At some point, you've got to swing for the fences. It's easy to stay competitive in fantasy hockey by hitting singles and taking the most proven players every year, but once in a while you'll have to take a shot and put the fate of your fantasy season in the hands of players you expect to outperform their draft value. Here are some candidates who could break out in 2020-21, potentially going from very good to elite status.
Kevin Fiala – Minnesota Wild
Scoring 54 points in 64 regular-season games at 24 years old definitely qualifies as a breakout, but Fiala was a different animal in last year's playoffs when he unquestionably became the Wild's most dangerous offensive player. Zach Parise held that title for a long time, but Fiala has one-on-one moves and offensive flair that Parise has simply never possessed. The challenge for the Wild this season will be to find an adequate center for Fiala to play with now that Eric Staal is in Buffalo, but the lack of a quality center may be offset, at least to an extent, by the very talented Kirill Kaprizov playing on the opposite wing. A Fiala-Kaprizov pairing would arguably be the most talented combo the Wild have ever had on offense – each would have point-per-game potential. Minnesota will be a low scoring team, but Fiala should produce a big chunk of the offense.
Jakub Vrana – Washington Capitals
If you're looking for points, Vrana's your guy. Alex Ovechkin hogs the spotlight but Vrana has quietly turned into a very good second-line winger who's on the cusp of being a first-line talent. He's scored at least 20 goals in consecutive campaigns and improved his point-per-game average by 30 percent from 0.57 to 0.75 last year. Vrana also showed his ability to be an above-average finisher while increasing his shot volume in 2019-20. He's helped the Caps remain contenders despite an aging core, and sooner or later the team will have to give Vrana more offensive responsibilities. He has never averaged more than 15 minutes of ice time per contest and has never really been given a chance to play on the top power-play unit, two things that may change in 2020-21.
Elias Lindholm – Calgary Flames
He gets overshadowed by his more well-known linemates and Matthew Tkachuk's antics, but the 26-year-old Lindholm has been excellent since joining the Flames in 2018. He was largely immune to the season-long slump that hampered the rest of Calgary's roster in 2019-20, leading the team with a career-high 29 goals, and on most nights was the Flames' most noticeable player. His linemates' lack of finish was the primary culprit behind Lindholm's low assist total last year, but continued improvement and a bounce-back season for the Flames after adding big names in free agency could lead to Lindholm solidifying himself as a point-per-game player in 2020-21.
Brady Tkachuk – Ottawa Senators
The sky is the ceiling for Tkachuk, particularly because he does a little bit of everything. For the second straight season, Tkachuk managed to score at least 20 goals and 40 points while providing every kind of intangible you can think of last year. The only thing that's holding him back from being anointed a franchise player is his relatively low point totals, but he's elite at generating scoring chances, so the points should come. The Senators are a popular pick to finish last in the North Division, but they've added some key veterans, including Derek Stepan and Evgenii Dadonov, both of whom are candidates to play with Tkachuk, as well as top rookie Tim Stuetzle. Their offense is going to improve, and don't be surprised if it's by a big margin. There's a lot of upside on this team, and even if they don't capture all of it this season, Tkachuk's production should increase substantially.
Anthony Cirelli – Tampa Bay Lightning
Cirelli's offense is definitely not elite, but his two-way play might be. That still counts for something, because his ability to generate turnovers leads to scoring chances. Patrice Bergeron has carved out an elite career using a similar playstyle and has frequently posted 60-plus point seasons despite lacking dominant offensive skill. Cirelli clearly isn't there yet, but he finished fourth in Selke voting last year and was on pace for 53 points. His role's only going to grow going forward, especially with Nikita Kucherov out for the season and Steven Stamkos' health being an annual concern. Cirelli will likely step in as the Lightning's No. 2 center if Stamkos moves to the wing in 2020-21, a role that would come with added offensive opportunities.
Miro Heiskanen – Dallas Stars
This is more of a reminder that Heiskanen already elevated himself into the elite tier of fantasy blueliners during last season's playoffs. He'll have a ton of pressure on his shoulders as he surpasses John Klingberg as the top dog in Dallas this year, playing in virtually every single situation, but there's no reason to believe he won't be able to handle that added responsibility. Heiskanen is a top-15 defenseman who could finish in the top five by the end of the year. He has Norris Trophy potential.
Adam Fox – New York Rangers
Fox scored 11 fewer points than Anthony DeAngelo last year, but the margin between the two players was actually a lot smaller in terms of overall impact. DeAngelo rode an exceptionally high shooting percentage to score 15 goals and 53 points (AKA hard to sustain), but Fox was by far the better two-way player and by the end of the playoffs was undoubtedly the Blue Shirts' second option behind Jacob Trouba. The Rangers are thin on defense and will have to depend heavily on those three to log big minutes, and if Fox can displace DeAngelo on the top power-play unit, he could climb into the top 10 in scoring among defensemen. The Rangers are one of the few teams that may be better off icing two defensemen on their top man-advantage unit, and they may end up experimenting with that possibility this season with Fox at the point and DeAngelo playing the rover.
Robert Thomas – St. Louis Blues
Somehow, someway, Thomas is going to force the Blues to give him top-six minutes. He made the team straight out of major junior and became a surprisingly key player as a rookie during the Blues' Cup run in 2018-19. He's been very consistent, especially for a young player, scoring 33 and 42 points in his past two seasons, but it's been hard for him to find minutes on a stacked veteran squad. Now with Alex Steen retired and Vladimir Tarasenko out indefinitely, Thomas and his playmaking ability should take center stage in 2020-21. He'll ideally start the season playing alongside Jaden Schwartz and Brayden Schenn, both of whom are proven 50-point scorers, which is also a reasonable expectation for Thomas in terms of pace as he enters the final season of his entry-level deal. He may be a couple seasons away from breaking through elite's door, but Thomas is about to move up to the front of the queue.
Kaapo Kakko – New York Rangers
No. 1 pick Alexis Lafreniere is currently getting all the press, but don't forget about Kakko, who had a very strong showing in the playoff bubble last season. He transformed seemingly overnight, turning into the physical, goal-hunting winger he was expected to be after a trying regular season that saw him score just 10 goals in 66 games while bouncing all over the lineup. Kakko played less than 12 minutes in four of his final six games during the regular season, but averaged 15:53 per game in the playoffs and was singled out for his marked improvement. The Rangers have a glut of talented wingers so the fight for playing time will continue all year, but there won't be a drag on talent when David Quinn juggles his lines.