Hello fantasy hockey fans, and welcome to The Journey! If you’ve followed this column for any length of time, chances are you’ve become quite familiar with the great work of Jokke Nevalainen, Brad Phillips, Kevin LeBlanc and some other awesome writers around the site. My name is Brayden Olafson – I’m from a small town in Saskatchewan and have been working with DobberProspects for about two years, and I’ll be taking the reins here going forward. Like much of the staff at Dobber, I consider myself a student of the game at all levels, and love to get involved in discussions with fellow fans and readers. The best way to get a hold of me is through the comments here or on Twitter @olaf1393.
With those pleasantries aside, let’s get into some hockey. Since Dobber has just released his November edition of the Top 200 Fantasy Prospect Forwards, we’re going to have a look at some of the biggest risers and fallers. First though, we’re going to have a quick look at the U20 Canada-Russia series that wrapped up on Thursday night in Drummondville.
The CIBC Canada-Russia series was hosted by six different cities across Canada over the course of the last two weeks. Beginning in Vancouver on November 5, and wrapping up on Thursday in Drummondville. The six-game series in which the Russians challenge each league’s All-Star team twice, is one of the best annual opportunities for scouts to compare the top U20 Russian talents to the top U20 Canadians. The age bracket allows for already drafted players in addition to draft eligible players to get prime exposure leading up to the World Junior Championship roster selections. The WHL’s bench boss Tim Hunter will also head up Canada’s final roster at the holiday classic, so you can be sure that the results of this series will weigh heavily on the selections. It also so happens that the Russians’ will be slotted in Canada’s pool for round-robin play at the WJC, which added an extra element of evaluation to Hunter’s two-week cross-Canada escapade.
Neither the Dub, nor the O tallied a single official powerplay goal in their series, despite a combined 15 opportunities. Coach Hunter admitted that the team showed little to no cohesion on the man advantage, likely as a result of their unfamiliarity with each other. That narrative seemed to carry through the week for the CHL teams, which Hunter also admitted, was a factor in their evaluation. The Russians have provided consistent competition for the seemingly cyclical Canadian squads. This time around, the parity of the series was uncanny. While both of the first two CHL leagues were able to split their respective series with the Red Machine, the QMJHL failed to close in either of their contests. The Russians clinched their first win of the series since 2010 with a regulation goal to send the final game of the series to overtime. The six games had a World Junior-like excitement, despite it being the lowest scoring series in the 16-year history.
The dynamic scene of evaluating young hockey players means that the results of a best-on-best series such as this can have a more significant impact on a player’s apparent value than similar events for other groups. With that being said, here are some of the players that made the most positive impact on their stock through the course of the short series.
Stepan Starkov (FA) – The undrafted 19-year-old center led the Russian’s in scoring through the series. He’s flown under the radar in his previous years of draft eligibility and has never played outside of the Iron Curtain which could stint NHL interest. His performance over the last couple of weeks could create interest though.
Dylan Cozens (2019 Draft) – Of the several 2019 draft eligible players to be featured in the series, Cozens seemed to have the most positive impact on his team. The Yukon native is on an upward trajectory, which will leave Tim Hunter with a tough decision when it comes to the 17-year-old and World Junior selections.
Michael DiPietro (2017/64th, Vancouver) – The Canucks prospect added to his successful 2018 with a win for team OHL. Tim Hunter marveled at the 19-year-old’s athleticism, a factor that could make him a favorite to land the starting role for Canada in Vancouver.
Jared McIssac (2018/36th, Detroit) – After a moderately successful draft year in Halifax, McIssac has been able to refocus his game on his strengths as a complete defender. Despite being held off of the score sheet in either of the QMJHL’s contests, he provided sound defensive play and flashes of opportunity in the offensive zone.
The Russian lineup is a fairly accurate picture of what we will see on the ice in Vancouver and Victoria this Boxing Day, however each of the Canadian players will continue to compete until the final selection camp.
Fastest Rising Prospects
Now getting into the meat and potatoes of this week, the fastest rising players from Dobber’s most recent edition of his top-200 Fantasy Prospect Forwards.
