We are just over two weeks into the 2023 NHL Free Agent market opening. Interim general manager and president of hockey operations, Kyle Dubas has done a good job adding to the team’s depth so far. These moves and the regime change overall have created some interesting opportunities for both internal and recently acquired players.
As a result, there are a handful of players who fit the bill for breakout or bounce-back candidates heading into next season. Whether it be prospects waiting to finally get some runway to live up to their potential or players who have had down seasons in recent years that are looking to finally cement themselves as permanent fixtures, this season might be the best chance to do so. Especially coming off a season where the team missed the playoffs, and major changes have been made at the top.
Of course, as a disclaimer, it is relatively early into the off-season, and there still are potential moves to be made that could change the outlook for these players. As of right now, however, it is exciting to speculate and take a look at some guys who are likely chomping at the bit to make a name for themselves.
In this list, I only included players that would likely be NHL players, not prospects who have no or very little (a few games) experience in the show.
When the Penguins acquired Pierre-Olivier Joseph from the Arizona Coyotes in 2019, he was the key piece in their return for forward Phil Kessel. Fast forward four years, and he may finally hit his stride in the NHL. In his first full season as an NHLer, Joseph suited up in 75 games for the Penguins and produced five goals and 16 assists for 21 points. These are respectable totals and were good for fifth best on the team amongst defencemen. However, next season Joseph should take another step offensively and break out. In addition to that, he should strive to become an important player on the Penguins’ backend.
Last season, Joseph averaged just 15:15 of ice time per game. Once again, respectable numbers, but this season should hopefully see an increase in his ice time too. He played very minimally on special teams units but will hopefully get a chance on the Penguins’ struggling power play and even on the penalty kill. It remains to be seen the type of opportunity that will be afforded to Joseph, but if he is to take that next step, he will need to make the most of everything.
It would be hard to top a rookie season where Alex Nedeljkovic recorded a 15-5-0 record with a .932% save percentage (SV%) and a 1.90 goals against average (GAA). However, given the past two seasons since then have been less than ideal. In the NHL, Nedeljkovic has played 79 games with a 25-31-11 record and a .898 SV%. This comes on top of last season, where he played 26 games in the American Hockey League (AHL).
Although maybe not a “breakout candidate” by definition, it’s no secret that he will need to turn his play around to remain a consistent NHL goaltender. Luckily, he has the perfect opportunity to bounce back starting in training camp where we could see him battle Casey DeSmith for the backup role.
Another case is where a player may not fit the “breakout” title as much as a bounce-back candidate. Andreas Johnsson has seen the highs and lows that can come with a career in professional sports as I spoke about in June. In a few short seasons, Johnsson went from putting up career-best numbers playing in the Maple Leafs’ top-six alongside star Auston Matthews to playing in the 36 games in the AHL last season.
At points throughout his career, Johnsson has shown himself capable of playing as a key piece in a team’s top-six. Although injuries have largely derailed him, he has the perfect chance to turn his career around in Pittsburgh (from ‘Sharks update: Two forwards likely out for season, Quinn on Bordeleau, and finishing a dreadful year at home,’ The Mercury News, April 8, 2023). It should also be noted that Johnsson has played for a Dubas-led team twice before with both the Marlies and Leafs. If any executive knows him well, it would be with Dubas where he’s found the most success, winning a Calder Cup and producing his best statistical season so far. This alone should give confidence in his potential to bounce back.
The 25-year-old Alex Nylander is on his third team already in his young career after being acquired in 2022. He spent most of last season in the AHL playing for the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins, Pittsburgh’s farm team. There he had his best season yet, scoring 25 goals and 25 assists in 55 games. He also played nine games in Pittsburgh, scoring one goal and one assist.
Overall, he has played 93 total games split over five seasons, scoring 14 goals and 20 assists. He could be ready to breakout if he is given a full season in a secondary scoring role amongst the bottom six this year. He’s already shown over his career that he’s at least capable of producing slightly under-point-per-game numbers. In the right circumstances, he could be a valuable piece to the Penguins’ starting twelve.
These players’ success will be largely dictated by deployment, as is the case in many circumstances. If given the right opportunities, these players could help supplement the Penguins’ depth and complement the work done by management already. It will be vital for the success of the team in the regular season and beyond to have depth players willing and able to perform.
All stats and information from Hockey Reference