The NHL embarks on a new journey in one week and it can also be a new start to your fantasy life. Regular readers know that I routinely extol the virtues of playing in keeper leagues, where a certain portion of your roster is retained season-to-season. Aside from it being fun to keep your favourite players each year, the experience also more closely relates to being a real GM. My own retention pool is entering its third season of play and there are ten owners; each team keeps 17 active players and 20 farmers each season, meaning 370 players are spoken for right off the bat.
Building a winning team is strongly tied to your ability to combine today's point producers with future studs. But who should you target if you're just entering a keeper league or trying to shape a team you already have? There isn't enough room to go over every young talent out there, but I've highlighted 17 of my favourites that you may want to look toward. These players are in no particular order and their ages are listed in parentheses.
Ilya Kovalchuk, F, Atlanta (22): The Thrashers' first overall pick from 2001 is already one of the premiere goal scorers in the league who was just starting to get his due in fantasy leagues before the lockout came. The sniper will unquestionably be among the top goal scorers in the NHL this year and if your league counts shots Kovalchuk is going to deliver stunning totals. His '03-4 total of 341 shots eclipsed his closest competition in that category by an amazing 41 shots (Patrik Elias) and that, combined with his ability to blast the puck in the right place at the right time, explains why he's such a threat to score. His +/- is on a positive arc thanks to improved team commitment to defense by coach Bob Hartley and should not be a concern for his owners. It really doesn't matter who is feeding Kovalchuk the puck because he will find ways to score and he'll be snatched up in the first few rounds of most drafts. Keep a close eye on his contract situation before you draft him in single-year leagues this year, because he's still not signed. If he ends up playing this season in Russia, this could help you acquire him via trade from an impatient owner. The great news is that ownership has gotten involved in the situation and the team's GM is confident Kovalchuk will get signed before the season starts.
Rick Nash, F, Columbus (21): 2002's first overall pick is another forward around which you can build the core of your team. He finished tied for first in the goal scoring race in '03-4 with Kovalchuk and Jarome Iginla and will be challenging for and winning the Rocket Richard Trophy numerous times over the next several decades. Nash is the real deal and his five-year, 27M contract will seem like a bargain for Columbus. His PIM and SOG numbers add to an already lethal goal total and his horrible -35 rating will improve thanks to the physical presence of Adam Foote and the scoring addition of Bryan Berard on the Blue Jackets' blueline. At the tender age of 21, Nash is already one of the best forwards in the NHL.
Jason Spezza, F, Ottawa (22): Spezza was the second overall pick of the 2001 entry draft and you may remember him as one of my recommended late round picks in '03-4. He certainly delivered in spades, scoring 22G, 33A with a +22 rating during an average of around only 12 minutes of ice time per game. During the lockout Spezza dominated at the AHL level, racking up 117 points (85 assists!) on his way to a scoring title and league MVP honors. He'll be the number one centre in Ottawa and seems to be locked in with Dany Heatley on his wing, so we can safely expect a 70-80 point season from the blossoming star on the way to many 80+ point seasons in his career. If he and Heater really catch fire, 90 points isn't out of the question.
Dany Heatley, F, Ottawa (24): Speaking of the man... the past two years have been tumultuous for Heatley, to say the least. After all of the hurt and heartache, where does this leave Heatley's fantasy value? If you listened to many of the pundits after the highly publicized trade for Marian Hossa, Heatley is damaged goods. I'm telling you otherwise. The second overall pick from the 2000 draft is an "A" level forward that is going to get drafted a few rounds later than he should in many fantasy leagues. He's scored 80 goals in his first 190 NHL games and is just shy of a point-per-game career average, but circumstances have prevented him from being in the spotlight -- the talent spotlight, at least -- enough for the average poolster to have him in the forefront of their minds on draft day, unsure of what he'll accomplish on the ice. Don't make that mistake. Heatley will be a consistent point-per-game producer (likely closer to 1.15 PPG) that is playing on a deep, talented team in Ottawa. He's a valued commodity in keeper leagues and should be ranked accordingly on your cheat sheets.
Sidney Crosby, F, Pittsburgh (18): The first overall pick of 2005 is set up to have a better than average rookie fantasy season for two main reasons: 1) he is a tough, talented player with plenty of heart and a great attitude and 2) he's going to skate with skilled, veteran players on a vastly improved Penguins team. Draft Crosby with 65-point potential in mind for this season and know that his situation and talent could exceed that total, possibly enough to warrant point-per-game status. The sky is the limit for Sid, who has been skating with John LeClair and Mark Recchi in the preseason. He's also bunking with Mario Lemieux and his family, so to say this is an ideal situation for the young phenom is an understatement.
Kari Lehtonen, G, Atlanta (21): Believe me when I tell you that the window for getting this guy in retention pools is almost closed, if it hasn't already. The writing was already on the wall, but with a career-ending injury to Pasi Nurminen Lehtonen is slated to begin his long reign as the number one stopper in Atlanta this season. The Thrashers are stringing together the elements of a very strong team and the second overall pick from 2002 is a key piece of the puzzle. He's a franchise goaltender and the best is yet to come. This season he should finish in the top half of goaltending stats and before too long he'll be among the top few goalies picked each season. The only way Mike Dunham takes over as the number one is if Lehtonen's groin injury gets more severe.
Evgeni Malkin, F, Pittsburgh (18): Unfortunately, Malkin will be spending this year in Russia. While this does you no good in fantasy leagues this year, it buys you more time to go out and get him in keeper leagues before your fellow league mates find out just how good this guy has become. The second pick in the 2004 draft, according to some reports, has passed Alexander Ovechkin in terms of his development and he's going to be a fantasy stud for years to come. He's not going to be good -- he's going to be great.
