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Saad, Kuznetsov lead Jensen's fantasy breakout picks

by Pete Jensen / NHL.com

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. Matt Cubeta's breakout list can be found here.

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

Evgeny Kuznetsov
2014-15 SEASON (80 games)
GOALS: 11 | ASST: 26 | PPP: 13
SOG: 127 | +/-: 10
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.

3. Sami Vatanen, D, Anaheim Ducks

Yahoo ADP: 106.4

End-season rank: 185

Sami Vatanen
2014-15 season (67 games)
GOALS: 12 | ASST: 25 | PPP: 17
SOG: 122 | +/-: 5
It's not unusual to see an offensive defensemen who does the bulk of his damage on the power play for an elite team suddenly rise to the elite ranks at the position. A prime example is Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, only two-plus years older than Vatanen, who saw a heightened rate from 26 power-play points in 2013-14 in 81 games (.32) to 25 in 56 games last season (.45) when he missed a large chunk of time because of injury. Shattenkirk was the most valuable fantasy defenseman prior to injury, and we could see a similar rise from Vatanen this season. Vatanen, like Shattenkirk, had a high rate of PPP production with 17 (T-15th among D) of his 37 points coming with the man-advantage (3:07 per game on PP; .25 PPP per game) in an injury-shortened season (67 games). He was also sixth among D-men in goals per 60 minutes (minimum 67 games). He emerged as a fantasy-relevant defenseman when healthy, but is still going outside the top 100 on average and finished just inside the top 200 in Yahoo leagues last season. He has yet to break out over a full season, hence his place on this list. If Vatanen produces at the same or greater rate over an 82-game season and continues to play between 21 and 22 minutes a game for the Ducks, he should have 20-25 power-play points next season for a first unit that includes Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf.

4. Martin Jones, G, San Jose Sharks

Yahoo ADP: 136.3

End-season rank: 188

Martin Jones
CAREER TOTALS (34 GAMES)
Record: 16-11-2
GAA: 1.99 | Sv%: .923
Jones, who's wearing the same number (31) as his predecessor Antti Niemi, is the leading candidate to earn the Sharks' starting job. After being traded from the Los Angeles Kings to the Boston Bruins to the Bay Area this summer, Jones is settling in nicely and had a 30-save shutout in his preseason debut Sept. 22 against the Vancouver Canucks. New coach Pete DeBoer is defensive-minded and took the New Jersey Devils to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012, and I wouldn't be surprised to see a fresh voice benefit the Sharks, who have a nice combination of veterans (Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau), players in their primes (Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns, Logan Couture), young players on the rise (Tomas Hertl, Melker Karlsson) and additions with playoff experience (Joel Ward, Paul Martin). They're still a win-now team and could return to the postseason if Jones proves to be the real deal with a heightened workload. Alex Stalock poses a threat as his backup, but Jones had outstanding peripheral numbers (1.99 GAA, .923 SV% in 34 NHL games) as Jonathan Quick's backup and could play 50-plus games this season. San Jose's defense isn't as deep as L.A.'s, and Jones has never played more than 19 games in a single season, but he still has an opportunity to get the Sharks back into contention and is worth drafting a round or two earlier than his ADP. If the Sharks bounce back and qualify for the playoffs out of the Western Conference, Jones could easily end up a top 10-15 fantasy goalie.

5. Ryan Strome, C, New York Islanders

Yahoo ADP: 169.2

End-season rank: 87

John Tavares, No. 3 in my rankings, has a seemingly never-ending linemate dilemma, and it's about time the Islanders turn to their youth. Tavares thrived with goal-scorer Anders Lee on his wing and also played well with Strome in the postseason. Strome was more consistent than Lee and Brock Nelson, amassing 50 points last season with a plus-23 (T-16th in NHL) and 179 SOG en route to a top 90 finish among all fantasy assets. But anyone who watched the Islanders closely last season knows that Strome is nowhere near his ceiling, with those points coming mostly alongside Lee and either Nelson or Frans Nielsen in 2014-15. Kyle Okposo faces uncertainty in a contract year and could be more of a second-line option, so I see Strome as the best fit on Tavares' right side in the present and future. If Tavares takes the next step and wins the scoring title with 90-plus points alongside Strome, the sky is the limit for this 22-year-old. Strome is only center eligible at the moment in Yahoo but I expect that to change after the start of the season, so spend a 12th or 13th-round pick on his services. If the chips fall into place for Strome next to Tavares, he's capable of 65-70 points, 15-20 on the power play, a great plus-minus and 200-plus SOG en route to a top-50 fantasy finish.

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