Fantasy hockey: Top ten forwards set for their breakout
The trouble with the method I’m using to identify an age bracket during which a player is historically likely to breakout for fantasy production is that it’s relying on the theory that the crowd results can represent the individual.
Saying that forwards at the age of 24 (using their age prior to Jan. 31 of the current season) score more fantasy points than any other age is true. It’s also true to say the largest single increase in production between age brackets is between the ages of 22 and 23, closely followed by the gap between 23 and 24.
These conclusions seem significant until you come back to the individual aspect of what we are trying to achieve here. There could be any number of scenarios that play out for each individual player when it comes to hitting these prime breakout years. Many, such as young superstars like Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews can’t “breakout” in the sense that they’ve already been doing elite things for a long time before they come into those key age groups. Others may not experience the steep increase seen by the collective, as they simply get a little bit better each season.
They key is trying to guess which players follow the collective curve the most: Who is going to make a big leap from 22 to 23 and then another big leap from 23 to 24 as they hit their prime?
Like the defensemen, to get the curve to look at ages, I culled the dataset down to “fantasy relevant” for each individual season from 2015-16 to 2021-22. So we are only including player-seasons that were among the top 144 from each of those seven years. It gives us a pool of 1,008 player-seasons to tally together and analyze.
Also just like the defensemen, the average fantasy points by each age bracket is essentially a flat line. Once again this happens because we are only looking at the best of the best; the fantasy relevant. So when a player has a season worthy of the top 144 forwards, it’s always a good one regardless of their age.
In this sample of seven seasons, we have two 18-year-olds that made the cut on the young end of the spectrum (one in 2018-19 and the other in 2016-17; make your guesses now). And at the old end, we have one season from a 39-year-old that made the cut and one outlier from a 43-year-old (both were in 2015-16 by the way; and I know you can guess one of them with ease). For the record, there hasn’t been a forward older than 37 to put up a fantasy relevant season since 2017-18.
Compared to our fantasy-relevant defensemen from the same seven seasons, you’ll see the forwards are younger to peak and manage to stay at that peak for longer before fewer and fewer stay relevant as they age. So when we are looking for breakout players, we want to primarily target players coming into their age 23 and 24 season.
Pierre-Luc Dubois, F, Winnipeg Jets: After a bit of offseason controversy regarding his long-term future was quickly settled, Dubois is now poised to head into his age-24 season with a new head coach and one of the most talented top-six groups in the NHL. The new coach aspect in particular is intriguing, as Rick Bowness has pulled no punches about disrupting the hierarchy of the team by saying the Jets won’t have a captain this season. It’s a pretty clear signal that this is a fresh start for the Jets. Does that mean Dubois could step in as the team’s top-line center over Mark Scheifele? Maybe. But he also doesn’t have to get that role. The Jets run deep on the wings with Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, Blake Wheeler and Cole Perfetti, making any conceivable line combination a good one for Dubois. This could be the season he pushes into the 2.0 fantasy points per game (FPPG) club.
Elias Pettersson, F, Vancouver Canucks: After exploding into the league as a 20-year-old in 2018-19, Pettersson had a dry spell that lasted until partway through last season. Given this is his age-24 campaign, the upward trajectory should continue. The Canucks have the pieces for a dangerous offense with Pettersson at the forefront and a hopefully rejuvenated Brock Boeser at his side. A good target might be the 2.18 FPPG threshold he hit in 2019-20, which would put him in the conversation for top 50 in the fantasy ranks.
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Patrik Laine, F, Columbus Blue Jackets: There were flashes of 60-goal potential that came out of Laine’s rookie and sophomore seasons. Having now turned 24 and adding another dynamic winger to the top of the Blue Jackets offense should align most of the stars needed for a career season. The one big question that remains is finding a center than can tie Laine and Johnny Gaudreau together — if not at even strength, then at least on the power play.
Jordan Kyrou, F, St. Louis Blues: Maybe it’s the 16:35 in average ice time and the third-line role for most of last season, but even with 75 points to his name in 2021-22, it doesn’t feel like Kyrou has truly broken out yet. With a big contract in hand, look for Kyrou to push up the lineup and perhaps fill the void left by David Perron on the Blues top line and power play. This is his age-24 season, so if we are going to see more from him, now is the time.
Nick Suzuki, F, Montreal Canadiens: This past summer, Suzuki turned 23 and was named the new captain of the Habs, the youngest in the storied history of the Original Six franchise. Clearly the Canadiens are expecting big things and, if his development stays on track, fantasy managers should too. His FPPG trajectory continues to push higher, with 1.95 FPPG in sight as a baseline target this season.
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Josh Norris, F, Ottawa Senators: Talk about an influx of weapons at the right time. Not only is Norris coming into this prime development age, having turned 23 in May, but Brady Tkachuk, 23, and Drake Batherson, 24, are right there with him. Now Alex DeBrincat, 25 in December, will have a chance to join this prime-age group on the power play. It truly does look like offense will be the least of the Sens concerns this season.
Martin Necas, F, Carolina Hurricanes: After scoring 41 points in 53 games in the 2020-21 campaign as a 22-year-old, Necas managed only 40 points in 78 games last season. But he has plenty going for him: Past flashes of top-tier potential combined with a good spot on the depth chart heading into his prime seasons. Necas is likely a lock for the top six and will probably start by sharing the ice with veteran center Paul Stastny and the burgeoning Andrei Svechnikov. While this is his age-24 campaign, Necas has a late birthday (for the Jan. 31 cutoff), so the true breakout could be just about to begin.
Yegor Sharangovich, F, New Jersey Devils: Sometimes breaking out can be about who you are clicking with. Jack Hughes was on the ice for 35 goals with Sharangovich at even strength last season, with the next highest tally for any other Devil paired with Hughes being only 19. They meshed well and the 24-year-old Sharangovich is in line for even more Hughes this season.
Brandon Hagel, F, Tampa Bay Lightning: Without a lot of time to mesh with the Bolts before the rubber starting hitting the road for a playoff-tested club, Hagel can be forgiven for not finding a true niche in the offense. But the 21 goals he collected for the Blackhawks before being traded hint at some potential. Give Hagel a proper offseason to nose his way into this talented but thinning top six, and perhaps we’ll see a breakout for the 24-year-old. Certainly Ondrej Palat’s spot, which includes power-play duties, is up for grabs.
Kailer Yamamoto and Jesse Puljujarvi, F, Edmonton Oilers: Yamamoto will join Puljujarvi at 24 before the season begins. Both of these wingers have developmental pedigrees that suggest the bar should be set higher — and despite falling short of the mark for several seasons now, both still have an opportunity to earn playing time with arguably the best centers on the planet.
Eeli Tolvanen, F, Nashville Predators: I do still wonder if the NHL is going to click for Tolvanen one day and we’ll see the player that set the mark for the best KHL season by an 18-year-old ever in 2017-18. His age-23 season will be the first time Tolvanen has come into an NHL campaign with a scoring-line role all but locked up. His linemates could also be improved with the addition of Nino Niederreiter to the fold. Perhaps the allowed confidence can help him recapture his scoring game.
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