5 NHL Players Set to Break Out in 2022

With the calendar recently turning to 2022, the NHL is approaching the halfway mark of the 2021-22 season. While the familiar stars have picked up where they left off, several under-the-radar candidates look poised to break through and establish themselves as dependable offensive weapons at the NHL level. While these players generate strong underlying numbers, they haven’t enjoyed the same concrete point totals to match, keeping them on the periphery of public consciousness. With that, here are five players ready to break out in the second half of the 2021-22 campaign.

Oliver Wahlstrom, New York Islanders

You might be wondering just how can a former first-round pick be considered under-the-radar? Well, Oliver Wahlstrom has yet to fulfill the potential implied by his draft pedigree and is still looking to establish himself with the New York Islanders in his third season in the NHL. To the typical fan, Wahlstrom’s unassuming goal (eight) and point (15) totals this season might not register as evidence of a forthcoming breakout star, but his numbers under the hood tell a different story.

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The sophomore winger has posted top-line quality rates of shots (tied for 73rd in SH/60 among qualified forwards) and 5v5 individual expected goals per-60 (tied for 45th in ixG/60 – expected goals evaluate the likelihood a shot becomes a goal) this season. Surprisingly, the shoot-first forward has also been New York’s most dangerous passer to start the season, completing 1.88 high-danger passes (those traveling across the slot or from behind the net) to go with his third-best rate of scoring chance production. The auspicious talent is quickly maturing into a dual-threat offensively, although you wouldn’t know it by the 13 minutes he plays a night.

Oliver Wahlstrom New York Islanders
Oliver Wahlstrom, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

If for no other reason but to boost their underwhelming scoring rate (29th in goals per game), the Islanders should keep Wahlstrom on the first line alongside Mat Barzal. The star center is among the league’s best at finding teammates in dangerous areas, finishing third in primary shot assists per-60 (the final completed pass before a shot) last season according to tracking data collected by Corey Sznajder. Additionally, his ability to generate scoring chances in transition (going from the neutral to offensive zone with the puck) is unmatched, save for one particular player out of Edmonton.

That’s all to say that Wahlstrom (second on the team in both goals and points) could elevate his play to another level next to someone who can take advantage of his strengths. He also leads the team in power-play goals (four) and is tied for the lead in points (seven), one of the lone scoring threats on a disciplined, but offensively limited, Islanders squad. Keep an eye on his ice-time and deployment as the season progresses, as New York has a lot of ground to make up in the standings, and they’ll need Wahlstrom to fire them back into playoff contention.

Nicolas Roy, Vegas Golden Knights

Through the franchise’s formative years, the Vegas Golden Knights have made a habit of mining undervalued gems and giving them the platform to blossom into legitimate NHL talents. In Nicolas Roy, they may have found another diamond in the rough, and he’s flashed his tantalizing potential this season.

The 24-year-old center has been handed the most ice-time of his career (over 16 minutes per game) and has already set career highs in every major offensive category including goals (seven), assists (12), and points (19). You could argue he’s already broken out to some extent, but Roy’s frequent fashioning of quality chances argues there is another level for the hulking forward to hit.

Nicolas Roy Vegas Golden Knights
Nicolas Roy, Vegas Golden Knights (Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images)

He weaves into opportune scoring areas around the slot (69th in 5v5 individual high-danger shot attempts at 5v5 – iHDCF/60) and uses his large frame to wreak havoc in front of the net, creating 1.35 rebounds per-60 (30th). Roy also ranks fourth on the Knights in primary shot assists and is one of the team’s most effective forecheckers (third in shots per-60 coming off of the forecheck and in recovered dump-ins).

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Roy appears to possess the understanding and physical gifts to complement more skilled players, and if he’s given more time within Vegas’ top-six, he could take another step in his development. His two most frequent linemates have been Reilly Smith and Mattias Janmark (no slouches themselves), but Max Pacioretty’s injury setback opens up a role, and Jack Eichel’s looming return could set the stage for Roy’s true breakout performance. Is 2022 his year?

Julien Gauthier, New York Rangers

When one thinks of the NHL’s best offensive players, who comes to mind? Auston Matthews? Connor McDavid? Julien Gauthier? No, that’s not a typo, Gauthier’s per-60-minute rate of production puts him within the same stratosphere as some of the league’s elite, and he’s one of several candidates on this list clamoring for an expanded offensive role.

Alright, maybe I’m overselling Gauthier’s attacking impact – he faces much weaker competition in less taxing situations – but he’s made efficient use of his restricted usage. To date, the New York Rangers have only played Gauthier just under 11 minutes a night in all situations, and he’s produced just five solitary points in 26 games as a result.

Julien Gauthier New York Rangers
Julien Gauthier, New York Rangers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, like Nicolas Roy before him, Gauthier leverages his big body (6-foot-4, 227 pounds) effectively to create offense. He generates most of his opportunities off of the cycle and leads the entire league in individual high-danger shot attempts at 5v5 (7.88 iHDCF/60), demonstrating his ability to carve out quality scoring opportunities. Further, Gauthier ranks highly in terms of his shot rate (40th) and ixG/60 (fifth) among forwards, suggesting he could blossom once placed in a more favorable environment for a young player in need of more reps.

