Tavares, Hedman only names to know
This year's NHL entry draft offers a mix of short- and long-term potential for fantasy owners, with two names that certainly stand out from the field as players that need to be on the radar for your fantasy draft later this summer.
Last season, eight of the top 10 picks in the 2008 draft played in the NHL, but none of them proved to be a strong asset in fantasy. In the 2007-08 season, two of the top 10 picks played in the NHL (I'm not counting Kyle Turris' token three games), and only one of them provided solid fantasy production all season (Patrick Kane). This coming season's crop of draft picks will likely split the difference between the past two seasons as far as players stepping into the league, but only John Tavares and Victor Hedman are likely to provide fantasy value that is worth drafting.
After Hedman and Tavares, there is a group of maybe 10 players that have a much slimmer chance of getting a jump start on their NHL career, but their impact for fantasy purposes is questionable for re-draft leagues. They mostly need to be on your short-term keeper list or preparatory radar for the 2010-11 season. The rest of the players taken in Montreal (pending the obligatory and unpredictable surprises) can likely be shelved from your fantasy draft preparations for a couple of years (unless you play in a deep keeper league, of course).
The big two
Tavares and Hedman are separated from the rest of the pack not only because of their skill, but also because they already have the other half of the fantasy impact formula, opportunity, clearly defined. Others who have skill, but not necessarily opportunity, will be discussed shortly.
John Tavares, C, Islanders: First, let's clear something up: Tavares is not as good as Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin. Not yet, anyway. He doesn't have the two-way game that Crosby has and he can't hold a candle to Ovechkin's skating. But what he lacks in some of the peripherals to his game, he makes up for with an innate ability to score and create goals. Even if Tavares doesn't continue to develop his all-around game and skating, his upside down the road is still that of a 100-point, 50-plus goal forward. Not bad for a worst-case scenario.
Frankly, Tavares would need to be considered for the upcoming fantasy season no matter where he ended up, but Long Island offers a unique opportunity for him to step in and instantly become the star forward and club leader. Kane is actually a pretty good benchmark for how Tavares should fare in his first season. Looking back to the 2006-07 OHL season, Kane had 62 goals and 145 points for the powerhouse London Knights, while a younger (by two years) Tavares had 72 goals and 134 points. While the two are different style players and a comparison is tough, think about the points they put up that season and the fact Tavares has had two additional years of seasoning.
Tavares also gets to step onto a similar scene that Kane did two years ago: A struggling franchise with one other star prospect that was drafted earlier (Jonathan Toews for Kane and Kyle Okposo for Tavares). It seems fair to use Kane's rookie season as a definite basement for Tavares this coming season, and 70 points certainly does sound like a reasonable low-end finish for someone as talented as Tavares is.
But that is the big caveat here: If 70 points seems like a good basement for Tavares, how high is the ceiling? As mentioned, Tavares can't skate like Ovechkin can, but his instincts around the net are certainly comparable. Ovechkin's rookie season of 52 goals and 106 points is asking a lot, and I certainly won't be that bold with a prediction, but it's not completely out of the ballpark.
The element I keep coming back to is opportunity. Ice time is key to producing offense for veterans and rookies alike, and Tavares will get as much ice time as he can handle on Long Island. All things considered, an optimistic view of Tavares this season would call for 90 points, split up with about 45 each for goals and assists. There may not be much help for him with the Islanders, but remember that Ovechkin put up his 106-point rookie season on a team where the next highest scorer (Dainius Zubrus) had 57 points.
Tavares is going to be a hot commodity at the draft table this fantasy season, and if you want him, you are likely going have to use a second-round pick or higher to get him. Personally, given all the stars that seem to be aligning, I'd be all over him in the second round.
Victor Hedman, D, Lightning: There is no question that Hedman is ready for the NHL and his composure on the ice means he could have vaulted into the No. 1 defenseman role on a lot of NHL teams. In Tampa Bay, the task is even easier with competition that amounts to no more than Cory Murphy or Paul Ranger. Hedman is going to play often for this Lightning team that is still looking for an image. But just how much offense is this 6-foot-6, smooth-skating defender going to produce? That is the key for fantasy owners.
