You really never know what to expect from rookies. They can make other leagues like the NCAA, CHL or professional European leagues look easy, but no league in the world compares to the NHL. We have seen highly-touted youngsters struggle in this league time and time again. With that in mind, every season there are rookies and young players that take us by surprise (see: Toronto Maple Leafs, 2017), and we want to make sure we get our hands on these players on our fantasy teams, especially in dynasty leagues. Let’s take a look at some rookies and young players that you should consider drafting before your counterparts do.
Clayton Keller (ARI)
Last season (Boston University, NCAA): 31 GP, 21 G, 24 A, +15
Boston University has produced another talented young center in the form of Clayton Keller. We have seen Jack Eichel come out of BU and traslate well into the pros, now it’s Keller’s turn to make an early impact in the NHL as he should get every opportunity to do so this season with the Coyotes. Keller appeared in three NHL games a season ago and recorded two assists while seeing some power play minutes as well. There is a very real chance that Keller will start his NHL career on the wing, and an equally real chance that his centerman will be newcomer and fellow American Derek Stepan on the team’s top line. Stepan is a playmaker by trade, having recorded at least 31 assists and 53 points in each of his last four seasons which could kick start the youngster’s NHL production. After far exceeding the point-per-game clip in his first and only season as an 18-year-old with the BU Terriers, Keller is more than ready to test his craft at the NHL level and will get extraordinary opportunities to prove he is a fantasy asset worth owning.
Alex DeBrincat (CHI)
Last season (Erie Otters, Ontario Hockey League): 63 GP, 65 G, 62 A, +60
There won’t be any rookie entering the league this season with the scoring pedigree that DeBrincat brings to the table. I mean, who else has scored 332 points over their last three seasons? DeBrincat played junior hockey for the OHL’s Erie Otters and recorded three consecutive 100-point seasons. Keep in mind this league only plays 68 regular season games, so the diminutive winger has tallied those 332 points in just 191 games. He was amazingly left off Team USA’s World Junior roster last year, but should make the jump to the NHL this season. Joel Quenneville is most certainly smart enough to know that if DeBrincat is an NHL player, it’s in a scoring, top-six role. In other words, DeBrincat could see himself on a line with Patrick Kane or Jonathan Toews come opening night, and if it’s the former, the upside here is infinite. We saw what Kane did with Artemi Panarin when he showed up in the NHL, and although DeBrincat won’t be 20 years of age until the season is two and a half months old and therefore is more than four years Panarin’s junior, this is most definitely a chance you want to take in your upcoming draft.
Nico Hischier (NJ)
Last season: (Halifax Mooseheads, QMJHL): 57 GP, 38 G, 48 A, +20
This year’s first overall pick, Hischier is a lock to make New Jersey’s opening night roster. The Swiss centerman has played just one year of North American hockey, but displayed elite offensive ability with the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL. It’s unknown where Hischier is expected to begin the season on the Devils’ depth chart, but given his offensive ability and the Devils likely to give him every opportunity to prove he can score at this level, I fully expect a top-six role and a first unit power play role for the rookie. That means he could see time with incumbent stars Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri at five on five and/or on the power play. A limit on Hischier’s production this year is the fact that the Devils just weren’t a good offensive team last season. Their 2.20 goals per game ranked 28th ahead of only the Canucks and Avalanche while their 17.5% clip with the man advantage ranked 22nd. Again, the silver lining here is the Devils are most likely fully willing to let Hischier attempt to improve this offense and that means plenty of ice time and opportunity. Regardless, Hischier is a must-draft in dynasty leagues as the Devils certainly view him as their number one center of the future and this guy has the tools to fill such a role.
Ondrej Kase (ANA)
Last season (Anaheim Ducks, NHL): 53 GP, 5 G, 10 A, -1
Kase isn’t a rookie, but he is a sophomore player ready to take the next step into fantasy prominence. Like many other Ducks last season, Kase spent time on numerous lines as Randy Carlyle tried to find the right mix on a talented group that struggled to score at times. This season, Kase should either play alongside Ryan Getzlaf or Rickard Rakell as his centerman, rather than the fourth line duties he assumed for a notable chunk of last season. Kase proved early last season he was ready for the NHL by tallying 12 points in 14 AHL games, and he could very well be in for an expanded role on the team this season. It’s tough to determine line combinations this early, but Kase is a very good bet to get a significant role on the Ducks’ power play this season, albeit perhaps on the second unit to start. That said, the second unit is likely to be centered by Rakell, a player who himself had a breakout campaign with 33 goals last season. Kase is receiving very little preseason hype, so you can likely let him slide down into a late round and scoop him up at that point.
Oliver Bjorkstrand (CBJ)
Last season (Columbus Blue Jackets, NHL): 26 GP, 6 G, 7 A, +4
Bjorkstrand isn’t a rookie either due to the fact that he has played in at least six NHL games in each of the last two seasons. Bjorkstrand has been a productive NHL scorer in his 38 career games as he has tallied 21 points in that stretch for 0.55 points per game, which equates to 45 points over a full 82-game NHL season. Bjorkstrand should take another step forward in an expanded role this season for a Columbus team expected to be a potent offensive team again. The Blue Jackets ranked 6th in the league with 3.01 goals per game last season and ranked 12th with a 19.9% clip with the man advantage, which is where Bjorkstrand could really make his mark this season. The Blue Jackets were one of many teams to deploy a four-forward, one-defenseman man advantage last season. With Artemi Panarin coming aboard and Brandon Saad out the door, the Blue Jackets first unit power play now consists of Panarin, Alex Wennberg, Cam Atkinson and Zach Werenski. The fifth man and fourth forward on that power play could very well be Bjorkstrand. That is some elite company and it should be a very potent unit. At the very least Bjorkstrand should get a top-six role to open the season on a powerful offensive club, and with the possibility of first unit power play minutes he could be a steal in your upcoming draft.