The NHL’s 10 best breakout candidates for 2023-24: Mason McTavish, Lucas Raymond and more – The Athletic

Every NHL season marks an opportunity for new stars to shine.

The goal today is to scan around the league in search of hockey’s next breakout players. “Breaking out” can mean something different for every player. This could be a highly touted youngster who takes the kind of big step we saw from Dylan Cozens and Martin Necas last season. Other times, it’s an unheralded third-pair defender or bottom-six forward like Jake Walman who effectively steps into a larger role without much fanfare.

We’re looking for notable year-over-year growth, whether that’s in the point totals or a player’s overall role, responsibility and importance to the team.

How do we identify these candidates? These are some of the most important attributes I look for:

• A bigger role/increased ice time.
• New opportunities to play with elite linemate(s).
• Age-related growth potential (most players peak in their mid-20s, so if you’re younger than that, you’ve got a natural tailwind).

I’m going to exclude anyone eligible for the Calder Trophy from this exercise to make it more interesting. The same goes for Lukas Reichel and William Eklund, who are not Calder-eligible but are first-year NHL players for all intents and purposes. Evan Bouchard broke out in the playoffs, so he won’t be featured despite the likelihood that his point totals boom this season. And for as much as I believe Owen Power will take a substantial step in Year 2, everybody already knows he’s a top-four stud.

Without further ado, let’s get into our top 10 list.

It took time for Mason McTavish to move up the lineup, but he established himself as Anaheim’s second-line center by the end of the season. He’ll have a lot of opportunities on his plate this year — as a full-time top-six piece and on the first unit of a Ducks power play that should rank better than the 31st-place finish from 2022-23 with the potential he, Trevor Zegras and Troy Terry have.

McTavish will have more talent on his line than last year when Max Jones (418 minutes together) and Brett Leason (278 minutes together) were two of his three most common five-on-five linemates, according to Natural Stat Trick. New signing Alex Killorn should be a sizable upgrade as a potential linemate.

McTavish flashed a dangerous, versatile array of offensive tools as a rookie. He has a lethal one-timer, excels as a playmaker both off the rush and down low and can cleanly beat goalies from the tops of the circles with his wrist shot.

The 20-year-old should take a big step compared to the 43 points he scored last season, considering his skill, age and high-profile opportunity.

Lucas Raymond went through a sophomore slump in 2022-23, scoring just 45 points. There were genuine yellow flags with his play last year. His individual shot rate was down, his play-driving numbers saw a significant dip and industry observers weren’t overly impressed with what they saw.

He’s only 21, however, and we’ve seen many high-profile forwards take a big jump in their third NHL season, including his teammate Dylan Larkin, who went from 32 to 63 points in Year 3.

Raymond could certainly be next. He’s gifted with the puck, an intelligent offensive decision-maker and he fights in the hard areas despite his slight frame. Adding Alex DeBrincat should make the Red Wings’ top power-play unit more threatening, which would it easier for everybody on that unit to collect points, including Raymond.

The big question for Raymond is who he’ll play with at even strength. If he’s inserted on the top line with Larkin and DeBrincat, he’s in a prime position to rack up big numbers. But will the coaching staff deploy two undersized wingers on the same line considering the questions around size, defensive ability and forechecking?

Raymond has shown strong chemistry with Larkin, but if he gets bumped down to the second line in favor of DeBrincat, would he have enough high-end talent to play with? It’s something to monitor but Raymond seems too smart and talented to stagnate for a second consecutive season during his best development years.

The Dallas Stars need an injection of new top-four talent. Miro Heiskanen can’t carry the blue line by himself, with Esa Lindell’s recent form slipping and Ryan Suter declining.

Enter Thomas Harley.

Harley spent the overwhelming majority of 2022-23 in the AHL but became an everyday player for the Stars in the playoffs. He made an excellent impact further down the lineup, including controlling 60.4 percent of five-on-five scoring chances. The fact that he was fed more minutes by the end of the Vegas series, even if he was a bit overwhelmed at times, speaks volumes about how quickly the coaching staff has developed trust in him.

