Every year in hockey, there are players who surpass expectations. Sometimes they come out of nowhere, and other times they’re young guys shrouded with uncertainty who live up to the hype. In all of these cases, NHL teams are tasked with difficult evaluations in figuring out which players will keep it up, and which won’t.
In a league where allocating resources is put at a premium because of the hard salary cap, teams have to be especially careful not to overpay players. Betting on the wrong guy because his one great season turned out to be an outlier can be crushing to a team’s ability to fill out its roster. Even when you swing and miss on a second-tier player like a Bryan Bickell or Ville Leino, those wasted millions have a real impact when you have to do a buyout or salary dump trade.
That’s why teams always have to keep an extra close eye on players coming off breakout seasons to figure out whether the improvement is sustainable or not. In a one-year sample size, there are many instances where a player can outperform his talent level thanks to luck and circumstance. So it’s important to dig deeper into big breakout players and figure out whether they’re worthy of those lucrative long-term contract extensions or teams are merely setting themselves up to get burned.
There’s only so much you can do to figure out a player’s future, but by looking at underlying numbers and usage, you can get a much better understanding of just HOW a player’s breakout came to be. Some ways are much easier to keep up (i.e. significant increases in shot totals) compared to others (i.e. an increased shooting percentage). Whether you’re an NHL general manager or simply a fantasy nerd trying to get an edge on the field, there’s useful information that can be gleaned to make more educated decisions.
With all of that in mind, here’s a look at four NHL players who took huge leaps forward in the 2015-16 season, and what we can expect from them going forward.
Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals
The Capitals don’t just have one amazingly good Russian scorer anymore. Kuznetsov blew up during his second full season in Washington with 77 points in 82 games, finishing tied for ninth among all players. The breakout was a long time coming for Kuznetsov, who was picked in the first round of the 2010 NHL Draft. Now that he’s put it together, there’s good reason to believe he can put up 75-80 points again.
Often centering the top line with fellow Russian Alex Ovechkin on his wing, Kuznetsov’s numbers soared across the board. His overall points per 60 minutes jumped from 2.1 to 3.2, and if you limit that to just 5-on-5 minutes, his per-60 production doubled from 1.3 to 2.6. The 24-year-old’s possession numbers were positive for the first time in his career (+2.1 percent Corsi relative at 5-on-5). His goal increase came from taking 49 percent more shots on goal, rather than some ridiculous shooting percentage.
And there’s little reason to be concerned about his role, too. Kuznetsov will likely start the season as the Capitals’ top-line center once again, and with Ovechkin part of that group, it’ll continue playing a more offensive-minded role. That should mean a lot of chances for Kuznetsov and Ovechkin to hook up, which will be nothing but good for the former’s production.
Another top-10 scoring finish from Kuznetsov in 2016-17 should surprise nobody.
Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets
We already know what the Jets think about Scheifele’s breakout 2015-16 season because they signed him to a monster eight-year contract extension over the summer. Clearly, Winnipeg felt comfortable betting big on the former 2011 first-round pick, and it’s not hard to see why after a 29-goal, 61-point campaign in his third season.
Scheifele isn’t quite the complete center that Kuznetsov can be in terms of playmaking and face-off ability, but he can command possession and finish chances with the best of them. Among players with at least 1,000 minutes played in 2015-16, only 15 players had a more positive effect on their team’s total shot rate (Corsi For), per Corsica Hockey, and only 14 players had a more positive effect on their team’s shooting percentage when on the ice. Scheifele took more shots per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 than Ovechkin, Joe Pavelski, Taylor Hall and countless others.
And he took his game to another level in the second half, too. With a larger role after the trade of longtime captain Andrew Ladd to Chicago, Scheifele finished the second half with 17 goals and 37 points in 33 games. Part of that increase came from shooting over 18 percent, but it shows what the larger responsibilities could do for his box scores.
