A fantasy look at the NHL entry draft
It's appropriate that 12 of the 30 first-round selections in this year's NHL entry draft were blueliners. The fantasy defenseman ranks need some new blood. Aside from Dion Phaneuf and Mike Green, the top 10 still consists of names like Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Gonchar and Zdeno Chara, and even Ed Jovanovski was back last season.
In the next few years we'll finally start seeing some new names at the top, including picks No. 2 through No. 4: Drew Doughty, Zach Bogosian and Alex Pietrangelo. There's also some offensive upside to be found among some of the later first-rounders, like Luca Sbisa, Mike Del Zotto and Erik Karlsson.
Patience will be a much-needed virtue for any fantasy owner who gets too excited over the new crop of D-men. Phaneuf may have stepped into the NHL and immediately won owners' hearts, but look to Jack Johnson and Eric Johnson as recent examples of future stars of the blue line needing at least a year to get accustomed to the game. Mike Green and Braydon Coburn both toiled through a fantasy-irrelevant 2006-07 season to become mainstays on fantasy squads last season.
That's not to say some of these defensemen won't surprise by taking the Phaneuf route and start contributing this October -- some of them certainly have that potential -- but more than likely it will be 2009-10 before any of the 12 first-round defensemen are on your radar.
With that in mind, here are the 10 names to know from this draft when looking at 2008-09 impact only:
- Nikita Filatov (sixth pick), LW, Blue Jackets: I know Steve Stamkos was expected here, and I think he has the most long-term impact, but for this coming season only, I like Filatov's situation better. Scouts say they haven't seen hands like Filatov's come through the draft since Nikolai Zherdev, and the difference between Filatov and Zherdev is attitude. Whereas Zherdev had to be convinced to come to North America, then had that whole stink over serving army time in Russia, and still is said to be tough to coach, Filatov is dying to cross the pond, easy to coach and strong in English already. The potential to work with Rick Nash or even Zherdev himself makes Filatov a good bet to contribute the most next year from this draft class. Like drafting him in real life though, there is always risk with the lack of a transfer agreement from Russia. But until I hear definitively that he will not be coming to play in North America this coming season, Filatov will be the one I am taking a risk on.
- Steve Stamkos (first), C, Lightning: See? I didn't drop him down very far. Stamkos is the total package: speed, skill, defense, scoring and leadership. He still has a lot to learn, and I expect he will hone his game well under the wing of the comparably skilled Vincent Lecavalier. However, I don't expect Stamkos to spend a heck of a lot of time with Vinny on the ice. Therein lies the only thing that has my expectations tempered for Stamkos this coming season. He'll be a perennial top-15 scoring threat by 2009-10, and will be fantasy relevant this coming season, but I don't think we need to break the bank for him on fantasy draft day. I'm expecting something in between Patrick Kane's and Sam Gagner's output from last season, which should make Stamkos a solid No. 2 fantasy center.
- Cody Hodgson (10th), C, Canucks: More than anything else, the Vancouver Canucks need players to put the puck in the net. That makes Hodgson more than eligible to crack the opening night roster for Vancouver. He probably comes second to Stamkos when it comes to hockey sense and reading the game among players in this year's draft. That should help him make the transition to the pro game quickly, even if he starts the year in a checking role. As noted though, the Canucks need scoring, and as soon as they realize Hodgson is able to put the puck in the net, he could move up the depth chart significantly. With Roberto Luongo in tow, Hodgson's great two-way play should make him an asset to plus/minus, and he could probably play on some deeper-league fantasy teams right away if he can break camp. I'm looking at him as a serviceable No. 3 center to start the year, with the potential to move up quickly depending on how Vancouver handles the rest of the offseason.
