I both love and hate the first few weeks of the season. Love, because the excitement of the start of the NHL season makes me feel like I’m twelve again, collecting Pepsi bottle caps with the faces of all my favourite players on the under-side; and memorizing all the stats on my hockey cards – that my step-mom will eventually sell without my permission, in a box for $2 at a garage sale. Yeah, Gretzky rookie card and all. Sigh.
And hate, because now that it’s begun, I’m like a kid in a candy store, but it feels like I’m only allowed to have one piece of candy. All those poor, poor, undrafted fantasy players that are now on my watch list. There is so much untapped potential. The twelve year old in me wants them all on my roster, just in case! But it doesn’t work that way. If we knew which players would pan out, then all the fun (AKA: Aggravation) would be gone from the fantasy game. That, as they say, is why they play the games. And so we watch. And watch. And watch some more. And then, when we’re sure, we go to pick up said player – only to find out someone else just nabbed him. Doh. So, it helps to have a deep watch list at this juncture of the season. And make no mistake, finding (or missing out on) the diamond in the rough over the first month can make (or break) your quest for the championship.
What follows is a pretty long list of names that I’m watching. Many of them are good adds right now if you’re in a keeper league or even just a very deep one. But in a redraft league, and any 12-team or less league, you can’t afford to pick up a player who “might” produce. These players all have the opportunity to produce now. Keep an eye on them, and when you think you’re on to something, don’t hesitate. Because if you are, then somebody else is, and if somebody else is, then – oh, too late, he’s gone. See how that works? But for now, add a few of these guys to your list.
We’ll start with this, since it’s actually quite the surprise. In case you hadn’t heard, the Winnipeg Jets finally gave their head a shake and put Ondrej Pavelec (and his $3.9M cap hit) on waivers. That’s good news for…
- Connor Hellebuyck (ESPN: 20%,Yahoo: 39%). He probably got snapped up as I was typing the second ‘N’ in his name. Hell(ebuyck), some folks even drafted him despite the fact that it looked like he would toil in the minors for a while. But, if he’s available, you should probably find a way to make room for him on your roster.
YOU MAY HAVE HEARD OF…
All right, so Auston Matthews and Patrick Laine are taken. Which other rookies have the opportunity to make an immediate impact?
- Jesse Puljujarvi, EDM (ESPN: 17%, Yahoo: 33%) – He snapped a nifty looking shot past Flames goalie Brian Elliott in the opener. It was on the power play, and was actually the result of a turnover and a quick shot. Still, 4:33 on the power play? I’d take a chance on that if I were you. Or even if I were me.
- Ivan Provorov, PHI (ESPN: 34%,Yahoo: 19%) – As a general rule, you should stay away from rookie defensemen. (Trust me, you just should). But every now and then there’s an exception. The Flyers are stockpiling offensive defensemen, and in the shadow of Shayne Gostisbehere’s meteoric rise comes Provorov, whose skills are off the charts. For now, it looks like he’s made the team and will likely get 2nd PP minutes. Keep an eye on him.
- William Nylander, TOR (ESPN: 50%, Yahoo: 44%) – How is he even on this list? This is not ofr deep leagues, obviously, but if he’s still available in your league, what are you waiting for? This kid has got talent stacked upon talent. And you may have heard some good things about his linemate, Auston Matthews, recently….
- Dylan Strome, ARI (ESPN: 27%, Yahoo: 27%) – On a team that already boasts a boatload of talented youngsters, meet Strome, their top prospect. The Coyotes have been lacking at centre for some time now, so even though Strome may start slowly, watch to see who his wingers are, and also if he continues to see PP time, as he did in the pre-season. If he can hang with the big kids, the road to the top line may be a short one indeed.
- Pavel Zacha (ESPN: 4%, Yahoo: 2%) – What a surprise the Devils could turn out to be this year. All of a sudden, they’ve potentially got three lines that can put the puck in the net. The big (6-2, 210) 19-year-old should be in the middle of the 3rd line, so while tempering your expectations early on, do keep an eye on him. The 2015 6th overall pick has impressed the Devils, both in the minors (64 points in 51 games) and in his one game call up – and NHL debut – last year, in which he had two assists.
- Sebastian Aho (ESPN: 4%, Yahoo: 27%) – Aho makes this list for the sheer disparity of ownership levels between ESPN and Yahoo. The Hurricanes have a youth movement going on and it won`t be long before Aho is a real big part of it. Keep in mind, he’s no ordinary rookie. Sure, he’s only 19, but he’s already spent three seasons playing pro hockey in Finland, the last one of which he scored a point per game.
