Fantasy Pool Look: Five lesser-known rookies to bank on next season

Darryl Dobbs
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Nathan MacKinnon, Jacob Trouba, Mark Scheifele and Tyler Johnson are four of the most “in demand” rookies in fantasy hockey. January rookie-of-the-month Ondrej Palat is another name rapidly gaining respect in fantasy circles. Chris Kreider, Valeri Nichushkin – I could go on and on about this year’s rookie crop. But if you want to nab an unproven youngster for a cheap price in hopes of big dividends in 2014-15, you have to look further down the scoring list.

And I don’t mean “known” names such as Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm and Seth Jones. Those guys were coveted in fantasy circles as soon as they were drafted last summer. Nor am I referring to Mr. Four Goals Tomas Hertl, who has slipped down the scoring race thanks to an injury that ended his season in January. And not even Tyler Toffoli, who has already garnered a ton of respect when he was scoring at a torrid pace during Jeff Carter’s recovery from an early-season injury.

Digging deeper still, I’ve plucked five interesting names. Players who I think are overlooked and undervalued, yet stand a reasonable chance of posting very fantasy-worthy numbers in 2014-15.

Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning
One of my favorite young players in the league, the 20-year-old Kucherov is doing everything right. I love it when dominant players from junior make a splash at the American League level and then make the most of a cup of coffee in the NHL. Kucherov was brought up to “temporarily” replace Ryan Malone, who was out with a bruised foot. Well, he scored on his first NHL shift and hasn’t been back in the AHL since. His ice time has been kept low and he’s playing depth-line minutes, but that hasn’t stopped him from posting about a point every two games.

Next year he’ll be sure to force his way onto a scoring line and the upward trajectory of his career path will continue. Star upside.

Olli Maatta, Pittsburgh Penguins
This is another case of a young player taking advantage of minimal opportunity. In evaluating a young prospect for fantasy hockey, this carries a lot of weight with me. I value these guys more than I value a struggling, but very highly touted prospect who has the red carpet rolled out for him. Maatta earned his spot on a Penguins team that really didn’t have room for him. And then he earned more ice time and responsibility with every game. This was helped along even further by the injury-prone Kris Letang, who can’t stay in the lineup.

Although Maatta is starting to see some power play time now, just two of his 21 points have come on the man advantage. He has 18 points at even strength and should end up with around 30 even strength points. For a rookie defenseman? Don’t underrate that. Next year, the PP time will only increase when/if Matt Niskanen leaves as a free agent.

Brandon Pirri, Chicago Blackhawks
I was very disappointed to see Pirri not make the team out of training camp. I felt he was running out of chances, since I thought he was a 24-year-old. But then I looked closer and saw he’s only 22! You know a player has been on your radar for too long when…

Pirri has improved with every month of hockey he’s played and next year he will be an NHLer for good. The Blackhawks will clear enough room for him that he will see second-line ice time on a semi-regular basis and I think that will translate to 45 to 50 points. Next year will see  a big step from Pirri, who still needs to work on his face-off skills at the NHL level (42.9 FO%). But all rookies run into that problem. Right now that’s all that’s stopping him from seizing the job full-time.

Ryan Spooner, Boston Bruins
Boston is a very deep team, but as with Kucherov and Maatta, Spooner made it real hard to be sent back down. Finally, when Chris Kelly returned from injury (fractured fibula), the Bruins were forced to. But they saw enough to know that he can play in this league and they’ll be sure to open up a spot for him in the fall. His 11 points in 22 games came despite just 12:45 of average ice time per game.

He has nothing left to prove at the AHL level, as he has 23 points in 23 games this season for Providence – and 80 87 in 82 90 in his career.

Sami Vatanen, Anaheim Ducks
There is no shortage of rookie defensemen with offensive talent this year, from Torey Krug to Trouba to Jones to the surprising Eric Gelinas. But if you if you run your gaze all the way down the page to the 11th highest rookie scoring defenseman of 2013-14 you will find Vatanen’s name. Mark my words, he won’t be out of the Top 10 among this crop next year. In fact, I’m expecting Top 5.

Vatanen oozes offense, reminding me of a Finnish Tobias Enstrom. It’s just his second year in North America, but already he’s close to a point-per-game player at the AHL level. As he gains experience, Coach Bruce Boudreau will show more confidence in him. While all the accolades are being showered on dozens of other rookies, this guy here isn’t being talked about nearly enough. That often means that he can be had in your keeper league for cheap.

Monday we’ll take a look at this year’s under-the-radar sophomores who could bust out as third-year players.

Darryl Dobbs’ Fantasy Pool Look is an in-depth presentation of player trends, injuries and much more as it pertains to rotisserie pool leagues. Also, get the top 300 roto-player rankings on the first of every month in THN’s Fantasy section. Do you have a question about fantasy hockey? Send it to the Fantasy Mailbag.

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