What constitutes a breakout in the NHL?
The root of the word gives us a clue. A breakout is an escape from something or somewhere confining you. In the hockey context, that could be a bad line deployment, a coach with whom you don’t jive, a weak team, or an injury.
The term implies at least some amount of established history for a player, so we can’t put any rookies on a list of breakout candidates. The same goes for sophomores.
So in compiling this list of breakout players for the 2022-23 season, let’s look at names with at least a couple of years of NHL experience. Which players am I projecting to deliver the best seasons of their careers to date?
Here’s a list, sorted alphabetically and including some statistical projections, just for kicks.
Bowen Byram, D, Colorado Avalanche
Last season: 30 games played, 5 goals, 12 assists, 17 points
2022-23 projection: 10 goals, 39 assists, 49 points
The breakout has always felt like a matter of if, not when, for the 2019 Draft’s No. 4 overall pick. It was a series of scary concussion complications getting in Byram’s way of spreading his wings rather than any developmental snags. If we add up his 2021-22 regular season and playoff numbers, he had 26 points in 50 games last season, extrapolating to a 42-point pace over an 82-game schedule, as a 20-year-old. He has the skating, smarts, and swagger to be a top-four stalwart on the reigning Stanley Cup champions and appears to have leapfrogged Samuel Girard for second-pair duty already.
With Byram on the ice at 5-on-5 last season, the Avalanche generated more than 57 percent of the scoring chances. While it’s true the team as a whole tilted the ice, Byram had the fifth-best scoring-chance share on the team and second-best among Avs defensemen, trailing only Cale Makar. Byram tilted the ice at an even higher level in the playoffs – while skating with creaky veteran Erik Johnson. Colorado has another star in the making in Byram, who does pretty much everything well. The rich will get richer if Byram stays healthy in his age-21 campaign.
Ross Colton, LW, Tampa Bay Lightning
Last season: 79 GP, 22 goals, 17 assists, 39 points
2022-23 projection: 31 goals, 20 assists, 51 points
For at least a decade, the Lightning’s development system has been peerless, regularly turning marginal prospects into impact NHLers, from Tyler Johnson to Ondrej Palat to Yanni Gourde, and Colton, who scored the Stanley Cup-clinching goal in 2020-21, looks like their latest success story.
Colton cut his teeth at the University of Vermont and spent a couple of seasons in the AHL before cracking the Lightning as a 24-year-old rookie two seasons ago. Since then, across his first 109 games, he’s been the NHL’s third most efficient goal-scorer on a per-60 basis at 5-on-5, trailing only Auston Matthews and Jakub Vrana.
“But Matt,” you might say, “Colton broke out already. He scored 22 goals as a sophomore.” I think he’s capable of more. With Ondrej Palat off to the New Jersey Devils as a UFA, the Lightning need a forward to step up in their top nine with an expanded role. Colton scored 22 goals while playing just 12:48 per game last season, and he wasn’t buoyed by an overly lucky shooting percentage, so there’s a very real chance he’s the 30-goal-scorer no one sees coming.
Kirby Dach, C, Montreal Canadiens
Last season: 70 GP, 9 goals, 17 assists, 26 points
2022-23 projection: 13 goals, 34 assists, 47 points
We simply haven’t seen anything close to the real Dach yet. He’s had every possible obstacle pop up in the three seasons since the Chicago Blackhawks selected him third overall in the 2019 Draft: broken thumb, coaching changes, COVID-19, organizational scandal. Now, joining a new team, Dach is healthy and has a coach in Martin St. Louis who inspires his troops to run through walls for him. As Dach told me in this interview in the summer, he’s extremely excited by his new situation.
Dach, a long, rangy playmaker, has had his moments in the pre-season, particularly this past Monday, playing alongside No. 1 overall pick Juraj Slafkovsky. Nick Suzuki is Montreal’s first-line center, but Dach only has to beat out the defense-first Christian Dvorak and the rarely healthy Sean Monahan to take over as the No. 2 center. That should happen over time. It’s what the Habs want and expect. They surrendered a first- and third-round pick for him, after all.
Jamie Drysdale, D, Anaheim Ducks
Last season: 81 GP, 4 goals, 28 assists, 32 points
2022-23 projection: 7 goals, 32 assists, 39 points
The Ducks’ future hasn’t looked this bright since they were building around a young core of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Bobby Ryan 15-plus years ago. Trevor Zegras, Mason McTavish, and Drysdale represent a genuinely exciting foundational trio of prospects.
