The 2020-21 NHL rookie class is quite deep. It features plenty of former KHL stars set to embark on their professional careers in North America, in addition to plenty of former high draft picks who appear close to cracking their respective rosters. Our 10 best fantasy bets for incoming freshman are below.
1. Kirill Kaprizov (F-MIN)
There are a couple other players with a legitimate claim to the top spot, but as far as I can tell, Kaprizov has the clearest path to immediate production. In fact, he may immediately become Minnesota's top offensive player depending on whether you feel Kevin Fiala's 2019-20 breakout was sustainable or not. At 23 years old, Kaprizov is already a five-time KHL All-Star and has won an Olympic gold medal. Minnesota's forward depth is thin, to put it mildly. I expect Kaprizov to receive all the minutes he can handle at even strength in addition to playing a key role on the Wild's top power-play unit. Fantasy production is based largely upon opportunity, and that's where I expect the talented Russian to have the biggest edge.
2. Igor Shesterkin (G-NYR)
Shesterkin would be at the top of this list were it not for concerns regarding how much playing time Alexandar Georgiev is going to steal. Shesterkin enters the season as New York's No. 1 goaltender, and the fact the Rangers play among the least amount of back-to-backs in the league is a positive for him. However, the Rangers love Georgiev and have turned down trade offers for him in the past, and I have a difficult time believing the team is going to shelf him completely. Shesterkin, who complied a 2.52 GAA and .932 save percentage in his first dozen NHL games a season ago, has additional value in leagues with daily lineup changes that allow managers can pivot if Georgiev doesn't get the nod.
3. Alexis Lafreniere (F-NYR)
I could see a scenario where this ranking is clearly too low for the 2020 No. 1 overall selection, but I can also see one where it's too high. Lafreniere is among the most talented all-around prospects to enter the league in quite a while, but he's almost certain to begin the season on New York's third line and second power-play unit. While a guy like Kaprizov has almost no competition for playing time, Lafreniere is joining a team with Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Kaapo Kakko, Pavel Buchnevich, and Ryan Strome up front. Lafreniere is clearly talented enough to fly up the depth chart in an instant, but he's a better dynasty/keeper pick than re-draft selection. He does deserve a slight bump in leagues that value hits, as he's known to frequently throw the body around.
4. Ilya Sorokin (G-NYI)
Like Shesterkin, Sorokin would be at the top of this list if he was assured anything approaching a full starter's workload in his first NHL season. The most decorated goaltender in KHL history, Sorokin posted a 1.70 GAA, .930 save percentage and 44 shutouts in 244 KHL games. Any goaltender who plays for the Islanders deserves a bump in fantasy value given the defensive style in which the team plays, but coach Barry Trotz had a boatload of success last season rotating Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss, and it's difficult to believe he will go with anything other than a full-blown committee again. Sorokin is best served as a high-upside bench stash for now.
5. Tim Stuetzle (F-OTT)
Stop the presses if you've heard this one before, but the Senators are once again projected to be terrible, which should equate to plenty of playing time for Stuetzle. A native of Germany, the No. 3 overall pick in 2020 plays a remarkably efficient two-way game for a kid who will turn just 19 two days after the season begins. Stuetzle's long-term upside is obvious, and he could emerge as the top rookie this season. I'd invest as early as possible when it comes to this guy.
6. Gabriel Vilardi (F-LA)
Vilardi probably deserves to be higher than this given the fact he looked brilliant (seven points) in a brief 10-game trial with the Kings a season ago, but his vast injury history makes him nearly impossible to depend on. Vilardi has played 127 games over the course of the past four seasons, 42 of which came in 2019-20. He has suffered through serious back issues in the past, and while he appears to be fully healthy now, the risk for re-aggravation is a legitimate concern. I'm a fan of spending a late-round flier on Vilardi in fantasy drafts this season given that he should be locked into a considerable role on a rebuilding team. There are red flags here, though.
7. Bowen Byram (D-COL)
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Colorado should be one of the best teams in the NHL this year, which should allow the club to be patient with Byram. I thought he would receive, at minimum, a nine-game NHL trial a year ago, but the Avalanche quickly sent him back to the WHL. Byram wasn't as effective as he was in his draft year, but he had another strong year in his final junior campaign and appears to be ready to compete for a top-four spot once he concludes his quarantine. Byram is a mobile defenseman with better-than-average offensive abilities, but Colorado has Cale Makar running its top power-play unit and traded for fellow mobile blueliner Devon Toews from the Islanders this offseason. Don't be afraid to pull the plug quickly if it's clear Byram is a year away.
8. Dylan Cozens (F-BUF)
I would have felt much better about Cozens' ability to contribute right away had the team not signed Taylor Hall and traded for Eric Staal this offseason. Buffalo has suspect goaltending and a questionable defense corps, but it has has plenty of legitimate scoring options up front, including Hall, Staal, Sam Reinhart, Jeff Skinner, Victor Olofsson and star Jack Eichel. Cozens' game has really grown on me since Buffalo selected him seventh overall back in 2019, but there just might not be enough room for him at the moment.
9. Quinton Byfield (F-LA)
I'd be willing to listen to an argument that Byfield has as much long-term upside as any player on this list, but he turned just 18 in August and has been inconsistent at times during his OHL career. I would have advocated for him to spend another season in juniors under normal circumstances, but I would now be shocked if his NHL debut doesn't come at some point during the 2020-21 campaign. I'm not expecting much in terms of immediate impact, but Byfield is an elite keeper/dynasty asset.
10. Trevor Zegras (F-ANA)
Zegras is another player who isn't a lock to play in the NHL this season, but he was arguably the best player at the recently completed IIHF World Junior Championship -- and it's not as if the Anaheim roster is overflowing with offensive weapons. Keep an eye on this one, as there's upside here if Zegras can earn a full-time role with the Ducks.
• Grigori Denisenko (F-FLA)
• Nick Robertson (F-TOR)
• Alexander Romanov (D-MTL)