Brett Howden – New York Rangers – Up to 13 from 99
An unlikely hero in the Rangers’ rebuild saga, Howden has emerged from the Blueshirts group of youngsters as a reliable source of offense and defense. Coming over in the Miller/McDonagh transition from Tampa, Howden was seen as a relatively safe type of player who would spend time in Hartford before coming up to play in a support role on Broadway.
This October, however, revealed a renewed set of expectations for the former 27th overall pick. The 20-year-old is on pace for a 48-point rookie campaign playing primarily between Jesper Fast and Jimmy Vesey. That mark would eclipse either of his two line-mates annual totals through their fifth and second years respectively. Howden is currently scoring on 20% of his shots, in all likelihood, an unsustainable rate to keep up through the length of the season. His second unit powerplay opportunity has been limited though, which provides an opportunity for growth between now and the end of the year. Sticking on a line with Vesey and Fast will also allow Howden to continue flying under the radar against other teams’ defensive tactics, all in all, painting a pretty nice picture for future success.
At 6-3, Howden is a specimen. There’s certainly room for growth in his game, but this early success rewrites his script to some extent. It’s plausible that by the end of the year he will have surpassed both Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil on the teams projections, putting him in line to be the poster-boy and 1-C at MSG for years to come.
Sheldon Rempal – LA Kings – up to 114 from 202
Signed as a free-agent out of Clarkson, the opportunistic Sheldon Rempal is in the business of proving people wrong. At 5-10, 165lb, he makes Mitch Marner look like a pretty big boy – but that hasn’t slowed him down at any level of hockey yet. In his draft year, Rempal played for the Nanaimo Clippers of the BCHL on Vancouver Island – he tallied a respectable 50 points in 58 games, but nowhere near draft caliber. It wasn’t until two seasons later in his final year of Junior A that he exploded with 59 goals and 110 points through 56 contests.
Three years later, Rempal can tell the same story of his two years of Division I and how that success has catapulted him into the AHL. A handful of games into his pro career, the 23-year-old was off to a blistering start with Ontaio before being recalled to the Kings to play alongside Jeff Carter and Ilya Kovalchuk. His audition with the team was short lived with Dustin Brown returning from the IR, but with the developing turmoil on the team it might not be long before we see him reinstated in the Kings top-6.
At this point, Rempal becomes almost a pure boom/bust type of prospect for the Kings. At a time when the team is uncertain of their future, that kind of name plate could certainly be something to bet on.
Kristian Vesalainen – Winnipeg Jets – Up to 28 from 83
Success in the European professional leagues can often go underappreciated – just look at Elias Pettersson. Kristian Vesalainen really isn’t a whole heck of a lot different – before you go screaming about Pettersson’s NHL production, his pedigree, his nice hair… hear me out. Vesalainen plays a 200-foot game, and his production may never amount to the exact level of Pettersson’s, but the concept of his underappreciation due to his geographic circumstances is equivalent. The Jets are also in a totally different situation than the Canucks where it would be unacceptable to give Vesalainen the same kind of opportunity that Pettersson is getting right now.
At 19 years of age, Vesalainen’s vision, poise, hockey sense and size make him a tantalizing prospect who has the potential to flank a top NHL line in the future. In recent news, Vesalainen has been called up to play for the Jets, one day before his European out clause was set to begin.
Aleksi Heponiemi – Florida Panthers –Up to 36 from 88
The Panthers second-round-pick from 2017 was a star at the Canadian major junior level for the last two years. In his draft and draft+1 seasons, he scored 86 and 118 points respectively good for 16th and 3rd in WHL scoring those years. Although he would remain eligible to play in the league for another year, Heponiemi and his advisors opted for a change in scenery that would attest to his ability as a complete and maturing player. This summer, he announced that he would be returning to Finland to join Kärpät of the Finnish Liiga.
Competing against men, rather than a narrow group of his peers in Canada, Hepo has proven early this fall that he is an adaptable player. He’s shown that an increase in the level of his competition will not stand as a barrier to his development – hence the boost to 36 on Dobber’s list. If he’s able to sustain this level of play over the course of a full campaign, his next challenge will be closing the gap on an NHL job as early as next October.
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