Every fantasy hockey draft has its hot commodity everyone has targeted to make his breakout debut. If you were in a WHA fantasy league in 1978, you had your sights set on that Wayne Gretzky kid of the Indianapolis Racers. (Weren’t you glad he was traded to Edmonton after only eight games with Indianapolis?) In 1984, this colossal guy could also score named Mario Lemieux, who was destined to be the next Gretzky. In 1992, another big guy with a golden scoring touch named Eric Lindros was destined to be the next Lemieux. In 2005, you hoped to get a high enough pick to get your hands on Sidney Crosby. This year, the teenager who’s supposed to be the sure-fire no-brainer breakout star was Alexis Lafreniere. But what about those players no one is targeting who might turn out to be breakout stars? The guy you can get in the later rounds or even off the free agent wire who turns out to be a difference-maker for the first time? Draft gold.
How can you recognize one of those guys? There are two tell-tale signs:
- Where does he come from?
- Does he come from one of the top junior leagues like the OHL (Ontario Hockey League), the WHL (Western Hockey League), or the QMJHL (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League)?
- Does he come from the top minor leagues like the AHL or the ECHL?
- Is he coming from one of the elite leagues in Europe?
- Does he have a clear opportunity to step into a position with a team in which he can excel?
- Has an opening been created on a top-six line because of trade, retirement, or rebuilding plan?
Who might have the best chance to break out this year in the NHL who not everyone in your league is targeting? No need to talk about Lafreniere or Kirill Kaprizov. We know they’re going to make a significant impact. Let’s take a deeper dive and see who might have that unexpected breakout season this year.
Rob Thomas won two OHL championships, a gold medal on the U-17 Team Canada and a gold medal on the U-20 Team Canada. He spent most of the 2018-19 season on the 3rd line for the St. Louis Blues. But that team won the Stanley Cup. So he not only has the pedigree. He’s also a winner. Never say winners don’t matter in fantasy. Coaches love players with winning pedigree; they play guys like that. Thomas led the Blues last season in 5-on-5 assists and points per 60 minutes (1.84 and 2.51). He was 6th in the entire NHL with that 2.51 assists per 60 minutes in 5-on-5 situations. But here’s the kicker – he averaged only 12:19 of 5-on-5 ice time. So theoretically, all the Blues have to do is give him more ice time, and you’ve got an elite performer. Well, it looks like the Blues are listening. Expectations are for Thomas to center their second line this year with Jaden Schwartz and newly-acquired Mike Hoffman on his wings and skate on their second power-play unit. That’s two high-scoring wingers Rob Thomas can feed this season. That’s an opportunity.
Carter Verhaeghe spent four seasons with the Niagara Ice Dogs in the OHL and was made their captain at age 19. In his last two seasons with the Ice Dogs, he scored 164 points in 133 games. Verhaeghe spent two seasons with the Missouri Mavericks in the ECHL and scored 57 points in 36 games. Then he spent four seasons in the AHL, where he scored 175 points in 211 games. He was the AHL’s leading scorer in 2018-19. Long story short? This guy can score.
Like Thomas, he had already been on a Stanley Cup-winning team with Tampa Bay last season. This past October, he signed as a free agent with the Florida Panthers. The Panthers training camp’s early indications have Verhaeghe skating on the left-wing on the top line with Aleksander Barkov and Anthony Duclair. So he’s got the best opportunity he’s ever had so far in his NHL career to try to replicate his prodigious junior and minor league scoring prowess. Remember, this guy can score.
I know when you think of Robby Fabbri, you only think of one thing – knee injury. Well, maybe you think of 2 things: injuring the same ligament in the same knee twice. But the two things you should be thinking about is pedigree and opportunity. The St. Louis Blues made Fabbri the 21st overall pick in 2014. He spent three seasons with the Guelph Storm in the OHL, where he scored 80 goals in 147 games. In 2015, he scored 6 points in the 5 games for Team Canada in the World Junior Championships. As such, a pedigree suggests that Fabbri got off to an excellent start with the Blues, scoring 67 points in his first 123 games from 2015 to 2017. So it looked like Fabbri was going to reward those fantasy owners who considered him one of those no-brainer prospect drafts picks in 2015; however, on 2/4/2017, all was forgotten when a hit by Carter Rowney of the Penguins tore the ACL of Fabbris’ left knee. He would, of course, miss the rest of the 2017 season. When all looked promising in the following training camp in September of 2017, he re-injured the same ligament in the same left knee and missed the entire 2017-18 season. Then the Blues traded Fabbri to the Detroit Red Wings in November of 2019 for Jacob de la Rose. That’s right–traded for a bottom-six grinder–the polar opposite of a high-scoring, high-pedigree, no-brainer fantasy draft pick. Hello, opportunity! Fabbri was sent to a rebuilding team constructed by a GM with a knack for reclamation projects, Steve Yzerman (yes, the guy picked 4th overall in the 1983 NHL draft who would have been your no-brainer prospect pick that year). Fabbri excelled with his new team last season, scoring 31 points in 52 games and averaging 17:16 of ice time, the most time on the ice in Fabbris’ NHL career. The Red Wings are all in on the Robby Fabbri Reclamation Project. This season, he’s centering the second line with Vladislav Namestnikov and Filip Zadina, two more high pedigree young sharpshooters.
Another St. Louis Blues draft pick, Tage Thompson, was the 26th overall pick in 2016. He was a member of the U-18 Team USA in 2014-15, then scored 64 points in 70 games at the University of Connecticut in two years. He then went straight to the AHL in 2015-16 and was a Team USA member in 2016-17 and 2017-18. On July 1, 2018, Thompson was part of the haul the Buffalo Sabres received for Ryan O’Reilly. The Sabres welcomed Thompson, Vladimir Sobotka, Patrik Berglund, a 2019 first-round draft pick and a 2021 second-round draft pick. I forgot to mention another indicator of a high pedigree is being part of a trade to a rebuilding team in exchange for a high-priced star. After Thompson separated his right shoulder in his only NHL appearance last season, he was supposed to occupy a bottom-six role for the Sabres this season. Thompsons’ combination of speed and size (6-6, 216 pounds) was so irresistible in training camp this season that he was promoted to right-wing on the Sabres’ top line to open the season with probably the best two players on the team, Jack Eichel and Taylor Hall. He also found himself on the second power-play unit.
Huh? Joe Thornton, the 41-year old a breakout candidate? Joe Thornton, the rookie in 1997? Yes. He’s only scored 43 goals over the past four seasons. His time on the ice for San Jose diminished from 18:21 to 15:30 over the past three seasons, mostly due to Thornton centering their third line. His face-off percentage last season was 49.4%, the first time in his long career he was under 50%. His time on the ice for the power play the previous two seasons was 1:54 and 2:05, the first two times he’s ever been under 3 minutes in his career. It’s the very picture of the declining athlete barely holding on who can only offer a team some leadership at this point in his career. Retire, right? Not so fast. Thornton now finds himself skating on the left-wing on the top line for the Cup contending Maple Leafs with superstars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner and centering the first power-play unit. Expect a rejuvenated Thornton to have a significant impact on his young linemates and vice-versa. At this point in his career, Thornton has nothing to lose. He should be able to feed Matthews easily and often like a father feeding his baby. After all, Matthews was born the same year Thornton was a rookie with the Bruins.
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