Last season, Nathan MacKinnon led a rock-solid fantasy rookie class, putting up first-year stats not seen since Patrick Kane. In fact, MacKinnon, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson finished as the top three rookie scorers last season and combined for a total of plus-75 on the plus/minus scale. Palat and Johnson, as linemates for the Tampa Bay Lightning, combined for plus-55 of that rating and contributed with power-play points and shots on goal. But MacKinnon was on another level completely with 25 power-play points and 241 shots on goal.
As a rookie, MacKinnon only averaged 17:10 of ice time per game and will be in line for more skating as a sophomore. Palat and Johnson will continue to grow with each other as the Bolts' secondary attack. Other sophomores such as Nick Bjugstad, Chris Kreider and Sean Monahan will take on larger roles with their clubs. Overall, the graduating rookie class is quite loaded with talent that has yet to hit its ceiling.
Valeri Nichushkin no longer needs to be on the top line to play with an All-Star centerman now that the Dallas Stars have Jason Spezza. Alex Chiasson will be leaned for more scoring on a rebuilding Ottawa Senators offense. Tomas Hertl will look to stay healthy and shoot past 30 goals. Aleksander Barkov showed some serious promise on a Florida Panthers team that continues to get deeper with talent.
On defense, Torey Krug looks like a perennial goal-scoring threat from the point, while Hampus Lindholm is going to be a beast on the blue line as he continues to develop. Morgan Rielly and Jacob Trouba have room to grow on teams that will be waiting for them to take the next step.
While it's doubtful that many of last season's rookie goaltenders have a shot to be starters outside of Fredrik Andersen, there was no shortage of talent ready to emerge should an opportunity arise. Eddie Lack, Martin Jones and Niklas Svedberg will be more than capable fantasy starters if an injury should befall Ryan Miller, Jonathan Quick or Tuukka Rask. But it will be Andersen that has the best chance to shine as a sophomore, as he competes for the starting gig for the Anaheim Ducks.
While the sophomores look pretty impressive for this coming NHL season, the NHL draft and emerging prospects will give us a Calder Trophy class that might even be better than last year's.
Calder Candidates: Forwards
Last season, we saw seven of the top 10 picks from the 2013 NHL draft start and finish the season in the NHL. That number is exceptionally high compared to previous years. While it's very hard to predict exactly how many or which players will end up making the NHL at this point, there are four forwards that stand out above the rest.
William Nylander, F, Toronto Maple Leafs: Sporting some experience in a professional league in Sweden, the son of playmaker Michael Nylander is about as NHL-ready as any of the 2014 draftees. In fact, before getting called up to the Swedish Hockey League, he was playing with his father in the country's second-tier league last season. Nylander is a great skater and great passer, just like his old man. The Leafs are very weak at center, with Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri and KHL signee Petri Kontiola as the top options heading into 2014-15. And that means opportunities will abound for a talented setup man like Nylander. He likely will be given every opportunity to show he belongs in the NHL and an absolute upside can be envisioned where he bumps Bozak from Phil Kessel's side. But the downside is that if he can't earn top-line status with the Leafs, the talent of the wingers drops dramatically on the second and third lines. For Nylander to be fantasy-relevant, things are going to have to go very, very well for him at training camp.
Sam Bennett, F, Calgary Flames: With young stars like Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, Joe Colborne and even Mikael Backlund looking to form the nucleus of the Flames next season, what's one more? The best argument for letting Bennett hang around in the NHL next season might simply be "Why not?" The Flames are built for the future but have enough talented young snipers that they may be able to make noise in the Western Conference if Jonas Hiller can come through in net. So, why not take the No. 4 overall pick who deposited 91 points in 57 games for the OHL's Kingston Frontenacs and let him see what he can do? Bennett has a wicked shot that would fit in nicely with some of the other young studs that coach Bob Hartley will be responsible for guiding. Hartley showed with Monahan last season that he has no qualms in letting a rookie earn his ice time.
Sam Reinhart, F, Buffalo Sabres: The No. 2 overall pick, Reinhart has more than shown his ability with the Kootenay Ice to crack the NHL right away. Brother of the Flames' Max Reinhart and another likely Calder candidate in the New York Islanders' Griffin Reinhart, Sam plays a solid game all over the ice and showed it with 105 points in his final WHL season. The Sabres are awash with opportunity after committing to a rebuild last season. Thanks to Tyler Ennis' flexibility at forward, the Sabres could have Reinhart play as the No. 2 center behind Cody Hodgson. But even if he ends up getting a chance at the start of the season down the depth chart, the Sabres have enough talented wingers to give him a real chance to stay with the club. He likely won't be at the top of the list for the Calder race, but Reinhart may stick around for a whole rookie season.