The Stars should promote Harley into the top four this season considering the direction of Lindell’s and Suters’ respective games. There’s a strong chance he replaces Suter as the club’s second-unit power-play quarterback too, which would give him the chance to pick up some more points.

With a 6-foot-3 frame, plus skating ability and decent puck skills, Harley has the tools to capitalize on a bigger role for Dallas.

Seth Jarvis fell a bit short of his sophomore-year expectations, scoring just 39 points in 82 games despite spending most of the year in a top-line role alongside Sebastian Aho.

But look under the hood and you’ll notice his individual shot and scoring chance rates were substantially higher compared to his rookie campaign and that his two-way results were sterling. He saw improvement across the board but was snakebitten, as his shooting percentage was cut in half from 15.5 percent to 7.5 percent. Even at five-on-five, Jarvis’ line converted on only 7 percent of its shots, which should rebound higher.

Jarvis’ improved underlying numbers







5v5 high danger chances per 60


5v5 CF%












Jarvis bounced back and was excellent in the playoffs, which should give him confidence and momentum heading into 2023-24. Even if you don’t trust the underlying numbers, just watching Jarvis is enough to understand he has the type of well-rounded skill set worth betting on.

He blends speed, high-end puck skills and scrappy competitiveness in an undersized, yet strong 5-foot-10 frame. Jarvis fearlessly attacks the middle and can make plays at a high pace through traffic. He plays a diligent off-puck game where he wins loose pucks, engages in battles and can spin off checks in tight quarters once he’s gained possession.

All of this has made Jarvis a Rod Brind’Amour favorite. It’s impressive for a 21-year-old to earn the coach’s full trust, and it means he’ll continue to earn the top ice time and offensive opportunities required to break out and reach another level.

The success of Barrett Hayton as a breakout pick for 2023-24 could largely come down to lineup fit.

Hayton took a solid step last season with 43 points, but it was a tale of two completely different halves. He popped off and looked like a completely different player once he centered Arizona’s top line with Clayton Keller and Nick Schmaltz, scoring 14 goals and 29 points in his last 35 games. He also led all Coyotes forwards in individual high-danger chances at five-on-five during the second half.

Hayton was far from a passenger on the first line. Just look at how much better Clayton Keller’s numbers were when he played alongside Hayton — it’s a night-and-day difference.

If Hayton sticks in the 1C role with Keller, he should see another jump in his point totals. The only complication is whether Logan Cooley’s arrival could reshuffle the top six lines. Hayton should stay with Keller — it might not be wise to put Cooley and Keller together as two undersized forwards on the same line right away — but if they’re separated, it could hinder Hayton’s odds of another breakout.

Blake Wheeler’s and Pierre-Luc Dubois’ exits mean there are some prime offensive opportunities up for grabs for Winnipeg’s forwards. Cole Perfetti averaged just under 15 minutes per game last season, making him a top contender to seize a bigger role at even strength and on the power play.

Perfetti was a solid middle-six contributor for the Jets last season, chipping in with 30 points in 51 games. He has standout offensive IQ and poise and will become even more dangerous once his feet get quicker. Perfetti’s a cerebral playmaker, making him a strong fit to play on the second line as a distributor for Gabriel Vilardi, a big-bodied sniper. He drove impressive underlying numbers as a rookie and scored 2.08 points per hour at five-on-five, which is a prolific top-six rate.

Perfetti should break out for 50-plus points if he can stay healthy.

Cam York should get a ton of opportunity to prove himself as a top-four fixture, especially with the big roles that will be available because of Ivan Provorov’s and Tony DeAngelo’s departures.

York split last season between the NHL and AHL, appearing in 54 games for the Flyers. The 22-year-old is a smooth skater, and while you wouldn’t call him dynamic, he’s a skilled, intelligent player with the puck. York offered strong play-driving results last season, delivering an impressive 53.2 percent expected goal share and breaking even in terms of on-ice goals for and against at five-on-five on an awful Flyers team.

He spent a big chunk of his NHL games playing the right side on the top pair with Provorov. The results weren’t nearly as pretty in that sample compared to when he played further down the lineup, but just the fact that he was able to hang in a first-pair role while playing his off side as a Year 1 player is very promising.

