NHL

Cullen: NHL Rookies ready to make an impact

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Scott Cullen
1/15/2013 11:49:00 AM
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Every hockey season brings with it a sense of hope and optimism, the promise of what might be done with a clean sheet of ice.

This is never more true than when it comes to rookies, getting their first chance to shine in the NHL. No matter how highly-touted, there comes a time when new NHLers need to show what they can do when they play with the big boys.

All that home and promise does come with risk when it comes to projection. Rookies have not yet established their place in the pecking order, so they can be moved up and down the depth chart much more easily.

Think about it, if you're the New York Rangers, would it cause a ripple if Chris Kreider was placed on the fourth line? Probably not. If they did it to Rick Nash, it would be a newsworthy event.

While there is risk involved, the upside is undeniable. Since 2000, 67 rookies have scored at least .50 points per game (minimum 50 games), a level of production that at least puts them in consideration for many fantasy owners.

Here are some of the top rookie candidates this season:

Mikael Granlund, C, Minnesota - A brilliant puckhandler who was the ninth overall pick in 2010, Granlund finally arrived in North America this year and the 20-year-old scored a point-per-game in 19 AHL contests, but that doesn't quite cover his adjustment. He suffered a knee injury that kept him out for more than a month and, when he returned, he scored just two points in the next eight games. Sliding into the second-line centre role in Minnesota, Granlund should be able to avoid tough checking matchups and, if skating with Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Devin Setoguchi, still has capable scoring wingers.

Vladimir Tarasenko, RW, St. Louis - The 16th overall pick in 2010, Tarasenko is a sturdy and skilled winger; strong enough to win battles down low and along the boards, but deft enough to create and finish plays in the offensive zone. He scored 14 goals and 31 points in 31 KHL games this season and is slated to start the year with Alex Steen and Andy McDonald in St. Louis. A defensive coach like Ken Hitchcock can be hard on rookies, but Tarasenko's two-way game shouldn't inhibit his opportunities to produce right out of the gate.

Justin Schultz, D, Edmonton - Right now, I've projected Schultz for 28 points in 46 games, which might seem low, considering he had an astonishing 48 points in 34 AHL games, but it's extremely rare for rookie defencemen to produce more points per game than what I've projected for Schultz.

In 1992-93, there were three Russians -- Vladimir Malakhov, Alexei Zhitnik and Sergei Zubov -- that did it. Since then? Playing at least 45 games, the only other rookie defenceman since 1993 to score better than the .61 points per game that I'm projecting for Schultz was 26-year-old Marek Zidlicky, with Nashville in 2003-2004. So my expectations are very high for Schultz, but they're tempered somewhat by historical precedent.

Keep in mind, that Oklahoma City AHL team had superior talent. Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are very good NHL players, nevermind AHLers, but they won't have quite the same collective advantage in the NHL.

Nail Yakupov, RW, Edmonton - The first overall pick in last summer's draft, Yakupov will be under considerable scrutiny, but he comes into a good situation, one in which he can be a comeplemtary scorer, for the time being, behind Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle. 19-year-old Yakupov put up 18 points in 22 KHL games this year, after 170 points in 107 OHL games the previous two seasons, all of which would suggest that he's going to be able to put the puck in the net.

Brendan Smith, D, Detroit - The Red Wings have been, typically, patient with this first-round pick from 2007. He played three seasons at the University of Wisconsin and has 162 AHL games to his credit (scoring 86 points). He got a taste of NHL action last year, scoring seven points in 14 games, and comes to the Motor City where a big opportunity awaits -- with Nicklas Lidstrom retired, there is room on the power play for a mobile puck-mover like Smith and playing on the Detroit power play, often with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, is a good spot to put up points.

Jakob Silfverberg, RW, Ottawa - A second-round pick in 2009, 22-year-old Silfverberg had 54 points in 49 Swedish Elite League games last season, earning league MVP honours, before joining the Senators for a couple of playoff games last year. In the AHL this season, it took Silfverberg some time to get up to speed, scoring four points in his first 10 games, but he had 25 points in the next 24 games before heading to camp with Ottawa. There's no guarantee he'll stay in this spot, but if Silfverberg sticks with Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek that's a pretty nice way to transition to the league.

Cory Conacher, RW, Tampa Bay - A feisty undersized, undrafted free agent who played at Canisius College, Conacher burst into the AHL once he left school, putting up 80 points in 75 games last season to earn a contract with the Lightning. With Tampa Bay looking to fill a spot in their top six, Conacher has a good chance to land on a line with Vincent Lecavalier and Ryan Malone, a pair of 6-foot-4 forwards. The 23-year-old had 16 goals and 28 points in 36 AHL games this season, which is enough to get the inside track on a job with Tampa Bay, but not a guarantee, because that Syracuse team has several viable candidates, including leading scorer Tyler Johnson, an undrafted free agent out of the Western Hockey League.

Jonathan Huberdeau, LW, Florida - The third overall pick in 2011, Huberdeau was good enough to play for the Panthers last season, but couldn't come to a contract agreement, so he returned to junior. Since the start of last season, Huberdeau has 117 points in 67 QMJHL games, so he's ready for his chance to play and produce on a scoring line with the Panthers.