The comparison is getting a bit tired, but honestly, Nicklas Lidstrom is the only fair comparator for Hedman. Despite his size, Hedman doesn't play a smashmouth game like other big defensemen (Chris Pronger, Zdeno Chara). His game is based on sound defense and the offense comes from his stick skills and poise, so it becomes impossible not to draw links with his fellow countryman who has a case full of Norris Trophies.
Trouble is, those shoes are enormous and could be difficult to fill. Lidstrom managed a 49-assist, 60-point rookie season. Consider now that only two NHL defensemen had 60 points last season (Mike Green and Andrei Markov) and only two had 49 assists (Markov and Brian Rafalski). It's certainly a different era from when Lidstrom entered the league (1991-92), but the argument is still apt given the strong similarities between the two defenders.
Lidstrom and Hedman both come out of the Swedish Elitserien with plenty of experience. For their careers with the second-most talented professional hockey league, Lidstrom had 42 points in 103 games (0.41 points per game) and Hedman has 25 points in 82 games (0.30 PPG). Lidstrom's PPG in the Elitserien translated to a 0.75 PPG in his rookie NHL season, so if Hedman's numbers were to go up by the same rate, he would score 0.55 PPG. Maybe that's why the comparison is so popular, because 45 points in an 82-game season certainly sounds reasonable for a defenseman as talented as Hedman.
The most recent rookie defenseman to eclipse 45 points was Dion Phaneuf in 2005-06 (49 points) and Matt Carle came close with 42 in 2006-07, but no other rookie defender even reached 40 going back to 1997-98 (as far back as NHL.com goes with its stats). But given the qualities Hedman brings to the table, 45 point does seem like an appropriate projection.
Hedman will no doubt be a member of the Bolts' first power-play unit and likely log the most minutes on the team. Even if Vincent Lecavalier is moved out (as the rumor mill suggests) there is still plenty of offensive help on this team. The other factor: Tampa Bay's roster combined for a minus-175 rating last season.
So where do you consider Hedman? If you play somewhat conservative and call for 40 points, a poor plus/minus rating and minimal penalty minutes, his numbers compare to Ron Hainsey and John-Michael Liles from last season, who both finished around 70th on the ESPN Player Rater among defensemen. That would put him out of range for being useful in fantasy. If you consider an upside of 50 points and an even plus/minus rating, he compares more with Brian Campbell, Niklas Kronwall or Jaroslav Spacek. That still puts him in the 30 to 40 range for defensemen on the ESPN Player Rater. Tack on a few more penalty minutes to that optimistic projection and he tops out with a comparison to Pavel Kubina, who finished 18th among defensemen last season.
I'm suggesting a conservative approach with Hedman, considering some of the defensemen you would need to pass on to consider him amongst the top 25 at his position. If you approach him as a No. 3 defenseman with upside, the risk seems about right. If you miss out on him because of rookie hype, it shouldn't be hard to secure a defenseman with similar upside.
Other possible impact players
Keep in mind this article is focusing on contributions to fantasy rosters for the 2009-10 season only. Obviously other picks from the draft need some attention in keeper leagues.
Matt Duchene, C, Avalanche: No question that Duchene has the talent to be an NHL star, but Colorado happens to have some centermen that Duchene is unlikely to leapfrog on the depth chart. Joe Sakic could return, T.J. Hensick can't be written off yet and Wojtek Wolski looked solid when switching back to center at times last season. While Duchene may make the Avalanche this year, his role is likely to be limited to what Hensick did last season (61 games, 21 points) and there is no guarantee that he makes the club. In the long-term, though, he's going to be the face of the franchise to replace Sakic.
