NHL News

NHL breakout tiers: Predicting the new wave of superstars

Three seasons ago, Tage Thompson was not yet Tage Thompson.

He was a 23-year-old forward with the Buffalo Sabres, hitting a career high of eight goals and best known for being one of several players in the 2018 Ryan O’Reilly trade with St. Louis. But then he scored 38 goals in 2021-22. That was his breakout. He followed that up with 47 goals, the sixth-highest total in the NHL during the 2022-23 season. After that, he was a star.

That’s how quickly momentum can build for an NHL player. Sometimes it’s a young player getting a bigger role. Other times it’s an established player getting a change in scenery or linemates. Suddenly, someone bubbling under the surface becomes an All-Star, or a vital part of a contending team.

Here are 25 players that are primed for breakout campaigns in the 2023-24 NHL season, placed into five handy tiers:

Jump to a tier:
New scenery
New linemates
Young star to major star
The wait is over
Rookie breakouts

Tier 1: New scenery

These players switched teams and could see their stock rise.

The only argument against Bertuzzi not being included here is that he’s already broken out with a 30-goal, 32-assist season in 68 games with the Detroit Red Wings in 2021-22. That’s fair from a statistical standpoint.

But consider how much cache he’s going to gain from riding shotgun with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner on the Leafs’ top line — in a contract year, no less. The potential for new career highs is there. The potential for a new level of stardom in the Centre of the Hockey Universe is even higher.

Whenever the Oilers fall short in their pursuit of the Stanley Cup, a common lament from fans is “if only we had more than one Connor.” Well, now they do! (Although this probably isn’t what they had in mind.)

Brown could have one of the more enviable opportunities this season: Playing as Connor McDavid‘s linemate. This is a reunion of sorts, as Brown and McDavid were teammates with the OHL Erie Otters. If he earns time with the NHL’s best player, his career highs (21 goals, 43 points) could be obliterated … if he can stay healthy, as an ACL injury ruined his first (and only) campaign in Washington after just four games last season.

After five seasons with the Boston Bruins, the 28-year-old defenseman moved over to the Sabres as a free agent where he could line up next to Norris Trophy contender Rasmus Dahlin on the top pairing. This is good news for Dahlin, who was frankly done with having to battle against Clifton as a division rival.

“I remember playing him in Boston; I was scared of him. I hated to play against him,” Dahlin told Buffalo Hockey Beat.

Besides the Connors in Edmonton, there’s an even more notable junior hockey reunion in the Western Conference this season. Drouin and Nathan MacKinnon played together on the QMJHL Halifax Mooseheads before the 2013 draft. That’s where MacKinnon went first overall to Colorado and Drouin went third overall to the Lightning.

Needless to say, their careers diverged from that point, on and off the ice. Colorado GM Chris MacFarland said MacKinnon became “an honorary member of the scouting department” when he endorsed the signing of Drouin, who spent six inconsistent seasons in Montreal, following a 2017 trade. Perhaps his old teammate can help Drouin reach new heights offensively. If that happens, it’ll be one of the season’s most heartwarming stories.

Durzi showed plenty of offensive potential when given the ice time and opportunity with the Los Angeles Kings. Opportunity and ice time are two things he’ll find in abundance with the Coyotes this season.

Shayne Gostisbehere put up solid numbers in a similar situation last season in Arizona, and he didn’t have nearly the offensive talent in front of him on the power play that Durzi will have.

Tier 2: New sidekicks

These players could thrive with new linemates or defensive pairing partner.

There’s a University of Michigan product that many assume is going to make a huge impact in Columbus this season. No, not Adam Fantilli — although yeah, that guy is going to be a star.

No, we’re talking about Kent Johnson, who had 40 points in 79 games last season with the Jackets. That was a tease for what could be coming in Year 2, provided he gets more than 14:31 in ice time per game and more opportunity to skate with the likes of Johnny Gaudreau.

The 25-year-old had 20 points in 69 games last season with the Bolts. He was one of three primary partners with Victor Hedman, along with Zach Bogosian and Erik Cernak. But by the end of the season, it was Perbix that was playing with the former Norris winner.

The assumption is that Perbix is going to be the run of play with Hedman this season, which should be a benefit to both.

The absolute epitome of a breakout player, the 21-year-old winger had 23 goals in 82 games as a rookie, and then saw his production slightly dip to 17 goals in 74 games last season.

It appears the Red Wings are going to position him to thrive in Year 3, potentially on a line with Dylan Larkin and the newly acquired Alex DeBrincat. It’s all there for Raymond to reach a new level in Detroit.

The 27-year-old defenseman has played with high-end talent before, occasionally spending time in a pairing with Kris Letang over the last few seasons. That experience will come in handy this season as Pettersson is expected to partner up with reigning Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson.

Hopefully he has Jacob Middleton, Jaycob Megna and Mario Ferraro on a text chain to better understand what needs to be done while Karlsson is doing his thing.

The retirement of Patrice Bergeron and the departure of David Krejci marked the end of an era for the Bruins. It also signaled the greatest opportunity for Zacha in his nine-year NHL career.

Zacha already showed he had another offensive gear last season with new career highs in goals (21) and points (57). Since the Bruins didn’t make any blockbuster moves to fill the donut in their lineup, Zacha moves up the depth chart and will see time with the likes of Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. Perhaps more importantly, he should take over the bumper role on the top power-play unit.

Tier 3: Young star to major star

You might already know these names. Get ready to hear them a lot more.

Caufield’s goals-per-game average last season projected to a 46-goal pace in an 82-game campaign. But that’s the trick, isn’t it? The 22-year-old winger played just 46 games last season due to injury, scoring 26 goals in that campaign.

