This article will serve as part 1 of 4 in a series that draws attention to notable players who could really turn heads in each division the upcoming season. These players could make waves by having the kind of year that creates a bigger name for themselves or by having bounce-back years; and if you’re gearing up for a few fantasy drafts or looking to keep your finger on the pulse of the league then these names will be of interest. Let me be clear: some of the players listed won’t become stars, but they should be making significant strides relative to their careers thus far.
Let’s begin close to home in the Pacific division with some names who should be taking those next steps on each team.
It wasn’t long ago that the California road trip was such a dreaded one for teams around the league, but with Anaheim and LA undergoing makeovers that feeling has changed. This is a team with a collection of names that includes Kase, Terry, Guhle, Steel and Sprong who have the potential to make great strides in their game, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll touch on the last two.
Sam Steel is a late first round pick by the Ducks and is coming off a terrific D+3 draft year, in which he spent time developing in the NHL and AHL. Steel showed flashes of what’s to come by putting up 11 points in 22 games with the big club and putting up 41 points in 53 games with the Gulls. Canuck fans may remember Steel best for his hat trick against the Canucks.
With Kesler’s time in the league appearing to be coming to a close, the natural center is penciled in on the Ducks third line, which would be a great place to spend his first full year in the league. He will also surely have an opportunity on the powerplay, since this Anaheim squad will be trying to get as many looks at their young guys as they can.
Another young player that the Ducks will give regular looks to is 22 year old Daniel Sprong. He could start on the third or fourth line depending on where the Ducks see Max Jones and Troy Terry fitting in, but like Steel, should also seem some powerplay time.
Sprong was a heavily debated prospect in Pittsburgh who took an an odd path to the NHL before being shipped to Anaheim in the middle of last season for Marcus Pettersson, but I’ve always liked his offensive abilities. Sprong wasn’t given much of a chance on deep Penguins teams in the past, but should see that change in a forward group that has the positions of only 5 players really set in stone. This year will be one where Sprong will show if his offensive game that produced 65 points in 65 AHL games (2017-18) can translate to the next level with regular playing time.
With the Coyotes, Nick Schmaltz is set to have a bounce-back year and could be a good buy-low candidate in fantasy leagues. He had an up and down year being traded on November 23rd, then going down with a torn meniscus, which required surgery and sidelined him for the rest of the season, but he has been skating over the summer and is almost back to normal.
Schmaltz needs to get better defensively, but he’s put up respectable point totals. As a 21-year-old in 2017-18, he put up 52 points in 78 games (0.67 p/g) and followed that up with 25 points in 40 games. However, his splits between Chicago and Arizona reflect his turnaround in the desert, scoring 0.82 p/g with the Yotes after only 0.48 p/g with the Hawks. If Schmaltz can regain the form he briefly showed in Arizona, then he’s a guy to keep an eye on.
Like Schmaltz, Jakob Chychrun also signed a hefty contract and will now feel the pressure to make a big step this season. At 21, Chychrun will be entering his fourth year in the NHL, but is yet to play a full one, mostly due to injuries. Playing your first three years in the league at 18, 19 and 20 is very difficult, but he’s done a respectable job as we see by the following WAR graph from evolving-hockey.
Eyes are on Chychrun to become even more well-rounded and help the Coyotes control more of the play in the upcoming season. He’ll hope to build on the second highest Corsi posted among Arizona D-men last year.
I was excited to talk about Jusso Valimaki here as the Flame would really make a name for himself around the league, but with his indefinite absence, we will have to turn to Rasmus Andersson. Andersson will likely begin his contract year on the third pairing, but could see time with Mark Giordano as he did last year during his solid rookie campaign.
Andersson didn’t excel offensively, but the Flames feel that part of his game is there after watching him put up 39 points in 56 games in the 2017-18 campaign with Stockton. Instead, Andersson showed his value with the lowest expected goals against per 60 (xGA/60) among Flames defenders who played more than 20 games.
