We're going to take a brief break from focusing on the 2014-15 campaign to set our sights on the not too distant future. Every season there are naturally a number of players that take big leaps forward and accurately predicting which players will enjoy that kind of success can give you a huge edge for the rest of the season. There's a certain degree of luck to it as there is no shortage of talent out there and attempting to pinpoint exactly when, if ever, a player will start living up to his potential is a practice with a somewhat low success rate.
It's still worth engaging in though because the players you're going after are often low-cost and thus the consequences of failure are overshadowed by the payoff for success. That's why I would rather shoot for the stars with some of my last picks rather than play it safe. In the worst case scenario, what I can find on the free agent market after the fact isn't much different than the safe players I could have drafted at that point, so if might late round gamble needs to be dropped in a few weeks, I haven't been dealt a significant setback.
Besides which, while there is a component of luck to it, it's not the same as blindly rolling the dice. There are certainly players with a higher probability of breaking out than others and this week I'm going to highlight five of the ones I'm excited about for the 2015-16 campaign:
Cody Ceci - D - Ottawa Senators
Ceci broke into the NHL last season with a modest three goals and nine points in 49 contests. At the same time though, he showed off his offensive potential in the minors with two goals and 17 assists in 27 contests. He's taken another step forward in 2014-15 with five goals and 17 points in 54 contests while firmly establishing himself as a top-four defenseman with the Senators. He's still just 21 years old with a significant amount of untapped upside and there's a good chance he'll cross the threshold into fantasy relevancy in standard leagues next season. The one knock on him is the presence of Erik Karlsson as the blueliner is leaned on heavily with the man advantage, limiting the potential power-play playing time for all other defensemen in Ottawa.
Tomas Hertl - LW - San Jose Sharks
We got a taste of what he could do back in 2013-14 when he stormed into the league with six goals in three games. He naturally slowed down, but what really stunted his progress was a knee injury that forced him to miss a little more than half of his rookie campaign. He's been healthy this season, but he's also been dealing with growing pains. That's not out of the ordinary for a sophomore and I don't think that should significantly dampen your enthusiasm about his future. He'll have time over the summer to reflect on his first truly disappointing campaign and prepare to bounce back in 2015-16. If he has a strong training camp, then there's a chance he'll start the season on a top two line and everything could build from there.
Nail Yakupov - RW - Edmonton Oilers
The last two years have been pretty disappointing for him, but we're already starting to see him thaw with three goals and six points in his last five contests. Working under head coach Todd Nelson seems to have helped him and while Nelson is technically just the interim bench boss, it will likely become permanent over the summer if the Oilers continue to hold their own under trying circumstances as they have been since he took over. Additionally, as I've mentioned in previous columns, Yakupov's PDO suggests that he's been somewhat unlucky this season. When you combine those factors with his high ceiling, you have a very appealing breakout candidate for 2015-16.
Evgeny Kuznetsov - C/LW - Washington Capitals
There was a lot of hype surrounding Kuznetsov going into the 2014-15 campaign given his success in the KHL. He had 19 goals and 44 points in 51 KHL contests in 2012-13 and another 21 points in 31 games last season. Capitals coach Barry Trotz has limited his playing time though as he adjusts to North American hockey. That's naturally slowed him offensively, but his six goals and 24 points in 55 games this season looks pretty decent when you remember that he's only averaged 12:41 minutes per contest. He's starting to get more responsibilities as he's gone from an average of 12:39 minutes per game in 12 December contests, to 13:40 in January, and 14:44 so far this month. He'll probably see his role continue to grow with the team as the stage sets for him to have an explosive 2015-16 season.
Sean Couturier - C - Philadelphia Flyers
Going into this season, Couturier had already established himself as a great defensive center, but he's been slow to develop from an offensive perspective. He had aspirations of contributing more offensively in 2014-15, but so far that hasn't really played out as the Flyers hoped. He has 12 goals and 25 points in 56 contests, which is actually a worse point-per-game pace than he had in 2013-14 when he recorded 39 points in 82 games. Nevertheless, at the age of 22, Couturier still has a substantial amount of upside and consequently still looks like a great breakout candidate going forward. He's someone that many fantasy owners have given up on, to the point where he probably won't even get drafted in a lot of standard leagues. That might work out for the best because there are other late round gambles you could be targeting, but even under those circumstances, he's someone worth keeping and close eye on with the intention of grabbing if he starts out the 2015-16 campaign on an encouraging note.