One of the most exciting things about the beginning of an NHL season is the mystery of who may be getting ready for a breakout campaign. Year in and year out, members of the media and fans alike are constantly saying things like “this player is primed for a big year this season,” and “look out for this guy, he might come out of nowhere this year.” Sometimes that speculation comes to fruition, and other times we’re left feeling a little disappointed and possibly even misled.
Well, now it’s my turn to single out some guys across the NHL that might be gearing up for a career season. In this list, we’re looking at players that are already established as NHL players, but maybe haven’t announced themselves the way they were expected to back when they were drafted. These players have offered a glimpse of their potential prior to this season, but the 2021-22 campaign is when they are finally going to put it all together and boost their value to not only their actual teams, but potentially your fantasy hockey team as well. If you’ve read the title of this piece, you probably know who headlines this group of players.
(D) Rasmus Dahlin – Buffalo Sabres
There’s no need to beat around the bush about this: the 2021-22 season is set to be a ROUGH one for the Buffalo Sabres and their fans (let’s pour one out for the boys over at Sabres Scoop.) That being said, there’s actually a fair amount of reasons to tune-in to the Sabres this season. While centers Casey Mittelstadt and Dylan Cozens are breakout candidates in their own right, the team’s top defenseman looks set to finally make good on the potential that made him the top pick in the 2018 draft – back when all the worst teams were “Fallin’ for Dahlin”.
Still just 21 years old, Rasmus Dahlin has 107 points though 197 career games in the NHL – a points per-game (P/G) rate of .54. In the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season, the Swedish defenseman was actually in the midst of a solid season, posting 40 points through 59 games while also holding a respectable plus/minus rating of minus-7. It’s also worth noting that he did finish third in voting for the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year following the 2018-19 season.
And yet there’s still much to be desired from Dahlin three seasons into his NHL career. Remember, this was a player that was heralded as Sweden’s “best prospect in a generation” leading up to the 2018 draft. While that was probably an unfair label to stick on him, there’s no denying that he was the consensus top prospect in that 2018 draft class. Since that draft, we’ve seen some of his fellow draftees like Andrei Svechnikov and Quinn Hughes become bona fide superstars in the NHL. While nobody is going to say Dahlin is a bad player, there’s also not going to be many people that would call him a superstar at this point in his career. Instead, he’s one of the lone beacons of light on a team that has been shrouded in darkness since the second half of the Obama presidency.
This year he could change all of that. Signed to a new three-year deal that carries an annual value of $6 million, the Sabres are betting that Dahlin can outperform that contract in the short-term, while the player is betting he can do the same so that he can cash-in in the long-term. With the 2021-22 season set to be a return to normal (or at least as close to it as possible), the Sabres and their fans have to expect that he will not only revert back to his production from the 2019-20 season, but also improve upon it, cementing himself as one of the premiere offensive defensemen in the NHL. He will not be able to save Buffalo’s season by himself, but a breakout performance would go a long way towards offering hope that the Sabres have at least one foundational piece in place.
(RW) Jesse Puljujarvi – Edmonton Oilers
When the Edmonton Oilers selected Jesse Puljujarvi fourth overall in the 2016 draft, they probably envisioned things playing out a little differently. With just 62 points through the first 194 regular season games of his NHL career, he is far from the elite power forward they likely thought they were adding to their mix just one year after drafting Connor McDavid. That’s not even to mention the one-year hiatus the young Finnish player took during the 2019-20 season where he opted to play over in Finland instead.
Last season, upon returning to the Oilers, Puljujarvi had his career-best season at the age of 22. He recorded 15 goals and 25 points through 55 games while also averaging just over 15 minutes in ice time. This season, he looks like a virtual lock to play on Edmonton’s top line alongside McDavid and newcomer Zach Hyman. If there’s any reason to believe that this could be a big year for Puljujarvi, it’s his place in the lineup; you’re bound to collect a good amount of points when you’re skating alongside the best offensive player in the NHL.
Signed to a one-year deal valued at $1.175 million, Puljujarvi could set himself up for a big payday if he can take his game to the next level alongside McDavid. While he may never live up to his draft day hype, he has the tools to cement himself as a valuable top six winger for the Oilers. Realistically, we should know pretty early on this season whether or not this player is going to have a breakout season.
(W) Kaapo Kakko – New York Rangers
Sticking with the theme of European players selected with a top five pick in the draft, the New York Rangers got some luck in the draft lottery and found themselves with the opportunity to draft Finnish winger Kaapo Kakko with the second pick of the 2019 draft. Since then, he has played in 114 NHL games while collecting 40 points along the way. This year with a new coach and fresh opportunity to play alongside Ryan Strome and Artemi Panarin, the 20-year-old looks confident as ever and ready to establish himself as a go-to player for the Rangers as they exit their rebuilding years.
