One of the most exciting things about a new NHL season on the horizon is the prospect of an entirely new group of players waiting to take a giant step forward in their careers. A fresh start and an 82-game slate offers ample opportunity for guys to elevate themselves into a new classification, whether it be a rookie becoming a budding star or an established player turning into an explosive breakout performer.
With that in mind, here are 12 candidates across the NHL whose names you should know as they look poised for a breakthrough year in 2019-2020.
The Ducks have some exciting young players (Sam Steel, Max Comtois and Troy Terry to name a few) but let's go in a different direction here. Ondrej Kase already has three NHL seasons under his belt and has already proven he can be a 20-goal scorer. But Kase is not yet 24 and his ceiling could be a lot higher than 20 goals.
The Czech winger is speedy, skilled, creative and efficient. He's got very good underlying numbers and has been Anaheim's most efficient scorer over the past two seasons with 2.31 points per 60 (5v5). He should be seeing an increased role as a top pillar on a team that's rebuilding. If he can stay healthy, which is a significant if considering he's yet to play a full season, it's not crazy to think he could be a 70-plus point guy.
Svechnikov had a pretty strong rookie campaign for the Canes. He scored 20 goals and added 17 assists while showing flashes of the brilliance that made him worthy of the No. 2 overall pick in 2018. But Svechnikov averaged less than 15 minutes of ice time per game during his first season and had very limited power play time, scoring no goals on special teams.
The 19-year-old Russian hit his stride late last season and should have an expanded top-six role with the Canes this year. With more ice time and opportunity should come more production, and Svechnikov looks poised to make last year's numbers look like chump change-- especially if he plays alongside Sebastian Aho on Carolina's top line. He's an extremely talented and fearsome force on the wing, so it wouldn't be too surprising if he topped 30 goals this season.
It's sort of easy to forget that Cale Makar wasn't with the Avalanche until the postseason last year, making the jump straight from UMass to Colorado during the first round of the Avs' playoff series against the Flames. The Hobey Baker winner scored the game-winning goal in his NHL debut (Game 3 of that series) and fit in quite well on Colorado's back end.
Now entering his first official season, Makar should be a consistent driving force on an explosive and dangerous Avalanche team. Defensemen typically have a steeper learning curve than forwards but Makar is a new-age defenseman who will get plenty of opportunity to thrive with the Avs, especially following the departure of Tyson Barrie from Colorado's blue line.
Not only does he have an unforgettable name, he made sure it was frequently in discussion during last year's postseason. Hintz tallied just nine goals and 22 points over 58 games during his rookie campaign in Dallas last season, which isn't much to write home about. But the big Finnish forward really announced his arrival during the playoffs, leading the team with five goals in 13 playoff games.
Look for Hintz to build off that strong finish to his season as he enters 2019-2020 with more confidence and opportunity. He'll likely get a chance to secure a regular top-six role in his sophomore season and he could be an X-factor in Dallas as they look to make another solid playoff push. The Stars struggled to find secondary scoring throughout much of last season so continued emergence from Hintz could serve as a blessing for that lineup.
Zadina spent the majority of last season in the AHL, where he was solid (16 goals) but didn't dominate like you might expect from a hyped top prospect -- especially one who has consistently filled the net at nearly every level of competition. The Czech winger is only 19 years old and still adjusting to the pro game, but he's got the vision and offensive ability to make an impact this year -- especially on a rebuilding Red Wings team.
He played nine games for Detroit last season and it seems likely Zadina is due for more of a shot this year, even if he's still a bit unseasoned. The Red Wings aren't particularly strong on the right side and could use Zadina's abilities on their power play. If he's able to work through his growing pains and find more consistency, he's a great talent who might be ready to announce his arrival this season.
The Canadiens have an impressive stable of young talent, some of which has already made an impact at the NHL level. Jesperi Kotkaniemi battled consistency issues in his rookie year but looks like a blossoming two-way impact player down the middle. Ryan Poehling scored a hat trick in his NHL debut last season, which is pretty good!
But Nick Suzuki has become the talk of Montreal thanks to his strong play this preseason, and it looks like he may be ready to make the jump and establish himself this year. Suzuki was the 13th overall pick in 2017 and he spent last season dominating in the OHL. Not only is he a skilled and dangerous player with ability to create offense, but he's also smart and very good away from the puck.
