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Rest-of-season rankings: Top rookies and those on the rise

Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews ranks 25th overall on the ESPN Player Rater this season. Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images

It's a scene we don't like to see, but is inevitable in a contact game when players are skating full tilt toward each other. Winnipeg Jets rookie Patrik Laine had his bell significantly rung on Saturday by Buffalo Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe. It was a clean hit, but Laine has some level of concussion.

As we know in the injury department, that can be as serious as a couple of days to clear the cobwebs or an indefinite period of time for the brain to heal. Each and every concussion is different. Fantasy owners will have to be patient with the young forward and hope for the best, as there is no replacing his kind of production from the waiver wire.

As it were, Laine has the slightest of edge on Toronto Maple Leafs rookie Auston Matthews in the race for most valuable fantasy rookie so far this season. Both players have been better than promised by prognosticators, looking as at home on the NHL ice as any veteran. Laine is 19th among all skaters on the ESPN Player Rater and was on pace for 41 goals before the injury. Matthews is 23rd on the Player Rater, on pace for 44 goals, but trails Laine enough in games played, penalty minutes, plus/minus and average ice time to remain a step behind -- for now.

Laine's injury offers us a chance to check in on the rest of the rookie class and see how they are progressing for fantasy value to date. Laine and Matthews are in a class of their own, so we'll pick up the list after them in order of fantasy value so far.

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Zach Werenski, D, Columbus Blue Jackets: While I just suggested to you that Laine and Matthews were in a class of their own for fantasy value among rookies, I'm immediately going to take that statement back. While that statement may be true from a big-picture standpoint, you can make a case for the first two rookies on this list to come ahead of them. Werenski has destroyed all expectations of him, which to be frank, was just some minor offensive upside for a young prospect hoping to eek out some third-pair minutes on defense. Instead, he's a powerhouse on the blue line and among the league leaders in power-play points so far. Werenski is a huge part of the Blue Jackets' success this season and is on pace for a 53-point campaign that stuffs the peripheral stats for fantasy owners -- which is why you could make an argument for him as the most valuable fantasy rookie so far this season. Laine and Matthews both rank in as No. 2 fantasy forwards. Werenski has been a No. 1 fantasy defenseman, ninth among all players at his position on the ESPN Player Rater.

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Matt Murray, G, Pittsburgh Penguins: If we are going to make the positional argument for Werenski, it's impossible not to do the same for Murray, who ranks 10th on the ESPN Player Rater this season among goaltenders. There are some qualifiers in his case, however, as goalies have to compete a little more to retain their value than skaters do. So far, Murray has been just as good as might be expected from the reigning Stanley Cup champion goaltender. Between his 13 appearances last season, his 21 starts in the Stanley Cup playoffs and his 19 appearances so far this season, Murray has an incredible combined goals-against average of 2.09 and a save percentage of .927 to go with 37 wins in 53 appearances. When added together, that's as many starts as a lot of goaltenders would make in a full season. If he had put those numbers up in a full season last year, he would have ranked fifth in GAA, third in save percentage and third in wins. While all of this indicates that the clock is ticking on Marc-Andre Fleury's presence in the Penguins' crease, that full-blown takeover is more likely to occur in the offseason. When Murray returns from a lower-body injury, he is still going to have to share the load with Fleury. He may wrestle away the lion's share of starts again but will still be limited overall by Fleury's presence.

Matthew Tkachuk, LW, Calgary Flames: While he doesn't quite have his old man's touch around the net just yet, Tkachuk brought his dad Keith's propensity for stirring things up to his NHL play. Just as Keith Tkachuk did in his heyday, Matthew is fueling his fantasy value through a combination of points and penalty minutes, more or less checking in as Wayne Simmonds-lite on the ESPN Player Rater. Simmonds, who is at No. 7 among forwards on the Player Rater, and Tkachuk, who ranks in at 27th, are the only two forwards among the top 50 for fantasy value who have more than 50 penalty minutes. But the buck doesn't stop there with Tkachuk. Playing with the red-hot Mikael Backlund, Tkachuk has a nine-game point streak on the go and is on pace for 51 points this season. Maybe it's because a chunk of his value is coming from PIM, but Tkachuk remains available in 70 percent of ESPN leagues. But even if you took away all -- literally all -- his fantasy value derived from PIM, he would still clock in among the top 100 forwards on the Player Rater (97th, just ahead of Taylor Hall).

