Fantasy Hockey Breakouts 2019-20: Forwards

UNIONDALE, NEW YORK - MARCH 24: Alex Galchenyuk #17 of the Arizona Coyotes skates against the New York Islanders at the NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum on March 24, 2019 in Uniondale, New York. The Islanders shut-out the Coyotes 2-0. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Last Word on Hockey continues its fantasy hockey coverage with a fresh series. The hockey season is almost here, and fantasy platforms are opening up for registration. Our next topic of discussion is fantasy hockey breakouts. This three-part series will look in-depth at the league’s best candidates for making the leap from useful fantasy player to must-own status. First up is a look at forwards, then defenseman, then finally goalies. The lists are in no particular order. 

Ondrej Kase, Anaheim Ducks

Pegged by many as breakout candidate before last season, 23-year-old Anaheim Ducks winger Ondrej Kase instead suffered through two big injuries. As a result, Kase only managed to suit up for 30 games, but in those games, he was extremely effective. He scored 11 goals and tallied nine assists. That’s good for a 55-point pace over a full slate of 82 games. Not elite by any means. But all it takes a closer look at numbers that don’t show up in a box score to see what could be in store. Kase hasn’t been given the most ice time in the world (averaged 15:39 last season), though he’s shown just how efficient he can be when playing.

Last year he scored 2.6 points per 60 minutes (PTS/60). The year before that it was 2.5. The fact that his minutes were somewhat limited kept his totals down. Names like Mika Zibanejad, Dylan Larkin, Ryan O’Reilly, Sean Couturier, and Joe Pavelski were in a similar PTS/60 range. His Corsi For Percentage (CF%) was 56.6, meaning about 57% of the time when he was on the ice, the Ducks had possession of the puck. Obviously, that means more scoring chances. More importantly, his Relative Corsi For Percentage (CF% rel) was 16.1 in all situations. That number is second in the entire league among players who played at least 30 games. Basically, when he was on the ice, the Ducks had much more possession that when he wasn’t.

Additionally, Kase will play alongside other talented forwards and likely see an increase in ice time. Likely on the top power-play unit, as well. One last note: Kase shot at a clip of 12.1 shots per 60 (S/60). For perspective, that’s identical to Nathan MacKinnon and slightly higher than Alex Ovechkin.

Nick Schmaltz, Arizona Coyotes

Another young forward has been on the back burner in terms of fantasy breakout status. Nick Schmaltz, a 2014 1st round pick (20th overall), has also dealt with injuries early in his career. Schmaltz has 105 points in 179 career games. Last season, split between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Arizona Coyotes, he scored seven goals and added 18 assists in 40 games. However, 14 of those points came in the 17 games since joining Arizona. Unfortunately, his season ended early with a major knee injury in January.

The 23-year-old mostly played alongside Alex Galchenyuk and Clayton Keller. Those are two good players, to be sure (one of whom to be featured later in this article). But the arrival of superstar Phil Kessel increases Schmaltz’s fantasy stock even more. Two years ago, Kessel set a career-high with 58 assists. Last year that slightly dipped to 55. Schmaltz will undoubtedly benefit if he plays with Kessel.

Schmaltz excited Chicago fans after posting 52 points in 78 games in 2017-18. Arizona fans got a glimpse of his potential after the November trade. Barring another injury, Schmaltz should pick up where he left off in January. He should step right back into the top power-play unit, which is where Kessel truly shines. Schmaltz doesn’t shoot a ton since he’s a pass-first type of player, but his 2.7 PTS/60 rate from last season would help any fantasy squad. Look for that number to increase this season.

Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils

It seems this is the year for New Jersey Devils 2017 No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier to blossom. Another No. 1 overall pick by the name of Jack Hughes joins the ranks, along with P.K. Subban, Wayne Simmonds, and electrifying KHL superstar Nikita Gusev. Don’t forget Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri haven’t gone anywhere, either. In short, the Devils are going to score goals this year. Hischier followed up a successful rookie campaign (52 points in 82 games) with 47 points in 69 games (56-point pace). On the surface that doesn’t look fantastic, despite the growth. But his supporting cast was weak, especially once Hall went down injured.