- Matthew Tkachuk (ESPN: 9%, Yahoo:14%) – One of my pet peeves is seeing the sons of Hollywood actors get plum roles based on the talent of their fathers. Yeah, I’m talking to you, Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez. Or sometimes their brothers. Hello, Baldwin brothers. Even you, Alec. 30 Rock does not make up for the other stuff, sorry. And while I’m at it, how about every Dillon not named Matt (all right, so I liked Kevin in Entourage – but that was only because he was a bad actor playing a bad actor). So here’s the thing. Every scouting report on Tkachuk begins something like this: “Matthew, the son of former NHLer, Keith Tkachuk…”. Ugh. If I can only read that far without moving on to the next guy, how will I ever know if the kid is getting by on his name, or if he’s got the old Tkachuk genes? And if you’ve gotten this far, here is your reward: I’m here to tell you that he is actually the real deal. In the OHL playoffs last year, he scored 40 points in 18 games. He’s got nothing left to prove there and will get every chance to play in the big leagues, starting now. There, that got us back on track, didn’t it? He’s an obvious keeper pick, but you might also want to stash away the fact that he’s already playing quality minutes with Sam Bennett and getting PP time already in this young season. Give the kid a chance, why don’tcha?
- Zach Werenski, CLB (ESPN: 4%, Yahoo: 5%) – Werenski is criminally under-owned right now. As the youngest player at the time playing in the NCAA at the time, he impressed the Blue Jackets enough in 2015 to take him 8th overall. So what makes him such a great bet to succeed right out of the gate? For starters, at 6’2”and 210 lbs, he should be able to take care of his own zone. He is supported by a few of the best young defensemen in the game. And, his offensive skills give him a higher ceiling than any of them. “Ok, ok,” you’re saying, “So why the hell haven’t I heard of him yet?” Last year, the Blue Jackets chose not to call him up near the end of the season, and a groin injury in training camp kept him under the radar. But now the season has begun and he is staking his claim beside Seth Jones as a legitimate first pairing defenseman. He was on the ice for over twenty minutes in his first game and assisted on the first goal. Expect the trend to continue, along with PP time. While there is bound to be the typical learning curve as a rookie d-man, Werenski has shown at every level the ability to rise to the occasion.
- Pavel Buchnevich (ESPN: 9%, Yahoo: 4%) – Buchnevich is your classic mystery wrapped in an enigma. Or wait – is it the other way around? The Rangers took a chance on him as a third rounder in 2013. He would likely have gone in the first round, but there were concerns that he might rather play in Russia. So, fast forward a few years later – and yes, a few years “developing” in the KHL – and he is now breaking camp as a second line winger for the big club. By all accounts, he’s got terrific offensive instincts, and plenty of speed. Given that he’s basically a free agent in every fantasy league, you can afford to take a wait and see approach, but be ready to pounce if he shows any chemistry with his linemates, Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad.
IN THE SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS…
- Christian Dvorak, ARI (ESPN: 2%, Yahoo:2 %) – Dvorak is another legit prospect who is overshadowed by a higher profile rookie. He’s made the roster and will most likely be brought along slowly, which means not enough ice time to make an impact yet. But, don’t be surprised if he gets some PP time, and some minutes in the top 6 as the Coyotes figure out who among their kids is ready and who needs more seasoning.
- Mitch Marner, TOR (ESPN: 20%, Yahoo: 21%) – Marner is perhaps in the shadow of the Collossi, with both Matthews and Nylander getting all the press in Hogtown (and no, no idea why they call it Hogtown. I suppose I could Google it… okay, I couldn’t help myself. I’ve now Googled it. Hogtown, you might guess, is not a complimentary term, but one that Toronto eventually proudly adopted. Huh. Weird, eh?). And if you thought that was distracting, just think how much people were distracted by the ‘other’ rookie’s big 4-goal performance in the season opener! Meanwhile, Marner more than held his own, and should be showing up on the score sheet sooner rather than later. Over four minutes on the PP and six shots on goal says so. Pick him up, folks. Quick, while everyone is looking the other way!
- Kyle Connor (ESPN: 4%, Yahoo: 7%) – With all eyes on Patrick Laine, Connor could be a very sneaky pickup on the other wing (or his natural position, centre, if they play him there). He’s got some serious wheels, and much like the dangerous Matthews-Nylander combo in Toronto, we could see these two as productive linemates this year. If there are two things I like in a sleeper (to be honest, there are more, but two seems palatable, right?), it’s, first, an over-shadowed prospect, and second, one with some maturity to his game. Connor has been honing his game at the University of Michigan, where he produced at a near 2 point per game pace.
