No longer are the days where rookies post a point-per game in the NHL. Heck, even an elite talent like John Tavares only had 54 points in his first season, and he was labelled “the next Crosby” thanks to exceptional status in the OHL. Couple this with the fact that training camp battles are as competitive and open-ended as ever, and it makes drafting rookies in fantasy leagues extremely difficult.
Always there will be the top picks from the most recent entry draft, but with many of them it is hard to tell if they will even make the team. Have you ever drafted a rookie you were sure would stick with an NHL club, only to have him returned to junior after 9 games (or less)? How about Mark Scheifele? How about Cody Hodgson a couple years back? How about Mark Scheifele his second time around?
Then there are those who stick but for whatever reason fail to deliver. Nino Niederreiter and his one point in 55 games anybody? Grigorenko last season perhaps? Chris Kreider failing to impress Tortorella after a solid rookie playoff campaign?
The bottom line is there will ALWAYS be risk involved (to some degree or another) when drafting rookies. The best thing to do is pick the guys with the best opportunity. Yes, it is hard to gauge, but taking a quick look at possible depth charts in preseason and reading up quickly on the latest training camp gossip can go a long way. For example, heading into last year, Jonathan Huberdeau was an obvious top rookie pick not just because of his skill set, high draft position and winning experience, but because it was a given that he would be given top line minutes. Clearly that was the case, as he led all forward rookies in ice time, including 2:21 per game on the powerplay, and tied for the rookie scoring lead.
So, heading into this season, who will be given the chance to flourish? With many drafts taking place this week, I figured it’d be no better time than now to guess the rookie’s who will have the biggest indent on the scoresheet.
Sasha Barkov C- Florida Panthers
Again here is all about opportunity. GM Dale Tallon drafted him so high mostly because of how NHL ready he felt the Finnish pivot was. In his first preseason game, in which he said he played “very bad”, he had an assist and played with Tomas Fleischmann, which is a good sign. This was also his first game action in many months, thanks to shoulder surgery. The next preseason game he played he received 20 minutes of ice time.
Fantasy Projection: 81 GP, 22 G, 31 A, 53 Pts
Sven Baertschi LW- Calgary Flames
Similar to Huberdeau last year, Baertschi should get every opportunity to succeed. Yes, it’s on a very bad team, but that was also the case with Huberdeau. Last year Baertschi had 10 points in 20 games, which would have placed him in the top 10 if he had played the full shortened season. He only had 13 and a half minutes of ice time per game, which should increase without a doubt. At 25 career games, he is one game shy of not being rookie eligible.
Fantasy Projection: 76 GP, 23 G, 29 A, 52 Pts
Jonathan Drouin LW- Tampa Bay Lightning
The good news is Drouin is a wizard with the puck and appeared to the perfect fit on the wing alongside Steven Stamkos. The bad news is he hasn’t been tried with Stamkos yet in training camp. He’s played both center and the wing in training camp, most recently clicking with Brett Connolly, which isn’t a bad thing for Tampa’s long term future but short term for fantasy owners this is not the best news. He was a calder favourite the moment the Lightning drafted him but the only way he wins that is if he gets time with Stamkos and St. Louis and that is now in doubt.
Fantasy Projection: 82 GP, 17 G, 34 A, 51 Pts
Nathan MacKinnon C- Colorado Avalanche
MacKinnon has already made the team. Well, according to coach Roy he has. Before training camp even started, MacKinnon had made the team. He’s slated to start the season centering the third line with Jamie McGinn and Steve Downie but the key is that he should be given additional powerplay minutes. The most recent news is that he is day-t0-day with a minor hip flexor problem, but that should definitely be cleared up by the start of the regular season.
Fantasy Projection: 80 GP, 22 G, 26 A, 48 Pts
Tomas Hertl C- San Jose Sharks
The 17th overall pick from 2012 has been tried in training camp most recently with Joe Thornton and Brent Burns. He also played a preseason game with Joe Pavelski earlier on. Hertl can thank Havlat’s injury issues for giving him a shot at the wing in the top-six. Though he comes with more risk than Baertschi, he’s already played against men in the Czech league for two years and the Sharks have few other scoring options.
Fantasy Projection: 68 GP, 19 G, 25 A, 44 Pts
Tyler Toffoli RW- Los Angeles Kings
Toffoli was always a scorer in junior, as he put up back-to-back 50 goal seasons for the Ottawa 67’s of the OHL. I wasn’t sure it would translate to the NHL but it looks like I could be wrong. I’m not saying he’ll score 50 goals in the NHL but there is little doubt that he has a goal scorer’s touch and will be able to bury the puck at the highest level. What’s more impressive is that he was dressed for 12 playoff games last year and put up 6 points in limited ice time. That was after he had five points in 10 regular season games. So when given an opportunity, Toffoli has shown he wants it. I don’t see him not being in the top-six to start the year.
Fantasy Projection: 78 GP, 18 G, 22 A, 40 Pts
Valeri Nichushkin RW- Dallas Stars
Nichushkin will either make the Stars or being returned to the KHL. The Stars don’t want to have him go back to Europe, but they also can only keep him if they feel comfortable he is ready. And so far, it appears he is. After a strong showing in the Traverse City Prospect Tournament, Nichushkin has kept up his strong play in the preseason. Nichushkin’s power game bodes well for his future in the NHL and it will likely start this season.
Fantasy Projection: 82 GP, 20 G, 20 A, 40 Pts
Mikhail Grigorenko C- Buffalo Sabres
Grigorenko, like Baertschi, is already at the max games to be considered a rookie, with 25 under his belt, and thought last season went far from perfect, he’s due for a big raise from five points. Buffalo’s top-six though isn’t wide open either, which will make things more difficult, but on a team that is likely to tank, Grigorenko may yet get his opportunity. I don’t see him not making this team, and though he will probably start off in the bottom six I think he will move up as the season goes on. More risk involved here for sure but I just have a hunch he is ready for the next level. Last night in a pre-season game against the Leafs he had seven minutes of powerplay time.
Fantasy Projection: 73 GP, 17 G, 20 A, 37 Pts
Seth Jones D- Nashville Predators
You want a safe bet? How about Seth Jones making the team and playing a big role in his first season. That is pretty much a guarantee. I am not sure how many points he will put up, but he will definitely get plenty of opportunities to shine. At one point, it was a possibility he would play with captain Shea Weber and though that may not happen right away, he is still going to get powerplay time. On a team where defense makes up a bulk of the offense, Jones appears to have found the perfect home.
Fantasy Projection: 82 GP, 6 G, 25 A, 31 Pts
Nathan Kanter covers the Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs for The Hockey Writers. He received his master’s in journalism from Western University in May of 2015 before serving as the first ever Digital Managing Editor at Western’s university newspaper, The Western Gazette, in 2015-16. From 2016-18, he served as the radio play-by-play voice of the Battlefords North Stars in the SJHL. His work has been published in The Hockey News, at Sportsnet.ca and at Dobber Prospects.