Whether you’re a prospect junkie, fantasy hockey fanatic or general NHL fan, everybody loves a good breakout story.
But what exactly constitutes a breakout campaign? Naturally, some think of players that come out of nowhere and make an impact. But how often does that really happen in the NHL? Not all that much. And if it does, it’s almost impossible to predict. Granted, we don’t need to box ourselves into this rags-to-riches definition.
A breakout performer can also be a player with somewhat of a pedigree that elevates their game considerably. Age, opportunity and clues from the year prior usually give us the biggest hints as to who could break out for an upcoming season.
Here are five breakout candidates for the 2023-24 NHL campaign:
Alexis Lafreniere, New York Rangers
This could finally be the year we see the 2020 first-overall pick pop off.
Fresh off recording a career-high 40 points last season, Lafreniere, a left shot, is shifting over to the right wing this season and that’ll probably lead to an increase in ice time. Instead of being stuck behind Artemi Panarin and Chris Kreider on the depth chart, odds are Lafreniere plays on a line with one of those two.
A first look at the Rangers' lines and D pairs (Laviolette said this will be different tomorrow):
— Dan Rosen (@drosennhl) September 22, 2023
Over the last two seasons, Lafreniere actually produced quite well for someone who wasn’t given much time in the top six. Dating back to the start of the 2021-22 season, he's recorded 0.87 5-on-5 goals per 60 minutes, ranking him in the 83rd percentile of all skaters that played at least 500 minutes in that span, according to NaturalStatTrick.com.
Since breaking into the league, Lafreniere’s biggest enemy has been consistency. When he’s on, his high-end skill set — highlighted by his silky hands and sharp hockey sense — shines through. But when he’s off — which happened for long stretches throughout the last few years — he’s invisible.
But when evaluating Lafreniere’s inconsistency, it’s important to remember just how young he is. While confidence is imperative to any NHL player succeeding, it’s especially so for a young gun. Former Rangers bench boss Gerard Gallant didn’t give Lafreniere, or other young players, much leash, which may have affected his confidence.
With a new contract signed, a new coach in Peter Laviolette at the helm, and a clear path to an increased role this season, the table is set for Lafreniere to eclipse last year's point total by a landslide.
Sandin was nothing short of electric after being acquired by the Capitals a few days before the 2023 trade deadline.
In 19 games with the Caps, Sandin recorded 15 points and averaged 22:59 minutes a night — five more minutes than what he averaged with the Toronto Maple Leafs. During that end-of-season span, the 23-year-old's point production tied him for 17th among defensemen, according to NaturalStatTrick.com.
While Sandin probably won’t carry that 0.78 point-per-game pace into a full 82-game season, there’s reason to believe he can solidify himself as a top-four defenseman next season.
Some 3v3 action. Rasmus Sandin with the game winner. Great 50/50 win. pic.twitter.com/pNXdIE2TI7
— Jacob Cheris (@JCheris17) September 21, 2023
For starters, Sandin was excellent in third-pairing minutes with Toronto in his first two NHL seasons, recording a 57.99 expected-goals-for percentage and a 54.26 Corsi-for percentage during 5-on-5 play during that span. The 2018 first-round pick is a poised puck carrier who is excellent at helping his team exit the zone. The problem for Sandin in Toronto was that he hadn’t yet solidified himself as a solid number four on a team that was trying to go all-in on winning a Cup. Toronto’s acquisition of Jake McCabe last year made him expendable.
After his late-season run, Sandin will have a leg up heading into training camp and he’ll likely either man the top pair alongside John Carlson or the second pairing with Nick Jensen, while getting second power-play unit reps. That level of opportunity, coupled with the momentum gained from last year, makes Sandin a prime breakout candidate.
Kotkaniemi's 43-point showing last season was a breakout in itself, but he’s just scratching the surface. Maybe the Hurricanes weren’t that crazy for offer-sheeting him?
The 23-year-old recorded 36 of those points in the final 51 games of the year (0.71 points per game), which would equate to a 58-point pace over the course of an 82-game season. From Dec. 20 until the end of the regular season, Kotkaniemi's 2.88 points per 60 minutes placed him in the 91st percentile of all skaters who played at least 200 minutes in that span, according to NaturalStatTrick.com.
Assuming he’s reunited with Andrei Svechnikov and Martin Necas on the second line, Kotkaniemi is going to get a healthy dose of even-strength ice time in the top six. That trio was dynamite last year, posting a 56.9% expected-goals-for percentage and a 61.9 Corsi-for percentage when playing together, according to MoneyPuck.com.
Don’t be surprised if Kotkaniemi also carves out a regular spot on the second power-play unit alongside Necas and Teuvo Teravainen.
The Jets’ second-line center spot is Perfetti’s to lose.
Jets coach Rick Bowness pretty much said the team was going to give the 10th overall pick in the 2020 draft every chance to play center, and it makes a ton of sense. The 21-year-old has elite hockey sense, passing ability and a knack for executing plays in tight spaces.
Coming off consecutive seasons that were cut short due to major injuries, Perfetti doesn’t have the largest body of work to go off, but he’s played well when healthy. Since breaking into the league at the start of the 2021-22 season, Perfetti has recorded 0.81 5-on-5 primary assists per 60 minutes, placing him in the 84th percentile of forwards that played at least 500 minutes, according to NaturalStatTrick.com.
Alongside Nikolaj Ehlers and Nino Niederreiter on Winnipeg’s second line — not to mention the inevitable increase in power-play time coming his way after Pierre-Luc Dubois and Blake Wheeler’s departures— Perfetti is well-positioned to do some damage this season.
The Whitby, Ont., native has risen up the hockey ladder rapidly. He recorded 74 points in his first OHL season and then exploded for 111 in his final junior season. He recorded 26 points in 32 AHL games as a 19-year-old before recording 15 points in 17 AHL games at the start of last season, which prompted the Jets to recall him.
Kaliyev is a prime candidate to grab hold of a top-six spot and run with it. He has second-line winger written all over him.
Sure, coming off a career-high of 28 points (in 56 games) is nothing sexy, but his skill set, underlying numbers and potential usage all make him a prime breakout candidate.
The 22-year-old has an incredible shot and it’s an absolute weapon on the power play. Among all skaters that played at least 100 minutes on the man advantage last season, only Leon Draisaitl, Tage Thompson, Timo Meier and Mika Zibanejad scored more power-play goals per 60 minutes than Kaliyev.
Kaliyev wasn’t that successful at scoring at 5-on-5, although he generated a boatload of chances, recording the 15th-most even-strength scoring chances of any skater that played at least 500 minutes.
Presuming the Kings keep their first line of Quinton Byfield, Anze Kopitar and Adrian Kempe intact, the second line will feature a duo of Kevin Fiala and Dubois, two players Kaliyev would complement nicely. Fiala is an elite winger and one of the best passers in the game, whereas Dubois is a play-driving power forward who is a dual threat in transition and off the cycle. Given his abilities on the forecheck, Kaliyev can retrieve pucks for those two, while also making himself a trigger option on the right side – where his left shot will be well-suited to unleash one-timers.