Fantasy Hockey Draft Prep: Top 10 NHL rookies in a loaded 2021 class
By Janet Eagleson, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
I’m officially excited for hockey again, and this year’s rookie class is a big reason why. It’s dripping with talent and creativity, and the opportunities are real.
In fact, they’ve never been better.
Rosters are bigger. There’s nowhere else to play post World Juniors, and young players are four months stronger than they would have been if camp had opened in September.
The top of this list includes guys who will be among the NHL’s elite in short order. Alexis Lafreniere, Kirill Kaprizov and Ilya Sorokin have a chance to be among the best in the league in their prime.
And if not elite, they’ll be stars at the very least. Tim Stuetzle will be a marquis player in Ottawa for a long time. Igor Shesterkin will light up Broadway, and guys like Trevor Zegras and Bowen Byram will eventually be elite but slip off this list because their gigs just aren’t secure yet in 2020-21.
Let’s take a look…
1. Kirill Kaprizov, LW, Wild: Good things come to those who wait. Kaprizov is finally in St. Paul and is going to step into a top role on a team starved for offense. His skills are ridiculous, and as such, most of the power play will run through him. Kaprizov is at the top of this list because his opportunity to excel is bigger than Lafreniere’s, even if the latter goes off the draft board first.
2. Igor Shesterkin, G, Rangers: It’s hard for a goalie to win the Calder, but Shesterkin already has the skills to be a top-10 netminder in the NHL — as long as he doesn’t split time with Alexandar Georgiev. The condensed schedule will be hard on goalies this year, but Shesterkin should be able to deliver a .920-plus save percentage.
3. Alexis Lafreniere, W, Rangers: Lafreniere would be at the top of this list if he were guaranteed a gig in the top six. But he’s a natural left winger that’s going to play behind Artemi Panarin and Chris Kreider. Lafreniere’s gifts are stunning, and he’ll be among the league’s best for years, but he may only be in the Calder conversation if he gets time on the power play.
4. Ilya Sorokin, G, Islanders: Sorokin took longer to get to the NHL than peers Alexandar Georgiev, Shesterkin and Ilya Samsonov. But he could be the best of the bunch. The Islanders use a platoon, so Sorokin should get plenty of playing time; that is, if he can adjust quickly to NHL traffic in front of the blue paint. If he does, he could have a Samsonov-like start to his NHL career.
5. Tim Stuetzle, C, Senators: Stuetzle is a beast and flat-out fun to watch. He was the most noticeable player on the ice at the recent IIHF World Junior Championship and finished with five goals and five assists in just five games. The Senators seem like they’ll put Stuetzle to work on the second line, which is great news for fans. But the arrival of journeymen Alex Galchenyuk, Derek Stepan and Evgenii Dadonov likely means he won’t get to work his magic on the power play right away. Still, there are going to be flashes of brilliance from Stuetzle that will draw attention to Canada’s capital.
6. Dylan Cozens, C, Sabres: Cozens was outstanding for Canada at the World Juniors and looks ready to step into an NHL job. It’s always hard to translate excellence at that tournament onto NHL ice (just ask Casey Mittelstadt), but Cozens could be a solid citizen at right wing. And that could put him beside Eric Staal, a player equipped to be a great mentor to the 19-year-old.
7. Nils Hoglander, RW, Canucks: Hoglander is already in midseason form, courtesy of time spent playing this year in Sweden. A hot start awaits — he’s been the best Canuck in camp most days. The team will catch up, as will the rest of the league, but Hoglander’s hands are elite and so is his work in possession. He’ll have a solid year.
8. Gabriel Vilardi, C, Kings: When he’s healthy, Vilardi is an absolute scoring machine (he dazzled with seven points in 10 games last season). Vilardi put on significant muscle this offseason and looks like a stud so far in camp. The gig as second-line pivot could be his, which would bump his rookie ranking up this list.
9. Pius Suter, C, Blackhawks: Suter led the Swiss league in scoring last year, and he gives the Hawks something they lack: net-front fearlessness. Couple that with Jonathan Toews’ absence from the ice, and this 24-year old is about to surprise many people. Suter could have the same kind of breakout as Dominik Kubalik did last year.
10. Jack Studnicka, RW, Bruins: Studnicka has been showing chemistry with veteran stars and fantasy mainstays Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand in David Pastrnak’s absence. Studnicka would likely only have six weeks max in the job (if he earns it at all), but that’s long enough to make this list.
Honorable mentions (alphabetical order, not ranked)
Bowen Byram, D, Colorado: Byram is ready, but the Avalanche are deep. And they have Cale Makar and Samuel Girard ahead of him on the power play. Conor Timmins will likely get a chance on the right side at even strength before Byram, as well.
Owen Tippett, RW, Florida: He’s had a great camp and finally looks ready. He’ll be a second-line scorer for a decade.
Trevor Zegras, RW, Anaheim: Zegras had a brilliant World Juniors. He’s creative, skilled and should get power-play time if he makes the team. If that happens, slide him up into the 6-8 range on this list.
Before I go, I should mention Quinton Byfield. His pure talent and potential would put him high on this list, but he’s really young and big guys usually take a little longer to develop.
The Kings don’t need to rush him.
And Ilya Samsonov would be in the top three on this list if not for one appearance too many, as his 26 NHL games officially make him a sophomore. He’s ready to take a leap, and the Caps have aspirations for another Cup. Samsonov will be fun to watch.
Let’s drop the puck — this season is going to be great.