This article will serve as part 2 of 4 in a series that draws attention to notable players who could really turn heads in each division next season. These players could be looking to have breakout performances or to bounce back after a lackluster 2018-19 season, 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’s dive into the metro division and list some names who could be taking those next steps on each team.
As a team, the Hurricanes took a massive step forward last year, reaching the Eastern Conference Finals and putting up some of the league’s best underlying numbers in the process. For this reason, the team won’t be surprising nearly as many people this year, but there are still some players who may see their stocks rise in 2019-20.
Martin Necas is a fairly well-known already, but 2019-20 could turn out to be his breakout year. Necas killed it in the AHL during his D+2 season after getting a 7-game look with the Hurricanes. At the end of those 7 games, he wasn’t able to prove to coach Rod Brind’amour that he was ready for NHL action, but he took that challenge and went on to post 52 points in 64 regular season games and 13 points in 18 playoff games with Carolina’s AHL affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers. He posted the second best points per game among Checkers players while being the youngest player on the team. Not bad.
Necas is a special prospect and will earn a spot by showcasing his terrific hands, vision, and skating. It will be an important training camp for the youngster, but most experts expect this to be the season he becomes an NHL regular.
Another Hurricane that I have my eye on is Erik Haula, who’s play has been very up and down over past three seasons. Haula failed to meet expectations in 2016-17 in Minnesota, was scooped up by the Golden Knights in the expansion draft and used in the top six for the first time in his career in 2017-18, and was then out for 67 games with a knee injury last season. The cap-strapped Golden Knights found a group of centers that they were more comfortable with in their top nine and opted to move on from Haula, dealing him to the Hurricanes in exchange for a fifth round pick and prospect Nicolas Roy.
I love this deal for the Hurricanes, who will likely shift Haula to the wing since they are deep down the middle. The 2019-20 campaign should see him bounce back closer to the form he showed in Vegas, which resulted in 55 points in 76 games. While he may not get top six minutes initially, he’s a decent bet to work his way into some time in the top-six, see his xG rates climb on a shot heavy Carolina team, and become relevant again after falling off fantasy radars during his injury plagued season.
To wrap things up, I also just wanted to sneak it in that I think this could be the year of Jake Bean as well. More than a few things would have to go right, but in the aftermath of the Calvin De Haan trade, their left side is weaker and Bean would only have to beat out one of Hayden Fleury or Gustav Forsling, neither of whom bring Bean’s level of offensive upside. Although Bean shined in his first pro season in 2018-19, management may still opt to bring him along slowly, which would be an understandable move given their depth at the position.
Everyone is aware of all the departing names and the rightful lack of buzz surrounding this Blue Jackets squad, but there is something that’s inevitably noteworthy in goal. I’ve never liked trying to predict the success of specific goalies in the past and I don’t intend to start today, but one of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins has to create separation in the fight for the starting job… right?
Both goalies are 25 with a fair amount of pro level experience, but only Korpisalo has games played in the NHL, which is why most are giving him the best shot to secure the #1 job. In his 90 career games, Korpisalo put up a .907 Sv% and a 2.89 GAA. Not outstanding numbers by any means, but acceptable for a back up.
Merzlikins has put up better numbers more consistently but in the Swiss-A league. While he’s shown his abilities about as best as he could, it’s tough to know how his play will translate the to NHL, making him a bit of a wild card. I’m hopeful for Columbus’ sake that one of these goalies will use the increased opportunity to make a name for himself next season.
The Devils have a few new faces that will be greeted with high hopes, one of them being Nikita Gusev. P.K. Subban, Jack Hughes and Taylor Hall are likely to get most of the attention in New Jersey, but the Russian import should draw interest as well.
The now-27-year-old former KHL star has been linked to the NHL numerous times over the past three offseasons following three stellar seasons, but 2019-20 will be the season he finally makes the hop over to North America. Gusev has top line talent, but will most likely slot in behind Hall on Jack Hughes’ left wing. With his great vision, he was able to lead the KHL in points with 82, 65 of which were assists, in 62 regular season games. He followed that up by producing over a point per game in the playoffs.
NHLe tells us that if Gusev can bring the same game to North America, he should be around a 79-point-player, which makes him arguably the Metro’s best candidate for a breakout season.
