Rookies are the great unknown.
It's exciting to see these new commodities enter the bright lights of the NHL, but it's often hard to handicap their performance.
Those who gambled on the dynamic duo of Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel last season ended up being disappointed thanks to McDavid's injury and Eichel's team context. That should be a warning to some degree, but hitting on those high-upside lottery tickets is a big part of a winning Fantasy formula.
As so often happens, the most recent draft's No. 1 pick heads up the list of this year's most promising and inexperienced Fantasy assets. He's sure to be drafted high and heavy after experiencing success in pro hockey overseas, but there are a lot of rewards to be found further down the list as well.
1. Auston Matthews, C, Toronto Maple Leafs
Not only was Matthews the most talented player available in June's draft, he's also the one who's most likely to produce immediate dividends for Fantasy owners. For all their shortcomings, the Leafs have a boatload of talented offensive players on their roster. It's unclear who Matthews' linemates will be to start out, but with talented veterans like James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak around -- not to mention talented rookies Mitch Marner and William Nylander, who are expected to crack the roster -- the 18-year-old is going to be surrounded by quality offensive players all season. I don't think Matthews has the long-term offensive upside of Eichel, but I do think Eichel's production in his rookie season (24 goals, 56 points) is in line with what we can expect from Matthews as an NHL freshman in Toronto.
2. Matt Murray, G, Pittsburgh Penguins
Had the Penguins dealt Marc-Andre Fleury this offseason, I would have had Murray in the No. 1 spot. Murray's stellar postseason play helped lead Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup, and it was even more remarkable when you take into account that he's played just 13 regular-season NHL games. The Penguins are clearly one of the best teams in the league, so Murray will be an elite DFS play whenever he draws the start. That said, I have a hard time believing that the Penguins are willing to sit Fleury and his $5.7 million cap hit for any significant length of time. Murray could very well be a top-five Fantasy goalie if he played 60-plus games, but I don't see that happening barring an unexpected trade or a Fleury injury. Handicapping Murray's Fantasy value is one of the most difficult challenges for Fantasy owners heading into next season.
3. Patrik Laine, RW, Winnipeg Jets
My main reason for ranking Laine this high (other than the fact that he's awesome) is that I expect Winnipeg to give him a ton of ice time immediately. And as long as he sees a decent amount of playing time, I don't see how the No. 2 pick in June's draft scores fewer than 20 goals in his freshman season. Laine's shot is legendary -- he has one of the best releases I've ever seen from such a young player. Even if it takes him a while to adapt to the smaller rinks in North America, he figures to do enough damage on the power play to be an immediate Fantasy threat.
4. Dylan Strome, C, Arizona Coyotes
Strome could have easily played in the NHL last season, but the Coyotes did the smart thing by having him serve one final season in the OHL. Arizona has arguably the deepest prospect pool in the entire league (that's what happens when you've been awful for countless years), but there's no way they can justify having Strome spend a season in the AHL now. He should get playing time with both Max Domi and Anthony Duclair, and a rookie season of about 20 goals and 50 points certainly isn't out of the question.
5. Jimmy Vesey, LW, Buffalo Sabres*
Vesey gets an asterisk next to his team because he's technically property of the Sabres, but is slated to become an unrestricted free agent Aug. 15 and he already said that he's prepared to explore his options. Originally a third-round pick by Nashville in 2012, Vesey earned his UFA status due to the ridiculous rule that any player who plays four years of collegiate hockey can decline to sign with the team that drafted him and become a UFA. I'm assuming that Vesey is going to choose a team that offers him a significant role right away, which is why he's ranked so high here. He posted 114 points in 70 games over the past two seasons at Harvard, winning the Hobey Baker Award as the best college player this past year.
6. Pavel Buchnevich, LW, New York Rangers
As things stand now, Buchnevich is slated to open the season on the Rangers' third line, but that would change instantly if they trade some of their other wingers, which isn't out of the question. GM Jeff Gorton has committed to overhauling the team this offseason, but thus far hasn't found a profitable way to ship out Rick Nash or Chris Kreider. Buchnevich is more than ready for a sizeable role after spending the past three seasons in the KHL. I'm concerned that Rangers coach Alain Vigneault -- who has never had much patience with young players -- will get fed up with the Russian if he gets off to a slow start, but his talent is undeniable.
7. Ivan Provorov, D, Philadelphia Flyers
After he was named the CHL Defenseman of the Year last season, I think it's a near certainty that Provorov spends the entirety of this upcoming year in Philadelphia. His calmn with the puck and passing ability should help with any difficulties he experiences in his adjustment to pro hockey. Shayne Gostisbehere is clearly the top option on the Flyers' blueline, but I imagine that Provorov will be more productive than the aging Mark Streit if given the opportunity.
8. Kyle Connor, C, Winnipeg Jets
Connor had just finished out one of the most dominant freshman seasons in NCAA history (35 goals, 71 points in 38 games with the University of Michigan) before signing with the Jets in April. He's an easy top-five prospect based on talent alone, but we have to acknowledge that there's a wide range of outcomes for him this coming season. I think he's ready to play a supporting role on Winnipeg's top line with guys like Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele, but since he won't turn 20 until December, I could also see the Jets starting him in the AHL. He's an elite keeper-league selection, but I need more information about the team's plans before enthusiastically recommending him in redraft leagues.
9. Mitch Marner and William Nylander, C, Toronto Maple Leafs
Marner and Nylander are listed together because while I expect both to make the team, I imagine that only one of them will be able to produce enough to be of use to Fantasy owners in standard formats. Both rank as top-10 prospects in the league, but it's hard to predict which of the two will produce more this coming season. Neither is going to play ahead of Matthews, and as I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of mouths to feed among Toronto's forwards. Marner has the higher ceiling (which is saying something when you take into account how talented Nylander is), but Nylander has the advantage of having a season of professional hockey under his belt. Both are worthy of speculative ownership in all redraft leagues, but the odds look better than 50-50 that one of them will disappoint from a Fantasy perspective this season.
10. Zach Werenski, D, Columbus Blue Jackets
Werenski is going to play in the NHL this year, but the question is how much power-play time he'll get. He has all the tools to be an impact power-play quarterback, but three of the Jackets' top-four blueliners -- Seth Jones, Jack Johnson and David Savard -- are offensive-minded defenders. I would be an advocate of playing Werenski on the third pair at even strength, then giving him a boatload of power-play time, but his role under Coach John Tortorella remains undefined at the moment.