With the 2019-20 NHL regular season just around the corner, here's a sweet-sixteen round-up of fantasy sleeper and breakout candidates. Reminder: A sleeper is a player who will significantly bypass expectations determined by his average draft position (ADP) in conventional ESPN.com leagues. A breakout performer will see a dramatic increase in production compared with previous seasons, including rookies who erupt in year one.
N/A indicates a ranking outside of ESPN.com's Top-300.
Drafted second-overall only three months ago, Kakko is nevertheless, and not unreasonably, estimated to score 30 goals and 30 assists this rookie season. But that's not news to anyone. Young forward Filip Chytil (ranked outside ESPN.com's Top-300), on the other hand, who's loosely projected to center a scoring line with Kakko, is also poised to build substantially on the 11 goals and 12 assists earned in his first full campaign (75 games) as a 19-year-old pro. And that may not be known to all fantasy managers. Chytil's breakout potential is certainly worth investment in deeper leagues.
An early Calder favorite, Hughes is expected to carve out an immediate impact as a scoring line center and contributor on the Devils' power play. Feel free to pencil in this year's supremely-talented No. draft pick for 25-ish goals, and another 30-plus assists. But, like with Kaapo above, I'm arguably more intrigued with potential contributions from one of Hughes' prospective linemates. Outside of New Jersey, forward Nikita Gusev remains a largely under-the-radar prospect boasting serious productive promise. Willing to part ways with two prominent draft picks in exchange with Vegas, the Devils clearly have high hopes for this ex-KHL star. If he does end up banging out a top-six role with Devils, so do I. This guy can score.
The heir apparent to the Ducks' No. 1 center position once Ryan Getzlaf eventually rides off into retirement, Steel could otherwise make a significant enough impact as early as this season. The most preliminary preseason blueprint has the 2016 first-round draft pick skating on a scoring line with Rickard Rakell and Jakob Silfverberg. No question he'll produce in that role - particularly with new head coach Dallas Eakins at the helm. In 2018-19, Steel's first season as a pro, he scored six goals and five assists in 22 games with the Ducks, while contributing another 41 points in 53 contests with the AHL Gulls.
After the 22-year-old scored five goals and three assists in 13 postseason contests, many are now expecting Hintz to take the next step, perhaps eventually on the same top-six line with fellow up-and-comer Denis Gurianov. There's plenty of scoring talent up front for the Stars - a collective further bolstered by the addition of Joe Pavelski - to help Hintz blossom as anticipated.
Someone has to fill Artemi Panarin's skates on the Blue Jackets' top line after the star winger hightailed it for Manhattan and that someone could be the just-turned-20-year-old from France. Coach John Tortorella likes him, and that's huge. Even if Gustav Nyquist earns the gig instead, considered the safer bet, Texier remains in consideration to fill in the Jackets' top-six, and with the man-advantage. Fantasy managers in deeper leagues should definitely keep this kid in mind.
Reigning Hobey Baker Award winner and documented Slurpee Enthusiast, Makar appears all the ready to erupt in his first full NHL run-through. Those questioning his ability focus when playing on the largest stage should know the 20-year-old scored on his first ever big-league shot last spring, before following up with another five assists in nine postseason contests. Tyson Barrie's departure for Toronto means the top power-play gig belongs to Makar, as long as he can sweat it. I think he'll manage just fine.
The future star of the Vancouver's blue line, short a few teeth after taking a puck to mouth this preseason, will be offered the immediate opportunity to contribute as top power-play quarterback with gifted forwards Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser. Everyone's excited about the 2018 seventh-overall pick ahead of his first full NHL campaign. Coach Travis Green is excited. Canucks fans are excited. Fantasy managers should be excited as well.
Elvis Merzlikins, G, Columbus Blue Jackets, No. 288
Unless the Blue Jackets import a more experienced body from elsewhere, two 25-year-old goalies are set to battle it out for starts in Columbus. The more familiar, Joonas Korpisalo, wasn't great when offered the opportunity to sub in for Sergei Bobrovsky this past season. That leaves Merzlikins, who's been outstanding in his pro career, but in the elite Swiss league. In this case, I'm siding with the devil I don't know, based on raw between-the-pipes potential. A couple of untested NHL netminders surprise us every season. Maybe it's Merzlikins' turn.
Posting 14 goals and 16 assists in 30 regular-season games after joining the Hurricanes mid-season, Niederreiter seems to have found his most productive home to date. A complete campaign on a top line with Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen could result in the former Wild skater's first career 60-point showing, a good number of those points counting as goals. I'd wager his ceiling is even higher than that.
Third team's a charm? After several disappointing seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, and a one hum-drum showing in Arizona, the 2012 third-overall draft pick is now staring down the chance to produce alongside center Evgeni Malkin in a top-six role. He's also expected to put up numbers with the extra skater. Consider this the pending UFA's last legit kick at true NHL relevance. Such pressure, plus the aforementioned plum opportunity, could finally result in long-awaited breakout campaign.
If he ends up securing a spot on a hot-shot forward line with Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome, look out. If not, the once-again-Blackhawk sports minimal fantasy charm. As it stands though, Shaw appears to be in that top-six mix. Also, not to be dismissed, the 28-year-old is coming off a fairly impressive campaign in Montreal, potting 19 goals and 28 assists in only 63 games. So there's sleeper appeal here.
Someone other than Anze Kopitar has to score for Los Angeles and Toffoli is as strong a candidate as anyone on that roster. Admittedly a weak-ish argument - (hey, the Kings can't lose every game 4-1!) - but the 27-year-old is also healthy and reportedly jazzed to compete for new head coach Todd McLellan. Oh, and this is Toffoli's final year of his current contract. Some dismiss such salary-driven factors carrying much weight for those demonstrably wired to compete as such an elite level. I don't.
While the game is better all-around with Dustin Byfuglien in it, should the veteran blueliner ultimately decide he's had enough, for the short-term or evermore, Morrissey jets up the fantasy defensemen rankings from his current 33rd spot. If not into the Top-15, near it.
Jake Gardiner, D, Carolina Hurricanes, N/A
Relishing a fresh start away from hockey-gripped Toronto (and reportedly uninterested in testing the equally blinding spotlight in Montreal), Gardiner will challenge Justin Faulk and Dougie Hamilton for quality minutes on the Hurricanes' power play. If he can stay healthy - a significant concern in light of nagging back issues - the 29-year-old is fully capable of once again putting up 50-plus points. More, if Carolina moves another prominent blue-line asset elsewhere. Fantasy managers with a strong stomach for injury uncertainty should be all over this proven performer in later rounds.
Henrik Lundqvist, G, New York Rangers, No. 274
As outlined in my recent Fantasy Hockey Goalie Preview, Lundqvist sports significant sleeper appeal on a revitalized Rangers roster now including Panarin, Kakko, and defenseman Jacob Trouba. The veteran netminder appears sternly determined to make the most of one of his final NHL campaigns, particularly with a playoff wild card spot perceptibly within reach. An improvement over last season - the worst of his venerable career - is a slam dunk. He's well worth a gamble in most standard fantasy leagues.
Carter Hutton, G, Buffalo Sabres, No. 278
We all witnessed the effect goalies coach Mike Bales had on both Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney in Raleigh this past season. The two-time Stanley Cup winner with Pittsburgh has since shuffled off to Buffalo to help Hutton. Maybe I'm making too much of a coaching hire, but Bales' resume is beyond reproach, and the Sabres' No. 1 was superb in limited action just the previous year in St. Louis. Plus, under new player-friendly bench boss Ralph Krueger, there's more optimism all around in Buffalo this season.