08 September 2006

Rookies to Watch for 2006-07

(as published in the 2006-07 SportsBlurb.com Hockey Sourcebook)

Most fantasy hockey owners are going to do a modicum of research, and will probably bring in anywhere from a few cheat sheets to a ream of statistics from last year. How can you gain an edge on someone who knows that Chris Kelly tied for the most short-handed assists last year (six) and Philippe Boucher had the best out-of-division +/- (+29)?

Answer: rookies.

In the three years before last season, only two rookies (Dany Heatley, Michael Ryder) cracked the 60 point barrier, with only two besides them even cracking 50. Last year alone there were thirteen who broke 40, five who broke 50, and two who you can put in the top five rookie seasons in NHL history. Hockey fans were treated to the greatest rookie class in history last year due in part to two years worth of rookie talent in one year, but also due to the strict interpretation of interference rules, which gave much more room on the ice to move (as well as a lot more power play time). We shouldn’t expect an equal influx of raw talent this year, but it’s hard not to get excited about a bunch of potential rookies this year – some who had a cup of coffee in the bigs last year and some straight out of junior or Europe. Keep a close eye on these players in terms of your fantasy league – some will start the season on the first line, some may start out in the minors, but all are expected to make a big impact at some point during the year.

Evgeni MalkinPittsburgh Penguins

You’ve already read enough about Malkin and if you’ve been lucky enough to see him play you realize that the hype is legitimate. Unfortunately the hype is so great that in many leagues Malkin may not only go early in the first round, but first overall. That might be a bit extreme for a one-season deal, as Malkin will almost certainly go through growing pains, as well as play with a few wingers who are nearly twice his age (John LeClair, Mark Recchi). Just because at this point before the season the Calder is “his to lose” doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll win it (see last year’s Ovechkin/Crosby race) but he will be the first rookie drafted in every league in North America.

Alexander RadulovNashville Predators

The chants of “Raduu! Raduu!” that have cascaded through the ancient halls of Le Colisee in Quebec for the past two seasons will hopefully be echoed in Nashville this year. Radulov is a fan-favourite who will electrify crowds around the NHL with his speed and innate offensive ability, not to mention a bit of a cocky streak that will infuriate opponents – he won virtually every offensive award possible last year while winning the Memorial Cup for the Quebec Remparts (QMJHL). The signing of J.P. Dumont may have kept Radulov temporarily off the top line in Nashville but with the overall talent up front he’ll have quality linemates no matter who he plays with. He’s good enough that if he does get enough offensive opportunities he could challenge for the Calder.

Patrick O’Sullivan Los Angeles Kings

Coming over in the trade for veteran scorer Pavol Demitra, this is a deal that is going to make Kings’ fans happy for years to come. In addition to getting 10 years younger and nearly $4 million more room on the payroll, they have a vastly talented scoring forward who can play wing or center and has simply dominated every league he’s been in, from the US National Team through four years of junior with Mississauga (OHL). His first professional season was spent in Houston (AHL) last year and he merely scored the most goals in his career (47), en route to the league’s Rookie of the Year award. Simply put, at age 21 he’s ready for the NHL and is virtually guaranteed a spot on the team. Strong Calder candidate.

Jiri Hudler Detroit Red Wings

Hudler had a brief taste of the NHL over the last two years, having played in 16 games, but now with the departure of Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan it’s time for new blood in the Motor City – Hudler’s time is now. The Czech winger has gradually been groomed by the Wings, as he spent the last three seasons with Grand Rapids (AHL) learning the North American pro game, and last year he exploded with 36 goals and 96 points. His only knock is that he’s a finesse player who’s on the small side (5’9”, 178lbs) so will need to learn to find the open ice in the NHL.

Wojtek Wolski Colorado Avalanche

After winning the Ontario Hockey League’s MVP award (128 points in 56 games), this 20 year old from Poland was called up by Colorado and immediately made an impact, scoring six points in nine games, and adding four more in the playoffs. Wolski improved every year with the Brampton Battalion and by his final two seasons exhibited a great confidence in all zones. Wolski will get every opportunity to play on the top two lines for the Avalanche and will get a huge boost in production if he earns a spot with Joe Sakic and Milan Hejduk.

Matt Carle San Jose Sharks

Upon winning the Hobey Baker Award for Denver as the top collegiate player in the United States, Carle immediately joined the talented Sharks lineup and showed he could contribute, with six points in his first 11 pro games. Carle is a uniquely talented two-way defenceman who should see plenty of ice-time in all situations in this, his first full season. He should be the team’s number one defenceman within a few years and on a team this stacked with scoring talent he should be worth a fantasy pick this year.

