Picking players just before they become NHL fantasy superstars is crucial to giving your fantasy team a leg up on the competition. It's not required to take home the championship, but every breakout player you manage to select a little later in draft is a little more strength added to your title bid at a reduced cost. Selecting breakout players is all about getting value.
Breakout doesn't have to mean "come out of nowhere." In fact, you could argue two of last season's biggest breakout offensive stars had more of a "re-breakout," as they have already been stars before. Nathan MacKinnon and Taylor Hall went from the mid-100s on the ESPN Player Rater in 2016-17 to both finishing top 10 in 2017-18. But neither were unknown commodities before the season. Two goaltenders who had a breakout campaign were most certainly on our radar, but both Connor Hellebuyck and Andrei Vasilevskiy were considered late-round fliers last season at draft time.
Before getting into some of the specific players I feel could break out this season, a reminder about strategy: You don't need to break the bank for these guys or any other breakout candidate you've identified on your own. Just because Hall and MacKinnon finished as top-10 players last season, doesn't mean you were right to take them in the first round last year. In fact, that would have been silly. Use ADP and knowledge of your own league's trends to play chicken with breakout players for as long as possible.
Pierre-Luc Dubois, C, Columbus Blue Jackets (No. 103): After piling up 48 points as a rookie and returning roster-worthy fantasy production for the season, I think Dubois is in for a large gain in prominence through ice time alone. He's the team's No. 1 center going into the season this time. At this point last year, he was questionable to even make the team. He played 16:38 per game last year, but should come closer to 19 minutes this season, which means a lot more time to ply his trade with Artemi Panarin and a hopefully rejuvenated Cam Atkinson. I'll reach a round or two higher for Dubois this season and expect C2 production inside the top 24 centers.
Nico Hischier, C, New Jersey Devils (No. 122): Hischier's gains this season are due to come from the Devils power play, where he should be in line for a massive promotion. While he played the fourth-most minutes on the man advantage last season for New Jersey, almost all of that production came on the second unit, away from Taylor Hall. In fact, for context, Adam Henrique played more than twice as many power-play minutes with Hall than Hischier last season despite being traded to the Anaheim Ducks in November. Hischier should add special teams to his already solid base of production this season.
Joel Eriksson Ek, C, Minnesota Wild (NR): Mikko Koivu is 35 years old, while Eric Staal is turning 34 this season. I'm not saying they both fall off a cliff for production this season, but the odds are that sooner than later, the Wild will have room for a developing young center to climb onto a scoring line. Eriksson Ek is 21 and has been hanging around the Wild for a couple seasons now, finally putting in a full campaign on a checking line last season. He's a two-way center, but has loads of scoring upside. Koivu and Staal may delay him one more year, but for the minimal investment required, I'm holding Eriksson Ek in deeper leagues for the first month or so.
Phillip Danault, C, Montreal Canadiens (NR): Admittedly, Danault's AHL profile prior to his NHL career and, for that matter, his two seasons in the NHL don't show a profile of a fantasy-relevant center. But there's a scorer's pedigree hiding here from his QMJHL days, and with no other clear options, he should get a chance to be the one of the team's two scoring-line pivots for the 2018-19 season. He's shown some chemistry with Max Pacioretty before, but wherever he lines up, the Habs can cobble two decent scoring lines together if they are healthy. I don't know that he jumps into must-start territory, but stashing Danault as a fourth center on your team can be done at the end of drafts. Last season was a train wreck for the Habs, mostly due to injuries. They are due some better fortunes this season.
Anthony Mantha, RW, Detroit Red Wings (No. 109): Turning 24 before the season starts and coming off a season with 24 goals and 24 assists, Mantha is in a perfect spot to take another leap forward for the rebuilding Red Wings. He should have a top-line and top-power-play spot nailed down, and the scoring ability of the offense will continue to grow as the players mature. Henrik Zetterberg and Thomas Vanek will be around for a veteran presence, but the bus should be driven by Mantha and Dylan Larkin this season. In some combination, the Red Wings will also inject the offensive talents of first-round picks Filip Zadina and/or Michael Rasmussen.
