The top rookies in the Western Conference, 2016-17 edition…
Top Western Conference Rookies
The players featured this week have all played fewer than 30 NHL games in their career. These are players who have a good shot of not only making their team but also playing enough to make a fantasy contribution. For instance there is just as good a chance of Tyler Wotherspoon making the Flames as Shea Theodore making the Ducks. The Flames defense runs six deep, putting Wotherspoon in a good spot, whereas Theodore must battle for a spot behind a much deeper defense. Despite that, it is very unlikely that Wotherspoon will have any fantasy impact whatsoever, whereas Theodore could be a major sleeper this year. There are not a lot of sure things this year outside of Patrik Laine and there is definitely no player capable of having an impact like Connor McDavid. Even so, many of these players have much higher ceilings than you would otherwise find in the later rounds of a single season draft – and generally cheaper. Furthermore, these rookies are likely to produce more efficiently for those in cap leagues.
Patrik Laine, Winnipeg
There is not a lot to say about Laine that was not said in the Best of the West: Left Wings column of a couple weeks ago. The Jets are deep but have a place for Laine in their top six because their wingers, while capable, generally are not elite. Blake Wheeler is a proven high-end option, and Nikolaj Ehlers has a ton of potential but there are question marks beyond them. Drew Stafford is a middle-six winger and Mathieu Perreault could just as easily play center on the third line. The Jets middle six will be delved into later in this column. In this case the Jets’ depth chart works in Laine’s favor as a spot in the top six means playing with Bryan Little or Mark Scheifele, both of whom are, at worst, capable first-line centers. This means that Laine should land on a quality line either way. He is the rookie with the best shot at 60 points this year.
Jesse Puljujarvi, Edmonton
Puljujarvi finds himself in almost as good of a situation as the one in which Laine finds himself in Winnipeg. The Oilers have the potential to roll out three scoring lines. While it is unlikely that he will find himself playing with Connor McDavid on the top line, the second and third lines still offer interesting possibilities. Both of the Oilers’ two other centers in the top nine come with pros as wells as cons. A spot with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (RNH) likely means a more defensive role as he is by far the most defensively conscious of the Oilers top three centers. That would mean tougher matchups as well as fewer scoring opportunities. RNH is also the most established of the three and comes with a better history of success in the NHL than does Leon Draisaitl. RNH is at minimum a 50-55 point player regardless of role, whereas Draisaitl has one good stretch of production, which was buoyed by elevated shooting percentages. That makes RNH the safer option while Draisaitl is the option with a higher ceiling. Puljujarvi is the only option on this list capable of coming close to 50 points other than Laine. He probably hits 40 points regardless of whom he plays with, but the range is larger with Draisaitl.
Dylan Strome, Arizona
When the Coyotes bought out Antoine Vermette it opened up a spot in the top six for Strome. Of the other centers on the Coyotes depth chart only one, Martin Hanzal, has a legitimate claim at being a top six center. The Coyotes are considerably deeper at wing, after adding Jamie McGinn and Radim Vrbata, where they have between four and six experienced NHLers capable of filling a top-six wing role. That depends on how one classifies Shane Doan and Tobias Rieder. McGinn and Doan are very similar players, but Doan played on the third line with Brad Richardson and Jordan Martinook last year and Rieder is as of yet unsigned, so it is safe, as of now, to assume that Strome will likely play with Vrbata and McGinn. Rieder is also probably better suited to a third line role, much like Jordan Martinook. Vrbata is still capable of scoring 20 goals when he plays with an offensively capable center. McGinn is less dynamic but still capable of potting 20 goals as well, looking at his experience in Buffalo as a point of comparison suggests that 35 points is entirely doable. With that sort of productive linemate, two in the 40-point neighborhood, it should make it easier for Strome to hit the same mark. The ability of Strome to produce at even strength will be especially important as Strome likely will not start the season on the top power play unit.
Daniel Pribyl, Calgary
Pribyl is coming off of major surgery on his ACL but hopes to be ready for training camp. Even if he misses time due to a prolonged recovery he should get a decent shot at a middle six spot with the Flames as they are woefully shallow up front on the right side. Pribyl is another big body for a team that is full of them on the wings. He does play more of a skill game than many of the other big bodies the Flames employ. His increasing scoring rate in the Czech league as well as the way his skillset tilts towards the offensive zone may force the Flames to play him in more of a scoring role. The biggest thing holding him back is that new coach Glen Gulutzan, has in the past shown a predilection for agitators, which could mean that Pribyl gets stuck behind Alex Chiasson on the depth chart. That may not matter should Sam Bennett finally get his own line. Based on his Czech League scoring rate Pribyl should get 40 points, 35 on a defensive line, but knock that down by five to 10 because of the ACL injury as they almost always take longer to recover from.
