Eastern Edge – The Top Rookies in the Eastern Conference
Every year there are a number of rookies that make their mark in the NHL. There is an incredible amount of risk in relying on them for success in fantasy leagues due to their lack of track record and experience.
However, many of these rookies are potential elite players who can become major contributors out of the gate. Furthermore, there are a number of leagues that require at least one first-year player be rostered at all times, which adds to the importance of making smart selections. Even in shallow leagues, there is plenty of room to take chances on unproven players with big upside in the late rounds, and especially when there are no tight rules with regards to free agent signings and drops.
Thankfully, both for you and for NHL teams, there is plenty of help on the way. This year’s rookie class is full of firepower and should be fun to follow for hockey fans, especially those who cheer for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Although there remains a lot of uncertainty, there are more than a dozen rookies in the Eastern Conference alone worthy of being taken in your league’s fall draft.
Today we will look at the 10 best rookies in the East alone with some wildcards to consider.
Sebastian Aho (F – Carolina)
Few prospects combine such a great opportunity with tons of potential and a name that is lesser known among more casual poolies. The 19-year-old winger was a second-round pick last summer and followed up with a point-per-game effort for Karpat in Finland, tops on his team. With the Hurricanes lacking talent up front, Aho has a chance to rise all the way up to the top line as a rookie, which increases his short-term upside considerably. Plus, as an undersized player that was not a high pick and plays for a team lacking in overall fantasy appeal, he will likely slip under the radar on draft day. He is not a lock to spend the full year in the NHL, as his small frame may need some time to adapt to the North American game, but his skill and probability of playing a key offensive role cannot be ignored.
Oliver Bjorkstrand (F – Columbus)
Bjorkstrand’s strong play during his brief 12-game NHL stint and in the AHL playoffs is an indicator that he might be on the brink of stardom. However, unlike Aho’s situation in Carolina, Bjorkstrand has much more competition in Columbus which could leave him outside the top-six for most of the year. On the third line he will not be much of a factor outside of deep leagues and a prolonged slump could force him to spend some additional time in the minors. That said, if he can climb up the depth chart quickly, there is enough talent up front to help carry him to a strong rookie campaign, especially if he can get on a line with Alex Wennberg, the team’s most talented center.
Mitch Marner (F – Toronto)
Marner is a boom-or-bust player heading into this year. He could stick in the NHL and become a major producer overnight, or he could be sent back to the OHL if the Leafs decide to keep him out of the spotlight a bit longer. If he does spend the year in Toronto, there is nothing on the right side preventing him from reaching the top line. This gives him a big upside as a rookie given the Leafs’ lineup will look a lot different with the additions of Auston Matthews and William Nylander. In fall drafts, Marner should be drafted higher than most other rookies despite the risk because he could easily clear 50 points and even push for 60.
Auston Matthews (F – Toronto)
This summer’s top draft pick will likely be the Leafs’ best player this year. The only factor limiting his upside in his first year is the quality of his supporting cast as it is not clear how much time Mitch Marner and William Nylander will spend with the big club. Beyond those two, James Van Riemsdyk is the team’s lone stud winger with the rest of their options carrying a lot of uncertainty. If all goes well Matthews should be able to finish in the 60-point range. However, his name value and being the Leafs’ new franchise player will likely make him a fairly high selection in many fall drafts. It is probably best to leave it to one of your rivals to take the risk at that point.
William Nylander (F – Toronto)
Last year, Nylander had an incredible 45 points in 38 games in the AHL along with 13 points in 22 games with the Leafs. He has shown he is NHL-ready, and if he spends the full year in the NHL, he should be a contender for the Calder Trophy. His assigned position will be interesting though – he averaged 13 faceoffs taken per game during his stint with the Leafs, but with Matthews, Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak in the mix, there is a possibility Nylander could spend the year on the wing. How he ultimately adjusts remains to be seen.
Ivan Provorov (D – Philadelphia)
Like Mitch Marner, Provorov is in a situation where he will either stick with the Flyers or be returned to junior. A roster spot is not guaranteed considering the Flyers have plenty of one-way contracts on their blueline and may opt to protect the 19-year-old. Talent-wise, Provorov should be among the team’s top-six defensemen, and if he makes the team, he might even work his way onto the team’s top power-play unit should the Flyers move away from deploying four forwards. There, the sky is the limit, as he would be sharing the ice with the likes of Claude Giroux and Shayne Gostisbehere. Defensemen are tough to predict, especially early in their careers, but Provorov has a better chance than other listed blueliners of having a Calder-worthy campaign.
