The best among the rookies and sophs
Nikita Filatov and Ville Leino are just two of a fine group of youngsters to watch
As the hobby known as fantasy sports continues to grow, the depth of knowledge required to remain competitive paces the overall expansion. No longer can a fantasy player be comfortable with knowing just the top candidates for rookie of the year or who might suffer a sophomore slump. The following rundown of each club's prospect and youth situation should be more than enough to have you ready to discuss the future of any franchise at your draft table. This also is where you will find out which players you should gamble on in the final few rounds.
Although I won't stick to the traditional definition of rookie or sophomore, the focus here is to familiarize you with or remind you of the burgeoning young stars in each franchise. There shouldn't be any impact rookies or youngsters who don't at least get a quick mention here. First I'll discuss each team's situation, then what it means from a fantasy perspective:
Chicago Blackhawks: The Blackhawks don't have much room for rookies or prospects to make significant headway this season. They do have some strong forward prospects waiting in the wings, but Akim Aliu and Kyle Beach will benefit from waiting another season before being pressed into duty. Beach more interesting fantasywise, as he has tons of offensive potential but also plays with such an edge that the penalty box can be a second home for him at times. Jack Skille and Niklas Hjalmarsson both opened last season with Chicago but ended up in the AHL for most of the season because of injuries and ineffectiveness. Although Hjalmarsson is a future top-pairing defenseman, the Blackhawks are too deep there to consider him an option this season. Skille also has potential as a 60-point winger, but with no room among the scoring lines in Chicago, he'll also have to bide his time. Goalie Corey Crawford is the only other name to know, as he likely will open the season as Cristobal Huet's backup and certainly would gain value if pressed into a starting role.
Fantasy relevance: Consider Hjalmarsson a very deep sleeper because he paired with Brian Campbell in the playoffs and logged 20 minutes per night. Skille would need too many people in front of him to succumb to injury before getting a good chance on offense, but he could be a plus/minus contributor in deeper leagues if he lands on a good checking line. Crawford is a name to know, but he shouldn't be near the top of your backup goalie list unless you own Huet.
Columbus Blue Jackets: While Nikita Filatov still qualifies as a rookie, Derick Brassard, Jakub Voracek and Steve Mason will be in their sophomore seasons. You already know what Mason brings to the table; he took over the starting goaltender role last season and rode it to a Calder Trophy award. Voracek gave us only glimpses of his potential as a top-line winger, which must pretty good considering coach Ken Hitchcock doesn't usually favor younger players. Brassard and Filatov will both press for an expanded role, scoring goals and taking pressure off Rick Nash. Brassard has a leg up because with 25 points in 31 games last season, he was the leading contender for the Calder Trophy before getting hurt. Filatov has quick hands and a flair for scoring that will make him the best player out of Russia since Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin. A little further down the prospect list for the Blue Jackets, Maxim Mayorov looked solid in his first AHL season and a three-game cup of coffee with Columbus. His 6-foot-2 frame will help him earn plenty of points when there is room for him among Columbus' top six.
Fantasy relevance: You want to own Mason and Brassard as potential top contributors, and although Filatov is a bit more speculative, the payoff could be huge. Voracek would need to win a role on Nash's wing to be a fantasy asset, and Hitchcock is not prone to putting young players in such a prime position. Mayorov might be in for a late-season promotion from Syracuse.
Detroit Red Wings: For the first time in a few years, Detroit's prospects have plenty of good roster spots to gun for. The departures of Marian Hossa, Jiri Hudler and Mikael Samuelsson left three spots on the top three lines available for the likes of Ville Leino, Cory Emmerton and Justin Abdelkader. The signing of Todd Bertuzzi and Jason Williams shouldn't pose a huge concern, as both players have a history of injuries. Leino will have the inside track for a job, as he is an older rookie after honing his game in the Finnish Elite League. He made a mockery of the North American game as an AHL rookie despite some injuries and even put up points late in the season with the Red Wings. Emmerton and Abdelkader are more likely to start out in Grand Rapids but would be the first two forward call-ups. Jakub Kindl is a hulking defenseman ready for the NHL as soon as there is an opening. His offense isn't terrific, but he plays physically and would put up penalty minutes and a solid plus/minus. In net, Jimmy Howard finally will get a chance to shine as Chris Osgood's backup, and he definitely has the talent to be a No. 1 goalie in the NHL. Keep an eye on Thomas McCollum, who has similar upside but is a few years behind Howard.