Kyle Connor, LW, Winnipeg Jets (No. 132): Connor had to earn his minutes last season in October and direly missed an injured Mark Scheifele during the month of January. Erase those hurdles, and Connor could have come closer to 70 points as a rookie. Playing with Scheifele and Blake Wheeler again for this campaign -- with an outside chance to nose his way onto the first power-play unit -- and you have a recipe for a true breakout campaign for this 21-year-old.
Tomas Hertl, LW, San Jose Sharks (No. 157): It was about five years ago that Hertl exploded onto the scene with a four-goal night on Oct. 8, 2013, and we all had visions of Jonathan Cheechoo 2.0. However, five NHL seasons later, Hertl's career high is his 22 goals and 46 points from last season. A lack of a consistent role in the lineup has hurt him somewhat, but there is also a chance this is his true ceiling. But the Sharks can still stack an offense around Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture, and Hertl is still 24 years old heading into this season. I'm not entirely convinced that he's had his best season in the NHL at this point. Last season, with Evander Kane covering duties on the Thornton-Pavelski line after the trade deadline, Hertl quietly notched 11 points in 15 games in March with Logan Couture on the second unit.
Mika Zibanejad, RW, New York Rangers (No. 161): It feels like Zibanejad must be too old for us to expect him to soar to new heights on offense, but that's because he's been sniffing around the NHL since the Ottawa Senators selected him in the first round in 2011. Truth be told, Zibanejad is only 25 this season and could very well still have another gear to his game as the Rangers round into form. Zibanejad will be at the forefront of this offense, no matter which one of many possible line combinations the team settles on. We know he's a 50-point player, for sure, but I think there is still potential here for more. I think I'd be willing to take the risk just outside the top 100 as a low-end RW2.
Brandon Montour, D, Anaheim Ducks (No. 119): Leading all Ducks defensemen in power-play points last season, Montour still has plenty of room to grow from a rookie campaign that saw him take advantage of early season injuries to cement a permanent role in the NHL. For one thing, he barely nosed out Cam Fowler for total minutes on the power play among defensemen, as the Ducks continued to go back to the Fowler well through the season. That shouldn't be the case again, as Montour showed clear upside as the better option on the point. If he is elevated to the pinnacle of the depth chart, the results should be approaching D1 territory.
Aaron Ekblad, D, Florida Panthers (No. 138): Is it considered too obvious to point out that Ekblad still has a ton of offensive potential to add to his already impressive NHL resume? He's 22 years old, already has four NHL seasons with double-digit goals and is just a good power-play unit shy of elite fantasy status. If the Panthers can dominate on the man advantage this season, Ekblad's limit might well be the sky. He increased his minutes to 23:23 last season, but he really profiles as a 25-minute per night guy. He shoots a ton (225 in 2016-17 in just 68 games), and his plus/minus has even been good in three out of four seasons. Watch for Keith Yandle to yield even a bit more this season for Ekblad's continued development. The best part is that you may be able to wait until D3 territory before you risk losing him in the draft.
Darnell Nurse, D, Edmonton Oilers (No. 204): Twenty-six points wasn't exactly fantasy relevant, but keep in mind that Nurse is still just 23 years old and working on his offensive game. He should get more of a leash this season after leading all Oilers in ice time and shifts last year. Clearly, he's earned the trust of the coaching staff. He was also second on the team in plus/minus. Now, if the Oilers can be better than the last-place team in the NHL for power-play production this season, Nurse could truly have a breakout on the blue line. He has D3 upside even if things don't improve on the man advantage.
Robin Lehner, New York Islanders; Jonathan Bernier, Detroit Red Wings; Petr Mrazek, Carolina Hurricanes (NR): Finding breakout goaltenders is usually a very simple task. However, finding a breakout goaltender that everybody isn't also anticipating ... well, that's a different kettle of fish. Hellebuyck and Vasilevskiy were both easy targets for breakouts last season, and they both returned the label in spades. Now, I don't have as high hopes for this trio of netminders, but there aren't any early-20-something "next big thing" goaltenders with a clear path to starts this season (I said, "clear path," you Thatcher Demko defenders). Lehner, Bernier and Mrazek all have top-prospect pedigrees, can be considered post-hype sleepers (all older than 25) and are with new teams that have a very clear path to the starting gig. While I'd be happier with them as a G3 on my teams, I'm OK with all three (but especially Lehner and Mrazek) as a G2 if you decide to wait on the position.