, his stats may have been padded by playing next to Karlsson. Nevertheless, his abilities and potential are good enough for him to stand on his own. He also went on to represent Canada in the World Championships in Denmark this year.
Chabot has a heavy weight on his shoulders. Not only does he play for the Senators which is something in and of itself, but his role revolves around the uncertainty of Karlsson. Many are looking to him to essentially replace Karlsson’s offensive skills. Chabot’s quick skating and incredible hockey IQ draw many similarities to his mentor. The 6-foot-2 Canadian is one of the best young defensive players in the NHL. Should Karlsson leave, his development will be put to the test sooner than anticipated. He’ll become the backbone of the blueline alongside fellow defenseman, Cody Ceci. Barring the most anticipated trade in recent NHL history, Chabot will likely continue to learn from Karlsson and develop his game until he’s ready to take the helm of the defence.
Grab that puck.
— Ottawa Senators (@Senators) December 2, 2017
The Sabres seem to be moving in the right direction, finally. The drafting of Jack Eichel in 2015 and Rasmus Dahlin this year help tremendously. But aside from the obvious, Buffalo’s first-round selection last year is drawing much excitement from one of the most loyal fanbases in the league. Casey Mittelstadt spent his freshman season at the University of Minnesota. In 34 games he racked up 11 goals and 30 points. Where he truly blew fans away was at the World Juniors in Buffalo. Mittelstadt scored four goals and 11 points in a mere seven games. He earned him the MVP for the tournament. Following the conclusion of his season with Minnesota, he made his debut for the Sabres. Despite only playing six games, the 19-year-old made the most of it, scoring five points.
When general manager Jason Botterill traded away Ryan O’Reilly, he opened up a large spot for Mittelstadt. Buffalo’s front office is confident in the Minnesotan’s ability to transition and take O’Reilly’s place. Patrik Berglund will likely start the year on the second line with Mittelstadt on the third. The obvious goal is to develop him into a second line role as soon as possible. With the additions of Jeff Skinner, Conor Sheary, Tage Thompson, and Vladimir Sobotka, the rookie skater has the tools necessary to hone his game for the NHL level. Drawing comparisons to former Sabres stars, Alexander Mogilny and Maxim Afinogenov, Mittelstadt’s offensive game is going to be a spectacle to see for years to come, many of which likely leading to playoff runs.
Okay, I see you Casey Mittelstadt 🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/e5HRS2nOKj
— Bar South N Celly™ (@BarSouthNCelly) June 28, 2018
Most Montreal fans will have their attention on their third overall draft pick, Jesperi Kotkaniemi. However, the turmoil on the blueline brings them back down to Earth. Shea Weber is still injured and not returning anytime soon, Karl Alzner unsurprisingly did not live up to expectations, and despite coming off of an uncharacteristic 42-point season, Jeff Petry is turning 31 in December and consistency is unknown. Despite all the negatives, one 20-year-old defenseman provides hope to an ailing Canadiens roster. He began last season playing on the first pair next to Weber but after ten games, he was demoted. Mete saw more top pair minutes but head coach Claude Julien moved him around throughout a rocky season. Finally, a hand injury in March ended his season short and the 5-foot-9 blueliner finished with no goals but seven assists in 49 games.
There is much uncertainty surrounding the Canadiens this year. Particularly with their defence, the ability to rise to the occasion will be key to winning games. Julien will look to Mete to develop into the top pair defenseman he’s projected to be while Weber is still out. The 2016 fourth-round draft pick needs to improve his offensive game quickly. He has said he’s planning on modelling his game after Maple Leafs top defenseman, Morgan Rielly. Mete will try and serve as a key piece in slowing the downward spiral of the Montreal Canadiens.
Another look: Mete steps into the lane that the stickless PKer is trying to clog, connects w/ Hudon. Awareness. (Great shot by Hudon, too.) pic.twitter.com/Klnci2IyZM
— Mitch Brown (@MitchLBrown) September 21, 2017
Jakub Vrana, LW/RW, Washington Capitals
Jakub Vrana’s rookie year ended with a Stanley Cup parade and he’s just getting started. Jumping around from the fourth line, third line, and being a healthy scratch altogether. Following a 25-game stretch with no goals, he turned on the jets and started producing once again. Probably the fastest skater on the Capitals roster, Vrana propelled himself to the second line and helped the team to their third Metropolitan Division title in a row. Finishing off the regular season with 13 goals and 27 assists in 73 games, the best was yet to come. Head coach Barry Trotz looked for someone to step up and in Game 5 of the second round, Vrana did just that. He scored the game-winning goal as well as two assists. He also opened up the scoring for the Caps in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, the night they lifted the Cup.
