The Norris Trophy winner and the NHL First-Team All-Star forward each took a great leap forward last season. Karlsson showed why the Ottawa Senators made him the 15th player chosen in the 2008 Entry Draft by improving from 45 to 78 points -- leading all defensemen in scoring by a margin not seen since the days of Paul Coffey. Neal, playing his first full season with the Pittsburgh Penguins after being acquired from the Dallas Stars in February 2011, went from 21 goals to 40 and 39 points to 81.
The breakthroughs came two years after one of the all-time breakout seasons -- Steven Stamkos, the No. 1 pick in the 2008 draft, jumped from 23 goals and 46 points as a rookie in 2008-09 to 51 goals and 95 points in 2009-10, proving the Bolts were right to spend the top pick on him.
So who will be this year's Karlsson, Neal or Stamkos? Here are seven candidates for a breakout season in 2012-13.
Cody Hodgson, Buffalo -- The Sabres have been undersized down the middle for years, so they were delighted to get Hodgson, the 10th player taken in the 2008 draft, in a late-season trade from the Vancouver Canucks, where he was stuck behind Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler. Hodgson got off to a slow start with the Sabres and finished with eight points in 20 games. But with a vacancy in the middle left by the deal that sent Derek Roy to the Dallas Stars, the Sabres are banking on Hodgson to step in and become the high-end center he's been projected to be since he was drafted four years ago.
Brayden Schenn, Philadelphia -- The Flyers took care not to give Schenn more than he could handle as a rookie last season after acquiring the fifth pick in the 2009 draft from the Los Angeles Kings as part of the Mike Richards trade last year. Despite averaging 14:07 of ice time, Schenn had 12 goals in 54 regular-season games, then added three goals and nine points in 11 playoff games. With big brother Luke, a defenseman, now a teammate after being acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs in June -- and Jaromir Jagr (free agency) and James van Riemsdyk (trade) now gone -- Schenn is in the perfect position to show why he was such a high pick three years ago.Jason Spezza.
Mikkel Boedker, Phoenix -- The Coyotes have been waiting for Boedker to emerge as an offensive force since they took him with the eighth pick in the 2008 draft. He made the roster as an 18-year-old, but his career largely has been a series of fits and starts -- his 11 goals last season matched a career high. But the light seemed to go on in the playoffs, when he scored a pair of overtime goals to fuel the Coyotes' run to the Western Conference Finals. Boedker is speedy, talented and still just 22 -- and with Ray Whitney having departed as a free agent, there's top-six ice time there for him to grab.
Slava Voynov, Los Angeles -- The trade that brought Jeff Carter to L.A. for Jack Johnson benefited the Kings in two ways. Not only did Carter give the Kings another big gun up front, it also created room for Voynov, whose ice time had been limited by a logjam on the blue line. The 22-year-old Russian, L.A.'s second pick (No. 32) in the 2008 draft, made the most of his opportunity, finishing with 20 points in 54 games and becoming a postseason regular -- he averaged more than 21 minutes of ice time in the Stanley Cup Final and showed he's ready for bigger responsibilities this season.
Braden Holtby, Washington -- Holtby was the odd man out in the Washington Capitals' crease for most of last season -- he spent most of 2011-12 with the Caps' American Hockey League team in Hershey while Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth split time in Washington. But late-season injuries gave Holtby a chance to show what he could do at the NHL level, and he made the most of his opportunity. The 22-year-old went 4-1-1 in six late-season games, then led the Caps to Game 7 in the second round with a 1.95 goals-against average and .922 save percentage in 14 Stanley Cup Playoff games. Vokoun is gone, meaning Holtby should have a full-time NHL spot for the first time and will get the chance to compete with Neuvirth for the starting job.