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Monday, September 30, 2013
The fantasy value of NHL rookies

By Sean Allen
ESPN.com

Nathan MacKinnon
Nathan MacKinnon, Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Drouin went 1-2-3 in the 2013 NHL draft.

All dedicated fantasy hockey owners feel like they are familiar with all the potential impact rookies ahead of each campaign. And each campaign, we are all proven wrong.

In 2013, it was Cory Conacher and Brendan Gallagher that made all the preseason Calder Trophy predictions seem as though they were missing something. In 2011-12, it was Matt Read and Carl Hagelin that surprised (although they didn't compete for the Calder) and in 2010-11, it was Jeff Skinner making everyone look silly.

We can do all the preseason research we want, but there probably will be some surprise rookies that make the NHL and then find an opportunity to exploit. That said, the best way to combat the possibility of obscure players making a fantasy impact is to be exhaustive while familiarizing ourselves with rookies.

The 2013-14 class of rookies comes with quite a bit of excitement compared to previous seasons. Rather than searching for additional names to include in a preview of the rookies, the difficulty is in determining which ones to leave out. While the 2013 NHL entry draft provides us with a few names, the rookie class is also sprinkled with several players that push up against the limits of how the NHL defines rookies. In fact, Sven Baertschi is eligible for the trophy despite two seasons and 25 games of experience. Chris Kreider has played 49 games in the NHL, but because 26 of them are in the postseason spread over two campaigns, he still counts as a rookie (although he'll begin the campaign in the AHL).

We will go down the list in order of projected fantasy impact for the 2013-14 season, starting with the forwards and then moving to defensemen. Remember the lessons of Skinner or Conacher, though, and realize that this list is very fluid.

Rookie Forwards

Nathan MacKinnon, C/RW, Colorado Avalanche: Before the NHL draft had taken place, new Avalanche coach Patrick Roy had Nathan MacKinnon penciled in as his third-line winger. That should say plenty about the opportunities awaiting the No. 1 overall pick. A rockstar in both his seasons in the QMJHL, MacKinnon displayed skills for both scoring goals and setting them up. His fantasy potential is somewhat limited by the depth of the Avalanche lineup. It is not clear if MacKinnon will crack power-play time for the team, and playing on the third line will limit his minutes somewhat. Of course, he has the skill set to force the team to give him more ice time at important moments.

Paul Stastny and Alex Tanguay are projected to play bigger roles than MacKinnon, but the younger player could force Roy to change his mind with strong play. A top-six role and power-play time would instantly vault MacKinnon into a must-own commodity in fantasy. But at the moment, he is a bench candidate as the season approaches. He has missed much of the preseason with a hip flexor injury, but is expected to be 100 percent when the puck drops on Oct. 2.


Sven Baertschi, LW, Calgary Flames: He is the most skilled Flames forward heading into the season, but a weak preseason actually has the Calgary newspapers suggesting he could start the campaign in the AHL. That would be a travesty for fantasy owners looking for a way to get some value from a rebuilding Flames roster that doesn't have much about which to get excited. The 20-year-old is one of the few bright spots that could pay fantasy dividends in the right situation. Baertschi made the rest of the WHL look silly as an 18-year-old in the 2011-12 season, when he scored 94 points in 47 games, easily the best per-game pace of significance in the league.

Working with some combination of Jiri Hudler, T.J. Galiardi or Mikael Backlund, there is potential for a dynamic scoring line to emerge for this Flames team. Despite 25 games in the NHL, Baertschi is unproven, and is definitely a gamble. But when considering both skill and opportunity for the rookie class, the sky is the limit for Baertschi.


Valeri Nichushkin, RW, Dallas Stars: Nichushkin has a ton of star quality and already possesses the moves to make him a goal-scoring phenom in the NHL. But, he also possesses the skills to be a goal-scoring phenom in the KHL if he doesn't like how things are going in North America. To be fair, by all accounts his career is off to a happy start with the Stars, and he looks to open the season on the team's second line with Ray Whitney. But if Nichushkin doesn't have an immediate impact on the scoresheet, is he going to be OK with a demotion to the third line? Fourth line? What about the AHL?

For the same reason the uber-talented forward fell to the Stars at No. 10 overall in the draft, Nichushkin deserves to fall pretty far in fantasy drafts. But if you have your bases mostly covered on forward and are ready to start aiming for lottery tickets, Nichushkin comes with the largest potential payoff of the rookies.