Fantasy relevance: Leino is one of the best sleepers this season among rookies; he has a more polished game than any other Red Wings rookie, having been a star in Finland. Howard also needs to be owned by anybody who is thinking of taking Osgood. The other names can be filed away for later use.
Nashville Predators: On a team with plenty of room for prospects among the forward ranks, few seem ready to make the jump. Colin Wilson is the best young player the Predators have, and he'll push for a spot in training camp. He improved by 20 points in his senior season at Boston University and even played for the U.S. team at the world championships (the only player not in the NHL on the squad). Wilson is as good as he is because of his two-way game, so he might not be a fantasy hit immediately. Defenseman Jonathon Blum might be in for a year of AHL seasoning, but he has offensive upside as good as that of Shea Weber. Blum notched 66 points in 51 games for the Western Hockey League's Vancouver Giants and captured the Canadian Hockey League Defenseman of the Year award. Fellow Giants alumnus Cody Franson also possesses plenty of offense and ranked third among all AHL defenders with 52 points last season. Having put in a season of pro hockey, Franson is a little closer to making the Preds' roster. But once there, he'd still have to unseat Weber, Ryan Suter or Dan Hamhuis on the power play.
Fantasy relevance: All of Nashville's prospects would be speculative picks at this point. If they had a high-flying winger ready for a promotion, that would be a different story, but with Jason Arnott and David Legwand at center and plenty of quality defensemen, no rookie is assured of making an impact with this team. Remember Wilson's and Franson's names should injuries crop up, though.
St. Louis Blues: T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund and David Perron already have become fantasy stars while playing on a defensively sound and overlooked second line for the Blues. Erik Johnson's return -- he missed all of last season because of a torn knee ligament -- is also highly anticipated. The 2006 first overall draft pick posted 33 points in his rookie season. As far as fresh faces, Alex Pietrangelo is by far the most compelling. In a keeper league, Pietrangelo would be one of the top choices. He is a future top-five defenseman in the NHL, but temper expectations for his rookie season. Lars Eller also could break into the lineup, but with so many quality forwards, the Blues might let him play his first North American season in the AHL.
Fantasy relevance: Johnson and Pietrangelo are potential No. 2 fantasy defensemen, but drafting them based on their potential is risky. They would make solid additions as No. 3 or No. 4 defensemen to your team. Oshie, Berglund and Perron will land on a roster in every fantasy league. Eller is a name to know should veterans Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk get injured.
Calgary Flames: With plenty of depth, the Flames don't need any prospects to step up this season, but that doesn't mean one won't force his way into a role. Mikael Backlund is really the only Flame to watch this season. The Swede came over to North America shortly after potting seven points in six games at the world juniors. He skated out the rest of his inaugural season on this side of the pond with the Kelowna Rockets, helping the team to the Memorial Cup final by scoring more than a point per game in both the regular season and playoffs. Netminder Leland Irving is also in the very back of our minds, as Miikka Kiprusoff's numbers have been sliding for four years. Curtis McElhinney is the backup, but Irving will be in the AHL and is the most talented of Calgary's goalie prospects. Dustin Boyd has been extremely slow to develop while being given a checking role on the Flames for the past three seasons. He is still only 23 years old, though, and could be in for a more offensive role under new coach Brent Sutter. Boyd was a 60-point player in his rookie AHL season.
Fantasy relevance: Backlund is definitely worth a gamble in your draft this year, but because he isn't even assured a roster spot, it might be safer to make him a bench pick. Boyd would be only a sleeper in very deep leagues, and you can remember Irving's name should Kipper's goals-against average be near 3.00 for the first month of the season.
Colorado Avalanche: In a rebuilding season, the Avalanche will depend on third-year player T.J. Hensick and sophomore Chris Stewart to pick up their games. Both players had somewhat disappointing 2008-09 seasons. It's one prospect at center and one at defense who could capture the attention of fantasy owners, though. Matt Duchene might land a job with the Avalanche after being taken third overall in the 2009 draft. He plays at both ends of the ice and is a special-teams expert. Kevin Shattenkirk has been a stalwart defenseman at Boston University and could jump into play as well. He scored nine points in six games during the 2009 world juniors to lead all defensemen in the tournament. Duchene will have to accept a third-line job to make the team, but Shattenkirk represents some fresh blood on a blue line that is quickly losing its shine.
