For the sake of fantasy relevance, we will break down the rookies and sophomores into four distinct categories and spend an increasing amount of time discussing the players in those categories. We have top-tier lock, top-tier chance, roster lock and roster chance. So players like Jeff Skinner or P.K. Subban fall into the category of top-tier lock, because they are set in stone to be playing as a top-six forward or top-pairing defenseman. Whereas a player like Bryan Bickell or Jamie McBain would slot in as a top-tier chance, because they have a shot at top-tier minutes, but it's not guaranteed.
There are only two rookies who look to be concrete locks to play in their respective team's top six to start the season. Both Zac Dalpe (Carolina Hurricanes) and Gabriel Landeskog (Colorado Avalanche) have a scoring-line role that is theirs to lose entering training camp. From a fantasy perspective, Landeskog screams for attention. He plays a physical, hard-hitting game that both generates offense and protects his team as a two-way forward. Landeskog could very well be the Avs' top left-winger to start the season and fill all the standard fantasy categories for his owners. Dalpe will begin the season as the third member of the Hurricanes' second line with Jeff Skinner and Tuomo Ruutu. Skinner and Ruutu played very well together last season but failed to find a third member of the unit who could contribute. Dalpe should have little trouble stepping into the role after a solid AHL rookie season last year with 57 points in 61 games.
These are made up of names you know well from last season. Many of them were in the hunt for the Calder Trophy and more of them were everyday starters on your fantasy teams. You know what to expect from a lot of them.
Jeff Skinner (Carolina Hurricanes), Logan Couture (San Jose Sharks) and Michael Grabner (New York Islanders) are in a class by themselves on offense. Each is expected to not only resume his duties in the top six for his team but also elevate his output this season as a sophomore. The same goes for top breakout rookies Cam Fowler (Anaheim Ducks), P.K. Subban (Montreal Canadiens), Alex Pietrangelo (St. Louis Blues) and Kevin Shattenkirk (St. Louis Blues). Fowler needs to work on his defense to improve an atrocious plus/minus from last season, but that should come as he learns to play a more physical game. After watching Shattenkirk put up points after being traded to the Blues last season, one has to think the ceiling on him is hardly visible. It goes for Pietrangelo, too, as the pair of young Blues blue-liners should continue to elevate their games together.
There are other top-tier locks who just aren't quite as fantasy-friendly as their counterparts but still deserve some attention in your league. Derek Stepan is the New York Rangers' No. 2 centerman, but an offensive breakout hinges on how much responsibility the second line has to score, which hinges on how well Brad Richards gels with his new wingers. Brad Marchand is a lock to play alongside Patrice Bergeron again on the Boston Bruins' second line, but that doesn't necessarily mean huge offensive numbers. The line had some great scoring months last season, but they had some slow months as well. Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall will be in the Edmonton Oilers' top six, but exactly in what capacity remains to be seen. The sophomores will need to improve upon dismal plus/minus ratings to be considered for regular fantasy use. Mattias Tedenby will fill a role in the New Jersey Devils' top six. A natural left-winger, he will shift to the right, so he can be on a line with either Ilya Kovalchuk or Zach Parise. Tedenby is speedy and knows how to score goals. If the Devils have a stronger year offensively, he should break out.
John Carlson was quite the fantasy asset in his rookie season for the Washington Capitals. While he will remain a top-tier offensive-defenseman for the coming season, we need to scale back any expectation for a growth in production. Carlson was able to have the opportunity to lead the Caps' defense last season, thanks to an injury-plagued year from Mike Green. Healthy and ready to go, Green won't mute Carlson's production, but he will limit its growth. Finally, Corey Crawford is the only rookie goaltender from last season who will be a sure-fire stud in 2011-12.
There are different classifications for some of the rookies and sophomores who will have a chance at being a top-tier fantasy producer this season. Keep in mind the word "chance." Just because a player is listed here doesn't mean they should be taken as a sleeper in your fantasy league. Some have a better chance than others and some may be irrelevant to fantasy leagues if things don't break right for them.
