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Buying or Selling the NHL’s Early Breakouts

Buying or Selling the NHL’s Early Breakouts
Joe YerdonNovember 25, 2023

Buying or Selling the NHL’s Early Breakouts

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    TEMPE, ARIZONA - NOVEMBER 20: Quinton Byfield #55 of the Los Angeles Kings during the first period of the NHL game at Mullett Arena on November 20, 2023 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Some of our favorite stories of the early part of the NHL season surround players who are off to such big starts that it makes us all wonder if we’re watching the beginning of something big. Or even the continuation of what we thought might be the opening salvos of a breakout.

    Now that we’re just about 20 games into the NHL season, it’s time to take stock of some of the league’s hottest players. We’re not talking about rookies who are showing the league that they might be its next stars—that’s another discussion unto itself. We’re also not talking about established veterans with a long track record of being among the best in the league either.

    We’re going to be buying or selling the hot starts of a handful of guys under 30 years old, some of whom are on some of the NHL’s most surprising teams. Other guys have forced their coaches to give them more ice time by contributing more to the attack.

    We’ll examine each case based on how this season’s numbers match up against previous ones and keep a keen eye on various factors to see if there’s more to come or if this is a flash in the pan.

Jesper Bratt, New Jersey Devils

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    CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - NOVEMBER 05: Jesper Bratt #63 of the New Jersey Devils looks on prior to the game against the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center on November 05, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    It’s a lot of fun to watch Jesper Bratt play hockey.

    For the past couple of seasons, he has been one of the league’s more underappreciated players, and that’s probably the way the New Jersey Devils would prefer it. After all, when teams match up against New Jersey, the first thoughts focus on trying to shut down Jack Hughes or Nico Hischier and finding a way to limit Dougie Hamilton’s influence on the game.

    Bratt scored 73 points in each of the past two seasons, which makes him one of the league’s best and most consistent scorers. But this season he’s taken things to another level with 23 points in 18 games. He’s averaging more than a point per game for the first time, and it’s due to his ability to set up others for goals, particularly on the power play.

    It’s a scorching start for Bratt ,and although the power-play points could be a reason to hesitate on whether this hot start is for real, how he’s performed the previous two seasons indicates he’s meant to be a point-producer—he’s just doing so now at a greater rate.

    That said, his 12 power-play assists this season are three short of his career high set in 2021-2022 in 76 games, and he’s on pace to blow away his 73-point career high. These things can happen when you’re a top-tier player and that’s what Jesper Bratt is.

    Verdict: Bought a year ago

Filip Hronek, Vancouver Canucks

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    VANCOUVER, CANADA - NOVEMBER 20: Filip Hronek #17 of the Vancouver Canucks reacts after a hit during the third period of their NHL game against the San Jose Sharks at Rogers Arena on November 20, 2023 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Derek Cain/Getty Images)

    Derek Cain/Getty Images

    It’s fun seeing fans’ reactions to what Filip Hronek is doing this season in Vancouver. After all, it was a bit odd when Detroit dealt him to the Canucks last year. He was a solid point producer for the Red Wings, and they’re an up-and-coming team with hopes of returning to the playoffs…kind of like the Vancouver Canucks.

    Hronek went from pairing up with Ben Chiarot and Olli Määttä in Detroit and scoring between 30 and 40 points a season to playing with Quinn Hughes in Vancouver and scoring nearly a point per game (20 points in 21 games). Hronek’s career high is 39 points, and if the Canucks score at a torrid pace like this all season, he’d shatter that mark before the All-Star Game.

    Did Hronek have this kind of skill and ability in Detroit? The Wings weren’t a great team while he was there, and the choices of who to play him with were slim. He wasn’t paired with Moritz Seider very often, or ever (54:40 together at five-on-five in nearly two seasons, via Natural Stat Trick). Seider produced well immediately as a rookie, but so did Hronek in a secondary role as a puck-mover behind him.

