The Journey takes a closer look at the prospects competing in the World Cup of Hockey later this month who could jump start their NHL season with success in the event.
Team Czech Republic
Radek Faksa – Dallas Stars
Faksa was a modest producer in the 58 regular season and playoff games that he played in last season, scoring eight goals and chipping in with nine assists. In his rookie season, he was relied upon to do the dirty work playing in the bottom six behind offensive producers such as Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Patrick Sharp and Jason Spezza.
Despite playing just 12 minutes a night on average and getting little to no power-play time, Faksa found other ways to contribute. He won an average of five faceoffs per game, and added 66 hits while being defensively responsible on a team that allowed a substantial amount of goals.
Team Czech Republic’s strength down the middle took a hit yesterday with news that David Krejci will miss the tournament due to injury. Faksa will have the opportunity to help fill some of the void left by the team losing its No. 1 center. He does have some offensive upside to his game, and could climb the depth chart for both his NHL club and country in the coming seasons.
Ville Pokka – Chicago Blackhawks
Pokka is a player who has been on the radar of many fantasy owners for a few years now after he was selected in the second round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. The offensive-minded blueliner is one of a handful of young players who will put on the Suomi jersey for the tournament. Finland’s defense group is all 25 years old or younger outside of Sami Lepisto (31).
After improving from 30 to 45 points in his second American Hockey League season, Pokka is moving steadily closer to making his NHL debut. He will act as an influx of youth on a Blackhawks blueline that has five players who are 29 or older.
If Pokka is able to take a step forward during the World Cup and prove that he belongs among names such as Olli Maatta, Rasmus Ristolainen and Sami Vatanen, he will enter NHL camp with the confidence needed to battle for a roster spot with Chicago.
Esa Lindell – Dallas Stars
Much like Pokka, Lindell had a breakout season in the AHL in 2015-16. His 42 points in 73 games showcased his offensive ability both at even strength and with the man advantage.
Unlike Pokka, Lindell does not have the roadblock of players in front of him to make the Dallas roster in 2016-17, though. Dan Hamuis and Johnny Oduya are winding down their careers and Jordie Benn is a good piece, but is by no means spectacular. Stephen Johns, Jamie Oleksiak and Patrik Nemeth are fellow unproven commodities. In the future, Lindell’s biggest competition for quality even strength minutes and power-play time with John Klingberg could come from fellow prospect Julius Honka.
It will be interesting to see during the World Cup if Lindell or Pokka are awarded secondary power-play minutes for Finland.
Patrik Laine – Winnipeg Jets
If you are looking to add Patrik Laine via trade or select him in a reasonable draft position in your leagues, you might want to do it before September 17.
Laine is a candidate to breakout in this tournament playing alongside current NHL players such as Aleksander Barkov, Jussi Jokinen and Mikko Koivu. The second overall selection of the 2016 NHL Entry draft will play, and play often, likely as a top-six forward and on the first power-play unit.
With a successful tournament, both Laine and Auston Matthews could take the first step towards a Calder Trophy run in 2016-17.
Sebastian Aho – Carolina Hurricanes
Aho’s phenomenal season in 2015-16 has been well chronicled here in past articles. His rise from questioned second-round selection to potential top-nine forward on opening night in just one year, was fun to watch.
The most interesting piece of Aho playing with Team Finland at the World Cup is that it could be an opportunity to develop early chemistry with teammate Teuvo Teravainen before the NHL season starts. A line combination of Elias Lindholm, Aho and Teravainen is an option for Hurricanes head coach Bill Peters, and it could become more of a possibility if the two play well together at the World Cup.
Both Aho and Teravainen have been touted as sleeper picks for a breakout season, and seeing them play in Toronto this month could be a good chance to observe what kind of return you may get in your investment.
Team North America
Auston Matthews – Toronto Maple Leafs
Team North America, made up of players 23 and under, will be one of the most fun teams to watch at the World Cup, and has the chance to surprise some of the other more established teams at the tournament.
How positions and line combinations shake out will be interesting, and no easy task for coach Todd McLellan. Matthews, Sean Couturier, Jack Eichel, Dylan Larkin, Nathan MacKinnon, Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Vincent Trocheck and Mark Scheifele all have the ability to play center for the team. Matthews is one of the candidates to move to the wing for the tournament, with McDavid, Scheifele and Couturier as near locks down the middle. Who do you think will be the fourth center?
Although Matthews may not be in his typical position, he will have the ability to play alongside some incredible young talent. It will be exciting to see how he stacks up next to some of the best 23 and under players currently playing in the NHL. Impressing at the World Cup and standing out among this roster would continue to fuel the fire of the “generational talent” conversation that has been discussed over the past few years.
Connor Hellebuyck – Winnipeg Jets
Although third goalies in these types of tournaments rarely get playing time, it is a valuable experience, nonetheless. John Gibson and Matt Murray will likely be listed above Hellebuyck on the depth chart for the tournament, leaving the Jets netminder as an emergency backup incase of injury.
Hellebuyck could spend parts of this season in the AHL, even though he is NHL ready right now and likely the best goaltender that the Jets have. Michael Hutchinson’s re-signing tempers some of Hellebuyck’s fantasy value for 2016-17.
Even though he might not ascend to being the No. 1 goalie in Winnipeg for the entire season, Hellebuyck will still improve by being a part of the Team North America squad. Look for him to make his full breakout during the 2017-18 season while providing solid fantasy returns when given an opportunity this season.
Nikita Zaitsev – Toronto Maple Leafs
Despite playing 317 KHL games, Zaitsev enters 2016-17 as an NHL rookie after signing a one-year contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs in May.
The 24 year-old Russian has taken steps forward as a point producer for CSKA Moscow over the past two seasons, compiling 58 points in his last 103 games. He will likely fill a power-play role for Team Russia at the World Cup, with the possibility of playing alongside Andrei Markov or Dmitry Orlov with the man advantage.
The Maple Leafs could plug him into the same role when the NHL season opens as a potential first unit power-play option, and a top-pairing partner for Morgan Rielly. He could be a good risk-reward option when filling out your fantasy roster this season in salary-cap leagues, as he will cost you under a two million AAV on a one-year term.
Give Kevin a follow @kleblanchockey for NHL prospect talk and happenings.
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