Cage Match: Most Sustainable Breakout

by Rick Roos on December 28, 2016

Vote for the most sustainable breakouts in our Cage Match Tournament!

Disappointed that you already opened all your holiday presents and have nothing tiding you over until New Year’s Eve? I’ve got just the cure – a Winter Cage Match Tournament!

This season has been notable as much for breakout performances as it has for players failing to meet expectations. So I figured let’s use the power of Cage Match Tournaments to decide which breakouts are most sustainable and which slumping players might be truly on the decline. First up this week is the sustainable breakouts tournament. But before we get to the voting choices, here are a few explanations and ground rules.

How to Decide Your Vote(s)

Next to each player I indicated a “scoring pace”, which corresponds to a projected points total if he were to play in a full season based on how he’s done for 2016-17 thus far. In some cases, a player is currently a bit above or below that scoring pace. But it should be in the ballpark, and it’s what I decided to use as a measuring stick.

Note that each player’s “scoring pace” represents his production rate. So if a player happens to get hurt, but produces at or above his “scoring pace” in the games he ends up playing, you can still go ahead and vote for him. That’s why Alex Galchenyuk has a 70-point scoring pace, even though he won’t come close to that number of total points for 2016-17 due to being injured.

Thus, you should base your vote on which player(s) are most likely to actually be able to sustain (or even exceed) their scoring pace. And when I mean sustain it, I don’t just mean for this particular season. I’m talking about it being the new normal for them, whereby they’ll achieve that scoring pace, if not higher, for the foreseeable future. So if you think a player either won’t maintain his scoring pace in 2016-17 and/or will turn out to be a one hit wonder with a lower scoring pace in future seasons, then you should not vote for him.

Some of these players might change teams or lines, so you should feel free to take those and other factors (age, contract status, ice time, depth chart on their teams, etc.) into account when deciding your choices. Of course if you want to vote based solely on the “sniff test,” that’s perfectly fine as well. It’s entirely up to you.

How Voting Will Work

The voting poll will allow for multiple selections, which means you should vote for any and all players you think can sustain their designated scoring pace for 2016-17 and beyond. So go ahead and vote for one player, a couple of players, a bunch of players, or even all of them if you think everyone will in fact sustain their designated scoring pace going forward. All players are listed below and in the poll in alphabetical order.

As usual, try your best to be objective. Don’t just vote for players you like or not for players you dislike. Consider each player based on the totality of his present – and likely future – circumstances in order to hone in on the best choice(s).

Voting will take place in the Hockey Hockey Hockey Hockey area of the DobberHockey Forums. I’ll put a direct link to the poll at the end of the column. But without further ado, here are your 20 choices, with their “scoring pace” in parentheses.

Artem Anisimov (65 points)

If you read my November cage match on Anisimov, you know he had offensive ability even when buried in the bottom six with Columbus. Plus, data suggested that unsustainable bad luck plagued him during 2015-16. Will Anisimov prioritize scoring enough to be a 65-point guy, especially since at age 28 he’s leaving his prime? Will he continue to be put into enough situations to score, particularly on the PP? If there’s any team where this could happen for a player like Anisimov, it’s the Blackhawks and alongside Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin.

Viktor Arvidsson (55 points)

Just 23, the diminutive Arvidsson has forced Nashville to carve out a more prominent role for him by the week, as he had more than 16:00 of ice time in three of his first 14 games. But since late November he has regularly received 17:00+ in ice time per contest, and he has responded with 13 points in his last 15 games. The key question is whether he’s truly done enough to solidify his spot once he hits a cooler patch, or will Nashville reflexively dial back his minutes in favor of higher paid, bigger, or more veteran talent?

Cam Atkinson (80 points)

Raise your hand if you thought Atkinson’s jump to 53 points at age 26 was just about as good as it would get for the Dobber darling? Okay, everyone put their hands down and focus instead on the more pressing question of whether Atkinson realistically has this high of a ceiling. And let’s keep in mind he’s excelling not by playing at even strength with offensively talented Alexander Wennberg (more on him below), but instead with Brandon Dubinsky (he of a career high 54 points), making Atkinson’s early season output all the more impressive, yet also perhaps less sustainable.