While the shooting percentage impact is harder to peg down in terms of predictability, it’s fair to say that Scheifele helps the Jets get far more scoring chances when he’s playing. And in his new role as the Jets’ No. 1 center following the departure of Ladd, the onus will be on Scheifele to continue being a leader at the top of the lineup. Even if there’s some regression in shooting percentages while he’s on the ice, Scheifele’s impressive ability to tilt the ice and get chances should hold off any significant decline. And if the shooting percentage holds up, he could blow past 60 points.
Kyle Palmieri, New Jersey Devils
The Devils signed Palmieri in the summer of 2015 thinking they had added a decent, young two-way forward. Instead, the 25-year-old broke out by more than doubling his career-high in goals (30) while shattering his top mark in assists (29). With 57 points in 82 games, Palmieri reached a level of production he had never touched as a secondary player with the Ducks.
Transitioning into a much larger role with New Jersey, Palmeiri delivered. However, unlike the other players on this list, the biggest difference for Palmeiri in 2015-16 was playing time. His 5-on-5 points per 60 was right in line with past numbers, but his total time on ice almost doubled from the previous injury-marred season.
All of that is good! One of the toughest things for a player to do is maintain strong scoring rates while increasing his volume of playing time. Shooting tons of shots at a high percentage is much easier for 12-13 minutes over 60 games than 17-18 over 80.
With that said, there are reasons to believe Palmieri could go either way. His shooting percentage of 13.5 percent was higher than his old mark by a couple percent, so some regression there wouldn’t be surprising. And while his shots per game numbers were way up, the Devils’ last aggressive style meant his team took 22 percent less shots per 60 last season compared to his final year in Anaheim. It’s a testament to his improvement that he scored so much despite that. Still, fewer chances rarely helps a scorer.
And then there’s the addition of Taylor Hall, which should undeniably benefit Palmieri in various ways but also makes him less needed as a finisher. It’ll be interesting to see how pairing on a line with Hall and Adam Henrique impacts Palmieri’s balance as a scorer and playmaker. There’s a chance Palmieri gets a little less puck luck, but Hall helps comb over that regression.
Vincent Trocheck, Florida Panthers
Trocheck is another young guy who parlayed his breakout performance into a big contract in restricted free agency. The No. 2 center earned himself a six-year, $28.5 million contract extension from Florida with a 25-goal, 53-point season that showed the former third-round pick is tapping deep into his potential.
When Trocheck was rising through the ranks, he was projected as a balanced two-way center without many flaws. It turns out that’s precisely what he’s become. Not elite in many areas, Trocheck is well-rounded, whether it’s as a scorer, defender or on the dot. It’s that wide range of skills that makes Trocheck so valuable, but the scoring is the part that was least expected.
However, there are a couple reasons he could potentially take a step back there.
Much of Trocheck’s scoring increase came from power play minutes. He actually took fewer shots and only scored at a slightly better rate during 5-on-5 action last season. But he played 214 minutes on the power play and recorded 13 points. During his first 70 games in Florida, he had two power play points. That makes up almost the entirety of Trocheck’s scoring uptick.
The other big thing is his shooting percentage at 5-on-5, where he scored 19 goals on 123 shots, or a 15.4 percent success rate. That’s way up from eight goals on 105 shots (7.6 percent) the previous two seasons, and it’s hard to say exactly where Trocheck’s true talent level is there yet.
So if Trocheck sees fewer power play minutes or a regression in his shooting percentage, a step back offensively wouldn’t be surprising. Luckily, he’s still quite useful elsewhere, which is why the Panthers felt comfortable paying up anyway.
Satchel Price is a fan of the Blackhawks, Bulls, Cubs, and Bears. He’s a freelance writer based in Chicago, Ill., with a background covering sports, culture and technology. Satchel is also managing editor for Second City Hockey and his work has appeared on SB Nation, ESPN.com and Baseball Prospectus. You can follow him on Twitter at @satchelprice.