Alexander Ovechkin, F, Washington Capitals (19): Speaking of Ovechkin, the number one pick from the 2004 draft is signed and ready to go for this year. The downside for Ovechkin, if there is one, is the lack of established NHL firepower for him to skate with and that is going to hurt his fantasy value in the short term. There is no doubting this guy's talent though and he is a highly valuable keeper pick. A potential linemate on the Caps for Ovechkin is Alexander Semin, a guy that is likely flying under the radar of your buddies. They could be a deadly duo for the next decade and beyond. Semin is under contract, but has not reported to the Caps yet so that's certainly a situation worth watching.
Jeff Carter, F, Philadelphia (20): Normally a centre, this junior hockey standout is slated to play on the wing with Peter Forsberg and Simon Gagne on the first line. Carter plays a mature game that could translate into fantasy success as early as this season if he sticks on L1. Carter led the AHL in playoff scoring (23 points in 21 games with a +10 rating) after spending the season in junior, also playing for the champion Team Canada squad at the WJC. He'll definitely be a top-two line guy and a 50-point NHL debut seems reasonable. This is his first NHL season but remember that this kid is not a wet-behind-the-ear 18-year old: he's already 20. Fellow rookie and teammate Mike Richards is also worth mentioning, but Richards will have initially low fantasy value because of his likely line assignment.
Dion Phaneuf, D, Calgary Flames (20): Phaneuf is already a fan favourite in Calgary and he hasn't even skated a single regular season shift for the team. The hard-hitting Red Deer Rebels defenseman seems to have really honed his offensive game since being selected 9th overall in 2003, registering 99 points in 117 regular season WHL games over those two seasons since being drafted. The 6'3, 208-pound blueliner has apprenticed under Brent Sutter for four seasons and now moves south to learn from Darryl Sutter on a Flames team that has incredible depth on D. Don't count on fantasy production from Phaneuf for a few years, but eventually he'll produce decent totals while also contributing to your PIM and +/- categories as he lays out opponent after opponent.
Jack Johnson, D, Carolina (18): Johnson won't be making waves in fantasy for a few years but trust me when I tell you that when he does deliver, it's going to be in tidal wave form. Johnson has all the qualities NHL teams are looking for in a defenseman: he's a fluid skater, he smokes guys in all areas of the rink, he plays a solid positional game, he moves the puck well and he's extremely bright on and off the ice. This guy is the total package and he's going to be a dominant defenseman at both ends of the ice. Be patient and you'll be rewarded with fantasy gold. I had the pleasure of interviewing him via phone this past December and the thing that stood out the most in our conversation was how smart this guy was. Everyone knows about the guy's physical tools, but his insightful observations about his teammates and their assets spoke volumes about the mental level this guy's game is going reach.
Thomas Vanek, F, Buffalo (21): This 6'2, 207-pound LW is well-regarded among those that know his game, but he's a virtually unknown in fantasy circles because he hasn't hit the NHL yet. Fasten your seatbelt. The Austrian-born winger was the fifth overall selection in 2003 and he potted 42 goals (2nd in the league) skating with Rochester in the AHL last season, while finishing fifth in the league in SOG (271). He's got great hands, nifty moves and unfortunately, like some goal scorers, already has a reputation for needing to work on the defensive side of the puck. Don't worry though, because Vanek has star written all over him. He's already excelling in the preseason.
Nik Zherdev, F, Columbus (20): I just love, love, love this guy's talent level. Zherdev has the wheels and skills to be one of the great movers and shakers in fantasy in the next few years and he's already absolutely worth watching for an entire game if you've got the NHL Center Ice package. There are two words that best describe his motion on the ice: suh-weet. This electrifying winger can skate, deke and shoot with the best of them and it's only a matter of time before he starts to dominate.
Marc-Andre Fleury, G, Pittsburgh (20): Fleury's fantasy value probably took a big hit with the arrival of Jocelyn Thibault, but keep the faith on this guy. The little bit that we saw Fleury in '03-4 was enough to convince me that he will live up to the hype and if Pittsburgh ever decides to get serious about shoring up its defense, Fleury could be anchoring a strong team for years to come. Take advantage of the fact that all of the attention in Pittsburgh is on Crosby now with Thibault as the starter and try to nab Fleury via trade -- it'll pay off a few years down the line, because he has the makings of being one of the top goalies.
Tuomo Ruutu, F, Chicago (22): Ruutu is another guy I wrote about a lot in '03-4 and in the second half of that season we began to see his potential. From December 28th thru the end of that season Ruutu went on a tear, scoring 21G, 17A, 35 PIM's and 128 SOG in 46GP. Not bad for a rookie. The Finnish centre is one tough cookie on the ice and his willingness to mix it up means he'll be contributing some PIM's to your cause in addition to his points. Don't worry about his -31 rating because the Hawks have made serious strides toward improving team defense.
Marian Gaborik, F, Minnesota (23): Any fantasy owner forgetting about how talented Gaborik is will rue the day. After registering 67 and 65-point campaigns in his second and third NHL season, Gaborik took a step backward in '03-4 with only 40 points in 65 games. Don't worry -- he'll be scoring again this year. With more room to move on the ice he could exceed his career best of 280 shots, making him a likely candidate to hit the 30-goal mark once again. Gaborik is capable of point-per-game status and the Wild are counting on this guy to step it up. One situation to watch for single season leagues is his current groin status -- let's hope it doesn't linger.
Rick DiPietro, G, New York Islanders (24): DiPietro was the first goalie in league history to be taken first overall in the draft and over the summer he probably became the first player to ever be offered a 15-year contract. He played 50 games in '03-4 and will likely play even more this season, with the Islanders counting on him to carry them into the playoffs once again. The Isles are still a long way from recapturing the glory days, but with a solid foundation in net they can at least know they're moving in the right direction.