NHL

Cullen: 2011-2012 breakthrough players in the NHL

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Scott Cullen
3/28/2012 12:45:19 PM
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One of the challenges facing pronosticators at the start of each season is finding the players that will have a breakthrough season, improving their production by a substantial margin over previous seasons.

In some cases, the progression is natural and seemingly inevitable - young stars evolving into a more prominent role with more ice time, more time on the power play and better linemates.

However, there are also times when players emerge with such an unlikely track record or and up-and-down career that makes the breakthrough season particularly surprising.

Here are the 25 players in the NHL this season that have scored at least 10 points more than their Prev. Career-High (minimum 30 points and rookies, for obvious reasons, not included):

Tyler Seguin, RW, Boston (Prev. Career-High: 22 PTS; 2011-2012: 61 PTS) - It's not a surprise that the second overall pick in the 2010 draft has emerged as a scorer, but that he made such a big jump from his rookie season to his sophomore campaign is what might have caught some off-guard. Seguin's production has slowed somewhat (43 points, plus-34 in 46 games before All-Star break; 17 points, minus-7 in 28 games after), but a 20-year-old who has 26 goals and is plus-28 is already making a significant impact.

David Desharnais, C, Montreal (Prev. Career-High: 22 PTS; 2011-2012: 58 PTS) - A 25-year-old who was never drafted -- presumably because of his diminutive stature (listed at 5-foot-7) -- and not signed out of junior despite scoring 323 points over his last three seasons with Chicoutimi, Desharnais has persevered and worked his way into the Canadiens' lineup in the second half of the 2010-2011 season, chipping in on the power play and playing 13 minutes per game. This season, Desharnais is centering the Habs' top line, with power wingers Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole on his wings, and despite all the disappointment in Montreal, there actually have been a couple positive breakthrough performances.

Max Pacioretty, LW, Montreal (Prev. Career-High: 24 PTS; 2011-2012: 59 PTS) - A first-round pick in 2007, Pacioretty was rushed to the Canadiens in 2008-2009 after he played one season at the University of Michigan and then half a season with the Hamilton Bulldogs of the AHL. After struggling to 25 points in 86 games through 2008-2009 and 2009-2010, Pacioretty returned to the AHL where he got accustomed to taking on significant offensive responsibility and it worked wonders for his game. Before he suffered a season-ending injury at the hands of Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara last year, Pacioretty had tallied 14 goals and 24 points in 37 games, a taste of things to come. This year, he's a 30-goal scorer and it's no fluke -- Pacioretty ranks ninth in the league in shots on goal per game.

Erik Karlsson, D, Ottawa (Prev. Career-High: 45 PTS; 2011-2012: 76 PTS) - A brilliant, smooth skater who went through defensive growing pains in his first couple seasons, Karlsson has become the most dangerous offensive defenceman in the game. Since 1990-1991, only three defencemen have recorded more than the 16 even-strength goals that Karlsson has this season: Sandis Ozolinsh (22, San Jose, 1993-1994), Kevin Hatcher (20, Washington, 1992-1993) and Sergei Gonchar (19, Washington, 2001-2002).

Jordan Eberle, RW, Edmonton (Prev. Career-High: 43 PTS; 2011-2012: 73 PTS) - It's easy to lump Eberle in with Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as the basis for the Oilers' bright future, but Eberle wasn't a first overall pick like his young teammates. Drafted 22nd overall in 2008, Eberle has quickly evolved into a point-per-game scorer in his second season. While his per-game ice time has actually decreased in his second season, Eberle's production has taken off.

Ryan O'Reilly, C, Colorado (Prev. Career-High: 26 PTS; 2011-2012: 55 PTS) - A fantastic second-round pick in 2009, O'Reilly stepped into the league right away because he was already an advanced checker, but with Paul Stastny and Matt Duchene on the roster, it didn't look like there would be a great offensive opportunity for him in Colorado. That has changed in O'Reilly's third season as he has anchored the Avalanche's number one line, with rookie Gabriel Landeskog and a variety of right wingers (including Milan Hejduk, Daniel Winnik and Steve Downie, per www.leftwinglock.com).

Nick Leddy, D, Chicago (Prev. Career-High: 7 PTS; 2011-2012: 33 PTS) - Lifted from the Minnesota Wild (along with Kim Johnsson) in exchange for Cam Barker, Leddy played spot duty as a rookie last season, but made a quantum leap in his second campaign, playing nearly 22 minutes per game. His production has tailed off (25 points, minus-6 in 50 GP before the All-Star break; eight points, minus-8 in 27 games after), but the smooth-skating 20-year-old blueliner should be a fixture on the Blackhawks blueline for years.

