Five NHL Players to Break out in 2022

The NHL has reached the halfway mark in the 2021-22 season. While many of the NHL’s most prominent players have continued to play well, there are several candidates who could emerge as reliable offensive weapons at the NHL level. While these players generate strong underlying numbers, they haven’t enjoyed the same concrete point totals to match, keeping them on the periphery of public consciousness. These five players are ready to make a splash in the second part of the 2021-22 campaign.

Oliver Wahlstrom, New York Islanders

You may be asking yourself how a former first round pick can be considered “under-the radar”. Oliver Wahlstrom has not fulfilled the potential of his draft pedigree, and is still looking for the opportunity to make a name for himself in the NFL. New York Islanders, his third season with the NHL. To the typical fan, Wahlstrom’s unassuming goal (eight) and point (15) totals this season might not register as evidence of a forthcoming breakout star, but his numbers under the hood tell a different story.

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The sophomore winger has posted top-line quality rates of shots (tied for 73rd in SH/60 among qualified forwards) and 5v5 individual expected goals per-60 (tied for 45th in ixG/60 – expected goals evaluate the likelihood a shot becomes a goal) this season. Surprisingly, the shoot-first forward has also been New York’s most dangerous passer to start the season, completing 1.88 high-danger passes (those traveling across the slot or from behind the net) to go with his third-best rate of scoring chance production. The auspicious talent is quickly maturing into a dual-threat offensively, although you wouldn’t know it by the 13 minutes he plays a night.

Oliver Wahlstrom, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers

The Islanders should keep Wahlstrom and Mat Barzal on the first line, if only to improve their underwhelming scoring rate of 29th in goals per games. The star center is among the league’s best at finding teammates in dangerous areas, finishing third in primary shot assists per-60 (the final completed pass before a shot) last season according to Tracking data collected by Corey Sznajder. He is also unmatched in his ability to score scoring chances in transition (moving the puck from the neutral to offensive zones with the puck).

That’s all to say that Wahlstrom (second on the team in both goals and points) could elevate his play to another level next to someone who can take advantage of his strengths. Wahlstrom is also the leader in power-play goals (44) and tied for the lead ((7)), making him one of the most dangerous scoring threats to an otherwise disciplined but limited Islanders team. Keep an eye on his ice-time and deployment as the season progresses, as New York has a lot of ground to make up in the standings, and they’ll need Wahlstrom to fire them back into playoff contention.

Nicolas Roy, Vegas Golden Knights

Through the franchise’s formative years, the Vegas Golden Knights have made a Habit of mining low-valued gemsThese players have the chance to become NHL stars. In Nicolas Roy, they may have found another diamond in the rough, and he’s flashed his tantalizing potential this season.

The center is now the youngest player in his league, with 16 minutes of ice-time per game. He also has career highs for every offensive category, including goals (7), assists (12), points (19) and more. You could argue he’s already broken out to some extent, but Roy’s frequent fashioning of quality chances argues there is another level for the hulking forward to hit.

Nicolas Roy Vegas Golden Knights
Nicolas Roy, Vegas Golden Knights. (Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images).

He weaves into opportune scoring areas around the slot (69th in 5v5 individual high-danger shot attempts at 5v5 – iHDCF/60) and uses his large frame to wreak havoc in front of the net, creating 1.35 rebounds per-60 (30th). Roy also ranks fourth on the Knights in primary shot assists and is one of the team’s most effective forecheckers (third in shots per-60 coming off of the forecheck and in recovered dump-ins).

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Roy appears to possess the understanding and physical gifts to complement more skilled players, and if he’s given more time within Vegas’ top-six, he could take another step in his development. His two most frequent linemates have been Reilly Smith and Mattias Janmark (no slouches themselves), but Max Pacioretty’s injury setback opens up a role, and Jack Eichel’s looming return could set the stage for Roy’s true breakout performance. Will 2022 be Roy’s year?

Julien Gauthier, New York Rangers

When one thinks of the NHL’s best offensive players, who comes to mind? Auston Matthews Connor McDavid Julien Gauthier? No, that’s not a typo, Gauthier’s per-60-minute rate of production puts him within the same stratosphere as some of the league’s elite, and he’s one of several candidates on this list clamoring for an expanded offensive role.

Alright, maybe I’m overselling Gauthier’s attacking impact – he faces much weaker competition in less taxing situations – but he’s made efficient use of his restricted usage. To date, the New York Rangers have only played Gauthier just under 11 minutes a night in all situations, and he’s produced just five solitary points in 26 games as a result.

Julien Gauthier New York Rangers
Julien Gauthier, New York Rangers (Amy Irvin/ The Hockey Writers

Gauthier is a big man (6-foot-4 and 227 pounds), which he uses to create offense. Gauthier generates the majority of his chances off the cycle. He leads the league in individual high-danger shot attempts (5v5) (7.88 IHDCF/60), which shows his ability to create quality scoring opportunities. Gauthier’s shot rate is 40th and his ixG/60 rank fifth among forwards. This suggests that he could flourish in an environment with more reps.