Leon Draisaitl, F, Edmonton Oilers: Another forward joining the Oilers' ridiculous army of young talent, Draisaitl is a more complete package that other recent goal-scoring studs like Nail Yakupov or assist machines like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The top drafted German-born player in NHL history, Draisaitl matched Sam Reinhart's 105 points in the WHL last season with the Prince Albert Raiders. Draisaitl also has the size to be an NHL player right away. So what's the holdup in getting excited about him? Well, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins are all ahead of him on the depth chart, as are David Perron, Teddy Purcell and maybe even a $4 million Benoit Pouliot. Don't forget Yakupov and maybe even Mark Arcobello. While the Oilers haven't had a lot of success lately, it's not for a lack of forwards that have NHL talent. We'll have to see how Dallas Eakins handles the addition of one more deserving cook in the kitchen.
As talented as the above four players are, none of them are the likely source of the Calder Trophy-winning season that will be turned in by a rookie. For that honor, we will look at some of the previous draftees that were given additional development time in the minors, starting with the player who has been anointed by some as the rookie the year already.
Jonathan Drouin, F, Tampa Bay Lightning: It's hard to argue too strongly against the case for Drouin as the rookie of the year before a single puck has been dropped this season. Could the combination of talent and situation be any better? Firstly, he oozes talent. He has two consecutive triple-digit point seasons in fewer than 50 games played for the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL. He can score goals with aplomb, as he did in 2012-13 with 41 goals with Nathan McKinnon as a teammate. Or he can be the setup man, as he did last season with 79 assists. Heck, in three seasons with the Mosseheads, Drouin has played in 50 playoff games and has 102 points in them as well. The talent is immense. Now, look at his situation. Drouin will be the heir apparent to Martin St. Louis' role as linemate to the best pure sniper in the NHL in Steven Stamkos. With a natural 50-goal scorer on his line and a hockey radar that is off the charts -- to go with tons of big game experience in juniors -- it's certainly a reasonable argument that the Calder Trophy is Drouin's to lose.
Curtis Lazar, F, Ottawa Senators: A budding power forward, Lazar will be surrounded by offensive opportunities as he suits up for the retooling Senators. With Jason Spezza gone and the Senators needing for scoring forwards, Lazar could quickly endear himself to both Sens fans and fantasy owners this season. Aside from his leadership skills, it was also his hockey skills that helped propel the Edmonton Oil Kings to the Memorial Cup championship last season. Kyle Turris is the No. 1 center and Bobby Ryan will be looking to rebound on the top line, but all bets are off for the rest of the depth chart.
Johnny Gaudreau, F, Calgary Flames: Leading all collegiate hockey players last season with 80 points in 40 games for Boston College, Gaudreau also tied a record held by Paul Kariya for consistency when he ran a 31-game scoring streak. He played one game and scored one goal for the Flames at the tail end of last season. Gaudreau is small, but speedy and slick with the puck. There will be some adaptation required for Gaudreau to ply the same talented game in the NHL, but he'll have plenty of opportunity for the young Flames. It's easy to envision the undersized Gaudreau lining up beside the oversized Joe Colborne.
Evgeny Kuznetsov, F, Washington Capitals: Already sporting five seasons of experience in professional hockey in the KHL, Kuznetsov put in 17 games after crossing the pond to play with the Capitals last season. He scored nine points and showed us just a glimpse of what is to come. He may not be a hit immediately in the NHL, as he remains somewhat small at 172 pounds. But with time and some more training, Kuznetsov could form a deadly Russian duo with Alex Ovechkin. The Caps and coach Barry Trotz will be hard pressed to resist lining up Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Kuznetsov on a line to see what happens. That situation would make Kuznetsov a serious contender for the rookie of the year and a fantasy force. However, the Capitals are very thin on offense deeper down the depth chart and without Ovechkin or Backstrom on his line, Kuznetsov will be the one hard-pressed to make a serious impact for fantasy owners.
Teuvo Teravainen, F, Chicago Blackhawks: There isn't really room for another scoring forward on the Hawks roster. That said, Teravainen may not leave the team a choice if he shows the same kind of development he did last season. Playing professionally in the Finnish league, Teravainen had 44 points in 49 games as a 19-year-old. He also captained Finland to a gold medal in the World Junior Championships, scoring 15 points in seven games. The Hawks already boast a very worthy top-six, but Teravainen could find a way to contribute on the third line or force his way up the depth chart with some experience.
Filip Forsberg and Calle Jarnkrok, F, Nashville Predators: With Mike Fisher sidelined until midseason, the Predators have loads of opportunities for young talented players like Forsberg and Jarnkrok. In fact, outside of James Neal, no forward is a lock for top line duty for the Predators entering the franchise's first season without Barry Trotz as the coach. His replacement, Peter Laviolette, has more offensive tendencies that Trotz (although so do most coaches), but he will have to be mindful of the defensively-built Preds rosters. That said, someone is going to have to score, and both Forsberg and Jarnkrok have the talent to do so. After playing in Sweden's second-tier league for parts of three seasons, Forsberg put in five games in 2012-13 for the Predators and 13 in 2013-14, so he does remain Calder eligible. He scored 34 points in 47 games as an AHL rookie last season and potted 12 points in seven games in the World Junior Championships. Jarnkrok scored a ton playing four seasons in the first-tier Swedish league and it showed when he finished with 45 points in the AHL last season and nine points in 12 NHL games after the Preds acquired him in trade for David Legwand. This is not a situation where one might benefit over the other. In fact, both Jarnkrok and Forsberg could be fantasy relevant for the offensively-starved Predators.
