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The Coming Thing: Impact Rookies

Andrew Fiorentino

Andrew Fiorentino

A degenerate fantasy player since the age of 13.

Impact Rookies
by Andrew Fiorentino, RotoWire Writer

It can take a long time for even some of the most talented players to achieve NHL productivity. For every Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin who comes right in and lights up the league from Day 1, there are guys like Henrik and Daniel Sedin - superstars now, but neither one cleared 40 points in their first three years in the league, and it wasn't until their fifth year that they broke out into the 70s. And, of course, there are many more that don't make it at all. Every year, though, there are rookies who come into the league and make an immediate impact, and the 2011-12 season is shaping up to be a very interesting one with some big-time prospects ready to make the leap to NHL greatness. Here are some favorites to break out with big rookie years.

Forwards

Brayden Schenn, C, PHI - The best prospect in hockey came to Philadelphia in the Mike Richards deal, and he couldn't have found a better landing spot than this retooled Flyers squad. They're a contending team, but one with so much turnover on the top lines that Schenn could easily play his way into the top six. Schenn's credentials are unquestioned: fifth overall pick in '09, nearly two points per game in juniors last year, plus a point per game in his seven-game AHL stint. He's ready to rock.

Ryan Johansen, C, CLM - Jeff Carter comes in and presumably assumes the top center spot, but everything after that is up for grabs. Derick Brassard and Antoine Vermette will make their cases for the No. 2 center role as well, but Johansen is just as talented as those guys (and they're no slouches). He's only 19, but he rocked junior hockey for 40 goals and 92 points last year, and the 2010 No. 4 pick is capable of contributing on the NHL level right now - especially if he's filled out that 6-3 frame with a bit more muscle.

Brett MacLean, LW, PHO - MacLean has nothing left to prove in the AHL after racking up 50 points in 51 games last year and 65 points (including 30 goals) in 76 the year before. Better yet, the Coyotes have little in the way of competition for him: Outside of the veterans Ray Whitney and Shane Doan, there are absolutely no sure things on the wing in Phoenix. Soon to be 23, MacLean's got a new contract and a great chance to apply his scoring ability to a lot of NHL minutes.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, C, EDM - Yet another first overall pick comes to Edmonton, where Nugent-Hopkins could team up with Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle to create the best young line in hockey. He's only 18 years old, but he racked up 106 points in juniors as a 17-year-old last year. Unlike most of the others on this list, he's assured of nothing as far as getting to the NHL right away, but the slender center has put on some weight over the offseason, getting up to 175 pounds, which should improve his chances of competing in what seems to have become a more rough-and-tumble league.

Gabriel Landeskog, RW, COL - The man picked after Nugent-Hopkins, Landeskog is already penciled in as a second-line winger for a Colorado team that's sort of in transition right now. The soon-to-be-19-year-old Swede didn't blow the competition away offensively last year in juniors (not that he did bad, tallying 36 goals and 66 points in 53 games), but he's got NHL size and strength, and is widely considered the most NHL-ready player in this draft. (To me, he's second to the guy below.) It's hard to project him coming in and racking up 60 points, but 40-some would play in deeper leagues.

Jonathan Huberdeau, C, FLA - In Huberdeau, we have a player who is arguably just as good or maybe even better than the players picked in front of him. He scored just one point less than Nugent-Hopkins last year for Saint John of the QMJHL, collecting 105 points in 67 games, and he comes to a Panthers team that has little of interest up the middle, leading many - including yours truly - to believe that he's in for a Jeff Skinner-like rookie breakout, particularly if he gets a shot to click with David Booth on the first line.

Tomas Kubalik, RW, CLM - Last year's training camp sensation had a very fine season in the AHL despite failing to make the team, tallying 24 goals and 53 points (both easily team-leading totals) for Springfield to go with with a couple assists in four NHL games. Columbus is iffy on the wing, especially right wing, and so Kubalik could find his way onto the roster this fall and make an immediate impact. The 21-year-old Czech has the skill and the size at 6-3, 209 to stick in a top-six role.

Defensemen

Marc-Andre Gragnani, BUF - Here's how you make a great impression as a young player: After four wildly successful AHL seasons (52, 51, 43 and 60 points), you come up at the end of the year, get in on your team's playoff run, and lead the team in points in the playoffs as a defenseman. Gragnani racked up seven points in Buffalo's seven playoff games last year, and he's established himself as one of the top up-and-coming offensive defensemen in the game. Unfortunately, Buffalo brought in Christian Ehrhoff to man the power play with Tyler Myers, pushing Gragnani off for the moment. Ehrhoff may not be as impressive as his Sedin-twins-inflated numbers, though, and of course this is the NHL - injuries happen. Gragnani will get his chances on the PP eventually, but even without that, he could easily achieve a fantasy-relevant point total this year.

