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The Front Line: MacKinnon leads valuable rookie crop

Tuesday, 02.04.2014 / 12:00 PM
Matt Cubeta  - NHL.com Fantasy Insider

Every Tuesday during the season, NHL.com fantasy hockey expert Matt Cubeta will provide you with an in-depth analysis of fantasy forwards in his weekly segment: "The Front Line." From updated rankings to players you should keep a close eye on and much more, Cubeta will be your fantasy forwards insider all season long.

Last season, Nail Yakupov (Edmonton Oilers) and Jonathan Huberdeau (Florida Panthers) led all rookie forwards with 31 points in 48 games, or .65 points per game. Brendan Gallagher (Montreal Canadiens) averaged .64 and Cory Conacher (Tampa Bay Lightning/Ottawa Senators) averaged .62. Four rookies exceeded the .60 points-per-game mark.

At this point in 2013-14, just like last season, four rookies currently average at least .60 points per game.

Nathan MacKinnon (Colorado Avalanche) leads the group at .75 points per game with 41 points in 55 games. Tomas Hertl (San Jose Sharks) averages .71, but he has appeared in just 35 games and his future for this season is in jeopardy due to knee surgery. Tyler Johnson (Lightning) has 35 points while appearing in all 55 games, good for .64 points per game. Lastly is Chris Kreider (New York Rangers), who has 30 points in 49 games, or .61 points per game.

All four rookies have been valuable fantasy assets this season and a couple could continue to have success for the remainder of the season.

As mentioned, Hertl could be out for a while, so unfortunately fantasy owners just have to stash him on injured reserve and hope he returns sometime late in the season.

Johnson went undrafted and made his NHL debut in March last season. He likely also went undrafted in most fantasy leagues this year. Four-plus months later, Johnson is a borderline top-100 forward in standard leagues, thanks largely in part to a 14-point January. Johnson has been centering the Tampa Bay Lightning's top line, but that will obviously change once Steven Stamkos returns to the lineup, leading me to believe his production will drop once the superstar is back.

On the other side, Kreider made a name for himself during the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, so some might not consider his success to be a complete surprise. He ranks 76th among all players in Yahoo leagues and skates on the Rangers' top line alongside Rick Nash and Derek Stepan. I've got him ranked 64th among all forwards right now and believe he can still move up thanks to his diverse category coverage (13 goals, 17 assists, plus-14, 62 penalty minutes, 11 power-play points and 105 shots on goal). There's no sign of him slowing down and he could be a Calder Trophy candidate by season's end.

However, MacKinnon is the leader of the pack, ranking 48th among all players after being selected on average with the 154th pick prior to the season. The No. 1 pick from the 2013 NHL Draft has been extremely valuable in just about all aspects of fantasy hockey with 20 goals, 21 assists, a plus-12 rating, 18 penalty minutes, 12 power-play points and 160 shots on goal.

What's been most impressive about the 18-year-old's season is his recent stretch of dominance. The Colorado Avalanche center has five goals and seven assists in his past eight games, including a career-high three-point night against the Buffalo Sabres on Feb. 1. MacKinnon averages just 16:25 of ice time per game, but it hasn't mattered because he has dominated during even strength play and on the power play. Receiving 2:24 of power-play time per game, MacKinnon has produced eight goals and four assists. Even more impressive, he has 12 goals and 17 assists during even strength ice time.

Many of us assume rookies wear down as the season progresses, but MacKinnon has proven otherwise with his most productive month coming in January (13 points in 14 games and a plus-4). Fast forward to the end of the regular season and there's a good chance MacKinnon will finish with at least 30 goals and 60 points to go along with outstanding peripheral stats. If he were to eclipse 60 points, he'd be the first rookie to do so since Jeff Skinner had 63 in 2010-11.

ROLLING ROOKIES

60-PLUS POINTS BY A ROOKIE SINCE 2003

Alex Ovechkin - Capitals - 2005-06 - 106

Sidney Crosby - Penguins - 2005-06 - 102

Evgeni Malkin - Penguins - 2006-07 - 85

Paul Stastny - Avalanche - 2006-07 - 78

Patrick Kane - Blackhawks - 2007-08 - 72

Nicklas Backstrom - Capitals - 2007-08 - 69

Brad Boyes - Bruins - 2005-06 - 69

Jeff Skinner - Hurricanes - 2010-11 - 63

Michael Ryder - Canadiens - 2003-04 - 63

Anze Kopitar - Kings - 2006-07 - 61

It's been an impressive run for MacKinnon and there's reason to believe he could be a top-50 fantasy forward by the end of the season. Last year we may have seen Yakupov and Huberdeau put together solid fantasy seasons, but MacKinnon's rookie campaign will put those performances to shame.

