Who Will Surprise During the 2019-2020 Season? – Part 2: Eastern Conference
Each year, there are players throughout the NHL who seem to come out of nowhere. Jonathan Marchessault is a recent case of a player taking an unexpected step towards stardom. For the upcoming 2019-2020 season, I have taken an in-depth look throughout the league and have identified nine players in each conference who are most likely to be the next Marchessault. Each conference’s group of nine players has been broken into three groups based on their likeliness to exceed expectations next season: probable, coin flip, and possible. These groups represent what I believe to be the likelihood that each player breaks out like Marchessault. I did not want to have this centered on one team more than another, so I avoided picking multiple players from the same team.
This process is not as simple as looking at how many points someone has scored. While that may have some importance, there are many other underlying statistics that can provide a hint as to who may be able to take the next step forward. Other than total points (goals and assists) and TOI (time on ice), I will look specifically at 5v5 statistics (provided by naturalstattrick.com) for each player, as that helps take away any influence by “unfair” situations like the power play and penalty kill. Those situations tend to inflate the numbers of players. Looking at 5v5 ultimately tells us how well the player performed in the basic game of hockey. The analysis of each chosen player will involve the consideration of these statistics, as well as the overall situation and circumstance that they find themselves in. The age listed with the player is the age that they will play the majority of the 2019-2020 season as. I have tried to look at players who were not high draft picks as these players are expected to take a step forward. Instead, the goal was to identify some under the radar players.
Marcus Pettersson, 23, LD, Pittsburgh Penguins
Marcus Pettersson is a player who might be a stretch for this list because it may not be such a huge surprise if he takes the next step. However, his small sample size in the NHL lands him on this list. A former second-round pick of the Anaheim Ducks, the left-handed defenseman did not impress enough in Anaheim to earn a spot on their roster for the long-term. Just this past season, the Ducks traded him to the Penguins after just 27 games in exchange for
Moving into the 2019-2020 season, Pettersson should have an opportunity to continue his success with Pittsburgh. The Penguins have Kris Letang, Justin Schultz, and Brian Dumoulin locked into their top two defensive pairs. That leaves one spot for the likes of Pettersson, Jack Johnson, and Erik Gudbranson. Assuming Pettersson can return this upcoming season at the same level he left off on, He should have no problem securing the last spot in the top four. Currently, he is an unsigned RFA and the Penguins are just about out of cap space. This is certainly a situation to watch. Assuming the contract situation gets resolved, Pettersson is in a prime spot to have a great season on the Penguins’ blueline.
Christian Wolanin, 24, LD, Ottawa Senators
Wolanin, a fourth round pick in 2015, had a great first full pro year this past season. He did very well in the AHL, producing 31 points (seven goals, 24 assists) in 40 games as a defenseman. That play earned him a call up to the Senators. He saw 30 NHL games, producing four goals and eight assists for 12 points. His underlying numbers impressed too. He had a CF% of 45.92% and while that is not good, his relative CF% was 2.50%. He was playing for the worst team in hockey. He made the team better in relation to his teammates. After being a very productive AHL defenseman and showing he belonged in the NHL on the Senators in just one professional season, Wolanin is in a prime position to take a step forward.
For a young defenseman looking for an opportunity at a bigger role, there may not be a better team to be on than the Senators. While you might struggle to win some games, there are a lot of open spots on defense. Thomas Chabot is locked into the top pair, while Dylan DeMelo most likely has a top four spot. That leaves two top four spots up for grabs. Christian Jaros, another young defenseman, could definitely be given a shot. There are also veterans Nikita Zaitsev, Ron Hainsey, and Mark Borowiecki who are looking for that type of role. However, none of these defenseman are sure locks for a top four spot. Ideally, they would all be playing bottom pair minutes. If Wolanin can continue at the level he is at, or take another step forward, he could have a 2019-2020 season that puts him on the map for a long-term spot on Ottawa’s blueline.
Oskar Lindblom, 23, LW, Philadelphia Flyers
The 2015 fifth-round pick had his first North American hockey season in 2017-2018. He spent most of the year in the AHL, producing 16 goals and 18 assists for 34 points in 54 games. That same season, he did see 23 games in the NHL. However, he was not as productive. He had two goals and four assists for six points in 23 games. This first season was enough for the Flyers to give Lindblom a shot the following season. In the 2018-2019 season, Linblom played in 81 games for the team. He did fairly well in a third-line role, posting 17 goals and 16 assists for 33 points. Not only was he productive in his role from a scoring standpoint, but his underlying numbers were also good. He had a 50.99% CF%. His relative CF% was 3.40%. Lindblom brought a good two-way game to the Flyers third line. His presence on the ice made the Flyers a better team. Entering the upcoming season at just age 23, Lindblom is in a prime position to take another step and provide the type of value that a top six winger would.
