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Cullen: Breakthrough candidates for 2013 NHL season

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Scott Cullen
1/13/2013 11:26:04 PM
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Finding that player who is ready to break through and take his production to the next level is one of the joys for fantasy hockey owners. (See? I just KNEW this guy would be good!)

That's not always the way it works. Sometimes that late-round flier on Nikita Filatov doesn't go anywhere or that roll of the dice on Josh Bailey doesn't pay off with a big jump in production.

However, there are relatively simple factors to consider when picking a player for breakout status. The first of which is opportunity. Increased ice time is of course the most important, but the opportunity to play with better players is also a worthwhile factor -- moving from a depth or checking line into a scoring role, or looking at an increase in power play time is the kind of situation that holds more promise and makes a player more appealing than their career production, to this point, might suggest.

Here are my nominees for top breakthrough players in the 2013 NHL season, starting with the goaltenders that are poised for bigger roles.

Tuukka Rask, G, Boston - In 102 career NHL games, Rask has a .926 save percentage, which ranks as the best among all goaltenders in NHL history with at least 100 games played. Now, he continues behind Boston's veteran defence and gets to handle a starter's workload while Tim Thomas ponders the fate of the world.

Cory Schneider, G, Vancouver - Took over from Roberto Luongo in the playoffs last year and stopped 97 of 101 shots, which still wasn't enough to stay alive against the Kings. Nevertheless, that transition appears to have set Schneider as the starter coming into this season, even if Luongo remains on the roster. While Schneider only has 68 career games under his belt, his .928 save percentage is a decent indicator that he is ready for the increased responsibility.

Semyon Varlamov, G, Colorado - A first-round pick in 2006, Varlamov finally stayed relatively healthy and played 53 games in his first season in Colorado, posting respectable numbers (2.59 GAA, .913 SV%) in the process. After strong play in the KHL (1.74 GAA, .946 SV%, 16 GP) during the lockout, however, Varlamov may be ready to take the next step in his development.

Braden Holtby, G, Washington - Emerged in the playoffs last year as the Capitals' Goaltender of the Future, posting a .935 save percentage in 14 games. His other results thus far are promising too. A .929 save percentage in 21 career NHL games and a .932 save percentage in 25 AHL games this year suggest that the 23-year-old is a good bet as the Goaltender of the Present.

Anders Lindback, G, Tampa Bay - Stuck behind Pekka Rinne in Nashville for the last couple seasons, 6-foot-6 Lindback was solid, posting a 2.53 goals against average and .914 save percentage in 38 games; good enough to draw the interest of the Lightning when the Bolts needed a new starting goalie. Now the 24-year-old gets a shot at a full-time job and, even if he simply maintains the level of play he's established thus far, he will be an upgrade between the pipes for Tampa Bay.

Brayden Schenn, LW, Philadelphia - A few years removed from being considered the top prospect in hockey, Schenn scored 18 points in 54 regular season games as a rookie last season then added nine points in 11 playoff games before putting up a point-per-game in 33 AHL games this season. With James van Riemsdyk and Jaromir Jagr moving on, there are opportunities available in the Flyers' top six and 21-year-old Schenn could move into a scoring role.

Cam Atkinson, RW, Columbus - Undersized winger scored seven goals and 14 points in 27 games with the Blue Jackets last season, so he doesn't quite qualify for rookie status, but the 23-year-old knows how to find the net, scoring 46 goals in 84 AHL games since the start of last season. He should slide into a top-six role for Columbus and if he can score, that will secure a regular spot in the lineup since the Blue Jackets aren't blessed with a lot of proven scorers.

Roman Josi, D, Nashville - After a solid showing as a rookie, Josi is expected to take on significantly more responsibility in his second season now that Ryan Suter is plying his trade in Minnesota. He's also produced offensively, scoring 16 points with the Predators last season and 44 points in 74 career AHL games. Josi returned to Switzerland during the lockout and scored 17 points in 26 games with Bern; all of this leads one to believe that the 22-year-old should be able to handle a bigger power play role.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson, D, Phoenix - The 21-year-old star-in-the-making had 32 points in his sophomore season last year and then put up 21 points in 20 AHL games during the lockout this year. The Coyotes don't have the highest offensive ceiling, but Ekman-Larsson appears poised to move among the league's top defencemen in the coming seasons, perhaps as soon as this year.