- Drew Doughty (second), D, Kings: If any player can make a Phaneuf-like impact this season on the blue line, it's Doughty. He is as NHL-ready as they come in this draft, and like Phaneuf, possesses all aspects of an impact defenseman, from power-play quarterbacking to ringing bells with big hits. I'm a little leery of the fact that the Kings have some depth on defense and two other top prospects on the blue line with a few years on Doughty (Thomas Hickey and Jack Johnson). The main reason to hold back on considering Doughty as a cornerstone to your fantasy defense for this season though, is again the fact that D-men usually take a couple of years to start really motoring in the NHL. Drafting today, I might take a shot on Doughty as my No. 3 defenseman because of the upside, but I would also consider the move a big risk.
- Viktor Tikhonov (28th), F, Coyotes: Having been passed over as draft-eligible twice already, Tikhonov has age in his corner when it comes to breaking into the NHL this season. The Coyotes knew exactly who they wanted after trading for the No. 28 pick and then handing Tikhonov a jersey with his name already emblazoned on it. Thanks to a youth movement that has been afoot in the desert, Tikhonov has one of the best chances to start -- and stay -- in the NHL. Don't think he isn't a great prospect just because he was passed over before. Tikhonov didn't grow into his frame until this season and then put up a solid rookie campaign in the Russian Superleague. Again, crossing the pond could be an issue because of transfer agreements, but I would still take a chance on Tikhonov near the end of deep drafts. His versatility (all three forward positions) should give him multiposition eligibility in fantasy leagues and make him a good bench player to have around.
- Colin Wilson (seventh), C, Predators: A playmaker through and through, Wilson has the kind of ability to play as the second-line center for the Predators right now. However, he is committed to Boston University for the next three seasons. If he is lured away from the Terriers, Wilson could contribute to fantasy teams this season because his size and smarts would allow him to catch up to NHL speeds within a month. He is likely someone to watch through the season though, because it would take an injury down the middle for Nashville to give Wilson the linemates and ice time to really step it up.
- Jordan Eberle (22nd), C/W, Oilers: Whether they like it or not, the Oilers are going to have to promote a lot of young players soon. They have talent to spare at every forward position under the age of 25. Eberle could definitely benefit from another season in the WHL, but only for size purposes; he can already shoot the puck at an NHL level. A sniper who plays center, but would be more effective on the wing, I am already looking forward to seeing Eberle flying down the wing taking passes from Sam Gagner, Robert Nilsson, Robbie Schremp and Marc-Antoine Pouliot. That vision may be a few years down the road, but with a little luck, Eberle could get a nine-game trial with the Oilers to start the year before being sent back to juniors. If he impresses in that stint, he could stick around a la Jordan Staal.
- Zach Boychuk (14th), C, Hurricanes: A Hurricane in the WHL with Lethbridge and now a Hurricane in the NHL, Boychuk is not likely to make the jump as a point producer. He does like to mix it up, though (despite his 5-foot-9 frame), and has the speed to be a role player for the Hurricanes. He could chip in decent penalty minutes because of his tenacity and would produce points given the opportunity. Given his versatility as well as Carolina's penchant for a five-forward power play, Boychuk could find other opportunities with the team as well. I will be closely watching how he fits in during training camp.
- Chet Pickard (18th), G, Predators: More polished than any other goaltender in this year's draft, Pickard is quite literally the understudy to Montreal's Carey Price as the player who took over Price's job with the Tri-City Americans in the WHL. With Dan Ellis signed on as the No. 1 goaltender and Pekka Rinne seemingly stalled out in terms of development, the job of starting goaltender is wide open in Nashville. Though Pickard will likely do another season in "The Dub," the Preds may become more desperate for a goaltender than they would like to be if they don't sign someone through free agency or find a trade. Ellis may have been a nice story last season, but would be exposed quickly as an everyday guy. Picking Pickard for a fantasy league this season would be a real Hail Mary, but stranger things have happened.