Mitch Marner, C/RW, Toronto Maple Leafs: This Leafs' rookie crop really is as good as advertised. Marner got what was theoretically the plum assignment among the group coming into this season, skating on what was -- on paper -- the Leafs' top line to begin the season with James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak. The trio remains, arguably, the Leafs' top line, but they aren't running away with the title. Marner is on pace for a 21-goal, 67-point rookie campaign that -- in any other season - would have locked up the Calder Trophy. Aside from a 24-year-old Artemi Panarin putting up 77 points last season, you have to go back to Patrick Kane's rookie season to beat Marner's pace this season. While he looks to return solid value this season, it's owners in keeper leagues who should be especially excited. Guess how many goals Marner and Matthews have earned a point on together this season? Zero. They are playing on islands right now and both succeeding. It's hard not to speculate about what these two will do together in the future.

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William Nylander, RW/LW, Toronto Maple Leafs: Moved around the lines more than most Maple Leafs this season, Nylander is still right on Marner's heels for value on the ESPN Player Rater. Marner checks in at No. 57 among forwards, but Nylander is right there at No. 61. Both forwards are arguably No. 6 fantasy forwards this season, depending on your needs. Nylander's best attribute is that he's a sniper on the power play. Here's the full list of NHL players with more power-play points than Nylander so far this season: Cam Atkinson, Victor Hedman, Claude Giroux, Vladimir Tarasenko, Alexander Wennberg, Nick Foligno and Phil Kessel. That's some mighty fine company for a rookie to be rubbing elbows with on the leaderboard. Of late, he's been "demoted" from Matthews' line to skate with Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov, but I'd argue that anywhere but the fourth line for the Leafs has the catalysts in place for success. There is always the lingering chance that Nylander ends up back with Matthews again at some point, too, but for now, coach Mike Babcock appears happy to have his three-headed rookie monster develop on separate lines.

Juuse Saros, G, Nashville Predators: Saros' numbers alone rank him quite highly among NHL goaltenders this season, but his workload isn't there to justify standalone ownership in ESPN leagues. Still, he should be owned in a lot more than the five percent of leagues that currently employ his services, if only as a handcuff for Pekka Rinne owners. Rinne hasn't been his usual sharp self outside of an outstanding month of November, leaving the door open for Saros to increase his use as the season wears on.

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Brady Skjei, D, New York Rangers: As we venture a little further outside from the regulars in shallower fantasy leagues, we find a surprising season total from Skjei, who wasn't even on the radar coming into this campaign. His 16 points are largely a product of the balanced scoring for the Rangers, allowing a third-pairing defender to contribute when he's on the ice. There isn't a whole lot of upside here, as he remains well down the defensive depth chart. That said, he could fill in for a desperate deep-league owner now and again.

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Travis Konecny, C/LW, Philadelphia Flyers: It's somewhat surprising Konecny doesn't have somewhat better numbers, considering he shares the ice with Jakub Voracek and Simmonds. The key here is that he doesn't get a role on the top power-play unit with said players. Of course, that means Konecny is one Flyers injury away from playing a much, much bigger role. He should remain on the radar, as it's clear he's a trusted asset in the Flyers' attack.

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Ivan Provorov, D, Philadelphia Flyers: Like Konecny, Provorov is one spot shy on the depth chart from boundless fantasy value. He's shown us some flashes, for sure, but not quite enough to unseat Shayne Gostisbehere from the first unit power play. That said, he continues to trend positively, while Gostisbehere slowly heads the wrong direction with his production. This situation should also be on your radar going forward.

Anthony Mantha, RW, Detroit Red Wings: While Mantha on the whole season is outside the Player Rater picture for usable assets, on a per-game basis, he deserves more attention. If his fantasy value were to be constant and you adjusted him to 40 games played instead of 25, he'd be 76th among forwards on the Player Rater, just ahead of Evgeny Kuznetsov and better than others including Logan Couture, Daniel Sedin and Marian Hossa. He easily leads the Red Wings in Player Rater value for the past month and, for comparison's sake, is only a shade behind Connor McDavid for fantasy value during that time frame. He's a major part of the Wings' offense going forward and should be owned universally at this point.

