Fantasy hockey draft - ten players primed to break out in 2021

After an impressive rookie year, Nick Suzuki will be counted on for a bigger role with the Montreal Canadiens. Photo by Vincent Ethier/Icon Sportswire

The performances are unprecedented but perhaps not entirely unexpected. Every season a selection of players - after one, two, or even a handful of years in the league - take that great leap forward, establishing themselves as top-tier assets with both their own real-life teams and those virtually run by smitten fantasy managers. Here's a round-up of several key candidates who may be ready to erupt in 2020-21.

Ilya Samsonov, Washington Capitals (No. 60 overall, G10)

It's straight into the deep end for Samsonov, sink or swim. With Braden Holtby gone for Vancouver and Henrik Lundqvist diagnosed with a heart condition requiring season-ending surgery -- sobering news that puts the game in perspective -- Samsonov is left by his lonesome to 'tend the Capitals' net. He did well enough last year, cobbling together 16 wins, a 2.55 goals-against average, and 0.913 save-percentage in 26 rookie appearance. Smallish sample size, but years of KHL success offer additional reassurance. Up front, the Capitals are still the Capitals, with added depth at defense - Zdeno Chara, Justin Schultz, Trevor van Riemsdyk - and a new coach in Peter Laviolette. If Samsonov doesn't pan out as a legit Top-10 fantasy goalie this season, he should come close.

Juuse Saros, Nashville Predators (No. 93 overall, G13)

A Predators' jam-packed schedule that features 10 back-to-back sets means Pekka Rinne will undoubtedly be relied upon from time to time. But Nashville's net otherwise belongs to Saros, who outperformed the veteran goaltender in 2019-20. A consistent-to-great presence between the pipes for four seasons running, and riding out an expiring contract, the 25-year-old now faces the challenge of playing for his next paycheque. The Preds' reliable defense should help him earn a rich one. Saros could easily finish as a Top-10 fantasy netminder before this unique campaign wraps up. It's his time.

Filip Hronek, Detroit Red Wings (No. 137 overall, D42)

Averaging more than a point per contest in the Czech league this fall, Hronek is already fired up and game-ready. The 23-year-old - still growing as a defenseman - is also projected to play on the Red Wings' top pair and anchor the No. 1 power play. Those assignments should translate into a hefty haul of on-ice minutes and near 40 points through a 56-game slate. Just don't count on an attractive figure in the plus/minus department. Detroit's current rebuild isn't done yet.

Nick Suzuki, Montreal Canadiens (No. 196 overall, C51)

A burgeoning top-tier playmaker and Montreal's future No. 1 center, Suzuki is already poised to build on an impressive total of 41 points in his 71-game rookie campaign, followed up with four goals and three assists in 10 playoff contests. This season round, don't underestimate what ex-Blue Jackets forward Josh Anderson - himself undervalued on the regular - brings to Suzuki's scoring line, alongside Jonathan Drouin. Anderson is big, fast, physical, and no slouch in the skills department himself - perhaps the ideal complement to a talent like the 21-year-old center. If that trio develops decent chemistry, Suzuki should near average a point-per-game, including a healthy percentage with the extra skater.

Matt Grzelcyk, Boston Bruins (No. 212 overall, D64)

With Torey Krug settled in St. Louis, one of Charlie McAvoy or Matt Grzelcyk is projected to be saddled with the ripe responsibility of anchoring a Bruins' top power play that also includes Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and (once healthy again) David Pastrnak - a power play that ranked 2nd overall in 2019-20. Nice gig. Should the role fall to Grzelcyk - who enjoyed a few turns on that unit this past season - special teams' points will follow. While McAvoy embodies the fuller fantasy package, Grzelcyk sports an extra shine in leagues that covet power-play scoring. Altogether, the puck-moving defenseman should enjoy a solid year, production-wise.

Kasperi Kapanen, Pittsburgh Penguins (No. 246 overall, RW34)

The former Maple Leafs speedster is slated to compete on a Penguins' forward line with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel and, put plainly, that's not a bad thing. If this trio comes together in reality as well as promised on paper, Kapanen is in for a career year, no question. Shuffled up and down Toronto's lineup, the first-round draft pick (2014) scored 20 goals and 24 assists through 78 games in 2018-19. Once the 24-year-old clears current immigration hurdles - he may miss a game or two - an increase in ice-time, quality scoring chances, and opportunities with Pittsburgh's power play will increase his numbers significantly.

Robert Thomas, St. Louis Blues (ranked outside ESPN's Top-300)

Already gazing up at Thomas's high fantasy ceiling as a projected top-six center - his slot to lose, according to coach Craig Berube - we're all the more excited with winger Mike Hoffman in the mix. Signed to a professional tryout, Hoffman is an early favorite to compete on a scoring line with the young center and Jaden Schwartz. Seeing limited ice-time in 2019-20, Thomas still managed to scrape out 10 goals and 32 assists in 66 games. Now in his third full season, the 21-year-old RFA-to-be - further inspired by playing for his next contract - is positioned beautifully to blow the doors on his production wide open.

Jack Hughes, New Jersey Devils (ranked outside ESPN's Top-300)

It's no secret that the first overall draft pick (2019) bulked up during his unusually lengthy offseason, reportedly to the tune of 14 pounds of muscle. Couple that beefing up with Hughes' established talent and skill, throw in Lindy Ruff's commitment to pushing his younger charges as New Jersey's new head coach, and we could be in for a rather eruptive breakout from the 19-year-old. Skating in the Devils' top-six will result in a large leap from the 21 points Hughes collected in 61 matches this past regular season.

Kaapo Kakko, New York Rangers (ranked outside ESPN's Top-300)

While New York's spotlight swings away to shine on No. 1 draft pick Alexis Lafreniere, Kakko can take a breath, chill out, and focus on improving upon his only so-so rookie campaign. Make no mistake, surviving that first pressure-filled season, and making adjustments along the way, will go far in helping the still-only-19-year-old winger take his next big stride in the NHL. Oh, and skating on a line with Artemi Panarin won't hurt. After averaging 0.35 points per game his first season, Kakko is primed to double that rate this year, while piling up points on the power play.

Cody Glass, Vegas Golden Knights (ranked outside ESPN's Top-300)

My wild-card breakout selection of 2020-21 doesn't yet have much to show for his time in the NHL, having collected only 12 points in his first and only injury-shortened rookie campaign. But the 21-year-old center is healthy now and ready to roll. Some believe Glass is still a year or two away from truly blossoming with the Golden Knights. Maybe. But I like his chances of hitting the fast-forward button on that process, should he secure himself the center's gig on a scoring line between Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone. Worth a late-round fantasy flier at minimum, Glass could start turning heads sooner rather than later. Once comfortable, this young talent is expected to score in bunches.

See also: Ryan Pulock, New York Islanders (No. 44 overall, D10), Denis Gurianov, Dallas Stars (No. 239 overall, RW33), Martin Necas, Carolina Hurricanes (No. 244 overall, C63)