Fantasy hockey: Which sophomore players will thrive in Year 2?

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NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 04:  New York Rangers left wing Alexis Lafreniere (13) celebrates the goal by New York Rangers right wing Pavel Buchnevich (89)(not pictured) and gets an assist during the third period of the National Hockey League game between the New Jersey Devils and the New York Rangers on March 4, 2021 at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ.  (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
New York Rangers left wing Alexis Lafreniere seems like a great value pick in fantasy drafts. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The 2020-21 NHL season didn't have the deepest crop of rookies, but there were some real gems that helped fantasy hockey managers.

Kirill Kaprizov, Jason Robertson, and Alex Nedeljkovic headlined the freshman class, and those three aided many fantasy teams to the playoffs and beyond.

With this group of players entering their second seasons, which ones should fantasy managers be looking to draft?

LW/RW Kirill Kaprizov, Minnesota Wild (29.8 ADP)

Freshly signed to a five-year, $45-million deal with the Minnesota Wild, fantasy managers should confidently draft Kaprizov at his current ADP.

Even on a defense-first team like the Wild, Kaprizov was able to post impressive numbers during his first NHL campaign. The Russian winger potted 27 goals and 51 points, leading Minnesota in both categories.

He's not someone who has added value in leagues that track hits and blocks as he contributed just 29 hits and 18 blocks in 2020-21. Neither of those totals will move the needle for fantasy managers in "banger leagues." 

With key departures on the back end in Ryan Suter and Carson Soucy, there's a chance the Wild aren't as defensively stingy as they were in 2020-21. This could lend itself to some higher-scoring games, which would benefit Kaprizov.

G Igor Shesterkin, New York Rangers (38.6 ADP)

Shesterkin was a solid fantasy hockey goaltender in 2020-21, but he didn't break out like many had hoped.

He posted a respectable .916 save percentage, won 16 games in 35 appearances, had two shutouts, and owned a 2.62 goals-against average. These certainly aren't bad numbers, but after he jumped onto the scene like a jackrabbit with a .932 save percentage across 12 starts in 2019-20, expectations were set a little higher.

Shesterkin doesn't have to worry too much about changes to the defense in front of him. The top-four on the New York Rangers remains unchanged, and it's a unit that includes the reigning Norris Trophy winner, Adam Fox. The 25-year-old Shesterkin should also benefit from the switch to Gerard Gallant as head coach, as the team will likely play a more physical and defensively responsible game.

Right now, Shesterkin's ADP is a little too rich for my liking. It seems like a lot of his upside is already baked into selecting him in the fourth round.

G Ilya Sorokin, New York Islanders (57.6 ADP)

Sorokin is the first true "1B" goalie coming off the board in Yahoo fantasy hockey drafts, as his ADP is the ninth-lowest among all netminders.

In 22 games played last year, Sorokin produced an impressive .918 save percentage and three shutouts to go along with a sterling 2.17 goals-against average. The only issue with all of this, of course, is that he appeared in roughly 40 percent of the Islanders' games, ceding starts to Vezina Trophy candidate Semyon Varlamov.

When looking a little closer, however, this duo shifted closer toward a 50-50 split as the season developed. Through the first 21 games of the campaign, Sorokin made just five appearances. Over the final 35 contests of the year, he made 17.

With head coach Barry Trotz likely rolling out both frequently in 2021-22, Sorokin should see closer to 50 percent of the action. He's a fine pick at ADP and my preferred choice between him and Varlamov, as the latter is going roughly 13 picks earlier in drafts.

LW Jason Robertson, Dallas Stars (91.5 ADP)

Through the first couple months of the NHL season, it seemed like Kaprizov had the Calder Trophy all but won.

From March onwards, however, only one other player was really able to throw his name into the conversation, and that was Robertson.

In his final 34 games of the season, the Stars forward tallied 13 goals and 34 points while gaining a ton of steam in the Rookie of the Year debate. Kaprizov still won the award handily, but Robertson proved to be the only other freshman that earned a first-place vote.

Expectations may need to be slightly tempered for Robertson ahead of the 2021-22 season, however, as the Stars are getting a pair of top-six forwards back in Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov. The wealth of high-end forward talent in Dallas could make it a little more difficult for Robertson to see the same amount of time on the power play. Last season, he saw nearly 111 minutes on the man advantage and produced six points.

Given the better value that can be had in selecting other members of the Stars like Seguin and Joe Pavelski, I'm out on Robertson at his ADP.

