Every year, players break out all over the NHL.
Sometimes it’s young players who make the leap to full-time NHL status and score at the pace expected of them. Other times it’s under-the-radar players who find themselves in an opportune position with a new team. These are not rookies vying for the Calder – rather they are players looking to prove they belong in their respective club’s plans.
Here are the players from each Atlantic Division team who look likely to step up their game:
Carolina Hurricanes: Seth Jarvis, RW
The young Hurricanes winger had some star play spurts last season, scoring 40 points as a rookie and then with eight points in 14 playoff games for Carolina. Jarvis is a high-octane winger – the kind of offensive talent the Canes lacked until recent years. His tendency to use his agility and puck skills to leap off the wall and attack the mid lane makes him a scoring threat whenever he’s on the ice.
His rookie season was pretty good, and if it hadn’t been for an absolutely packed rookie class, Jarvis might have been a runner-up for the Calder. Instead, he flew a little under the radar, with many mentioning him as an afterthought among the NHL’s freshman squad. Jarvis will once again have the opportunity to play with Carolina’s top forwards this season, and his ferocity and unyielding attitude combined with his offensive prowess should continue to give Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour no reason to push him down. line up. Jarvis could be in for a big pop, possibly approaching double his points total from his rookie year.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Cole Sillinger, C
The only player in the 2021 NHL Draft to stay in the NHL from start to finish last season, Sillinger gave good minutes for the Blue Jackets and played center for a team looking for pivots. Sillinger is a great physical center who has all the attacking tools you could ask for from a teenager. His shooting was very clearly NHL caliber, jumping off his stick whether he fired an instant shot or ended up for a point shot from the face-off circle. His point guard ability was never challenged due to his inability to pass the puck, but rather a penchant for wanting to do it all himself. It was not a problem in the NHL.
Sillinger is an incredibly talented attacking player who showed great development in his own area throughout last season. He may never be the main transition option, but his mobility was also on par with the NHL last season. With the ability to rack up 31 points in 79 games as an 18-year-old center, the sky’s the limit for the 11th overall pick in 2021. Continued physical maturation and a more developed understanding of the NHL game should only making him more of a threat this coming season. Sixty points aren’t out of the question with the first six minutes and an upgraded supporting cast.
New Jersey Devils: Dawson Mercer, RW
Although he doesn’t play center like many thought he would in the NHL, Mercer has become an excellent wing scoring option for the Devils. His understanding of timing and spatial awareness gave him the ability to create space while his natural offensive instincts and shooting and passing skills allowed him to take advantage of those opportunities.
Much like Jarvis, in a typical season, Mercer would have been given a lot more attention for the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie last year if the class hadn’t been loaded. Mercer was a reliable and consistent depth scorer who had 42 points last year, and with a good summer of training and injuries to key Devils members hopefully not being as big a factor this season , Mercer should be ready to put in a few more this year.
New York Islanders: Oliver Wahlstrom, RW
Could this finally be the season the 6-foot-2 shooter breaks out? His season had its ups and downs last year with many stints on the fourth line. Wahlstrom never really seemed to fit in with the previous coaching staff, so a fresh start with a new group more focused on opening play offensively could finally see the Swedish-American youngster thrive.
Wahlstrom has a good shot and is confident in his mix of power and skill. The Islanders’ first pick in 2018 was considered an offensive force before the draft, and he’s shown it at times at the AHL and NHL levels, but the consistency hasn’t been there. The fresh start may be all he needs to figure out his game and break through as an NHL goal scorer.
New York Rangers: Alexis Lafrenière, LW
The first overall pick of 2020 has been a bit of a disappointment as an NHL player so far with brief flashes of the star potential we’ve all seen in the former QMJHL star. Lafrenière is strong on his skates and works so incredibly well in the cycle while using his puck skills and vision to become a playmaker off the wall and in space. As a shooter, he picks his spots and goes to dangerous areas to unload a big wrist or a quick shot.
Besides his natural ability, the biggest sign of an impending breakout is the winger’s appearance in the playoffs last spring. Lafrenière looked like a man on a mission and a player who had put the pieces together more cohesively. There were nights when, aside from goalkeeper phenom Igor Shesterkin, Lafreniere was Rangers’ best player. A breakout is expected from the first overall pick and this season could very well be.
Philadelphia Flyers: Morgan Frost, C
The Flyers are entering a new era of Philadelphia hockey and Morgan Frost has the chance to ensure he is a major part of it going forward. The young center should be in a good position to earn the first six minutes with the Flyers, as they are exhausted by the loss of players to trade and, more recently, by a long-term injury. Frost is a skilled and precise playmaker who reads the ice at a very high level.
A shoulder injury that required surgery two seasons ago ended his year prematurely, setting his development back a bit at just 21 years old. Last year, his season was split between the NHL and AHL, before moving full-time to the NHL roster in March. Frost will be asked to do a lot this year as top center Sean Couturier is expected to be out for a good chunk of time to start the year. This could be the opportunity Frost needs to finally take his place in Philadelphia’s top six now that he’s fully healthy and has the opportunity to take it on.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Ty Smith, D
Smith is getting a fresh start after being traded to Pittsburgh from the New Jersey Devils, and the 2018 17th overall pick needed it. He seemed to take a small step back last year, not finding the consistency he had as a rookie. Smith’s ability to play on the power play should give the Penguins a little more dangerous option on second unit and a little more dynamic insurance for Kris Letang.
Smith is an excellent passer from the back who isn’t going to waste too much time taking shots from the blue line, opting instead for more dangerous plays. Smith threads the needle and uses his mobility to change the angle and find passing lanes. He’s also a solid player in transition, getting the puck out of trouble and making a good first pass out of the zone. The Penguins blue line is by no means loaded, but Smith will have to earn the minutes he gets.
Washington Capitals: Connor McMichael, C/LW
Currently locked in a battle for the second-line center role, McMichael will have the opportunity to play in Washington’s roster to start the year with Niklas Backstrom sidelined after hip surgery. The opportunity for McMichael to take a step forward after playing all year in the NHL last year will be great for his development.
McMichael is a good finisher who plays a bit bigger than him. The former London Knights center is a versatile offensive player who should be able to fit in and play a variety of roles on a line. He had his best streak of the year last season when he was able to play in the middle. A full year in this position could mean big things and a season where he pushes 50 points or more.