Fantasy Hockey Breakouts 2019-20: Defencemen

Cale Makar Colorado Avalanche Prospects
DENVER, COLORADO - MAY 06: Cale Makar #8 of the Colorado Avalanche looks for an opening against the San Jose Sharks in the second period during Game Six of the Western Conference Second Round during the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Pepsi Center on May 6, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/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 defencemen, then finally goalies. The lists are in no particular order.

Link to forwards here.

Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche

This fantasy hockey breakout pick comes as no surprise. Every fantasy outlet under the sun has this guy earmarked for a monster season. Cale Makar shot into fantasy relevancy out of nowhere, even though he’s never played a regular season game. Makar made his debut in the playoffs, starting Game 3 for the Colorado Avalanche against the Calgary Flames. He scored a goal on his first ever shot in his first ever period as a professional. The 20-year-old went on to finish with six points in 10 games, averaging 17:22 TOI.

Makar had an exceptional college season a year ago for the University of Massachusetts (UMass). He scored 16 goals and 33 assists, earning him the Hobey Baker Memorial Award as the nation’s top player. His 49 points were tops among defencemen and second in the entire country. Makar’s skillset transitioned very well to the NHL, where he looked right at home throughout the postseason. So much so, in fact, the Avs had no problem dealing star defender Tyson Barrie to the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for forward Nazem Kadri.

Makar’s fantasy outlook is sky high. The only real question is whether he sees first unit power play minutes out of the gate. There’s talk Samuel Girard will fill that role initially, but the popular opinion is that Makar will be the main guy. Barrie racked up 23 PP assists in each of the past two seasons, so whoever takes that role is in a great position to continue that trend. Otherworldly superstars Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen are two of the best power play linemates in the league (70 combined PPP last year). Gabriel Landeskog and Kadri also will be in the mix. Makar and Girard both could tag-team the top unit backline, too. Regardless, Makar is the real deal, and he’ll see veteran minutes straight away. Barring a terrible injury or unforeseen circumstance, the rookie is as solid a lock for fantasy stardom as there could possibly be.

Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks

While younger brother Jack Hughes has stolen the limelight as the No. 1 overall pick this summer, Vancouver Canucks defenceman Quinn Hughes is ready to shine just as brightly. The elder Hughes got a cup of coffee at the tail end of the season, appearing in five games and recording three assists. Vancouver is a young, exciting team, and Hughes is a big reason why.

No matter where he played last year, Hughes stood out. Not only did he look like a veteran in his NHL games, he had strong numbers in both the NCAA and the World Championships for Team USA. At the University of Michigan, Hughes tallied 33 points (five goals, 28 assists) in 32 games. As one of the younger players in the World Championships, he recorded three assists in eight games. Hughes finished his NCAA career with 62 points in 69 games.

The agile, offensive-minded defenceman has a bright fantasy outlook. He likely won’t score many goals, but his ability to move the puck and quarterback a power play is phenomenal. Hughes is a wonderful skater, allowing him to make up for his relatively small size. Two of his three assists last year for the Canucks came on the power play. It’s very likely he’s thrust into the quarterbacking role on the top power play unit to start the season. He would see exposure to stars like Elias PetterssonBrock Boeser, and Bo Horvat.

Veteran Alexander Edler will probably man the first pairing at even strength, but don’t be surprised if injury or declining stats open the door for Hughes to be the main man all around.

Vince Dunn, St. Louis Blues

A player who may fly under several radars is St. Louis Blues defenceman Vince Dunn. The Stanley Cup champion is entering his third full season. Drafted by St. Louis in the second round of the 2015 draft, he’s put up respectable numbers in his first two seasons. The 22-year-old had 12 goals and 23 assists in 78 contests last year. That’s quite an improvement on his rookie season, where he had only five goals and 19 assists.

Dunn has always been an above-average goal scorer for his position. From 2014-2017, he scored double-digit goals in three straight seasons in the OHL and AHL. Understandably, that streak ended as a rookie in the NHL, but last season he got back up there.