- Mikkel Boedker (eighth), LW, Coyotes: I'll refer to the rebuilding project in Phoenix again as I reference the fact that young players have a better chance of playing right away in the NHL as a Coyote. Speed, speed and more speed is what Boedker brings to the table. Unlike one-dimensional speedsters that need development in other facets (like fellow Coyotes prospect Enver Lisin), Boedker is already a playmaker and finisher. With the experience of an OHL championship and Memorial Cup tournament under his belt with Kitchener, he is already battle tested. During the OHL playoff run, Boedker finished second to teammate Justin Azevedo in points and assists. Now, making the jump from OHL rookie to everyday NHLer is asking a lot, but with speed and experience, Boedker has a chance.
Remember, the list you just read is looking at the 2008-09 season alone. Keeper leagues would be a different cup of tea altogether. For the sake of those looking ahead, you can be forgiving if a player needs a couple of years of development before embarking on an NHL career.
So here are the top 10 names to know when you are looking at impact over the next five seasons.
- Steve Stamkos (first), C, Lightning: That's right. The Lightning made no mistake here. Stamkos has the skill and vision to be a triple-digit points guy as early as 2009-10.
- Kyle Beach (11th), C, Blackhawks: Beach has the potential to hover around 80 points and 200 PIMs once he reaches his potential. He has an edge to his game that rivals Sean Avery, but he has skills that Avery couldn't touch. Throw in the crop of young talent to surround him over the next half-decade in Chicago, and Beach could be a boon to fantasy owners.
- Alex Pietrangelo (fourth), D, Blues: The defense in this year's draft is going to be at the top of fantasy ranks in a few years, and Pietrangelo is my choice to eventually be No. 1 among this crop. He's big (6-3), skilled (53 points in 60 games) and already fairly developed on defense. He and Erik Johnson are going to be a pair to tangle with on St. Louis' back end soon.
- Nikita Filatov (sixth), LW, Blue Jackets: If things go well for Filatov, he could be competing for the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy on an annual basis before too long. The top two lines in Columbus will be scary on the wings with Rick Nash, Nikolai Zherdev, Jakub Voracek and Filatov.
- Mikkel Boedker (eighth), LW, Coyotes: Once the rebuilding job in Phoenix is done, Boedker will be the fastest skater on one heck of a first line. Either finishing or setting up Kyle Turris, Olli Jokinen or Peter Mueller, Boedker should be among league leaders in points five years from now.
- Tyler Myers (12th), D, Sabres: At 6-7 and able to skate like someone a half-foot shorter, Myers has some serious, but very speculative potential. If he maintains his skating ability, while adding pounds and developing skill -- Myers could be Zdeno Chara with more horsepower.
- Drew Doughty (second), D, Kings: Doughty drops in my longer-term rankings because the Kings are going to have a very crowded blue line in a couple of years. Doughty has the skill to be among the best of all NHL defensemen with a couple of years under his belt, but may not get the opportunities he would on a team with fewer blue-chip prospects on the back end.
- Zac Dalpe (45th), C, Hurricanes: Anyone who can come out of nowhere (Junior B in Stratford, Ontario) and be considered a potential first-round pick (though he wasn't), has to make you pause and wonder what could happen with a few more years of development under professional coaching. Dalpe grew quickly into his frame and jumped onto everyone's radar after posting 63 points in 43 games with Penticton of the BCHL. He could be among the best of the draft when all is said and done.
- Mike Del Zotto (20th), D, Rangers: His stock fell through the season when it was exposed that Del Zotto had issues playing defense in his own zone, but he didn't stop rushing the other end of the ice at every given opportunity. A 57-point rookie campaign in the OHL was followed up with a 63-point campaign (in 64 games). If he can hone his defensive game, he could be explosive.
- Zach Bogosian (third), D, Thrashers: Rounding out the big three defensemen who came after Stamkos, Bogosian has similar strengths when it comes to defense, but superior offense remains as a potential upside to his game. He'll get the opportunity in a couple of years to be a power-play mainstay for the Thrashers.
Sean Allen is a fantasy baseball and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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