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Behind The Numbers

Potential breakout players for 2018

Skinner, Klefbom among those who appear primed to take next big step

by Rob Vollman / Correspondent

Predicting breakout players is an inexact science at best, but there are telltale signs that suggest potential candidates for bigger and better things.

During 2017, Josh Bailey and Anders Lee of the New York Islanders were among those who had breakout calendar years. Bailey was tied for ninth in the NHL with 82 points (20 goals, 62 assists) in 85 games, and Lee was tied for 21st with 73 points (44 goals, 29 assists) in 84 games as they parlayed strong finishes to the 2016-17 season into dominant starts to 2017-18.

Based on age and underlying numbers, here are five players who could break out in 2018:


Jeff Skinner, left wing, Carolina Hurricanes

In 2016-17, Skinner led the Hurricanes in scoring for the second consecutive season, finishing with 63 points (37 goals, 26 assists) in 79 games. That ranked No. 32 in the NHL, the highest position he has finished in his seven seasons. On a higher-scoring team, with a stronger power play, Skinner would likely already be getting enough assists to finish among the top 10 scorers.

Since he made his NHL debut in 2010-11, Skinner, 25, ranks No. 8 with 1,771 shots, No. 19 with 192 goals, and is tied for No. 125 with 165 assists. It has been more difficult for Skinner to generate assists because of Carolina's inability to score during his career. Carolina has scored on 8.0 percent its shots when Skinner is on the ice. The NHL scoring leaders consistently have on-ice team shooting percentages close to 10.0 percent.

The inability to score regularly on the power play has also hampered Skinner's production. Carolina's 101 power-play goals since the start of the 2015-16 season are two more than the Vancouver Canucks and Columbus Blue Jackets, who are tied for last.

With the development of Carolina's abundance of young players, 2018 could be a turning point for the Hurricanes. If so, Skinner, who has 12 goals and 15 assists for 27 points in 39 games in 2017-18, could score more than 80 points and finish among the top 10 scorers for 2018.

Video: CAR@TOR: Skinner uses quick wrister to find twine


J.T. Miller, center, New York Rangers

Players poised for a breakout can sometimes be identified by looking for those whose ice-time figures are lower than their 5-on-5 scoring rates would normally justify, especially with the man-advantage.

Since the start of the 2015-16 season, four players have a higher 5-on-5 scoring rate than Miller's 1.87 points per 60 minutes (minimum 1,000 minutes) while also assigned a smaller share of all power-play minutes than Miller's 32.6 percent: Conor Sheary of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Andre Burakovsky of the Washington Capitals, Andreas Athanasiou of the Detroit Red Wings, and Ryan Hartman of the Chicago Blackhawks.

In each case, these are players who needed more time to establish their scoring credentials, but Miller's 159 points (67 goals, 92 assists) in 317 games have proven that he can handle a greater assignment, not to mention the fact he has 27 points (eight goals, 19 assists) in 2017-18, the second-highest total on the Rangers. If the 24-year-old forward gets more time than the 16:44 per game he receives now, which is No. 11 on the team, then 2018 could be a big year.

Video: NYR@BOS: Miller beats Rask with backhand for PPG


Nino Niederreiter, right wing, Minnesota Wild

Minnesota has turned to its younger players for scoring.

Mikael Granlund, 25, led the Wild in scoring in 2016-17 with an NHL career-high 69 points (26 goals, 43 assists) in 81 games. Based on his underlying scoring rates and shot-based metrics, Niederreiter, 25, could be next, and match that total in 2018.

Since the start of the 2014-15 season, Niederreiter is one of 60 players to average at least 2.0 points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (minimum 1,000 minutes played). In that time, he has boosted his team's share of all on-ice shot attempts from 47.45 to 54.05, for a SAT Relative of plus-6.6 percent, fourth-best among active players (minimum 50 games).

Niederreiter has missed 11 games with injury but could return this week. He has 16 points (10 goals, six assists) in 29 games in 2017-18.

 Video: MIN@SJS: Niederreiter nets overtime game-winner


Dmitry Orlov, defenseman, Washington Capitals

Since the start of the 2015-16 season, the Capitals have scored 136 power-play goals, tied with the Nashville Predators for third in the NHL. Playing on this elite power play is a great opportunity for any defenseman deployed with a four-forward alignment used in most power-play structures. John Carlson has been that Capitals defenseman for an average of 3:08 minutes per game, and Orlov has averaged 0:53 on the power play.

What if Orlov, 26, was used on Washington's top unit, because of injury, a coaching decision or for some other reason? At 5-on-5, Orlov has averaged 1.04 points per game, which is almost identical to Carlson (1.03), and ranks No. 10 among the 214 defensemen to play at least 1,000 minutes. With more power-play opportunities, Orlov, who has five goals and eight assists for 13 points in 41 games, could score 50 points in 2018, as Carlson did in 2017.

Video: WSH@NYI: Orlov cranks in one-timer from right circle


Oscar Klefbom, defenseman, Edmonton Oilers

Among defensemen, a high volume of shots can be a leading indicator of offensive upside. Since the start of the 2016-17 season, Klefbom, 24, has taken 309 shots in 118 games, which ranks No. 8 among defensemen.

What could that mean for 2018? The seven players ahead of him on the list averaged 46.6 points in 2017, which could be within reach for Klefbom, given how great forwards, including teammate Connor McDavid, can help unleash a defenseman's full scoring potential.

Klefbom has 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in 36 games this season.

Video: EDM@MTL: Klefbom extends lead with power-play goal

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