There is something about your team finding the next breakout star that makes sports worth watching even if your team is going through a down period. Rosters and teams are generally structured based on known commodities and perceived potential, but every now and again a player will come out of literally nowhere to shock and awe and become a key component of what a team is trying to do.
Such players can come from a number of different avenues. One of the most obvious is a late round draft pick who, either in their rookie year or after a couple of seasons, smashes through the ceiling of their potential rating. The iconic example of this is Tom Brady in the NFL, a sixth round draft pick who has gone on to be a multiple time regular season and Super Bowl MVP. Another avenue is the journeyman player who bounces around a league before finding the right fit, the right coaching and the right situation to heavily increase their stat line as their play level increases.
The best teams are the teams who are able, by luck or by judgement, consistently stumble upon this kind of player. The beauty of such a player is they are generally working for very little (relatively) money. Of course that can change quickly, and it is always amazing how many of these players have their breakout seasons during a contract year, but a couple of solid break out players can certainly help push a team up a level or two in the standings.
In the NHL during the 2014-15 season there were a number of players who broke out and delivered performances the like of which we had not seen from them before. These players, who started the season under the radar, are now guys who will be boosted up fantasy draft boards and who will be expected to produce at an even higher level next season.
Here is a list of the top 10 breakout stars of the NHL season:
10 Johnny Gaudreau – Calgary Flames
It is hard to put rookies on a breakout star list, because you don’t really have a catalog to refer to in terms of previous play at the NHL level. Johnny Gaudreau simply had to make this list however as his first NHL season has been such an unmitigated success. Johnny Hockey as he is colloquially known scored 64 points in 80 regular season games for the Flames during the 2014-15 season. He then backed this up by scoring nine points on four goals and five assists before the Flames bowed out to the Ducks in the second round of the playoffs. Gaudreau did what is supposed to be impossible and made the transition from collegiate level hockey to the NHL look very, very easy.
9 Aaron Ekblad – Florida Panthers
When it comes to players defying convention and succeeding where so many have failed you have to applaud the rookie season that Aaron Ekblad put together for the Panthers. We have seen players come in and break out as rookies, but to do so as a defenceman is a very rare feat indeed. Ekblad played in 81 of the Panthers' 82 games, scoring 39 points in the process. More impressive though was the consistent ice time and high level minutes he was putting up at a position where so many before him have failed. Ekblad’s breakout rookie season was rewarded with a Calder Memorial Trophy finalist nomination.
8 John Carlson – Washington Capitals
John Carlson has always been an effective two way defenceman. He has great size, effective skating skills and a high level motor which ensures he is able to get up and down the ice as well as anyone out there. This year Carlson broke out as he added more scoring prowess to his game. He was an assist machine as a defenceman for the Capitals, setting up 43 goals with his play on his way to a total of 55 points for the season. That added scoring was enough to put him in the top five in points for defencemen this year. Carlson is a player who just seems to be getting better the more he plays, giving the Capitals a reliable option at the position for years to come.
7 Braden Holtby – Washington Capitals
Breden Holtby had a career year with the Washington Capitals after spending plenty of time either backing up or splitting duties with other goaltenders. While he had shown flashes of brilliance throughout his career, Holtby finally was able to put it all together for a full body of work this year. Holtby won 41 games this season en route to a 41-20-10 record. Those 41 wins equal the record for wins in a season for the franchise with Capitals legend Olaf Kolzig. At 25 years of age Holtby is young for an NHL goaltender. With years in front of him to hone his game and work on becoming the most complete goalie he can be, there is no reason to expect Holtby’s level of performance to drop off after his breakout season.
6 Tyler Johnson – Tampa Bay Lightning
At 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, Tyler Johnson will never be the most imposing player on the ice, but in 2014-15 he made sure that opponents had to account for him in all situations. In 82 games last season Johnson scored a very respectable 50 points, but this winter he took his play to a whole new level, scoring 72 points in 77 games and often being the most dynamic and important player on the Tampa Bay Lightning team. Johnson finished third in the entire league in plus-minus with a plus-33 rating for the season and was selected to the All-Star Game. Johnson has since completely taken over the playoffs, setting record after record for the Lightning as they set themselves up to chase down the Stanley Cup. Heading into the Stanley Cup Final, Johnson already has 12 goals and nine assists.
5 Jiri Hudler – Calgary Flames
Jiri Hudler is a 10-year NHL veteran who has always been a solid player, but never one who would be thought of as a star. Prior to this year Hudler’s best points total in the NHL can during the 2008-09 season where he scored 57 points for the Detroit Red Wings. This year though, Hudler has broken out, scoring 76 points on 31 goals and 45 assists. Hudler achieved that total in just 78 games, marking the first time he has ever got close to averaging a point per game during his NHL career. The 31-year-old if proof that breakout stars can come from anywhere and that age is nothing but a number. We'll now see if it's an anomaly or if Hudler can follow it up with a couple more seasons like that.
4 Nick Foligno – Columbus Blue Jackets
Nick Foligno has played in the NHL for eight seasons with either the Ottawa Senators or the Columbus Blue Jackets. Over the first seven of those seasons his point totals were: 9, 32, 26, 34, 47, 19 and 39. It was easy therefore to assume we had seen the best of Foligno’s game when he scored 47 points in his last season in Ottawa. Then came 2014-15 and Foligno blew his previous season totals out of the water. Foligno scored 73 points on 31 goals and 42 assists this season, his play astonishing even those closest to him. By maturing both on the ice and off Foligno now has a new target to aim for next year. Similarly to Hudler, we'll see if these totals are just an exception or the new norm.
3 Filip Forsberg – Nashville Predators
Filip Forsberg has had quite the season for a player who was deemed not good enough to stick in the league during the 2013-14 campaign. This year he has done far more than just stick, and his stint with the Milwaukee Admirals of the AHL at the back end of the 2013-14 season has done wonders for the young Swedish center’s game. Forsberg was the 11th overall pick of the 2012 draft by the Washington Capitals, but their loss is Nashville’s gain as he is already writing his name in the record book of the young franchise. This year he became the first Predator so score in the All-Star game, the youngest Nashville player to score a playoff goal in their history and also recorded the first playoff hat trick in franchise history.
2 Jakub Voracek – Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers All-Star right wing started off the season at a torrid pace. After 43 games he had scored 52 points and looked poised to hit 100 points for the year. As it was, his production slowed somewhat down the stretch, but his 81 points in 82 games is still by far the best total during his career in a full season. At just 25 years of age the Czech skater has his whole career in front of him, even though he has already played over 500 career games, and he is a huge piece which the Flyers can build their franchise around for years to come. Voracek's value is added by doing all this at a bargain annual cap hit of $4.25 million.
1 Vladimir Tarasenko – St. Louis Blues
Vladimir Tarasenko is another player who came into the 2014-15 season in white hot form. What seperates Tarasenko from his rivals for this number one sport on our list is that unlike the others he did not fade as the grind of a full NHL season began to take its toll. Tarasenko was the 16th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, so his credentials were a known commodity. During the 2013-14 campaign, his first full season at this level, he was able to muster a respectable 43 points. This season though he blew that total out of the water, scoring 73 points including 37 goals. In the Blues' first round series loss to Minnesota, he added six goals and an assist, including a hat trick in Game 2. At 23 years old, but with tons of minor league experience, Tarasenko is going to be an NHL star for the considerable future.
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