Brayden Schenn, C, Kings: The future is bright for Schenn in L.A., with a spot alongside Anze Kopitar likely sooner than later. Still, he is no lock for a top job with the Kings this coming season, as the team may want to promote internally first. Schenn is one to watch in training camp, as his stock will rise if he can secure a top-6 role with the rebuilding Kings. He would immediately become their best playmaker. One additional note, that also applies to eighth overall selection Scott Glennie (Dallas Stars): The final decision is, of course, not up to them, but the Brandon Wheat Kings would be loath to part with Schenn and Glennie ahead of the 2010 Memorial Cup tournament, which they are hosting.
Evander Kane, C, Thrashers: Kane is a real long shot because he hasn't finished growing yet. Working in his favor is the glut of talented wingers in Atlanta with a lack of a franchise center, but there are some more developed center prospects likely to be given an opportunity first (Angelo Esposito, Riley Holzapfel). More likely Kane will start having an impact in 2010-11.
Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson, LW, Oilers: Destined to be the bane of budding sportscasters everywhere, M.P.S. will eventually find himself on the highlight reel with regularity. Trouble is, the Oilers have a laundry list of skilled wingers yet to be given a strong shot in the NHL, making it difficult to promote Paajarvi-Svensson into a significant role from the get-go. He is this draft's Mikkel Boedker, but with a higher ceiling.
Zack Kassian, RW, Sabres: Several things would have to break in Kassian's favor for him to be a contributing member of the Sabres this season, but his long-term potential will be that of a power forward that mixes points and penalty minutes that fantasy owners covet. Given the needs in Buffalo, though, he may be a dark horse for the NHL this season.
For the future
Ryan Ellis, D, Predators: Ellis is an elite offensive-defenseman who will regularly quarterback the power play when he is ready. He needs to put in more time developing and pass several other Predators on the depth chart before that can happen, though. A popular comparison is Mike Green.
Calvin de Haan, D, Islanders: He's not the most skilled of the defensemen taken in the draft's first round, but he is definitely notable considering where he comes from. A former teammate of John Tavares in Oshawa, the Islanders certainly had their new franchise center in mind when selecting de Haan. The two will get a chance in future years to recreate their chemistry from the General's power play.
Chris Kreider, C, Rangers: He has the highest ceiling of all the power-forward prospects in this year's draft. Kreider is several years away but could be a powerhouse on offense given his size, speed and skill.
Dmitry Kulikov, D, Panthers: Not only did Kulikov cross the pond already, but he excelled in the QMHJL. With Drummondville he racked up 62 points in 57 games, good for third among rookies and tied for second among defensemen. He'll be a power-play star down the road.
Nazem Kadri, C, Maple Leafs: Has an all-around game with an emphasis on being a playmaker. He could rise quickly through the ranks in Toronto to be the team's No. 1 center, though Kadri is unlikely to break camp there.
The big trade
Chris Pronger to Philly: Nothing will change for Pronger himself, except maybe he'll have that extra chip on his shoulder from being dealt that helped him to some of his peak seasons in Edmonton and then Anaheim. His presence will help the goaltending in Philly, whether it is Martin Biron, Antero Niittymaki or someone else. The forward ranks will also benefit from having Pronger there to allow them to take those extra risks. Braydon Coburn won't take a step back, but he won't be able to take that next step forward to the first power-play unit, either. Kimmo Timonen gets a boost of maybe 5 to 10 assists.
In Anaheim, this merely clears the way for the team to re-sign Francois Beauchemin and count on a returning Scott Niedermayer. If Beauchemin had kept it together last season he would likely see a bump in the rankings to coincide with his bump up on the Ducks' depth chart, but for now he just becomes a better sleeper toward the end of your draft. Joffrey Lupul rejoins the Ducks' top-6 forwards three years after the last time he was traded for Pronger. Playing with some combination of Teemu Selanne, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan, Lupul is definitely a name to remember when you get into the middle rounds and are gambling on 50-point guys with upside.
Sean Allen is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is the 2008 Fantasy Sports Writers Association, Hockey Writer of the Year award winner. You can e-mail him here.