Ryan Pulock (D – New York Islanders)
After a successful 2015-16 campaign, including a strong playoff showing with the Islanders this spring, Pulock is ready to make the jump to the NHL. His potential is limited unless he can work his way up to the top power-play unit and catch fire with John Tavares. Nick Leddy is already a mainstay there, and Johnny Boychuk is also more than capable, but the latter is also a very strong defender, so putting Pulock in this role would allow the veteran blueliner to play a more defensive role. Otherwise, Pulock's usefulness will be limited to deeper leagues that roster secondary producers.
Jimmy Vesey (F – New York Rangers)
This August’s prized free-agent signing has been a high-end scorer at the collegiate level the past two years. This season, he is all but assured a spot in the NHL for the year, but his role remains to be seen. The Rangers have brought in several other newcomers, headlined by fellow rookie Pavel Buchnevich and Brandon Pirri, giving them three full scoring lines. While this much depth is good for a team, it often hurts players individually, as it is difficult to produce consistently when put in a secondary role. Ultimately Vesey should have a strong rookie year, but he is not a threat in shallow leagues unless he can get into the Rangers’ top-six and stay there.
Pavel Zacha (F – New Jersey Devils)
After a strong post-draft year, Zacha will likely make the jump to the Devils. If used in a top-six role, he would have the opportunity to play with some strong wingers, including Kyle Palmieri, Mike Cammalleri and the newly-acquired Taylor Hall. Look for the Devils’ current two best centers, Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique, to play more of a two-way role, leaving easier minutes for Zacha to shine. That said, Zacha should not be selected before the late rounds as a gamble because it is not clear if he will play enough minutes to post big numbers. Although, his power game makes him more appealing in multi-category leagues.
Nikita Zaitsev (D – Toronto)
Continuing with a familiar theme, Zaitsev has a great opportunity waiting for him in Toronto this fall on their weak blueline. The 24-year-old defender has been excellent the past two years in the KHL and could end up play top-pairing minutes with the Leafs, including a role on the team’s top power-play unit. There is some concern, as there is no guarantee he will adjust well to the NHL, especially as a defenseman, and he could turn out to be a bust. That said, there is some upside given the lack of competition on the back end, and the Leafs’ improved firepower up front.
Pavel Buchnevich (F – New York Rangers)
The recent additions of Jimmy Vesey and Brandon Pirri hurt Buchnevich a lot, as they create a logjam up front that could give the young Russian winger trouble earning a spot on the roster. Barring injuries or a great camp from Buchnevich, he could fall off the fantasy radar entirely. That said, the Rangers could be in the market for a trade to help their defense given their obscene amount of forwards under contract. This would give him one fewer obstacle to overcome this fall. However, as of now, consider him unlikely to have an impact. Leave him for someone else to draft or pick him in the final round if your other sleeper options are gone.
Mike Matheson (D – Florida)
Matheson is virtually guaranteed a roster spot with the Panthers and should see second-pairing minutes out of the gate. While he has a ton of long-term potential, his numbers have not been spectacular on his way to the NHL, so his short-term upside is in question. Plus, he will always be behind Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle in terms of offensive opportunities. It would take a major injury for Matheson to be thrust into a major scoring role. Skip him on draft day, but keep an eye on his progress and snatch him up later if the situation in Florida changes.
Matt Murray (G – Pittsburgh)
Murray is by far the biggest wildcard on this list due to sharing the crease with Marc-Andre Fleury, who has been outstanding during regular seasons over the years. Although winning the Stanley Cup will help Murray get plenty of looks, it will truly be feast or famine for the young goaltender from a fantasy perspective. After all, his sample size at the NHL level is so small even though he thrived for an entire postseason at the highest level. If Murray ultimately prevails, he will instantly become a top fantasy goalie given the quality of the team in front of him. Otherwise, his appeal will be limited to spot starts and as a handcuff if you already own Fleury.
Zach Werenski (D – Columbus)
Werenski should have no trouble sticking with the Blue Jackets this year given their lack of depth beyond their second pairing. Plus, unlike Matheson, he produced a solid 36 points in 36 games last year in college, giving him a better track record heading into the NHL. That said, there are obstacles in the way to prevent him from posting big numbers, including Seth Jones, Ryan Murray, David Savard and Jack Johnson. In all likelihood, Werenski will be limited to a secondary role with mediocre numbers, although Murray has been injury-prone over the years, and Savard and Johnson are coming off a terrible year.
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