York should also rack up some extra points as DeAngelo’s replacement quarterbacking the first-unit power play. He may not be big or dynamic enough to develop into a bona fide top-pair defenseman, but he has the pedigree, smooth transition skill set, promising Year 1 underlying numbers and gaping opportunity to develop into a top-four building block for the Flyers’ blue line.

Connor Clifton is all gas, no brakes. The 28-year-old right-shot defender is one of the best hitters in the NHL despite standing at 5-foot-11, which will be a welcome addition for a Sabres team that finished 32nd for hits. Even outside of the physicality, he offers a fast skating, aggressive style that meshes well with the Sabres’ game. Of course, that aggressiveness also makes him prone to big mistakes from time to time, but those errors have been fewer and farther between over the last couple of seasons.

Playing on a stacked Bruins team up to this point, Clifton’s mostly been limited to a third-pair role. This could be the year he breaks through as a top-four defenseman, after signing a three-year contract with the Sabres.

Clifton should have the edge on Erik Johnson for earning a second pair role alongside Owen Power. Power is already one of the game’s best young defensemen, and could take another leap as a sophomore, making this a favorable supporting role for Clifton to slide into.

There will be challenges for Clifton. He needs to defend more consistently and while he was strong in a bottom pair role for Boston, there’s always the question of how a player will adjust when he’s no longer sheltered, especially when moving away from one of the best teams in the NHL last season. But Clifton should have the skating and puck-moving chops to handle more responsibility. It’s also worth noting that he played really well in a top pair role alongside Hampus Lindholm at the start of the year when Charlie McAvoy was hurt.

Playing for a head coach who likes his game (Don Granato coached him at the U.S. National Team Development Program), on a team that matches his uptempo playstyle, and likely riding shotgun with one of the brightest young defenders in the game, Clifton will be put in every position to succeed as a top-four defenseman.

JJ Peterka will be a critical top-six contributor for the Sabres, playing on Dylan Cozens’ line. He should see a decent bump from the 13:39 he averaged per game last season, especially because of Jack Quinn’s injury.

Peterka had a solid rookie campaign, contributing 32 points in 77 games, and 27 of those 32 points came at five-on-five, which is an encouraging trend. Peterka’s speed made him a constant threat off the rush. He has the high-end puck skills and sharp passing ability to make difficult plays in high traffic.

He drove play really well as a rookie and would have had more bottom-line production if he had finished his chances a bit better. Peterka was an impressive shooter coming up as a prospect, so we should see improvement in that regard. In fact, he’s already showing positive signs on that front, as he exploded for seven goals and 12 points in 10 games for Germany at the World Championship this summer.

Kent Johnson looks like a lock to eventually develop into a top-line, point-per-game forward. It will probably take a few years to reach that peak, but his skill set is that rare. Johnson is a wizard with the puck, possessing elite stickhandling, sharp vision and through-the-roof creativity.

Johnson scored 40 points as a rookie, averaging 14:31 per game. There were growing pains and he struggled at driving two-way play, but that’s often to be expected from such a young player. He earned more ice time as the season went on, so that bodes well in terms of a bigger role for 2023-24. Johnson has a good chance to establish himself as a full-time top-six forward this season. He could slot in as Columbus’ second-line left winger riding shotgun with Adam Fantilli, which would make for a fun, dynamic duo.

Power-play usage is a hard-to-predict X-factor that will influence his final point totals. Johnson is most likely to start on PP2 right now, as Patrik Laine and Johnny Gaudreau will likely control the PP1 flanks. But if injuries or poor play forces change, Johnson could move up to the top unit and potentially do some serious damage.

Johnson has some elite offensive tools. How big of a step he can take as a sophomore will come down to what type of role he’s given and how quickly he can iron out the details of his play away from the puck.

Honorable mentions: Quinton Byfield, Alex Newhook, Rasmus Sandin, Kaapo Kakko, Philip Tomasino, Brett Howden

All underlying stats via Natural Stat Trick; ice-time data via Hockey-Reference

(Top photos of Lucas Raymond and Mason McTavish: Brace Hemmelgarn and Kiyoshi Mio / USA Today)

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