A key to striking gold in fantasy is reading the signs. Every roster won’t have Connor McDavid on it, so savvy fantasy players need to locate hidden value. Good places to start include potential breakout candidates and players who landed on a new team in the offseason.
A “breakout,” for fantasy purposes or otherwise, isn’t precisely defined, but it is certainly a term we see a lot of in the sports world. But what exactly constitutes a breakout? For the purposes of identifying potential breakouts for the 2017-18 NHL season, we are looking for players who, for the most part, are being drafted about where they should be, but then if everything breaks right, could exceed that draft value by at least 50 ranking spots and sustain that value going forward. The idea is to target players who give you a solid statistical floor, haven’t reached their ceiling and are likely to improve their floor for future seasons.
Given that set of criteria, here’s a handful of players who could truly break out this season, along with a look at how to upgrade or downgrade seven players who will don a new jersey for the 2017-18 season.
Still just 22 years old, Barkov should be ready to step into prime time this season. That’s right, despite the flashes of brilliance we’ve seen from Barkov, he still hasn’t truly broken through as a fantasy hockey asset. His average draft position (ADP) so far this preseason sits at 81.5. Injuries haven’t helped his development path, as his top mark these past two seasons has been 66 games played. While Jaromir Jagr appears to be out of the mix this season as Barkov’s regular linemate, the Panthers still have plenty of talent to roll alongside their No. 1 center, including his former Finnish league linemate (briefly as it was) Henrik Haapala. On a path to be an elite difference maker in the league, Barkov has the right amount of experience to take his game to the next level this season.
With 24 goals and 25 assists in his debut season, Aho will be looking to avoid a sophomore slump and build on his potential this season. With an ADP of 112.9, Aho is being drafted for a repeat of last season (he finished 112th on the ESPN Player Rater among skaters last season). But when his ice time started getting dialed up toward the end of last season, Aho responded. In the month of March, he managed 13 points in 17 games while averaging 17:36 in ice time. For all of last season, Aho averaged only 16:47 in ice time. Aho will have every opportunity to earn more time, but it is not guaranteed to him. The Hurricanes have some depth this season, and Aho is still only 20 years old. If he comes close to 18:30 or 19:00 in average time on ice by playing on the top line and power play, you’ll see the counting stats push him to a near-elite level.
By all accounts, Guentzel had himself a season to remember in 2016-17. Scoring 42 points in 33 games as an AHL rookie would have probably been mission accomplished for a lot of young players, but Guentzel was called up to the NHL and plopped down on a line with Sidney Crosby. He proceeded to add another 33 points in 40 regular season games with the Penguins before reeling off 21 more points (13 of them goals) in 25 playoff games en route to the Stanley Cup. Yes, the extreme success at the NHL level has a direct correlation to playing with Crosby, but there is no reason to think Guentzel won’t remain on Crosby’s wing this season — and don’t forget that the door prize is named Evgeni Malkin.
While Shayne Gostisbehere edged out Provorov as the Flyers top scoring defenseman, Gostisbehere used a huge advantage in power play time to barely win the battle. At even strength, Gostisbehere contributed five goals and 11 assists, while Provorov managed six goals and 19 assists. Provorov isn’t going anywhere, so the Flyers may be content to leave things as they are for another season of development for their 20-year-old stud. However, if he overtakes Gostisbehere as the top dog on the power play at some point, he would become a 50-plus-point defenseman. And Provorov doesn’t even check-in among the top 200 for ADP this preseason.
Turning in a very respectable 11 goals and 34 assists in his second full season, Dumba jumped from the third pairing to the second pair. Now comes the test as to whether he can slide up one more time and play regularly alongside Ryan Suter. His ultimate upside as a puck-moving defender is greater than that of Jared Spurgeon or Jonas Brodin, but he needs to leapfrog both of them for playing time to truly be a fantasy asset. Dumba’s stats last season placed him 25th among defensemen on the ESPN Player Rater, and he’s being drafted this season as the 32nd defenseman off the board (ADP of 150.9).
Lehner didn’t disappoint in his first workhorse goaltender campaign at the NHL level. A .920 save percentage is no joke, but a goals against average of 2.68 didn’t help Lehner in the wins column, where he only posted 23. The three stats taken together paint the picture of a goaltender doing a damn good job of keeping a team on the fringe of competitiveness in more games than perhaps it should have been, but ultimately losing a majority of them. With his teammates getting another year older and another year wiser in front of him, and aided by some offseason improvements, Lehner could potentially break into the No. 1 fantasy goaltender tier this season. He’s currently the 26th goalie off the board with an ADP of 181.4.
