Offseason Notebook: Young guns in the West
Last week we went through the Eastern Conference. Now it's time to look at the young players, prospects and rookies in the Western Conference.
Chicago Blackhawks: Jonathan Toews is going to be given every opportunity to step into a leadership role with the Blackhawks this season. The 19-year-old has been a standout at North Dakota of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. He placed third in WCHA scoring, with two North Dakota teammates finishing first and second. The Hawks are basically planning on having Toews line up at center, because the team has only signed Robert Lang, Yanic Perreault and Patrick Sharp so far. It would not be shocking at all for Toews to end up on a line with Martin Havlat or Tuomo Ruutu. Toews has to be viewed close to where Nicklas Backstrom of the Capitals is being ranked for fantasy. We didn't get to see a lot of defenseman Cam Barker last season while he bounced between the NHL and the American Hockey League, but he is much better than the little of him we did get in Chicago. Barker is near the top of the list for any ranking of future defensive stars in the game. Whether he gets the ice time and long leash to start to show what he can do offensively this season has yet to be seen, but if the Hawks are going to be an improved club it will be because of their youth movement. Barker represents a high-upside pick late in fantasy drafts right now, but he is good enough that it could become apparent in training camp or preseason that he will dominate this season. Pat Kane making an NHL debut this season is a little far-fetched, but I'm not ruling it out. I don't think it's worth thinking about him too much at your fantasy draft table. He's just not big enough yet. Jordan Staal surprised us with the jump into the NHL last season, but he had 6 inches and 60 pounds on Kane. David Bolland is someone else to keep an eye on. He has above-average skills across the board and has shown he can jive well with superstar players (he and Robbie Schremp tore up the Ontario Hockey League as London Knights two seasons ago). I doubt there is enough room in Chicago to start the season, but if injuries strike he could be up for good and turn into a solid No. 3 center for fantasy. I'd be remiss not to mention another of Bolland's former teammates, Danny Richmond. He has high offensive upside to his game and is maybe one injury away from being a Blackhawk. I could see him and Barker manning the Chicago power-play blue line in two years.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Top prospect Derick Brassard had his season in the Quebec Major-Junior Hockey League derailed by injuries. Since the Blue Jackets have seven centers with at least some NHL experience, Brassard is likely headed for another season in the "Q" or a promotion to the AHL. Either way, he's a name for the 2008-09 season. There is a lot of room in Columbus on the wing, but betting on Jakub Voracek to make the team might be asking a lot. Voracek has his eyes on the NHL, no question about that. He came over to the play in the QMJHL as a 17-year-old. This means he'll be only 18 in training camp this season. File the name away just in case, but next season he'll have a much better chance.
Detroit Red Wings: The Wings are overloaded with position players and don't really have any phenoms budding in the system. That said, Igor Grigorenko is someone to keep a very close eye on. The Russian star has what it takes from a skills point of view, but he also has something a lot of Russians are criticized for lacking: desire. We would have already been using Grigorenko as a fantasy No. 2 winger if not for a car crash before the 2003-04 season that set him back significantly. The Wings have finally signed him on and are poised to bring him to Detroit. He could easily land on the first or second scoring line and have that No. 2 winger upside I mentioned.
Nashville Predators: The Preds have no one new the fantasy world should be paying attention to besides goaltender Pekka Rinne. He could steal some of the starting job from Chris Mason, and he is the team's long-term answer in net. Look for Alexander Radulov to take the step into the elite as well. Beyond that, though, the only rookies will be the fifth and sixth defensemen. And Kevin Klein won't be making any waves in fantasy.
St. Louis Blues: After just one season with Minnesota in the WCHA, Erik Johnson will be a member of the Blues this season at the age of 19. He's big, he's skilled with the puck, he is very strong on defense, he can rush the play -- simply put, he can do it all. Johnson projects as the next great blueliner, but he won't be in his prime right away. Temper expectations for this season, just because the Blues aren't going to be a breeding ground for good fantasy numbers. Johnson's plus/minus won't be pretty this season and he won't be on the ice for 30 minutes a game yet. I still think he has the potential to be a strong No. 3, maybe even a No. 2 fantasy defenseman, just don't break the bank unless you are in a keeper league. Patrik Berglund is the other name to keep stashed. He has put up very solid numbers as a boy among men in Sweden, scoring 48 points in 35 games. The Blues inked him and will give him a shot in training camp. Berglund hasn't filled out his 6-foot-4 frame, but his size still gives him a chance at sticking with the club. At the very least, he should be coming to North America and playing in the AHL, so we could see him as an injury replacement.