The situation in Philadelphia may lead to Lindblom being stuck on the third line for another season. Down the middle, the Flyers will most likely have Sean Couturier, Kevin Hayes, Nolan Patrick, and Scott Laughton. There are four spots on the wing in the top six. Those spots will most likely belong to Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, James van
Denis Malgin, 22, C/RW, Florida Panthers
Malgin has played in three seasons for the Panthers. However, he has played just over half of the games in each season. The past two seasons may be the most important for the progression of Malgin’s career. In the 2017-2018 season, Malgin played in 51 games and had 11 goals and 11 assists for 22 points. He had a CF% of 50.94%, with a relative CF% of 2.02%. The next season, in 50 games, Malgin produced only seven goals and nine assists for 16 points. While his production fell slightly, his underlying statistics were very similar. He had a CF% of 51.40% and a relative CF% of 2.45%. Each season, he ultimately was a serviceable player on the ice, and he made his team better when he was playing. The decline in points wasn’t huge, so it shouldn’t cause too much concern for the team when evaluating what type of player Malgin can be.
For the Panthers, two forwards may be going back and forth between the second and third line: Brett Connolly and Frank Vatrano. However, if Malgin can take another step and start producing points more regularly, he could push for that last spot on the second line. The attention will most likely be on those other two forwards, but the fact that there will be some competition there means there is an opportunity. At worst, Malgin should be battling for a third-line role, which would be an improvement on his fourth-line role this past season. There should be a spot on the wing and at
Jesper Bratt, 21, LW/RW, New Jersey Devils
Bratt, a sixth-round pick in 2016, burst onto the scene during the 2017-2018 season that saw the Devils all of a sudden look like a very impressive team. The rookie Bratt contributed to that, as he produced 13 goals and 22 assists for 35 points in 74 games. However, Bratt seemed to have a bit of a sophomore slump in the 2018-2019 season. He only made it into 51 games due to injury. In those games, he was able to get close to his previous point total. He had eight goals and 25 assists for 33 points. His CF%
Bratt is in a good situation in New Jersey. Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri, and Wayne Simmonds will most likely take three of the four wing spots in the top six. That leaves one spot open and there is not a clear option to take it. Along with Bratt, the Devils will have Miles Wood and Blake Coleman fighting for that spot. If Bratt can return to the form he s, he should be able to secure that last spot on the wing in the top six. The opportunity is certainly there for Jesper Bratt to take another step and breakout this upcoming season.
Peter Cehlarik, 24, LW/RW, Boston Bruins
A bit of time has gone by since Cehlarik was a third-round draft pick in the 2013 draft. Throughout the past three seasons, he has become a decent AHL forward. He had 38 points (20 goals, 18 assists) in 49 games during the 2016-2017 season, while the 2017-2018 season saw him produce 23 points (11 goals, 12 assists) in 35 games. in the 2018-2019 season, he had 38 points (12 goals, 26 assists) in 53 games. He also saw his longest NHL look this past season. In 20 games as a fourth-line forward, he had four goals and two assists for six points. The advanced statistics on Cehlarik paint a bright picture in those 20 games. His CF% was 59.50%. While that could be attributed to the fact that he was on a great Bruins team, his relative CF% of 6.69% shows that he made the team better when he was on the ice. While it is a small sample size, it is the type of production that you want to see from young forwards when
While Cehlarik showed he may be ready for a shot at an NHL role, the team has quite the forward group. There are 13 other NHL forwards who Cehlarik will have to fight with for a roster spot, and that doesn’t consider any prospects. While Cehlarik may be able to beat out players like Par Lindholm and Chris Wagner, it may be tough to find anything more than a fourth-line role. While he may be ready to make the jump to the NHL and excel, the roster logjam at the forward position hinders the likelihood that it actually happens. If he were available in a trade, he could be a
Evan Rodrigues, 26, C/LW, Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres should be loving that Rodrigues has been the type of player he is considering he was an undrafted free agent. Other than Jeff Skinner, Jack Eichel, and Sam Reinhart, there is a case to be made that Rodrigues is the fourth-best forward on the Sabres’ roster. This past season, he saw time from the fourth-line to the first-line and he played well in whatever role he was asked to play. While he had only nine goals and 20 assists in 74 games, it is important to note that he was often playing with teammates like Vladimir Sobotka, Johan Larsson, and Zemgus Girgensons. None of those players had a positive impact offensively on the team. Rodrigues has good underlying numbers. His CF% was 51.59%, and he posted a relative CF% of 2.26%. The team was better when he was on the ice. The ability is there for Rodrigues to take another step and become a strong two-way player who can produce around 40 points. He has proven he has the ability to fill in on the top forward lines. He is anything but a liability on the ice.