When you look at his rate statistics, Dunn stands out even further, fitting in with other fantasy hockey breakouts. Last year he accumulated 1.5 PTS/60 and 6.6 S/60. Not too shabby at all for a defender — think along the lines of Drew Doughty in recent years. Nine of Dunn’s goals came in the second half of the season, equaling an 18-goal pace over a full 82 games.

Coach Craig Berube will probably stick Dunn on the third pairing to begin the season. Captain Alex Pietrangelo will play beside Carl Gunnarsson. By now, everyone knows how effective the Colton Parayko and Jay Bouwmeester tandem was, so expect that to remain intact.

However, there’s every chance in the world that Dunn ousts Gunnarsson on that top spot. Berube isn’t afraid to shuffle things around and play what works. Dunn looked dazzling at times in the postseason, and his energy would spark a power play. Dunn does so many other things well that don’t show up on stat sheets, whether it’s clearing the defensive zone or transitioning into the offensive zone. Before long, Dunn will be a top-four defenceman and featured on the power play. He can score and he can create high-percentage chances, including him in fantasy hockey breakouts.

Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers

A Calder-winning, first overall pick from 2014 somewhat strangely makes our list of fantasy hockey breakouts. On one side, Florida Panthers defenceman Aaron Ekblad has been solid and very consistent. On the other, he’s been underwhelming ever since his promising rookie season. Ekblad has scored no less than 10 goals in a single season so far in his career. However, his career-high in points was that exciting rookie season when he had 39.

The argument here is that the best is yet to come for the 23-year-old. After all of the bold offseason moves the Panthers have made, Ekblad finally has a good team around him. A very, very good team. Expectations were high last year after winning 44 games the year before, but they still missed the playoffs. But after acquiring head coach Joel Quenneville and elite goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, expectations are back up. Coach Q is the second-winningest coach in league history. Bobrovsky is simply one of the best.

A good coach and a good goalie can work wonders for team chemistry (see St. Louis Blues). New man in town Anton Stralman should see more defensive zone deployments, which is where Ekblad was featured much of the time. Ekblad alongside puck-moving wizard Keith Yandle with more offensive-zone opportunities could lead to a boost in points.

A new coach always invites a bit of intrigue as to how the team structure will look moving forward, but Quenneville should get Florida moving in the right direction. Bobrovsky provides the anchor in net that’s been missing for so long. Expect Florida to live up to the hype, and expect Ekblad to hit the 40-point mark for the first time in his career.

Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins

Potential multi-category maestro Charlie McAvoy wraps up our fantasy hockey breakouts on the blue line. The 21-year-old American is entering his third season with the Boston Bruins. McAvoy still managed 28 points in only 54 games played, which would pace out to 43 points over a full season. His rookie season pace was 42 points. Clearly, the offensive talent is there – all he needs is a full season under his belt to show what he’s capable of.

McAvoy is not just limited to offensive categories, however. The youngster loves to throw his body around, and he’s not afraid to sacrifice the body to block shots. Last season, he was third on the Bruins in blocks and fifth in hits. That’s with only 54 games played, remember.

He paced for 141 blocks and 188 hits. Only Robert Hagg had at least 140 blocks and 150 hits among defenders. Hagg only scored 19 points last season, and McAvoy paced for 43. The only thing holding him back from elite status is the presence of Torey Krug, who pretty much negates the possibility of McAvoy seeing time on the top power play group.

Still, don’t let that stand in your way of drafting McAvoy. Especially in keeper and dynasty leagues. McAvoy is the defenceman of the future for Boston. He’ll still get power play time, but it likely won’t be with the likes of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak. Although, there is the possibility that the unit gets shuffled and Krug and McAvoy work together on the top unit. All he needs is opportunity. His possession and rate metrics show the calibre of player he is, especially considering his age and the fact that he was deployed against top lines. If he can be healthy and play a full season, McAvoy will shine.

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