I’m in a semi-awkward position. The NHL playoffs have already started following the debut of last week’s post. If I stick to the regular timeline, we’ll be too deep into the first round for the predictions to seem timely. We have to move everything up a bit before too many games happen. Otherwise they potential breakouts will have begun already breaking out.
That’s no problemo because I’m always down to blog about hockey. To wrap up this two-part series, we’re tackling the East and Central divisions. Here’s one player from those eight teams who just might prove to be a breakout star in the 2021 NHL playoffs.
We’re starting off with a tricky one. The Pittsburgh Penguins won the East division largely thanks to a pretty balanced offensive attack from its top two lines. The top line, in particular, is rolling. Sidney Crosby has had another stellar year centering Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust. But I feel like Guentzel and Rust are too well-known at this point to qualify for breakout status.
So, we’ll look to a winger who has had a very solid season. Kasperi Kapanen has been a productive member of the second line, averaging .75 points per game as a 24-year-old. He’s a prime candidate to help anchor a deep Pittsburgh playoff run. Adding to this selection, Evgeni Malkin is expected to return from a knee injury sometime soon, resuming his regular duties of centering the second line. Kapanen should have an easier time scoring if Geno’s on the ice with him.
The Washington Capitals are the NHL’s oldest team by average age. That statistic makes things tough for an exercise like this. The players on the Capitals are largely guys who have already become breakouts or will never become breakouts.
That’s why we’re going with Anthony Mantha here. He’s a top-line winger who’s playing alongside Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. He isn’t under the radar by any stretch of the imagination; everyone already knows he’s very good. But, he was also buried on some truly awful Detroit teams for the first four years of his career. This is his first chance to play on the big stage, and he’s very well capable of shining. He’ll also be a mainstay in the Caps lineup for the foreseeable future, as he just signed a four-year contract before the 2021 season started.
What does it say about Taylor Hall that I considered including him here? He’s a former MVP who has only been to the playoffs three times in 11 years, and he largely hasn’t lived up to his potential in those series. The man has had just the weirdest career.
Instead of throwing gasoline on that fire, we’ll keep the pick a bit more positive. Let’s go with d-man Charlie McAvoy. He has the makings of a franchise blueliner, and he’s absolutely the sort of player that every fan would want on their team. Hard-hitting, gritty, defensively-responsible, and increasingly confident in joining the offensive rush. He’s the sort of guy who’s built for the NHL playoffs. Don’t be surprised if he makes a splash this year.
New York Islanders
The New York Islanders are nearly at the bottom of the list when it comes to offensive production among playoff teams. When you’re pinpointing candidates to be breakout stars, you don’t think about good backchecking through the neutral zone. You think about putting pucks in nets, the biscuit in the basket.
Let’s go with rookie Oliver Wahlstrom here. He’s had a streaky first full campaign. At times, he’d put up enough points to join the Calder conversation. Then, he’d disappear for long stretches. If he can heat up, Wahlstrom could provide some of that secondary scoring that could propel the Islanders to a first-round upset over the Penguins.
I feel like I could just say “The Carolina Hurricanes” for this entry and call it a day. One of the best teams in the league is full of guys who don’t get their due credit. Nearly all of them are under the radar. Maybe that’s a byproduct of playing in Carolina.
That’s why I don’t know if he’s the ideal candidate here, but I’m going with my gut (mostly because I love him): Andrei Svechnikov. He’s electric, and that has breakout star written all over it. Svchnikov went on a streak right before the regular season ended where he put up nine points in five games. That’s certainly the right time to get warmed up. (Full disclosure: The correct answer could be about 10 other ‘canes. It’s a guessing game with them.)
This might be the easiest pick of them all. Last year, he helped Tampa win a Stanley Cup in his rookie year (although he wasn’t much of a scoring threat during their championship run). Now, he’s switched teams and has become a legit NHL scorer.
Florida’s Carter Verhaeghe will play a much more prominent role for the Panthers than he did for the Lightning. The change of scenery has been good for him. He’s playing on Florida’s top line in his sophomore season, netting 18 goals and 18 assists. He averaged .25 points per game in Tampa; he’s up to .84 points per game this year for the Panthers. Even if Florida bows out in the first round to a very talented Lightning team, he’s cemented himself as a player who can be among the top offensive producers for his team.
Tampa Bay Lightning
How do you pick a breakout candidate from a team that’s largely intact after winning a championship less than eight months ago? Most of the players on this team have already been to the mountaintop, and we’ve already seen who performs under pressure. Brayden Point scored 33 points last postseason, we already know he’s good.
Second line centerman Anthony Cirelli could fill that role in his third year of full-time NHL play. Cirelli is already one of the league’s best defensive forwards, but this could be the NHL playoffs where he takes that next leap and becomes a mainstay on the score sheet. The Lightning have given Cirelli plenty of assignments where he isn’t necessarily expected to produce on offense, and that has led to a bit of a slump. However, with Steven Stamkos back on his wing, Cirelli could definitely pick up the pace.
Two negative trends have popped up in this article: lowest scoring average and highest average age. Unfortunately for Nashville, they chart in both regards. The Preds have the fewest goals per game on average of all playoff teams (2.70 GPG), and they’re the fifth oldest team in the league (average age of 28.3 years at the start of the season).
With a name that rolls right off the tongue, Eeli Tolvanen probably has the best chance to shine among a roster full of established veterans. The only problem is we aren’t sure he’ll be in the lineup. He hasn’t been all that impressive in the final nine regular season games following an injury that sidelined him a couple of weeks. If he’s firing on all cylinders, he can be a force as part of the Predators’ top powerplay unit. That is, if he’s on the ice at all.