Most of the top RFAs have yet to sign deals this year, including many big-time, established names like Mitch Marner and Brayden Point. But what about the players looking for their big break? Here are five of the best breakout candidates from the RFA market.
Will Butcher and Colin White|Francois Laplante/NHLI via Getty Images
As mentioned yesterday, there are many talented RFAs still on the market. The contract status of high-end free agents add life to what will otherwise be a boring few weeks ahead for teams and fans alike.
But talking about star players day after day is tiring. Yes, we know all about Mitch Marner and Brayden Point at this point – and for good reason – but there are plenty of other players who aren’t big-name stars but bring tremendous value to their teams in one way or another.
Earlier this week, I took a look at some of the third-year players ready for a big breakout – including a few names on the current RFA market and a couple that we’ll see next year. Predicting a break out isn’t easy: it’s a mix of evaluating the situations the player was a part of over his past few years, the additions their team made over the summer and a gut feeling based off of what you’ve seen a player accomplish in their career.
Using that mix, here are five current RFAs that are prime candidates for a big breakout season in 2019-20 – assuming they sign, of course:
Colin White, C, 22 (Ottawa)
It took White a few years to establish himself as a full-time player in Ottawa, but his rookie season was quite remarkable given the Senators finished at the bottom of the standings. He won’t have Mark Stone to play with anymore, but White showed nice chemistry with Brady Tkachuk, and rookie Drake Batherson is ready to showcase his talents on the right side. Together, they may create one of the worst first lines in the NHL today, but it’s one with great potential and, in the middle of a rebuild, they’ll have opportunities to take the puck, make mistakes, and go with it. Look for White to hit 50 points as he continues to get more comfortable in a leading role in Canada’s capital.
Will Butcher, D, 24 (New Jersey)
A weak defense corps has allowed Butcher to make mistakes and grow from them, but adding P.K. Subban to the stable on the right side makes the group much stronger. It’s unclear whether Butcher will have opportunities to play with Subban this season, but after two solid campaigns with the Devils – including an ice time increase to 19:16 this past season (up three minutes from 2017-18) – the team will look to rely on Butcher more going forward, especially with Andy Greene turning 37 in October. Butcher looked more comfortable shooting the puck this season, and confidence moving the disk is something he has never lacked, so with the Devils looking to challenge for a playoff spot this coming season – but let’s face it, there’s still a lot of work to do – Butcher has potential to return to his rookie offensive form and even exceed his 44-point career high.
Kevin Fiala, RW, 22 (Minnesota)
Fiala saw his point total drop from 48 with the Predators in 2017-18 to 39 between Nashville and Minnesota this past season, but there’s a glimmer of hope heading into the new campaign. While he had just seven points in 19 games with the Wild, Fiala saw his ice time increase to a career-high 17:38 and was used in more situations like special teams and late-game shutdown roles. And whether you like the tournament or not, you can’t ignore his seven-point effort at the World Championship in May, where it seemed like he was playing with a whole new level of confidence that was lacking during the season in Nashville. Fiala will challenge Mats Zuccarello for the top right-wing spot in Minnesota but will likely slot in beside Joel Eriksson Ek and Zach Parise on the second line, a hard-working trio looking to rejuvenate their stat lines on a team that’s not destined to make the playoffs. Just give Fiala the opportunity to excel.
Pavel Buchnevich, RW, 23 (NY Rangers)
The Rangers are in a cap crunch after signing defensemen Jacob Trouba yesterday and with Anthony Deangelo still left to ink. That could make Buchnevich the odd-man-out despite hitting 20 goals for the first time in his career, but let’s go under the assumption he’s staying. Having Artemi Panarin on the left side is going to make the Rangers immediately dangerous, and Buchnevich played some of his best hockey with Mika Zibanejad as his center, so assuming he stays in New York, that’s not a bad line after what the Rangers went through in 2018-19 when they finished 26th. Buchnevich turned his season around after being a health scratch a couple times early on, with 13 of his 38 points coming in the final 18 games of the season. If he can carry that momentum into 2019-20, watch out.
Jesse Puljujarvi, RW, 21 (Edmonton)
Sick of hearing about this guy yet? Puljujarvi’s name has been in the rumor mill all summer after it became clear it was never going to work in Edmonton. His ice time fell from an average of 13:22 in 2017-18 to 11:57 in 2018-19, and he had just nine points in 46 games to show for it. At 21, he’s still young and has shown flashes of offensive brilliance in the NHL and AHL, but it hasn’t been frequent enough to justify a big role in Edmonton right now. He needs a fresh start to work on his game-to-game consistency and become the top-six forward he was once projected to be. Assuming Edmonton moves on from yet another draft blunder, it will give Puljujarvi a fresh opportunity to show why he was so coveted in 2016.
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