Every NHL season brings a new crop of highly touted young players capable of carrying their teams to the next level. Whether a team hopes to return to the playoffs or simply return to league-wide relevancy, the play of its young players is often one of the biggest factors in their ability to do so. This NHL season presents an especially intriguing group of young players poised for breakout seasons. This group includes former top pick Nathan MacKinnon, Mark Scheifele, Jonathan Drouin, and Seth Jones among others. However, even with all those big names presenting their cases for the title of biggest breakout star, two young centers could steal the spotlight from all of those promising players: Aleksander Barkov and Tomas Hertl.
While both have had their own shares of success two seasons into their NHL careers, neither has been able to truly establish himself as an offensive focal point. That could all change this season as both players are in a prime position to become offensive leaders of their respective teams.
Let’s start with Barkov. The 6’3” center was the second overall pick in the 2013 NHL draft and immediately entered Florida’s NHL lineup as a young 18-year-old. Barkov struggled in his first season and managed only 24 points in his first 54 NHL games. He did, however, manage to post an impressive CF%RelTM1 of +1.6. That performance set the stage for him to record 16 goals and 36 points in his second season. Those are average numbers for a young player, but his play near the end of the season is what has me excited about his potential for 2015-16. In the 20 games after the Panthers acquired Jaromir Jagr from New Jersey to help their playoff push, Barkov had 15 points and averaged over 18 minutes a night.
Luckily for Barkov and line mate Jonathan Huberdeau, Jagr re-signed with Florida and is expected to open the season on their right wing once again. Jagr’s return isn’t the only reason to be optimistic about Barkov this season as he also displayed a truly impressive ability to create chances around the opponent’s net. When his offensive awareness and positioning are combined with his strength, he’s nearly unstoppable in the slot and paint. His slick hands and passing ability also help create chances for teammates around the circles. These rare skills allowed him to produce 4 shots more than the league average per 60 minutes at even strength from the slot and medium probability scoring areas according to war-on-ice.com. To put that in perspective, Jonathan Toews produced 4.02 shots more than average in those zones during his first two seasons.
His play around the net is especially encouraging because it shows that his positive possession numbers aren’t inflated by low probability chances from the point or along the boards. Barkov has shown that his level of production is sustainable, and with a full season playing alongside Jagr and Huberdeau, the best is surely yet to come for the hulking Finn.
Hertl finds himself in a very different situation from Barkov, but a promising one nonetheless. After exploding for 8 goals2, in his first 13 NHL games in 2013-14, Hertl experienced a brutal sophomore slump that saw him score only 13 goals in 82 games while playing less than 15 minutes a night last season. While some have written him off after such a disappointing season, I’m expecting a big year out of him for several reasons.
For one, the knee injury he sustained early on in his rookie season has had a full season to heal and should result in increased explosiveness from the 6’2” forward. And that’s a scary thought for opponents who had to deal with his speed and hands on a regular basis last season. Those abilities helped him record a +3.1% CF%RelTM last season, despite getting 35.8% of his zone starts in the defensive zone. Patrice Bergeron, Gabriel Landeskog, Artem Anisimov, and Matt Moulson were the only other forwards who played at least 400 minutes at even strength to post a CF%RelTM of at least +3.1 while receiving defensive zone starts with the same frequency as Hertl.
In addition to those intriguing factors, Hertl also has the benefit of playing on the same team as Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, and Patrick Marleau. If Hertl is able to lock down a top-6 role alongside any of these talented players, he could be in line to return to his rookie form. And like Barkov, Hertl has displayed a knack for getting to high-scoring areas early on in his career. Playing with world-class players should only highlight his game-breaking ability from the slot and allow him to use his speed on the perimeter to create odd-man rushes.
Predicting player performance in the NHL is often a tricky task that frequently frustrates coaches and GMs across the league. However, examining trends among players creates a clearer picture when determining expectations for players on a year-to-year basis. Third year players break out more than any other, and with Barkov and Hertl both entering their third seasons, they’re ripe for career-best campaigns. When their positive possession numbers, high-end line mates, and ability to get to the net are combined with their continued improvement, they become dangerous offensive players. With that in mind, don’t be surprised to see their names among the likes of MacKinnon and Scheifele in the scoring ranks this coming season.3