Fantasy relevance: Although Stewart and Hensick are decent gambles at the end of your draft thanks to their previous NHL experience, Duchene probably doesn't deserve a spot on your roster unless he excels during training camp and in the preseason. Shattenkirk is a final-round flier in fantasy drafts, but given Colorado's blue-line woes, he is worth stashing.
Edmonton Oilers: New coach Pat Quinn will feel like a popular grade-school teacher with so many kids trying to impress him in camp. How's this for a list of prospects who could, with a good training camp, find themselves an Oiler on opening night? Chris Minard, Gilbert Brule, Rob Schremp, Marc-Antoine Pouliot, Ryan Potulny, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson. And don't forget that Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano and Robert Nilsson will seek expanded offensive roles. Obviously, Gagner, Cogliano and Nilsson will be on the team, and they make more attractive picks now that former coach Craig MacTavish is gone. Schremp gets a fresh outlook on his NHL career following MacTavish's departure as well. Fantasy owners have been waiting for Schremp to get his chance since he had 192 points in 76 games (regular season and playoffs) for the 2005-06 London Knights in the Ontario Hockey League. Brule and Pouliot are next on the list. Brule is on a two-way contract, so he might play another season in the AHL after missing some time because of a knee injury last season. Pouliot's claim to fame was his final season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, when he winged Sidney Crosby in Rimouski and had 114 points in 70 games. Minard and Potulny are former top prospects for the Penguins and Flyers. Paajarvi-Svensson and Eberle are the Oilers' first-rounders from the past two drafts and aren't far from being NHL-ready. And those are the forward ranks! In net, Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers will back up Nikolai Khabibulin and still projects as a possible NHL starter. Alex Plante, Theo Peckham and Jeff Petry are the best prospects on the blue line, but Edmonton shouldn't need any of them regularly.
Fantasy relevance: Gagner, Cogliano and Nilsson all took a step back or at least stalled in their development last season, but they have the best chance at making an impact. They are still just late-round selections, though. Schremp is likely to be a bench pick in most leagues, as he should be. If Quinn can coax out the star in him, he could be a fantasy starter. In deeper leagues, Drouin-Deslauriers should be a handcuff for Khabibulin, and Brule and Pouliot would be speculative late-round picks. If you have at least noted the other names, that's all the attention they need.
Minnesota Wild: With a new head coach bringing in the Wild's first era of offense, the door opens for James Sheppard to rekindle his scoring ways. He finished his junior career with 96 points in 56 games for Cape Breton in the QMJHL but has toiled as a fourth-line defensive player under former Wild coach Jacques Lemaire for two seasons. This is a make-or-break season for Benoit Pouliot, who was named the CHL Rookie of the Year in 2004-05 when he scored 67 points in 67 games. The fourth overall pick in 2005 hasn't showed much in the way of offense since then but finally made some noise in the AHL last season with 24 points in 30 games. This season offers one of his last chances to shake his "bust" label. Tyler Cuma is the team's best prospect on the blue line, but a knee injury last season likely means he'll play another season of junior hockey. Colton Gillies is close to making the team, but he is more of a checker and holds little fantasy appeal.
Fantasy relevance: Sheppard and Pouliot are late-round gambles in any fantasy draft, and Cuma would have to wow the team in training camp to avoid the OHL. Still, with coach Todd Richards promising a focus on offense, there might be a role for Sheppard or Pouliot on a scoring line. Especially if Owen Nolan or Martin Havlat regresses to his oft-injured ways.
Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks boast one of the best goaltending rosters and one of the best forward prospects in the entire league, but it certainly looks as though one of them will need a trade to have value. Cody Hodgson will come into training camp as the reigning CHL Player of the Year after posting 93 points with the Brampton Battalion. He his game is complete with few flaws. (Some criticize his skating.) He led the 2009 world juniors in scoring on Team Canada. But with Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler solidified at center, Hodgson might not make a huge impact in his rookie season. Cory Schneider was the best goaltender in the AHL last season, but with Roberto Luongo signing a 12-year contract, his value as a Canuck is almost zero. Michael Grabner might also challenge for a spot on the team. He is the epitome of a speedy winger who finishes plays, posting 30 goals but only 18 assists for the Manitoba Moose of the AHL. He'll be a strong candidate for the second line if he can beat out Mikael Samuelsson in the preseason.
Fantasy relevance: Hodgson is worth adding to your squad in the middle to late rounds. Just make sure you've already selected your starters at forward. Schneider can be ignored, pending a trade out of the Vancouver system. Grabner would be worth drafting only if he excels in training camp and earns a job.