Vrana has already achieved the highest accomplishment in professional hockey at 22-years-old. But he’s only going to get better. He needs to work more on his defensive game a bit but his offensive abilities are lethal. The 13th overall draftee from 2014 has impeccable skating. He isn’t afraid to crash the net in order to cash in on rebounds. The sky is the limit for a player with elite talent.
The Vancouver Canucks 2014 first-round pick is entering his fourth season in the NHL. In a May 2016 trade, Jared McCann was sent to Florida. His first year there was spent primarily in the AHL. This past season provides hope for the future as he posted a new career high in points, nine goals and 28 points over 68 games. Though his production is increasing steadily, McCann is still only 22 years old. The window to be a key player on the Panthers roster is wide open. As the team prepares to get into the post-season for the first time since 2015, McCann will need to continue to increase his scoring. He is a good two-way center with great skating. He still needs to refine his decision making when in the attacking zone. McCann has elite potential but needs to speed development up.
The Panthers were frustratingly close to earning a spot to the playoffs last season. Now, on the cusp of a new year and the addition of college star, Henrik Börgstrom, they seem poised to do well in the Atlantic Division. Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck have the first and second center positions locked down tight. This means that McCann will have to fight for the third line with Börgstrom or transition to the wing. As he gets older and more experienced, he will have the ability to earn a more prominent role with the Panthers. This year is essentially make or break for Jared McCann to emerge as a key figure on a future playoff team.
— Florida Panthers (@FlaPanthers) April 6, 2018
Martin Necas, C/RW, Carolina Hurricanes
Martin Necas is a Czech forward who dominated in the professional league of his country. He put up nine goals and 17 points in 24 games while playing with grown men as a 19-year-old. At last year’s World Junior Tournament, he tied Casey Mittelstadt for the most points with 3 gotals and 11 points in seven games. While playing for the Czechs in the World Championships, he scored three goals and five points in only seven games up against NHL level players. Though he’ll likely begin in the AHL with the Charlotte Checkers, he’s not far from emerging as a dangerous offensive weapon for the Hurricanes.
Despite not winning the Erik Karlsson sweepstakes (yet), the Lightning will still get a major boost to their roster. Anthony Cirelli will most likely don the Bolts sweater in October following a very successful 2017-18 season. He spent the first 51 games with the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL. There he put up an impressive 14 goals and 37 points before getting called up in March. Cirelli joined Tampa Bay for their final 18 games of the year, scoring five goals and 11 points, and carried into their postseason run. As if the Lightning couldn’t get any more elite, the third round draftee of 2015 will surely make them better.
Lias Andersson, C/LW, New York Rangers
The first of the Rangers 2017 first round selections were used on Lias Andersson at number seven. The Swedish forward split last year between the SHL’s Frölunda HC where he went scored seven goals and 14 points in 21 games. He then moved to the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack, posting five goals and 14 points in 25 games. While representing Sweden at the World Juniors (six goals, seven points in sevens games) he captained his team to a silver medal but showed heart and passion the whole way, something the Rangers specifically need. He is expected to make the Opening Night roster. Andersson should make an immediate impact on a rebuilding New York team both on the ice and in the locker room.
Ryan Donato, C/LW, Boston Bruins
Boston’s next big prospect from college is a lethal goal scorer from Harvard University. Ryan Donato put up big numbers on his way to being a Hobey Baker finalist. Last year, the 22-year-old racked up 26 goals and 43 points in only 29 games. He got a good look in a Bruins jersey as well. In 12 games, Donato recorded goals and nine points. It was his play on the international stage that garnered the most attention, though. While representing the United States in the Olympics, the Massachusetts native scored five goals and six points in five games. He and Jake Debrusk will compete for the second line left wing spot to play alongside David Krejci en route to another shot at a deep playoff run.