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Panarin, Duchene lead fantasy hockey forwards in new top roles

Artemi Panarin looks to immediately slide into a top role with the Rangers. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

A fresh season means a shuffling of body or two within the top-six group of forwards for many NHL teams. These are most often the guys that stir the fantasy drink in conventional leagues, at least up front. Whether a league veteran eyeing a new role following a trade or signing, an established skater endeavoring to fill a void further up the lineup, or a rookie looking to burst on the scene, here are a few new faces in new top-six places worth recognizing heading into 2019-20:

N/A indicates a ranking outside of ESPN.com's Top-275.


Artemi Panarin, LW, New York Rangers, No. 33

There's plenty to like about New York's new-look top six. Panarin's arrival bodes well for both No. 1 center Mika Zibanejad and winger Pavel Buchnevich, for whom many are predicting a breakout campaign. This year's second-overall draft selection, Kaapo Kakko, is expected to hit the ice full-stride, potting goals on a top power play and second scoring line with Filip Chytil and Chris Kreider. Of that trio, Chytil could prove a true fantasy steal - the 20-year-old center still flying under many a manager's radar.

Phil Kessel, RW, Arizona Coyotes, No. 53

He'll score anywhere, so I'm more intrigued by who else benefits from Kessel's influence in Arizona. While Derek Stepan appears first in line to center the former Penguin/Leaf/Bruin at even-strength, Nick Schmaltz may ultimately provide the better fit, with Clayton Keller or Christian Dvorak sliding in on left wing. We'll get a better idea once Schmaltz is back in game shape after losing half of last year to a knee injury (a role on the top power play with Kessel is already projected for Schmaltz). Following his trade from Chicago, and before falling hurt, the 23-year-old accrued 14 points in 17 games with the Coyotes. Because of the potential Kessel/Schmaltz combo, the latter is high on my own noteworthy sleepers list.

Joe Pavelski, C, Dallas Stars, No. 78

At first glance, Pavelski is slated to skate on a No. 1 line with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, bumping Alexander Radulov to the second scoring unit with Roope Hintz - which is great news for Hintz. The addition of the long-time Shark to the Stars' power play will benefit all involved: Seguin, Benn, Radulov and defenseman John Klingberg. On paper, Dallas' refreshed top line and power play looks to be among the league's best.

Nikolaj Ehlers, LW, Winnipeg Jets, No. 108

If RFA Kyle Connor doesn't come to terms with the Jets - hardly an outrageous idea at this stage - Ehlers appears first up to fill in on the left side of top-line forwards Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, or at least one of them. After two-straight 60-plus points seasons, Ehlers regressed to only 37 in 62 games in 2018-19. A promotion up the lineup would all but ensure a swing back in the right direction. But, again, it largely depends on what contractually happens with Connor. Keep a view.

Matt Duchene, C, Nashville Predators, No. 112

Slotted to center a forward line with Filip Forsberg, and serve on a top power play with Victor Arvidsson and Ryan Johansen, Duchene should average a point-per-game with his new club, including 30 goals by season's end. Nashville is where Duchene wants to be, unlike previous stops, so no excuses in falling short of either mark.

Jack Hughes, C, New Jersey Devils, No. 129

Paying the ultimate fantasy compliment, Greg Wyshynski is going as far as "planting his flag" on Hughes this year, an annual honor the ESPN senior writer only bestows on 10 players. Despite the 18-year-old center having yet to compete in a real NHL game:

"Yeah, I'm a believer. Even at his size. Even with the acknowledgement of the learning curve that comes with becoming an NHL center. Hughes has already flashed his considering offensive gifts in the preseason, playmaking at an acceleration like few players in the NHL can. The projections have him at 60 points. I'm wondering if that's the floor. I'm also wondering if we don't end up seeing Taylor Hall on his wing before too long."

KHL-export Nikita Gusev (No. 231) is also favored to carve out a top-six spot with the Devils, either alongside Hughes or Nico Hischier. The 27-year-old star collected 82 points in 62 games with SKA St. Petersburg last season.

Mats Zuccarello, RW, Minnesota Wild, No. 130

The plan calls for Zuccarello to tee 'em up and Zach Parise to shoot 'em home. So far, everyone appears fully on board with that strategy. One of the league's most underrated assets, fantasy- or otherwise, the former Ranger scored 14 points in 15 games - an impressive stretch interrupted by a broken arm - after joining the Stars this past winter. I like this forward pairing a lot, and could see either/both ring up 70 points, all told.

