Observing athletes reach their full potential is among the greatest things about sports. They occasionally even surpass expectations, reaching unanticipated heights and maintaining their brilliance.
The 2023–24 NHL season is far enough along now for us to evaluate which players’ breakthrough performances this year are encouraging signs they’ve moved up to the next level and aren’t just riding high.
In the context of this article, a non-rookie who is on pace to set a noteworthy personal record and contribute significantly to his team is considered a “breakout player.”
Despite having excellent individual seasons, forwards Kirill Marchenko of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Marco Rossi of the Minnesota Wild have been reduced to honorable mention status due to team issues.
The largest differences have been these five.
Quinn Hughes, D, Vancouver Canucks
Hughes’ first season in Vancouver as captain has been incredible thus far. The Vancouver Canucks have been consistent contenders near the top of the NHL standings this year, having only made one playoff appearance in the previous eight years—in the 2020 bubble.
As an individual, Hughes has already surpassed his previous record for goals scored, leads all defensemen in points, and is ranked in the top 10. Although it will be difficult to top his career-high 76 points from the previous season, particularly following his 68-point 2021–22 campaign, Hughes’ play thus far is unquestionably breakout-worthy.
Quinton Byfield, LW/RW, Los Angeles Kings
Larger forwards frequently require a little more time to adjust to their new physique. For example, 6-foot-5 and 225-pound Quinton Byfield seems to fit that description.
The 2020 second-round pick, who is still only 21 years old, has already scored eight goals and collected 23 points in just 29 games this season, setting a new career high. He is a member of the Kings’ ultra-deep forward group, which has been winning a lot of games.
Cole Perfetti, LW, Winnipeg Jets
In 2020, Perfetti was selected eight picks after Byfield and measures a more modest 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds. However, the gifted forward reached the 100-game milestone of his NHL career on Wednesday night, setting a new career high with 10 goals and counting this season, after injuries had slowed his development arc over the previous two seasons. He is currently more than two-thirds of the way towards matching his 30-point total from the previous season with 21 points.
With the Jets now leading the Central, Perfetti has developed into a power-play mainstay. This season, he has increased his shooting percentage from single digits to 14.9 percent.
Connor Ingram, G, Arizona Coyotes
With his 12-6-0 record and.919 save percentage, 26-year-old Ingram is a major factor in the Arizona Coyotes’ flirtation with their first postseason berth since the 2020 bubble.
The third-round pick from 2016 has had a difficult journey thus far. He didn’t play in the NHL until 2021 and had only played in 30 games before this season.
Travis Sanheim, D, Philadelphia Flyers
This massive defender was signed to a max-term, $50 million contract extension by former Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher in the summer of 2022, but Fletcher was fired before the deal took effect this fall. Sanheim is now anchoring the Flyers’ surprising blue line, and new general manager Danny Briere is benefiting from it.
The 27-year-old could easily surpass his previous career high of 35 points with 22 points in 30 games. More significantly, he has developed into a premier minute-muncher, logging more than 25 minutes per game to rival players like Doughty and Heiskanen.