Anaheim Ducks: Because Bobby Ryan has established himself, few prospects in Anaheim are worth doting over. Luca Sbisa showed himself as a capable defenseman with the Flyers last season but will be behind Scott Niedermayer and Ryan Whitney on the depth chart. Jake Gardiner has the most offensive upside among Anaheim's defense prospects, but he'll stay in college. Justin Pogge comes to the Ducks from Toronto; he's the Leafs' former goaltender of the future who turned out to be a flop in the NHL. He'll get a chance to revive his career as a backup should Anaheim trade Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
Fantasy relevance: Sbisa is a No. 5 or No. 6 defenseman in fantasy for his plus/minus potential, but only if he logs 20 minutes per night. Pogge might have some appeal if the Ducks' backup job becomes available, but it won't help his development that Anaheim won't have a specific farm team in the AHL this season. He'll end up on a random franchise and might not get the work he needs to turn things around.
Dallas Stars: Ivan Vishnevskiy looks to make the jump to the NHL at exactly the right time. He is a future power-play quarterback, a position that is open for the Stars after Sergei Zubov left to the KHL. He was nearly a point-per-game player in three years in the QMJHL, and although his numbers dropped as an AHL rookie, he improved his defense for much of the season. Jamie Benn is the Stars' top young skater but is due for a season in the AHL given the lack of an open wing spot for him in the NHL. He scored a ridiculous 46 goals in 56 games for the Memorial Cup finalist Kelowna Rockets and added 33 points in their 19-game playoff run. Fabian Brunnstrom could improve upon his troubling rookie season as the NHL's top import. He flashed his scoring ability to the tune of 17 tallies, but his minus-8 was detrimental, and his 21 percent shooting percentage is unsustainable.
Fantasy relevance: Vishnevskiy makes a solid bench choice for any fantasy player picking his defensemen late in the draft. His upside could make up for another lost gamble. Benn likely can be ignored pending injury troubles for the Stars late in the season. Brunnstrom needs to develop his two-way game before becoming a fantasy regular. That will take time.
Los Angeles Kings: The Kings will showcase prospects this season, with Thomas Hickey, Jonathan Bernier, Oscar Moller and Teddy Purcell looking to earn regular lineup spots and Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick and Jack Johnson looking to further their careers. Hickey has the power-play upside Doughty and Johnson lack, as the latter are prized more for their defensive prowess. With such a young blue line, though, Hickey is no sure thing to be a King this season. Bernier and Quick should quickly establish themselves as the two goalies competing for the starting job in L.A., pushing Erik Ersberg aside. Quick is older and more experienced, but Bernier's potential wins out. Moller and Purcell are looking to finally land full-time scoring-line gigs. Both have enormous potential but might be held back by veterans and the defensive system that coach Terry Murray uses.
Fantasy relevance: Fantasy owners should be aware of Purcell and Moller but shouldn't necessarily add them to their rosters immediately. Hickey, if given a starting job and role on the power play, would become a must-own defenseman. One might think the starting goalie on a losing team would provide no value, but the Kings play strong defensively and usually lose because they don't score enough. Bernier and/or Quick could serve as No. 2 goalies because of their ratios.
Phoenix Coyotes: Coach Wayne Gretzky is quickly earning a reputation for being unfriendly to fantasy prospects. He is bringing along Kyle Turris, Mikkel Boedker, Viktor Tikhonov and even Peter Mueller very slowly, and all four players had troubling seasons in 2008-09. Mueller needs to bounce back and be a leading scorer for the club, while Turris, Boedker and Tikhonov might still be under Gretzky's thumb and away from scoring situations. Brett MacLean is waiting in the wings for a call-up from the AHL. In his first professional campaign, he shed any doubts that his bloated OHL numbers came from playing with John Tavares. Kevin Porter disappointed after making the Coyotes out of camp, but after a demotion, he parlayed 42 games into 35 points in the AHL.
Fantasy relevance: It's hard to get excited about any Phoenix youngster after seeing Gretzky produce no superstars from his talented prospects. His coaching style might pay dividends down the road for these players, but fantasy owners need to be cautious of anyone in a Phoenix uniform. Mueller needs to be a speculative pick in most leagues, but all others can be set aside until they break out.
