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Breaking into the NHL used to be hard. Rookies had to be truly special before they were really given a shot. Not anymore. The NHL is getting younger and younger, and players on entry-level deals provide cheap relief for teams that are strapped by the cap or in a rebuild. In fact, kids are critical to Cup runs. Long gone are the days of a league dominated by 27-to-32-year-olds. Teams seem to need to win it all while their best young players are still on their first deals. Otherwise, the cap will crush their souls. Sorry, Toronto. I guess your time has passed.
I was going to start this article by saying I was officially torn about drafting fantasy rookies, especially in single-year leagues. But that's a lie. I'm not torn. These kids are better than good; they're great, and worthy of fantasy attention in just about every format.
MacKenzie Blackwood, G, New Jersey Devils
Blackwood had the best goalie stats on the Devils last season despite playing just 23 games (21 starts). Cory Schneider says he's in the best shape he's been in a long time, but he's 33 and seriously injury-prone. Blackwood will platoon with Schneider, and while the Devils will try to ease him in slowly, his talent should win out. It wouldn't be surprising to see the 22 year old garner Calder consideration while posting 20-plus wins this season. Goalies always seem to be at a premium, so he's worth stashing.
Maxime Comtois, LW, Anaheim Ducks
Comtois looked like the next big thing last October. He delivered seven points in his first 10 NHL games, but an injury stopped him dead in his tracks. Once healthy, Comtois went back to junior and pounded in close to two points per game, and he was sharp as Canada's captain at the U20 World Junior Championships. The Ducks are going to give their young players a real shot this season and Comtois could end up on the top line beside Ryan Getzlaf. This rugged winger could deliver 45 points and more than 200 hits this year.
Hirose lived up to the hype as the top unsigned college player in 2018-19 once he signed with the Wings. His seven points in 10 games at season's end opened a lot of eyes. Hirose has extraordinary vision and will be given every chance to win a second-line job this season. He has the skills necessary to produce a 50-55 point campaign as a rookie. It's a big jump to go from 38 NCAA games to 82 in the NHL, but I still targeted him this summer during open free agent bidding in one of my leagues. You should, too.
Jack Hughes, C, New Jersey Devils
The Hughes hype is real. Jack has all the necessary tools to be a difference-maker in the NHL. He could skate with Taylor Hall at even strength this season and excel on the top power-play unit with Hall, P.K. Subban, Nico Hischier and Kyle Palmieri. Worst-case scenario, Hughes runs the second PP. He'll be a first-round target in keeper formats and could have 60-point relevance right away. He should get a Calder nomination and be the face of the Devils long after Hall exits Jersey.
Quinn Hughes, D, Vancouver Canucks
The eldest Hughes doesn't have Jack's hype, but maybe he should. Quinn played in five games at the end of 2018-19 and picked up three helpers. This was after a one-and-done, 32-game, 33-point season at Michigan. I knew he was good, but it was Quinn's command of the game that got me truly excited. He had the poise of a 10-year veteran. Dang. Hughes will be a stalwart on the Orca's second pairing alongside Chris Tanev, whose stay-at-home approach will provide the perfect foil for the rookie to grow his game. He's going to be fun to watch.
Kaapo Kakko, RW, New York Rangers
Kakko may have been the No.2 pick in June, but he could be more productive this season than his New Jersey rival. Kakko dominated last year while playing against men in Finland's top league. He's skilled, strong and fearless with a hockey IQ that's top of the chart. The Rangers might not contend for the postseason in 2019-20, but that won't stop Kakko from posting a 50-point season (or more). Think Gabriel Landeskog in his first year. Kakko should be an impact player from the moment he steps on NHL ice and will be given every opportunity to show that off on the Blueshirts' top line.
Cale Makar, D, Colorado Avalanche
The 2018-19 Hobey Baker winner stepped straight into the NHL playoffs last season and not only held his own but delivered four points in six games. Makar skates like the wind and is a wizard with the puck. He'll be on the Avs' top pairing and run the top power-play unit with studs like Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog this year. Fifty points is a distinct possibility, and so is the Calder. One word: Stud.
Elvis Merzlikins, G, Columbus Blue Jackets
I love this guy. Elvis is athletic and acrobatic with the swagger of an absolute stud. His game tends to have ups and downs, but he always seems to come through in big moments. Elvis has twice been named the top tender in the top Swiss league and has stood on his head for Team Latvia at the World Championships. The Blue Jackets will give this Mike Palmateer clone (you're welcome, Leafs' fans) every chance to earn at least a platoon role with Joonas Korpisalo this season, although Joonas is the so-called top dog heading into camp. I'm looking forward to watching this cocky Latvian shake up the NHL.
Sam Steel, C, Anaheim Ducks
Steel is a small, fast, hard-nosed pivot who's the heir apparent to Ryan Getzlaf as the Quacks' top center. This season, his vision, skill, and intensity, coupled with a new era in Anaheim, will thrust Steel squarely into a role on the second line. Look out if he gets decent wingers. Fearless prediction? How about 40-45 points with room for more if he skates with Rickard Rakell.
Alexandre Texier, LW, Columbus Blue Jackets
Texier has blistering speed, mesmerizing moves, and opportunity — there's nothing better than that. Columbus has spots to fill because of Artemi Panarin's departure and Texier will be given a shot to earn a role. The usual caveats apply. He needs to put on muscle, he'll likely play on the wing rather than his natural center and he's playing for the volatile John Tortorella. However, Torts loves the Frenchman's "arrogance," so don't be surprised to see this talented kid end up on a scoring line this season.
Drake Batherson, RW, Ottawa Senators (could be on second line, but hard to excel in Canada's capital)
Erik Brannstrom, D, Ottawa Senators (hard to play great D on a crappy team, especially as a rookie)
Evan Bouchard, D, Edmonton Oilers (the Oil destroy prospects; hope they give him another year to develop)
Dante Fabbro, D, Nashville Predators (future stud will be brought along slowly)
Cody Glass, C, Vegas Golden Knights (thinks game is at elite level, but tough lineup to crack)
Denis Gurianov, LW, Dallas Stars (fourth-liner, but might Roope Hintz his way to second line by season's end)
Vitali Kravtsov, RW, New York Rangers (could end up the top rookie scorer on Broadway)
Karson Kuhlman, RW, Boston Bruins (buzzsaw could skate with Krejci, but get no PP time)
Martin Necas, RW, Carolina Hurricanes (talented and fast, but likely eased in on third line)
Victor Olofsson, LW/RW, Buffalo Sabres (better in AHL than on fourth line)
Nikolay Prokhorkin, LW, Los Angeles Kings (point-per-game KHLer could start on top line; I'm buying)
Jason Robertson, LW, Dallas Stars (Corey Perry complicates his chances)
Owen Tippett, RW, Florida Panthers (look out if he wins second-line role — this guy is a natural sniper)
Eeli Tolvanen, LW/RW, Nashville Predators (would boost offense, but hard to crack top-six)
Filip Zadina, RW, Detroit Red Wings (needs to dominate the AHL first)