While Landeskog has his spot secure with the Avalanche, fellow 2011 NHL Entry Draft selections Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Edmonton Oilers), Jonathan Huberdeau (Florida Panthers), Adam Larsson (New Jersey Devils) and Mika Zibanejad (Ottawa Senators) only have a shot at cracking the NHL. But it's no sure thing. Nugent-Hopkins is ready to try his hand at the NHL, but there are several other young players vying for developmental ice time. If the Oil can't afford to give RNH enough minutes, they will keep him in junior. Huberdeau is also more than ready to try the NHL level, but the Panthers have to decide whether or not burning a year of his entry-level contract will be worth it this season. With Zibanejad, the Senators have to decide the best way to acclimate him to the North American-style game. Whether that means he goes straight to the NHL or tries his hand at a lower level first has yet to be determined. Rest assured with Nugent-Hopkins, Huberdeau and, to a lesser extent, Zibanejad, the players have the talent to be fantasy producers. It is simply a matter of opportunity now. Larsson looks like a lock to at least make the Devils' roster, but to have a shot at top-tier production, he will have to prove himself capable of keeping up with the NHL game right away. If he is ready, expect him to be saddled with as much responsibility as he can carry. Generally speaking though, defensemen need more time to adjust to the speed of the NHL, so don't be shocked if there are some growing pains.
The next most likely to break into their team's top-tier of offense are a pair of forwards and a defenseman who thinks he is a forward. Adam Henrique (New Jersey Devils), Nino Niederreiter (New York Islanders) and Ryan Ellis (Nashville Predators) are all going to have a good chance to win a top position on the depth chart to start the season. Henrique gets his opportunity thanks to an injury to Travis Zajac that will keep the Devils' top pivot out until November, but even before Zajac was hurt Henrique had a shot at the second-line center spot. Coming off a solid AHL rookie season, all Henrique needs to do is prove he can keep pace with Ilya Kovalchuk or Zach Parise and the job is his to keep. Niederreiter got a cup of coffee to start last season with the Isles but was sent back down to junior while still under the game limit. Niederreiter had another superstar season in the WHL and is more than ready for the NHL game now. The challenge will be pushing someone out of the top six to claim a role. The second line, with Frans Nielsen, Michael Grabner and Kyle Okposo, had so much success last year that Niederreiter will be hard pressed to challenge Brian Rolston, P.A. Parenteau and Matt Moulson for the wing spots beside John Tavares With Ellis, his numbers as a junior are just stupid good from the point. He had 101 points in 58 games for the OHL Windsor Spitfires last season. Ellis is undersized for a defenseman, but if he can overcome that hurdle the sky is the limit in the NHL. As we saw at the end of last season when Ellis made a 10-game debut with the AHL's Milwaukee Admirals and only managed two points, there will be a learning curve.
Then we have Brayden Schenn (Philadelphia Flyers) and Cody Hodgson (Vancouver Canucks), two players who have been considered cream-of-the-crop prospects but are still not guaranteed a top-six role with their respective clubs. Schenn will face an uphill battle to quality ice time given the talent at the top with the Flyers, but he at least has the flexibility for Claude Giroux to play wing and open up a center spot. That is not the story for Hodgson, who will have to convert himself to a winger, if he ever hopes to crack the Canucks' top six on a permanent basis. Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler will trump for him for the foreseeable future in that regard. Hodgson will get a chance to start the season as the second-line pivot, if Kesler isn't fully rehabilitated from offseason hip surgery.
Jonathan Bernier enters his fifth straight season as the Los Angeles Kings' "goaltender of the future." But so long as Jon Quick continues to hold the fort adequately, Bernier has been forced to play second fiddle. The crazy part is that Bernier is still only 23 years old, so he has all the time to bide in the world. Perhaps after two straight seasons of Quick melting down toward the end of the season and in the playoffs, Bernier will be afforded more of an opportunity to establish himself.
It is debatable whether to put Mikael Backlund (Calgary Flames) and Tyler Ennis (Buffalo Sabres) into the top-tier locks category, because they are almost a sure thing to start the season with their team's top six. But Backlund is largely an unproven commodity, and Ennis faces such stiff competition, they are downgraded to simply having a chance at top-tier. Backlund will likely be given the prime opportunity of centering Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay to start the season, but with the stakes so high, he will be quickly dropped down the depth chart if he can't keep up with the star players. Ennis put up good numbers in his rookie campaign, but with the Sabres featuring so many qualified forwards for the top six, there are very few sure things for the top assignments. Ennis will probably play wing on the second line, which would lead him to decent fantasy production, but he can't write his name down in pen just yet Tyler Seguin (Boston Bruins) will also compete for a top-six role with his club. Mark Recchi's retirement leaves a gap on the second line, which Seguin, Benoit Pouliot and Rich Peverley will battle for in training camp.
