Top Fantasy Rookies – Part 3

We’ve gone through the top fantasy rookies for six of the NHL’s 30 teams, and we’ve found a few gems, but this group of three might be the strongest yet.

Chicago, Colorado, and Columbus make up one of the strongest groups of fantasy rookies you’ll see on this countdown, which might surprise some people. After all, the Blackhawks are known for having largely traded away their top prospects, and Colorado’s best young players are already in the lineup, right? Well, evidently not.

And when a team drafts as well and as frequently as Columbus does, you know they’re going to have some top end talent. One of these years they’re going to put it all together, I swear. In the meantime, here are three players who could put it all together this season to become top fantasy rookies.

Chicago Blackhawks: Nick Schmaltz

A popular line of thought among observers is that Chicago has lost much of its young talent to trades and cap crunch over the years, but that line of thought ignores Nick Schmaltz. The younger brother of St. Louis prospect Jordan Schmaltz, Nick is a slender but talented forward coming off a promising NCAA career with UND.

In his draft year, the consensus around Schmaltz was that there was a world of talent but a distinct need to figure it all out. With Schmaltz turning pro after just two years of college, the thinking now is he’s managed to do that. He’s a silky-smooth stick handler (because the Blackhawks don’t have enough of those) who primarily plays a pass-first game. If only Chicago had somebody for him to pass to.

Schmaltz is soon to participate in his first ever rookie tournament, and then it will be on to training camp. The AHL is certainly a possibility for him, but with the cap crunch Chicago faces annually, he may have a chance to play some top six minutes this year. The Hawks lost Andrew Shaw and Teuvo Teravainen this past offseason, so there are openings up front. A guy who can pass the way Schmaltz does would be right at home in a top six with such players as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.

Colorado Avalanche: Mikko Rantanen

Choosing the best of Colorado’s fantasy rookies was no trouble at all, partially because they hadn’t drafted tremendously well under Rick Pracey (prior to him being released in 2014) and partially because Rantanen, the Avs first pick 10th overall in 2015, was just that good last season.

Rantanen started with the Avs, and I’m sure AHL goalies wish he had stayed there because he went on a statistical rampage in San Antonio (pardon the pun) after being sent down. I don’t recall a teenager ever dominating the AHL as quickly as Rantanen did or as thoroughly as he did. There’s no doubt that after 60 points in just 52 games with the Rampage, he’s NHL ready.

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Rantanen possesses that mouth-watering combination of size, speed, and hands. He’s not shy about playing physical, but it’s his offensive prowess fantasy GMs will be most interested in. Rantanen also has a lethal wrist shot. He’s another dark-horse Calder Trophy candidate. He might be just as skilled as Sebastian Aho, but he comes with the added benefit of a 6’4 frame, onto which he’s already packed over two hundred pounds.

Colorado is a bit thin on the wings, and nobody should be surprised to see Rantanen play with Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, or Nathan MacKinnon. If not for Patrik Laine and Auston Matthews, I truly believe Rantanen would be the favorite to win rookie of the year. He’s certainly one of the top fantasy rookies.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Zach Werenski

Rantanen wasn’t the only one who had an impressive AHL debut. Werenski went from a standout season with the Michigan Wolverines to a Calder Cup with the AHL’s Lake Erie Monsters, putting up offense worthy of a forward in the playoffs with 14 points in 17 games. In fact, he finished 3rd on the team in playoff scoring, behind only Lukas Sedlak and Oliver Bjorkstrand.

Incidentally, if you’re looking for another top fantasy rookie out of Columbus, Bjorkstrand is your man. I could give him his own separate piece, but in the end, I chose Werenski here because while Columbus has a solid top six forward group, they don’t have a player on the back end with Werenski’s penchant for power play points. But if you subscribe to the philosophy that rookie defensemen take too long to develop for one-year leagues, you should mentally put Bjorkstrand here.

Anyway, Werenski could give the Blue Jackets a power play quarterback the likes of which they’ve never really had. If you’re in a keeper league, he’s a must-own. Even one year leagues could make use of him if your league is deep and you need to round out your defensive core.

It is normally fair to question the maturity of a young defenseman, but it’s worth remembering that Werenski played a full season in Michigan as a 17-year-old. A true freshman is rare indeed in the NCAA, and one who was as effective as Werenski is rarer yet. He’s got a hard shot and makes effective passes, and his development with Lake Erie was exceptional. By the end of the year, he looked like a bona fide star.

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Columbus is in the enviable position of having a number of potentially high-end fantasy rookies. Jackets fans may argue that I should’ve put Sonny Milano or even Pierre-Luc Dubois here, and they could, I’m sure, make a convincing case for either of them as well as Bjorkstrand and Werenski. They, along with Brandon Saad, Seth Jones, Ryan Murray, and Alexander Wennberg, make up a very bright future for a franchise that has built itself the right way. Columbus is going to be scary good one of these years if these prospects get anywhere near their potential.

My bet? You won’t be waiting long for Werenski to reach his. It could be a very exciting year in Ohio.