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Dark horse first-round picks worth watching

2016 NHL Draft selections with short-term fantasy upside

by Ben Zweiman @BZweimanNHL / Staff Writer

For the past few years there have been prospects selected early in the first round of the NHL Draft who made an immediate fantasy impact, including Nathan MacKinnon (2013), Aaron Ekblad (2014), Connor McDavid (2015) and Jack Eichel ('15). The players coming out of the 2016 draft who could fall into that category are center Auston Matthews (No. 1, Toronto Maple Leafs) and right wing Patrik Laine (No. 2, Winnipeg Jets).

It's easy to project Matthews and Laine making the opening night rosters of the Maple Leafs and Jets, but what's difficult to project is if any of the other players selected in the first round will impact their teams as early as next season. Of the 150 players taken in the first round of the past five drafts, 19 have played 30 or more games in the NHL the season after being selected. For those of you scoring at home, that rounds out to 13 percent, so the odds are already against us. But we've seen plenty of prospects emerge as fantasy contributors sooner than later.

Take Detroit Red Wings center Dylan Larkin for example. Larkin played one more season at Michigan after being drafted in the first round in 2014. He then made the Red Wings this season, scoring 23 goals with 45 points in 80 games. Other first-round picks that needed a year of seasoning include Calder Trophy winners Jonathan Huberdeau of the Florida Panthers and Tyler Myers of the Jets, as well as Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers and St. Louis Blues forward Robby Fabbri.

Here are some 2016 first-round picks that have the best shot of making an early impact:

Jesse Puljujarvi, RW, Edmonton Oilers

Many were surprised when the Columbus Blue Jackets passed on the Finnish forward at No. 3 but it could be a blessing in disguise, at least for Puljujarvi's fantasy prospects next season. The 18-year-old has an NHL-ready frame (6-foot-3) and has had plenty of success in his young hockey career. He led the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship in scoring with 17 points in seven games, helped Finland win the gold medal and was voted tournament MVP. At the age of 16, he led the 2015 WJC in shots on goal with 26 in five games. For Karpat in Finland's top professional league, Puljujarvi had 28 points in 50 games and nine points in 10 playoff games.

In the past nine drafts, six of the players selected first by the Oilers played at least 30 games in the League right out the gate. Edmonton has 13 forwards under contract for the 2016-17 season, but could move some of that depth for help on defense. Regardless, Puljujarvi has a very good chance to end up on one of the Oilers' top three lines, where he would have Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Leon Draisaitl as his center. Puljujarvi's style of play should allow for plenty of hits and SOG, giving him the potential for category coverage as well as the ability to put the puck in the net.

Clayton Keller, C, Arizona Coyotes

John Chayka made his first ever NHL draft pick as Coyotes general manager by selecting Keller at No. 7. One of four players from the St. Louis area taken in the first round, Keller led the U.S. National Under-18 Team with 107 points in 62 games this season. He's an offensive wizard who has drawn comparisons to reigning Hart Trophy winner Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks. Keller is committed to play at Boston University for the 2016-17 season following in the footsteps of Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel, another first-round pick who was one and done at BU.

The Coyotes have seven forwards under contract for next season, but have promising young forward prospects in Dylan Strome, Brendan Perlini and Christian Dvorak. Arizona's roster also includes Max Domi (21), Anthony Duclair (20) and Tobias Rieder (23). Through the rebuilding process, the Coyotes have allowed younger players to compete for roster spots and it might only take a year in college before Keller gets his shot.

Michael McLeod, C, New Jersey Devils

The Devils desperately needed to address their lack of offense. Though McLeod, who was selected with the 12th pick, doesn't project as an elite goal scorer, he's no slouch either. Considered by many to be the best skater in the entire 2016 class, McLeod used his speed to blow past defenders for Mississauga of the OHL. He scored 21 goals and had 61 points in 57 games for the Steelheads this season, and had nine points in seven playoff games.

The Devils have five forwards under contract for next season. That number will obviously change in the coming days and weeks, but it also means there will be plenty of spots up for grabs in the next few years. New Jersey lacks depth at center and could consider moving top prospect Pavel Zacha to wing if he makes the team in 2016-17. McLeod's skating is so dynamic and is a dimension that could help the Devils take the next step in returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. His skating ability also increases his chances of reaching the NHL in the near future.

Charles McAvoy, D, Boston Bruins

With the first of two first-round picks, the Bruins went with McAvoy at No. 14. A Long Island native, McAvoy had an outstanding rookie season for Boston University in 2015-16 with three goals and 25 points in 37 games. NHL Central Scouting's David Gregory said McAvoy has "a real pro game to him," and that showed in his first year at BU and during the 2016 WJC for the U.S. on its way to winning a bronze medal.

Boston's need for defensemen is well documented. Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg have two years remaining on their respective contracts, Torey Krug is a restricted free agent, and Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller are the only Bruins defensemen signed past 2017-18. Boston has defense prospects Matt Grzelcyk, Brandon Carlo and Jakub Zboril, but none of them possess the offensive upside of McAvoy. In fact, McAvoy outscored Grzelcyk, who is a senior and captain of BU, this season, albeit in more games played. A power play headed by Krug and McAvoy could be the norm for the Bruins very soon.

Other dark horse candidates: Mikhail Sergachev, D, Montreal Canadiens; Logan Brown, C, Ottawa Senators; Jakob Chychrun, D, Coyotes

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