Disclosure: This list does not contain the best young players in the game. We’ve already witnessed the rise of Jonathan Huberdeau, Jonas Brodin and Brendan Gallagher. It’s a foregone conclusion that everyone will be paying close attention to those players. Instead, this list contains a trio who have experienced some NHL success but have yet to join the ranks of the young elite. Of course all of that will change this season if these projections hold true.
Brenden Dillon – Defenseman – Dallas Stars
Dillon’s name will not come up very often on these types of lists which is a shame. It’s not that people disagree with his perceived level of talent, it’s just that he doesn’t fit the mold of the new offensive minded blueliner that everyone has seemingly fallen head over heels for. Instead he symbolizes what defensemen used to be back in the day; big, strong and powerful.
It’s in those kind of old school attributes that Dillon’s value lies. He’ll likely always be limited in the offensive zone (lacks the necessary offensive vision and puck moving ability) but when it comes to the other side of the rink, his ceiling may as well be limitless. He not only uses his 6’3” inch frame very well but he comprehends and reads the game at a very high level. That’s a rather lethal defensive combination when you take the time to consider what it means. He can either flat-out run you over or he can out think you. It’s that kind of adaptability that makes certain blueliners so valuable.
In 2013-14 you can expect a boost in average ice time from 21:22 in 2012-13 to something along the lines of 23 minutes. It really depends on how quickly the Stars realize that he is their best defenseman and move him into the top pairing with Sergei Gonchar. As for his point production, 20-25 points is a legitimate projection and could increase if he receives more time on the powerplay.
Charlie Coyle – Center – Minnesota Wild
As I looked around to gauge the collective pulse of potential breakout players there was always one player who appeared on everyone’s list: Charlie Coyle. It’s not hard to figure out what that is exactly. In the past year he went from playing in the AHL to joining Minnesota’s top line Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise.
I won’t sit here and pretend that Coyle’s 2012-13 success wasn’t due to playing on a line with two former all-stars. Any adequate NHLer could jump on that line and tally 14 points in 37 games. But in a similar fashion to Brenden Dillon, Coyle’s importance and production shouldn’t be directly attached to his point total. His rookie season was used as a showcase for his toughness and grit. His role on the top line was to get into the corners and grind it out with the opposing teams top defensive pairing, and he was extremely effective.
For 2013-14 that grit will remain but moving to the 2nd line center position will give him the opportunity to show off the rest of his skill set. He’ll be playing alongside Dany Heatley (who is in a contract year) and Nino Niederreiter which gives him two different styles of offensive weapons. Predicting a 40-45 point total is definitely not out of the question and depending on how his linemates gel with him, it could be slightly higher. If he can continue working on his defensive side of the game then it’s possible that emerges as one of Minnesota’s best players.
Jake Gardiner – Defenseman – Toronto Maple Leafs
An argument could be made that Gardiner already broke out during the 2011-12 season but the fact that he was limited to only 12 regular season games with Toronto during the lockout shortened season means that he has lost some of that notoriety. Is that his fault? Not at all. Blame that pesky concussion that held him out.
Gardiner is probably the closest thing to a sure fire hit that this list has. As I stated above, his 2011-12 season was by all means a breakout year. 30 points in 75 games as a 21 year old is worthy of such an accolade. But then the concussion happened and his 2012-13 season was shot. At least until the playoffs that is. In six playoff games he grabbed five points and was probably the best defensemen for the Maple Leafs during the Bruins series.
What makes Gardiner so damn intriguing is his all-around talent. He is big (although he needs to add a little bulk), has terrific hockey sense and is a smooth skater to boot. If all of those things shine in 2013-14 he might emerge as one of the best young defensemen in the game. Averaging over 20 minutes of ice time per game is not out of the realm of possibility and as long as he logs a decent amount of PP time he’ll likely hit 35-40 points.