Looking into Kakko’s analytics from last season, there were already some promising signs that the young winger’s game was heading in the right direction after a so-so rookie campaign. Among players to play 10 games or more for the Rangers last season, he led the team in even-strength Corsi-For% (CF%) with a rate of 53.95 (per Natural Stat Trick). Furthermore, he also led the team in expected goals-for percentage (xGF%) with a rate of 55.77 (meaning that the Rangers were expected to own almost 56% of goals scored while he was on the ice.) Essentially, whenever he was on the ice, the Rangers had the puck and were doing good things with it. Unfortunately, with just nine goals and 17 points last season, his actual production did not live up to those lofty analytics.
That should change this season. Entering his third season in the NHL, Kakko knows what it means to play in this league, and he should understand the types of challenges he’s going to face on a nightly basis. He’s already shown the ability to create chances while he’s on the ice. The next step is turning that possession into points, and it seems like he’s going to be put into a situation where he can do that this season. The Rangers have high expectations as a team heading into this season, and a lot of hit will hinge on Kakko taking the next step in his development.
(F) Sam Bennett – Florida Panthers
The oldest player included on this list, Sam Bennett is already a veteran of 412 regular season games in the NHL. At 25 years old, there’s a strong possibility that this player is already in his prime, and so suggesting that he’s going to take a massive leap forward might be labeled as risky business. However, the player we saw close out the season with the Florida Panthers was not the same player we saw during 402 games with the Calgary Flames, the team that drafted him fourth overall back in 2014. In 10 games with the Panthers, he posted 15 points, and then followed that up with five points in five playoff games against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Like Puljujarvi, arguably the biggest reason Bennett looks poised for a breakout season is who he’s slated to play with. Arguably the most underrated player in the game, winger Jonathan Huberdeau looks locked in as Bennett’s left wing on the Panthers’ second line. While Huberdeau scored 61 points last season, 17 of them came after Bennett arrived after the trade deadline. At even-strength, the duo had a 67.16 CF% along with a xGF% of 73.61 over 106 minutes (per Natural Stat Trick). Simply put: Huberdeau and Bennett were absolutely dominant together.
Entering the 2021-22 season, Bennett’s career-high point total is 36, set as a rookie during the 2015-16 season. His career-high P/G rate is .56, set last season over 48 games with the Flames and Panthers. If he and Huberdeau can maintain the chemistry they displayed last season, he should be set for a breakout season in a big way. This is his first season in the NHL as a team’s designated second line center. It will be very interesting to see what he does with it.
(F) Jesperi Kotkaniemi – Carolina Hurricanes
Drafted two spots after Dahlin, Jesperi Kotkaniemi was supposed to become the Montreal Canadiens’ top line center of the future – at least that was the idea when they drafted him third overall. Since then, his career stat line shows 62 points through 171 regular season games with the bleu, blanc, and rouge. Heading into the 2021-22 season, however, he’ll be wearing the noir, blanc, and rouge of the Carolina Hurricanes. Perhaps you’ve heard.
While the offer sheet was an expert-level troll job by the Hurricanes, they didn’t add him to their roster just to “own” the Canadiens. At 21 years old, Kotkaniemi is still just scratching the surface of what he can do at the NHL level. With a new $6.1 million price tag, this is the year for him to really come into his own, especially with a team that A) has Stanley Cup aspirations, and B) has a few talented Finnish players on the roster just like him.
With a career CF% rate of 55.8, he regularly controls the puck in the offensive zone. However, his career-high point total to date is the 34 points he put up as a rookie during the 2018-19 season. While the Canadiens rarely used him in a primary scoring role, the Hurricanes look set to use him on the wing on their second line alongside Vincent Trocheck and Martin Necas. Not only should playing on the wing free Kotkaniemi up to assert himself offensively, but he’ll have highly skillful forwards on his line that he can make plays with. That wasn’t necessarily always the case while he played a depth role with the Canadiens. If he can show some chemistry with his new linemates, he should be set up for a breakout year.
Others Set for A Breakout Year
These aren’t the only players you should have on your radar. Other potential breakout candidates include: Conor Garland (VAN), Kirby Dach (CHI), Cody Glass (NSH), Jake Bean (CLB), Erik Brannstrom (OTT), and Anthony Mantha (WSH). Is there anybody missing from this list? Who do YOU think is set to have a breakout year in 2021-22?
Share your breakout candidates in the comments section below!
I am a Western Michigan University alum whose passion for hockey knows no limits. Dr. Pepper enthusiast. Catch me and my fellow Red Wings writers’ YouTube show “The Hockey Writers Grind Line” which drops every Saturday.