Fantasy Hockey: Ranking NHL rookies, beyond McDavid and Eichel
Dobber Hockey launched in 2005 and Dobber and his staff have hitched their wagons to Puck Daddy to preach fantasy hockey to the Yahoo! masses since 2009.
BY BRENDAN ROSS
Drafting your favorite NHL superstar and riding his production straight to your fantasy hockey championship is the pipe dream for all poolies but the realist in all of us understands there’s much more to hoisting the league trophy than just one player’s success.
Hitting on the big names is easy in the opening rounds but the real challenge is filling out your roster with valuable depth players. Every poolie loves finding that young gem - it makes them look like a pure hockey genius so why not fill out depth spots with a few valuable rookies?
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The key is to ensure that your rookie selections are informed ones, and that becomes the biggest challenge. Even the best youngsters can be fickle fantasy producers early in their careers, so let’s break down which ones could be worthy of a roster spot.
Introductions can be thrown aside here because these are the freshmen that your grandmothers chat about during afternoon tea time…
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers – Wunderkind junior star Connor McDavid will step right into the Oilers’ young roster and challenge to lead the team in scoring and it wouldn’t be wise to bet against him. McDavid’s shown good chemistry with high-flying winger Taylor Hall in BioSteel camp so expect him to draw top-line minutes right out of the gates and be the first rookie to post 70-plus points since Patrick Kane did it in 2007-2008. Sorry, he’s not Sidney Crosby, because he’s destined to be better.
Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres – Sabres GM Tim Murray was bummed for a brief second after losing out on Connor McDavid but he then shook it off and realized that Jack Eichel is the NHL’s best consolation prize since Evgeny Malkin came second to Alexander Ovechkin at the 2004. With a chip on his shoulder to out-perform Connor McDavid, soon-to-be American hero Eichel stands to be the prime contributor on a rather pedestrian offensive Buffalo squad.
Max Domi, Arizona Coyotes – There’s some Jekyll and Hyde in Domi’s game but when he’s on (flashback to the 2015 World Junior Championships), Max is as exciting as they come and that’ll be important in the offensively dry Arizona desert. Don’t expect Domi to come out guns-a-blazin’ but he’ll bring fans to the edge of their seats.
Darnell Nurse, Edmonton Oilers – Edmonton opted to send Darnell Nurse back for another year of seasoning in junior giving him the opportunity to etch his legacy in World Junior history with a star-studded performance. Producing points at the junior level was no problem for the smooth skating 6-foot-4 Nurse but many are still wondering if the production will follow as easily in the pro ranks. Either way, Nurse is the star blue line pillar that the Oilers are planning on building around.
Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames – A shoulder injury (with no direct link to his inability to perform a pullup at the NHL combine) sidelined the pesky skilled Sam Bennett, nixing his chance to challenge for the Calder in 2014-15. He got a taste of NHL action late in the season and even scored seconds into his debut. Bennett’s unrelenting two-way game will be endeared by Calgary’s bench boss Bob Hartley and that’ll give him plenty of opportunity to post Johnny Hockey-like numbers in 2015-16.
Kevin Fiala, Nashville Predators – The Predators welcomed Filip Forsberg’s breakout season as he climbed to the top of Nashville’s scoring charts and he has help coming with the uber-skilled, and feisty, Kevin Fiala. Jumping into North American hockey with two feet, Fiala showed that his competitive drive and knack for finding offensive chances equates to fantasy value.
Anthony Duclair, Arizona Coyotes – Dynamic speedster Duclair rattled off points quickly right off the hop in his first professional campaign before slowing down and eventually returned to his junior squad. He was a key member of Canada’s gold medal winning World Junior and now has the chance to create magic with WJC teammate Max Domi after he was traded to Arizona in the Keith Yandle deal.
The 2015 Draftees
Future fantasy lineups will eventually be littered with ’15 draftees as Mitch Marner, Dylan Strome, Zach Werenski, Timo Meier and Matt Barzal are names outside of McEichel that are destined to be fixtures on their new clubs down the road. Here are a few players to watch with the potential to step into the NHL for a taste of action as soon as 2015-16…
Dylan Strome, Arizona Coyotes – With improvements in his skating still needed, all signs point to the desert dogs returning Strome to the OHL to defend his scoring title but don’t be surprised with a brief NHL stint to start the year. Most importantly, Strome stands to be a go-to offensive option at the upcoming World Junior Championships before he enters the NHL full-time in the Fall of 2016.
Noah Hanifin, Carolina Hurricanes – Boston College standout Noah Hanifin plays a composed two-way game and with his low-maintenance mobile style, it’s expected that he impresses enough to stick around for the year. Expect 20ish points and feel free to fist-pump if he passes 30 points on the Canes blue line.