Charlie Coyle (65 points)

Still only 24, Coyle has seen his yearly point total rise each season. Yet no one was sure whether he truly had another gear. Fast forward to now, and Coyle is looking like a decent threat for 25-35 goals, 25-35 assists this season and beyond. But can he sustain this production, especially since he’s had as many games with under 17:00 in ice time as over 18:00, what with his 2016-17 shots on goal rate and personal shooting percentage both higher than his norm?

Leon Draisaitl (70 points)

If you’re thinking, “Didn’t Draisaitl already reach the 70-point mark last season?” you’re remembering his white hot start that saw him post 30 points in his first 25 games in 2015-16. From there, however, he went on to tally only 21 more points in his next 46 contests to finish with 51 in 72 games (58-point pace). This year he’s seemingly more mature and consistent, yet one still has to wonder if he can maintain this level of production for an entire season.

Nikolaj Ehlers (65 points)

Although he cooled somewhat from his earlier scorching numbers (including 19 points in as many games spanning the end of October to early December), Ehlers has amply shown that he’s among the more electric young forwards in today’s NHL. He’s seemingly locked into the Winnipeg top six, but will he manage to secure a regular spot on PP1? If not, then 65 points might be out of reach when all is said and done for 2016-17.

Alex Galchenyuk (70 points)

Although his injury put his breakout season on pause, there’s little doubt Galchenyuk had begun to meet expectations that accompanied his former top three draft selection. Yet if we drill down we see his ice time per game is the lowest (by more than a minute!) among players currently at or above his point per game scoring level. Beyond that, his utter ineptitude in the faceoff dot (39.5% FOW – ouch!) might put a ceiling on both when and how much he’ll play and, in turn, his ability to continue to produce at a truly elite level.

Sam Gagner (65 points)

Is Gagner making the Blue Jackets better, or vice versa? We can’t be sure just yet, but we do know he’s on pace for a career year despite only twice having taken the ice for more than 16:00 in a game and with a shooting percentage that’s been in the 15-20% range all season. Yet if regression was coming, shouldn’t it have started already? Or could it be Gagner has found a productive niche as a highly effective PP specialist with limited, yet also very effective, even strength offensive deployment? Stranger things definitely have happened.

Mikael Granlund (60 points)

Just when poolies were ready to write off Granlund, first he posts point-per-game scoring at the IIHF World Championships in the spring, and now he’s emerged with solid scoring pace for the Wild this season thus far. But can it realistically continue? His ice time is way up, yet he’s still not a PP1 fixture on a Wild team that has lots of bodies pushing for top six roles. One way or the other, this should be a turning point season for Granlund – where he either takes that long-awaited step forward or is relegated to a lesser role.

Marcus Johansson (60 points)

For what has seemed like an eternity it was the same situation in Washington – Johansson would get heaps of PP1 time, bounce around the top nine at even strength, and finish with 44-47 points. Go back and check – it happened that way in each of his 70+ game seasons. But here we are in late December with him just under 60-point territory and, inspiring hope of sustainable production, a more integral part of the Caps lineup than ever before. In this case, it might be less about whether Johansson can keep up this pace for 2016-17, and more about whether he’ll be able to do so in future years as Caps prospects round into form.

Chris Kreider (65 points)

Another player I covered in a recent cage match, Kreider has tantalized poolies since landing in the NHL, what with his size and former first-round-pick pedigree. But until this season, the result had been the same – production in 40-45 point range. Is Kreider finally rounding into form, emphasizing scoring as much as his rough-and-tumble game? Will he continue to receive more coveted even-strength and power-play minutes than the far more expensive Rick Nash? There are still question marks when it comes to Kreider, but also intriguing possibilities.

Nikita Kucherov (90 points)

Able to score with seemingly any linemates, Kucherov already produced at essentially a point-per-game level for two-thirds of last season after a very slow start, so his current better than point-per-game status isn’t too surprising. But the question is whether, considering the depth and talent among Lightning forwards, there’s enough points to go around for him to be able to achieve full season production in the 90-point range.