San Jose Sharks: With hardly enough ice time to go around for San Jose's talented veterans, it's hard to envision any new prospect breaking on to the scene. Obviously, Devin Setoguchi has established himself as Joe Thornton's go-to winger and might improve on his stellar sophomore campaign. Logan Couture is the closest among the high-end prospects. He finished his OHL career with the Ottawa 67's on a high note (ninth in the league with 87 points). Couture will be in the AHL, and if he can show he is ready, he could be called up. If the Sharks find the need to promote from within, Jamie McGinn will be the beneficiary. He's a strong scorer who could be a strong duo down the road with Couture, his former teammate in Ottawa. Thomas Greiss will be the goalie San Jose must turn to if something happens to Evgeni Nabokov this season. He'll play in limited games as the backup and hasn't finished his development, but San Jose would be a good team to inherit him, regardless.
Fantasy relevance: None of these prospects needs to be drafted in fantasy leagues, as Couture and McGinn won't be able to fight their way far enough up San Jose's depth chart without a bunch of injuries clearing the way. Greiss doesn't need to be handcuffed by Nabokov owners except in exceptionally deep leagues.
New Jersey Devils: Only Nicklas Bergfors is likely to be promoted this season. He has played four full seasons in the AHL and is only 22 years old. He has the offensive upside to earn close to 60 points if he can secure a scoring-line role in New Jersey, but with good depth on the wings, he might find himself in a checking-line role. Making matters worse, coach Jacques Lemaire is not known for being fantasy-friendly to young players, although Bergfors has the defensive ability to spite Lemaire. More skilled players are in the system (like Mattias Tedenby), but none of them is likely to make the team.
Fantasy relevance: Monitor Bergfors' progress during the preseason, but it's tough to see him winning a role on the top line with Zach Parise and Travis Zajac, considering Jamie Langenbrunner is the incumbent and Lemaire favorite Brian Rolston is still around (not to mention Brendan Shanahan).
New York Islanders: If things go according to plan, the youngsters will take over the Islanders this season. John Tavares is the centerpiece and should live up to his superstar hype. Don't expect a Sidney Crosby- or Alexander Ovechkin-like rookie season, but his ceiling is likely 80 or more points. Kyle Okposo, the Isles' former top prospect, might get dragged along for the ride, and don't count out Frans Nielsen, who showed flashes at the end of last season. Josh Bailey is destined to be the Islanders' responsible No. 2 center behind Tavares, but he boasts some offensive acumen as well. If the Isles can't find a left winger for Tavares in Sean Bergenheim or Jeff Tambellini, Jesse Joensuu is a long shot to earn the job at midseason. He already has four professional seasons in Finland plus a rookie year in the AHL under his belt. His size, 6-4, might make him a good match with Tavares.
Fantasy relevance: Obviously, Tavares is a strong candidate to be a No. 3 fantasy forward, just don't be enticed into taking him too early because of the hype. Bailey might have value as a reserve fantasy forward, but unless he shifts to the wing to play with Tavares or takes a role with him on the power play, he is unlikely to be an everyday asset. Okposo, Nielsen, Bergenheim, Tambellini and, later on, Joensuu simply need to be monitored for ice time with Tavares, although Okposo is good enough to have value even without the rookie.
New York Rangers: The Rangers boast a horde of rookies who should interest fantasy owners, but they won't all arrive until 2010-11. Evgeny Grachev, Artem Anisimov, Bobby Sanguinetti and Michael Del Zotto will all compete for roster spots, with Brian Boyle, Enver Lisin and Corey Locke already a step ahead in development. Lisin is the most likely to get a scoring role and has plenty of upside thanks to his speed. Boyle is a monster on the ice and could be a power-play specialist if coach John Tortorella uses him in front of the net. Grachev boasts an enticing future after notching 40 goals and 40 assists as an OHL rookie last season with Brampton. He has an outside shot at being a Ranger early in the season. Anisimov might start out as a checking-line forward, but after scoring 81 points in 80 AHL games last season, his future is as a top-six forward. If Wade Redden continues to decline, Sanguinetti will be the answer for offense on the Rangers' blue line. He scored 42 points as an AHL rookie and had 70 points in 61 games in his final OHL season. Del Zotto has even more offensive upside than Sanguinetti but is borderline inept defensively and will need more seasoning. Corey Locke continues to be a top AHL scorer, but entering his sixth AHL season, he might end up being like what's referred to in baseball as a Quadruple-A player. Ryan McDonagh would be a name to know if he forgoes his junior year at the University of Wisconsin.
Fantasy relevance: Lisin and Boyle make deep-league bench picks, but the rest of the players won't earn a spot in fantasy drafts unless they show something in training camp. The best bet to do that is Sanguinetti, as Redden really looked like a wreck last season. Should Grachev or Anisimov make the club, fantasy owners would need to watch them closely.
Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers have made room for one of their top prospects, but the others must fight for a job. Claude Giroux comes in as the playmaking winger for the club's second line with Jeff Carter and Scott Hartnell. He posted a modest 27 points in 42 games with Philadelphia last season, but he wasn't on a scoring line for some of that time. Giroux then impressed with five points in the Flyers' first-round playoff exit. He is a candidate to break out and score 70 points. James vanRiemsdyk has a little more work to do, having put in only seven games of professional hockey at the end of last season. Danny Syvret has ridiculous offensive upside but has yet to display it in periodic trips to the NHL. He managed 57 points from the blue line for the AHL's Philadelphia Phantoms last season, his first big season since 2004-05 with the London Knights. That certainly has Syvret back on the radar screen, but the Flyers now have Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn available for offense from the back end. Jared Ross, the pride of Alabama, might be ready for a spot with the club, but it would be in a checking-line role.
Fantasy relevance: Giroux deserves to be high on sleeper lists and should be taken as soon as most of the sure-thing forwards are off the board. Syvret might deserve some attention if he sticks with the Flyers as a third-pairing defenseman. He could parlay that role into a job on the power play. Meanwhile, vanRiemsdyk won't be a factor unless injuries buy him a call-up and time on a scoring line.
Pittsburgh Penguins: The battle to watch among young Penguins players is whether Kris Letang or Alex Goligoski can start to eat away at Sergei Gonchar's role as the power-play quarterback. Both have great offensive skills and passing ability, and if either can win a role alongside Gonchar at five-on-five play, he could be a real fantasy sleeper. Luca Caputi had a seesaw 2008-09 season, spending most of it in the AHL, then seeing a brief stint with the Penguins, followed by a demotion all the way down to the ECHL. He remained fairly consistent throughout, though, and will get a chance to prove he has a future on a scoring line with a full AHL season. A piece in the Ryan Whitney deal with Anaheim, Eric Tangradi is also likely to be plying his physical trade in the AHL. His rough style of play might earn him a call-up before Caputi, but Tangradi also is coming off a serious wrist injury last season.
Fantasy relevance: The Pens don't have any prospects champing the bit for a job in the NHL, but they don't really need any, either. Goligoski and Letang show the most promise, and at least one of them will step up and be a fantasy contributor. My money is on Goligoski.
Boston Bruins: The Bruins had three prospects graduate to fantasy relevance last season in Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Blake Wheeler. Phil Kessel also upped his value last season. That leaves little to be desired out of the current prospects. Goalie Tuukka Rask and forward Joe Colborne top the list, but Colborne needs and will get development at the University of Denver, and Rask has a roadblock by the name of Tim Thomas. With Thomas signed long-term, Rask might need to escape yet another organization to achieve a starting role.
Fantasy relevance: Unless Thomas is hurt, don't look for any prospects to make waves in Boston. Wheeler, Lucic, Kessel and Krejci will continue to improve, though Krejci and Kessel may regress while dealing with injuries. All four still deserve to be owned in fantasy leagues.
Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres desperately need an injection of youth but might not get it this season. That said, plenty of suitors have lined up for an expanded role with Buffalo: Tyler Myers and Marc-Andre Gragnani on defense; Tim Kennedy, Nathan Gerbe and Zack Kassian on offense; and Jhonas Enroth in goal. Zdeno Chara might have an inch on Myers, but he can't touch the young defenseman's speed. Myers looks like a rocket-powered giant on the ice, using his 6-8 frame to shut down opponents. He has offensive abilities off the breakout and could really surprise if he sticks with Buffalo this season. Gragnani is almost the complete opposite; he's a wizard on the power play. But blue-line specialists on the man advantage often don't transition well to the NHL without adding a defensive aspect to their game, so he could be in for more seasoning in the AHL. Gerbe was the AHL Rookie of the Year with 56 points in 57 games for Portland and might land a role among the Sabres' top six. Kennedy is more of a two-way player, but if paired with the right scoring wingers, he'd have offensive upside. Kassian is the bruiser of the group; a strong, gritty power forward type who could make the jump just as easily as he could return to the OHL. Enroth still projects as a No. 1 goalie but is stuck behind Ryan Miller for the foreseeable future.
Fantasy relevance: Myers and Gerbe make the best late-round selections, but without a strong training camp and preseason, neither would be worth it in a shallow league. The other prospects here can be filed away for a later date. Miller owners probably don't have to worry about Enroth, but he'll be fantasy-relevant if Miller suffers a serious injury.