J.T. Miller, C, Vancouver Canucks, No. 152

At best, Miller could beat out fellow Vancouver newcomer Micheal Ferland for a spot on the Canucks' top line with Elias Pettersen and Brock Boeser. If not, the former Lightning/Rangers forward would conceivably settle into a second-line role with Bo Horvat, while still competing on the top power play. Not too lousy a consolation prize. However it shakes out, Miller should break the 60-point barrier for the first time in his NHL career.

Alex Galchenyuk, RW, Pittsburgh Penguins, No. 210

Garnering plenty of fantasy attention ahead of 2019-20, Galchenyuk is under considerable pressure to make the most of competing on a scoring line with star center Evgeni Malkin, and Pittsburgh's No. 1 power play. Entering his eighth season, the 2012 third-overall selection has underwhelmed for years, the majority of time spent in Montreal, and most recently in Arizona. Now the clock is perceptibly ticking on the pending UFA's NHL career. For what it's worth, he's saying all the right things to suggest he's up to the challenge.

Ryan Dzingel, C, Carolina Hurricanes, No. 246

A spot on a Hurricanes' top line with Sebastien Aho and Nino Niederreiter would undoubtedly lay the foundation for a breakout season for the former Senator (and Blue Jacket, briefly). But I imagine he'll have to fight Sophomore Andrei Svechnikov for that privilege. A top-six spot with Jordan Staal and Teuvo Teravainen may also be an option, meaning Dzingel, at worst, merits thought in the waning rounds of deeper fantasy drafts.

James Neal, RW, Edmonton Oilers, No. 265

First, a confession: I was also initially stoked about what Neal might accomplish this past season with the Flames. Right. However, while that relationship didn't exactly unroll as anticipated, the Oilers are a different club, and Neal has accomplished enough in his 11-year career (300+ goals, including playoffs) to earn another vote of confidence. Plus, the notion of competing on a No. 1 power play with Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is too appealing to dismiss. As long as the chemistry's better, there's real sleeper potential here.

Andre Burakovsky, RW, Colorado Avalanche, N/A

At minimum, the chance to skate on a top-six scoring line with ex-Toronto center Nazem Kadri should help with reinvigorating Burakovsky's young career - wildly inconsistent to this point. But if the Avs aren't able to come to terms with RFA Mikko Rantanen, the former Capitals forward stands to instead compete as substitute alongside Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. Which is a whole other bunch of bananas. The 24-year-old should enjoy his first 50-point season, easy, as Kadri's regular linemate. He'll score a lot more than that with MacKinnon and Landeskog.

Karson Kuhlman, RW, Boston Bruins, N/A

The Bruins need someone to play on the right side of center David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk, and they appear to be leaning toward giving the 23-year-old rookie a shot. Kuhlman scored three goals and two assists in 11 regular-season games this past winter/spring, earning another three points in eight playoff contests. There's fantasy value here in deeper leagues, especially if he earns minutes with the man-advantage.

Nick Suzuki, C, Montreal Canadiens, N/A

He isn't even a slam dunk to make the roster, never mind the upper half of the lineup, and yet the Canadiens look more fun with Suzuki serving in a top-six role. Montreal's bench bosses are giving the 2017 13th overall draft pick (Vegas) ample chances to wow them - as a winger on both top units - ahead of opening night. We'll see what, if anything, sticks. At minimum, this dynasty-league darling should be spoken for in deeper keeper leagues.

Drake Batherson, RW, Ottawa Senators, N/A

While ESPN's draft and prospects analyst Chris Peters concedes the Senators "do not look like a good hockey team", Batherson stands to benefit from playing a much more prominent role than he would with other clubs. Particularly in light of how much the 21-year-old rookie has impressed so far

"Batherson's development arc is fascinating, accelerating north at an alarming rate. He was a fourth-round pick in 2017 and has spent the past two seasons shattering all expectations tied to a player picked that late. He was dominant in his last QMJHL season, then recorded more than a point per game in the AHL as a rookie. In 20 games with Ottawa, he had nine points."

If offered the opportunity to skate on a top line with Brady Tkachuk and Colin White, Batherson could really flourish. We'll see if he's able to seize that gig, sooner or later, away from ex-Maple Leaf Connor Brown.

Alexandre Texier, C, Columbus Blue Jackets , N/A

While Columbus newbie Gustav Nyquist and veteran Nick Foligno are also said to be in the mix to fill the top-line void left by Broadway-bound Artemi Panarin, Texier appears to be in the driver seat for now. The rookie could collect 60 points if he nails down the gig aside Pierre-Luc Dubois and Cam Atkinson. Texier scored three goals and one assist in 10 NHL games this past season, including eight playoff contests.

See also: Andrew Shaw, C, Chicago Blackhawks; Kevin Hayes, C, Philadelphia Flyers; Sam Steel, C, Anaheim Ducks; Victor Olofsson, LW, Buffalo Sabres