Assuming he makes the roster, Suzuki should fit right in on a young Canadiens team that loves to forecheck and apply pressure. Even if numbers aren't off-the-charts, the 20-year-old looks primed to be a difference-maker in his first season.
Fabbro made his NHL debut at the end of last season, playing in four regular season games and earning enough respect to stick on the blue line for all six of the Predators' playoff games. If that wasn't enough proof that Nashville believes in the 21-year-old's ability, the trade of P.K. Subban this offseason should help drive that home.
Subban's exit opens up a spot for Fabbro in Nashville's heralded top-four, and Preds GM David Poile said he probably wouldn't have made the deal if Fabbro didn't look so good at the end of last season. The expectations are set high but they clearly believe he's ready to have a big impact and there's not a whole lot of reason to doubt them based on what we've seen. He's smart, talented, works hard and is highly regarded in an organization that has a great track record with evaluating defensemen.
Hughes is an obvious one considering he's the No. 1 pick coming out of this summer's draft and has been labeled a possible generational talent. He's going to have plenty of opportunity to shine for the Devils right away but he's still undersized and will likely only scrape the surface of his potential this season. Still, he's going to have a significant impact for New Jersey.
Maybe a more intriguing breakout breakout candidate in Newark is Nikita Gusev, who is set to make his NHL debut after establishing himself as a big-time star in the KHL and on the international stage for Russia at the Olympics. Gusev has arguably been the best player in the world outside of the NHL over the past few years, lighting it up with 225 points in 173 KHL games over the last three seasons. He led the league with 17 goals and 82 points in 62 games for SKA St. Petersburg last year.
Gusev brings some flexibility on the wing in New Jersey and he should have a great opportunity to thrive while playing in a top-six role alongside some good players with the Devils this season. He has seemed to establish some chemistry with Hughes in the early going this preseason and that could bode well for both players' numbers this season.
Where there's mention of Jack Hughes, Kaapo Kakko probably isn't far behind. Kakko was the No. 2 overall pick in this year's draft and he's talented enough to have some people questioning if he might have a better career than Hughes.
While it's probably too early to be having that discussion, it's certainly plausible that Kakko could be more NHL-ready at this moment than the one guy who went ahead of him. He's got more size, has been playing with and against grown men for the past year and should have a little less responsibility playing on the wing.
His goal scoring gets the most attention but Kakko isn't a one-dimensional offensive threat by any means. Sure, he has a lethal finish but he's also got great vision, hands, passing ability and thinks the game well. He should be ready to make a strong impact on the Rangers front-six right off the bat.
Alright, maybe it's no so much a breakout as it is a comeback/resurgence, but Nylander seems primed for a huge year in Toronto this season. After two 20-goal campaigns to begin his career, he took a big step backward last season in a year that was stained by a dramatic holdout and a brutal lack of production. Nylander tallied just seven goals and 27 points in 54 games post-holdout.
This seems like a great time to buy low. Not only did Nylander have decent underlying numbers last year, he also bounced back with a nice showing in the World Championships this summer, leading the tournament in scoring. On top of that, he's saying and doing all the right things heading into this season. He's focused on using last year as a learning experience, turning the page and looking to prove himself all over again this year -- even changing his number for a fresh start.
More importantly, he'll get back to normalcy with a full season's work, one with the best opportunity that's ever been presented to him. He'll get to play alongside either Auston Matthews or John Tavares in Toronto's top-six and should get plenty of power play run as well. Despite last season's struggles, Nylander is a very talented player in one of the league's most explosive and dangerous offenses. Not only should he get back to 20 goals and 60 points, but it wouldn't be surprising if he landed closer to 30-35 and 70-75 this year.
Like his younger brother Jack, Quinn Hughes is poised to announce his arrival at the NHL level this season. Hughes made his debut on the Canucks blue line at the end of last season, playing in five games and recording three assists while averaging just over 18 minutes of ice time.
Vancouver desperately needs a difference-maker and a quarterback on their back end and Hughes certainly has the skill set to be that guy. There might be growing pains on a young, rebuilding team but Hughes should get plenty of opportunity to grow and flourish in the top-four and on the power play this season. He's an unbelievable skater with great vision and creativity so he should be a driving force in their offense, both at five-on-five and on special teams.