Last season, forwards Vladimir Tarasenko of the St. Louis Blues and Jakub Voracek of the Philadelphia Flyers went from reliable fantasy producers to elite-level assets. On the defenseman and goalie fronts, fantasy owners witnessed Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators and Cory Schneider of the New Jersey Devils joining the likes of stardom at their respective positions.
These were players who made their mark on the fantasy landscape before, but never to the degree of statistical prowess that they put forth last season. Sleepers are under-the-radar players who are drafted much later than they should be. Breakout players are known commodities who elevate their fantasy production to new heights, usually in an expanded role.
Targeting breakout candidates in your fantasy draft can go a long way in building a championship-caliber roster. Here are five players I believe can make the jump from household name to superstar in 2015-16.
1. Brandon Saad, LW/RW, Columbus Blue Jackets
Yahoo ADP: 94
End-season rank: 123
Saad has a well-documented Stanley Cup Playoff reputation but has yet to carry it over to the regular season, which is all that matters in year-long fantasy leagues. He has 14 goals over the past two postseasons (T-4th in span) and is coming off his best regular season, where he set career-bests in goals (23), assists (29), power-play points (10) and shots on goal (203). But each of those totals are just scratching the surface for the 22-year-old power forward who's set to assume an enhanced role after being traded to the Blue Jackets. Saad, tied for third on the Chicago Blackhawks in even-strength points last season, has always been behind Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa in the power-play equation for a perennial contender.
Now, Saad is Columbus' second-best forward and likely playing alongside Ryan Johansen, one of the most consistent point producers in the League last season. His usage with the man-advantage (2:11 per game) last season was highest of his career, but was still not enough for a top 100 fantasy finish. Saad is being drafted in the 90s on average in Yahoo leagues, but I took him 80th in NHL.com's mock draft. He has dual eligibility and a chance to exceed his career PPP output (22 in 208 games) this season. He could feasibly leap to the 65-point, 25-PPP and 250-SOG realms.
2. Evgeny Kuznetsov, C/LW, Washington Capitals
Yahoo ADP: 173.3
End-season rank: 196
It's surprising to see Kuznetsov go this low in drafts, especially considering Nicklas Backstrom (back) could miss time to start the season. If that's the case, the Capitals will thrust Kuznetsov into the No. 1 center spot next to top-ranked fantasy asset Alex Ovechkin, who covered all categories and brings physicality to protect Kuznetsov. The 23-year-old showed flashes of brilliance in the postseason, where he saw elevated minutes and scored the series-winning goal in Game 7 against the New York Islanders. Even when Backstrom returns, expect Barry Trotz to use Kuznetsov in power-play situations and next to one of Washington's high-profile newcomers, T.J. Oshie or Justin Williams. Kuznetsov was on my sleepers list last season but was stuck in a depth role for much of the regular season.
Once he earned his stripes, Kuznetsov's minutes per game went from 13:19 in the regular season to 16:36 in the playoffs, leading to improved rates of points (.50 vs. .46) and SOG per game (3.0 vs. 1.58). He had 13 power-play points last season despite only 1:22 per game in those situations, so imagine if he sees 2:30 or more this season. Kuznetsov doesn't touch on penalty minutes or hits, but should post 20-plus PPP, 55-60 points and 180-plus SOG if he's a full-time, top-six center. It's fair to target Kuznetsov after the 10th round of your draft and much higher in keeper formats.
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