Pavel Zacha, New Jersey Devils – Physically, Pavel Zacha is arguably the most NHL-ready offensive forward from his draft class (outside of McDavid and Eichel). The problem lies in his offensive numbers, or lack thereof, with many folks needing to see these numbers climb before he steps into NHL action. On his side of the argument, Zacha is an excellent physical forward with loads of skill to offer and after excelling at shutting down Connor McDavid in post-season action, there’s two-way versatility as well. If he’s not in Jersey this season, expect a smashing debut in 2016.
Lawson Crouse, Florida Panthers – Crouse demonstrated himself as one of Canada’s premier shutdown forwards as a WJC underager and managed to produced 29 games without much help in Kingston. Offensively, the best is yet to come from Crouse and his hockey sense, two-way acumen and physical advantage could see him force his way onto the Panthers roster this Fall but it’ll be tough with a crowded left side.
Ivan Provorov, Philadelphia Flyers – Less than a year after Kimmo Timonen departed Philadelphia after years of valuable service, Flyers restocked their blue line with a similar intelligent two-way defender in Ivan Provorov. This extremely intelligent Russian isn’t large and lacks the flashiness of a Karlsson but his efficiency is reminiscent of a 10-year vet.
Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche – Every season there’s a non-Top 5 pick who steps directly into the NHL and makes an impact. Cue Finn Mikko Rantanen to fill that potential role. He’s got professional experience under his belt and with the aging Tanguay and Iginla, plus the inconsistent Grigorenko, on Colorado’s right side, Rantanen just needs to stick around long enough for an injury or frustration to strike for his opportunity.
Tough to pinpoint their arrival considering most NHL teams have their bona fide starters locked into place, the following are a few young netminders waiting for their opportunity to prove themselves...
John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks – Flashing back to Summer 2014 and we were hearing John Gibson’s name being tossed around as a Calder Trophy favorite. Here we are again one year later and he remains in the conversation after suffering injuries and being supplanted by Frederik Andersen as Anaheim’s starter. The book on Gibson remains status quo – he’s an elite NHL prospect and should be coveted in every format.
Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets – Despite an outstanding AHL debut season and World Championship showing, Hellebuyck waits patiently as the third option in Winnipeg’s goaltending platoon of Pavelec and Hutchinson. He’s pegged as the Jets’ future between the pipes and simply needs the chance to showcase his stuff. Don’t be surprised to see Hellebuyck start stealing starts very soon.
Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning – It’s been a few up and down seasons for prized goaltending prospect Vasilevskiy but this young puck stopper already has played four, yes FOUR, seasons of professional hockey. After a long run by the Lightning Vasilevskiy has earned valuable big game minutes so the jitters should be long gone. The future crease will be home to Vasilevskiy and he’s only an injury to Bishop away from taking the starter job and running with it.
Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins – After capturing both Rookie and Goaltender of the Year honors in the AHL last season, Matt Murray has tightened the long leash on Marc-Andre Fleury because the organization now has a viable challenger for the starter’s position. He’ll concede the crease to MAF for now but he’s certainly fast tracking himself to the NHL quicker then everyone expected.
The Next Wave
Considered safer bets to make the NHL and step into prime ice time, the following youngsters should be moved up the draft rankings as essential long-term additions to fantasy rosters…
Sam Reinhart, Buffalo Sabres – Championship teams are built down the middle and with Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart pencilled in as their future 1-2 punch it’s looking much brighter on the shores of Lake Erie. Temper the offensive expectation for Reinhart as a rookie but he’s worth targeting for his long-term potential.
Dylan Larkin, Detroit Red Wings – The hottest riser in prospect circles, Big Ten standout rookie Dylan Larkin is forcing the Red Wings to shed their traditionally slow development ideology. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s skilled and he’ll be starring on the Wings roster sooner rather than later. Larkin is the total package.
Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets – Looking for a fantasy gem to fill your rookie slot? Target dashing Dane Nikolaj Ehlers if he hasn’t been scooped up. Blazing speed and silky mitts make Ehlers a must own as only a few prospects own his upside in fantasy circles. If he’s not in the ‘Peg full-time in 2015-16, he’s worth stashing and waiting on – you won’t be disappointed.
Robby Fabbri, St. Louis Blues – The Blues stacked depth chart at the NHL level hurts Robby Fabbri’s chances of cracking the big leagues but he’s impressed the organization and they will looking for a spot to place him in. Likely destined to start as a winger, Fabbri just needs an opportunity to show he can contribute.