Phil KesselBoston Bruins

His stock slipped over the past year, as one year ago Kessel was considered the heavy favourite to go number one overall in the 2006 draft. The Bruins aren’t convinced of that, and may end up having the steal of the draft – Kessel is only 18 years old but is ready for the NHL, having been dominant at each level including only one year at University of Minnesota. Either of Boston’s top two centers (Patrice Bergeron, Marc Savard) are fantastic talents who should help Kessel net at least 50 points this year. If all goes well, he has an outside shot at 30 goals.

Anze KopitarLos Angeles Kings

The Calder wildcard – the only reason Kopitar won’t be among the top rookie scorers is if he’s bumped off the top two lines (and might be due to the Kings’ other hot rookie prospect, Patrick O’Sullivan) – it’s very likely he’ll start the season in the minors but this is the Kings’ future number one center, and he has the skills to score right now. This past May at the World Championships he notched nine points in only six games, the best per-game production of any player. Kopitar is a star in the making; the only question is where he starts the season – in the minors or with Los Angeles.

Dustin Penner
Anaheim Ducks

Penner bounced back and forth last year between Anaheim and Portland (AHL), playing only 19 games with the Ducks, but became a force during the playoffs with nine points in 13 games and registering a +10. At 6’4” 245 lbs. Penner is literally an enormous presence who parks himself in front of the net and has great hands; a Tim Kerr for a new generation. He scored 39 goals in 57 games at Portland while putting up an astounding +41 plus-minus. Penner’s impact in a short time last year will give the team confidence in him to start the season on one of the top lines, and if paired with second-year scorer Ryan Getzlaf he could soon develop into one of the best all-around wingers in fantasy hockey.

Gilbert Brule Columbus Blue Jackets

Only 19 years old, Columbus will be counting on another young junior phenom for goals. One of the great centers in junior hockey over the past three years with the Vancouver Giants (WHL), upon returning from a broken leg Gilbert Brule led his team into the Memorial Cup tournament while scoring 30 points in 18 games. Brule may not put up big numbers at this young age, and on a team thin up front, but like Rick Nash before him he should soon develop into another weapon for Columbus. If he plays with Nash, he could put up enough assists to make him valuable this season.

Magnus KahnbergSt. Louis Blues

Kahnberg is off most people's radars when it comes to this upcoming rookie class due mostly to having spent his entire career in Sweden. Kahnberg led the Swedish elite league in points two years ago and at age 26 he should already be in the prime of his career. Acquired by the Blues last year in the Doug Weight trade, he was signed to a contract this spring, so expect to see him in the Blues lineup this fall. As a top star in one of the best European leagues, the adjustment to the NHL game shouldn’t be as great as other first year players and his offensive skills are sorely needed in St. Louis.

Eric Fehr Washington Capitals

Eric Fehr may take some time to develop into a regular scorer but if Caps fans get a glimpse of what he’s delivered to the Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL) over the pas four seasons, they’ll have reason to hope for the future. Fehr gives a great combination of grit and a killer scoring instinct, scoring 50 goals in each of his last two junior seasons, while not shying away from physical play. Washington lacks depth up front so look for the 21 year old to get a legitimate shot on the wings; it should also be obvious that if he’s lucky enough to play with Alexander Ovechkin that you should grab him immediately.

Jarkko Immonen New York Rangers

Immonen was acquired by the Rangers in the deal that sent Brian Leetch to the Maple Leafs, and for a change the Rangers made the wise move in looking to the future. Now at age 24, Immonen is a center who covers the entire ice well but also is a skilled playmaker who scored 70 points for Hartford (AHL) last season. He has proven himself at a high level, being one of the stars in the top Finnish league SM-Liiga, and should be given a chance on a Rangers team that badly needs scoring depth.

Robbie Schremp Edmonton Oilers

There is no doubt that Robbie Schremp will be a valuable scorer for the Oilers in the near future, the only question is whether it’s this year or not. Schremp just missed making the team last year and was sent back to junior where he absolutely cleaned up the OHL with the London Knights, scoring a league-high 145 points in just 57 games. Over the past three seasons Schremp has been an integral part of the Knights’ powerhouse club and with nothing more to prove there, will turn pro this year. With Jarret Stoll and Shawn Horcoff ahead of him on the center chart, if he does make the Oilers out of camp there’ll have to be a position move for him to get on one of the scoring lines. Watch this situation carefully and if Schremp is in the right situation he could be immediately valuable.

Bryan LittleAtlanta Thrashers

This brilliant scoring machine is still only 18 years old so the chances of him being sent back to his junior team in Barrie (OHL) are fairly strong. However, he warrants an honorable mention here because if he does manage to impress in camp and make the team he would immediately be the most talented center on the Thrashers. Bryan Little is a smallish center but plays much bigger, with lots of energy and no fear. His end-to-end rushes are made possible with incredible speed and thinking of him playing alongside Ilya Kovalchuk in the near future should give other Southeast division defencemen nightmares.

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