MORE FANTASY COVERAGE: Top 250
NOTES: Breakout candidates (25-and-under players; non-rookies) have already had some success in the NHL but can reach the upper echelon of their positions and far exceed their fantasy average draft position this season. Players excluded from the breakouts list include last season’s Calder Trophy finalists (Kirill Kaprizov, Jason Robertson, Alex Nedeljkovic), No. 1 picks from their respective NHL Draft (Alexis Lafreniere, Jack Hughes, Rasmus Dahlin, Nico Hischier), notable breakouts from this past Stanley Cup Playoffs who are ranked among the top 10 at their positions (e.g. Charlie McAvoy) and this season’s rookie class. These breakout picks are a collaborative effort by Pete Jensen and Rob Reese.
1. Sam Bennett, C/LW, FLA
NHL.com fantasy rank: 69
The Florida Panthers wing made an immediate impact after being acquired from the Calgary Flames last season, scoring 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in 10 regular-season games and five points (one goal, four assists) in five Stanley Cup Playoff games. Bennett formed chemistry on the second line with elite left wing Jonathan Huberdeau, who has scored 231 points (73 goals, 158 assists) in 206 games over the past three seasons (seventh in NHL; third at position). Bennett, the No. 4 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, has a ceiling of scoring a point per game with strong hits (29 in 10 games with Florida) and plus/minus (plus-12) totals, making him worth reaching for as a top 100 overall pick in standard leagues.
2. Ilya Samsonov, G, WSH
NHL.com rank: 77
The Washington Capitals goalie has an impressive record of 29-10-3 over his first two NHL seasons but missed the entire 2020 postseason because of an injury, missed time last season in the NHL COVID-19 protocol and was outperformed by rookie teammate Vitek Vanecek (21 wins, .908 SV%, two shutouts in 37 games) last season; Samsonov had 13 wins and two shutouts in 19 games but only a .902 save percentage. Samsonov, the No. 22 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, has a .908 career SV%, strong supporting cast and could feasibly finish top five among fantasy goalies if he becomes the Capitals’ full-time starter.
3. Thatcher Demko, G, VAN
NHL.com rank: 80
After bursting onto the fantasy scene during the 2020 postseason (2-1, .985 save percentage, one shutout in four games), the Vancouver Canucks starter withstood their struggles last season, going 16-18-0 with a .915 SV% and one shutout in 35 games and winning the No. 1 job from veteran Braden Holtby (contract bought out July 27; signed with Dallas Stars one day later). The flashes of brilliance in the past and ripple effect from Vancouver’s offseason additions of forward Conor Garland, defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and backup goalie Jaroslav Halak have Demko primed for a full-fledged breakout in the wide-open Pacific Division.
4. Jakub Vrana, LW, DET
NHL.com rank: 99
He’s tied for seventh in the NHL in even-strength goals (66) over the past three seasons combined and was a great fit with the Detroit Red Wings after being acquired from the Capitals last season. He scored 11 points (eight goals, three assists), including a four-goal game April 22, and had 32 shots on goal in 11 games. Vrana, the No. 13 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, should benefit from the injury return of center Dylan Larkin on the top line and first power play and the Red Wings’ more accelerated rebuild; they landed goalie Alex Nedeljkovic (acquired from Carolina Hurricanes) and could incorporate rookies Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond this season.
5. Ty Smith, D, NJD
NHL.com rank: 144
Smith led rookie defensemen with 23 points (two goals, 21 assists) and seven power-play points in 48 games last season. Smith’s success was impressive considering center Nico Hischier missed significant time with multiple injuries and the Devils power play was underwhelming (14.2 percent; 28th). Smith, the No. 17 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, is a potential fantasy beneficiary of the Devils signing elite defenseman Dougie Hamilton, especially if they play on the same pair at even strength, making New Jersey one of the most improved teams in fantasy with a strong young core of Smith and forward Jack Hughes.
6. Kirby Dach, C, CHI
NHL.com rank: 158
The Chicago Blackhawks center scored 10 points (two goals, eight assists) in 18 games after missing most of the season with a wrist injury. Dach is likely to skate on a line with elite right wing Patrick Kane, who ranks second in the NHL with 531 points (199 goals, 332 assists) in 453 games since 2015-16 behind Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers (574 points in 407 games). Dach, the No. 3 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, should also benefit from the acquisition of defenseman Seth Jones, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and potential return of veteran center Jonathan Toews on a separate line and could become the biggest fantasy steal at his position.
7. Tim Stutzle, LW, OTT
NHL.com rank: 159
The Ottawa Senators left wing scored 29 points (fifth among NHL rookies) in 53 games last season. The Senators have one of the most intriguing young forward groups in the NHL with elite left wing Brady Tkachuk and valuable fantasy sleepers Drake Batherson and Josh Norris, making them one of the sneakiest teams in fantasy. Stutzle, the No. 3 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, will likely skate on the top power play with Tkachuk, Norris, Batherson and valuable defenseman Thomas Chabot, making him worth prioritizing in late rounds and a hot commodity in keeper and dynasty leagues.
8. Vince Dunn, D, SEA
NHL.com rank: 170
The defenseman, selected by the Seattle Kraken in the NHL Expansion Draft, is poised to take the next step after scoring 20 points (six goals, 14 assists) in 43 games with the St. Louis Blues last season, the best points-per-game average (0.47) of his NHL career. Dunn will have the clear opportunity to capture the top power-play spot for the Kraken after having to play behind valuable defenseman Torey Krug last season and Alex Pietrangelo prior to that. Dunn is one of the more intriguing fantasy defenseman options in later rounds and could be among Seattle’s leading scorers with 40-45 points in its inaugural season.
9. Oliver Wahlstrom, RW, NYI
NHL.com rank: 194
The New York Islanders wing scored 21 points (12 goals, nine assists), including 10 power-play points (fourth among rookies), in 44 regular-season games and three points (one goal, two assists) in five postseason games before missing time with an injury and not returning to the lineup. After the Kraken selected right wing Jordan Eberle from the Islanders in the Expansion Draft, Wahlstrom (No. 11 pick in 2018 NHL Draft) could be elevated to the top line and first power play with valuable forwards Mathew Barzal and Anders Lee and lead them in goals if he takes the next step under coach Barry Trotz.
10. Kaapo Kakko, RW, NYR
NHL.com rank: 198
The New York Rangers wing has been underwhelming from a fantasy standpoint over his first two NHL seasons (40 points, minus-23 in first 114 games) after being selected with the No. 2 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. But after the Rangers named Gerard Gallant coach June 16 (replaced David Quinn) and traded valuable wing Pavel Buchnevich to the St. Louis Blues on July 23, there’s an opportunity for Kakko to earn a top-six and first power-play role with exposure to elite forward Artemi Panarin and/or Mika Zibanejad. Fantasy managers who invest in Panarin, Zibanejad or elite defenseman Adam Fox in early rounds should stack that player with Kakko, who should be attainable outside the top 150 overall in non-keeper leagues.
Other breakout candidates: Mackenzie Blackwood, G, NJD (NHL.com fantasy rank: 127); Jake Oettinger, G, DAL (131); Josh Norris, C, OTT (167); Eeli Tolvanen, LW/RW, NSH (196); Joel Farabee, LW/RW, PHI (200)
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