Boone Jenner, C, Columbus Blue Jackets: Not on most fantasy radars when the preseason opened, Jenner quickly made his presence known with some red-hot exhibition scoring alongside Marian Gaborik and Brandon Dubinsky. The former New York Rangers linemates quickly re-established their chemistry as Blue Jackets and Jenner appears to be along for the ride. The Oshawa Generals product from the OHL plays a tough game, dishing the body and playing hard every shift.

Whether Jenner sticks on Gaborik's line is a question that only time and coach Todd Richards will tell. The Blue Jackets have plenty of young talent to go around and a lot of it has more experience. But we can't completely discount the potential shown in the preseason. Jenner should be on the bubble for player adds in shallow leagues and should be a deep league staple entering the season.


Mark Scheifele, C, Winnipeg Jets: One reason to not get too excited about Jenner and the Blue Jackets is Scheifele's past. In the 2011 preseason, Scheifele lit up opposing goalies and was one of the points leaders in the exhibition games. He broke camp with the Jets, scored one goal in seven games and was sent back to the OHL. Scheifele then had another dominant OHL campaign during the lockout-shortened season, helping his Barrie Colts to the OHL finals with 41 points in 21 playoff games. Then, he played four games for the Jets at the end of last season with no points.

Despite his being heralded as the future of the Jets, the team looks like they will be keeping him out of the top six, at least to start the season. But Evander Kane's linemates on the second line are Olli Jokinen and Devin Setoguchi, which means Scheifele might not have to do too much to earn a promotion at some point. It's no guarantee that he earns big minutes, though, so Scheifele should be approached with caution when drafting.


Ryan Strome, C, New York Islanders: He wasn't penciled into the top six to start the season, and in fact, he'll begin the season in the AHL. Strome drips with creative offense, and could be a huge boon to the Islanders when he is ready for a top-six role, but that might not be for a while. There are plenty of danglers that have made junior hockey opponents look silly only to never find their defensive feet in the NHL. Nevertheless, he's a guy who is worth monitoring in the early going.


Filip Forsberg, C/RW, Nashville Predators: It will be up to Forsberg to make being a top-six forward for the Preds mean something this season. David Legwand, Gabriel Bourque and Matt Cullen as potential linemates don't make fantasy owners drool over Forsberg's upside. But this is a talented kid who can make his linemates -- whoever they may be -- better. However, at just 19 years old, Forsberg may not be ready for the pressures of being one of the top offensively gifted players on an NHL team.

We haven't been able to judge much from the preseason, since Forsberg is dealing with a lower-body injury. He is expected to start the season and will, for the club's lack of other options, have a top-six role with the Predators. We will likely find out very quickly if he is ready to be a fantasy star. If you can stash him late in drafts, he is worth holding on to for the first couple games to see if he is ready.


Nick Bjugstad, C, Florida Panthers: Dealing with a concussion he suffered at rookie camp, Bjugstad should still have a spot waiting for him with the Panthers when he recovers. A sizable centerman with an ability to score, Bjugstad makes a tremendous No. 2 to Jonathan Huberdeau, and is likely one of the reasons the Panthers were so amenable to letting Stephen Weiss walk via free agency.

There will be plenty of wingers with enough talent for Bjugstad to find linemates if he can get healthy quickly. Of course, the longer he takes to recover, the longer other players have to carve out a niche on a Panthers scoring line. Bjugstad should probably be watched on the waiver wire in your league for now.


Chris Kreider, C, New York Rangers: Certainly boasting more experience than any other Calder-eligible forwards, Kreider should be a favorite to quickly find his footing in the NHL, although he will begin his 2013-14 campaign with the Rangers' AHL affiliate. If and when he's called up, Kreider's role -- as a scoring-line role or as a stern defensive forward -- is yet to be determined. With 23 games in the regular season and another 26 in the postseason under his belt, Kreider certainly has a head start on the other rookies, though.

Though it may sound strange, Derek Stepan's contract settlement is a bit of a downer for Kreider. Without Stepan, Kreider might have gotten a shot next to Rick Nash in the regular season. That still could happen, but is much less likely now. With Mats Zuccarello, Brad Richards, Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot also battling for time on a scoring lines, we'll have to wait and see how coach Alain Vigneault uses Kreider when he returns to the NHL.


