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Draft Prep 2011-12: Keep an eye on these young guns

by | Rotowire.com
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They say the NHL is a young man's league. And they say it doesn't really matter why. It just is.

Or is it?

Young skaters seem to have dominated since the new CBA went into effect. The speed of the game is up and the talent level, particularly of the freshest, youngest fruit, is tastier than it's ever been. In history.

But last season, seven of the league's top-10 scorers were 30 or older (Daniel Sedin, Martin St. Louis, Henrik Sedin, Jarome Iginla, Teemu Selanne, Henrik Zetterberg and Brad Richards). Two were 25 -- Corey Perry and Alex Ovechkin -- and just Steven Stamkos, who turned 21 in February, was truly pimply.

The next wave is coming, though. Just six players -- Patrick Marleau, Mike Ribeiro, Joe Thornton, Alex Tanguay, Danny Briere and Lubomir Visnovsky -- in the next 20 scorers were 30 or older.

That's impressive.

But in Fantasy, younger isn't always better. We tend to over-lust for rookies. And overpay. Sometimes seriously, just to have the newest toy out there.

This year's list of young guns is populated with guys who have both talent and opportunity, a combination that may lead you to a few surprises. Some young studs have been purposely left off the list -- there's no point stating every obvious guy. The list would be useless. So you'll only find a few.

And I avoid pure rookies for the most part, unless there's a real shot at a home run with them. Despite a huge influx of young talent, rookie scoring is on the decline. Jeff Skinner was the only rookie to break the 60-point barrier last season. And only two others -- Logan Couture and Michael Grabner -- broke 50.

Goalies are another breed entirely. Young often isn't better. Just look how many seasons it took for Marc-Andre Fleury to truly shine. And success while really young can almost be a curse (Steve Mason, are you listening?).

Happy scouting and happy drafting. May all your picks be fruitful. Just don't make them all young and tender.

Centers

Note: Standard, 12-team leagues have 24 active centers. Last season, the 24th best center scored 57 points, down from 61 the year before.

Mikael Backlund, Calgary: Pigs may fly before the Flames give this talented but inexperienced 22-year-old a shot as Jarome Iginla's pivot. But then again, fish and frogs have fallen from the sky and -- to be honest -- Backlund's competition isn't exactly strong. Or even mediocre. He needs to gain strength but he's about the only offensive weapon in Calgary's dull knife sheath called a prospect system. And Olli Jokinen sure isn't a fit with Jarome. Backlund's speed would be a great fit with Iggy and Alex Tanguay, and the two vets are solid two-way players with more than enough skill to offset a few rookie mistakes. Add in some power play time and there's about to be a surprise in orange and black.

Patrik Berglund, St. Louis: The next Mats Sundin is poised for a career year under coach Davis Payne, the man who helped him right his tilting ship last season. Berglund seriously needs to improve his faceoff proficiency (46.2 percent) but that will be forgiven -- at least a bit -- if he goes from 52 points to 65 or more. His game is eerily similar to Sundin’s, with one major difference -- he has wingers with outstanding talent and potential. He's a solid late-round snag.

Logan Couture, San Jose: This highly touted goal scorer took the NHL by storm as a rookie last season. He finished as the top rookie in shots (253) and game-winners (8), and was second in goals (32) and points (56). He's incredibly hard working, smart and conscientious. But the thing that really jumps off the ice for me is his unselfishness -- it'll earn him a captain's C one day. His skill-set suggests he'll at least match his output from last year and that makes him a fantastic young addition to your squad.

Zac Dalpe, Carolina: Dalpe has elite offensive instincts and he took his game to a whole new level as a rookie pro last year in the AHL. His 57 points (23 goals and 34 assists) in just 61 games were good enough for third in rookie scoring. And this year, he has as good a shot as anyone to earn the coveted role of second-line center in Raleigh -- Carolina doesn't hesitate to throw its young into the deep end to see if they can swim. He won't come close to 55 or 60 points but 40 to 45 are possible, particularly if he skates with young uber-stud Jeff Skinner. He's a name to know.

Brad Marchand, Boston: There was a point in last year's playoffs where Marchand's play was almost Conn Smythe worthy. His amazing output slowed against Tampa but he ratcheted things up against Vancouver and finished with 11 goals and 19 points. He has an unbelievable package of speed, skill and truculence, with an ability to chirp that's among the best in the NHL. He's at his best on the wing and everything points to a breakout campaign. It's just going to be limited (for now) to even-strength and short-handed situations. There's no way he gets power-play time. Period.