Rodrigues has been a good fill-in option in the top six. While it’s possible he takes another step, he is most likely that player who is a great third-liner who doesn’t look out of place on higher lines. Skinner, Eichel, Reinhart, and Marcus Johansson are locked into the top six. Chances are, players like Victor Olofsson, Conor Sheary, Jimmy Vesey, and Casey Mittelstadt will be given a shot in higher roles before Rodrigues. While Rodrigues should improve, it is likely he continues to be the good
Kenny Agostino, 27, LW, Toronto Maple Leafs
Agostino was a fifth-round pick in 2010. He did not get into the NHL until the 2013-2014 season. Agostino has consistently been a dominant presence in the AHL, with three seasons in a row of at least 50 points. In the 2016-2017 AHL season, he had 83 points in 65 games. He didn’t see more than a handful of games in the NHL until this past 2018-2019 season. He played for both the Montreal Canadiens and New Jersey Devils. With the Canadiens, he had two goals and nine assists for 11 points in 36 games. He had a CF% of 56.70% and a relative CF% of 3.44%. He was then claimed on waivers by the Devils, where he went on to have four goals and nine assists for 13 points in 27 games. While his CF% with the Devils was less at 48.86%, his relative CF% was greater at 5.25%. Agostino made both teams better when he was on the ice compared to his teammates.
Agostino signed as a UFA (unrestricted free agent) with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Toronto is close to the cap, so signing Agostino to a deal at the veteran minimum was appealing to them. For Agostino, there is an opportunity to earn a nice NHL role. The top-six will be filled, but the third line is not completely set. Alexander Kerfoot will be the center, but the two wing spots could be up for grabs. Agostino will have to battle with Zach Hyman (who is likely to start the season on injured reversed), Trevor Moore, and Nicolas Petan. While Agostino isn’t guaranteed to beat them out, it wouldn’t be crazy to see. Agostino having a consistent third-line role will be the best role he has been in. While his recent success and the Leafs’ logjam may point to a chance that he breaks out, he is also already 27 years old. Taking the next step at age 27 does not happen often, but Agostino couldn’t have asked for a better situation to make the unlikely happen.
Dean Kukan, 26, LD, Columbus Blue Jackets
Kukan was signed as an undrafted free agent out of the SHL. He never really saw NHL time until the end of the 2018-2019 season and into the playoffs. In a small sample size, he had five assists in 25 games during the season. His underlying numbers, albeit in a small sample, were good during those 25 games. He had a CF% of 53.24% and a relative CF% of 1.53%. Kukan’s most common defensive partner was Scott Harrington, showing that he played in a bottom pair role. What is impressive is the impact Kukan had on Harrington. With Kukan, Harrington had a CF% of 53.29%. Without Kukan, Harrington’s CF% dropped to 37.63%. Kukan made that defensive pairing formidable. Moving forward, Kukan could take a step and look to have a bigger, more consistent role on the Blue Jackets.
An opportunity could be there for Kukan. Columbus had Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, and Ryan Murray locked into the top four. David Savard was the other top-four defenseman, but he has started to fall off. Kukan needs to beat out Savard, Markus Nutivaara (who didn’t have a great season) and Scott Harrington for the last top-four spot. It is clear based off the statistics that Kukan has the edge over Harrington. The opportunity should be there for Kukan to earn second-pair minutes. If he can continue to play
Ultimately, it is very possible that none of these players make it to the level that Jonathan Marchessault did. However, when looking at each team in the east, these nine players were determined as most likely to do so. While some may be more likely than others, these nine are the players to watch closely throughout the 2019-2020 season. There may have been some players excluded simply because of them playing on a team where another player was deemed to be more likely to take a step.
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Image courtesy of Jay LaPrete / Associated Press
James Finch is an analyst at AFP Analytics. James graduated from St. John Fisher College in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in Sport Management with a minor in Economics. His background with sports and economics have brought about an interest in gaining experience and finding his niche within the sport analytics field.