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Couture, Skinner lead Cubeta's fantasy breakout list

by Matt Cubeta

Last season, forwards Tyler Seguin of the Dallas Stars, Joe Pavelski of the San Jose Sharks and Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers went from reliable fantasy producers to elite-level assets. On the defenseman and goalie fronts, fantasy owners witnessed Mark Giordano of the Calgary Flames and Semyon Varlamov of the Colorado Avalanche 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 this past season. Sleepers are under-the-radar players who are drafted much later than they should be. Breakout players are players we respect from a fantasy standpoint that elevate their level of production to new heights.

Targeting breakout candidates in your fantasy draft can go a long way in building a championship-caliber roster. Here are five players I believe will take the jump from household name to superstar in 2014-15. Pete Jensen will release his five breakout players on Tuesday, Sept. 23.

1. Logan Couture, C/LW, San Jose Sharks

In's aggregate top-275 overall fantasy rankings, Couture came in at No. 32. Not too bad, right? I disagree. I think he should've been ranked a lot higher, and in my personal ranks I showed that, slotting him at No. 18 overall.

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As I wrote in my top-50 fantasy breakdown, among players 25 or younger, only Stamkos, Tavares and Toews have more goals than Couture's 112. And his 924 shots on goal rank second. Yet for some reason, Couture is never included in the discussion as one of the NHL's best young players. He should be. Despite missing 17 games last season, Couture still finished as the 66th-ranked player in Yahoo fantasy leagues, scoring 23 goals, 54 points, a plus-21 rating, 20 penalty minutes, 13 power-play points and 233 shots on goal. His 3.6 shots on goal per game were 11th best in the NHL. Had he stayed healthy for the full season, he likely would've been an easy top-20 player.

While Couture has two 30-plus goal seasons under his belt, I believe he has the ability to break out even further and develop into a true fantasy superstar with 40-plus goal potential in 2014-15. Last season Couture had a 9.9 shooting percentage, easily the lowest of any of his four full NHL seasons (his career mark is 12.1). If he were to finish as a top-10 overall fantasy player, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised. Right now, Couture is getting drafted on average with the 29th pick in Yahoo leagues. If you can get him that late, that's terrific, but to guarantee his services on your squad, target him in round two and look for him to produce at an elite level.

2. Jeff Skinner, LW/RW, Carolina Hurricanes

Jeff Skinner
Jeff Skinner
Left Wing - CAR
GOALS: 33 | ASST: 21 | PTS: 54
SOG: 274 | +/-: -14
Of players that played in at least 30 games last season, Skinner's 0.46 goals per game ranked eighth in the NHL. Like Couture, he is a pure goal scorer and despite having four NHL seasons under his belt, Skinner is still just 22 years old. To say there's room to grow is an understatement. Fantasy owners will point to his combined minus-35 rating over the past two seasons as a major reason to avoid drafting him, but despite that rating, he still finished last season as the 83rd-ranked player in Yahoo leagues. If he can improve his rating to even be a minus-5 player and play in a full 82 games, Skinner could easily be a top-50 player or better this season.

One of the big reasons he is such a valuable fantasy player to own is because of his power-play production. Last season he had 11 power-play goals (tied for eighth most) and 20 power-play points. During the shortened season, he struggled with just 24 points in 42 games, but nine of those points came on the power play. What he lacks in the plus-minus category he makes up for with power-play value. Skinner is a rare talent, and with Eric Staal and Alexander Semin in line for bounce-back seasons, that can only help Skinner develop even further. At some point we'll be talking about Skinner as a top-25 overall player. The question is, can he be that kind of player right now? I think he's got a shot.

3. Kari Lehtonen, G, Dallas Stars

On average, Lehtonen is being selected 11th among goalies in Yahoo leagues. I have him ranked ninth and believe he has the potential to finish among the top five and join the elite group of fantasy goaltenders this season. With career marks of a 2.66 goals-against average and .915 save percentage, some might be skeptical. But there are reasons to believe:

A. Lehtonen was tied for the NHL lead among goalies with 64 starts last season. This shows he has a true stranglehold on the No. 1 job for the Stars. And these days, that seems to be harder and harder to find.