Calgary Flames: Dustin Boyd is the only name that jumps off the page for the Flames when talking about prospects making an impact this season, and he isn't even that exciting. Boyd plays a sound game but is going to need talented linemates to make an impact (think Brendan Morrison). Since Calgary doesn't likely have a spot for Boyd with Jarome Iginla or Alex Tanguay, he should play a minor role on the team (if he's not in the AHL another season). Andrei Taratukhin is a natural setup man and should get some time with Calgary this season. If for some reason Daymond Langkow can't repeat last season's numbers, Taratukhin would be a candidate to replace him. He is nothing to worry about on fantasy draft day, as he is likely to start in the AHL, but he's a name to file away for a midseason debut. Injuries may give Brandon Prust the opportunity he needs to nail down a permanent role as an agitator. His numbers over a full season would mirror those of a Sean Avery lite, which can be quite valuable in fantasy.
Colorado Avalanche: T.J. Hensick is the team's high-impact rookie ready to make a debut, but he is likely a victim of a logjam at center. The Avs have Joe Sakic, Paul Stastny and Tyler Arnason for the first three lines and likely don't want Hensick playing a checking-line role. Hensick is all offense and he has talent to spare. He should be leaving the Central Collegiate Hockey Association for the AHL this season and a long-term injury up the middle in Colorado would force his debut. Remember the name, but don't worry about stashing him outside of keeper leagues. Chris Stewart is a bit of a longer shot to make the club and I am a little worried about him after watching his brother Anthony fizzle with the Panthers. Hopefully he'll get a shot in the AHL this season so we can see if he adjusts better than Anthony did.
Edmonton Oilers: Robert Nilsson tops my list among a cornucopia of young talent that is ready to bust onto the scene. Nilsson is one of my favorite young talents to watch, and sometimes shows off skills that would rank him among the elite if he brought that high level of play every night. And that is where the problem lies; Nilsson doesn't always "bring it." Either way, he should crack the top six in Edmonton with little difficulty, considering the lack of star power on the team. I'll be spending a mid- to late-round pick on him in my draft. Now we have an issue. There is likely one spot open at center for either Andrew Cogliano, Robbie Schremp or Ryan O'Marra. Schremp and O'Marra are coming off of season-ending knee injuries, so let's start with them. Schremp has the most long-term potential of all of them, and can be a bona fide superstar in the league when he's ready. Unlike O'Marra, though, Schremp will be wearing a knee brace all season and hasn't been training this summer because of his injury (O'Marra had a quick recovery). I think Schremp is destined to start the season in the AHL but -- and this is a big but -- because of his tremendous upside, he is still someone who should be drafted late in fantasy. That leaves O'Marra and Cogliano, and Cogliano is who I'll peg as having the bigger fantasy impact. Cogliano is another pure talent out of the CCHA. He finished fourth in the scoring race and is jumping to the professional ranks after his sophomore season. At this level, he already has more offensive talent than Jarret Stoll, so he could very well end up centering the second line. More offense is what the Oilers need and that is what Cogliano has over O'Marra. O'Marra is a physical presence who scores his points by being aggressive, but the Oil already have similar players. O'Marra also plays comfortably on the wing, meaning he could also be in line for a spot, but it's Cogliano who could wind up in a prime role. Finally, Marc-Antoine Pouliot should play a bigger role with the Oilers. He excels at passing and setting up goals. Pouliot is still a season away from his other young teammates joining him; he's a stasher for keeper leagues but might not have much impact this season as he puts up his best numbers when on the ice with superstar talent.
Minnesota Wild: The Wild actually have a full slate of skaters ready to go, and will have to do some demoting to make room for any rookies outside of goaltender Josh Harding. Nonetheless, they have some blue-chippers that could make the team with a good camp and preseason. Topping the list from a skills standpoint is center James Sheppard. He has been putting up power forward type numbers in the QMJHL and actually has a fairly filled-out frame for a 19-year-old. His size will give him a chance at jumping from the "Q" to the NHL as a third-line player for the Wild, but he would be better-served in the AHL. I wouldn't worry about him on draft day because his best numbers will come when he is playing on the first power-play unit for the Wild, and that shouldn't happen this season. I still love the potential that Benoit Pouliot brings to the team, but he is still too undersized at 6-foot-3 and only 183 pounds. If he has bulked up over the summer, he could break camp and get a preseason trial. His adjustment to the AHL was slow and I think his point-per-game potential won't be realized quite yet. Look out for him in 2008-09. Petr Kalus came over from Boston in the trade for Manny Fernandez. Kalus has eagerly come to North America and already put in a season in the Western Hockey League and the AHL. I don't think he has as much opportunity as Sheppard to crack the top six because the wings are where the Wild are loaded. I'd be remiss not to at least mention Harding again as someone who should be drafted in every league. He has more future potential than Niklas Backstrom to be a No. 1 goalie. He will likely play the backup role this season, but could steal more and more starts if Backstrom doesn't get it done.
Vancouver Canucks: Luc Bourdon won't be in the Canucks' plans initially, but he is the best young prospect with an outside chance of making a strong impact this season. He'll begin the season in the AHL, but his offensive instincts are greater than those of the other Canucks defensemen at the NHL level. The team might realize it needs him for the power play if he starts out hot with the Manitoba Moose. Alexander Edler, doesn't have quite the intriguing upside of Bourdon, but is a step closer to a regular job in Vancouver after playing 22 games with the team last season. If Lukas Krajicek doesn't realize his potential as a power-play staple, Edler is likely next in line.