Connor McDavid (100 points)

For years all we heard is how McDavid would be the player of this decade, and sure enough his early returns suggest he’s living up to expectations. But the question is whether we can count on him being a perennial 100+ point guy? After all, there really isn’t even a true 90-point player in today’s NHL, with Steven Stamkos being the last player to tally 90+ in three straight campaigns, and the last of those having come five years ago. However, if anyone can be a year in year out 100+ point scorer in this day and age, especially once the talent pool gets a bit more diluted thanks to the new Las Vegas franchise, seemingly it’s McDavid.

David Pastrnak (70 points)

Before his recent minor injury, with each passing week it was looking less likely that Pasta would slow down despite the fact that he won’t even turn 21 until May. He’s been a fixture among the NHL’s top goal scorers, firing pucks on net at a rate approaching 3.5 per game. Yet he’s posting “Cy Young” numbers due to his lack of assists, and he hasn’t found a firm foothold on Boston’s PP1. Thus, it’s not clear whether a sustainable breakout can occur, or if instead he’ll turn out to be more of a 35-40 goal, 20-25 assist guy, especially since he plays for Boston, where 70-point scorers have been MIA since the Marc Savard days.

Rickard Rakell (70 points)

Most poolies saw Rakell’s 2015-16 as a nice stepping stone for the former first rounder on the way to solid but perhaps not spectacular top-six production. Yet despite missing camp and early time with post-appendectomy complications, he’s stormed out of the gate not only with solid scoring but more than a goal every other game. The question is, as the surrounding talent on the Ducks starts to slow down due to age, can Rakell carry an offense himself?

Victor Rask (65 points)

The concern with Rask is similar to Draisaitl in that he too started last year very strong, with 22 points in his first 20 games, before tallying barely that many more points over the course of the rest of the entire season (26 points in 60 games). Will a year of added experience and maturity, not to mention a better team around him, help him keep up his early pace this time? Or will we be wondering the same things next year after he comes back down to earth again in 2016-17?

Brandon Saad (70 points)

After three seasons of 47-53-point production on two different teams, many poolies figured Saad might never make the leap, yet sure enough he’s among the Columbus players ending 2016 on fire. But unlike others, Saad hasn’t benefitted from the potent Blue Jacket power play, as he’s only tallied a measly one of his 28 points on the power play. Does that mean things can only improve, or instead that he’s been overachieving at even strength? It’s up to your votes to decide.

Mark Scheifele (80 points)

Along with Anisimov, Scheifele was a surprise early NHL scoring leader. But after missing a couple of contests to injury he’s looked less explosive and game-changing, which in turn might jeopardize his chance at truly top numbers for 2016-17. Yet still – with his talent, and the now loaded Winnipeg top six, there’s seemingly a path for him to reach 80 points this season. Or will he, like other youngsters on this list, need another campaign or two before he can reach that level?

Vladimir Tarasenko (90 points)

Just when some poolies were maybe wondering if Tarasenko had a 75-point ceiling, he’s seemingly gone ahead and upped the ante big time for 2016-17. I say seemingly though, because in looking back at the last two seasons, he actually stood at 39 points in his first 36 games in 2015-16 and 37 points after 32 games in 2014-15, before trailing off in both campaigns. So has Tarasenko turned a corner this season, or will he once again pull a bit of a disappearing act once 2017 rolls around?

Alexander Wennberg (75 points)

Although he’s seemingly come from nowhere, Wennberg is a former first rounder and ended 2015-16 with 39 points in 55 games (58 point pace). With Columbus rolling and – thanks to the shutdown role of fellow center Brandon Dubinsky – Wennberg getting prime ES and PP time, the only issue seems to be what Wennberg’s ceiling exactly is and whether he’s currently playing above it or still yet to approach it.

Link to Cast Your Vote(s)

To vote in the tournament, click here. Remember – you can vote for as many players as you want. While you’re voting, be sure to post a comment on which player(s) you voted for a why, since my hope is this tournament will be as useful for fantasy purposes as it is enjoyable. And have a happy and safe holiday and new year. See you next week for the second tournament!