The beginning of a new NHL season means a blank slate and endless possibilities. That can be encouraging for teams that fell short of expectations or weren’t satisfied with their place in the standings last season, but it can be equally as promising for players craving a chance to prove themselves.
Whether it’s rookies looking to announce their arrival at the NHL level or budding stars hoping to continue blooming or frustrated players needing a fresh start, a new league year means opportunity and promise. Here are more than a dozen players who could be on the precipice of something special in 2021-22.
Trevor Zegras, Ducks: He is one of the best young prospects in the game and has showcased elite offensive ability throughout his development stages. The Ducks desperately need offensive playmakers to inject some life into an offense that has barely had a pulse in recent years. After a somewhat unspectacular debut last season (13 points in 24 games), I’d expect Zegras to do a better job of announcing his arrival in his official rookie campaign.
Spencer Knight, Panthers: The Panthers haven’t gotten the long-term stability in net they were hoping for when they signed Sergei Bobrovsky a few years ago, and now the real goalie of the future may be ready to step in. Knight looked strong when called upon in the regular season and playoffs last season, and with Chris Driedger now gone, he should have an opportunity to seize the crease in Florida. His experience is still limited, but so far he’s been worth the hype.
Matt Boldy and Marco Rossi, Wild: Kirill Kaprizov gave new life to Minnesota’s offense en route to winning the Calder Trophy last season. Now, there’s reason to believe that the Wild’s offense is going to continue to grow thanks to young stars in the system. Boldy and Rossi are highly skilled forwards who have impressed early in camp and will have an opportunity to find spots in the Wild lineup this season.
Cole Caufield, Canadiens: We got a pretty good look at Caufield during the Canadiens’ run to the Stanley Cup Final last season, but he’ll be entering his official rookie season this year in Montreal. He started looking more comfortable and dynamic as he settled in, so that’s a good sign for what’s to come. Caufield, who has managed to score at a ridiculous clip in nearly every stage of his career, could very well lead all rookies in goals this season.
Players on the rise
Jakub Vrana, Red Wings: If Steve Yzerman sees something in a player and is willing to make a splash to acquire them, you better pay attention. Vrana regularly produced at a 20-plus goal pace and had good underlying numbers while being underused by the Capitals during his time in Washington. After arriving in Detroit at the trade deadline, Vrana got more playing time and was a point-per-game player for the Red Wings (eight goals and three assists in 11 games). Overall, he finished last season with the league’s third-highest goals/60 rate at 5-on-5 (1.68). With more opportunity in front of him, he may be due to reach a new level in Detroit.
Kirby Dach, Blackhawks: Many of us were anticipating a Kirby Dach breakout last season, but his sophomore campaign was derailed by an injury suffered during the World Junior Championship before the NHL season. Now, with Dach healthy and the Blackhawks ready to be more competitive, there’s reason to believe more flashes of brilliance will come from the big, talented forward in Chicago.
Mathieu Joseph, Lightning: With so many depth departures from the Lightning this summer, Tampa Bay is going to need some players to step up and assume an increased role as they chase a three-peat. Joseph could be one of those players that seizes the opportunity, as he’s a flexible forward who did well with the opportunities presented to him up and down the lineup last season. At the very least, he should factor into the top nine, but he also could potentially be a 20-goal scorer if given a crack at second-line and/or power-play minutes.
Oliver Wahlstrom, Islanders: Wahlstrom had 21 points (nine goals, 12 assists) in 44 games with the Isles last season — his first official year in the league. He’s a skilled winger that could see an expanded role this season thanks to the departure of Jordan Eberle. It’s quite possible that Wahlstrom plays his way into top-line minutes beside Mat Barzal and Anders Lee, and that could set him up for a big-time jump in production.
Overdue for the next step
Kaapo Kakko and Alexis LaFreniere, Rangers: Kakko and LaFreniere have yet to explode into the offensive stars that they were made out to be coming out of the draft, but it’s still early. (Saying LaFreniere is “overdue” might be a stretch considering this is just his second NHL season, but he did underwhelm in his rookie year after going first overall.) Don’t rush to slap the “bust” label on either of them, especially since they may be more comfortable in Gerard Gallant’s system and Pavel Buchnevich’s departure will open up a spot in the top six and on the top power-play unit. At least one of these guys should have a great opportunity to rise this season.
Vince Dunn, Kraken: After a strong sophomore season in 2018-19, Dunn had a disappointing and strenuous last few years in St. Louis. But he has finally found a fresh start in Seattle, where he figures to be a consistent top-four defenseman and power-play quarterback during the Kraken’s inaugural season. We’re not sure what Seattle’s first season has in store, but Dunn is talented and is going to be given ample opportunity to be a difference maker on the back end.
Nolan Patrick, Golden Knights: You can highlight a few reasons why Patrick’s tenure in Philadelphia didn’t go the way the Flyers expected — concussion and migraine issues among them — but there’s also reason to believe that his offseason move to Vegas could be a great thing to revitalize his career. The Golden Knights have plenty of talent on the roster, but they lack difference makers at the center position. If Patrick can stay in the lineup and be productive, he’ll have an opportunity to play his way up the lineup on one of the best teams in the Western Conference.
Jesse Puljujarvi, Oilers: Puljujarvi has put up modest numbers through his first four NHL seasons, and it’d be easy to label him as a disappointment given the expectations he carried after being drafted fourth overall in 2016. But he’s still just 23 years old and has started to make progress in his development, showing good underlying numbers in Edmonton last season. With the Oilers adding a little more help up front this offseason, Puljujarvi should have some runway to keep getting better and make a big leap while playing alongside Connor McDavid.