Jamie McBain (Carolina Hurricanes) and Travis Hamonic (New York Islanders) might have been top-tier locks if not for players moving into that position on the depth chart during the offseason. Tomas Kaberle signed with the Hurricanes, likely bumping McBain from the top pairing, and Mark Streit will return to the Isles this season after missing all of 2010-11 with a shoulder injury, likely bumping Hamonic from the top pairing. Hamonic had 18 points in 33 games after the All-Star break, while McBain posted a steady 30-point rookie season. Both players will have to earn their way into quality ice time this season.
Two rookie goaltenders will start their sophomore campaigns as the No. 1 goalie for their club, but they will also be surrounded by question marks. James Reimer (Toronto Maple Leafs) and Al Montoya (New York Islanders) both ended last season on high notes for their teams and will be incumbent starters this season because of it. Montoya has more pedigree and was always expected to emerge as a No. 1 goaltender. In fact, before last season's breakout it was just about time to start labelling Montoya as a bust. He will still have Rick DiPietro (and his contract) breathing down his neck for starts Reimer came completely out of nowhere to take the Leafs' starting spot by storm. With pretty pedestrian numbers coming out of the WHL, Reimer even spent most of his first professional season in 2008-09 in the ECHL. But a win is a win, and Reimer had a winning record for a losing team. His goals-against average may not be the best, but a starting goalie is a starting goalie and Reimer has little competition for the job.
Then there are some sophomore forwards who will be in the mix for a top-tier spot but face a pretty steep battle for the quality ice time Mats Zuccarello will at least be in consideration for the New York Rangers, and that could very well mean big things for the offensively capable Norwegian The Edmonton Oilers might have a spot for Magnus Paajarvi in the top six, but with so many other veterans and young stars to work in Paajarvi would have to have chemistry with an established top-line player Bobby Butler could be in the mix for the Ottawa Senators, but if he doesn't make the top line with Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza, he might as well be in the bottom six Bryan Bickell doesn't quite have the offensive skills of these other sophomores, but he has power-forward potential. And because he will be in consideration for the top six with the Chicago Blackhawks, his linemates could be of exceptional quality.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson (Phoenix Coyotes) still has the upside of a top-pairing defensemen, but as long as Keith Yandle continues to improve, there may not be enough space for Ekman-Larsson to take big strides in his production.
When it comes to players who are locks to be on a roster, that means you will see them in the NHL, but it is unlikely -- at least to start -- that they will have any fantasy value. However, making the NHL roster is the first step to earning the opportunity to earn fantasy value, so keep an eye on these guys.
A trio of rookie goaltenders will be riding the pine for their respective club as the backup this season: Anders Lindback (Nashville Predators), Mark Dekanich (Columbus Blue Jackets and Jhonas Enroth (Buffalo Sabres). You may recognize Lindback from some stints of quality play last season while filling in for Pekka Rinne. And Dekanich is actually the one who benefited from Lindback's absence with the Predators' AHL affiliate. Dekanich parlayed the quality play in the AHL into a contract with the Blue Jackets to back up Steve Mason. Enroth, meanwhile, will spend another season backing up Ryan Miller with the Sabres. All three goaltenders have better upside than a No. 2 goalie in the NHL, so all it would take is an injury to the man in front of them to find out that they have some fantasy value.
The remaining slew of rookies who look to be locks to make the NHL can all be lumped together for a description, with one exception. Most of these players will be quality defensive-defensemen in the NHL, with enough offensive upside to be worth owning in most fantasy leagues. However, they will start the season down the depth chart for their respective clubs and will have to earn the minutes required to contribute on offense by playing good defense. So keep your radar handy for Erik Gudbranson (Florida Panthers), Jonathan Blum (Nashville Predators), Tim Erixon (New York Rangers) and Jared Cowan (Ottawa Senators) The one exception is Marc-Andre Gragnani (Buffalo Sabres), who is all about the offense from the blue line but will also have to earn his minutes through quality defensive play.
The most important sophomores who won't necessarily have any fantasy value are a trio of goaltenders who won't be getting the lion's share of starts with their club this season. Sergei Bobrovsky (Philadelphia Flyers) and Michal Neuvirth (Washington Capitals) both were replaced when the Flyers brought in Ilya Bryzgalov and the Caps signed Tomas Vokoun. Bobrovsky and Neuvirth both flashed potential as a No. 1 goalie in their rookie campaigns but now will have to bide their time Cory Schneider is also destined to remain a No. 2 goaltender behind the all-world Roberto Luongo with the Vancouver Canucks. Schneider showed true starter potential in 25 games last season but will have to wait for a trade off the Canucks before he can display it on a consistent basis.
