NHL Power Rankings: Breakthrough players on all 31 teams
- Emily Kaplan is ESPN’s national NHL reporter.
With the 2021 NHL season winding down, some playoff races have yet to be determined — but each team’s identity has been clarified. For this week’s ESPN NHL Power Rankings, we identified the breakthrough player for all 31 teams.
How we rank: The ESPN hockey editorial staff submits selections ranking teams 1 to 31 — taking into account game results, injuries and upcoming schedule — and those results are tabulated in the list featured here.
Note: Previous ranking for each team refers to our Week 14 edition, published on April 21. Points percentages are through the games of April 27.
1. Vegas Golden Knights
Previous ranking: 1
Points percentage: .745
Next seven days: vs. COL (Apr. 28); @ ARI (Apr. 30, May 1); @ MIN (May 3)
In his first season as an NHL regular, Zach Whitecloud has more than held his own on the Vegas blue line. Whitecloud, 24, is one of the more underrated young defensemen in the league — and also is one of the best “budget” players, earning $725,000 per season through 2021-22.
2. Colorado Avalanche
Previous ranking: 2
Points percentage: .717
Next seven days: @ VGS (Apr. 28); vs. SJ (Apr. 30, May 1); @ SJ (May 3)
While Cale Makar gets most of the attention on Colorado’s blue line, youngsters Sam Girard and Devon Toews have both quietly been fantastic. Just consider their expected goals for percentages at 5-on-5: Girard is at 60.95, Toews at 63.04. Combined, the Avs have outscored opponents with these two on the ice 87-56 at 5-on-5.
3. Carolina Hurricanes
Previous ranking: 3
Points percentage: .724
Next seven days: vs. DET (Apr. 29); vs. CBJ (May 1); vs. CHI (May 3, 4)
In his second season as a regular, Martin Necas has taken a big step forward for the Canes. The 22-year-old has a whopping plus-22 rating (highest on the team), and he has two overtime winners (also a team high) among his 37 points in 44 games.
4. Tampa Bay Lightning
Previous ranking: 4
Points percentage: .694
Next seven days: vs. DAL (Apr. 29); @ DET (May 1, 2)
He’s a late breakthrough candidate, but it’s clear the Lightning feel good about 23-year-old rookie forward Alex Barre-Boulet. He’s already getting looks on Tampa Bay’s top line and top power-play unit.
5. Toronto Maple Leafs
Previous ranking: 5
Points percentage: .677
Next seven days: @ MTL (Apr. 28); vs. VAN (Apr. 29, May 1); @ MTL (May 3)
Alex Galchenyuk, the No. 3 overall pick of the 2012 draft, had fallen out of favor when he was traded to the Maple Leafs in February. It was his sixth team in three years. However, the 27-year-old found a useful role in Toronto and might have salvaged his NHL career because of it.
6. Pittsburgh Penguins
Previous ranking: 10
Points percentage: .670
Next seven days: @ WSH (Apr. 29, May 1); @ PHI (May 3, 4)
Cody Ceci was formerly the scapegoat defenseman of the Senators and Maple Leafs. He signed a one-year, $1.25 million prove-it deal with Pittsburgh in the offseason, and he was made a healthy scratch just one game into his Penguins tenure. Now? Ceci is indispensable.
7. Minnesota Wild
Previous ranking: 9
Points percentage: .691
Next seven days: vs. STL (Apr. 28, 29, May 1); vs. VGS (May 3)
Kirill Kaprizov isn’t just the best breakthrough player on the Wild this season — he might be the biggest breakthrough player in the entire league. While some cynics think he shouldn’t be classified as a rookie because of nearly 300 games of KHL experience, his impact in Minnesota is undeniable.
8. Florida Panthers
Previous ranking: 6
Points percentage: .676
Next seven days: @ CHI (Apr. 29, May 1); vs. DAL (May 3)
One player who exceeded all expectations is former Tampa Bay depth forward Carter Verhaeghe. The 25-year-old is second on the team in goals and third in points — thanks to an increase of eight more minutes of average ice time per game compared to last season.
9. Washington Capitals
Previous ranking: 7
Points percentage: .694
Next seven days: vs. PIT (Apr. 29, May 1); @ NYR (May 3)
When Henrik Lundqvist’s heart condition prevented him from playing, goaltending was a question for the Caps. While Washington has viewed Ilya Samsonov as its goalie of the future, it was 25-year-old Vitek Vanecek who played more games and has a better save percentage.
