The 2023-24 NHL season is right around the corner, and with that comes another year of some of the league's younger players attempting to make their mark.
During the 2022-23 campaign, players like Seattle Kraken center Matty Beniers, Minnesota Wild winger Matt Boldy and Carolina Hurricanes forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi took huge steps and become more productive than they ever had before. All three players registered new career-highs in points that season.
As the 2023-24 campaign approaches, there will be a new group of NHL players who'll put together breakout performances. With that in mind, I took a look at several players that could be primed for breakout seasons this year.
After being selected with the No. 3 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, center Kirby Dach had his fair share of growing pains in three years with the Blackhawks. He registered just 59 points (19 goals and 40 assists) in 152 games over that span. However, Dach was traded to the Canadiens on draft night in 2022 and it proved to be just what the doctor ordered. Dach tallied a career-best 38 points (14 goals and 24 assists) in 58 games with the Canadiens in 2022-23. The big-bodied forward had double-digit goals for the first time in his NHL career and really thrived around the net. If Dach can build off his tremendous campaign in 2022-23, he can definitely be one of Montreal's top offensive options this coming season.
Some early season injuries at the Devils' goaltending position allowed Akira Schmid to get some valuable NHL experience during the 2022-23 season. Schmid really thrived for the Devils as he saw action in 18 regular-season games and recorded a 2.13 goals-against-average. He also rose to the occasion during the postseason as he replaced Vitek Vanecek, who struggled in the opening two games of the team's first-round series against the Rangers. In the final five games of that series, Schmid posted a 1.40 goals-against-average and was victorious in four of those five starts. The Devils didn't make any changes in net in the offseason, so Schmid certainly has the potential to build on his solid performance a season ago.
Alexis Lafreniere, Rangers
When Alexis Lafreniere was taken with the top pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, it was believed that he would be able to be a significant contributor right away. That hasn't exactly been the case thus far. Lafreniere has registered just 91 points (47 goals and 44 assists) in his first three NHL seasons and tallied a career-high 39 points (16 goals and 23 assists) in 2022-23. Still, that's likely not what the Rangers envisioned when they selected him with first overall. Lafreniere has scored double-digit goals in each of his three professional seasons, so his offensive acumen is definitely there.
Wyatt Johnston, Stars
It was a successful rookie campaign for Stars center Wyatt Johnson. The Stars forward produced a 24-goal season, but was overshadowed by Dallas' stable of goal scorers that include Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz and Jamie Benn. Johnston still managed to be a finalist for the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie, but ultimately fell short to Seattle Kraken star Matty Beniers. Even though he's just 20 years old, Johnston still proved to be a very crafty goal scorer around the net and is a very well-rounded player on the ice. Despite a strong first season, Johnston definitely has room to make even bigger strides in Year 2.
Matias Maccelli also had quite a productive rookie season in which he registered the second-most points among first-year players. Maccelli ended up joining Matty Beniers and Wyatt Johnston as finalists for the Calder Trophy. The Coyotes winger proved to be a dynamic playmaker that led all NHL rookies in assists (38). There were several occasions in which Maccelli dished out some insane assists last season. Obviously, there is room to grow in the goal-scoring department, so that's why there is an abundance of potential for a breakout in the 2023-24 season.
Pyotr Kochetkov, Hurricanes
This one may come as a bit of a surprise. The Hurricanes re-signed goaltenders Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta, so Pyotr Kochetkov doesn't exactly have the easiest path to becoming Carolina's starting netminder. However, Andersen has missed 79 games over the past two seasons, which is what gave Kochetkov some playing time during the 2022-23 season. It's quite possible a similar situation occurs if Andersen goes down again. When Kochetkov had time as the Hurricanes starting goalie, he thrived with a 2.44 goals-against-average and four shutouts. If he gets a fair shake to be the team's starter in the crease, a breakout season is definitely in the cards.
Shane Pinto logged his first full NHL season in 2022-23 and became a big-time producer for the Senators. Pinto, the No. 32 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, registered 35 points (20 goals and 15 assists) and logged 16 minutes of ice time on a nightly basis for an Ottawa team that was in playoff contention. The 22-year-old has developed a cannon of a shot in his young career and really gives the Senators a significant presence in the middle of the ice. It is worth noting Pinto is currently a restricted free agent, so that could be an issue as training camp approaches in the coming weeks. Still, regardless of where Pinto is playing in 2022-23, the potential for a breakout campaign definitely exists.
Ross Colton was an integral part of the Lightning over the past couple of seasons. While not possessing the flashiest of numbers, Colton has tallied 19 postseason points (10 goals and nine assists) in three seasons when the Lightning were chasing the Stanley Cup. Now Colton finds himself with the Avalanche following an offseason trade from the Lightning. Colton recorded 32 points (16 goals and 16 assists) in 81 games with the Lightning in 2022-23 while playing around 12 minutes per contest. Even if Colton lands on the third line in Colorado, the potential for an increase in offensive production is definitely in the cards.
Rasmus Sandin had two solid seasons with the Maple Leafs before the team traded him to the Capitals at the 2023 trade deadline. It was an opportunity for a fresh start on a team that was in need of some blue-line depth. Sandin had the best season of his young career as he split time between the Maple Leafs and Capitals with 35 points (seven goals and 28 assists). The 23-year-old registered three goals and 12 assists over 19 games with Washington to finish up the 2022-23 campaign. Sandin gives the Capitals a top-four defenseman that continues to make offensive strides. With a more stable place on the Capitals roster, Sandin has all the potential for a breakout performance in 2023-24.
Yes, that Jakob Pelletier. The player that former Flames coach Darryl Sutter couldn't even remember the name of after Pelletier made his NHL debut last January. Pelletier only has 24 regular-season games under his belt at the NHL level. The young winger did manage to register three goals and four assists during that brief stint in 2022-23 to show why he was a first-round pick back in 2019. Pelletier has tremendous vision on the ice, while also having a knack for putting the puck in the back of the net. After all, he did rack up 37 points (16 goals and 21 assists) in just 35 games with the AHL's Calgary Wranglers last season. If he garners consistent ice time at the NHL level, Pelletier definitely can produce a strong campaign.