— Jack Manning (@NHLJackManning) March 20, 2019
New York Islanders
Let’s be honest: the only people who believe the Islanders will improve on last season’s results are in their dressing room. This makes it tough to pick a definitive candidate for a breakout season, but there is someone who looks like he’s due for a bounce-back year.
Derick Brassard had a year similar to Tanner Pearson, another potential bounce-back candidate I pinpointed in part 1 of this series. Both played the year with three different teams and significantly underperformed relative to their standards. Brassard in particular struggled mightily on both ends of the puck in a way we haven’t seen before.
The drop off was clear, but at 32, he should still have a bit left in the tank and return to contributing an above-average WAR rate as the Isles third line center. It may be a tough offensive year for everyone on the Isles, including Brassard, but his defensive numbers should at least see a boost.
New York Rangers
The Rangers are the complete opposite of the Islanders in that they have a handful of players who have the potential to take big steps forward. One of those players is Vitali Kravstov, who went ninth overall in last summer’s draft then proceeded to put up impressive numbers for a D+1 player in the KHL, showcasing high levels of offensive creativity and skill.
It’s a somewhat crowded forward group in New York made up of a lot of young players in a similar spot as Kravstov, but early lineup projections seem to give him enough of an edge to earn a right wing spot. In fact, most have him penciled in on the second line and if he’s able to translate the offense he flashed overseas to the NHL, then he should stay there.
Another blue team 🚨
— Vince Z. Mercogliano (@vzmercogliano) June 27, 2019
Another player who will have every opportunity to have a big year is Filip Chytil. While the Rangers continue to improve in every position, there are still question marks down the middle. After Mika Zibanejad, there are a number of players who could fill the 2C spot. Among the options is soon-to-be-20-year-old Filip Chytil. By now, Rangers fans are aware of his skillset and have anxiously awaited his NHL coming-out party. Some may argue that last year was just that, but with 23 points in 75 games and a very low conversion rate on his expected goals, I can see Chytil being the player to step up and improve to fill that 2C spot.
I can’t see anyone breaking out significantly on this Philly squad with any certainty. Morgan Frost is getting a lot of attention as he should, but I’m not sold on him being able to play a full year in the league just yet. He was cut just four days into last year’s camp, so he will surely get a longer look this time around, but with no pro level experience, don’t be surprised to see him spend most, if not all of the 2019-20 season in the AHL.
In Pittsburgh, a relatively under-the-radar player really intrigues me is Dominik Simon. Due to his age, I’m not as sure about Simon as I am on other players on this list, but he’s a guy I would take a cheap flyer on if you’re in a deep fantasy league.
The 25-year-old will begin his second full season somewhere in the Penguins’ bottom six. He’s coming off his best season, which saw him post 28 points with a career high TOI of 13:19. He’ll likely get close to the same ice time this year, but might be able to put up point totals that better reflect his decent expected goals and Corsi rates. His underlying numbers are good, if a little strange for a bottom-six player. Here are his last two years:
Offensive possession numbers are great and he underperforms in terms of xG in both years, but you can see that he turned into a defensive all-star last year. The funny thing about his defensive play is that 56% of his zone starts were offensive, so he arguably could have been deployed better at times last year.
I’d expect his defensive metrics to even out this season and for him to bounce back in the Off_GF category. It won’t be a breakout season by any means, but Simon’s stock should rise.
The Capital with the most room for improvement is Jakub Vrana, even after the step he took last year. He put himself on the map in 2018-19 when he established himself as the most promising young winger on the Caps to fans in Washington, but this upcoming season will be about gaining more recognition with fans league wide.
Vrana notched 47 points in 82 games last season, a total he should only improve on. He’s a sniper who can be expected to outproduce his xG consistently.
The above graph shows Vrana’s ability to play a very polished 200-foot game for someone his age. I would expect his defensive play to improve further in his third full year in the league as well. Playing on a line with Backstrom and Oshie and getting powerplay time won’t hurt those numbers either.
Did I mention that he’s also a stud in transition?
His zone entries are near elite and the percentage of his zone exits with possession are extremely high as well. When you keep in mind all of this and couple it with the fact that he’s only 23 years old, the ceiling for Vrana is sky high. If all goes well and he runs with the offensive big dogs on this team, we could see him take another 20 point jump in his point total.
In the final part of the series, we’ll turn attention to players in the Atlantic, but if you missed part 1 or 2 you can check them out here: