Training camps are quickly approaching and it's time to start having a look at some of the players that have a legitimate shot at breaking camp with the NHL club.
This week, we'll go through the East. Next week, the West.
New Jersey Devils: Nicklas Bergfors is due for his chance in the National Hockey League, but it's hard to be as excited about him after he showed no improvement (and maybe even a little regression) in his second professional season in the American Hockey League. Bergfors followed up his 17-goal rookie season with a 13-goal campaign. Mind you, the Lowell Devils were no offensive powerhouse, scoring the third-fewest goals in the league. Nonetheless, Bergfors moves into my "wait and see" category for the upcoming season Andy Greene will be given every opportunity to take over on the Devils' power-play blue line. Greene is an all-around player in the truest sense of the title; he won best defensive and best offensive defenseman in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association in consecutive seasons. He didn't look out of place during a 20-game debut with the Devils last season. I'm pegging him as someone to watch. I've never trusted Paul Martin as a power-play quarterback. Peter Vrana is on the radar screen as well, though his potential as a fantasy contributor is debatable. His point totals didn't improve in his sophomore professional campaign and he would be better served as a leader for the team's AHL club, rather than a benchwarmer in the NHL.
New York Islanders: Kyle Okposo is their best prospect and best hope, but the Isles will be letting him work his way up in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. Okposo was second on the team in scoring during his rookie college season. If he keeps developing this way, look for him to be relevant in keeper leagues in 2008-09. Jeff Tambellini and Sean Bergenheim are going to be asked to fill some of the holes the Islanders have up front. Both players were looked upon to step up last year, but Tambellini ended up in the AHL and Bergenheim broke for Europe after contract negotiations went sour. Tambellini has consistently been a point-per-game player everywhere but the NHL and has legitimate fantasy upside. Bergenheim is a little less polished and not quite the finesse type, but could be a points and penalty minutes combo player. Frans Nielsen is really the only other prospect whose name you should note, but that's about all you need to do. He has potential as a goal scorer, but I doubt that potential will be realized on a struggling team's fourth line.
New York Rangers: The third Staal brother is about as ready as he'll ever be for the NHL. Look for Marc Staal to bust through in training camp and make the Rangers. Staal almost made the team last year, but was sent back to the Ontario Hockey League because he wasn't eligible for the AHL. He got to spend the year working on his strength and speed, as his hockey sense and other abilities were already honed. From a fantasy perspective, Staal should be about as valuable as Dion Phaneuf was in his rookie season. He won't score as many goals as Phaneuf can, but he'll make up for it with assists off smart passes. Alex Bourret was someone I really liked coming up in Atlanta. He's pesky and quick like Sean Avery, but with much more skill offensively. The problem with Bourret now being a Ranger is that Sean Avery himself is blocking the path to the NHL. It works for Brian Gionta and it worked for Theo Fleury, so I do expect to see Nigel Dawes in the NHL soon despite his 5-foot-8 frame. There are not many roster spots left though, especially for skilled players. I expect Dawes, Bourret and Jarkko Immonen to continue to work together for the AHL's Hartford Wolf Pack. The three forwards almost look as though they'll come up to the Rangers as a cohesive unit for 2008-09.
Philadelphia Flyers: Character issues dropped Steve Downie to 29th in the 2005 draft, and that pick is looking brilliant for the Flyers now. Downie split the year between Peterborough and Kitchener of the OHL and he was a leader for both clubs, even scoring 22 points in nine playoff games with Kitchener. He is a dominant force on the ice and plays with a nasty edge. Downie, straight up, has the potential to be the next great points-and-minutes star in fantasy circles, but he'll need to crack the Flyers and earn regular ice time to do it. I expect Downie to be in the AHL this season, but injuries could mean we get our first look at the future fantasy darling later in the season. The Flyers have a glut of defensemen and Braydon Coburn could use consistent ice time to work on his offensive game. For his sake, I hope he ends up in the AHL. Claude Giroux has offensive flair to spare, but is in for more developmental seasons in either the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League or the AHL. He improved upon his 103 points (that led all rookies) with a 112-point campaign last season for Gatineau. The Flyers just don't have room for him now, but that Daniel Briere contract is a long one and I'd love to see these two play together. Based on skill sets alone, I could see Alexandre Picard earning more power-play time than any other Flyers defenseman save Kimmo Timonen. After a few years of bouncing back and forth between the AHL and NHL, Picard has the potential to be a strong presence offensively for a much-improved Flyers team.
Pittsburgh Penguins: It should be no surprise that most of the Penguins' young talent has already been established at the NHL level. Kristopher Letang is the one name to keep in mind for next season. The defenseman forced a debut with the Pens last season after excelling in training camp. After seven games though, he was sent back to Val d'Or of the QMJHL where he had another solid season. Letang is dangerous from the blue line as evidenced by his 25 goals in his sophomore season in the "Q." In fact, Letang has never scored fewer than 13 goals in his junior career. Ryan Whitney and Sergei Gonchar still have control of the Penguins' power play for next season, but don't be surprised to see Letang's name follow theirs.
Boston Bruins: The Bruins don't have any rookies looking to make an immediate impact, but the team must concentrate on bringing Tuukka Rask to North America. Rask still projects as a strong No. 1 goaltender in the NHL in the reasonably near future. The Bruins' defense is by no means set in stone and both Matt Lashoff and Mark Stuart have a reasonable shot at a full-time job. Both project as solid all-around defenders with mild offensive abilities. Keep their names around for deeper leagues where you want extra D-men who chip in a few points and keep a decent plus/minus. Carl Soderberg came over in the deal that sent Hannu Toivonen to the Blues. Although I think the Bruins gave up on Toivonen too soon, they didn't send him away for nothing. Soderberg looks like an elite-level player if he can adjust to the North American game. He should get that opportunity this year with the AHL's Providence Bruins and if he catches on quickly, could be in Boston later this season.
Buffalo Sabres: The tank isn't empty in Buffalo, but the team is chock-full of young talent we already know. Just make sure you are still familiar with Drew Stafford, who could step up in a big way this season with some extra ice time. A 60-point season is not unrealistic. Daniel Paille is also in line for more time with Buffalo, but isn't necessarily a fantasy asset. Paille plays well on the penalty kill and in a checking role, so those are his likely assignments. Marek Zagrapan should also be on the long-range radar. He stumbled a bit in the AHL after coming to North America and dominating the QMJHL. If he starts to heat up in Rochester, he could wind up with a job in Buffalo if the Sabres are struggling offensively.
Montreal Canadiens: Andrei Kostitsyn is going to have a breakout season, and yes, it will be one worthy of deep fantasy leagues (maybe even some medium-sized leagues). Kostitsyn's skills are not an issue. The only thing stopping him from being a point-per-game player in the NHL is lack of proper linemates and ice time. He dominated for Hamilton in the AHL with 52 points in 50 games before landing a regular job with Montreal toward the end of the season. There are questions regarding his ability to play defense, but he managed a plus-24 for Hamilton and a plus-3 for Montreal last season, so there are at least some improvements in that department. There likely isn't enough ice time to go around for me to guarantee much more than 50 points for Kostitsyn this season, but I think the bulk of those points will come later in the year when Montreal finally realizes Alexei Kovalev is just too bored of the NHL. The best part about Kostitsyn for keeper leagues is that his brother, Sergei, is a budding star as well, scoring 131 points for the OHL's London Knights and being drafted by the Habs. As the Sedins have shown us, family chemistry can work wonders on the ice.
Ottawa Senators: Joshua Hennessy is ready for a roster spot, but won't be a fantasy impact player unless he lands on a line with Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson or Jason Spezza; and that's assuming Ottawa tries to break up its top line again this season. That is a long shot, but don't rule it out completely as Hennessy's determined play in the offensive zone would jell well with the team's superstars. There is still a chance that Wade Redden is traded, and if that is the case Brian Lee will step in. Lee is a standout defenseman for North Dakota in the WCHA and has offensive talent to spare. He is also sound defensively and only lacks in the physical part of the game, which is something he can develop quickly. The reason his value hinges on Redden is that he would be best served with full-time ice time and it will be hard to get that in Ottawa with Redden leading the power play.
Toronto Maple Leafs: The Buds don't have a whole lot of room available on the roster and have injury insurance thanks to lots of depth up front and on the blue line. I doubt we'll see too many blue-chippers with the Leafs this season. That said, Simon Gamache is a name you should know. It's been almost seven years since he was a hotshot in the QMJHL and he never made any noise in any NHL appearances over those years. In his final season with Val d'Or he was named the Canadian Hockey League's Player of the Year (and remember, the CHL encompasses the QMJHL, OHL and Western Hockey League). There is untapped potential oozing from this guy and, only 26, it's not too late for him. Jiri Tlusty might be in for a late-season debut if he finds his footing in the AHL. But he is likely not a name to know until next year.
