They are the present and the future of the NHL. More than a few members of this year's rookie class are already turning heads as prominent on-ice performers and valuable fantasy commodities. In competition that goes beyond dynasty/keeper leagues. Here's a look at a handful of first-year game-changers, who can improve your squad now, and in years to come.
I mean, we all knew the Red Wings' top defensive prospect was going to be good, but I'm not sure too many of us believed he would make such a formidable impact, so quickly. The experience of playing with men in the Swedish league, and in Germany before then, has clearly given the 20-year-old defender a leg up in adapting to the professional game ahead of schedule.
Because Seider does everything well, including plenty of stuff that checks a bunch of fantasy-related boxes. Topping his squad in averaging near 23 minutes/game, this durable young defender has 40 points (mostly assists) on 114 shots, 17 of which counting with the man-advantage. He also leads the Red Wings in blocked shots (107) and the blue line in hits (77). Throw in a pair of short-handed points, and here we have the full fantasy package. Congrats to all managers who had the foresight to grab the franchise defenseman before the possibility petered right out. The only real shot in acquiring Seider now would be by giving up an equally valuable asset, at another position, in return. Which, in keeper/dynasty leagues, might be advised.
Lucas Raymond, LW/RW, Detroit Red Wings (56.1%):
Like Seider, the teen winger - another Swedish League export - is also making an immediate impact in his first year in Detroit and consequently injecting himself into the Calder Trophy conversation. Skating on a No. 1 scoring line and power play with Dylan Larkin and Vladislav Namestnikov (now)/Tyler Bertuzzi (earlier), Raymond has 16 goals and 27 assists on 121 shots through 54 contests. He ranks second only to Seider in power-play points with 14. But unlike the star blueliner, Raymond isn't rostered in an overwhelming majority of ESPN.com leagues. Projected to serve as a staple on the Red Wings' top line for years to come, the fourth-overall draft pick (2020) won't ever be as available as he is now. This youngster is a soaring dynasty-league asset on the upswing.
The surge Caufield is enjoying in Montreal goes well beyond the usual "bump" experienced by a significant coaching change. With six goals and six assists in 10 games since Martin St. Louis took over behind the Canadiens bench, the 21-year-old appears confident and relaxed. The contrast provided by his previous eight points (minus-15) accrued in 30 games under Dominique Ducharme (when he wasn't competing as a member of the AHL Rocket), and accompanying body language, is particularly jarring. Now Caufield is averaging near 19 minutes/game, skating on a top line and power play with Josh Anderson and Nick Suzuki. That's where he should stick until season's end for a non-playoff bound team, chill and loose with little to lose. The forward duo comprising of Caufield and Suzuki - whose own eight-year/$63-million deal kicks in next season - is one to watch for years to come. A dynasty-gem in the forging, the young winger also boasts immediate fantasy value in deeper, re-draft leagues. Check if he's available in yours.
Is anyone having more fun than the 2019 ninth-overall draft selection? Perhaps not. Whether he's putting together highlight-reel plays on the ice, or having a blast off it, as is the case with ESPN's own John Buccigross here, Zegras is proving you can in fact make a serious impact without treating the game as an unnecessarily somber affair. Skating on a scoring line with Rickard Rakell and Sonny Milano, the club's future No. 1 center has 14 goals and 27 assists, including 12 points on the power play, in 50 contests. And he's just getting going. While still erratic as a fantasy asset, Zegras pitches in often enough to merit more attention across the ESPN.com spectrum. Especially now. Since Jan. 27, he's averaged 2.1 fantasy points/game in standard leagues.
Imagine if he'd been given the chance to compete since season's launch. No rookie (10-plus contests) is averaging more points/game than the Wild winger. Not Anaheim's Zegras, not Detroit's Raymond, nobody. Skating on a line with Kevin Fiala and Frederick Gaudreau, Boldy is steaming ahead with nine goals and 10 assists, including six points with the extra skater, through 21 contests. An asset beyond scoring, he also leads his club at plus-10 since and sits third in shots on net since making his debut Jan. 6. Stomping along at a 2.1 fantasy point/game pace in standard leagues, the 20-year-old should help your own squad down the stretch. Only Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello are proving more valuable in Minnesota this season. And they aren't available in anywhere near three-quarters of ESPN.com leagues.
Matt Boldy scores goal for Wild
Matt Boldy scores goal for Wild
It's been a tale of two seasons for the young Newfoundland native. A role on a line with Jesper Bratt proved fruitful early before shuffling moved Jersey's top scorer elsewhere. But now, tucked on a top scoring unit with Jack Hughes, Mercer is on a hot streak, with three goals and four assists in five games. The 18th-overall (2020) draft selection certainly merits consideration in deeper fantasy leagues - particularly alongside Hughes - as the Devils endeavor to wrap up a future-facing, non-contending campaign on a high. Of which Mercer should play a significant part.
Full disclosure: I predicted Swayman would be spending the latter half of 2021-22 gaining experience in the AHL, relinquishing Boston's goaltending duties to the more weathered combo of a recovered Tuukka Rask and Linus Ullmark. Not the case. Unfortunately for the seasoned veteran, Rask's health wasn't up to the task, retirement ensued, and Swayman quickly took advantage of his fresh opportunity. And good on him. Now, a third of the season removed from the playoffs, Swayman is the Bruins' undisputed No. 1 netminder. Appropriately so, since the 23-year-old leads the NHL with six wins - .967% and 0.98 GAA - since Feb. 11. Over which span he's averaged 8.2 fantasy points/game. For even more context, Swayman's 3.0 WAR and 5.7 SPAR compares with Ullmark's -0.6 and -1.2, respectively (thanks Evolving Hockey). Pick up Boston's go-to, if available.
There isn't a hockey fan around who isn't rooting hard for this kid. Shelved, again, since Jan. 10 with unrelenting concussion issues, Byram is now back to skating with performance coach Shawn Allard. That's a positive sign. Next up, hopefully, is full team practice, followed by a return to competitive play. Whether that rolls out before this campaign concludes or not is impossible to determine. The Avalanche isn't going to rush back their star prospect from a medical issue that could slam the brakes on a promising career before it even leaves the garage.
Even in limited action at the NHL level, the package of talent and skill stands as obvious. Tough to play against in his own end and more than capable of contributing to the scoresheet in the opposite, Byram is valuable in all three zones. Five goals and six assists on 35 shots, combined with a healthy number of hits, through only 18 contests, only partially speaks to what the fourth-overall draft pick (2019) brings to the ice. While asking for Cale Makar-like numbers is a bit much, as Makar's future top-pair partner in Colorado, he'll do plenty of heavy lifting in the fantasy department, if the young defender can recover and make a good go of it (as others have). I like his chances. And I like Byram a lot as a long-term investment in dynasty/keeper competition for years to come.
See also: Tanner Jeannot, LW/RW, Nashville Predators (30.5%); Michael Bunting, LW, Toronto Maple Leafs (25.9%); Mason Marchment, LW/RW, Florida Panthers (19.8%); Anton Lundell, C, Florida Panthers (15.4%); Jamie Drysdale, D, Anaheim Ducks (7.3%)