TAKE A CHANCE ON ME…
These guys are not rookies. Chances are they already burned you once, or twice, back when they were rookies. Funny how players always bust out when you’re not looking, right?
- Mikko Rantanen, COL (ESPN: 6%, Yahoo: 5%)
- Mikhail Grigorenko, COL (ESPN: 1%, Yahoo: 1%)
Of the two former high draft picks, I like Rantanen better, but he’s also quite young and it remains to be seen if the 19 year old is ready for prime time. Grigorenko, meanwhile, has been slowly improving his game, and if given a proper chance to prove himself (he averaged around 13 minutes of ice time last year) could be ready to break out.
- Noah Hanifin, CAR (ESPN: 13%, Yahoo: 17%)
Last year was just a taste. This kid’s movin’ on up.
- Jacob Trouba, WPG (ESPN: 50%, Yahoo: 13%)
Trouba is a boom-bust call right now. But hey, did you hear the one about the Jets trying to get rid of their goalie and his $3.9M contract? That tells me two things, at least one of which ought to be right. 1) If they somehow pull off a miracle and find a taker for Pavelec (LA Kings, perhaps?), do you think maybe they’ll use some of that cash to re-sign Trouba? 2) If that is not in fact their plan, at least it is clear that the Jets are now taking ACTION. Something’s gotta give and hopefully they’ll either deal Trouba or get him back on the ice very soon.
- Nazem Kadri, TOR (ESPN: 44%, Yahoo: 24%)
Auston Matthews. Auston Matthews. Auston Matthews. Sorry, what? I can’t hear you over the clamor about the new guy. Ah, yes, you’re right. Kadri is in fact the first line centre of the Leafs. And even if that changes, putting all that attention on ol’ whatshisname should only help his production this year.
- Ben Hutton, VAN (ESPN: 2%, Yahoo: 2%)
You can count on him manning the point on the Canucks power play. That should be worth more than a paltry 2% ownership.
- Nail Yakupov, STL (ESPN: 19%, Yahoo: 18%)
Lack of ice time early on is troubling, but his natural talent is worth taking a chance on.
- Ryan Strome, NYI (ESPN: 5%, Yahoo: 5%)
Strome is a crapshoot, plain and simple. He appears to be locked into the 3rd line centre role, but he could end up playing with Tavares, and if so, he’ll be worth rostering.
All Oilers not named Connor McDavid
- Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (ESPN: 61%, Yahoo: 34%)
- Leon Draisatl (ESPN: 74%, Yahoo:46%)
- Benoit Pouliot (ESPN: 4%, Yahoo: 5%)
- Patrick Maroon (ESPN: 5%, Yahoo: 4%)
- Oscar Klefbom (ESPN: 8%, Yahoo: 16%)
- Andrej Sekera (ESPN: 8%, Yahoo: 8%)
Well, this is tricky, isn’t it? For the past three years, these guys were over-valued. Now that the shine has worn off and all eyes are on McDavid, they are virtually being ignored. Nuge and Draisatl are somehow under 50% owned in Yahoo leagues. Meanwhile, the Oilers have no real offensive threats on the blue line – but someone has to get all those 2nd power play assists that end up going through McDavid. I’m throwing in Pouliot and Maroon because they are both getting prime opportunities, including plenty of time with the man advantage. And okay, full disclosure. I’m an Oilers fan. And I’m not saying you’ll want ALL of these guys. But at least a couple of them are going to be worthy pickups very soon. Which ones? Well, that’s why we have watch lists, right?
- Justin Schultz, PIT (ESPN: 1%, Yahoo: 4%)
If he gets even 2nd PP time, he’ll be at least a good injury fill-in for you. Keep in mind that as an Oiler, he had a terrible plus-minus, but as a Penguin last year, he stayed on the positive side.
- Devante Smith-Pelly, NJD (ESPN: 3%, Yahoo: 2%)
Impressed the Devils last year after coming over from the Habs. And Now Playing: on the top line with Taylor Hall. Yeah, I’ll take a flyer on that.
- Andre Burakovsky, WAS (ESPN: 13%, Yahoo: 20%)
How is Burakovsky still this far under the radar? He was brought along very slowly last year, averaging just barely 13 minutes per game. And yet, he still finished with 17-21-38. Add say, four to five minutes of ice time to that this year and see what he does. This year’s Kuznetsov? Yeah, pretty much. And now he’s about to be the biggest pickup of the day after a two goal night, so those low ownership numbers ought to change in a hurry. So: Hurry, hurry!
As always, thanks for reading. I’ll do my best to answer any questions you have below. It’s hard to decide who is worth dropping for players on your watch list, so I’ll be happy to give you my two cents worth if you can’t decide!