* This will be the last edition of "The Front Line" until after the Olympic break. It will return on Tuesday, Feb. 25.

TRENDING UPWARD

Zach Parise, Minnesota Wild -- Fresh off being named U.S. captain and earning the NHL's First Star of the week, Parise is showing owners he's fully recovered from his injury. He has three goals and five assists in his past three games to go along with a plus-2 rating, three power-play points and 14 shots on goal. His 3.9 shots per game are tied for fifth best in the NHL and with 35 points in 42 games, Parise is quickly moving back up to where he belongs.

Scott Hartnell, Philadelphia Flyers -- Hartnell might not finish with close to the 37 goals he had two seasons ago, but would 20-plus goals and around 50 points and 80-plus penalty minutes disappoint you? Since a rough October and November (eight points in 22 games), Hartnell has returned to form with 28 points in 31 games since the start of December.

Nazem Kadri, Toronto Maple Leafs -- As fast as they fall, they can rise. Kadri has bounced around my rankings all season and is moving up 10 spots this week thanks to some of the best hockey of his season coming recently. He has four goals and 10 assists in the past nine games and has been held without a point just once during that stretch. And though Kadri is a minus-9 on the season, he has been a plus-4 in those same nine games.

TRENDING DOWNWARD

Daniel Sedin, Vancouver Canucks -- In the six games without his brother and linemate Henrik Sedin, who had been sidelined due to injury, Daniel had just one assist. Henrik returned to the lineup on Monday, but both players were held without a point. However, Daniel's problems date back even further. He hasn't scored a goal in the past 16 games and has just one point in the past 11. He's still seeing his usual ice time (21:34 per game), but clearly Sedin isn't the dominant fantasy force he was earlier this season.

Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks -- With 14 goals, 30 points, a plus-21 and 161 shots on goal, Burns' overall stat line is still more than owners were expecting at the start of the season. The problem is he has just one point in the past seven games despite the fact he's skating on a line with the red-hot Joe Pavelski and veteran playmaker Joe Thornton. Burns does have 25 shots on goal in the past four games, so he should snap this slump sooner rather than later.

Dustin Brown and Mike Richards, Los Angeles Kings -- Coming into the season, Brown was drafted on average with the 108th pick in Yahoo leagues. Richards was selected at 139th on average. Brown is currently the 208th-ranked player in Yahoo and hasn't had a point in the past 11 games. Richards is currently ranked 171st and hasn't had a point in the past seven games. Every forward on the Kings not named Anze Kopitar is in a major slump right now and you should be benching them all for the time being. And for now, both Brown and Richards fall outside the top-100 until they start producing closer to their draft day value.

KEEP AN EYE ON ...

Mikael Granlund, Minnesota Wild -- The talented Finnish forward is in the middle of a five-game point streak (two goals, six assists) and has a respectable 28 points in 44 games for the Wild. With Mikko Koivu still out with an injury, Granlund has been centering the team's top line with Parise and Jason Pominville on his wings. He should be added in deep leagues while Koivu is out and might even be worth holding onto when Koivu returns if you're in need of some assists (he has 23 on the season).

TOP 100 FANTASY FORWARDS

These rankings are based on expectations of the season going forward. The plus or minus for each player is movement based on our most recent rankings -- NR means not ranked in previous rankings. They are based on a standard fantasy league with these offensive categories: G, A, plus/minus, PIMs, PPP, SOG.