Calder Candidates: Defensemen
It's doubtful we'll have a Calder Trophy candidate from among the defensemen this season, but there are some opportunities for players to steal the spotlight for their respective clubs.
Aaron Ekblad, D, Florida Panthers: The No. 1 overall pick from the 2014 draft, Ekblad will get a chance to play in the NHL this season. Ekblad has poise on defense -- which could help keep his minutes up if he sticks -- and scored 23 goals in the OHL last season to show off his offensive talent. While it generally takes longer for defenseman to make a fantasy-relevant impact in the NHL, Ekblad plays such a solid defensive game that he may not need quite as much time as other prospects who rely on offensive skills alone in juniors. He has size on his side, but if he can't show he is ready during a nine-game trial before a year of his contract is used, Ekblad could be headed back to the Barrie Colts. The Panthers could definitely use him on defense if he's ready, but it's not as if they are hurting for NHL-caliber assets. He is worth a pick in fantasy drafts, but not before other defensemen you know will make an impact in the NHL.
Griffin Reinhart, D, New York Islanders: If you are going to go out on a limb to pick a D-man rookie for fantasy this season, Reinhart is a pretty nice bet to make waves. The main thing he has going for him is the situation with the Isles. The team lacks for a true defensive leader as Lubomir Visnovsky's game continues to erode for fantasy purposes. Reinhart was not a huge point producer in junior hockey, but that actually could be an advantage. Reinhart's best attributes are his defense, positioning, and poise with the puck. The points will come from the fact that he is passing that puck to some very talented players up front. It's not completely out of the question for Reinhart to prove his value and be among the ice-time leaders for the Islanders defense. And that added ice time with players like John Tavares would be where the fantasy value would come in. A leader, as well, Reinhart captained the Edmonton Oil King to the Memorial Cup last season.
Nikita Zadorov, D, Buffalo Sabres: Sent back to the OHL before a year of his entry-level contract kicked in last season, the extra development didn't hurt Zadorov one bit. He upped his points per game and finished the season with the London Knights with 30 points in 36 games and scored another five in seven games during the World Junior Championships. Zadorov is a monster on the ice at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds and will make a very physical addition to a budding Sabres blue line that already features the oversized Tyler Myers and Rasmus Ristolainen. The biggest factor working against Zadorov will be the further addition of Josh Gorges and Andrej Meszaros to the Sabres defense. With so many minute-eaters on the depth chart in front of him and his size not a factor in the group, Zadorov has little to try and separate himself for additional responsibilities.
Darnell Nurse, D, Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers have too many NHL-caliber defenseman already, but what they don't have is a player who is both highly-skilled with the puck and rough around the edges. Nurse would bring a hard-hitting and skilled element to the Oilers' blue line, somewhat in the mold of what Dion Phaneuf did when he first entered the NHL with the Calgary Flames. None of the team's other defensemen offers both skill and physicality in the way that Nurse could. If he makes the roster, he will likely be a fantasy target due to his peripheral stats (penalty minutes).
Calder Candidates: Goaltenders
Really, there is only two rookie goaltenders with a line on a possible starting job, and neither are a sure thing. If we end up with a Calder candidate from the crease, it's probably one of these two.
John Gibson, G, Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks let Jonas Hiller depart for northern pastures because they knew they had both Fredrik Andersen and John Gibson waiting in the wings. Andersen looked rock solid as a backup to Hiller last season and, due to experience alone, will be the favorite to win the starting job. But Gibson is a future No. 1 netminder and what he lacks in experience, he makes up for with major skill. As a rookie, Gibson was one of the best goaltenders in the AHL last season, posting a 2.37 goals-against average with a .919 save percentage. He was 3-0 with a 1.33 GAA and .954 save percentage in three games with the Ducks last season. This battle could go either way or end up as a timeshare that sucks value from both players. But Gibson has more upside.
Jake Allen, G, St. Louis Blues: As the Ducks let Jonas Hiller walk, the Blues let Ryan Miller depart as well. The Blues are left with the mercurial Brian Elliott and up-and-coming Allen. Injuries forced Allen to make his debut for the Blues in 2012-13, where he posted a decent 9-4 record with a 2.46 GAA and .905 save percentage. Then last season, Allen stayed in the AHL and was the league's best goaltender. He posted a stellar 2.03 GAA and .928 save percentage, leading the league in both categories. He was also a workhorse, starting 52 games. Although Elliott has some impressive (very impressive) seasons on his resume, he has some stinkers mixed in between them. Will we see the Elliott of 2013-14 and 2011-12 that sported a sub-2.00 GAA? Or will we see the Elliott of 2012-13 that had a more average 2.28 GAA. The door might not be wide open for Allen, but there is at least a crack he wedge his foot in.