With the 2021-22 NHL regular season set to drop the puck on October 12, we reached out to our experts here at ESPN Fantasy Hockey and the NHL on ESPN to get their takes on who are the breakout players they have their eyes on, and which rookies will make the biggest fantasy impact.
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Which player are you expecting to have a breakout season?
Victoria Matiash, fantasy analyst: Conor Garland, F, Vancouver Canucks. Following his escape from the desert, the fourth-year forward is going to erupt alongside either center Elias Pettersson or Bo Horvat in Vancouver. Minutes on the Canucks’ top power play will only help. After averaging 0.38 points/game his rookie season, and 0.57 his sophomore stretch, Garland netted 0.79 this past campaign. In sync with that upward trend, the 25-year-old will take his next productive step this year.
Sean Allen, fantasy analyst: Vince Dunn, D, Seattle Kraken. If you look at goal scoring by defensemen during the past three NHL seasons, Dunn appears at a surprising 19th. His 27 goals with the St. Louis Blues are more than Drew Doughty, John Klingberg or Seth Jones scored in that time. But what’s more impressive: the 20 others players all either tied with or better than Dunn’s total have skated an average of between 21 and 25 minutes per game in that time. Dunn averaged a lowly 17:27, easily the lowest among all the league leaders. You can do the same exercise with his shot total and get the same general result. Regardless of the role given to the 38-year-old Mark Giordano with the Kraken, there is opportunity for a lot more scoring from Dunn this season.
Arda Öcal, NHL on ESPN host: Kaapo Kakko, RW, New York Rangers. After being drafted #2 overall in 2019, Kakko hasn’t produced what Rangers fans would have hoped thus far, but last season saw a marked improvement in the defensive portion of Kakko’s game. With Pavel Buchnevich gone, the opportunity is there for a player to step up. Kakko has seen some time with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome on the top line this preseason. Of course, people will point to 2020 #1 overall pick Alexis Lafreniere as the one to pick as a “breakout” player for the Rangers this season, but to me both players having a great season (as well as solid goaltending from Igor Shesterkin) will significantly propel the Rangers postseason hopes. If the first line assignment holds for Kakko into the regular season, he is being put in a terrific position to produce and have his breakout moment, with one of the most exciting players in the league baking bread beside him.
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL reporter: Yegor Sharangovich, New Jersey Devils. It’s Year 3 for Jack Hughes in the NHL, and his improvement will continue with Dougie Hamilton helping to create offense on the back end. The beneficiary of that improvement is likely Sharangovich, a 23-year-old winger from Belarus. Because the Devils were terrible (again), his 30-point rookie season (16 goals, 14 assists) in 54 games went unnoticed, as did the fact that he was third on the team with 114 shots. The goals are going to have to come from somewhere for Jersey, and it wouldn’t shock me at all to see more than 25 of them come from Yegor.
Which rookie do you believe will make the best fantasy impact this year?
Victoria: Jamie Drysdale, D, Anaheim Ducks. He’s my early favorite for the Calder, to start. A superb skater, the 19-year-old should find himself anchoring Anaheim’s top special teams unit before long. Why not? The rebuilding Ducks have little to lose in tossing the teen offensive-defenseman out there after embodying a league-worst 8.9 power play percentage in 2020-21. Throw in some top-four minutes, and the opportunity to play with other blossoming young talent up front (see: Trevor Zegras), and Drysdale should be in for a rich, first full season.
Sean: Moritz Seider, D, Detroit Red Wings. Everything is lined up to give Seider the best chance at success this season. He has pro experience in North America already, having skated in the AHL back in 2019-20. In Nick Leddy, the Red Wings brought Seider an experienced defense partner that has had success being a two-way force in the game for many years. Seider has natural offense to his game and the Red Wings have a desperate need of it being generated from the blue line.
Arda: Cole Caufield, Montreal Canadiens. This might be the easy pick given how terrific of a postseason Caufield had, and he’s currently the betting favorite to win the Calder trophy, but someone has to pick him as obvious as it is, so I’m going to be that guy. Side note, a Habs player hasn’t won the Calder since Ken Dryden in 1972. That seems like it’s wrong but it’s not. Anyhow, I wouldn’t be at all surprised is Cole Caulfield follows up his Hobey Baker/Stanley Cup Final run season with more hardware.
Greg: Michael Bunting, Toronto Maple Leafs. I know what you’re saying: “Hasn’t he been in the league since 2019-20?” Well, yes, but as my friend Justin Bourne of Sportsnet noted Bunting hasn’t played over 25 games in a season, hasn’t played in six or more games for two straight seasons and was still 25 years old on Sept. 15, the cutoff for rookies, as is birthday is on Sept. 17. This is a long-winded way of saying that a guy who had 10 goals in 21 games with the Coyotes last season and might play with John Tavares and William Nylander in Toronto.