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Sebastien Aho, RW/LW, Carolina Hurricanes: Picking up steam with each passing month, Aho is finding his footing as a scoring-line forward in the NHL. Coming off a December with nine points in 14 games, Aho has started January with three goals in four contests. He's skating regularly with fellow youngster Teuvo Teravainen, and the duo get to hide somewhat behind Jeff Skinner's line as the focus of opposing defenses.

Forwards rising and falling

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Taylor Hall, LW, New Jersey Devils (down 14 spots to No. 51): We've given Hall plenty of rope with which to hang himself in the rankings this season, and he seems to be content with doing just that. Fantasy owners hoping for a determined Hall to show the Oilers "what for" after his unceremonious trade during the offseason have been left wanting. He's on pace to fall well shy of not only expectations following a change of scenery, but also his statistics from last season. Unfortunately, his shooting percentage is in line with his career numbers, which is usually one of our first stops to find hope. The Devils have had enough injury problems through the season that we can still hope he hasn't quite settled in, but realistically, now 31 games into his Devils career the window is closing. At his current pace, he'll basically match what Nathan MacKinnon did last season in 72 games, and MacKinnon was the 93rd-best skater on the Player Rater last season.

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Jaden Schwartz, LW, St. Louis Blues (down 20 spots to No. 96): This is partially not Schwartz's fault, as the Blues have been playing some ping pong with their depth chart this season. Then again, if the lines were scoring consistently, coach Ken Hitchcock probably wouldn't be tinkering. While there was some injury time to account for, Schwartz's ice time per game has been lower in each consecutive month this season, with his production stagnating since November. During the past 30 days, his ESPN Player Rater value is 286th among forwards, trailing such "heavyweights" as Cedric Paquette or Lance Bouma. The Blues have the puzzle pieces for Schwartz to have a huge fantasy impact, just like he had in November with seven goals and 12 points in 14 games. But he needs to not be on the third line for that to happen. His fantasy owners should be patient, but open to discussion if a Schwartz fan is looking to acquire him in trade. A turnaround is not guaranteed.

Defensemen rising and falling

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Roman Josi, D, Nashville Predators (down 12 spots to No. 75): Basically on pace to finish with about 66 percent of the counting statistics he put up last season, fantasy owners are getting only two thirds of the Josi they paid for at the draft table. It's nothing to sneeze at, as he still ranks in as the 22nd-best defenseman on the ESPN Player Rater so far. But he was the eighth defenseman off the boards at drafts this season, as fantasy owners expected him to continue his positive career arc. Fantasy owners can definitely complain about the usage, as Josi spent last season tied to the hip of Shea Weber, but this season the Predators have separated Josi from P.K. Subban (Weber's replacement). Therein lies our hope for the remainder of the season, as Subban is due back from an injury in about two weeks. Perhaps the Preds recognize the reduced statistics and finally decide to see what these two can do together. On the other hand, perhaps not. If we don't see some kind of change in approach for Josi soon, we might have to come to grips with him not returning his draft-day value this season.

Goaltenders rising and falling

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Peter Budaj, G, Los Angeles Kings (down 11 spots to No. 88): Another terrific week for Budaj and another slip in the rankings. It's nothing against his rock-solid play in the Kings' crease but has everything to do with the clock ticking on his stay there. Jonathan Quick is maybe a month away from his return, and there is little doubt he takes back over as the main man for L.A. Considering these rankings are for the "rest of the season," Budaj takes consistent hits because there is a good chance the rest of his season is, for all intents and purposes, over in a month.

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Ben Bishop, G, Tampa Bay Lightning (up eight spots to No. 105): Speaking of goalies returning from injury, any thoughts of Bishop not returning to his stature as the Bolts' No. 1 goaltender have been put to rest by Andrei Vasilevskiy's open-door policy during his absence. And by open door, I mean open net. Vasilevskiy has allowed a staggering 20 goals in his last four games alone. For now, he's still the goalie of the future for the Lightning, but it's clear that future isn't on the immediate horizon. I still think he's a handcuff to Bishop, but the veteran is the one you want to be starting when he returns next week.

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