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Seven candidates for a breakout season in 2010-11

by John Kreiser
Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning had one of the all-time breakout seasons in 2009-10. The No. 1 pick in the 2008 Entry Draft jumped from 23 goals and 46 points as a rookie to 51 goals and 95 points in his second NHL season, earning him a share of the Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL's top goal-scorer and proving the Bolts were right to spend the top pick on him.

So who will be this season's Stamkos? While it's hard to picture anyone matching the kind of improvement Stamkos had, takes a look at seven players who already have seen NHL action and are candidates for a breakout season in 2010-11.

Jonathan Bernier, Los Angeles Kings -- L.A.'s 2006 first-round pick (No. 11) was rushed into the NHL at age 19 and wasn't ready -- but he is now. If there were any doubts, Bernier laid them to rest with a superb showing (3-0-0, 1.30 goals-against average) during a late-season call-up that left Kings fans wondering if he should be their team's playoff starter -- and with little doubt that he's their goaltender of the future.

At 22, Bernier doesn't have anything left to prove in the AHL after going 30-21-6 with a 2.03 GAA and nine shutouts. His performance last March has Kings fans eagerly anticipating his arrival, though it's left GM Dean Lombardi and coach Terry Murray with a dilemma: What to do with Jonathan Quick, who unexpectedly grabbed the starting job last season and set a single-season franchise record with 39 wins. However, Quick struggled down the stretch and in the Kings' first-round loss to the Canucks, so Bernier could get a chance to compete for the starting job. By all indications, he's ready for it.

Michael Grabner, Florida Panthers -- The best things that could have happened to Grabner happened on the first night of the 2010 Entry Draft: The Vancouver Canucks, who took him with the 14th pick in the 2006 draft, dealt him to Florida, where he figures to have every opportunity to prove he's capable of a top-six forward role.

Grabner didn't get much ice time in Vancouver, but did show with a late-season hat trick against Anaheim that he's got the skills to put the puck in the net. That's exactly why new GM Dale Tallon got him -- the Panthers have struggled to score for the last several seasons. With a new regime in town, the native of Villach, Austria, should do much better than last season's 5 goals and 11 points in 20 games with the Canucks (he had 15 goals in 38 games with AHL Manitoba after getting 30 in 66 games in 2008-09). A change of scenery could be just what he needs.

Peter Mueller, Colorado Avalanche -- Mueller also figures to profit from new surroundings. Phoenix took him with the No. 8 pick in 2006, but after he had 22 goals and 54 points as a rookie in 2007-08, Mueller struggled for most of the next two seasons, managing just 4 goals and 17 points in 54 points with the Coyotes before being dealt to Colorado at the trade deadline last season.

The deal gave Mueller a new start, and he took advantage by putting up 9 goals and 20 points in just 15 games before a concussion ended his season. At 22 and abundantly skilled, he's poised to put up the kind of numbers for Colorado the Coyotes had hoped he'd generate for them.

Logan Couture, San Jose Sharks -- The departure of third-line center Manny Malhotra as a free agent clears the way for Couture to assume a much bigger role in San Jose this season. The Sharks' 2007 first-round pick (No. 9) scored 5 goals and 9 points in 25 regular-season games despite getting limited ice time (not more than 15:03 in any game) and added 4 goals in 15 playoff contests.

Couture showed in junior hockey (39 goals and 87 points in 62 games his final season) and in the AHL (20-33-53 in 42 games for Worcester) that he has the skills to contribute offensively. That could be just what the Sharks need as they look for more scoring from their bottom-six forwards to keep teams from overloading on the likes of Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau.

Karl Alzner, Washington Capitals -- Alzner has had a couple of extended call-ups with Washington during the last couple of seasons, but has spent most of his time helping the Caps' AHL farm team in Hershey win a pair of Calder Cup championships.

Alzner, chosen No. 5 in the 2007 Entry Draft, appears to be ready for a full-time role in Washington. He's not a big-time scorer, but he was a rock on defense for the Bears in their run to a second straight AHL title and is running out of things to prove at the minor-league level.

GM George McPhee said Alzner has shown enough to earn an NHL job -- and admitted to the Washington Post that the soon-to-be 22-year-old was good enough to play in the League this past season, but that he didn't want to tinker with a winning team.

John Carlson, Washington Capitals -- Given all that Carlson has accomplished -- scoring the tournament-winning goal for Team USA at the World Junior Championship in January, scoring a third-period, game-tying goal in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in April and the Calder Cup winner for Hershey in the AHL playoffs in June -- it's hard to believe he's not even 21.

But it's true. The Caps' first pick (No. 27) in the 2008 Entry Draft won't turn 21 until Jan. 10. By then, he should be a regular member of Washington's defensive corps. Carlson has been an offensive force at every level he's played at, including the AHL, where he was 4-35-39 in 48 games for the Bears last season (he had 1 goal and 5 assists in 22 games with the Caps). With a couple of openings coming on the blue line in D.C., there's room for Carlson to join Alzner and step in.

Colin Wilson, Nashville Predators -- The Predators were expecting big things from Wilson last season, but injuries derailed the 2008 first-rounder (No. 7) in his first pro season after leading Boston University to the NCAA title. He wound up with 8 goals and 15 points in 35 games after overcoming groin problems that hampered him for the first few months of the season (he also scored 34 points in 40 games at AHL Milwaukee).

With Jason Arnott sent to New Jersey in an offseason trade, the first-line center role is there for Wilson to grab. Wilson has been an offensive force at every level he's played at, and the Predators will give him every opportunity to play a major role this season.

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