I had a tough time coming up with a second player that would likely have a bounce back or breakout year for the Flames, and ultimately couldn’t. However, I will make a not-so-bold prediction and say someone emerges as the number one goalie. Frankly, it wouldn’t surprise me if Talbot or Rittich took the job and held onto it, but I’d bet on the latter… I think.
Living in Edmonton means that every summer I get to hear from the locals about all of the players that are going to improve on last season’s numbers, but after taking a look through their roster, I can only really see two names who have the potential to prove them right.
The first is James Neal, who had such a bad season that he got traded for Milan Lucic. Some are writing him off because of his skating abilities and while he’s certainly lost a step, his skating shouldn’t hold him back from bouncing back to a closer version of himself. This career WAR graph shows that Neal wasn’t exactly trending downward before last season and that an argument can be made for last season’s performance being more of a one off.
Neal’s results didn’t fully reflect his play last year. He was 6th among Flames forwards in expected goals share (xGF%) at 58.33%. The sniper also had a shooting percentage of 5.0%, while his career average is 1.6% The Oilers are betting on a bounce back year and if the cost is Lucic, you take that bet all day.
Similar to Calgary, I found it difficult to find a second name from the Oilers that I could say with confidence could make significant strides in their game. There are a number of players the Oilers need to do just that, but after looking at Koskinen, Gagner, Granlund, Kassian, Khaira, Nygard and Archibald, I couldn’t pick one I was very sure of.
The player I would like to see get a shot to be a regular for them is Cooper Marody, who put up 64 points in 58 games. At 22, Marody will look to cement a spot in a weak, but crowded bottom six. For what it’s worth, in his brief six games with the big club last year he put up 3.75 xGF/60, which is decent. For context, McDavid put up 3.62 xGF/60 for the year.
The Kings are a similar team to the one we first touched on in that they have multiple players that could crack the opening lineup and play their first full years with the club. Austin Wagner will have a good chance to do that after not cracking the opening lineup last season only to called up later to eventually play 62 games with the Kings tallying 21 points. The 2015 fourth round pick isn’t nearly on the same level as the players above, but he’s a great under-the-radar player to effectively fill a bottom six role in the upcoming season.
Teams that play the Kings will get a first-hand looke at the energy he brings and his willingness to go to the tough areas. He combines that with strong finishing ability and showed that with his GF/60 rate of 2.52, good for second on the team. For those in deep fantasy leagues, Wagner is worth a look.
Another King to keep an eye on this upcoming season is Toffoli, who is due for an improvement on last year’s results. In this contract year, if Toffoli can replicate the level of play from last year, the points should follow.
The chart above shows that his offensive expected goal rate and Corsi were terrific, but he simply wasn’t able to finish like he has in the past. Toffoli’s points per game last season was 0.41, which is his lowest mark since his 2013-14 season when he was breaking into the league. While the numbers from his own play make it look like he can put up more points, his quality of teammates may work against him more than any player on this list. He’s had the most success in his career when Carter centers him, but Carter is 34 now and just had his worst career year and the Kings aren’t exactly full of top six talent at the moment.
The last California team to stay at the top of the division has done so in part by drafting and developing well. Timo Meier was picked ninth overall by the Doug Wilson in the 2015 draft as has put his name on the map already, but I couldn’t help myself from including him in this piece, because I still feel like he deserves more attention. An off-season that began with him in the massive group of outstanding RFAs led to him being one of the first signed, which kept headlines off the 22 year old, and on others.
Meier is an unbelievable offensive talent at such a young age and above average defensively to boot. Meier ranked 24th in the league in xGF% at 57.3% and 10th in high danger scoring chances per 60 among players who played at least 400 minutes. The crazy thing is that based on Meier’s expected goal rates, you can see that he under-performed in terms of his point total of 66 in 78 games. Another year on the top line with Logan Couture and first unit PP should lead to even better results. While Meier certainly raised his profile last year, he could solidify himself as a real star in this league during the upcoming campaign.