Valtteri Filppula, C, Detroit (Prev. Career-High: 40 PTS; 2011-2012: 64 PTS) - It seems like it's been a long time coming for the 27-year-old Finn who is now in his sixth season but after a long apprenticeship and some postseason success (33 points in 45 playoff games over the last three seasons), Filppula has taken hold of a second-line role with the Red Wings and made the most of his opportunity. Playing primarily with Henrik Zetterberg and Jiri Hudler, Filppula hhas scored 53 points at even strength, good enough to rank eighth in the league.

Jamie McGinn, LW, Colorado (Prev. Career-High: 13 PTS; 2011-2012: 36 PTS) - In his fourth NHL season, the 23-year-old checker was already on his way to a career-High with 24 points in 61 games for the Sharks before getting traded to the Avalanche and turning into a scoring winger. In 14 games with the Avalanche, McGinn has tallied eight goals and 12 points and is playing more than 16 minutes per game, thriving on a line with Paul Stastny and David Jones.

James Neal, RW, Pittsburgh (Prev. Career-High: 55 PTS; 2011-2012: 78 PTS) - The 24-year-old winger was a three-time 20-goal scorer coming into this season, but managed just one goal in 20 games for the Penguins last season. However, with Evgeni Malkin healthy, Neal has a premier playmaking centre and has also become a crucial piece on the Penguins' power play, ranking third in the league with 28 power play points.

Jiri Tlusty, LW, Carolina (Prev. Career-High: 16 PTS; 2011-2012: 36 PTS) - Thrust into NHL action as a 19-year-old in 2007-2008, Tlusty managed 16 points in 58 games with Toronto, but couldn't secure full-time employment with Toronto. He played 57 games for the Hurricanes last season but opportunity knocked louder this season, as Carolina had openings on the wing and none of the club's prospects could run with an extended look on a scoring line. While Tlusty has spent time among the bottom six forwards, he's fared well on a line with Eric Staal too, scoring 18 points in 22 games since the beginning of February.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson, D, Phoenix (Prev. Career-High: 11 PTS; 2011-2012: 30 PTS) - Drafted sixth overall in 2009, Ekman-Larsson stayed in Sweden for a year then played sporadically as a rookie last season, spending some time in the AHL and playing 15 minutes per game in the 48 games that he played with the Coyotes. He's developed into a much more complete player this season, logging nearly 24 minutes per game since the All-Star break.

Joffrey Lupul, LW, Toronto (Prev. Career-High: 50 PTS; 2011-2012: 67 PTS) - With a hefty contract and coming off back surgery, Joffrey Lupul seemed to be an obligation that the Maple Leafs had to accept in order to acquire defence prospect Jake Gardiner from Anaheim, but a healthy Lupul put together the best season of his career this year, as the 28-year-old surpassed 20 goals for the fourth time in his career and was vital part of the Leafs' very productive first line before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury.

Viktor Stalberg, LW, Chicago (Prev. Career-High: 24 PTS; 2011-2012: 39 PTS) - A sixth-round pick by Toronto in 2006, Stalberg honed his game at the University of Vermont and played half a season with the Maple Leafs before he was dealt to Chicago in a deal for Kris Versteeg. Stalberg's play can still run hot-and-cold, but he's been given some quality opportunities in Chicago this year so even though he played under 14 minutes a night, the 26-year-old is often playing on one of the Blackhawks' scoring lines and the results are starting to show.

Marcus Johansson, C, Washington (Prev. Career-High: 27 PTS; 2011-2012: 42 PTS) - A first-round pick in 2009, Johansson had a fine rookie season in 2010-2011, scoring 27 points in 69 games, but his ice time has gone up over 18 minutes per game since Nicklas Backstrom was injured in early January and Johansson has 22 points in 36 games since the calendar turned to 2012.

Blake Wheeler, RW, Winnipeg (Prev. Career-High: 45 PTS; 2011-2012: 60 PTS) - Wheeler burst onto the scene as an NHL rookie in 2008-2009, scoring 45 points and adding a plus-36 rating, but hit some speed bumps in the following seasons, ultimately getting dealt to Atlanta last year. Wheeler had a strong finish with the Thrashers, scoring 17 points in 23 games, but then started slowly this year, scoring five points in his first 14 games and no goals in his first 18. Since mid-November, he has 17 goals and 53 points in 56 games as he's now playing more than 20 minutes a game (since the All-Star break) and leading the Jets in scoring.