That’s not to mention how his insanely unlucky run of finishing has contributed to his meager scoring total. According to MoneyPuck’s expected goals model (which assigns a likelihood of any given shot becoming a goal), Gauthier has scored the third-fewest goals above expected (GAx) in all situations this season. This means that although he has been expected to score around 8 goals to this point, Gauthier only counts among this year’s tally. Apart from Alexander Radulov and Jordan Staal, no other player has been more snake-bitten than the Rangers’ forward this season.

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Unfortunately, Gauthier has recently joined the COVID protocolSo, the start of any breakout campaign will be delayed. Be on the lookout for increased Rangers involvement or a possible trade to a team that is more willing to use his tantalizing combination size and offensive awareness.

Trevor Moore, Los Angeles Kings

It is not surprising that Trevor Moore, a former member from Toronto Maple Leafs, is doing well in his new home with the Los Angeles Kings. He appears to be ready to make a comeback. This season, the diminutive utility forward has scored 12 points (five goals and seven assists) in 35 games. His career-best 34 point pace in 2020-21 was slightly lower than the one he achieved in his first full season playing for the Kings.

That’s not for lack of trying, though, as Moore’s underlying shot and expected goals numbers have improved across the board. Moore’s only difference is his shot and expected goals numbers. He’s shooting a career-low 3.85% at 5v5, and the second-lowest all-situations shooting percentage (7.58 SH%) of his NHL tenure. Moore is also a quality scorer, scoring at a first-line pace this season. He ranks among the top 50 in iHDCF/ixG among forwards who have at least 200 5v5 minutes.

Trevor Moore Los Angeles Kings
Trevor Moore, Los Angeles Kings (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers

The 26-year-old California native is also one of the NHL’s talented skaters in transition, ranking second on the Kings in terms of controlled zone entries (entering the offensive zone with possession of the puck) and scoring chances created off of those entries. The waterbug winger’s versatility doesn’t end there, however, as Moore is a significant short-handed threat. He’s posted top-three per-60 rates in shots (second), ixG (third), and shot attempts off the rush (second) among forwards to have played a minimum of 25 minutes on the penalty kill this season. Moore’s 24th-highest number of rebounds among forwards can be seen hurtling towards the net, regardless of the context.

Apart from his scant number of goals, Moore’s point total should rise once his bottom 50 on-ice shooting percentage (OiSH%) regresses to league-average, and his equally as snake-bitten linemates start to hit the back of the net as well. OiSH% is the combined shooting success of all players on the ice and not just one skater. This is a great buy-low opportunity to be a forward-thinking player. The lows and dizzying highs of puck-luck.

Matt Roy, Los Angeles Kings

Double-dipping is a crime? Not if we’re talking about the Kings and their cornucopia of underrated talents. Defenseman Matt Roy, has sneakily evolved into one of the NHL’s most impactful blueline playmakers, despite the Kings’ reluctance to let their blueliners run loose. All of LA’s regular defenders rank below average in controlled zone exit attempts (i.e. attempting to move the puck out the defensive zone). Roy is the leader in shot attempts and shot assist, even better than Drew Doughty.

Roy is playing a career-high of nearly 21-and-a-half minutes per night, second only to Doughty on the Kings’ roster. The 26-year old defender has 13 assists in 35 games and is on pace to surpass his previous highs in points and helpers, despite not scoring any goals in 2021-22. Roy is truly a snake-bite. Behind Thomas Chabot of the Ottawa Senators, Roy leads all NHL defensemen in goals below expected (-2.9 GAx) this season; that’s in spite of his 7.18 SH/60 at 5v5, the seventh-highest rate among qualified defenders.

Matt Roy Los Angeles Kings
Matt Roy (Los Angeles Kings)Amy Irvin/ The Hockey Writers

One other interesting statistical nugget which demonstrates Roy’s potential for increased scoring? Roy and Victor Mete, the only defensemen who have attained at least five assists in a minimum of 200 games this season, are the only ones to surpass their total without accumulating even one secondary assist (A2). This is a significant accomplishment. Secondary assists are more randomly distributed than primary ones (A1) and a less helpful indicator of passing talent, Roy should benefit from being awarded a greater number of helpers picked up from passes further behind the Kings’ offensive sequences.

Further, although Doughty’s presence means Roy is unlikely to garner steady power-play time, he can uncover a reliable well of increased production elsewhere. The strong likelihood that the Kings’ see their unsustainably cold 7.7 SH% (30th in the NHL) move closer to league-average (9.5%) represents another avenue to accumulating more assists.

The Kings view him as a vital part of their future. They signed him to a 3-year extension that had an average annual worth (AAV) $3.15 million halfway through last year. The seventh-round 2015 pick was an unexpected success and he now wants to be a household figure in 2022.

Sub-the-Radar Contributors Expect to Breakout in 2022

The nature of the NHL is that there is often limited ice time to go around, and favorable deployment (such as on the power play) is hard to come by if you’re not an established player in the league. Some of these players could miss out on the chance to shine. Their coaches and managers should be crossing their fingers that their eventual breakthrough happens with their franchise, and not while wearing someone else’s colors. Is there anyone I’ve missed? Is there anyone else who is looking for a greater role to help spread their wings? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments

Dat courtesy All Three Zones, Hockey: A changing sport, MoneyPuck?, Natural Stat Trick.

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