Kyle Turris, Phoenix: Turris has talent but his production has been paltry in his young career. Will this be his year? The 22-year-old with immense upside still suffers from the occasional bout of puck panic and hasn't completely shed the soft label. But he'll slot in as the Yotes’ second-line center and this could be the year he finally cracks 50 points. It's all about opportunity.

Not Quite Ready For Prime Time (no matter what the hype or the job they'll be given): Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton; Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida; Marcus Johansson, Washington; Nazem Kadri, Toronto; Brayden Schenn, Philadelpia.

Left Wing

Note: Standard, 12-team leagues have 24 active left wingers. Last season, the 24th best left winger scored 52 points, up a single point from the year before.

Jamie Benn, Dallas: Benn may be the biggest sleeper on this list. Lots of people will discount his ability to perform now that Brad Richards isn't in Texas. But Benn's talent is off the charts and he could even land the plum spot as Richie's replacement beside sniper Loui Eriksson. Honestly, 30 goals and 70-plus points are within his talented reach. Not bad for a 22-year-old drafted in the fifth freaking round.

Tyler Ennis, Buffalo: I'm going to get this off my chest right now -- I love this speedy squirt. He's unbelievably slippery and creative, and has as much potential upside as Derek Roy. And with a gig on the second line with Jason Pominville (if he's healthy) and the sublime puck-possession pivot Ville Leino, Ennis' season -- and future -- is exceptionally bright.

Nikita Filatov, Ottawa: Patience is running out on Alexei Kovalev-lite -- honestly, that's who comes into my mind when I think of this young gun. He's blindingly talented with off-the-charts potential. But like Kovalev, he quickly grows disinterested if things don't bounce his way early in games. He's the epitome of super-high risk/reward. He might win you a championship. But picked too early, he could lose you one, too. Fingers crossed he can win a spot beside Jason Spezza -- it's his best shot at fulfilling his potential.

James van Riemsdyk, Philadelphia: JvR is poised for a breakout this year after dominating (in spurts) during last season's playoffs. He'll continue to have peaks and valleys in his game but he's now the Flyers' official stud left winger. And that means he could end up beside Claude Giroux and Jaromir Jagr. Or Daniel Briere and Jakub Voracek. Expect a solid 35 percent increase in output this year (to the mid-50s) and another 10-15 percent the next. He just won't deliver you the kind of PIMs you want from a power forward -- he's a stitch soft for a big man. But really, who cares with output like that from a 22-year-old.

Bobby Ryan, Anaheim: Ryan took the slow road to stardom but at 24, he could deliver a season that equals that of his so-called more-talented teammates, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. He's already had three straight 30-goal seasons and last year he laid 156 hits and led the Ducks in takeaways with 62. The only reason he'd be outside the league's top-25 players is his lack of power-play production. So think top-five at his position. Not bad at all.

Right Wing

Note: Standard, 12-team leagues have 24 active right wingers. Last season, the 24th best right winger scored 52 points, up a single point from the year before.

Steve Downie, Tampa Bay: There are plenty of words in the Urban Dictionary to describe this guy and none can be printed here. But the fact remains simple -- Downie may be a handful but he can skate well enough to play alongside the fleet-footed duo of Steven Stamkos and Marty St. Louis, and his hands are good enough to get close to 50 points. So when you add 200 penalty minutes and occasional power-play production, you get a combination that could make him a top-five or top-eight consideration in standard leagues. Really. Bad boys have all the fun.

Jordan Eberle, Edmonton: This guy's skills are sick. There's just no other way to describe his talents. And while his plus-minus will continue to drag, Eberle's offense will jump by an easy 50 percent. Yep, mid-60s are well within reach as long as he's healthy. And he and Taylor Hall will be one of the most exciting duos in hockey this year. That's enough for me to grab him.

Michael Frolik, Chicago: Michael Frolik (23) and Dave Bolland (25) make beautiful music together. They really do. And that, coupled with his regression last year, turns this tricky and talented sniping winger into an opportunistic snag on the draft floor. His talent will never carry a team but it has a chance to explode if he's just another complementary piece. Chicago is a perfect fit for him. Expect Fantasy fireworks.

Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado: Landeskog already plays with the poise of a 25-year-old veteran but he's just 18. And while I don't like to recommend teenage rookies, Landeskog is a man-child who's NHL-ready. He'll make an immediate impact in a top-six capacity with the Avs and come close to 50 points. And my gut tells me he'll be out there killing penalties by the third week of the season. He's just that good. Brenden Morrow good -- tough and talented.

