Seven candidates for a breakout season in 2011-12
Michael Grabner and Logan Couture proved they were ready for prime time with breakout seasons in 2010-11, though they did it in different ways.
The two runners-up for the Calder Trophy (won by 18-year-old Jeff Skinner of Carolina) both came out of nowhere to pile up more than 30 goals. Grabner, a first-round pick by Vancouver in 2006, went from the Canucks to Florida to Long Island in just over three months, but rewarded the Islanders with a 34-goal season. Couture, who had a 25-game stint with San Jose in 2009-10, busted out with 32 goals and 56 points to help the Sharks win the Pacific Division for the fourth straight season.
Both came one year after one of the all-time breakout seasons -- Steven Stamkos, the No. 1 pick in the 2008 Entry Draft, jumped from 23 goals and 46 points as a rookie in 2008-09 to 51 goals and 95 points in '09-10, proving the Bolts were right to spend the top pick on him.
So who will be this year's Grabner, Couture or Stamkos? Here are seven candidates for a breakout season in 2011-12.
James van Riemsdyk, Philadelphia Flyers -- The Flyers took the 6-foot-3 New Jersey native with the second pick in the 2007 Entry Draft, one pick after Chicago grabbed Patrick Kane. But unlike the Hawks, who brought Kane to the NHL right away and have seen him turn into a star, the Flyers have been extremely patient with van Riemsdyk, who spent two seasons at the University of New Hampshire and has been allowed to mature gradually on a Philadelphia team loaded with talent up front.
Van Riemsdyk had 20 goals in a limited role last season and pumped in seven more in 11 playoff games. With the departures of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, he figures to emerge as one of the Flyers' go-to players up front. He appears to have the maturity and confidence to go with his physical gifts, and the Flyers are expecting him to grow into the latest in their line of dominant power forwards.
Evander Kane, Winnipeg Jets -- It's not unusual for a player to take a giant step forward in his third season, and that's exactly what the newly named Winnipeg Jets hope is the case with Kane.
The Vancouver native went fourth in the 2009 Entry Draft to Atlanta, stepped into the NHL as an 18-year-old and showed that he belonged by putting up 14 goals and 26 points. He moved up another step last season with 19 goals and 43 points, though his plus-minus rating dropped from plus-2 to minus-12.
At 20 and a solid 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds (and growing), Kane has the size to be a power forward and the skills of a smaller player. With the franchise now settled in Winnipeg, Kane has enough drive and confidence in his future that he planned to ask Bobby Hull for permission to wear the Hall of Famer's No. 9 jersey, which had been retired by the previous iteration of the Jets.
Taylor Hall, Edmonton Oilers -- Hall, the top pick in the 2010 Entry Draft, was just starting to figure out life in the NHL when fate intervened: He got into his first NHL fight, only to suffer a season-ending ankle injury when his leg buckled under him during the bout with Derek Dorsett of Columbus.
The injury terminated Hall's season after 65 games, 22 goals, 20 assists, 42 points, one hat trick -- and a lot of optimism among Oilers fans. Assuming his ankle is OK, Hall has all the prerequisites for a breakout season -- loads of talent, a year of experience and the likelihood that he'll get all the prime ice time he can handle. Hall could also get a boost if his successor as the No. 1 pick in the draft, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, makes the team. Nugent-Hopkins, a playmaking center, could be just what Hall needs to fulfill his potential.
Tyler Seguin, Boston Bruins -- Seguin had to settle for being drafted No. 2 in 2010 when the Oilers took Hall with the top pick. His consolation prize was a Stanley Cup ring -- albeit one that came after an up-and-down rookie season with the Bruins, who did their best not to overdo expectations.
Seguin played in 74 games and finished with 11 goals and 22 points while averaging just 12:12 of ice time a game -- six minutes less than Hall. Coach Claude Julien kept the wraps on Seguin, giving him occasional nights off and not even dressing him during Boston's first two playoff series against Montreal and Philadelphia. But when injuries gave Seguin a chance to play in the second round, he put up 6 points in the first two games. He had just 1 assist during limited ice time in his final 11 playoff appearances, but still earned a ring and a day with the Cup.
With a year under his belt, more will be expected of Seguin this season as the Bruins try to defend the Cup. The flashes he showed last season indicate that he's more than capable of stepping up into a bigger role.
T.J. Oshie, St. Louis Blues -- The Blues have been expecting big things from Oshie ever since they made him their first-round pick in 2005. They waited for him through three seasons at the University of North Dakota and two more in St. Louis that saw him get 39 points as a rookie and 48 in 2009-10.
Oshie looked like he was headed for big things last season when he broke his ankle in a November game against Columbus -- one of a series of major injuries that derailed the Blues' season. The broken ankle sidelined Oshie for 31 games and more than two months. The 12 goals and 34 points he put up in 49 games left the Blues and their fans wanting more.
Oshie, now 24, signed a one-year deal with the Blues this summer, so he has some extra incentive to have the kind of breakout season that can help to carry the Blues back to the playoffs.
Kyle Okposo, New York Islanders -- Like Oshie, Okposo was expected to have a breakout season in 2010-11, only to have an injury get in the way. A preseason shoulder injury necessitated surgery that kept the 2006 first-round pick out of the lineup until January.
He came back in time to play 38 games, scoring 5 goals and adding 15 assists. But he wasn't the same player who looked like he was on the verge of becoming a star the year before.
With a full summer to get healthy and back in shape, and playing for a team with a growing collection of young talent up front, the Islanders are expecting Okposo to have the kind of breakthrough season they were hoping for before injuries got in the way a year ago.
Bobby Butler, Ottawa Senators -- Butler was a teammate of van Riemsdyk for two years at New Hampshire and signed with Ottawa after a 29-goal, 53-point season in 2009-10. He had 10 goals and 21 points in 36 games with the Senators during last season's nightmare, but scored 22 times in 47 games with their AHL team in Binghamton -- then powered the unheralded B-Sens to the Calder Cup by scoring 13 times in 23 games.
With the Senators in a state of flux, there's plenty of ice time to be had, and if Butler can build on his performance last season, a top-six role and much bigger offensive numbers aren't out of the question.