Anaheim Ducks: If given the shot at a full-time role among the top six, Bobby Ryan has to be in any discussion about the Calder Trophy. He has poise, offense, size and smarts. Even if Teemu Selanne returns for another go-around, Selanne and Todd Bertuzzi are far from guaranteed to stay healthy and Ryan could even beat out Corey Perry for a top-six spot if given the opportunity. Not many stars have to align to get this kid an important role with the Ducks, and all he has done at every level is score, score, score. It's going to be an interesting training camp story to watch, but I have him pegged to make an impact this season. A big one.
Dallas Stars: You can't say that teams don't have consistency in their scouting, because Dallas looks to have another Jere Lehtinen on their hands in Loui Eriksson. Eriksson does have more upside to his offense, though, which makes him even more interesting for fantasy. He is by no means a rookie after playing 59 games last season, but he had little ice time to work with. Now that Eric Lindros has been run out of town, Eriksson could win a role in the top six. Niklas Grossman is a name to know, but only to avoid him. Dallas loves him and is going to push him into a regular role on the team, but they love him for his elite defensive play. He is a nonfactor on offense and doesn't take penalties, which makes him dead to me in fantasy.
Los Angeles Kings: Patrick O'Sullivan is a name already burned into many fantasy owners' minds after he finished the season with 12 points in 14 games. Again, he is not a rookie, but he is going to take a huge step into fantasy relevance this season. There is a solid chance he will be shifting over to the wing to land in L.A.'s much-improved top six. Jack Johnson is another game-changing superstar defenseman who is going to dominate the league for years to come. However, stay away this year. The Kings have one of the best defensive cores in the entire NHL and look to be a competitive team this season in the Pacific. That means power-play time on the blue line will likely go in this pecking order: Lubomir Visnovsky, Rob Blake, Tom Preissing, and then Johnson. He will be learning from some very skilled defensemen, including one of the best of the last decade (Blake), but his actual impact will be minimal unless the Kings falter more than expected this season and start playing for next year. In other words, he shouldn't go in a fantasy draft anywhere near as high as fellow rookie rear guard superstar Erik Johnson (no relation) of St. Louis. Remember the names Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier. Both goaltenders are still young and raw, but both have also signed contracts with the Kings and have the potential to be No. 1 NHL goaltenders. With Dan Cloutier and Jason LaBarbera set to begin the season as the Kings' netminders, we could start hearing whispers about Bernier and Quick.
Phoenix Coyotes: The 'Yotes have tons of talent that is developing throughout the minor leagues, but few of them are set to make any kind of debut with the club. That is, except for Peter Mueller. It's no secret the club is hoping he not only steals a roster spot this season, but maybe even the first-line center role. Guess what? I anticipate that he will do just that. Heck, I think he'll lead the team in scoring. However, take that sentence with a grain of salt. Last season, Shane Doan led the team with 55 points and the majority of the team's plus/minus looked like temperature readings in the Antarctic. So just how valuable can 60 points and a minus-20 be in fantasy? Frankly, Mueller won't be that valuable unless your league doesn't count plus/minus. Mueller will be the shining star on a young Phoenix team in 2008-09, but this season will be a difficult one. Martin Hanzal and Alexei Kaigorodov both have a good chance to end up in the AHL. Hanzal stepped into the WHL from the Czech Republic and led the Red Deer Rebels with 85 points while winning the rookie scoring crown. He will be Mueller's partner in crime in a couple of seasons, but as I mentioned, the youth movement in the desert isn't expected this season, so Hanzal could wind up in the AHL. Kaigorodov is a little more difficult to gauge. He rejected an assignment in the AHL with Ottawa last season and went home sulking to Russia. That doesn't change the fact that he has a wealth of offense to his game and could contribute with regular minutes with some adjustment to the North American game. The problem is that he refused to make that adjustment last season, so who's to say he would make it this season? Hanzal and Kaigorodov have tremendous upside in keeper leagues, but have too many questions about them to worry about this season.
San Jose Sharks: With their scoring lines all set, the Sharks' only openings are on the third and fourth lines. With no prospects absolutely banging on the door, those openings will go to role players who are ready for the NHL and will have no relevance to fantasy. Winger Devin Setoguchi and defenseman Ty Wishart are the team's best prospects, but will only make the jump from the WHL to the AHL. If the Sharks don't sign a backup goaltender, Thomas Greiss will likely man the bench with the ball cap on. The German goaltender is not a threat to Evgeni Nabokov's playing time (yet) and I don't think I'd trust him on my fantasy team if anything happened to Nabokov.
Sean Allen is a fantasy hockey and baseball analyst for ESPN.com and TalentedMrRoto.com. He can be reached at alla_rino@TalentedMrRoto.com.
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