Montreal Canadiens: The influx of new bodies into the Canadiens' dressing room leaves very little room for prospects to earn a spot with this new-look franchise. If anybody does, though, it will be Max Pacioretty. Although he had 11 points in a 34-game debut with Montreal, he's ready for a bigger role on offense. Tomas Plekanec must really bounce back this season to keep his job as the No. 2 center. Pacioretty is liable to start the year in a checking line role but could get a promotion quickly. He uses his size to his advantage all over the ice and has a strong offensive instinct.
Fantasy relevance: Pacioretty is expected to make big strides this season but might not gain fantasy value until the stretch run. That doesn't make him worth a roster spot out of the gates in most fantasy leagues. Watch for him to move up the depth chart, though, and pounce when he does.
Ottawa Senators: Brian Elliott and Brian Lee were the prospects contributing in Ottawa last season, but they might be headed in different directions. Lee logged big minutes but produced little offense. Elliott was a nice surprise in net, but Pascal Leclaire has the starting gig this season. Erik Karlsson will challenge for a role on the blue line and has more offensive abilities than any defenseman on the roster. Karlsson had only 10 points for his team in the Swedish Elite League but has dominated when pitted against players his age. Karlsson led Sweden's world juniors team with nine points in being elected the tournament's best defenseman. He might be a bit undersized to excel in the NHL, though. Peter Regin will challenge in training camp to be the second-line center Ottawa has sorely missed the past few seasons. Mike Fisher would be better suited to a third-line role, so the Sens likely will give the talented Dane every chance to make the team. Regin was a third-rounder in 2004 but has really blossomed the past two seasons in the AHL and Swedish Elite League.
Fantasy relevance: Elliott is a must-handcuff for any Leclaire owner, and he very well could win the starting job even if Leclaire stays healthy. Lee really needs to start showing us his offensive upside before fantasy owners bother relying on him. Regin and Karlsson are players to watch in training camp, and their stock could really take off as the season approaches.
Toronto Maple Leafs: For a team clearly in rebuilding mode, the Maple Leafs don't boast a lot of prospects who are expected to play and produce in the NHL. "The Monster," Jonas Gustavsson, is the first name to consider. He'll challenge Vesa Toskala for every start and might end up winning most of them toward the end of the season (especially if Toskala is used as trade bait). Gustavsson ranks just behind Henrik Lundqvist when it comes to the Swedish Elitserien's record books, but the other goalie rounding out the top three is Fredrik Norrena. That should be a caution to anyone investing highly in Gustavsson, as he could be as good as Lundqvist or flop like Norrena. Nazem Kadri has an outside chance at a roster spot but is unlikely to be rushed. Unless he tears up training camp, Kadri will return to dominating the OHL.
Fantasy relevance: Kadri would be a late consideration for fantasy drafts if he wins a roster spot in Toronto, but in all likelihood, he's a prospect for the 2010-11 season. Gustavsson is a boom-or-bust candidate for this season, and with Toskala still on the roster, it would take some gall to draft him as a No. 2 goaltender, especially considering that would be his ceiling on a losing Leafs team.
Atlanta Thrashers: Two of the Thrashers' top prospects are locks to be fantasy-relevant. Zach Bogosian leads the way, as he emerged at the end of last season as a force on the blue line. He could post 40 or 50 points if everything breaks right. Netminder Ondrej Pavelec is the other lock to earn some time in Atlanta. He has been biding his time while Kari Lehtonen shows inconsistency and a lack of preparedness, but if Lehtonen doesn't excel from start to finish this season, Pavelec will usurp the starter's gig. Evander Kane surpassed all expectations in his sophomore season in the WHL. He more than doubled his point total to finish with 96 points in 61 games for the Vancouver Giants. The Thrashers will be hard-pressed to keep him out of the NHL. Angelo Esposito's numbers declined for the third straight season in the QMJHL after his 98-point rookie season. But although he was limited by a torn ACL, he still managed 42 points in 35 games last season. He isn't knocking on the door as loud as Kane, though, and likely will play a season in the AHL. Another name to watch is Anthony Stewart. The first-round bust from the 2003 draft earns a do-over and likely will have to work his way up from the AHL, but this is his last chance to do so if he doesn't want his career highlight to be his 11 points in the 2004 world juniors.