The other Shark who is poised to have a big year by his standards is Dylan Gambrell, who the Sharks recently inked to a two-year deal. While he didn’t crack the opening night roster, he was up and down between the Sharks and AHL Barracuda for much of the year, managing to get into 8 games, 2 of which were playoff games, and eventually potted his first career goal. That was enough to get a taste of the speed of the league and better understand what it will take in this upcoming season.
Coming off a season in which he posted 45 points in 51 games in the AHL, Gambrell will be given the opportunity to center a bottom six line depending on how things shake out with Joe Thornton. His two-way acumen and skating are what really propel him and should help him become a regular in this talented forward group.
I wanted to key in on only one player from the Canucks who has the potential to have a much better season than last. It’s unclear where Green will have Pearson slot in, but wherever it is, he will improve on last season, which was his worst in terms of point production since the year he broke into the league. Bouncing between three teams surely doesn’t help a player get into a groove, but playing a full season in Vancouver will. The player Pearson was in previous seasons is reflected in the WAR chart below.
Breaking the 2.0 WAR mark twice and coming close one other time is impressive for the 27 year old, and as you can see last year looks like a one off season more than anything. For more context, in that 2016-17 season, Pearson amassed 2.5 WAR, which was good for 27th in the league among forwards. Pearson also scored less than his expected goals on the year, something he had not done in the three years previous.
Pearson should see his numbers improve no matter who his center is, but if Green decides to pick up where he left off last year and put him with Horvat, then his numbers should really jump as most players would with Horvat. Natural Stattrick’s WOWY numbers for the two players in their time together last year gives us an indication of how well they performed.
As one would expect, Pearson’s numbers should take a jump simply from playing with a good player like Bo Horvat. A WOWY analysis on Schaller and Virtanen, the next two most common left wingers for Horvat last season, shows that they bring down Horvat’s production in every category.
A player that I can’t help but talk about is MarkStone, who is quickly becoming a household name after the playoffs, but still doesn’t receive enough recognition, as we learned when NHL.com released their list of best wingers and placed him at #13.
Stone will benefit from a full season alongside a forward group with the kind of firepower he never saw in Ottawa. The Golden Knights so-called second line of Pacioretty-Stastny-Stone tore it up once Stone arrived, resulting in 11 points in 18 regular season games and 12 points in 7 playoff games.
The underlying offensive numbers with Vegas during the regular season weren’t too shabby either. Stone’s expected goals for per 60 was second on Vegas only behind Stastny, his center, who also likely benefited from the trade.
Stone is obviously already an exceptional player, but his inclusion on this list is because he should see a massive jump in his point totals and set a new career high. While he’s finished seasons at over a point-per-game pace, he’s never completed a year with more than 64 points. It’s reasonable to expect Stone to finish with 85-90 points if he can stay healthy during a full year with this loaded Vegas forward group.
The Golden Knights are made up of mostly veterans at this point, but one young exciting player has a chance to earn a spot in the bottom six. Cody Glass is an outstanding prospect that some people have penciled in on the fourth line, but I’d give him good odds to carve out a spot on the third line with Cody Eakin if he were to stick with the big club. Emmanuel Perry’s prospect evaluation model is one of a few that shows the value of Glass.
He has no NHL experience and only 28 games at the AHL level, but Vegas isn’t exactly deep down the middle either with the departure of Erik Haula. 22 of those AHL games were playoff games that the 19 year old scored 15 points in, which tied him for the team lead in points.
Coming from captaining the Portland Winterhawks earlier in the season, Glass did more than hold his own during his first taste of pro hockey. In fact, he excelled against faster and stronger competition and appeared to impress the organization. The sixth overall pick in the 2017 draft has done nothing since impress in every year following his draft by putting up big numbers with Portland and showcasing his advanced vision, leadership and work ethic. This combined with Vegas’ weakness down the middle could mean a big leap in the Glass’ development and could make this a year in which he continues to make a name for himself.
This is a handful of players out of the Pacific that fans and fantasy owners should have on their radars for the 2019-20 season as players who will have big years relative to their careers thus far. In part 2, I’ll take a look at players to keep and eye on in the Central Division.