It’s an exciting time to be an NHL fan. The 2022-2023 season is underway, and while the best of the best chase spots among the all-time greats, some rising stars are looking to pocket a breakout season. Dallas goaltender Jakob Oettinger, New York Rangers forward Kaapo Kakko and Colorado defenseman Bowen Byram are set to take big jumps, and all fans have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.
Like every other hockey fan, I became an Oettinger believer after watching him in the playoffs last season. Even though the Calgary Flames knocked out the Dallas Stars in the first round, the 23 year-old caught everyone’s attention as he limited the Flames’ high-scoring offense to only 15 goals throughout seven games.
In Game 7 of the series, Oettinger may have let in the overtime goal that allowed Calgary to advance, but that was after he stopped 64 shots. Perhaps the most impressive facet of his playoff performance was his ability to constantly fight off high-danger scoring chances. In just seven games, Oettinger saved around 10 more goals than expected. The only goalies who fared better in this category were Igor Shesterkin and Andrei Vasilevskiy, who played 20 and 23 games, respectively.
Oettinger’s postseason success has carried over into this year’s regular season. The Stars have lost just once with Oettinger in net. He currently has one of the highest save percentages and lowest goals-against averages in the league. Consistent goaltending will make the difference this year for a team like Dallas, that is not guaranteed a playoff spot but still has the pieces to make a substantial run.
The New York Rangers drafted Kaapo Kakko second overall in 2019 with high expectations, as many predicted he would become one of the best players to come out of Finland and would be an instantly valuable asset to New York. Despite it being his fourth NHL season, Kakko hasn’t quite found his groove, as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted his first few seasons and an upper-body injury kept him out of the lineup for much of last season. This is the year Kakko has to prove he is the player the Rangers drafted him to be, and I think he’ll live up to the challenge.
Kakko played an integral role on the Rangers’ “Kid Line” in the 2022 playoffs. Composed of Kakko, 21, Alexis Lafrenière, 21 and Filip Chytil, 23, the combination of young forwards made waves against some of the NHL’s best. The Kid Line was the Rangers’ most consistent source of 5-on-5 scoring chances and provided much-needed energy and momentum to sustain the Rangers’ numerous comeback wins.
This season, it seems as though Kakko has kicked his game up a gear. Kakko uses his size to gain and maintain puck possession, especially along the boards. The Rangers have previously struggled with offensive zone entries and possession, so Kakko has an opportunity to fulfill a real need on his team. He is starting this season playing alongside Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad, who will give him plenty of opportunities to be both a playmaker and goal-scorer. If Kakko continues to play to his strengths with his newfound confidence, he will be a force to be reckoned with.
Bo Byram played under 50 career games at the start of the playoffs last season, but you wouldn’t know that watching him play. While much of Colorado’s success has rightfully been attributed to Cale Makar and Nathan MacKinnon, players like Byram give groups of elite players the edge they need to win. After defensemen Samuel Girard broke his sternum in the second round of the playoffs, the Avalanche needed Byram to take on more responsibility than expected, and he rose to the challenge. Byram played nearly 20 minutes per game after Girard’s injury and proved he could take on a big role in high-pressure situations.
Byram’s postseason success has translated to the beginning of the regular season so far. Byram has recorded two goals and three assists so far and fits incredibly well in Colorado’s system. His speed allows him to push the pace of the game, exhausting and derailing opponents. Finally, Byram has a great feel for the flow of the game; it is rare to find him out of position. He manages the balance of offensive aggression and defensive responsibility with ease, giving him the opportunity to really make his mark on the league this year.
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