Craig Smith, C/LW, Nashville - Got off to a terrific start as a rookie last year, scoring 24 points in his first 31 games, but his role was gradually reduced and his production waned. With more consistent playing time in his second season, Smith could give the Predators another bona fide 20-goal scorer.

Jiri Tlusty, LW, Carolina - The second half of last season, when he scored 18 points in a 21-game stretch in February and March, really marked a breakout for Tlusty, who found himself skating alongside Eric Staal on the Hurricanes' top line. With Tuomo Ruutu injured, it's looking like Tlusty is going to have another opportunity to play in a scoring role this season. If he's alongside Staal and Alexander Semin, then Tlusty, who had 23 points in 24 games for Kladno in the Czech League during the lockout (skating with Tomas Plekanec and Jaromir Jagr), then Tlusty could continue his scoring ascent.

Mikkel Boedker, RW, Phoenix - A first-round pick in 2008, Boedker has managed a modest 69 points in 208 career games, but saw an increased role in the postseason, playing nearly 17 minutes per game, and put up eight points in 16 playoff games. He starred in Finland during the lockeout, playing with junior teammate Justin Azevedo, Boedker tallied 21 goals and 33 points in 29 games with Lukko Rauma, suggesting that he could add some offence for the Coyotes.

Cam Fowler, D, Anaheim - With the departure of Lubomir Visnovsky, Fowler takes over as the Ducks' premier offensive defenceman. Even though his point total dropped from 40 in his rookie season to 29 last year, Fowler is 21-years-old and has played more than 3500 minutes in his first two seasons, which is usually a good setup for future success. The other eight defencemen to log at least 3500 minutes in their first two seasons (since time on ice was tracked) include Drew Doughty, Tobias Enstrom, Duncan Keith, Dion Phaneuf, Tyler Myers, Dan Hamhuis, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Ryan Whitney.

Artem Anisimov, C/LW, Columbus - Part of the package acquired in exchange for Rick Nash, 24-year-old Anisimov has scored 34 goals and 80 points over the last two seasons while playing a complementary role with the Rangers. However, after a strong showing in a lead role with Yarslavl Lokomotiv in the KHL this year, scoring 30 points in 36 games, Anisimov could be ready to handle more ice time in Columbus.

Martin Hanzal, C, Phoenix - As eight-goal scorers go, Martin Hanzal is a heck of a player and has been playing 18-plus minutes a night and taking on tough matchups for the last three seasons. He has yet to surpass the 35 points (in 72 games) that he scored as a rookie in 2007-2008, but the 6-foot-5 pivot did set a career mark with 0.53 points per game (34 points in 64 games) last season and tallied 19 points in 18 Czech league games during the lockout. Maybe it's time to add some offence to his already-impressive checking game.

Victor Hedman, D, Tampa Bay - The second overall pick in 2009 has steadily increased his points per game (0.27, 0.33 and 0.38) in his first three seasons, In the KHL this season, he put up 20 points in 26 games, so if Hedman can secure more power play duty than the 1:08 per game he played last year, then Hedman's offensive numbers should continue to rise.

Slava Voynov, D, Los Angeles - After a decent rookie season, in which he scored 20 points in 52 games, Voynov is poised to continue the bigger offensive role that he played after Jack Johnson's departure last season. Seven goals and 16 points in 35 AHL games doesn't hurt either.

Nino Niederreiter, LW, N.Y. Islanders - It's hard to imagine that Niederreiter scoring a single point in 556 minutes of ice time as a rookie, but he rebounded to score a point-per-game in 34 AHL games this season, bringing back hope that the fifth overall pick in the 2010 draft will be able to score as a pro.

Jacob Josefson, C, New Jersey - Not that 19 points in 69 career games isn't reason enough, but this is more based on potential opportunity with Adam Henrique injured to start the season. Josefson did have 20 points and a plus-11 rating in 30 AHL games this year, which isn't earth-shattering, but if he was to find his way to a line with Patrik Elias on his wing, for example, maybe that could pay off and make him worth a late-round flier.

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.

Tuukka Rask (Photo: Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)
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