    In Vancouver, coach Rick Tocchet put his two most offensively gifted blue liners together, and now they’re helping drive an offense that has everyone’s heads spinning between Hughes and Hronek’s play on the blue line, and Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser up front.

    Are they putting all their eggs in one basket on defense? Maybe, but who cares? It’s working and working well and Hronek playing with Hughes has opened things up in a big way.

    Hronek’s advanced numbers aren’t terribly different in Vancouver than they were in Detroit—they’re a little better because the Canucks are better than those Wings teams. Hronek’s five-on-five PDO is rather high (1.067) and may regress, but not to the point where it would crater everything else he’s doing.

    Verdict: Buying

Mason McTavish, Anaheim Ducks

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    ANAHEIM, CA - NOVEMBER 12: Mason McTavish #23 of the Anaheim Ducks celebrates his third-period goal against the San Jose Sharks during the game at Honda Center on November 12, 2023 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images)

    Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images

    Mason McTavish leads the Anaheim Ducks in scoring with 21 points in 20 games, and he’s second in goals with 10, behind Frank Vatrano’s 13.

    He was one of the NHL’s best rookies last season, but it was difficult to watch him every night because the Ducks were really bad. Now he’s making sure we’re paying attention by breaking out with more than a point per game on an improved Ducks team.

    This is a torrid start for him, and gauging whether this breakout is the real deal can be tricky. McTavish’s advanced stats are improved over last season so far, and the biggest difference in his game is he’s shooting a lot and more often, averaging almost a full shot more per game compared to last season (2.85 to 2.01).

    A lot more pucks are going into the net this season. McTavish shot 10.6 percent last year, and he’s shooting 17.5 percent so far this year. You’d have to think it will come down a bit, but also there’s not enough information over the years to properly judge that. Add in that the Ducks are coached differently this year under Greg Cronin and they’ve leaned heavily on their young players and had success and…gosh, this is difficult to decide.

    He’s getting better quality chances now (49.7 expected goals-for at five-on-five this year compared to 41.9 a year ago) and those line up with the hot start success. You know what? We’re in.

    Verdict: Buying

Wyatt Johnston, Dallas Stars

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    EDMONTON, CANADA - NOVEMBER 02: Wyatt Johnston #52 of the Dallas Stars awaits a face-off during the game against the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Place on November 2, 2023, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

    Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

    Watching Wyatt Johnston pick up where he left off last season in his rookie year has been a treat to see.

    He has 16 points in 19 games, and after he had 41 points in 82 a year ago, it’s the kind of gradual improvement teams love to see from their young players. Johnston’s goals-per-game and assists-per-game numbers are a bit better than they were a year ago, and that’s led to his points-per-game rate being improved as well (0.84; he had 0.5 last season).

    Johnston is continuing to succeed, and it’s allowed him to get an increase in his playing time and in his responsibilities all over the ice. The Stars are a deep team at forward, and Johnston’s emergence a year ago helped solidify their forward lines on the way to making the Western Conference Final.

    What is a little bit interesting is that Johnston’s advanced numbers are a little down compared to last season. It’s nearly 20 games’ worth of evidence, so it’s not exactly a small sample size, but there are a lot more games to go for him to see his numbers straighten out. Of course, he was a rookie so we don’t really know for sure how things will trend. Still, he’s producing more points and that goes a long way.

    Verdict: Buying

Travis Sanheim, Philadelphia Flyers

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    PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - NOVEMBER 04:  Travis Sanheim #6 of the Philadelphia Flyers looks on during warm-ups prior to his game against the Los Angeles Kings at the Wells Fargo Center on November 4, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

    Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

    What we’re seeing out of Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Travis Sanheim this season is rather remarkable.

    Sanheim leads the Flyers in scoring with 16 points in 20 games, and he’s averaging a career-high 26:05 time on ice per game. Clearly, coach John Tortorella trusts Sanheim implicitly, and with Rasmus Ristolainen still out with injury, he’s carried the bulk of the load for Philadelphia.

