Special to Yahoo Sports
Although it’s always good to target established veterans when constructing your fantasy team, rookies can also offer plenty of value, so they shouldn’t be overlooked. Here are this year’s top 10 NHL rookies to keep an eye on during your draft.
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The No. 1 overall selection in the 2023 NHL Draft, Bedard is one of the most highly regarded prospects to enter the league in recent memory. A former WHL Rookie of the Year and CHL Player of the Year, Bedard finished his junior career with 134 goals and 271 points in 134 games. You can count on one hand the number of players, at any level, who can shoot the puck as well as Bedard.
He’s a bit undersized (5-foot-10), but he’s exceedingly shifty and rarely puts himself in a position to take a hit. A lock to receive top-line minutes with the Blackhawks from the get-go, Bedard should threaten 30 goals and 65-70 points in his rookie campaign. He’s also going to rack up a ton of shots on goal while offering significant power-play production. Just keep in mind that Bedard is a near-lock for a poor plus-minus rating since he’ll be playing for a Chicago team that figures to once again be among the worst in the league.
As recent as late July it appeared Cooley, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2022 draft, would be heading back to the University of Minnesota for his sophomore season. However, a change of heart midway through the summer led to him signing his entry-level deal, paving the way for Cooley to fill a top-six role for Arizona in 2023-24. It’s the correct decision for all parties involved.
Set to play nearly the entirety of the upcoming campaign at age 19, Cooley posted 22 goals and 60 points in 39 games in his one season with the Gophers. From a fantasy standpoint, he’s the best rookie to bet on other than Bedard. Again, just keep in mind he’ll likely end the season with a poor plus-minus rating.
Fantilli would have been a worthy No. 1 overall pick in most NHL Drafts. The fact that he slipped to No. 3 overall in June isn’t a reflection of his long-term potential. Fantilli’s lone season at the University of Michigan was one of the best freshman campaigns in NCAA history. He led all collegiate players in both goals (30) and points (65 in 36 games). Fantilli won the Hobey Baker Award as the best player in college hockey for his efforts.
He’s better suited than Bedard and Cooley to make an immediate impact as a three-zone contributor at the NHL level, but Columbus has more offensive depth than Chicago or Arizona, which is why I have Fantilli third on this list.
Consider me skeptical that the Sabres, a team on the rise with legitimate playoff aspirations this season, are going to start Eric Comrie or Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen over Levi. Yes, Levi has just seven NHL appearances under his belt (all late last season), but it’s clear the 21-year-old reigning back-to-back winner of the Mike Richter Award as the top goaltender in college hockey will give Buffalo the best chance to win hockey games in 2023-24. I think the Sabres realize that as well.
Based on pure talent alone, Hughes deserves to be higher than No. 5 on this list. Heck, he had 10 goals and 48 points in his sophomore season at the University of Michigan in 2022-23. Hughes, the No. 4 overall pick in 2021, debuted late last year for the Devils. He was a regular in the lineup by the time the playoffs concluded. Clearly one of New Jersey’s six best rearguards, the concern for Hughes from a fantasy standpoint is the Devils already have Dougie Hamilton to run their power play. Hughes should get some time on the second unit, and I expect him to be productive at even strength, but the limited power-play time will cap his fantasy ceiling.
Knies is going to be a regular for the Maple Leafs this season — that much is a given. The question is where he plays. He’d probably be fine in a top-six role if the club wanted to go that route, but I have my doubts. Knies, who debuted late last season following his sophomore campaign at the University of Minnesota, is a big body (6-foot-3, 210 pounds) that excels at creating space down low. His skill set would theoretically play exceptionally well in a depth role, but he’s too talented for that to be his long-term home.
Clarke began last season with the Kings and barely played. He was often a healthy scratch and ended up appearing in just nine NHL games, picking up two helpers over that span. He eventually found his way back to the OHL where Clarke made a mockery of the league, posting 23 goals and 61 points in 31 games. The Kings are a good offensive team and it’s pretty clear that Clarke is their best offensive-minded blueliner. I doubt the club is going to mothball a future Hall of Famer in Drew Doughty, but LA would be best served to let Clarke run its No. 1 power-play unit this year. If nothing else, it would also help limit the minutes of the aging Doughty.
Carlsson was the No. 3 overall pick in June, selected between Bedard and Fantilli. An excellent all-around player and future No. 1 center for the Ducks, Carlsson’s long-term upside is massive. Anaheim should probably just hand him top-six minutes and a spot on the No. 1 power-play unit from the start, but the Ducks have four veteran forwards making at least $5 million annually (Alex Killorn, Adam Henrique, Ryan Strome, Jakob Silfverberg), and Trevor Zegras and Troy Terry will also get a boat load of playing time. In other words, Carlsson’s role may be somewhat limited in 2023-24.
Like Clarke, Wright often found himself in the press box in his rookie campaign in 2022-23. He had one goal and two points in eight games with the Kraken before being sent back to the OHL. Although Wright may not have No. 1 center potential, he still projects as an ideal No. 2 pivot at the NHL level. Luckily for the Kraken, it looks like they’ve already found their No. 1 guy in Matty Beniers, winner of the 2022-23 Calder Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year.
Eklund was brilliant in the AHL last season (17 goals, 41 points in 54 games). He was probably NHL-ready then and he’s definitely NHL-ready now. San Jose, still neck deep in a rebuild, should give the 2021 No. 7 overall pick all the minutes he can handle in 2023-24.