Drysdale, a breathtaking skater, is the prototypical new-age puck mover on defense, fitting the mold of undersized, cerebral stars such as Cale Makar, Quinn Hughes, and Adam Fox. And there’s reason to believe Drysdale could eventually ascend to their tier. He was a dominant junior player with the OHL’s Erie Otters and played a big role on Canada’s gold-winning 2020 World Junior Championship team. He played 24 games in the NHL in 2020-21, the season directly after his draft year.
Last season, Drysdale stuck as a season-long NHLer, playing close to 20 minutes a game, picking up 32 points in 81 games…and he was still a teenager until early April.
The age is important to note, because, despite the impressive point total, Drysdale’s first full season wasn’t great. He got caved in at 5-on-5 for the most part. But it was a learning experience, and Drysdale should be set up better to develop now that Anaheim signed UFA John Klingberg. If you’re a fantasy hockey player? OK, that was terrible news for Drysdale given Klingberg is an offensively inclined right-shot defenseman just like Drysdale. In real life, however? Klingberg’s presence will push Drysdale down the depth chart and likely allow him to handle more sheltered matchups.
Drysdale’s superficial numbers may not see a huge spike this season, but he’s set up to drive play better, gain confidence and start to showcase his immense upside as a puck-moving blueliner in the NHL.
Vince Dunn, D, Seattle Kraken
Last season: 73 GP, 7 goals, 28 assists, 35 points
2022-23 projection: 9 goals, 42 assists, 51 points
Dunn may seem like a strange pick for this list. I get it. He’s five seasons into his NHL career, and he has two 35-point seasons to his name. But he cracks my breakout list for 2022-23 because the conditions are perfect for him to crush his career high in points.
Dunn had a perfectly respectable season as a Seattle Kraken expansion draft selection in 2021-22, picking up 37 points in 73 games. He did so, however, stuck behind Mark Giordano on the depth chart and toiling on one of the NHL’s weakest offensive clubs. This season? The Kraken have added Andre Burakovsky and Oliver Bjorkstrand as top-six forwards, they get a full season of Calder Trophy frontrunner Matty Beniers and, just maybe, they keep the new first-round pick, Shane Wright, on the NHL roster. There’s just much more firepower on the 2022-23 Kraken, and Dunn is now slotted as the top power-play quarterback on defense. After the Giordano trade last spring, Dunn scored at close to a 50-point pace, and I think that’s a realistic target for him this season.
Kaapo Kakko, RW, New York Rangers
Last season: 43 GP, 7 goals, 11 assists, 18 points
2022-23 projection: 19 goals, 23 assists, 42 points
Honestly? The Rangers had many candidates I could’ve chosen for this list. Defenseman K’Andre Miller can level up further. Kakko’s ‘Kid Line’ buddies, Filip Chytil and Alexis Lafreniere, have the promise and pedigree to break through, too. So why Kakko?
First off: opportunity. He’s currently pegged for Kid Line duty, a.k.a. Line 3. But Lafreniere, a natural left winger, has Artemi Panarin and Chris Kreider ahead of him on the depth chart. Chytil, a natural center, has Mika Zibanejad and Vincent Trocheck. Kakko has… Sammy Blais, a bludgeoning checker coming off an ACL tear, and project Vitali Kravtsov, who has plenty of potential but has had a mercurial relationship with the Rangers.
Kakko has, too, as implied by his healthy scratch by Gerard Gallant for Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final, in which the Rangers were eliminated. But I’m not giving up on Kakko yet. He already grades out as a solid defensive winger. That gives him a chance to get back into Gallant’s good books and earn extra responsibility on the penalty kill. Kakko has just 26 goals in 157 career regular-season games, hardly befitting of the 2019 Draft’s No. 2 overall selection. But he’s still just 21 and, when I spoke to his SM-Liiga and World Junior coaches in his draft year, some expressed that he was the best Finnish player at his age that they’d ever seen, capable of doing pretty much everything effectively.
There’s thus still potential for Kakko to become a complete player and an important play driver for the Blueshirts. If it doesn’t happen this year? OK, maybe it never will. But I think it does happen this year.
Peyton Krebs, C, Buffalo Sabres
Last season: 57 GP, 7 goals, 15 assists, 22 points
2022-23 projection: 14 goals, 31 assists, 45 points
Alex Tuch made the splashier debut for the Buffalo Sabres last season once he was healthy, and he’s thus the name people probably think of first when assessing the return from Vegas in the Jack Eichel trade. But Krebs could still end up being the most impactful piece Buffalo received.