1 Sidney Crosby, Penguins (same)

2 Corey Perry, Ducks (same)

3 Alex Ovechkin, Capitals (same)

4 Evgeni Malkin, Penguins (same)

5 John Tavares, Islanders (same)

6 Ryan Getzlaf, Ducks (same)

7 Chris Kunitz, Penguins (same)

8 Patrick Kane, Blackhawks (same)

9 Patrick Sharp, Blackhawks (+1)

10 James Neal, Penguins (-1)

11 Phil Kessel, Maple Leafs (+1)

12 Jonathan Toews, Blackhawks (-1)

13 Henrik Zetterberg, Red Wings (+2)

14 Claude Giroux, Flyers (+3)

15 Joe Pavelski, Sharks (-2)

16 Martin St. Louis, Lightning (same)

17 Patrick Marleau, Sharks (-3)

18 Marian Hossa, Blackhawks (same)

19 Alexander Steen, Blues (same)

20 Nicklas Backstrom, Capitals (+2)

21 Zach Parise, Wild (+5)

22 Rick Nash, Rangers (-2)

23 Jamie Benn, Stars (+6)

24 Anze Kopitar, Kings (+1)

25 David Backes, Blues (-1)

26 Eric Staal, Hurricanes (-3)

27 Daniel Sedin, Canucks (-6)

28 Matt Duchene, Avalanche (-1)

29 Tyler Seguin, Stars (+3)

30 Thomas Vanek, Islanders (-2)

31 Taylor Hall, Oilers (same)

32 James van Riemsdyk, Maple Leafs (+1)

33 Joe Thornton, Sharks (-3)

34 Jeff Skinner, Hurricanes (same)

35 Henrik Sedin, Canucks (NR)*

36 Wayne Simmonds, Flyers (-1)

37 Kyle Okposo, Islanders (+2)

38 Bobby Ryan, Senators (same)

39 Ryan Kesler, Canucks (+1)

40 Max Pacioretty, Canadiens (-3)

41 David Krejci, Bruins (+4)

42 Gabriel Landeskog, Avalanche (+1)

43 Jarome Iginla, Bruins (+1)

44 Jeff Carter, Kings (-3)

45 Kyle Turris, Senators (-3)

46 Milan Lucic, Bruins (same)

47 Jaromir Jagr, Devils (+7)

48 Jason Spezza, Senators (-1)

49 Clarke MacArthur, Senators (+1)

50 Blake Wheeler, Jets (+5)

51 Jordan Eberle, Oilers (+2)

52 Brandon Dubinsky, Blue Jackets (-3)

53 Patrice Bergeron, Bruins (-5)

54 David Perron, Oilers (-3)

55 T.J. Oshie, Blues (-3)

56 Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche (+13)

57 Scott Hartnell, Flyers (+8)

58 Derek Stepan, Rangers (-2)

59 Jakub Voracek, Flyers (-1)

60 Bryan Little, Jets (-3)

61 Radim Vrbata, Coyotes (-2)

62 Joffrey Lupul, Maple Leafs (-1)

63 Brad Richards, Rangers (same)

64 Chris Kreider, Rangers (-2)

65 Andrew Ladd, Jets (+1)

66 Brent Burns, Sharks (-6)

67 Jason Pominville, Wild (same)

68 Martin Hanzal, Coyotes (same)

69 Alexander Semin, Hurricanes (+4)

70 Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Oilers (+1)

71 Nazem Kadri, Maple Leafs (+10)

72 Shane Doan, Coyotes (-2)

73 Brad Marchand, Bruins (+1)

74 Ryan Johansen, Blue Jackets (+9)

75 Mats Zuccarello, Rangers (+2)

76 Tomas Plekanec, Canadiens (-1)

77 Jaden Schwartz, Blues (+5)

78 Mike Ribeiro, Coyotes (+2)

79 Brandon Saad, Blackhawks (+11)

80 Valtteri Filppula, Lightning (-3) DTD

81 Patrik Elias, Devils (NR)

82 Justin Williams, Kings (-6)

83 Chris Stewart, Blues (-5)

84 Nathan Horton, Blue Jackets (+1)

85 Paul Stastny, Avalanche (+1) DTD

86 Cody Hodgson, Sabres (+1)

87 Jussi Jokinen, Penguins (NR)

88 Daniel Alfredsson, Red Wings (same)

89 Tyler Johnson, Lightning (+2)

90 Ryan O'Reilly, Avalanche (+10)

91 Tyler Bozak, Maple Leafs (+1)

92 Gustav Nyquist, Red Wings (NR)

93 Ryan Callahan, Rangers (same)

94 Reilly Smith, Bruins (+2)

95 Loui Eriksson, Bruins (same)

96 Vladimir Tarasenko, Blues (NR)

97 Ryane Clowe, Devils (-3)

98 Alex Killorn, Lightning (NR)

99 Frans Nielsen, Islanders (same)

100 Antoine Vermette, Coyotes (NR)

* Appeared on injured list last week

Players that dropped out of previous rankings: PA Parenteau, Dustin Brown, Mike Richards

Injured: Steven Stamkos, Pavel Datsyuk, Logan Couture, Marian Gaborik, Evander Kane, Mikko Koivu, Johan Franzen, Nick Bonino, Matt Moulson, Tomas Hertl, Pascal Dupuis, David Clarkson, Alex Galchenyuk

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