This year, things are much different. And for the better. At only 20 years of age, his rate stats are very impressive, and they should improve with a stronger supporting cast around him. Hischier wasn’t sheltered much, instead of seeing deployment against quality lines more often than not. He put up 2.3 PTS/60 and a 54.7 CF%. Again, for a 20-year old in his second season, this is huge.

Where you’ll see real gains for the young Swiss, though, is on the power play. It’s virtually guaranteed he’ll be out there with Hall, Hughes, Subban, and either Gusev or Palmieri. Top unit minutes regardless. It may take a little time for it to gel given all the new pieces, but don’t let that deter you. This unit is going to be filthy. Hischier is in the perfect spot to fully break out this season.

Nino Niederreiter, Carolina Hurricanes

It may seem a little strange for an eight-year veteran to make a list of fantasy breakouts, but for Carolina Hurricanes forward Nino Niederreiter, all the pieces are falling into place. The Bunch of Jerks took the sports world by storm by backing up their whacky celebrations with stellar hockey. That mojo carried into the postseason, seeing the Canes all the way through to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Niederreiter, the fifth overall pick in 2010, joined midway through last season from the Minnesota Wild. In Minnesota, he had 23 points in 46 games; in Carolina, he had 30 in 36 (68-point pace), including five more goals in 10 fewer games. His success directly correlated with the stellar season from his linemate Sebastian Aho. Expect more of the same this year, and also keep an eye on Andrei Svechnikov helping out on that line, as well. There is extremely deadly potential budding here.

The Swiss veteran is still only 26 years old and will be 27 by the time the new season begins. The prime age for a professional athlete. His career-high is his 57-point effort in 2016-17 for the Wild. Niederreiter has strung together four straight seasons with at least 2 PTS/60, finishing with 2.4 last season. But if you count only the games in Carolina, it’s up to 2.7, which would be the second-best rate of his career (the best being his 57-point season). Not to mention a ridiculous 63.1 CF% for the Canes. Simply put, a full season in Carolina should blast Niederreiter into fantasy stardom.

Alex Galchenyuk, Pittsburgh Penguins

Another veteran who was drafted early concludes our list of breakouts. Pittsburgh Penguins winger Alex Galchenyuk, acquired this offseason from Arizona in the Kessel deal, will look to finally live up to the hype associated with a third overall pick. Drafted in 2012 by the Montreal Canadiens, Galchenyuk hasn’t quite fit the bill as a true star in the NHL. However, he’s still only 25 years old, so it’d be foolish to give up on him.

Galchenyuk does have a 30-goal season to his credit when he scored a career-high 56 points back in 2015-16. Montreal was home for six seasons, but last year in Arizona was one to forget. Galchenyuk scored only 41 points in 72 games. The saving grace, as far as fantasy value goes, was about half of those came on the power play. Still, overall it was one of the worst years of his career, at least at first glance.

Let’s take a look at some more encouraging numbers. Galchenyuk had very impressive advanced metrics despite the low scoring totals. He was very effective at keeping possession, shown by a 56.4 CF%. The American was also above and beyond his peers, indicated by his 10.7 CF% rel. Also, his PDO, which measures shooting percentage plus save percentage, was 976. The norm is 1000. In layman’s terms, he was unlucky. Logic tells us that if he had better teammates and the normal amount of puck luck, he’d have stronger numbers.

Good news on that front: Galchenyuk will slot into Pittsburgh’s second line alongside Evgeni Malkin. It doesn’t get much better than that. The only concern, of course, is injuries. Malkin and Galchenyuk both have had their fair share. Power play usage is up in the air. Right now, Daily Faceoff has him projected on the second unit. Patric Hornqvist is no guarantee to hold that projected spot, however. There’s a fair bit of risk involved here, but if things work out, you can be sure the change of scenery will have a seismic impact on Galchenyuk’s fantasy worth.

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