That’s not to mention how his insanely unlucky run of finishing has contributed to his meager scoring total. According to MoneyPuck’s expected goals model (which assigns a likelihood of any given shot becoming a goal), Gauthier has scored the third-fewest goals above expected (GAx) in all situations this season. This means that although he has been expected to score around 8 goals to this point, Gauthier only counts among this year’s tally. Apart from Alexander Radulov and Jordan Staal, no other player has been more snake-bitten than the Rangers’ forward this season.

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Unfortunately, Gauthier recently entered COVID protocol, so the onset of any breakout campaign is being pushed back to a later date. Still, be on the lookout for any increased involvement with the Rangers, or a potential trade to a team more willing to utilize his tantalizing combination of size and offensive awareness.

Trevor Moore, Los Angeles Kings

Leave it to me to say that a former member of the Toronto Maple Leafs is flying under the radar, but Trevor Moore is thriving in his new digs with the Los Angeles Kings and appears ready to burst into the limelight once more. The diminutive utility-forward has produced 12 points (five goals, seven assists) in 35 games this season, slightly off of the career-best 34-point pace he posted in his first full season with the Kings in 2020-21.

That’s not for lack of trying, though, as Moore’s underlying shot and expected goals numbers have improved across the board. The only difference? He’s shooting a career-low 3.85% at 5v5, and the second-lowest all-situations shooting percentage (7.58 SH%) of his NHL tenure. Additionally, Moore has created quality scoring chances at a first-line rate this season, ranking within the top 50 for his per-60 rates in iHDCF and ixG among forwards with at least 200 5v5 minutes played.

Trevor Moore Los Angeles Kings
Trevor Moore, Los Angeles Kings (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The 26-year-old California native is also one of the NHL’s talented skaters in transition, ranking second on the Kings in terms of controlled zone entries (entering the offensive zone with possession of the puck) and scoring chances created off of those entries. The waterbug winger’s versatility doesn’t end there, however, as Moore is a considerable shorthanded threat. He’s posted top-three per-60 rates in shots (second), ixG (third), and shot attempts off the rush (second) among forwards to have played a minimum of 25 minutes on the penalty kill this season. No matter the context, Moore can be found hurtling towards the opposing net, leading to his 24th-highest rate of rebounds created among forwards.

Apart from his scant number of goals, Moore’s point total should rise once his bottom 50 on-ice shooting percentage (OiSH%) regresses to league-average, and his equally as snake-bitten linemates start to hit the back of the net as well. OiSH% includes the shooting success of every player on the ice, not just one single skater. Consider this a buy-low opportunity for a forward experiencing the dizzying lows of puck-luck.

Matt Roy, Los Angeles Kings

Is it a sin to double-dip? Not if we’re talking about the Kings and their cornucopia of underrated talents. Defenseman Matt Roy, has sneakily evolved into one of the NHL’s most impactful blueline playmakers, despite the Kings’ reluctance to let their blueliners run loose. All of LA’s regular defenders rank below average in controlled zone exit attempts (i.e. trying to carry the puck out of the defensive zone) and completion, but Roy leads the back-end in shot attempts and shot assists, even ahead of Drew Doughty.

Roy is playing a career-high of nearly 21-and-a-half minutes per night, second only to Doughty on the Kings’ roster. With 13 assists in 35 games, the 26-year-old defender is on track to eclipse his previous highs in both helpers and points, despite his failure to score at all in 2021-22. Just how snake-bitten is Roy? Behind Thomas Chabot of the Ottawa Senators, Roy leads all NHL defensemen in goals below expected (-2.9 GAx) this season; that’s in spite of his 7.18 SH/60 at 5v5, the seventh-highest rate among qualified defenders.

Matt Roy Los Angeles Kings
Matt Roy, Los Angeles Kings (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

One other interesting statistical nugget which demonstrates Roy’s potential for increased scoring? Among defensemen to have accrued at least five assists while playing a minimum of 200 minutes this season, Roy and Victor Mete are the only rearguard to have come by their total without collecting even a single secondary assist (A2). Given that secondary assists are more random than primary ones (A1) and a less helpful indicator of passing talent, Roy should benefit from being awarded a greater number of helpers picked up from passes further behind the Kings’ offensive sequences.

Further, although Doughty’s presence means Roy is unlikely to garner steady power-play time, he can uncover a reliable well of increased production elsewhere. The strong likelihood that the Kings’ see their unsustainably cold 7.7 SH% (30th in the NHL) move closer to league-average (9.5%) represents another avenue to accumulating more assists.

In any case, the Kings clearly see him as a core piece of their future, as they signed him to a three-year contract extension carrying an average annual value (AAV) of $3.15 million partway through last season. The 2015 seventh-round pick beat the odds to make it to the NHL, and now he sets his sights on becoming a household name in 2022.

Under-the-Radar Contributors Look to Break Out in 2022

The nature of the NHL is that there is often limited ice time to go around, and favorable deployment (such as on the power play) is hard to come by if you’re not an established player in the league. As a result, some of the players on this list could be left hoping for their chance in the spotlight. Their coaches and managers should be crossing their fingers that their eventual breakthrough happens with their franchise, and not while wearing someone else’s colors. Is there anyone I’ve missed? Who else is crying out for a bigger role to spread their wings? Let me know in the comments!

Dat courtesy of All Three Zones, Evolving Hockey, MoneyPuck, and Natural Stat Trick.

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