Atlanta Thrashers: The Thrashers need a center and Bryan Little is ready for a promotion from the OHL. He has put up astronomical numbers in his years with the Barrie Colts and is a better candidate than most to skip right past the AHL and enter the NHL. Little is going to be a commodity on fantasy draft day just based on the theory that he could play with either Marian Hossa or Ilya Kovalchuk. At the very least he is worth a last-round stab in the dark to see what happens. I suspect he'll have some serious value this season. Brett Sterling is also a near lock to make the club after winning the rookie of the year award in the AHL last season. The "rook" had 97 points in 77 games for the Chicago Wolves. Atlanta has some unspectacular names penciled in among its top six, so I wouldn't put it past several young prospects to break into the ranks this season. Darren Haydar is another name with breakout potential. He is a professional minor leaguer, now 27 years old and having played in only six NHL games. His size (5-foot-7) has kept him back, but this new era of the NHL could mean he has a chance to break through. He certainly adapted to the rule changes in the AHL, netting 122 points last season as the league's leading scorer and walking away with the MVP trophy. It's going to be tougher for Haydar because of his age, but he has earned another shot. Tobias Enstrom has some offensive flair that he has developed in the Swedish Elite League. There is upside there considering Atlanta doesn't really have a go-to guy on the power play. Ondrej Pavelec is the last name to mention as he makes the jump from the QMJHL to the AHL this season and immediately starts breathing down Kari Lehtonen's neck. If you thought Lehtonen was a highly regarded prospect last year, well, you're right. But Pavelec is just as good; some say better. Lehtonen basically has this coming season to prove himself in Atlanta for good, or else Pavelec will compete for the starting job in the fall of 2008.
Carolina Hurricanes: To be honest, I'll be surprised if we see many impact rookies on Carolina this season. The Hurricanes don't really have anyone ready for an immediate promotion. Bobby Hughes will make his debut in the AHL after netting 27, 55, 75 and then 96 points in the OHL. He had good teammates in Kingston and the club will want to assess his skills in Albany.
Florida Panthers: Jay Bouwmeester has never slammed the door on the Panthers' power-play quarterback job, which leaves it open to successors. Enter Noah Welch. He's the commodity who netted Pittsburgh Gary Roberts at the deadline last year and he's a future top defenseman with some offensive acumen. He won't be pushing Bouwmeester right away, but with a job in Florida as early as this season, he could at least start planting the seeds. The player I like to push Bouwmeester this season is Cory Murphy. He has been honing his skills as a power-play quarterback in Europe his whole career. No, really, he's 29 years old and has been playing in Finland and Switzerland since 2001. Last season he notched 50 points in 45 games as a defenseman. That is the kind of offensive prowess you don't often see from a blueliner, even in Europe. Anthony Stewart still hasn't lived up to his potential as a Todd Bertuzzi (in his heyday) clone. He's only 22, but I expected to see more by now. Kenndal McArdle regressed a little last season, but still possesses leadership qualities. A comparison to Keith Primeau isn't way off the mark.
Tampa Bay Lightning: The one rookie I have convinced myself we will see a lot of in Tampa Bay is Karri Ramo. Johan Holmqvist and Marc Denis are boring options in net for the Lightning no matter how they stack things. The team has seen both goaltenders single-handedly lose games for the Lightning. Ramo will compete for a roster spot in training camp and I have a feeling he'll get a good chance at being on the club at least as a backup. He has significantly better potential than Holmqvist or Denis and the Bolts need the upgrade between the pipes he could give them. He is pegged as very mature in net and learned to play it cool when he was with Springfield in the AHL last season as the team was an absolute bottom dweller. The Lightning used Ramo briefly last season when injuries struck. All this points to a chance in the NHL for the 21-year-old and I say a late fantasy draft flier couldn't hurt.
Washington Capitals: Nicklas Backstrom is going to be an interesting commodity on fantasy draft day. On one hand, he could center Alexander Ovechkin and Alex Semin and be a potential rookie of the year. On the other, he could spend the season learning under Michael Nylander (a fellow Swede) and not really be in the running for anything. I expect something in the middle, with the edge to the rookie of the year nod. Backstrom should be damn good and a strong fantasy asset as Washington's top two lines will be good regardless of where he plays on them. I'd bank on a season about 75 percent as good as Evgeni Malkin's this last season. Eric Fehr is the other young name I like. He's played a dozen games in both of the last two seasons, but has yet to make his mark. He looks like a strong power forward with some points and PIMs to offer fantasy owners. I think he also is a good bet to find his way among the top six in Washington, and if he does, he'll have value.
Sean Allen is a fantasy hockey and baseball analyst for ESPN.com and TalentedMrRoto.com. He can be reached at alla_rino@TalentedMrRoto.com.