    In Sanheim’s first six seasons, he averaged 0.33 points per game and his career high of 35 points in a season came in his second season back in 2018-2019. This season. Sanheim is averaging 0.8 points per game and he’s on pace for roughly 66 points this year, nearly double his best season mark.

    These kinds of massive breakouts can happen on defense. We saw it happen last season to Winnipeg’s Josh Morrissey when he went from a previous career high of 37 to 76 a year later at the age of 27. Coincidentally, that’s how old Sanheim is now.

    Morrissey’s production in his breakout season a year ago essentially doubled from 0.47 points per game to 0.97. Sanheim’s from last year to this year tripled from a year ago (0.28 to 0.84). We’re not saying it’s impossible that Sanheim might be blossoming into a massive point producing defenseman, we’re just skeptical because it’s come almost entirely out of the blue and with a quarter of his points coming on the power play.

    It’s impressive to see what Sanheim has done so far, and he and Cam York have made for a very solid pairing, but we’re not fully bought in just yet.

    Verdict: Selling

Quinton Byfield, Los Angeles Kings

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 09: Los Angeles Kings center Quinton Byfield (55) skates with the puck during an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on November 9, 2023 at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

    Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Watching what Quinton Byfield is doing with the Los Angeles Kings this year is truly exciting because we started to see glimpses of this a season ago. It was then that Byfield found a home on a line with Anze Kopitar, and having him ride shotgun with an elite two-way player like that has unlocked Byfield’s game.

    He has 16 points in 18 games, and considering he set a career high with 22 points in 57 games last season, it’s looking like a good bet he’ll set a new career high before the new year. Or Christmas. Possibly even by the end of November. Hey, they’ve got a couple more games to go this month—you never know.

    Byfield was drafted second overall by the Kings in 2020, and he came with all the hype after a monster junior career in the OHL. The thought was he was going to be an instant-impact scorer. But his being drafted during the pandemic and everything that surrounded that interfered with his development, so seeing him find his stride at 21 years old is exciting.

    He’s become a puck-possession standout playing next to Kopitar, and his defensive responsibilities shine in L.A. as well. It’s easy to forget what a physical marvel Byfield was when he was drafted, but seeing him now as a 6’5″ 220-pound power forward who can control the puck, defend well and help produce offense is a big reason we’re seeing the Kings rise in the West.

    Verdict: Buying

Cole Perfetti, Winnipeg Jets

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    WINNIPEG, CANADA - NOVEMBER 9: Cole Perfetti #91 of the Winnipeg Jets takes part in the pre-game warm up prior to NHL action against the Nashville Predators at the Canada Life Centre on November 9, 2023 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

    Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images

    It’s fascinating to look back at the 2020 draft and see how the pandemic affected the players taken that year, and Cole Perfetti is a perfect example of that.

    He was a prolific scorer with OHL Saginaw in his draft year, but his next season was short circuited by the pandemic, and he wound up playing in the AHL as a 19-year-old. That’s really tough to do, but his numbers were strong there. Injuries cut into his time in Winnipeg the past two seasons, and now he’s starting to show that the wait for him was more than worth it.

    Through 19 games, Perfetti’s got 16 points, with six of them goals. After he had 37 points in 69 games in his first two injury-ruined seasons, seeing him get on track and give the Jets added high-end depth up front is exciting. It’s been a slow build for him because of the sidetracking, but the progression to what he’s doing now makes sense given how he performed each of the past two years.

    Perfetti is playing top-six minutes and driving possession best of anyone on the roster, with 58.8 percent of shot attempts for at five-on-five, and he’s helping produce the majority of quality scoring chances as well with 57.4 percent of expected goals for. This means he’s doing all the right things, and when players do that and have high-end offensive skill to go with it, the points will flow.

    Verdict: Buying

Logan Thompson, Vegas Golden Knights

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    MONTREAL, QC - NOVEMBER 16: Look on Las Vegas Golden Knights goalie Logan Thompson (36) during the Las Vegas Golden Knights versus the Montreal Canadiens game on November 16, 2023, at Bell Centre in Montreal, QC (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

    David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    It was easy to forget how good Logan Thompson was for the Vegas Golden Knights a year ago, especially after Adin Hill eventually assumed the starting job and led them to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup championship. But now with Thompson back healthy once again, he’s showing that last season was no fluke.

