We’re a little more than a month away from puck drop on the NHL’s 2015-2016 regular season. That means that over the course of the next few weeks, informal skates will be taking place, training camps will open, and pre-season games will begin to be played.
All of those things are a welcomed change of pace from the doldrums of late July and the entirety of August that plague every diehard NHL fan’s calendar. What the approach of a new season also means is that there will be no shortage of surprise teams and players who have flown under the radar but will rise to the forefront and make their presences known.
Here are five candidates who I feel have a very strong chance to make such an impact that may certainly come as a surprise to a lot people should it happen.
1. Victor Rask
While he’s not related to Boston’s Finnish goaltender, Carolina’s Swedish center Victor is on the verge of putting some confusion into the minds of hockey fans as to who is being referred to when they hear a fellow fan say the name “Rask.”
Rask leveraged Jordan Staal’s pre-season injury last year into a guaranteed roster spot as a center on one of Carolina’s middle lines. In his rookie year, he took the ball and ran with it when that opportunity presented itself. He very quietly put up 33 points in 80 games last season while proving to be a very solid all-around player.
In addition to his solid level of production, he was also outstanding with regards to driving play. His shot generation abilities were very clear, as Carolina produced 33.66 shots on goal per 60 minutes at even strength with Rask on the ice. Without Rask on the ice, the Hurricanes were only good for 29.53 shots on goal per 60 minutes. That SF60RelTM impact (courtesy of stats.hockeyanalysis.com) is comparable to those of players like Jamie Benn and Phil Kessel.
Rask may never produce offensively in the same way that those players do, but his underlying numbers suggest there’s a lot of room for improvement from his point total of 33 a season ago. Look for Rask to approach the 50 point benchmark this season and firmly establish himself as an above average second line center.
2. Jesper Fast
With the departures of Carl Hagelin and Martin St. Louis from New York’s group of forwards, the Rangers will be forced to look to other sources of secondary scoring behind Rick Nash, Mats Zuccarello, and Derick Brassard. I’ve got a strong feeling that Fast is the player who stands the best chance of stepping up and providing that depth scoring.
Like the aforementioned Rask, Fast simply didn’t get enough attention for how solid he was last year. The Rangers were actually a rather poor possession team, but Fast was one of the players pulling the boat in the right direction with a corsi relative of +2.1% over his 58 games last season. In addition to that, he put up 14 points playing almost exclusively in a fourth line role throughout the regular season.
If the Rangers roll with a first line of Zuccarello, Brassard, and Nash like they are expected to, look for Fast to get a look Chris Kreider and Derek Stepan on the second line. He’ll have to jockey for position with other youngsters such as Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller, but Fast’s well-roundedness and above average hockey sense makes him a solid option to play with Stepan.
Basically, the worst case scenario for Fast this year is that he plays on what should be a very strong third line. His days on the fourth line are over, and look for him to get some power play time that could serve to boost his production as well.
3. Justin Fontaine
If I had asked, where would you have guessed that Fontaine ranked last season in terms of even strength points per 60 minutes among NHL skaters with at least 500 minutes of ice time? If you would have guessed 24th, then congratulations because you would have been exactly correct. Fontaine put up a shockingly good 2.25 points per 60 last season, leading every qualified forward on the Wild.
Fontaine was very quietly a huge piece of the offensive puzzle that allowed the Wild to score just enough goals for Devan Dubnyk’s heroics to propel them into the playoffs. He had 31 points over 71 games, but his average even strength time on ice per game was just barely higher than that of Kyle Brodziak.
He’s turning 28 in November, so he’s not by any means a young player, but the potential is there for Fontaine to put up some very solid second line numbers this year if he’s utilized properly. I’d personally put him on the right side of whichever line that Zach Parise will hold down the left side on. The two scarcely played together and judging by their production levels, there could be a fit there.
4. Chris Tierney
Like Fontaine, Tierney is a player with whom we are dealing with a smaller sample size, but the information available to us suggests that there’s a lot to like here. Tierney played just 43 games with the Sharks in his rookie year, but he put up 15 even-strength points and 21 points total. His even-strength points per 60 of 1.89 puts him roughly in the company of players such as Bobby Ryan, Bryan Little, and Gabriel Landeskog.
Now hopefully I don’t have to explain to you that I’m not saying he’s as good as those players. Obviously there are other factors at play such as usage, competition, and sample size, but that is the offensive company he played himself into last season. He’s just 21 years of age, so there’s certainly room for him to grow as well.
In what was a disturbingly down year for San Jose, Tierney offered a glimmer of hope from a somewhat unexpected source. Should he win a top nine forward spot in camp and remain healthy throughout the season’s entirety, I’d be looking for Tierney to produce somewhere between 40 and 50 points, depending on puck luck and quality of line mates.
5. Brett Connolly
Acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning, the former sixth overall pick should have every opportunity to make his presence felt in the Bruins’ revamped lineup this season. There are a couple gaping roster spots wide open in the top six, and I expect Connolly to be one of the favorites heading into camp to claim one of them.
The locks to make the Bruins’ top six appear to be David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, and Brad Marchand. That much is obvious. Beyond that, there’s some intriguing options and a whole lot of uncertainty. Loui Eriksson could slide in next to Krejci, but he could also be a very intriguing depth option on the third line to help provide balance to the lineup. The same thing goes for free agent acquisition Matt Beleskey. Jimmy Hayes was brought in, but he’ll almost definitely slide into the bottom six.
I’ll go ahead and guess that one of Eriksson and Beleskey will play next to Krejci, while the other plays on the third line. David Pastrnak will very likely round out that line, leaving Connolly as the likely third for Bergeron and Marchand. If he does end up playing with those two, that will be a huge benefit to Connolly’s season. His possession driving abilities will be practically irrelevant, even though he’s no slouch in that regard as reflected by his 55.3% corsi share over 55 games last season.
What will really matter is his goalscoring ability. Connolly never got a fair chance to be a regular producer in Tampa Bay, even though the data on him suggests that he would have been perfectly capable of it. Granted he played light minutes over a small sample, but his career even strength goals per 60 minutes of 0.95 is absolutely nothing to sneeze at. Out of the 477 forwards who have played at least 500 minutes over the last three years, he ranks 39th out of all of them. Keep that in mind when Connolly tops the 20 goal benchmark this season.