Phil Kessel, RW, Toronto (Prev. Career-High: 64 PTS; 2011-2012: 77 PTS) - He may forever be maligned in Toronto because the cost to acquire him included the pick that Boston used to take the player at the top of this list, but 24-year-old Kessel has tied his career-High with 36 goals. Imagine what could happen if he had a bona fide first-line playmaking centre.

Jason Garrison, D, Florida (Prev. Career-High: 18 PTS; 2011-2012: 30 PTS) - There may be no bigger surprise in the NHL this season than Garrison, an undrafted free agent out of Minnesota-Duluth who progressed his way into playing 22 minutes per game for the Panthers last season, scoring a modest 18 points in 73 games. This year, however, Garrison has been a major part of the Panthers' power play, scoring nine of his 16 goals with the man advantage. Is it a surprise that Garrison has scored 30 points this season? He scored 29 points in 87 games over three collegiate seasons, but did show some offensive acumen in the AHL, putting up 54 points in 113 games in a season-and-a-half with Rochester.

PA Parenteau, RW, N.Y. Islanders (Prev. Career-High: 53 PTS; 2011-2012: 65 PTS) - 28-year-old Parenteau didn't get his first full NHL season in until 2010-2011, when he was signed as a free agent by the Islanders, away from the Rangers. After scoring 403 points in 450 career AHL games and after he was a ninth-round pick of Anaheim in 2001 (they don't even have a ninth round anymore!), Parenteau finally got a chance to play and do it in a scoring role. Now, as he heads towards unrestricted free agency, the question is: can this late bloomer do it without John Tavares, or is he just a great fit where he's playing right now?

Tyler Bozak, C, Toronto (Prev. Career-High: 32 PTS; 2011-2012: 43 PTS) - While the collegiate free agent signed out of the University of Denver isn't the ideal number one center for Lupul and Kessel, it's tough to argue with the offensive results that they have achieved. Bozak has bounced back from a tough 2010-2011 season with production that at least re-establishes the 25-year-old's credentials as an NHL regular.

Taylor Hall, LW, Edmonton (Prev. Career-High 42 PTS; 2011-2012: 53 PTS) - His second season has been cut short, as was his first, but the first overall pick in the 2010 draft has left little doubt that he's capable of being an elite scorer if he can stay healthy. He has scored at virtually a point-per-game clip since mid-November and apparently he's been doing all this with a bad shoulder. If Hall returns to form after surgery, he, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins will terrorize goalies for years.

Matt Moulson, LW, N.Y. Islanders (Prev. Career-High 53 PTS; 2011-2012: 64 PTS) - Another former ninth-round pick that has found a home on the Island, 28-year-old Moulson has wrapped up his third straight 30-goal season and, playing with Tavares and Parenteau, has gone for a career-high, scoring 24 points on the power play this season while playing a career-high 19:22 per game.

David Clarkson, RW, New Jersey (Prev. Career-High: 32 PTS; 2011-2012: 42 PTS) - Clarkson might have had his offensive breakthrough a couple of seasons ago, but he had his season cut short by injury and he finished with 24 points in 46 games. Undrafted after playing his junior hockey in Kitchener, Clarkson fought his way into the Devils' lineup, scrapping 41 times in his first two NHL seasons (according to www.hockeyfights.com), but he's also improved his all-around game too. Reunited with junior coach Peter DeBoer, Clarkson has seen his ice time go up, his role on the power play has increased and he's tallied a career-High 28 goals.

Nick Foligno, LW, Ottawa (Prev. Career-High: 34 PTS; 2011-2012: 44 PTS) - A late first-rounder in 2006, Foligno has made steady progress and in his fifth NHL season, he's been a valuable complementary piece for the Senators, currently one of seven players in the league to have at least 40 points and 100 penalty minutes this season (Steve Downie, the aforementioned David Clarkson, Milan Lucic, Scott Hartnell, Corey Perry and Wayne Simmonds are the others).

Evander Kane, LW, Winipeg (Prev. Career-High: 43 PTS; 2011-2012: 53 PTS) - The fourth overall pick in 2009, Kane has been making steady progress on his way to stardom, scoring 26 points with virtually no power play time as a rookie, then jumping to 43 points last season. With 23 even-strength goals, and ranking fourth in the league with 4.0 shots on goal per game, Kane is making the most of a season that bizarrely started with him playing a reduced role alongside 18-year-old Mark Scheifele for the first couple of weeks in October.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.

Phil Kessel and Tyler Seguin (Photo: Getty Images)

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(Photo: Getty Images)
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