Not really on the redraft radar right now (not among the top 200 ADP), Raanta is in a great position to at least take some strides toward a breakout. Raanta posted elite-level ratios for the New York Rangers last season, as he was pressed into more than just backup duty thanks to injuries to Henrik Lundqvist. The Arizona Coyotes are on a similar path to that of the burgeoning Toronto Maple Leafs, with the potential to be only one year behind the Leafs. Last season, Frederik Andersen rode a team breakout by the Leafs to glory as a No. 2 fantasy goaltender. Raanta is in position to do the same this season, all he needs is for some of the team’s deep class of rookies and youngsters to catch on this season.
Old Faces, New Places
Patrick Marleau, RW, Toronto Maple Leafs
After spending his entire 19-year NHL career with the San Jose Sharks, Marleau picked a good spot to finally make a change. This 38-year-old still managed to pot 27 goals last season while playing a secondary offensive role with the Sharks. If he fills his potential role as Auston Matthews‘ veteran wingman, Marleau could be in for a big season. His plus/minus woes for fantasy owners should be behind him, and a 30-goal season in the twilight of his career is not an unreasonable expectation.
Lost and buried on the Edmonton Oilers depth chart last season, Eberle has made the best escape possible. John Tavares had a posting seeking: “Full-time winger, with overtime hours on power play. Excellent opportunity to be fed 30 or more tap-in goals. Must have experience digging pucks out of corners.” In all seriousness, this is a chance for Eberle to re-energize his career. Due to injury and then under-performance, he’s turned in two subpar seasons in a row. But the base skills are still there, especially noting his career-low 9.6 shooting percentage on a career-high 208 shots on goal last season. His ice time, however, was also a career low at 16:46 per game. Look for big improvements from Eberle this season if the chemistry is there with Tavares.
Returning to the team with which he has already won two Stanley Cups, Saad will be looking for a potential uptick in ice time in order to push his counting stats to new career highs. Despite his success already, including a 31-goal campaign two years ago, two keys stand out for Saad’s potential ceiling: He’s never averaged more than 17:13 in ice time in a season and he’s still not yet 25 years old. He’s already tabbed to skate with Jonathan Toews again and is a candidate for the top power play unit.
Fair or not, there is no separating Panarin’s accomplishments in his first two NHL seasons from Patrick Kane‘s existence. Via NaturalStatTrick.com, the two have played 2,529:22 minutes together over two years, with 130 of 151 of Panarin’s points coming during that time together. Without Kane, Panarin has played just 513:48 of ice time and scored 21 points. All that said, there just isn’t enough of a statistical sample size to say anything about how Panarin will fare without Kane by his side. He could be just fine, as his 21 points in a tiny sample size suggest, but this could also end up being a harsh lesson about stars by association. Panarin will get every chance to replace Saad in an up-and-coming Blue Jackets top six, but this move is not without its potential downside.
The move to Montreal is a complete reset for this former top-three NHL draft pick. Drouin has shown well for the Lightning over the course of three seasons, but his relationship with the club has been rocky. In fact, who knows where his development would be right now if the Bolts hadn’t had their hand forced by injuries to Steven Stamkos. All told, he’s still only 22 years old, has 95 points in 164 career games and has done so, for the most part, on an island. Drouin didn’t get many first line minutes, nor did he get a lot of time on the top Lightning power play last season. Yet he still managed a respectable 53 points in 17:42 average ice time per game. Arriving in Montreal, Drouin has a clear path to the apex of the team’s depth chart.
With only two defensemen in our top 50 from our July rankings wearing a different jersey, including one on this list becomes Theodore by default (Kevin Shattenkirk isn’t going to have much value change with his move to the New York Rangers). Theodore is interesting because he escapes a backlog of puck-moving defensemen in Anaheim and arrives in Vegas as the only truly offensively-capable defenseman for the new franchise. Complicating matters is the fact that he’s also the only defenseman the team can leave in the AHL without having him pass through waivers, but we are betting on the Golden Knights wanting to score some goals, which means finding a way to get Theodore on the power play unit.
We are going to learn something this season about the skaters on the Dallas Stars. Was it the coach, the goaltenders or both that were holding the team back defensively? Or was it neither? After being an offensive powerhouse that couldn’t keep the broad side of a barn out of their own net for the past couple seasons, the Stars hit reset on both their coach and their crease. Ken Hitchcock brings a grounded approach and a history of solid showings by his team’s goaltenders. While last season was somewhat derailed by injuries, Bishop was a standout No. 1 goaltender with the Tampa Bay Lightning for the three seasons prior. The bottom line here: If Bishop doesn’t have the stats of a No. 1 fantasy goaltender this season, the defensive woes of this group are definitely on the skaters.