There are a lot of sophomores around the NHL destined to be on starting rosters but won't be in a position to contribute to fantasy leagues because of a lack of ice time and offensive responsibility. Some of those players have a better chance than others of possibly moving up the depth chart with consistent play or through an injury to someone ahead of them. The most intriguing of the sophomores to put on your radar include Lars Eller (Montreal Canadiens), Nazem Kadri (Toronto Maple Leafs), Matt Calvert (Columbus Blue Jackets), Marcus Johansson (Washington Capitals) and David Desharnais (Canadiens). Eller and Kadri, in particular, have top-six potential that is just waiting to be unleashed but will be blocked by other players to start the season.
The list of rookies with a "chance" at making the NHL is simply too long to list. Really, any prospect being invited to training camp has a "chance" of making the NHL with strong play. For the sake of this list, we are concentrating on the ones closest to actually making that breakthrough.
Remember that even if these rookies do happen to make an NHL roster, they are being listed down here because they would still be unlikely to play a top-six role with their respective club even if they emerge from training camp on a team.
Already with some NHL experience, Andrei Loktionov (Los Angeles Kings), Eric Tangradi (Pittsburgh Penguins) and Evgeny Grachev (St. Louis Blues) have a decent chance of making the NHL. Tangradi is really the only one with a potential opening in his team's top six to shoot for, but even that is a long shot. Loktionov and Grachev are blocked by too many players to be top six this season without a lot of luck.
Players like Kyle Palmieri (Anaheim Ducks), Zack Kassian (Buffalo Sabres), Jeremy Morin (Chicago Blackhawks), Scott Glennie (Dallas Stars) and Blake Geoffrion (Nashville Predators) don't really have anything left to prove at the lower levels of competition but may be stuck there by virtue of numbers. If those players can't be given enough ice time to continue to improve, they may be kept out of the NHL to keep their ice time up this season. But that is not a knock on their NHL readiness.
Brett MacLean (Phoenix Coyotes) and Brett Connolly (Tampa Bay Lightning) have more talent than some of the forwards who will be blocking them, but without relevant experience in the NHL, they may not be able to break through this season. They both have a chance to make the NHL as a member of the third or fourth line and work their way up, though.
Because of his chemistry outside of the NHL with fellow Greater Toronto Area resident John Tavares, it will be worth keeping an eye on New York Islanders first-round pick Ryan Strome. He and Tavares train together in the offseason already.
Kyle Beach (Chicago Blackhawks) and Patrice Cormier (Winnipeg Jets) both play a power-forward role that their team might not need on the top two lines at this point. If they ever were to earn enough ice time in the NHL, Beach and Cormier would bring a nice mix of points and penalty minutes to the table.
Marcus Kruger will be bringing some top-level offense from the Swedish Elitserien into the Chicago Blackhawks' training camp this season and could be a surprise Tomas Tatar proved his European playmaking was applicable in North America via the AHL last season and may earn a role with the Detroit Red Wings this season.
Two players drafted in 2006 and 2007 who need to make an impact soon before their star fizzles out will also look to turn heads at training camp. Angelo Esposito (Florida Panthers) is hoping to have a healthy knee with a new organization to up his stock. While defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti (Carolina Hurricanes) is running out of time to show he can handle defensive responsibilities well enough to allow him to show his offensive game.
Finally, rookie Alexander Salak will be in the mix for the backup job with the Chicago Blackhawks. If Ray Emery can't prove himself ready for an NHL contract in training camp, the job will fall to Salak.
Only a couple of sophomores who could go from fantasy relevant all the way to not in the NHL really come to mind. Linus Omark is a wizard with the puck on offense, but there are enough other young prospects ahead of him, and enough veterans signed with the Edmonton Oilers, to keep him out of the starting lineup this season. If he happens to secure a role on the offense, keep him on your radar Mark Letestu showed he can go through scoring streaks last season, and with Sidney Crosby's official status up in the air, Letestu could be called upon for an offensive role. But Letestu could just as easily be in the press box or AHL if Crosby is ready to start the season.
While this is a pretty comprehensive list of young players looking to make an impact in fantasy hockey, just remember that surprises can come from anywhere. This time last year, no one had Jeff Skinner on any list of can't-miss rookies.
Sean Allen is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is the 2008 and 2009 Fantasy Sports Writers Association, Hockey Writer of the Year. You can e-mail him here.