Kyle Okposo, N.Y. Islanders: Once upon a time, Okposo was billed as the next Jarome Iginla. And maybe he'll still do that, he is only 23 after all. I tend to think he'll be eclipsed by Nino Niederreiter as the true scoring stud sooner rather than later and he'll settle into a sturdy, two-way role. There's nothing wrong with that. Lots of guys have great Fantasy careers wearing that hat. And this year, he could actually hover in the 60-point area by season's end.

Jakub Voracek, Philadelphia: Voracek got his ticket out of jail when he was flipped to Philly. This hard-working playmaker no longer has to carry the weight of a franchise on his shoulders (OK, so Rick Nash did most of the heavy lifting but I swear Voracek felt the pressure). And he's probably going to line up with James van Reimsdyk and Claude Giroux. Expect an adjustment period for this 22-year-old (he still has to shake his inconsistency) and say, 55 points this year. Next year will be his ascension.

Wayne Simmonds, Philadelpia: Simmonds isn't your typical high-upside cat. But I absolutely love what he brings to the ice. Namely, speed and grit, with enough offense to one day elevate him into that elusive 50-point, 100-plus PIM club. As it stands now, he's going to endear himself to Philly fans on his first shift -- that's when he'll drive an opposing defender into Neverland (legally, of course). The Flyers are painfully deep up front. But any right winger who comes close to 40 points and adds at least 100 PIMs this season is a full-time Fantasy starter in standard formats. The best part? This guy does everything with a crap-eating grin plastered across his face. You can't help but love him. That's just not what his opponents think.

Defense

Note: Standard, 12-team leagues have 48 active defensemen. Last season, the 48th best defenseman scored 29 points, down one from the year before.

Jonathan Blum, Nashville: Predators fans, meet Shea Weber's replacement. Blum's fantastic play in 23 regular-season games and one playoff series last year made Cody Franson expendable and will soon make it OK for the team to trade away Shea Weber. Blum has it all -- smarts, skill, size and smoothness -- and will soon be a top-pairing, two-way stud in the NHL. Don't be surprised if he makes a Tyler Myers-like impression as a rookie this year, including a Calder nomination. And a Shea Weber-like impression in the next few years. He really is that good.

Stefan Elliot, Colorado: Who? Elliot is right behind David Rundblad and Blum in terms of keeper defense prospects. He blew the doors off the Western Hockey League last year with 31 goals and 81 points, and was a mind-boggling plus-62. He carries the puck like it's attached with Velcro and he's so good he made Kevin Shattenkirk expendable. He may only be 20 but the Avs will likely roll with him full time. And I wouldn't be surprised if he's a permanent fixture on the top power-play by November. He'll struggle to adjust to the NHL game but who cares if he can give you 35-plus points right away?

Cody Franson, Toronto: He's 24 and either a future star or the next Andy Delmore -- I just haven't figured out which it is yet. But for some reason, I think he's soon going to be drinking the Dion Phaneuf blue-and-white Kool-Aid and he'll deliver career numbers. That's more than enough to help him onto your roster.

Travis Hamonic, N.Y. Islanders: Hamonic is a beast. At 21, he's already the team's best all-round defender and will be the Isles' No. 1 stud in very short order (sorry, Mark Streit, but you're more offense than defense). Hamonic is one of the few guys who'll give you a triple-century: 100 each of PIMs, hits and blocked shots. And he'll top it with a positive plus-minus and at least 30 points for the lowly Isles. He's a brilliant late-round pick. Brilliant. And some day, he'll net about 40 points. That's when he'll be known as a monster.

Jamie McBain, Carolina: McBain started slowly last year but showed me a second-half that warrants him sleeper status this time around. He has a great slapper and is already the best defender on the Hurricanes, he just might not be used that way this year. Still, 30-plus points (or a few more) are respectable for a 23-year-old sophomore.

Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk, St. Louis: Combined age: 43. Combined output: 100-plus points. Combined value: priceless. That's all you need to know.

David Rundblad, Ottawa: There are just two things you need to know about Rundblad. First, he completely dominated the Swedish Elite League with 50 points in 55 games as a 20-year-old. Secondly, the Senators will give him every chance (and then some) to earn a top-six role in Canada's capital. Thirty-plus points with many on the power play are all but guaranteed. And he and fellow Swede Erik Karlsson are about to become the most offensively prolific defensive duo this league has seen in years.