Krebs, chosen 17th overall by the Golden Knights in 2019, is a speedy and dynamic playmaker who posted some eye-popping junior numbers and even made the AHL look pretty easy last season. His 22 points in 57 games at the NHL level were respectable given the rebuilding team on which he played.
In the 2022-23 training camp, the buzz around Krebs was palpable, and I think it’s a great sign that the Sabres are moving him to the left wing for now. It shows that they value his skill enough that coach Don Granato will squeeze him into the top nine any way he can. Krebs is also likely to get a decent amount of power-play time given his propensity to set teammates up.
Spencer Knight, G, Florida Panthers
Last season: 32 GP, 27 starts, 19-9-3, 2.79 GAA, .908 SV%
2022-23 projection: 21-13-4, 2.55 GAA, .919 SV%
Money talks. I hate using clichés in writing, but clichés exist for a reason. They represent universal truths and, in hockey, money or, more specifically, AAVs talk. They tell us about a team’s intentions for a given player. And $4.5 million on Knight’s new contract? That’s not AHL demotion money. That’s not ride-the-pine money. That’s push-Sergei-Bobrovsky money, Bob’s $10 million price tag be damned.
Knight belongs on the short list of the best goaltending prospects of his generation. The Florida Panthers chose him 13th overall in 2019. The only goalie selected higher in the past 12 drafts is Yaroslav Askarov at 11th in 2020. Size, swagger, technique, athleticism – Knight has all of it, not to mention a winning pedigree at Boston College and leading Team USA to World Junior gold in 2021. The Panthers trusted him to start consecutive elimination games over Bobrovsky in the 2021 playoffs against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Knight stumbled last season and wound up sent to the AHL for a period, but he was 20 years old. That makes him a newborn baby by goalie standards. He found himself after rejoining the Panthers later in the 2021-22 season and won rookie of the month for April after going 6-1-0 with a .925 save percentage. He is undoubtedly the team’s goaltender of the future – and possibly the present. At $4.5 million, Knight should get 30 or more starts this season. Given Bobrovsky’s lack of career playoff success, the Panthers might want to groom Knight to take over as the No. 1 by next spring. The breakout season looms.
Alexander Romanov, D, New York Islanders
Last season: 79 GP, 3 goals, 10 assists, 13 points
2022-23 projection: 5 goals, 16 assists, 21 points
“The New York Islanders did nothing” was one of the 2022 offseason’s defining storylines, right? They whiffed on several top-end UFAs, and GM Lou Lamoriello was downright defensive of his team’s inactivity when speaking to the media.
But to say they did nothing is to overlook the Romanov trade, which Lamoriello executed on night 1 of the 2022 NHL Draft. Romanov, 22, has taken his lumps and at times looked overmatched in his second season with the Montreal Canadiens. But what Habs player didn’t? Romanov brings a well-rounded, physical game and profiles as a future minute-muncher and leader at the NHL level. He’s projected to form a highly intriguing No. 2 pairing with one of last season’s breakout stars, Noah Dobson. Romanov’s heavy game makes him a nice complement to Dobson’s offensive ability.
Moving from coach Barry Trotz to Lane Lambert, a longtime Trotz acolyte, the Isles’ system should have quite a bit of continuity. That means they’ll remain hard to play against and built around strong goaltending and a defense-first mentality. Romanov thus feels like a good fit for this system. Especially considering he’ll have major support from the top pair of Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock, Romanov is set up to thrive – not on the scoresheet, but in his general two-way impact.
Jeremy Swayman, G, Boston Bruins
Last season: 41 GP, 39 starts, 23-14-3, 2.41 GAA, .914 SV%
2022-23 projection: 26-16-5, 2.39 GAA, .921 SV%
It’s hard to find a truer partnership than what Swayman and Linus Ullmark formed in Boston last season. On top of their adorable post-game hugs, their stat lines were almost identical. Each played 41 games and started 39 games. Ullmark posted a .917 SV%, Swayman a .914. Their seasons on the whole felt like mirror images.
But consider that it was Ullmark’s seventh season in the NHL, while Swayman was a rookie. One could argue, then, that Swayman’s floor is Ullmark’s ceiling and that we won’t see them on such equal footing going forward. They enter the season still slated for a 50/50 partnership, but the Bruins’ trust slowly shifted Swayman’s way in Round 1 of the 2022 playoffs against the Carolina Hurricanes. He’s the higher-ceiling talent and I expect him to tilt the timeshare slightly in his favor. With two crucial stars in Brad Marchand and Charlie McAvoy out long-term to start the season and Taylor Hall dinged up to boot, goaltending will have to keep Boston afloat, and Swayman is up to the task.