This article will serve as part 2 of 4 in a series that draws attention to notable players who could really turn heads in each division next season. These players could be looking to have breakout performances or to bounce back after a lackluster 2018-19 season, and if you’re gearing up for a few fantasy drafts, or looking to keep your finger on the pulse of the league then these names will be of interest.
Let’s dive into the central division and list some names who could be taking those next steps on each team.
Following last year’s coming out party for Debrinicat, the Blackhawks won’t be a team with many players bursting onto the scene. The only one I could see making raising his stock is Dominik Kubalik. After successfully importing Kahun last year, the Hawks will look to do the same with another Czech native in Kubalik, who had a career year in the Swiss-A league posting 57 points in 50 games and was named league MVP. Trading a 5th to L.A. is a low-risk deal I absolutely love for Bowman.
The 7th rounder from 2013 is familiar with the North American game from his playing days in the OHL and appears to be penciled in on the fourth line for now. That could change if Kubalik flashes the offense he’s capable of producing and surpasses Smith to take the left wing slot on the third line or gets shuffled into the top six. He’s a hidden gem to keep an eye on for deeper fantasy leagues as well.
Colorado is littered with players like Jost, Burakovsky, and Nichushkin who could make significant progress this year, but we’ll hone in on Cale Makar and Joonas Donskoi for now.
There is a tremendous amount of hype for Cale Makar, especially after the 20 year old’s performance in the 2019 postseason, which saw him appear on the scoresheet 6 times in 10 games. A former fourth overall pick, Makar won’t exactly be coming out of nowhere, but this will be the year that he establishes himself as one of the game’s electric, young defencemen.
He played most of the playoffs alongside Sam Girard and most seem to think he’ll start the year with him again on the second pair while getting time on the first unit power play. In their small playoff sample size, the pair wasn’t leaned on heavily in the defensive end but delivered on expectations to control play offensively putting up a 66.68% expected goal share rate (xGF%). That rate was 1st on the team among pairs who played more than 60 minutes together. Second was Barrie and Zadorov, who put up 53.58%.
Donskoi has been shuffled up and down the wings in San Jose and will now have his best chance to secure a spot in a top-six with Colorado. He’s always been a player who I thought simply needed the opportunity to succeed. Over the last three year’s he’s played quite well.
Last year he was actually first among Shark forwards in 5 on 5 xGF% with 57.33% while playing the 8th most minutes among Shark forwards. Give the guy minutes!
In Dallas, Roope Hintz gave folks a lot to talk about following ha solid regular season and terrific playoffs as a rookie, but in 2019-20 he’ll have fans all over the league familiar with his work. Hintz showed growth throughout the year and topped it off by playing his best hockey at the end of the season and there’s no reason to think he won’t continue to build off that.
Hintz is able to play center or left wing, which gives the Stars the flexibility to have him in the top six or centering the third line while seeing power play time. Last season Hintz also proved more than capable on the defensive with good shot suppression numbers and limiting xGA. Underlying numbers also showed that he scored less than his xG, so he’s a good bet to improve on his last point total. I’d look for him to take that next step and flirt with 50 points.
The other Star that has the potential to turn heads is Denis Gurianov, although it’s tough to predict where he slots in. Coming off of a career year that saw him split time between leagues, most expect him to make the opening night roster and cement his spot. As a 21 year old, Gurianov tallied 48 points in 57 games in the AHL and 4 points in 21 games with the big club.
Since going 12th overall in the 2015 draft, Gurianov has built himself a reputation of being a dynamic offensive player who has noticeable scoring potential. However, his defensive game could use work. If he can tap into that potential that had scouts saying he could have the highest ceiling out of all the players in his draft year, then Dallas should have another good piece to add to their already improved forward group.
Kevin Fiala didn’t have the year he was hoping to but appears to be n a good spot to put together a bounce-back campaign. Not only does he have the skill, but he’ll have the opportunity in Minnesota’s top six to do so. Something he didn’t consistently have in Nashville.
You can see his contrasting underlying numbers above. Offensively, this is a player I believe in, but Bruce Boudreau will be looking for him to improve defensively. The fact that he’s repeatedly underperformed in terms of xG tells us that there’s some untapped potential there for the 23-year-old.
Dante Fabbro is a player many preds fans are anxiously awaiting. The 2016 1st rounder joined the team late last year and will most likely fill a top four role on the Preds blue line with the departure of Subban. His small taste of NHL action included 10 games, 6 of which were playoff games. He was given bottom pairing minutes in those games, but should be given more on a thin right side that includes Weber, Irwin and Santini after Ellis.
Fabbro didn’t put up impressive point totals, but his Corsi and xGF% were both above average in his small sample size. He possesses a great all around game, while not really wowing you with one part of his game, although his skating abilities and awareness are quite good. For his age, he shows great defensive maturity and should really excel in the transition game. Playing with Ekholm also doesn’t hurt a player poised to take the next big step in his career.
St Louis Blues
I was going to write about Thomas, but I think after the Blues’ cup run he became more of a household name, so we’ll focus on Vince Dunn. Likely the same amount of people are familiar with Dunn, but they may not know how good he really is. He busted onto the scene in 2017-18 and has enjoyed two phenomenal years.
These numbers from last year show how excellent he is offensively, while still being above average in the defensive zone. Dunn is also still quite young, so there is also plenty of room for growth here especially if the blues would play him more. Dunn gets powerplay time but only gets third line minutes at 5 on 5.
I believe Dunn has shown he’s capable of holding down a top-four spot and he’ll have to pass one of Gunnarsson or Bouwmeester, but this is the year he should do so. With Dunn still being on his ELC, it truly makes him one of the more desirable defensemen in fantasy leagues with a salary cap.
There are a few Jets that have the potential to have big years and one of them is Kristian Vesalainen. Jets fans are very excited about their top prospect, as am I. The big bodied winger looks ready to play a key role this year, which would be a contrast to last season when he spent time in the NHL, AHL, and KHL. Vesalainen made the team out of camp last year and was sent down to the Moose where he played 8 games and decided the KHL was the best place for him to develop. Finishing with 17 points in 31 games in Russia sure made it seem like the right call.
Vesalainen’s will likely play on the third line to start his rookie season and would be a nice fantasy pick up in keeper leagues especially. His prospect profile created by Sean Tierney based on Emmanuel Perry’s reflects well on him too.
The Jets are already loaded with forwards who fun to watch, but Vesalainen and his wicked shot give viewers another reason to tune in. The kid is going to be great.
In Winnipeg, it’s also a big year for Sami Niku. The 22-year-old played 20 games in the AHL and 30 in the NHL, providing different takeaways from his time spent in both leagues. With the Moose, he showed his ability to produce by racking up 12 points in his 20 games but wasn’t able to find the same kind of success at the higher level. However, I’m going to give the 7th rounder the benefit of the doubt and say that he has the potential to be an important piece in his first full NHL season.
His underlying numbers with the big club weren’t that great in the small sample size, but with the departures of Myers and Trouba, there’s room on the blue line for contributions from new faces. Look for Niku to be one of those.
Up next, we’ll turn attention to the Metro, but if you missed part 1 on the pacific division, you can check it out here.