Those that read my work consistently might remember a piece that came out about a year ago where I predicted breakout seasons for Aleksander Barkov and Tomas Hertl. Barkov nearly doubled his previous career-high in goals by scoring 28, while Hertl stayed healthy long enough to record career highs in goals (21) and points (46). With both players also skating on the top line, I think it’s safe to say that my predictions from a year ago look pretty good in hindsight.
Rather than stop with one round of successful predictions, I have decided to look at two more players capable of becoming the next NHL breakout stars during the 2016-17 season. The two players in question this summer are David Pastrnak and Nikolaj Ehlers.
Pastrnak has become a source of near constant frustration for Bruins fans through his first two seasons. Despite possessing enough speed and skill to fill a highlight reel, the young Czech forward has struggled to stay healthy thus far into his NHL career.
He managed to set career highs with 15 goals and 26 points in 2015-16, but he only had 51 games to record those totals thanks to a series of injuries. Still, he has been extremely impressive when on the ice, and the numbers back up his breakout candidacy.
To begin with, Pastrnak has posted a +2.64 RelCF% in his first two NHL seasons, a sign of his ability to possess the puck and control play. He also recorded an impressive 2.24 points per 60 minutes of 5v5 play according to puckalytics.com (to put that in perspective, Artemi Panarin recorded 2.08 points/60 in his dominant rookie campaign). In other words, he’s a player that a coach can trust to hold onto the puck, and eventually put it in the back of the net.
However, this production only applies to 5v5 play, which helps explain why he has yet to put up the big numbers for someone with his skill set. Even though he has played very well at even strength, the Bruins have yet to trust him with serious minutes on the powerplay. Because of this, he’s recorded 45 of his 53 career NHL points at 5v5, scoring just four powerplay points over that same period.
However, the departure of Loui Eriksson — who recorded 10 powerplay goals and slotted ahead of Pastrnak on the depth chart last season — will open opportunities for other forwards in Boston looking for time with the extra man. Pastrnak is no lock to receive Eriksson’s minutes on the powerplay, but he seems like a natural fit on that open right wing for the Bruins.
In addition to the extra powerplay minutes Eriksson’s departure opens up, there will also be extra minutes to be had for a right wing in the regular lineup, potentially on a line with Matt Beleskey and David Krejci. Such a line combination would be a nice fit for Pastrnak’s natural speed and playmaking, while pairing him with a sniper like Brad Marchand could also pay dividends for Boston’s offense.
With Eriksson out of the way up front, it appears that now is Pastrnak’s time to thrive. If he can remain healthy and see more powerplay time, a 50-point campaign should easily be within reach
Unlike with Pastrnak, an Ehlers breakout is more of a “when” rather than an “if.” The ultra-skilled forward was a steal for the Jets with the 9th pick in the 2014 NHL draft, and he scored 38 points in 72 games for Winnipeg in the 2015-16 season.
He also managed to put 167 shots on net, good for 5th on the team, while recording 15.77 iCorsi/60 at 5v5, which was second best on the Jets. These numbers suggest that Ehlers is not afraid to trust his shot, and that he’s capable of creating shooting opportunities on his own. He shouldn’t have to play so independently this season.
Because of a disappointing 2015-16 campaign, the Jets were able to take Finnish star Patrik Laine with the second overall pick in the draft this offseason. The 6’5″ Laine was the second best player in his class behind Auston Matthews, and his dangerous shot and size make him an instant threat to score 25 goals as rookie.
He’s expected to make the NHL team out of training camp and should end up with some quality linemates, which is where Ehlers comes in. Always a gifted playmaker, Ehlers recorded .63 primary assists per 60 minutes as a rookie according to puckalytics.com, which was the third best figure for a Jets player last season. Meanwhile, Laine’s right shot will need a setup man from the left side, and Ehlers is exactly the kind of player capable of feeding the second overall pick from across the ice.
While Winnipeg might be hesitant to play two young players together from a defensive perspective, a -.05 GA60Rel and +2.49 CF%Rel rating from Ehlers in 2015-16 should disprove those who doubt his two-way game. With the passing ability needed to spring Laine loose and exemplary two-way play to boot, Ehlers should be a serious candidate to play alongside the stellar rookie this season.
Even if he returns to his previous line with Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele, Ehlers will be playing with some elite players, something that should aid his development and production in short order. With one successful season already under his belt as well, Ehlers will have all the confidence of the all-star veterans he has played with, making it even more likely he breaks out sooner rather than later.
20 goals and 60 points should be realistic expectations for the young Dane, regardless of who his linemates end up being.
The Waiting Game
There, my next round of predictions is in the books, and I’m excited to see these play out as well as the ones from last summer did. Check back in the spring to see if these two players turned out as well as expected, and don’t hesitate to draft either one for your fantasy team this season when looking for value.