Fantasy relevance: Consider Bogosian a candidate as your No. 3 defenseman, and you'll be rewarded in spades. Pavelec is more a speculative draft choice for owners who are trying to piece together their goaltending late in the draft. Kane should be on the radar in deep leagues.
Carolina Hurricanes: The Hurricanes have some talented young players who are ready for a shot, but a lucky few will get it because the team boasts depth at every position. Zach Boychuk, Brandon Sutter and Drayson Bowman might end up as the top line for the Canes' AHL affiliate, and all three might be in line for midseason call-ups. Boychuk plays center with offensive acumen, Sutter is the defensive-minded one and Bowman the goal scorer.
Fantasy relevance: The Canes' prospects have little fantasy relevance, as the team is rich with players ready to open the NHL season. Sutter probably wouldn't warrant any fantasy consideration upon a promotion, but Boychuk or Bowman should be considered if either serves a top-six injury replacement.
Florida Panthers: Michael Frolik and Shawn Matthias were supposed to make noise as rookies last season, and although Frolik delivered and comes into this year as a top-six forward, Matthias struggled. Part of the Todd Bertuzzi trade to Detroit, Matthias was an accomplished goal scorer for the OHL's Belleville Bulls but took a big step backward as a first-year pro with just 20 points in 61 games in the AHL and two points in 16 games with Florida. Dmitry Kulikov will challenge for the roster spot vacated by Jay Bouwmeester. The first-round draft pick crossed the pond and put in a season with Drummondville in the QMJHL, where he scored 62 points in 57 games. At still just 18 years old, though, he literally would follow in Bouwmeester's footsteps, and there aren't many examples of young defensemen breaking through offensively. Still, he is a wizard on the blue line and could break camp for at least a trial period.
Fantasy relevance: Frolik is a lock to be a fantasy starter, but things would have to go extremely well for either Matthias or Kulikov to be worth drafting. They simply should be names to know for later on.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Although last year's first-round pick, Steven Stamkos, is primed to break through in his second season, this year's first-rounder, No. 2 pick Victor Hedman, should be a hit from the start. With 31 points in his final 38 games, Stamkos should be a starter in every fantasy league. Hedman, the smooth-skating, 6-6 blueliner will step into a top-pairing job with the Lightning and immediately earn power-play time. Steve Downie has fallen off the prospect radar after a troubled season on two NHL teams and two AHL teams with a 20-game suspension in there for slashing a referee. Downie remains an agitator and troublemaker on the ice but also can score in the right opportunity. If he gets his attitude in check, he could be a fantasy monster.
Fantasy relevance: Stamkos jumps up to being a No. 5 or No. 6 forward in his sophomore campaign, while Hedman should go about the same time in the draft as a No. 3 defenseman. Downie can be considered a speculative play, but if your team is short in the penalty-minutes category toward the end of the draft, he'd make a good bench pick.
Washington Capitals: The Capitals are rich in goaltending prospects, as Semyon Varlamov backstopped the NHL club even in the playoffs, while Michal Neuvirth was a brick wall in the AHL playoffs, winning the championship with the Hershey Bears. Obviously, Varlamov is in the better position having been playoff-tested in the NHL already. He should assume starting duties with Jose Theodore as backup, and Neuvirth will get another season of dominating the AHL. Karl Alzner is an all-around defenseman and should be ready for full-time duty in the NHL this season. He'll never challenge for the league lead in points among blueliners, he should be a steady 40- to 50-point defenseman throughout his career.
Fantasy relevance: Although Alzner suffered a late concussion last season, he should be OK to challenge for a spot in training camp. It would be really interesting to see him on the top pairing with Mike Green. Both players would benefit in the plus/minus department. Varlamov should be selected as a No. 2 goaltender, but he has the upside of a No. 1 for a winning franchise.
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.
FANTASY TOP HEADLINES
- Week 17 Start/sit advice, two-start pitchers, ranks
- Matthew Berry's Draft Day manifesto
- Crawford: Top 10 long-term catching prospects
- Karabell: 2014 breakout players at WR
MOST SENT STORIES ON ESPN.COM
2009 Hockey Draft Kit
ESPN.com's fantasy experts offer all the information you'll need to succeed in your draft this year.
Draft Kit Home
2009-10 Projections and Profiles
Strategy and Analysis
• Eight simple rules for winning your league
• Mock Draft: 10-team ESPN standard league
• 2009-10 sleepers and busts
• Complete guide to rookies and sophomores
• Offseason movement synopsis
• 10 key position battles
• How to find the right goalies for your team