David Rundblad, OTT - Not a lot of young players score 50 points in the Swedish Elitserien, and of those few, you almost never see a defenseman do it - until Rundblad ripped off 11 goals and 39 assists in 55 games last year. Now he brings his talents to America, where he'll be expected to bring his scoring touch to a Senators blue line that's seen Sergei Gonchar age very suddenly and, aside from Erik Karlsson, doesn't have much offensive upside. It's always hard for young defensemen to make a scoring impact in the NHL, but if anyone can do it, Rundblad can. He's one of the very best defense prospects of the last decade.

Ryan Ellis, NAS - Ellis is another one who fits into "best defense prospects of the last decade" as the rare 100-point junior scorer from the blue line. In just 58 games last year in the OHL, Ellis racked up 24 goals and 77 assists. If he doesn't make the Preds out of camp, it'll be a travesty. The only knock on Ellis is that he's a bit undersized, but he has so much offensive talent, there's just no way that Nashville needs to "let him develop." He's developed. Don't tell me the Predators are a better team with Kevin Klein or Jack Hillen.

Jonathon Blum, NAS - If the powers that be in Nashville were smart, they'd join Ellis with Blum on their second defensive pairing, sit back, and watch the kids do work. A first-round pick (No. 23) in '07, Blum has shown the ability to put up points both in juniors (where he was a two-time 60-point scorer) and in the AHL, where he's got 75 points in 134 games over the past two seasons, including 34 in 54 last year. Blum's had his two seasons in the AHL, and he's had a little NHL exposure, too, with 23 regular-season games followed by 12 in the postseason. That experience should be enough to put him solidly in the rotation for Nashville this year. He's capable of big things, especially if he gets some PP time.

Jake Gardiner, TOR - The Leafs wisely acquired Gardiner from the Ducks, who took him in the first round in '08 and watched him develop into a top defenseman at the University of Wisconsin, where he put up a point per game over 41 contests last season. The Leafs have made some great moves to strengthen their blue line, adding John-Michael Liles and Cody Franson, but there's still room for Gardiner to beat out Carl Gunnarsson for the sixth defense spot. Even if he doesn't do that in camp, it's only a matter of time before Gardiner makes his way up to the big team for good.

Goalies

Kevin Poulin, NYI - One of my favorite goaltending prospects, Poulin ridiculously outperformed his fifth-round (2008) draft pedigree last year, racking up a sick .932 save percentage for AHL Bridgeport over 15 games before getting the call to Long Island, where he went 4-2-1 over 10 games with a .924 save percentage and 2.44 GAA for a bad Islanders team before suffering a fluky knee injury that ended his season. Rick DiPietro is always hurt and hasn't played well; Al Montoya, who played well for the Isles at the end of last season, is more likely to be a flash in the pan than a long-term solution; Swedish import Anders Nilsson will need some time in the AHL. That leaves Poulin plenty of opportunity to take a starring role and run with it.

Jhonas Enroth, BUF - With Patrick Lalime finally retired after a couple seasons of backing up Ryan Miller, Enroth is the inheritor of that role. Miller's one of the best in the game, and he tends to be a high-volume goalie, starting 68 and 65 games the last two seasons, but the talented young Enroth has been consistently good in the AHL for the last three years, and with Miller on the wrong side of 30 now, the Sabres could look to have his load reduced a little. You can pencil Enroth in for at least 20 games as a backup, and if Miller gets hurt, he's suddenly a full-time starter on a playoff-caliber team.

Jacob Markstrom, FLA - Jose Theodore has a two-year contract, which should send a message about what the Panthers think of Markstrom's development, but Theodore is no Tomas Vokoun and backup Scott Clemmensen is no NHL starter, so Markstrom could push his way up with a strong first half, particularly if one of those guys is bitten by the injury bug. After all, Theodore has had problems holding up for whole seasons before and now he's soon to be 35 - no spring chicken. Markstrom, a 2008 second-round pick, is one of the top goalie prospects in the game, so if he can elevate his game in the AHL this year, the Panthers will have to find a place for him.

Mark Dekanich, CLM - Look out, Steve Mason. Dekanich is coming for your job. At some point, the Jackets are going to get sick of Mason, the '08 rookie sensation (10 shutouts!) turned picture of mediocrity the last two seasons. Enter Dekanich, signed away from the goalie-heavy Predators, with whom all he did was put up a .931 save percentage and 2.02 GAA in the AHL last year. Not only is Dekanich arguably better than Mason, he's older than him and he has a history of excellence in college and in the AHL. Don't be surprised if he usurps the job in Columbus (or at least turns it into a timeshare) much quicker than most would expect.