10. New York Islanders
Previous ranking: 8
Points percentage: .643
Next seven days: @ NYR (Apr. 29); vs. NYR (May 1); @ BUF (May 3, 4)
Besides Oliver Wahlstrom, 21-year-old Noah Dobson is the youngest player on the Islanders. He has been able to crack the regular lineup and increase his ice time by three minutes per game this season. That is huge, because it takes a lot for young players to earn coach Barry Trotz’ trust.
11. Boston Bruins
Previous ranking: 11
Points percentage: .646
Next seven days: vs. BUF (Apr. 29, May 1); @ NJ (May 3, 4)
Jeremy Swayman, a 22-year-old who played last season at the University of Maine, entered the season as the Bruins’ fourth-string goalie. With a .946 save percentage and 1.46 goals-against average through seven starts, he’s a legit option to be Boston’s top backup in the playoffs.
12. Edmonton Oilers
Previous ranking: 13
Points percentage: .630
Next seven days: @ WPG (Apr. 28); vs. CGY (Apr. 29, May 1); @ VAN (May 3, 4)
While Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl (rightfully) get most of the love, it has been a breakthrough season for defenseman Darnell Nurse.The 26-year-old could be in the Norris Trophy conversation, and he might even make Team Canada at the 2022 Olympics.
13. Nashville Predators
Previous ranking: 15
Points percentage: .549
Next seven days: vs. DAL (May 1); @ CBJ (May 3)
Predators fans have been tantalized by Eeli Tolvanen’s promise ever since he was drafted in the first round of the 2017 draft. Tolvanen has finally showed up for Nashville, and he was often the Predators’ best offensive player during their second-half resurgence.
14. New York Rangers
Previous ranking: 12
Points percentage: .580
Next seven days: vs. NYI (Apr. 29); @ NYI (May 1); vs. WSH (May 3)
The Rangers are the first team in the league to have five 40-point scorers. One of them is Pavel Buchnevich, who has been sensational offensively while also rounding out his game to be an effective 200-foot player as well.
15. Dallas Stars
Previous ranking: 17
Points percentage: .551
Next seven days: @ TB (Apr. 29); @ NSH (May 1); @ FLA (May 3)
The only player who might be able to catch Kirill Kaprizov for the Calder Trophy is Jason Robertson, who is on an eight-game point streak and has carried some of the offensive load for the injury-ravaged Stars. Since March 1, Robertson ranks among the top 15 in the NHL with 33 points.
16. Winnipeg Jets
Previous ranking: 14
Points percentage: .594
Next seven days: vs. EDM (Apr. 28); @ MTL (Apr. 30); @ OTT (May 3)
Nikolaj Ehlers took his game to the next level this season. The 25-year-old averaged career highs in goals per game and assists per game and nearly hit a point-per-game pace for the first time in his NHL career. The Jets announced this week, unfortunately, that Ehlers will be sidelined until the playoffs.
17. Montreal Canadiens
Previous ranking: 16
Points percentage: .543
Next seven days: vs. TOR (Apr. 28); vs. WPG (Apr. 30); vs. OTT (May 1); vs. TOR (May 3)
Tyler Toffoli lasted until the third day of free agency before he agreed to a contract with the Canadiens. He turned out to be one of the offseason’s best signings. The 28-year-old leads the Habs in goals (by a decent margin) and points — and he’s inked through 2023-24.
18. St. Louis Blues
Previous ranking: 19
Points percentage: .522
Next seven days: @ MIN (Apr. 28, 29, May 1); vs. ANA (May 3)
Though he has cooled off after a hot start, it has been an important campaign for Justin Faulk on the Blues. He has looked much more comfortable and is as productive as St. Louis imagined when they traded for him on the eve of the 2019-20 season.
19. Arizona Coyotes
Previous ranking: 18
Points percentage: .480
Next seven days: @ SJ (Apr. 28); vs. VGS (Apr. 30, May 1); vs. LA (May 3)
The 2021 season has been a showcase for Jakob Chychrun. Finally healthy after a series of tough-luck injuries, the 22-year-old is shouldering No. 1 defenseman minutes while leading all blueliners in the league with 14 goals.
20. Philadelphia Flyers
Previous ranking: 20
Points percentage: .520
Next seven days: @ NJ (Apr. 29); vs. NJ (May 1); vs. PIT (May 3, 4)
The Flyers have high hopes for Joel Farabee, whom the Flyers drafted No. 18 overall in 2018. He’s proving to be a natural goal scorer, nearly doubling his career total in his second NHL season. Farabee’s 15 goals rank him tied for second on the team, and his 31 points are fifth.
