10 rookies to target in your NHL fantasy draft

Montreal Canadiens’ Cole Caufield skates during an NHL hockey game against the Ottawa Senators in Montreal, Saturday, May 1, 2021. (Graham Hughes/CP)

Could the Calder Trophy be headed to a player on a Canadian team for the third time in the past six seasons?

It will if Cole Caufield gets his way.

The Montreal Canadiens sniper leads a new class of freshmen looking to leave their mark on the NHL straight away. Last season, it was Kirill Kaprizov, the betting favourite from day one, who held off a pair of surprise nominees -- Jason Robertson and Alex Nedeljkovic -- to take home rookie of the year honours.

Remember, to be eligible for the Calder Trophy, a player must have not played in more than 25 NHL games in any preceding season, nor in six or more NHL games in each of any two preceding seasons.

Here’s a top-10 rookie watch list:

The below rankings are derived from Sportsnet’s top-250 pre-season fantasy rankings and are quantified based on past production, projection, age, and potential.

1. Cole Caufield, LW/RW, Montreal Canadiens (SN Rank: 91)

The 2021 Hobey Baker Award winner made his highly anticipated NHL debut last spring notching four goals (2 GWG) and one assist in 10-regular season contests. Additionally, Caufield played an instrumental role in Montreal’s run to the Stanley Cup Final, tallying four goals and 12 points in 20 games. As he did to finish last season, the 20-year-old will once again skate on the top line with Nick Suzuki and Tyler Toffoli to start the year.

2. Spencer Knight, G, Florida Panthers (SN Rank: 93)

Through four career regular season NHL appearances, the 20-year-old is 4-0-0 with a 2.32 goals-against average and a .919 save-percentage. More impressively, he played two more games in Florida’s first round showdown with the rival Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Playoffs (1-1, 2.06, 0.933). It almost goes without saying, but the Panthers are widely viewed as a contender. That’s good news for Knight, who figures to have the inside track on big-ticket Sergei Bobrovsky for playing time to start the season.

3. Trevor Zegras, C/LW, Anaheim Ducks (SN Rank: 162)

In 24 games with the Ducks last season, the 20-year-old tallied a respectable three goals and 13 points. Furthermore, Zegras added 10 goals and 11 assists in 17 American Hockey League contests for the San Diego Gulls. With Anaheim firmly focused on the future, the dual-eligible forward should get plenty of opportunity to do his thing in the top-six this season. Watch out for the Zegras/Comtois combo -- they could do some serious damage together.

4. Jeremy Swayman, G, Boston Bruins (SN Rank: 170)

Unexpectedly, Swayman saved the day for the Bruins last season. With both Tuukka Rask (injury) and Jaroslav Halak (COVID list) on the shelf, the 22-year-old came up huge posting a 7-3-0 record in 10 starts to solidify a playoff spot. Prior to that, Swayman was downright dominant in nine AHL appearances for Providence (8-1-0, 1.89, 0.933, 1 SO). Even with the potential of a Tuukka Rask mid-season return lingering, Swayman should have no problem pushing newcomer Linus Ullmark for playing time.

5. Kaapo Kahkonen, G, Minnesota Wild (SN Rank: 174)

Memo to Cam Talbot owners: Kahkonen could be poised to become Mr. Steal Your Starting Goalie. Through 29 career appearances, the 25-year-old is 19-9-1 with a 2.90 goals-against average, .904 save percentage and two shutouts. Still can’t believe Seattle turned down the opportunity to select Kahkonen. At any rate, the Fin will start the season as Minnesota’s No. 2, but as we saw last year, Dean Evason isn’t afraid to ride the hot hand. Stay tuned.

6. Jamie Drysdale, D, Anaheim Ducks (SN Rank: 205)

In 24 games with Anaheim last season, the 19-year-old blueliner registered three goals and eight points, adding four tallies and six assists in 14 AHL outings with San Diego as well. Make no mistake about it, Drysdale has the potential to be an elite point producer from the back end, something the Ducks have been in search of for many years now. The 2020 sixth overall pick should get plenty of ice this season, especially on the power play.

7. Vasily Podkolzin, RW, Vancouver Canucks (SN Rank: 210)

Back in May, the 2019 10th overall pick signed a three-year entry level contract with the Canucks, paving the way for his NHL debut this fall. The 20-year-old played the past two seasons in the KHL and is coming off an impressive showing in the Gagarin Cup playoffs where he tallied six goals and 11 points in 16 games. Podkolzin, who’ll likely crack the opening night roster in a bottom-six role, projects to be a top-six stud. Patience is a virtue, so play the long game here.

8. Bowen Byram, D, Colorado Avalanche (SN Rank: 218)

The 2021 season was an injury riddled one for Byram, who tallied two assists in 19 total games with Colorado. Even in limited time, the 20-year-old was able to demonstrate why everyone -- including Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar -- is enamoured with his game. He’s skilled, shifty, possesses a booming shot, and his future is very bright. Also, Colorado’s uncanny blue line depth (Cale Makar, Samuel Girard, Devon Toews) shouldn’t deter you from taking a late round flier on Byram. He’s pretty good.

9. Michael Bunting, LW, Toronto Maple Leafs (SN Rank: 240)

It’s a very small sample size, but the 26-year-old has 11 goals in 26 career NHL games. Fresh off signing a two-year deal with Toronto in free agency, Bunting is poised to start the year on the second line with John Tavares and William Nylander. That trio has looked pretty good together in training camp. With Zach Hyman gone, Toronto suddenly is very thin at left wing, which is why Bunting will get every chance to stick with the big boys in the top-six.

10. Vladimir Tkachev, LW, Los Angeles Kings (SN Rank: 250)

If you love dark horse sleepers, you’ve come to the right place. Following a steady six-season run in the KHL, the undrafted 25-year-old Tkachev landed in Los Angeles this summer on a one-year deal. At this point, it looks like the Russian winger could break camp as L.A.’s second line left winger alongside Phillip Danault and Alex Iafallo. Toss Tkachev on your watch list.

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