Kari Lehtonen
Kari Lehtonen
Goalie - DAL
RECORD: 33-20-10
GAA: 2.41 | SVP: .919
B. He won 33 games last season, seventh most in the NHL. The Stars are a playoff-caliber team that improved during the offseason by adding Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky. They are also a solid defensive team, and if Sergei Gonchar can improve on his rough go of things, Lehtonen could see a spike in wins and possibly in shutouts (he had a career-high five last season).

C. He has already displayed flashes of being an elite goalie in years past. In 2011-12, Lehtonen had a career-best 2.33 GAA and .922 save percentage. This shows he is capable of putting up outstanding numbers.

D. Goalies vary year-to-year in dominance. Last season Ben Bishop and Semyon Varlamov emerged to be two of the best fantasy goalies in the game. Two seasons ago Sergei Bobrovsky was the No. 1 fantasy goalie and Jimmy Howard was No. 3. Every season it seems like there are at least one or two new faces among the top-five fantasy goalies. Why can't Lehtonen be on there in 2014-15?

Add all of these factors up and you can see why I am pegging Lehtonen to finish as a top-five fantasy goalie. Target him in the late third or early fourth round of your draft and you'll be rewarded.

4. Chris Kreider, LW, New York Rangers

Chris Kreider
Chris Kreider
Left Wing - NYR
GOALS: 17 | ASST: 20 | PTS: 37
SOG: 136 | +/-: 14
Like Couture and Skinner, Kreider missed a bunch of games last season (16), which hurt his counting stats. However, his per-game production and complete category coverage shows his potential to develop into a fantasy mainstay. Kreider, 23, has long been viewed as a future superstar in the League due to his great speed and size. Last season he began to deliver on that promise, recording 17 goals, 37 points, a plus-14, 72 penalty minutes, 12 power-play points and 136 shots on goal in 66 games. He followed up that regular-season performance with five goals and 13 points in 15 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

Looking ahead, Kreider is a good candidate to start the season on the Rangers' top line with Rick Nash and Derek Stepan, and he'll likely see an increase in power-play ice time, where he proved to be a force. Last season he averaged 2:10 per game and produced 12 power-play points. There's a good chance Kreider ends up being one of the most well-rounded fantasy players in the game this season. He was one of only six players to have at least 15 goals, 30 points, 10 power-play points, a plus-10 or better, at least 70 penalty minutes and more than 130 shots on goal (Gabriel Landeskog, Milan Lucic, David Backes, Clarke MacArthur and Scott Hartnell being the others). And the best part about Kreider from a fantasy standpoint is he's being drafted on average in the 13th round of Yahoo leagues (145.2 average pick). I've got him ranked 107th and believe he can end up much higher than that.

5. Tyson Barrie, D, Colorado Avalanche

Tyson Barrie
Tyson Barrie
Defense - COL
GOALS: 13 | ASST: 25 | PTS: 38
SOG: 101 | +/-: 17
Despite playing in 64 games last season, Barrie still finished his first full NHL season with 13 goals, 38 points, a plus-17 rating, 20 penalty minutes, 10 power-play points and 101 shots on goal, good for the 40th-ranked defenseman in Yahoo leagues. His 13 goals ranked 11th in the NHL among defensemen and his plus-17 was tied for 19th best at his position.

Now it's time for Barrie to stay healthy and take his game to the superstar level. At 23 years old, Barrie received 18:32 of ice time per game, with 2:47 of that coming on the power play. While Barrie's unsustainable shooting percentage of 12.9 will come down, his production totals could rise with the expectation that Barrie's even-strength and power-play ice time will increase. Another thing going for Barrie is the amount of offensive firepower the Avalanche possess. If he ends up on the point of the top unit, there's reason to believe Barrie could double his power-play production. Barrie is currently being selected 26th among defensemen in Yahoo leagues, but he definitely has the potential to end up as a top-15 caliber player at his position.


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