Shea Theodore, Anaheim
In order to be relevant Theodore needs the Ducks to move one of Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen or Hampus Lindholm. The Ducks are too deep on the backend, and too committed financially to Kevin Bieksa, for Theodore to get much in the way of significant offensive opportunity otherwise. The best case would be if the Ducks were to trade Vatanen, however the most likely scenario seems to be the Ducks trading Fowler. If the Ducks’ current big three remain intact Theodore will max out at 15 points over maybe 40 games otherwise he could be a 40 point player this season. The Ducks need to move someone as they still need to sign Rickard Rakell and Lindholm and have less than eight million in cap space to do so. The Ducks are however, an internal cap team so expecting them to spend to the 73 million dollar cap is foolhardy. With the Ducks being much deeper on defense than they are up front bet on a trade of one Anaheim’s big three and Theodore coming closer to 35 than to 15 points.
Esa Lindell, Dallas
The Stars have a very deep defense but the problem is that other than John Klingberg there is very little offense on their backend. When they let Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers walk this offseason they let go of their secondary scoring on defense. Johnny Oduya, Dan Hamhuis, Patrik Nemeth, Jordie Benn and Stephen Johns have all shown themselves to be much better at shot suppression than shot creation. None of them are going to drive a lot of offense from the back end. Jamie Oleksiak has a bit more offensive potential but he is more of a multi-category player than an offensive driver. That leaves an opening on the Dallas backend with the Stars having two options in their system: Lindell and Julius Honka. Lindell is more advanced in his development as he has an extra season playing pro hockey than Honka. Even though Honka has an extra season of AHL hockey under his belt, Lindell played two seasons in Finland and one in the AHL, yet Lindell in his first AHL season basically matched Honka’s production last year. The point being that he is more likely to make the Stars due to his experience while the lack of secondary scoring on the blueline will give him the opportunity to put up 25-30 points this year.
Christian Dvorak, Arizona
Before the Coyotes brought in Vrbata the chances of Dvorak making the team out of camp were a lot higher, especially with Rieder holding out. Were Dvorak a center he would have a much better shot of making the Coyotes where the team is much shallower at that position. Coming off of back-to-back 100+ seasons with the London Knights is one of the better prospects in a very deep Coyote prospect pool. Dvorak has the potential to make a similar contribution to the one that Strome is expected to make were he given the chance. With the players on the Coyotes’ depth chart right now it will be tough for Dvorak to crack 25 points over a full season, but he may not even see 40 games this year.
Nick Schmaltz and Tyler Motte, Chicago
The Blackhawks have a glaring opening on the left side of Jonathan Toews’ line. This is a great opportunity for any player, but especially so for a talented two-way youngster. Both Schmaltz and Motte are high hockey IQ players who should, in theory, fit in quite well on the Blackhawks’ shutdown line. Schmaltz is the better talent of the two but Motte has a slight edge in experience. Given that Motte’s edge in experience is so slight and at the college level it is probably a moot point but Quenneville has a notable preference for older, or veteran, players. Schmaltz, given his talent, would probably have a greater impact in fantasy terms but for either player the key will be the play of Marian Hossa and Toews. If Toews and Hossa return to their 2014/15 form the spot on this line is worth 40 points otherwise it could become a mishmash of line juggling as it was last year. Hossa is finally starting to show signs of slowing down as he nears 40 but some youthful legs and skill injected in the line could be the complement he needs to make this line a serious 1b again. Schmaltz should have the edge given his advanced skill and pedigree, and the fact that the Blackhawks signed him out of college early, suggesting that they think he might be ready for this type of role. Motte makes a good secondary option, put at 60/40 favoring Schmaltz with Quenneville’s preferences helping Motte make it a race. Whoever gets the spot has a chance at 40 points.
Mikko Rantanen, Colorado
There is almost certainly a top nine spot open in Colorado, and depending on how Mikhail Grigorenko is viewed, a top six spot. That is good news for Rantanen as he is coming off of a sublime rookie season where he averaged more than a point per game on a team where he outscored the second highest scorer by 15 points. To have a shot at hitting 40 points he would likely need to land a spot on a line with Nathan Mackinnon or Matt Duchene as the Carl Soderberg is largely used in a more defensive role. As it is he is probably a 20 point guy at best next year as he splits the season between the AHL and the NHL. One factor he has working in his favor is that the Avs’ new coach is fresh out of the AHL so he may be more willing to give a guy lit up that league a big shot this year.
Kyle Connor, Winnipeg
Connor’s best shot of making the Jets is if the Mathieu Perreault gets bumped down to the third line because Jets are not comfortable with Shawn Matthias or Alex Burmistrov in that role. Were Perreault to be the Jets third line center it opens up a spot in the top six for the ultra-talented Connor. While Connor would not see quite the same benefits as Laine will in his expected role a spot in the top six would likely see Connor hit 35-40 points. The reason Connor would not see the same benefits is that it would be less likely that he would see the same time on the power play as Laine. Connor is the biggest longshot in this list but with his speed and talent were he to get a prolonged shot in the NHL he could have a Dylan Larkin type effect as he has a similar skillset but had a much better sole college season.
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