Nick Ritchie, Anaheim Ducks – No junior player combines nastiness and skill better than Nick Ritchie and after being drafted in the 2014 1st round, he could’ve played in the NHL last season. However, being returned to the OHL where he’d eventually land in Sault Ste Marie to vie for a championship worked out splendidly for the big rugged winger as he gained a lot of offensive confidence. He’s an attractive rookie option with the chance of lining up next to Getzlaf and Perry.
Shea Theodore, Anaheim Ducks – He cleared the point-per-game milestone (48 in 43) as a junior defender and then proceeded to rattle off 11 points in his nine game sting in the AHL. Keep tabs on Shea Theodore as he’s knocking on the door and will earn power-play minutes.
Sooner or Later
Not every team has room to add a handful of rookies each season but these talent players are waiting in the wings to be called into action and should provide value when they do...
Oliver Bjorkstrand, Columbus Blue Jackets – Accolades galore will follow Oliver Bjorkstrand as he embarks on the start of his professional career after leading the WHL in scoring and being named Player of the Year on the back of his 118 points. Despite advanced hockey sense, a wicked shot, astute two-way play and gaudy production, Bjorkstrand still fights to earn “elite” prospect status. Eventually he’ll earn the last laugh when he establishes himself as a valuable top-sixer.
Nikolay Goldobin, San Jose Sharks – Historically known for playing their rookies in prime offensive roles sooner than most, San Jose remains a team to watch for potential rookie breakouts. Nikolay Goldobin turned heads last fall and will get a long look again to show his offensive flair that’ll eventually be the heir to the Thorntons, Marleaus and Pavelskis.
Kasperi Kapanen, Toronto Maple Leafs – The prized piece from the Phil Kessel trade, Toronto received a high upside forward who will be a key piece in their long but promising rebuild. After nearly making the Penguins out of camp last season, Kapanen’s debut for the blue and white is highly anticipated. He will need a lot of roster movements in Toronto to gain worthy ice time at the NHL level but he could contend for the AHL scoring title on a strong Marlies team.
Nic Petan, Winnipeg Jets – It was a storied junior career for this ultra skilled WHLer after Nic Petan racked up 322 points over 188 games in three seasons. His 5-foot-9 frame is nothing to write home about but his playmaking skills, shrewd vision and ability to dominate possession are qualities that are essential to any books in publication about “How to star as an undersized hockey player.”
Julius Honka, Dallas Stars – Stash this smaller defender away in fantasy leagues if you’re looking for a near-NHL ready puck moving defenseman capable of chipping in 30+ points in his prime. Honka owns some intriguing offensive upside and with Dallas looking for help on their blue line, he stands a good chance to debut his skills as soon as 2015-16.
Michael Matheson, Florida Panthers – A true wildcard by every definition of the word, Matheson cracks this list because he has loads of offensive potential. With Ekblad, Kulikov and Campbell ahead of him on Florida’s depth chart, Matheson needs to bide his time before receiving the valuable power-play time he needs in order to be valuable in fantasy leagues.
Ryan Pulock, New York Islanders – AHL rookie rearguard rattled off a remarkable 17 goals in his first professional season solidifying his spot on “To Watch” lists. Take a quick peek at the Islanders’ defensive depth charts and you’ll notice that it’s lacking any high-end names which only adds to Pulock’s long term value.
With a few extra years under their belts and coming from overseas, don’t let these names slip by on draft day…
Artemy Panarin, Chicago Blackhawks – KHL export Artemy Panarin enters the NHL as a mature 23-year-old rookie but after playing alongside former NHL star sniper Ilya Kovalchuk and outscoring him to lead the SKA St. Petersburg in goals and points, he’ll make an immediate impact with the defending Stanley Cup Champions as a cheap scoring option.
Sergei Plotnikov, Pittsburgh Penguins – The search for Crosby’s and Malkin’s wingers continue with Sergei Plotnikov added to the Penguins roster. He owns the size, strength and offensive resume to slide into a top-six role but nothing is guaranteed either. The 25-year-old rookie needs to produce or Kunitz and/or Perron will quickly take his place.
Ivan Barbashev, Adam Clendening, Anthony DeAngelo, Shayne Gostisbehere, Anthony Mantha, Samuel Morin, Josh Morrissey, Nikita Scherbak, Zach Hyman, Alex Khokhlachev, Joe Morrow, Colin Miller
Brendan Ross is the Managing Editor and lead prospect scout at DobberProspects.com. You can follow his work on Twitter @RossyYoungblood. Get the lowdown on all fantasy-worthy hockey prospects at DobberProspects.com
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