Matt Taormina, New Jersey: Taormina is relatively unheralded and he's under the radar after suffering a serious ankle injury late last season. But he can move the puck and -- quite frankly -- no one else on the Devils' back end can really do that. And if he can dish on the power play, he's going to earn himself 35-40 points with ease.

Other More Obvious Young Studs: John Carlson, Washington; Drew Doughty, Los Angeles; Cam Fowler, Anaheim; Erik Karlsson, Ottawa; P.K. Subban, Montreal.

Goal

Note: Standard, 12-team leagues have 24 active goalies. Last season, the 24th best win total by a goalie was 22, the 24th best goals-against average was 2.48 [eliminating all goalies with fewer than 10 wins] and the 24th best save percentage was .917, again eliminating those with fewer than 10 wins. Goalies are by far the most challenging selection because it's difficult to get great numbers in all three categories, particularly after the studs leave the board. For example, Tomas Vokoun was 24th with 22 wins last year but his GAA was 2.55 and his save percentage was .922.

Starters

Steve Mason, Columbus: I almost shudder to put this guy back on my young guns list for this season. But I can't believe that he's just another Andrew Raycroft. He has the talent to be a Draft Day steal, particularly with an improved Jackets' squad in front of him. It'll all come down to his mental fortitude. He'll succeed -- no, he’ll excel -- if he has figured out how to be a duck ... you know, let stuff just slide right off his back. Otherwise, I'll never put his name back on a list like this again and I'll become an even bigger believer in back-up Mark Dekanich, who's quite talented in his own respect. Fool me once, shame on Mason. Fool me twice? Shame on me.

Ondrej Pavelec, Winnipeg: Pavelec is a stud and he showed it last season, at least, after that unexplained collapse to start the year. Through November, he was arguably one of the league's best goalies. Unfortunately, both he and the Thrashers wore down over the year and he finished with less-than-stellar numbers. He's learned his lesson, though, and improved his conditioning. And this year will spell a big leap in his career.

James Reimer, Toronto: Reimer came out of nowhere last season to go 20-10-5 in 37 games. He was utterly unflappable and his short-term memory was horrible, a fantastic trait for a netminder. His team seemed to take confidence from his presence in goal and he always rebounded after a shaky outing. So after just 37 NHL games, he's now the sheriff in town. Thirty wins with solid ratios achingly similar to last year's 2.60/.921 are all but guaranteed. Not bad for a 23-year-old guy barely removed from the East Coast league.

Semyon Varlamov, Colorado: I like Varlamov ... honest, I do. And if he can stay healthy, he's just what the doctor ordered to help resurrect a once-glorious franchise. Trouble is, he's already showing a propensity for groin problems and that's never good for a 23-year-old who's a tad on the impatient (and aggressive) side. Still, his talent is absolutely undeniable; the risk is just a little higher with him than with some of the other young guns on the list.

Backups

Jonathan Bernier, Los Angeles: Bernier is a stud with a blockage. And that blockage is named Quick. Bernier remains one of the NHL's best young goalies but for as strong as he played to finish last season, he's still stuck in spot two on the Kings' depth chart. Yes, he'll push Jonathan Quick for starts. And yes, Quick's contract expires at season's end. But the Kings are looking to go deep this spring and that means Bernier's best will come in future years. And given his elite talent, Bernier's best will be outstanding.

Anders Lindback, Nashville: Lindback proved his mettle last season when Pekka Rinne hit the injury shelf. His size, smarts and skill translated into excellent numbers and at just 23, he's a veritable babe in the net. His playing time will be limited unless Rinne gets hurt again. But his future is exceptionally bright.

Alexander Salak, Chicago: Size? Check. Quick? You got it. Technically sound? Oh yeah. Strong mental fortitude? What a relief. Pro pedigree. Already in the bag. Salak is poised to be the back-up in Chicago and the duo of Salak and Corey Crawford will be among the best in the NHL. His single-year value will be limited as a handcuff or in spot duty. But he's a future elite starter.

Cory Schneider, Vancouver: So, I says to the guy ... Martin Brodeur is getting a little long in the tooth and wouldn't Cory Schneider look mighty nice with a Devil's fork on his chest? That's a deal that even ol' Leaping Lou might actually make. Schneiders’ stellar numbers as a back-up could become starter's tallies somewhere else by season's end. Or by next camp at the least. Bare minimum? The guy pushes the fragile Roberto Luongo for more and more starts, and 20-plus wins are in the bag. That's just the kind of No. 3 guy you want on your squad.

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