Editorials

Western Conference: Players To Watch In 2015-16, Part II

By Colin Likas
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Jun 23, 2015; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Minnesota Wild goalie

Devan Dubnyk

talks to media during a press conference in advance of the 2015 NHL Awards at MGM Grand. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Wild

Devan Dubnyk, G

Last season (with Arizona and Minnesota): 65 starts, 40 wins, 20 losses, .920 save percentage, 2.34 goals-against average

Why we should watch him: Dubnyk has finally found a home in the NHL, and he made it known with a sizable contract. After being saved from Arizona in January, Dubnyk almost single-handedly pushed the Wild into a playoff spot. He then helped the team blow past the top-seeded St. Louis Blues before Kane and the Blackhawks ended Dubnyk’s storybook season.

Dubnyk was so good between mid-January and the start of Minnesota’s playoff run that he won the Masterson Trophy and finished third in Vezina Trophy voting. Oh, and he got a 6-year, $30 million contract from Minnesota, a team that has recently been a goalie short of doing more serious damage in the Western Conference.

Now, Dubnyk has to be that goalie. Will he live up to the expectations? He didn’t have many, if any, coming into Minnesota. The team was spiraling and looked as though it was about ready to fire coach Mike Yeo. Dubnyk was loose and relaxed, the Wild defense played well in front of him and the rest is history. Now, Dubnyk has to offer a repeat performance — for the next six seasons — with playoff expectations included. Talk about a storyline.

Jun 27, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA;

Kevin Fiala

puts on a team sweater after being selected as the number eleven overall pick to the Nashville Predators in the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Nashville Predators

Kevin Fiala, LW

Last season (with Milwaukee and Nashville): 35 games, 11 goals, 9 assists, minus-6 rating

Why we should watch him: A disclaimer before we start here. I included Fiala’s minor-league stats from last season because that’s where he spent a majority of his time. He played with the Preds for two games in 2014-15, including a playoff game against the Blackhawks, and did little statistically.

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I’ve mostly stuck with proven or known NHL commodities so far in this two-part post, but I’m going to a relative unknown at the major-league level for the Preds. Fiala was Nashville’s first-round pick, 11th overall, in the 2014 draft. And it sounds like he could be an absolute star. I’ll let Rafik Soliman from eliteproprospects.com give you his take:

“Kevin Fiala is an offensive forward with game-breaking potential. He is a respectable and shifty skater with quick legs and explosive acceleration. Fiala owns a slick skill-set with soft hands, good stickhandling and brilliant puck-control. Not known for his defenseive play, as he still needs to learn what it means to stick to a game-plan or doing exactly what the coach has told him. Fiala is not very big or strong yet (5-10, 181 pounds), but his quickness and agility lets him avoid getting hit or held back along the boards. Has a wealthy arsenal of shooting tools which, combined with his creativity and finishing abilities, makes him a player you turn to if you need a goal.”

Do any of those descriptors make you think of guys like Kane or Teuvo? That’s one of the first things I thought. Now, will Fiala play heavily at the NHL level this season? There’s a good chance he won’t. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see him back for an audition later in the season. And if the idea of Peter Laviolette coaching a guy like this doesn’t scare you, you should probably check your pulse. He’s at the top of the Preds’ watch list because of his potential, and how soon it could be unleashed on the league.

Apr 24, 2015; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Blues right wing

Vladimir Tarasenko

(91) in the game against the Minnesota Wild during the second period in game five of the first round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scottrade Center. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

St. Louis Blues

Vladimir Tarasenko, RW

Last season (with St. Louis): 83 games, 43 goals, 37 assists, plus-23 rating, 14 percent shooting percentage

Why we should watch him: I hate admitting this because he plays for the Blues, but I’m probably higher on Tarasenko than any other NHL player at this point in time. I think the kid is an absolute stud and am terrified of seeing him play against the Blackhawks regularly for the next 15 seasons.

At 23-years-old, Tarasenko made a huge leap forward offensively last season by upping his point total from 43 to 73 in the regular season. His career shooting percentage is 13.9. He was pretty much the only reason St. Louis won two games in its most-recent Stanley Cup playoffs flameout. And he just got a giant contract — 8 years at $60 million — from a team that has typically valued grit and grind over suave and skill in recent years.

The Blues know what they have in Tarasenko. But now that Tarasenko has the big bucks, he’s going to have to be a star every step of the way. Is he ready for it? The stats say yes, but Tarasenko himself seems very reserved and not necessarily dying to get into the spotlight. Not that that is an awful thing, but it’s probably going to be a requirement soon, especially when the Blues wise up and move the captain’s C from David Backes to Tarasenko.

The first season after a huge contract is always interesting to watch. For a guy with skills like Tarasenko has, it’s just that much more fascinating.

Apr 20, 2015; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Winnipeg Jets defenseman

Tyler Myers

(57) checks Anaheim Ducks right wing

Jakob Silfverberg

(33) during the second period in game three of the first round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs at MTS Centre. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

Winnipeg Jets

Tyler Myers, D

Last season (with Buffalo and Winnipeg): 75 games, 8 goals, 21 assists, minus-8 rating, 24:39 average ice time

Why we should watch him: Myers was sent to the Jets last February so Winnipeg and Evander Kane could end their toxic relationship. Myers didn’t do a whole lot for Winnipeg offensively in his short time with the club (24 regular-season and four playoff games), but he’s an important piece on the blue line for them moving forward.

Myers gets a decent amount of flak in hockey circles because he’s followed up his Calder Trophy campaign of 2009-10 with pretty much nothing. Of course, a lot of that was with terrible Sabres teams. It can be hard to forget he’s only 25-years-old, and he’s still got plenty left in the tank. At 6-foot-8, 219 pounds, he’s a big man on a blue line full of them (Dustin Byfuglien, Mark Stuart). But he doesn’t necessarily play the way his size suggests he should, and that could be what Winnipeg needs.

The Jets’ style is rough and tumble, no doubt about it. So having a guy on defense who has the size to help protect and puck and get it away from opponents, while also having the ability to set up plays offensively, could be huge for the Jets. It’s just a matter of whether or not Myers will be that guy. He put up 48 points in his rookie season, 37 in his sophomore campaign and has been below 30 ever since. A fresh start could be just what he needs, and it makes him a top player to watch in Winnipeg.

Next: 5 Blackhawks Games Worth Missing In 2015-16

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