Tyler Toffoli, C/RW, Los Angeles Kings: With exactly 0.5 points per game through 10 regular season contests and 12 postseason games, Toffoli has already shown he can pick up points in the NHL. As one of the top point-getters in the AHL on a per-game basis last season, Toffoli made a late debut with the Kings, and got into a dozen playoff games with the club. He has two triple-digit OHL campaigns on his resume, as well.

It's good to know the skills are there, but it seems as though Matt Frattin is the early favorite to beat Toffoli out for a top-six role. Still, Toffoli has skills and will be waiting in the wings for an opportunity to play on one of the Kings' top lines.


Tomas Hertl, C, San Jose Sharks: Quick and tough, Hertl has impressed since joining the Sharks this summer. He was a top scorer in the Czech Republic last season as a rookie and is now in North America to stay. Already, he seems ready to break camp with the Sharks on a physical and skilled line with Joe Thornton and Brent Burns. Obviously, that role on the team's depth chart would be a huge boon to his potential value as a rookie.

While Hertl may not be the type of player to get a ton of power-play time or highlight-reel goals, his hard work and doggedness on the puck will fit in well with a skilled centerman like Thornton. Then again, the Sharks have also been playing Joe Pavelski on the third line in the preseason, so who knows if the current depth chart will stick.


Aleksander Barkov, C, Florida Panthers: Barkov's shoulder was fine for the start of training camp, and he has the talent to play in the NHL. The big question is if the Panthers really want to keep stacking their scoring lines with players in -- or barely out of -- their teens. Already with Jonathan Huberdeau and Drew Shore as staples of the club, Nick Bjugstad should also be a lock once he is over his concussion. Add Barkov to the mix and the Panthers would have a young team of scorers, perhaps a little too young.

But with Bjugstad hurt, Barkov may get an opportunity for a trial with the club, during which time he could force them to keep him with strong play. Keep an eye on him early in the season if he breaks camp with the NHL side.


Rookie Defensemen

Torey Krug, D, Boston Bruins: Krug had an awesome playoff run with the Bruins last season, scoring four goals and six points from the blue line in 15 postseason games. He has a scoring defenseman's resume through three seasons with Michigan State University, and will be looking to supplant Dougie Hamilton as the young puck-mover on the point.

Hamilton might have a thing or two to say about that, though, and if Krug is relegated to the third pairing, there is not much hope for offensive output.


Seth Jones, D, Nashville Predators: Jones is an exceptionally talented young defenseman who will no doubt begin the season with the Predators. His 56 points in 61 games with the Portland Winterhawks in the WHL is a sample of what he brings to the table from the point: a dynamic puck-moving defenseman with size and speed. Of course, not all D-men have quick starts to their NHL careers, and some require a couple seasons of preparation to deal with the increased speed and size of the game. Jones has an advantage given his gifts as a physical player, but is no sure thing.

He will be a great fantasy defenseman soon, but maybe not in his rookie season. After all, the club still boasts Shea Weber, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis as potential playmaking defensemen.


Ryan Murray, D, Columbus Blue Jackets: James Wisnewski, Jack Johnson and Fedor Tyutin are all still ahead of him on the depth chart, but Murray could find a way to wedge himself into fantasy relevance with the Blue Jackets this season. However, given the improvement out of the aforementioned players during recent seasons, it should not be expected that Murray can walk in as a power-play quarterback for the team right away.

Murray's future is as the Blue Jackets' top defenseman though, so they may start prepping him right away for that role. He's ready for the chance, and would have played in the NHL last season if not for a serious shoulder injury suffered before the league returned from the lockout.


Ryan Murphy, D, Carolina Hurricanes: Even though he may not earn big minutes right away, Murphy could start getting time as a power-play specialist early on this season. An offensive defenseman of the highest caliber in junior hockey, Murphy will get a chance to see if that skill can translate to the NHL, although he'll begin the campaign in the AHL. It doesn't always translate, of course, and it doesn't always translate right away.

As we saw in recent seasons with the uber-offensive Ryan Ellis in Nashville, crazy-good offense in junior doesn't always mean much when objective No. 1 for NHL defensemen is to play defense. With news that Joni Pitkanen will miss the entire season, opportunity abounds for Murphy to prove himself. He is definitely worth a stash to begin the campaign because if Murphy is ready for prime time, it should show immediately in the box score once he's called back up.