21. Chicago Blackhawks
Previous ranking: 21
Points percentage: .500
Next seven days: vs. FLA (Apr. 29, May 1); @ CAR (May 3, 4)
As recently as 2018, Brandon Hagel thought his NHL dream hit a dead end, and he was close to studying to become a teacher. But he got a new lease with the Blackhawks in 2021, found a regular spot in Chicago’s lineup and has scored two overtime winners.
22. Vancouver Canucks
Previous ranking: 22
Points percentage: .488
Next seven days: @ OTT (Apr. 28); @ TOR (Apr. 29, May 1); vs. EDM (May 3, 4)
We’re now in the fourth consecutive season with a super-impressive Canucks rookie. Following Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, it’s 20-year-old Nils Hoglander who has quickly become a fan favorite in Vancouver.
23. Calgary Flames
Previous ranking: 23
Points percentage: .469
Next seven days: @ EDM (Apr. 29, May 1)
After 10 seasons with the Canucks, Chris Tanev signed with the Flames this offseason — and has been a revelation for Calgary. At 5-on-5, Tanev has a 58.59 expected goals for percentage, which ranks second on the team.
24. San Jose Sharks
Previous ranking: 24
Points percentage: .448
Next seven days: vs. ARI (Apr. 28); @ COL (Apr. 30, May 1); vs. COL (May 3)
In his second NHL season, Mario Ferraro has emerged as an important player on San Jose’s blue line. The former UMass defenseman’s ice time jumped nearly seven minutes this season, trailing only Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson among Sharks skaters.
25. Los Angeles Kings
Previous ranking: 25
Points percentage: .457
Next seven days: vs. ANA (Apr. 28); @ ANA (Apr. 30, May 1); @ ARI (May 3)
Kings fans are hoping 2020 No. 2 overall pick Quinton Byfield (recently recalled from the AHL) is the breakthrough player for next season. For 2021, it was a breakthrough for several young Kings players — but perhaps nobody more than 26-year-old goaltender Cal Petersen. Petersen has started more games than Jonathan Quick — and with a significantly better save percentage (.917 to .893).
26. Detroit Red Wings
Previous ranking: 26
Points percentage: .422
Next seven days: @ CAR (Apr. 29); vs. TB (May 1, 2)
OK, so Jakub Vrana has only been around for a handful of games. But he’s already among the top 10 on the team with five goals since coming over at the trade deadline, and he ranks second in game-winning goals. A late breakthrough, but a breakthrough nonetheless.
27. Ottawa Senators
Previous ranking: 28
Points percentage: .408
Next seven days: vs. VAN (Apr. 28); @ MTL (May 1); vs. WPG (May 3)
For the Senators, the burgeoning top line of Drake Batherson, Josh Norris and Brady Tkachuk is having a breakthrough. When they’re on the ice together, the trio has a 61.31 expected goals for percentage.
28. Columbus Blue Jackets
Previous ranking: 27
Points percentage: .412
Next seven days: @ CAR (May 1); vs. NSH (May 3)
It wasn’t a great season for most players on the Blue Jackets, but Jack Roslovic made the most of a midseason trade to his hometown team. The 24-year-old Roslovic hit a career-high 30 points in 42 games and ranks third on the team in scoring.
29. Buffalo Sabres
Previous ranking: 30
Points percentage: .330
Next seven days: @ BOS (Apr. 29, May 1); vs. NYI (May 3, 4)
Though the Sabres are starting to see what they have in 22-year-old Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, and have recently relied on longtime AHL veteran Dustin Tokarski, the season was really a breakout for goalie Linus Ullmark, proving the pending free agent should be kept around long term.
30. Anaheim Ducks
Previous ranking: 29
Points percentage: .357
Next seven days: @ LA (Apr. 28); vs. LA (Apr. 30, May 1); @ STL (May 3)
It has been a frustrating season for many players on the Ducks, but Max Comtois is starting to break through. The 2017 second-round pick leads the team in goals and points. He should be a big part of Anaheim’s forthcoming next wave.
31. New Jersey Devils
Previous ranking: 31
Points percentage: .378
Next seven days: vs. PHI (Apr. 29); @ PHI (May 1); vs. BOS (May 3, 4)
After the trade deadline, general manager Tom Fitzgerald said he viewed the team’s present and future core to be Mackenzie Blackwood, Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes and Ty Smith. Smith, 20, wasn’t initially viewed in this group. But after a solid rookie season (with strong offensive numbers), he has earned it.
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