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.
Note: Some goalies in this list may have “broken out” in a limited sense last season, but for the purposes of this article, they will be considered full breakouts for the entire season.
Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues
It would be remiss if rookie Stanley Cup winner Jordan Binnington were left off this list. The 26-year-old’s season was simply magical. He went from virtual obscurity to being thrust into the midst of the unlikeliest of post-season runs. Binnington ultimately, quite literally, saved the St. Louis Blues, taking them from league laughingstock to lifting Lord Stanley for the first time in their 52-year history.
Binnington only made 30 starts last season, but they the numbers were astounding. His record was an astounding 24-5-1. He finished first in the NHL in GAA (1.89), fourth in SV% (.927), and even sixth in shutouts (five). ‘Quality Starts’ are defined as either a start with a save percentage above league average or with an .885 percentage when facing fewer than 20 shots. Of his 30 starts, 65.6% were quality starts, good for fourth among starters – just a hair behind superstar Andrei Vasilevskiy.
The former third-round pick, way back in 2011, had been playing well in the AHL, but his call-up to St. Louis wasn’t part of the plan. Jake Allen and the rest of the Blues were playing flat-out terrible hockey and were dead last in the league entering 2019. Top goalie prospect Ville Husso was supposed to get the call, but he was hurt. Binnington got his chance and immediately wowed with a shutout against the Philadelphia Flyers.
It would be a little foolish to expect Binnington to repeat those numbers, but it also would be foolish to ignore how good he was. He showed he can be a franchise goalie, becoming the winningest rookie goalie in Stanley Cup Playoffs history. The Blues signed him to a two-year deal this offseason, and he is undeniably the number one goalie moving forward. The Blues play a tough style of hockey – they were the sixth-best team in terms of total goals against. There’s no reason Jordan “Winnington” couldn’t enjoy a full breakout season playing behind the defending champs.
Elvis Merzlikins, Columbus Blue Jackets
The Columbus Blue Jackets will enter the 2019-20 looking very different than the Cinderella team that swept the Tampa Bay Lightning and won the hearts of sports fans everywhere. Three key departures this offseason – Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and Sergei Bobrovsky – will provide room for a big roster shake-up this coming season. Top goalie prospect Elvis Merzlikins should benefit from the new vacancy between the pipes.
Widely considered one of the best goalies, if not the best, outside of the NHL, the 25-year-old Latvian will compete with Joonas Korpisalo for the starting role. The Blue Jackets showed their investment in Merzlikins by signing him to an extension before Bobrovsky walked away. Merzlikins has spent his career so far playing for Swiss team Lugano, where he posted back-to-back .921 SV% seasons. Last season in five games for Team Latvia, he had a 2.78 GAA and a .914 SV%. The year before was even better – a 1.56 GAA and a .937 SV% in seven games.
Korpisalo, Merzlikins’s only threat to the starting job, has been a career backup, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if he continued to do just that. Korpisalo’s career numbers are nothing to write home about. He had a nice rookie season, but since then the’s never had better than a .905 SV%. Last year he had a grisly .897 SV% in 27 appearances, and it was identical the year before.
It may be a bit of a timeshare to start the season since he has no NHL experience, but make no mistake: Merzlikins belongs with these other fantasy hockey breakouts and is the goalie of the future in Columbus.
David Rittich, Calgary Flames
If things go as well as they did last year, David Rittich could easily take over the full-time gig for the Calgary Flames. Rittich had a very nice 2018-19 season, where he went 27-9-5, with a 2.61 GAA and a .911 SV%. The problem is there’s a new goalie in town, Cam Talbot, who won 42 games back in 2016-17 with the Edmonton Oilers.
The good news for Rittich owners is that Talbot was pretty terrible last season. But the flip side of that is that he was playing for a rather terrible hockey team in Edmonton. Talbot finished the year with the Philadelphia Flyers (only appearing in four games), and his overall numbers were an 11-17-3 record, a 3.40 GAA, and an .892 SV%. But, if Talbot can find the form he displayed in his first few seasons, Rittich could be in some trouble.
Rittich will get his opportunities early on, however. And if last season is any indication, he could get rolling quick enough that Talbot never gets a chance to create much momentum of his own. It’s not too far-fetched to assume Rittich gets the most looks in the early going while the new guy takes a back seat. Talbot is now 32, while Rittich just turned 27, so that’s another factor in Rittich’s favor.
Rittich’s fantasy hockey breakouts status is a tad more high-risk, high-reward, but either way he should be a serviceable fantasy option playing behind the best regular season team in the Western Conference a year ago.
Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers
Philadelphia Flyers netminder Carter Hart went toe-to-toe with Jordan Binnington as rookie sensations. Like Binnington, Hart also started 30 games, earning a 16-13-1 record while posting a 2.83 GAA and a .917 SV%. While Binnington inarguably had the bigger splash as a rookie, the age difference between the two is in Hart’s favor. At only 21 years old, one has to think even better days are just ahead.
Before making his NHL debut in December, Hart had started 18 AHL games for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. On the surface, his numbers don’t look fantastic. He had a 3.05 GAA and a .902 SV%, but those are respectable numbers for a rookie.
As a full-time starter for half an NHL season, Hart more than held his own for a 20-year-old. Just over half of his starts (16/30) were quality starts. Really Bad Starts (RBS) are starts with a save percentage below .850 – Hart only had four of those. And that’s on a team that was 29th overall in goals against.
Additionally, in the 2019 World Championships, Hart made three starts for Team Canada. He put up a very impressive showing: a 0.70 GAA and a .964 SV%.
Hart should have the starting role entering the season, making him a fit for fantasy hockey breakouts. He will certainly cede starts to veteran Brian Elliott, but Hart will have every chance to be the franchise goalie the Flyers organization hopes he can be.
Philipp Grubauer, Colorado Avalanche
The final goalie in our list of fantasy hockey breakouts is Philipp Grubauer. The Colorado Avalanche netminder upped his game to outlandish levels in the latter part of the 2018-19 season. Avalanche fans have a lot to be excited about heading into the new season, even more so if Grubauer can keep things going throughout a full campaign.
Much of last season was forgettable for Grubauer. Before the All-Star break, he was 9-6-3 in 21 games as Semyon Varlamov‘s backup. He posted a 3.38 GAA and an .891 SV%. Something clicked after the break, though. In 16 games, he went 9-3-2, earning a 1.69 GAA and a .948 SV%. Twelve of his final 13 games were quality starts.
Grubauer carried his scorching end to the regular season into the playoffs. Colorado upset the Flames in five games, but succumbed to the San Jose Sharks in seven in the second round. In 12 postseason starts, Grubauer has a 2.30 GAA and a .925 SV%.
As the undisputed lead man between the pipes, look for Grubauer and the heavily hyped Avalanche to come storming out of the gate after a heartbreaking and controversy-laden playoff exit.
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