Gustav Nyquist Leads the Top 10 Breakout Stars of the NHL Season
Gustav Nyquist is setting the league on fire this year. (Photo: Reuters)
The NHL season is a long grind, but one of the most exciting things for fans can be the emergence of a star. Some players arrive on the scene as a rookie and light the hockey world on fire, while others take time to blossom and grow.
Here are the top 10 breakout stars of the current NHL season.
#10 - Alex Steen: before this season the St. Louis Blues were not a team that featured a lot of offensive stars. It's not that the team didn't have the talent, but head coach Ken Hitchcock deploys a system that puts a heavy emphasis on defensive responsibility. He was also a coach who liked to distribute ice time evenly among his lines. This year he has slightly tweaked that approach. The same focus on defense is there, but he's relied on the top offensive line more than usual. The primary benefactor of that has been Alex Steen. So far he's put up 30 goals and 24 assists, which are both career highs by a significant margin.
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#9 - Cam Fowler: When Cam Fowler was passed over early in the draft, the Anaheim Ducks were more than happy to scoop him up at the 12th overall spot. He came flying out of the gates in his rookie season with 10 goals and 30 assists, but he failed to replicate those numbers in the following two seasons. The talent has always been there, but fans began to wonder if he would ever live up to his draft day hype. This season he began the year with a strong emphasis on his defensive game and head coach Bruce Boudreau rewarded him with an increased role on the ice. Fowler played so well that he was given time on the penalty kill and was put on the ice against the top offensive lines of opposing teams. He also found his offensive game again and compiled 6 goals and 30 assists through 67 games. Fowler's superb two-way play and dynamic skating ability landed him with a top six role on the U.S. Olympic team, and he's firmly entrenched as the Ducks #1 defenseman.
#8 - Semyon Varlamov: A few years ago the Colorado Avalanche sent their first and second round picks to the Washington Capitals for Semyon Varlamov. At the time the general consensus was that the Avs got robbed. Varlamov showed flashes of brilliance along the way, but he's been mostly inconsistent during his time in Denver. That was until Patrick Roy arrived in town. Roy hired famed goalie coach Francis Allaire to work with Varlamov and the results have been incredible. This season Varly is second in the NHL in wins and among the top netminders in save percentage (.925). His consistency is a huge reason why the Avalanche are 7th overall in the league with 94 points and he might be rewarded with a Vezina Trophy nomination in June.
#7 - Ben Bishop: Speaking of Vezina nominations, the leading contender to win the award just might be Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop. Tuukka Rask might have something to say about that, but there's no question that Bishop has been a rock between the pipes all season long. When Steven Stamkos went down with a broken leg earlier this year, many thought Tampa's season was done. Bishop stood tall and gave the team a chance to win every night. He has 34 wins and boasts a save percentage at .927. The Bolts acquired Bishop in a trade with the Ottawa Senators for Cory Conacher, and that's a trade that looks more and more like highway robbery as time goes on.
#6 - Kyle Okposo: When a player has a breakout season many fantasy experts make the assumption that they are being carried by the players surrounding them. In Kyle Okposo's case, people thought that his numbers were the byproduct of his linemate John Tavares. How else could you explain his sudden breakout season? Previously, Okposo's best numbers were 24 goals and 21 assists. Well since Tavares went down with a season ending knee injury at the Sochi Olympics, Okposo has gone on to record 10 points in 11 games. It appears that Okposo's breakout year is for real and he's almost at a point per game pace with 69 points in 70 games.
#5 - Victor Hedman: When Victor Hedman was taken number two overall in the 2009 draft, fans were excited to see the six foot 6 inch defenseman take the ice. The problem was it took him a long time to adjust to the North American game. John Tavares was taken ahead of him in that draft, and Matt Duchene followed at number three. As both of those players established themselves as stars in the league, the "bust" word was beginning to follow Hedman around ... until this year. The dynamic Swede has burst onto the scene for 11 goals and 35 assists in 64 games, which puts him firmly among the top 10 offensive defensemen in the league. In addition to that, the Lightning use Hedman in all game situations. He's finally living up to his vast potential and the best is still to come.
#4 - Olli Maatta: The Pittsburgh Penguins are loaded with talent, so when Maatta arrived in town this year it almost seemed unfair. At the tender age of 19, Olli Maatta is putting together one of the best rookie seasons of the any first year player. His 9 goals and 19 assists are impressive numbers, but it's his uncanny poise that have people talking. He's not only demonstrated he can play at this level, but he was also Finland's best defenseman in Russia during the Sochi Olympics. It usually takes defenseman around 300 NHL games before they look this good, but Maatta is proving to be a quick study.
#3 - Ryan Johansen: The Columbus Blue Jackets are on the verge of making the playoffs this year and the biggest reason is the breakout season of Ryan Johansen. After being taken fourth overall, the Blue Jackets rushed him into the league as a 19 year old and he didn't look ready. He only managed a measely 21 points in his rookie year, and he followed it up with an even worse sophomore campaign. When he was demoted to the club's farm team, he actually got benched for poor play. So when Johansen started putting up offense this year, eyebrows were raised. Through 71 games he has 27 goals and 25 assists. The young phenom has finally arrived in dynamic fashion.
#2 - Nathan MacKinnon: When the Colorado Avalanche cleaned house last offseason and brought in Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic to turn the ship around, many assumed that they would draft Seth Jones with their first overall pick. The team was in dire need of a stud on the blueline, and Jones looked like a perfect fit. Instead, Roy and Sakic went ahead and took Nathan MacKinnon. This might have been a questionable decision given the fact that the Avs already boasted a great young core at the forward position with guys like Duchene, O'Reilly, and Landeskog. Yet, MacKinnon has not only proven that he was the right choice, but he's drawing early comparisons to Sidney Crosby. As an 18 year old he has 23 goals and 31 assists, all while playing in a limited role. He's a lock for the Calder Trophy and well on his way to becoming one of the best forwards in the entire NHL.
#1 - Gustav Nyquist: Without a shadow of a doubt, the biggest breakout player of the 2013/2014 NHL season is Gustav Nyquist. At the start of the year, Nyquist actually started the season in the minors playing for the Grand Rapids because GM Ken Holland thought it was better to resign Dan Clearly. Due to salary cap restrictions, Nyquist would bide his time and wait for his chance to prove Holland wrong. When he finally got called up in late November, he scored on his very first shift of the game, and followed it up with a breakaway game-winning goal in the third period. Since then Nyquist has never looked back and is currently the hottest goal-scorer in the league. No one has more goals in the league over the last two months of the season. In that span, Nyquist has sniped 18 goals in 23 games. With superstars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg on the shelf due to injuries, Nyquist has almost single-handedly led the Red Wings into playoff contention. To see just how confident he is right now, check out his latest goal in the video below.