Every season there are a few guys that come from nowhere to explode onto the NHL scene. Sometimes it’s a blue-chip rookie. Other times it’s an unheralded veteran or a highly touted European import. In the not too distant past we’ve seen Adam Henrique, Damien Brunner, and James Neal breakthrough from obscurity. This season there are a few obvious contenders on the Flyers and a couple of dark-horse candidates from around the league.
Up first, let’s take a look at the hopeful Flyers:
Brayden Schenn, C/W- Schenn may be the most obvious candidate on the list. This former 5th overall selection of the Los Angeles Kings was the crown jewel of the Flyers return in the Mike Richards trade. Unfortunately, up until this point, #10 has not lived up to the excessive expectations that come with replacing a fan favorite. But it’s important to remember Schenn is still only a 21-year old kid. He did manage 26 points in 47 games last season, which would’ve put him on pace for 45 points over a full season. If Schenn can finally reach the 20-goal plateau this season, it would take a lot of pressure off the enigmatic talent. But even if he does, it seems there are many Flyers fans who will never be happy with Schenn until he helps bring us that elusive third Cup.
Erik Gustafsson, D- Gustafsson’s time in Philadelphia has been a roller coaster ride, to say the least. At different times he’s been either a crucial member of the defense corps or a toiling minor leaguer, but in the final 10-15 games of last season, along with the World Championships, Gustafsson looked like a difference maker. With the benefit of experience, he became much less timid and indecisive, and with more responsibility, he seemed to thrive. If ‘Gus’ can reach his potential, he has a chance to be a poor man’s Kimmo Timonen. He is a solid skater with excellent offensive ability. It’s just a matter of confidence with this kid.
Steve Mason, G- Mason may end up being the most important player on the Flyers roster. He’s coming off a terrible couple of seasons with Columbus, but he also flashed unbelievable potential in his short stint in Philly. Also, Mason fits Laviolette’s system far better than Bryz did. His size (6’4″), post-to-post speed, and most importantly, puck-handling ability, make him a legitimate candidate to become the Flyers #1 netminder. There’s not a lot of faith in Mason around the league, but it’s hard to argue with the results- 4-2, 1.90GAA, .944sv%- even if it was only 7 games.
Now, here are some of the league-wide candidates (and it’s simply a coincidence that all 3 are Swedes):
Adam Larsson, D, New Jersey Devils- At just 20-years of age, Larsson is one of the most talented young defenders in the entire world. Despite struggling somewhat during his first two campaigns, the 6’3″ Swede was the 4th overall selection in the 2011 Draft for a reason. He hasn’t managed to show his offensive ability yet (22 points in 102 NHL games), but the potential is certainly there. If there’s one young defender in the NHL who can make a quantum leap in 2013-14, it’s most certainly Larsson.
Viktor Stalberg, F, Nashville Predators- Stalberg may well be one of the fastest players in the NHL. He’s shown scoring ability in the past (22 goals in 11-12), unfortunately he was a victim of the impressive forward depth in Chicago. This season, however, he’s moved on from the Blackhawks to the offensively-challenged Predators. This switch could mean big things for the 27-year old Swede in 2013.
Jhonas Enroth, G, Buffalo Sabres- Even though longtime-vet Ryan Miller is still entrenched as the starter in net, Enroth is sure to get his fair share of action. He will be playing behind an abysmal (albeit young) Sabres squad, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be productive. At just 25 years of age and with 2+ seasons of NHL experience, Enroth is the future in Buffalo.
Honorable Mentions- Vladimir Tarasenko, F, St. Louis Blues; Karri Ramo, G, Calgary Flames; Shawn Matthias, F, Florida Panthers; Jared Cowen, D, Ottawa Senators; Victor Hedman, D, Tampa Bay Lightning; Ben Bishop, G, Tampa Bay Lightning
Beyond these six highlighted players there are plenty of conceivable breakout performers around the league (some listed above), but the key ingredient in the discussion is one thing: opportunity. Very few will have access to the big minutes that these guys will. They will be given every chance to succeed. In the end, there will certainly be a few contenders who come out of nowhere, but, as of right now, Larsson, Stalberg, and Enroth are the clear favorites.