Given good health, and continued chemistry with linemate Nick Suzuki, the diminutive scorer could reach star status this season.

When the Ducks are ready to emerge from their rebuild and contend again, it’s not hard to imagine McTavish as their Patrice Bergeron or Jonathan Toews incredibly skilled and doggedly determined glue guy.

He had 17 goals in 80 games in a typical rookie season that saw him excel offensively while experiencing the learning curve of NHL-level defense. His numbers on the power play should be better, and he’ll have more help at 5-on-5 with the likes of Alex Killorn, too. He just needs to stay healthy. McTavish was already working through an injury in the preseason.

The 21-year-old was sixth in the Calder Trophy voting last season after 32 points in 77 games, skating 21:55 per game on average. The Senators are so high on him that they inked him to an eight-year, $64.4 million contract extension that kicks in for the 2024-25 season.

He’s got the kind of upside that should reward that investment pretty quickly. Sanderson’s going to play a key role if Ottawa finally gets over the hump to playoff contention, and he’ll be recognized accordingly.

“Da-da-da-da-da da da … AKIRA!” The 23-year-old goalie heard plenty of those chants from Devils fans after his playoff-salvaging run in goal, going 4-4 with a .921 save percentage and two shutouts.

He’ll partner with Vitek Vanecek as New Jersey’s goaltending tandem this season, but the potential is there for Schmid to emerge as the guy to lead the Devils to the next level of their championship hunt.

Thompson was the goalie of record in 21 of the Golden Knights’ 51 wins last season. But a lower-body injury subverted what was shaping up to be an outstanding rookie season — and eventually made him the Carson Wentz to Adin Hill‘s Nick Foles in their championship run, which also earned Hill a contract extension.

Thompson is healthy to start the season. If he reclaims the crease behind a Stanley Cup-winning roster, and manages to stay healthy, Thompson can finish the story he started penning in 2022-23.

Tier 4: The wait is over

Players we’ve been waiting to see break out who finally will.

The No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 draft saw his ice time jump by nearly two minutes per game (14:04) last season while getting a chance to be a top-line player for the first time in his career.

His line with Adrian Kempe and Anze Kopitar had an expected goals percentage of 54.7% at 5-on-5, while Byfield himself had a career high 22 points in 53 games. The surface has finally been scratched on the 21-year-old’s considerable talent.

Harley has played 40 regular-season games in the NHL, and produced six points. But it was his performance in last season’s Stanley Cup Playoff run for Dallas that was most tantalizing: nine points in 19 games, skating 16:10 per night.

The only thing holding him back might be the Stars’ depth chart, where Ryan Suter and Esa Lindell also populate the left side of their defense. But Harley is going to force the issue. If nothing else, he’s earned the chance to get a look on their power play.

Kakko was asked after last season about his next step as an NHL player. “I think maybe get some power-play time. And just play more,” he said. “I think all the guys try to play top-six, so yeah, I try to be that guy also.”

Kakko saw time with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad on the team’s top line last season. His play-driving ability helped the trio to 1.62 goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. Kakko set a new career high in goals (18) and points (40). He’s more than earned the chance to “play more” this season.

The 21-year-old forward took a leap forward in his second NHL season, with 30 points in 51 games, a season that was truncated due to an upper-body injury. While he showed offensive pop for the Jets, they also got defensive results when he was on the ice (1.72 goals-against per 60 minutes).

He saw time with all of Winnipeg’s top players last season. With Pierre-Luc Dubois off to the Kings, his importance in the lineup only grows.

York is entering his fourth NHL campaign, having amassed 30 points in 87 career games. He’s played over 19 minutes per game on average in the last two seasons.

With the Flyers losing from veterans from their defense corps, the opportunity is there for York to have an even larger impact — especially on the power play, where York posted only three of his 20 points last season.

Tier 5: Rookie sensations

First-year players who aren’t waiting for their breakout.

Bedard was asked what, statistically, a solid rookie season would look like for him in Chicago. “I expect things out of myself of course. I wanna be a good player. I want to make a difference. I want to help the team win,” he said.

The wins might not arrive this season for Bedard and the Blackhawks, but the goals should: The No. 1 overall pick has a shot that’s been called “otherworldly” by scouts.

Cooley left the University of Minnesota for the NHL because he saw a chance to make an early mark in Arizona. “Obviously with the Coyotes, there’s so much opportunity. So much young talent. I’m looking forward to playing with some high-end guys,” he said.

And they’re looking forward to playing with Cooley, who is as dynamic an offensive talent as you’ll find in this rookie class, having posted 60 points in 39 games with the Gophers last season. How many rookies post a goal of the year candidate in their first preseason game?

Faber, 21, was thrown into the playoff fray last season after just two regular-season NHL games. The Minnesota native was tremendous in the NCAA and projects to be a solid defenseman in the NHL.

He’ll have a chance to learn from some of the better blueliners in the league in Minnesota, with Jonas Brodin and Jared Spurgeon among his teammates.

The younger brother of Devils star Jack Hughes burst onto the scene last season, and provided a jolt of energy during their playoff run.

He established his credentials as one of the better puck-moving defensive prospects in hockey during his years with the University of Michigan, and those talents should fit in nicely with the fifth-best offensive team in the NHL last season (3.52 goals per game).

If the Sabres are going to make the playoffs for the first time since 2011, it might be on the strength of Levi’s netminding. They got a taste of that last season, when the 21-year-old won five of seven starts and posted a 2.94 goals against average.

The path is there for Levi this season to earn the majority of minutes in Buffalo — and he’s got the confidence to prove that he’s up to the task.

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