Marcus Foligno, LW, Buffalo - Drafted in the fourth round in 2009, 21-year-old Foligno wasn't an offensive force in junior, but he continued to get bigger, stronger and better. By the time he reached the NHL, in a late-season audition with the Sabres last year (when he scored 13 points in 14 games), it appeared that Foligno might have more than just a grinder's future in the NHL. He's built on that, scoring 27 points in 33 AHL games this year, which should be enough to earn a chance on a scoring line in Buffalo, where his size and physical play is a welcome addition.

Alex Galchenyuk, C/LW, Montreal - Had the NHL season started on time, there would be little reason to think that Galchenyuk would stick. He played just two regular season games last year, due to a knee injury, so making the jump to the NHL after a season lost to injury seemed far too aggressive. However, Galchenyuk has returned to action this year and has been dominant, scoring 27 goals and 61 points in 33 games, earning an invite to camp with the Canadiens. Ideally, in terms of immediate production, while Galchenyuk fits as a centre long-term, he might be able to transition more easily on the wing with a reliable veteran like Tomas Plekanec.

Sven Baertschi, LW, Calgary - The 20-year-old Swiss winger was the 13th overall pick in 2011 and had a productive junior career in Portland (240 points in 156 regular season and playoff games), tantalizing the Flames by scoring three goals in five games as an emergency recall last season. With 18 points in 21 AHL games this year, Baertschi is ready for a try on a scoring line in Calgary, apparently with Mikael Backlund and Mike Cammalleri to get things started.

Damien Brunner, RW, Detroit - For those willing to take a chance on a Swiss League veteran (scoring 221 points in 165 games over the last four seasons), 26-year-old Brunner is going to start the season on the wing with Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, which is pretty great for any first year player, but even better for Brunner is that Zetterberg joined him with Zug in the Swiss League during the lockout, so there should be some chemistry established between them. The risk for Brunner is that if he falters, the Wings have other options waiting for a chance, including Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar.

Mikhail Grigorenko, C, Buffalo - Slipped to No. 12 in last summer's drat, but 50 points in 32 QMJHL games earned Grigorenko an invite to Sabres camp, where he has started on a line with Steve Ott and Ville Leino. The Sabres could use Grigorenko's playmaking skills, and there is no guarantee that the 18-year-old will even stick around long-term but, if he does, Grigorenko has the playmaking skills required to put up points.

Ryan Strome, RW, N.Y. Islanders - The fifth overall pick in 2011, Strome was shredding the OHL, with 60 points in 32 games for Niagara, when he joined Isles camp. If he's going to stay, it will be in a top-six role, which means an opportunity to score right out of the chute. If he lands on John Tavares' wing that would present obvious upside, but it's conceivable that Strome might be looking at second line minutes as a rookie.

Chris Kreider, LW, N.Y. Rangers - When Kreider joined the Rangers at the end of a national championship season for his Boston College team, he impressed immediately, using his speed to create chances and get in on the forecheck. He contributed seven points in 18 postseason games and seemed ready for a big rookie season in 2012-2013. Playing in the AHL during the lockout, however, Kreider struggled, managing a total of 12 points in 33 games, scoring two points in the last 19 games before getting the invite to camp. It's possible that Kreider makes the team and fits in a supporting role, but he may also need more time to develop his offensive game so that when he does reach the NHL, he's ready to have an impact on the game.

Beau Bennett, LW, Pittsburgh - A first-round pick in 2010, Bennett left Denver University after less than two seasons, but he made a smooth transition to the pro game, scoring 24 points in 30 games to lead Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Bennett is among those under consideration to earn a a spot on Evgeki Malkin's wing, an enviable place in the lineup for any forward trying to put up points.

Dougie Hamilton, D, Boston - Taken ninth overall in 2011, Hamilton was mediocre at the recent World Junior Hockey Championships, but he's been cruising through the OHL this year, tallying 41 points in 32 games, enough that he is virtually assured of a spot with the Bruins. It could take some time, but Hamilton has the ability to work the power play and might get his feet wet on the second unit, which could be enough to provide value in deeper leagues.

Jaden Schwartz, LW, St. Louis - The 14th pick in the 2010 draft, Schwarz got a taste of NHL action last year (2 G, 1 A, +1, 7 GP) after he finished his sophomore season at Colorado College. His AHL numbers this year (9 G, 10 A, -14, 33 GP) haven't been great, but he's starting out with Patrik Berglund and Chris Stewart at Blues camp, a position that, if he keeps it, will afford him opportunities to score.

Mark Scheifele, C, Winnipeg - Somewhat controversially taken seventh overall in 2011 (ahead of Philadelphia's Sean Couturier), Scheifele saw action in seven games with the Jets last season before he was returned to junior. He had 49 points in 30 games with Barrie of the OHL this year before returning to Jets camp and has a chance to make the team, though maybe not yet in a scoring role.

Roman Cervenka, C, Calgary - He's 27-years-old, so a veritable veteran among the rookies and may not be ready for the start of the season as he deals with blood clot issues, but he's been so productive in the KHL (102 points in 110 games over two seasons) and the Czech league (145 points in his last 110 games) that he bears watching, particularly on a Flames team that could really use a playmaking centre to ignite their offence.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.

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