It’s just a couple days away, after a long offseason, the 2019-20 NHL season gets underway on Wednesday night. There are a lot of interesting storylines to watch for as the season gets going. The rookie race will be interesting with the top 2 picks Jack Hughes and Kakko from last June and Quinn Hughes and Makar coming on late last season.
It’s also interesting to see or project who in the league could be this seasons breakout star. We’ve seen it over the years with MacKinnon, Pastrnak, and Marner last year where there are great players who either get put in the right position or just put everything together.
There is so much talent in the league now that the on-ice product is in very good hands for hockey fans. There are a few players that I think could potentially be stories this season if things go right for them. So let’s get started with my list:
Forsberg is a bit older than the other players that I will be talking about in this article and yes, I know he’s already 25. However, I along with a lot of people in the hockey community have been waiting for Forsberg to just have a season where he explodes offensively.
He has struggled a bit to stay healthy, only playing 67 games in 2017-18 and 64 this past season. In 2017-18 it looked like he was starting to break out, with 64 points in those 67 games, but last season he took a little step back. With a lot of Nashville players struggling to score, and their Powerplay being dead last, Forsberg was hindered by that and didn’t have quite the season he would have liked.
There are some nights when I watch Forsberg and the things that he is capable of doing, and I think why is this guy not an 80-90-point scorer. He’s got the hands and confidence to pull of moves that others wouldn’t think of doing in a game. He’s got a lethal shot with a deceptive release, being able to get it off from difficult positions.
With the addition of Matt Duchene in Free Agency and a full season of Mikael Granlund, Nashville will have more weapons up front this season. If Forsberg can play a full season, and if Nashville finds a way to fix their disastrous Powerplay, could this finally be the year where Forsberg puts it all together?
If you don’t know this, you should know that I am incredibly high on Nikolaj Ehlers and I thought if the Jets were to trade him, it would be one of the biggest mistakes they could make. He missed time with injury last season and didn’t have an amazing season point wise, but you need to dig a lot deeper than just points to truly see how special he is.
First, with his style of play, very few players draw more penalties than he does regularly. Over the last 3 seasons, Ehlers is 8th among all players with 72 drawn penalties. The speed that he plays at and how long he likes to hold onto the puck, it’s extremely difficult for opposing players to get it off him or slow him down without taking infractions. This also gives the Jets lethal Powerplay a lot of opportunities to go to work.
Most importantly with Ehlers, when it comes to transitioning the puck up ice, he is among the best in the league. Ehlers is dynamic with the puck on his stick, he has the ability to weave his way up the ice and has the skillset to create scoring chances for his linemates. A lot of fast players can easily get controlled zone entries, but it’s also important what you do with the puck after you get into the zone. When it comes to attacking off the rush and turning controlled entries into high danger scoring chances, Nikolaj Ehlers is as good as anyone in the league.
He has all the talent in the world to light it up and he has a lot of help upfront in Winnipeg. He doesn’t play on the top Powerplay unit, which plays a factor in his point totals not being as high as some other Jets players. But he has consistently been dominant at 5v5 and even strength, the only Jets player with a better 5v5 Points/60 over the last 3 seasons than Ehlers is Mark Scheifele.
If Ehlers gets more Powerplay time, and if he really starts to put everything all together, there’s really no reason that he can’t have a big offensive season in the near future.
It’s difficult to find someone who has had a more underappreciated start to their career than Hischier has so far. He has such a complete game already at a young age, he hasn’t gotten as much media hype as past and other present #1 overall picks, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been terrific.
Hischier has had a big impact on the game and on his line mates at 5v5. Since the start of the 2017-2018 season (min. 1000 TOI), He is 11th in the league in 5v5 GF% Relative to teammates at 12.00. Meaning the Devils 5v5 GF% is 12% higher when Hischier is on the ice compared to when he’s off. Also, during the same time, he’s produced at a 1st line rate with a 2.11 5v5 Points/60, ahead of names like Nicklas Backstrom, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Tyler Seguin.
He was able to step right into the NHL as an 18-year-old and immediately became trusted by John Hynes to play in every situation and match up against other team’s best players. He’s not quite as dynamic as other #1 centres, but he’s incredibly skilled and efficient, whether it’s offense, defense or in transition carrying the puck.
New Jersey has had a great offseason and with the additions of drafting Jack Hughes and signing Nikita Gusev from the KHL, it will help take the pressure off Hischier and the guys they currently have. Having Hughes on one line and Hischier on the other will open more space and matchups for both of them and they will probably get a lot of Powerplay time with guys like Hall and Subban.
If their forward core can stay healthy and if Hischier continues to take another step, he could potentially have a huge offensive season.
A lot of Leaf fans and media were very critical of Nylander last season after coming off a struggling season pointwise. Getting lost in the attention that Marner and Tavares received together, and Matthews continuing to be great, Nylander has kind of been a forgotten man a bit.
I wrote a piece on Nylander at the beginning of last season on how trading him could be a mistake and that he is much more valuable than he’s given credit for. When you miss training camp and the first two months of the season, it’s so incredibly difficult to catch up and be yourself. No matter how hard you try, everyone else is already two months warmed up and still improving, the league doesn’t slow down to let you catch up, once you get a month or two up to speed, everyone else is even further along.
It’s the best league in the world, you can’t just jump right in like nothing. So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that Nylander struggled out of the gate. The first two months he was getting his rhythm and timing back, but after that, his scoring still struggled but his overall play was very good after the first two months back.
Much like Ehlers, transitioning the puck up ice and driving play is something that Nylander shines at. He has an underrated stick when it comes to creating turnovers and stripping players of the puck. In his own zone there’s still room for improvement but he is a great neutral zone defender. As great as Auston Matthews is, he also benefits a lot from having Nylander on his wing because he gets into the offensive zone and creates space for everyone he plays with.
I don’t doubt that Nylander will bounce back this season and with a full season with Matthews once again, he could break out similar to Marner last season.
San Jose has only missed the playoffs once since 2003-04. Which makes it even crazier when the one time they miss the playoffs and get a top 10 draft pick, it turns into Timo Meier who probably is a top 5 talent from that 2015 draft looking back on it.
San Jose was one of the best teams in the league at getting shots from the high danger areas and Meier was a big part of that. Meier has always been a high-volume shooter since he entered the league, with over 200+ shots in each of the last two seasons. After a 20-goal season the year before, he broke out last season for 30 goals and 66 points once he was given more ice time and better linemates.
Meier has been a fantastic possession driver at 5v5 over his career so far and he continued this all season and throughout the playoffs where he was vital in San Jose getting to the Conference Final. San Jose is still expected to be one of the better teams in the Pacific Division and they have a chance to take advantage of a weaker division in the NHL.
I don’t think we’ve seen the best from Meier, and I think there’s an even greater level than he can reach. I think he will eventually have an enormous year and he could have one as soon as this season.