The 2015-16 NHL regular season might best be remembered for its outstanding rookie class.
Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid may have given Patrick Kane a serious challenge for the Art Ross Trophy if he didn't miss 37 games because of a broken left clavicle sustained Nov. 3. McDavid is averaging 1.05 points per game, tied with Sidney Crosby for third in the League behind Kane (1.27) and Jamie Benn (1.10).
Defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere is perhaps the biggest reason the Philadelphia Flyers are in position to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs after missing the postseason in 2015. Recalled from the American Hockey League on Nov. 14 after defenseman Mark Streit was injured, Gostisbehere has 16 goals and 27 assists in 60 games. His 0.72 point-per-game average is eighth among NHL defensemen who have played 50 or more games.
Forward Artemi Panarin has been consistently strong for the Chicago Blackhawks. He had 10 points in October, 13 in November, 11 in December, 12 in January, 11 in February and seven in March. It has helped being on a line with Kane almost all season, but that's a two-way street; Panarin has been instrumental in Kane hitting NHL career highs in goals and points. After back-to-back four-point games Friday against the Winnipeg Jets and Sunday against the Boston Bruins, Panarin has 28 goals and 44 assists in 77 games.
Video: CHI@WPG: Panarin rifles it past Pavelec to tie it up
Center Jack Eichel , who was drafted No. 2 behind McDavid in the 2015 NHL Draft, has not disappointed Buffalo Sabres fans. His 23 goals lead Buffalo, and his 52 points in 78 games are second to Ryan O'Reilly's 58. He leads all rookies with 231 shots on goal.
McDavid is fair game for the first two rounds of 12-team or larger fantasy drafts in 2016, and Gostisbehere and Panarin each should go in the top three rounds. Eichel could crack the first three rounds on average.
In keeper leagues, if any of the four remains available, take him in the first round without hesitation.
Beyond the obvious four of McDavid, Gostisbehere, Panarin and Eichel, there are plenty of rookies or other young players who made their NHL debut this season to have on your radar for 2016 fantasy drafts.
Robby Fabbri, C, St. Louis Blues -- It's easy to envision Fabbri setting up Vladimir Tarasenko for the next five seasons in St. Louis. If he gets put on a line with Tarasenko, one of the top five goal-scorers in the League, you wouldn't regret selecting Fabbri in the fifth or sixth round of your 2016 fantasy draft. The 20-year-old has 37 points, ninth among NHL rookies, but it's been his play down the stretch that should be the focus. Since Feb. 1, Fabbri has seven goals and 12 assists in 25 games, a 0.76 point-per-game average.
Sam Reinhart, C, Buffalo Sabres -- It was Eichel who garnered most of the attention heading into the 2015-16 season for Buffalo, and rightfully so. But Reinhart, the No. 2 pick of the 2014 draft, has been the more impressive of the two rookies down the stretch. Reinhart's 10 goals and 20 points in 29 games since Feb. 1 lead the Sabres. The 20-year-old has 22 goals and 18 assists in 76 games this season after he was limited to one assist in nine games in 2014-15.
Anthony Mantha, RW, Detroit Red Wings -- The 21-year-old by far has the smallest sample size of the players listed here, but he's been very impressive, if not productive, since making his NHL debut March 15. The 6-foot-5, 214-pound forward is a natural goal-scorer; he had 57 goals in 57 regular-season games in his final season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and he's already shown he can use his size to advantage. The Red Wings' first-round pick (No. 20) in 2013 has 18 SOG in 10 games despite limited ice time. Bold prediction: Mantha will score more goals in 2016-17 than Dylan Larkin, who has 23 for Detroit as a rookie this season.
ALSO IN THE MIX: William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs; Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames; Max Domi, Arizona Coyotes
HERE TO STAY
Here are three players who will be drafted significantly higher in 2016 than they were in 2015.
Video: PHI@CHI: Schenn scores off Giroux's nice pass
Brayden Schenn, C/LW, Philadelphia Flyers -- Schenn has thrived at left wing on a line with center Claude Giroux and right wing Wayne Simmonds. The 24-year-old has set NHL career highs with 25 goals, 31 assists and 56 points, and he's on pace for the most SOG he's ever had in a season. What should entice fantasy owners is the way Schenn has played since early January; since Jan. 7 his 16 goals are tied for 13th in the League and his 37 points are tied for 10th. Schenn's average draft position in Yahoo leagues in 2015 was 172.9 (14th round in 12-team leagues); he should be a fourth- or fifth-round fantasy pick in 2016.
Evgeny Kuznetsov, C/LW, Washington Capitals -- No one player was more responsible for the Capitals' ascension to the top of the NHL standings than Kuznetsov, who went from dangerous player with upside in 2014-15 to elite player this season. His 55 assists are fourth in the League, and his 75 points are tied for seventh. Kuznetsov, 23, has been so impressive that coach Barry Trotz has had him centering Alex Ovechkin's line for stretches of the season, splitting Ovechkin and his longtime center Nicklas Backstrom at even strength. All of this spells a major jump in draft position for Kuznetsov, whose ADP in Yahoo leagues was 168.3 (14th round). He's a lock for the top 20 in 2016.
John Klingberg, D, Dallas Stars -- Klingberg had a surprising rookie season in 2014-15 with 40 points in 65 games, and he finished fifth in Calder Trophy voting. But his success on the ice didn't translate to fantasy drafts in 2015, when he was the 31st-most popular defenseman in Yahoo leagues, with an ADP of 122.3 (10th round). A fifth round (No. 131) pick of the Stars in the 2010 draft, Klingberg has shown in 2015-16 that his rookie season was no fluke. His 56 points are fifth and his 21 power-play points tied for 11th among NHL defensemen. Klingberg should be a top-10 pick among defensemen and go no lower than the fifth round in 2016.