Instead of 'Most Improved Player' this season, I'm going for breakout player so that I can include both returning players and players who were new this season in the rankings. How I'm defining a breakout player is someone who plays beyond expectations and contributes heavily to the team, especially if they do so in unexpected ways. I think there are some good candidates this season. Remember that this is an award based on offseason expectations, so players like Scott Glennie, who did well but were first round draft picks, aren't really in line for this award.
What do you really expect out of most SPC players? You're hoping for some third line grit (in Texas at least) and a responsible defensive player overall. Mike Hedden looked like he was ready to fill that sandpaper role early in the season, being slotted in the third and fourth line through the first few months of the season.
But as the season progressed and Coach Pyle had to recombine and shuffle the lineup to accommodate callups and injuries, something happened. The same player who had two goals and four assists through the month of December, suddenly got hot. Hedden added six points each in the months of January and February, then blew up in March with seven goals and two assists. He finished the year with 19 goals and 15 assists.
Hedden, who was playing his first full season in the AHL, showed that he could play anywhere in the lineup. He spent a good amount of time in his fantastic March campaign on the first line with Matt Fraser and Travis Morin. He would also slide down the lineup and provide both physicality and scoring touch on the third and fourth lines. Among players who played more than 50 games, he was a team-best minus-2, proving his defensive commitment as well.
The intangibles can't be overstated as well. Hedden had a way of sparking the crowd with timely goals or hits. Texas needs to take a good hard look at the roster this summer for sure after this season's implosion. However, I believe that Mike Hedden needs to be on the ice when this team returns to the CPC in October. He is the kind of AHL player that Texas can be proud to build around.
I wasn't really sure what to expect out of Ryan Garbutt when I first talked to him in July of last year. Garbutt was on the list of interviewees following Coach Pyle's hiring, since Pyle had coached Ryan in Gwinnett. Somewhere in the depths of the Cedar Park Center, I had a phone conversation with a calm and mild-mannered kid who had just signed his first NHL contract only a few weeks before.
While calm and mild-mannered might describe his off-ice demeanor well, Ryan Garbutt was neither of those on the ice. As Dallas fans now also know, Garbutt is a powder keg on the ice. After starting his career inauspiciously in the CHL and moving up through the ranks to ultimately play in the NHL this year, Garbutt was arguably a huge breakout player. Until his callup, he was on pace to shatter his goals and assists marks from the 2010-11 campaign with Chicago.
Garbutt did have some trouble in the season with penalties, especially late. That carried over a bit to the NHL, but I don't think that most of us could have predicted that he would play such a significant part of the year in Dallas this season. Garbutt is a restricted free agent at the end of the season, and I think Dallas would do well to sign him. I'm not sure if he starts the season in Dallas, but he will probably be a quality call-up for the big club for the coming season, if so.
If you think back to last season with Jordie Benn, it was a tough road to hoe. Jordie was signed to a PTO in Texas but was wasting away his days sitting in the press box. After seventeen games out of the lineup, Benn got his chance and never let go. Coming into this season, Benn was signed to a two-way contract for Dallas and was expected to be a big time veteran presence here.
Jordie had a fantastic statistical season in offensive terms. He set new career highs in goals (9) and assists (23). He was a key part of the power play, manning the top of the umbrella power play unit with the four forwards group. Benn collected five of his goals on the power play.
Then, due to injuries in Dallas, yet another Texas Stars-scouted player made their way from the CHL to the NHL this season. Jordie joined the Dallas Stars for three games this season and spent many more on call in the press box, ready for action if the need arose. Benn scored his first two NHL points on the season with two assists, the first being extra special as he and his brother both assisted on a goal by Loui Eriksson.
I think we all knew that Jordie was a solid AHL player, but the fact that he can hold his own in the NHL is a great sign for his future in the organization. He is a restricted free agent as well. Like Garbutt, he will probably start next season in Austin but provide a quality callup should the depth be called for.
Who do you think is the winner? Did I miss someone? Let's talk in the comments.