DETROIT, MICHIGAN - APRIL 24: Jason Robertson #21 of the Dallas Stars skates against the Detroit Red Wings at Little Caesars Arena on April 24, 2021 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Jason Robertson had an impressive rookie campaign for the Stars. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

G Kevin Lankinen, Chicago Blackhawks (102.1 ADP)

The Blackhawks' addition of Marc-Andre Fleury this offseason certainly hinders Lankinen's fantasy appeal, as he'll now be relegated to 1B duties at best.

Through the first few months of the 2020-21 season, Lankinen was very solid for Chicago. Across 25 appearances for the Blackhawks, the Finnish puck-stopper owned a .921 save percentage. A brutal month of April plummeted that number as he ended the season with a mark of .909.

With Fleury entering his age-37 season, it seems unlikely that he tops 60 starts, which means Lankinen will see a decent amount of action. Currently being selected ahead of starters like Tristan Jarry and Carter Hart, however, I have a hard time picking Lankinen at ADP.

D Ty Smith, New Jersey Devils (133.4 ADP)

One of the least discussed rookies from last season is Smith. The Devils youngster finished seventh in Calder Trophy voting and was the only blueliner inside the top-10.

Smith churned out a respectable two goals and 23 points across 48 contests last season while seeing just over 20 minutes of action per game for New Jersey. He wasn't a major factor for those who played in leagues that counted blocks and hits, however, as he was credited with just 35 blocks and 32 body checks.

With New Jersey adding both Dougie Hamilton and Ryan Graves this offseason, Smith will slot onto the team's second defense pairing. The only way the second-year rearguard will return value is if the team decides to roll both him and Hamilton on the top power-play unit. If he doesn't see much time on the man advantage, Smith won't be someone who's worth rostering in most leagues.

G Vitek Vanecek, Washington Capitals (139.1 ADP)

Of the two Capitals goaltenders being drafted in fantasy hockey, Vanecek certainly possesses the most palatable ADP.

Despite having a tumultuous 2020-21 season, Ilya Samsonov owns a 74.3 ADP, going roughly 65 slots ahead of Vanecek, who was better than Samsonov in almost every measurable last year. Additionally, Washington re-acquired Vanecek after losing him to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft — a sign that the team isn't ready to move forward with Samsonov as the unquestioned starter. This seems to be heading toward a timeshare, and fantasy hockey managers should select Vanecek, the much cheaper option who was the better of the two a year ago.

G Alex Nedeljkovic, Detroit Red Wings (140.3 ADP)

No sophomore had their fantasy value shot down quite the way Nedeljkovic did when the Carolina Hurricanes dealt him to the Red Wings this summer. 

Being traded from a Stanley Cup contender to a basement-dwelling team will negatively impact Nedeljkovic across the board. He may, however, gain some value in fantasy leagues that count saves as a category. He'll likely start the majority of Detroit's games, and considering the team in front of him, will see an increase in shot volume. 

There's nothing wrong with taking Nedeljkovic at ADP, just don't do so while expecting last year's numbers.

RALEIGH, NC - JUNE 8: Alex Nedeljkovic #39 of the Carolina Hurricanes returns to the crease to protect the net after a time out in Game Five of the Second Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Tampa Bay Lighting on June 8, 2021 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)
Alex Nedeljkovic will see his value drop after being traded from Carolina to Detroit. (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

D Zach Whitecloud, Vegas Golden Knights (158.8 ADP)

Anybody selecting Whitecloud is hopefully playing in a banger league, as the Golden Knights blueliner doesn't hold any value in a standard-scoring format.

Through 51 contests with Vegas last year, Whitecloud registered just two goals and 12 points. Not terrible numbers, but it's definitely not offensive production worth taking a flier on. In the blocks and hits department, though, Whitecloud delivered solid outputs. The 24-year-old racked up 75 blocks and 85 hits.

Even in a banger league, I'm not really eyeing Whitecloud unless it's the deepest of setups. There are other players with higher hits and blocked shots upside going later in Yahoo drafts.

LW Alexis Lafreniere, New York Rangers (164.7 ADP)

This is someone fantasy hockey managers should be targeting in the later rounds of their drafts.

Fantasy managers who got out ahead of their skis on Lafreniere last season were disappointed. The 2020 first-overall selection recorded just 12 goals and 21 points through 56 contests, despite being compared by many to Sidney Crosby.

What's important to remember with Lafreniere is that he was only 19 years old last year. To put it into perspective, Kaprizov, who won the Calder Trophy, was 23. The NHL isn't full of teenagers dominating; hardly any ever do.

Now entering his second campaign, the expectation should be that Lafreniere bounces back with the Rangers. He'll likely slot into the team's very talented top six, either playing on a line with Mika Zibanejad or Artemi Panarin. Either line will set him up for success, and he's one of the best sleeper picks in fantasy drafts.

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