FIVE PLAYERS WHO ARE ON THE VERGE OF STARDOM ENTERING THE 2019-20 SEASON

After breaking out last year and strutting their stuff, now is the time for these five players to cement themselves as real NHL stars.

When the Tampa Bay Lightning hit the ice to start the 2018-19 campaign, Brayden Point wasn’t quite an afterthought, but he wasn’t the focal point of a star-studded roster. Sure, he had broken out the season prior with a 32-goal, 66-point performance, but before anyone was about to herald him one of the Lightning’s true stars or put him on the same footing as Nikita Kucherov or Steven Stamkos, there had to be proof that Point had more to give.

Safe to say he showed that last season.

Not only did Point exceed the career-best marks he had posted in the 2017-18 campaign, he legitimately blew them out of the water. By season’s end, he was tied for second in goals in Tampa Bay – his 41 put him level with Kucherov and four back of Stamkos – and Point ended the season not by hitting the 70- or 80-point plateaus, but by shooting all the way up to 92 points. It was a 26-point increase from the season prior, made him one of the 15-highest scoring players in the league and he trailed Stamkos by only six points. So, if the season prior was Point’s breakout year, last campaign was his legitimate star turn.

While he might be the best example, though, Point wasn’t the only player to go from up-and-coming scorer to honest-to-goodness star last season. Sebastian Aho’s point-per-game performance established him as a bright light for the Carolina Hurricanes.

Max Domi, Montreal Canadiens
Domi has everything one might expect out of a star. He’s the son of a former NHLer, he plays in a big market and he was a highly touted first-round pick only when he entered the league. A solid rookie campaign was followed by a couple down years in Arizona, though, and the result was a move to Montreal when Domi’s trade value was arguably at its lowest. The Coyotes’ loss has been the Canadiens’ potential star gain, however, as Domi went out and produced the best numbers of his career last season – 28 goals and 72 points in 82 games – and the 24-year-old enters this season with the chance to prove he can be a go-to guy in the NHL.

The challenge for Domi is replicating the performance. Last season, he was given consistent top-six minutes as a pivot in Montreal, and that shouldn’t change. What might fluctuate, though, is his shooting percentage. A career 8.7 percent shooter prior to last season, he shot at a 13.8 percent clip in 2018-19 en route to his first 20-goal – and a near 30-tally – campaign. If he can do that again, or even just pot 20 goals and 70 points, he’ll have staked his claim as one of the Canadiens’ real stars.

Timo Meier, San Jose Sharks
In a season that featured a few surprises for the Sharks, arguably the most impressive was the breakout of Timo Meier, who went from reliable sophomore contributor to 30-goal, 66-point offensive threat in the span of one season. But now with his entry-level deal over and his bridge deal in place, it’s time for Meier to cement himself as one of the true leaders of the attack in San Jose. There’s reason to believe he’ll do just that, too.

With Joe Pavelski gone, not only has the door been opened for Meier, 22, to fight for a spot on the top line for the duration of the season, but there’s also the distinct possibility that Meier moves into the spot formerly held by Pavelski on the top power play unit. With that opportunity comes the chance for an uptick in power play production as part of one of the league’s most lethal extra-man attacks. In order to assert himself as a true star, Meier doesn’t need all that much of an increase in production. Another 30-goal campaign with a near 70-point total will put him front of mind among the league’s top wingers.

Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators
In Canada, and specifically in Ottawa, there’s no two ways about it: Chabot is already a star. Throughout the league, though, he’s somewhat overlooked, known best as the up-and-comer who is trying to fill the void left by Erik Karlsson. Truth is, though, that Chabot worked wonders on the Senators’ blueline last season, scoring 14 goals and 55 points in 70 games, all the while averaging upwards of 24 minutes per game.

What will it take to make Chabot a legitimate star? Well, an all-star game appearance would be some welcome recognition for the 22-year-old, but ending the year in the thick of the Norris Trophy race would solidify him as one of the brightest young blueliners in the NHL. Last season, he flirted with Norris contention and earned a single fifth-place vote, but if he scores at a similar rate this season – a 64-point pace across an 82-game season – and the Senators are more than a bottom-feeding Eastern Conference club, Chabot could end higher up the Norris voting and that’d be enough to label him a true star.

Mika Zibanejad, New York Rangers
Zibanejad’s breakout was ripped out of the Sean Couturier playbook. The Philadelphia Flyers pivot was seven seasons into his career before he went from reliable to undeniable, and last season, Zibanejad, 26, took a similar leap in his sixth full NHL campaign. Over the previous two seasons, the Rangers center had been stuck playing second-line minutes, but a move to the top line last season, which came complete with an increase in average ice time of nearly three minutes per game, saw Zibanejad register 30 goals and 74 points. And there’s every reason to believe that can be the new normal for Zibanejad.

First, Zibanejad managed those numbers last season while spending the bulk of his ice time with Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello. And while it’s no knock on either, neither hold a candle to what Artemi Panarin can produce with the puck on his stick, and Zibanejad stands to benefit from his new linemate’s offensive brilliance. That’s not to mention that, by season’s end, Zibanejad’s other wing could feature potential Calder Trophy contender Kaapo Kakko. It could be more firepower than Zibanejad has ever had on his wings.

Elias Lindholm, Calgary Flames
Calling Lindholm a throw-in in the Flames’ June 2018 swap with the Hurricanes that sent Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland and Adam Fox isn’t apt, but Noah Hanifin, who was only three seasons removed from being selected fifth overall in the draft, was considered by most to be the big chip at the time. It’s funny what a few months can do, though. Because while Hanifin has indeed been good in Calgary, the real victory for the Flames has been the play of Lindholm, who not only broke out last season offensively but turned in one of the best two-way seasons in the NHL.

Consistently good for about 15 goals and 40 points prior to landing in Calgary, Lindholm exploded last season with 27 goals and 78 points and saw his average ice time eclipse every Flames’ forward other than Johnny Gaudreau. But it truly is the pairing of offensive output and defensive effectiveness that stands to help Lindholm, 24, establish himself as a star throughout the league, too. Last season, his offensive numbers were up there with Selke Trophy frontrunners such as Patrice Bergeron, Mark Stone and winner Ryan O’Reilly, and Lindholm’s underlying numbers were, as well. If he keeps it up, he’s going to be a perennial Selke contender.

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