    In eight starts this season, Thompson is 5-2-1 with a .920 save percentage and a 2.48 goals-against average. Compared to last year when Thompson was the Knights’ No. 1 goalie with a 21-13-3 record with a .915 save percentage and 2.65 goals-against average, it’s incredible that he’s playing better but is now Vegas’ No. 1B to Hill, who is having an incredible year of his own.

    Buying or selling on goaltenders is like playing blackjack while only looking at one card. You think you’ve got all the information to form a strong opinion and have a concrete take, but sometimes things just go sideways. Thompson has shown that not only is he a good goalie, but he’s also one who’s constantly improving his game and owning his role regardless of what it is.

    Thompson’s healthy play is proving that what was such a questionable position for Vegas a year ago is now easily one of its biggest strengths.

    Verdict: Buying

Seth Jarvis, Carolina Hurricanes

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    SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 19: Seth Jarvis #24 of the Carolina Hurricanes celebrates his goal against the Seattle Kraken during the third period at Climate Pledge Arena on October 19, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

    Steph Chambers/Getty Images

    Seth Jarvis is another member of the 2020 draft class who’s just now starting to hit a confident stride in the NHL.

    Over the past two years, we’ve seen Jarvis work his way up through the Carolina lineup and then grow into new roles with the team. Then he started seeing the ice more often in big moments last season and started to grow his scoring touch. This season, he’s starting to reach his ultimate form as a top-line player alongside Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov and averaging more than 19 minutes a game.

    Knowing how Rod Brind’Amour coaches the Hurricanes, seeing Jarvis playing on their top line means he’s earned that role and his numbers this season bear that out. He’s second on the team in scoring behind Aho with 15 points and his eight goals are second to Teuvo Teravainen’s 10 on the team. Like everyone in Carolina, his possession numbers are through the roof, but it’s his overall production jump that shows the steady growth is true.

    Jarvis is scoring 0.79 points per game this season, compared to last year when he scored at a 0.48 points per game rate (which was down from his rookie season of 0.59). That growth coupled with his top line role shows he’s running with the opportunity.

    Verdict: Buying

Sean Durzi, Arizona Coyotes

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    TEMPE, ARIZONA - NOVEMBER 20: Sean Durzi #50 of the Arizona Coyotes gets ready during a face off against the Los Angeles Kings at Mullett Arena on November 20, 2023 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)

    Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images

    Sean Durzi set career highs in L.A. a year ago with nine goals and 29 assists (38 points) in just his second full year in the NHL. So far this season, he’s got five goals and seven assists (12 points) in 19 games.

    Durzi’s been a consistently strong puck-possession player, and he’s above 50 percent again this season at five-on-five with the Coyotes. Arizona was in need of a strong puck-possessor and a player who could rush the puck up the ice.

    What’s wild about Durzi’s start is his 102.7 PDO at five-on-five. That means Coyotes are getting average results from the goalies (.906 save percentage) and the team is shooting a high percentage (12.1) when he’s out there. PDO’s baseline is 100.0, so it’s his goal scoring that’s got things a bit higher than normal. In Durzi’s first two seasons, the Kings shot 7.6 and 8.3 percent when he was on the ice. Different team, different situation, yes, but numbers like that usually normalize.

    Durzi’s on-ice time has jumped dramatically with the Coyotes. He’s averaging 23:28 per game this season, and compared to his time in L.A. (19:42 a game), it’s nearly a four-minute jump. More ice time has meant more shots per game too, up almost half a shot per game from 1.53 a year ago to 1.95 this season.

    Is all of this sustainable? The shooting percentage probably isn’t, but most of his other metrics are relatively close to what he’s done before with the Kings, only now he’s playing more often. Sounds good to me.

    Verdict: Buying

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