Now that we know the NHL destinations of top prospects Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine, let the fantasy speculation begin.
Matthews, drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs with the first pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, and Laine, taken with the second pick by the Winnipeg Jets, have opportunities to make immediate fantasy impacts in the 2016-17 season. Matthews, an American-born center, scored 46 points in 36 regular-season games for Zurich of Swiss-A this season. Laine, meanwhile, is a towering 6-foot-4 wing with a booming shot and one-timer showcased in the Finnish Liiga playoffs, where he had 10 goals and five assists in 18 games.
The Maple Leafs and Jets still have plenty of roster decisions ahead this offseason, but it's never too early for fantasy owners to anticipate their potential fantasy impact based on lineup scenarios and supporting casts. Matthews (Team North America) and Laine (Team Finland) can also help their cause when they compete against NHL and international hockey talent in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey this fall.
Best-case lineup scenario: The Maple Leafs will likely be in the running for Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, who could become an unrestricted free agent July 1. The optimal spot for Matthews would be second-line center with the protection of an elite goal-scoring center ahead of him in the lineup. If Stamkos signs with Toronto, Matthews could still have strong linemates such as Leo Komarov and William Nylander in a secondary role. If Matthews is the No. 1 center for Toronto on opening night, he would have a two-way, possession center in Nazem Kadri behind him in the lineup. The entire scope of the Maple Leafs could change in one offseason.
Video: Auston Matthews on joining the Maple Leafs
Supporting cast: Even if they don't land Stamkos, the Maple Leafs suddenly have a ton of center depth after drafting the 6-foot-2, 216-pound Matthews, with Kadri and Tyler Bozak also in the fold. Toronto coach Mike Babcock has an array of wings, including James van Riemsdyk, Nikita Soshnikov, Nylander and Komarov, to mix and match with the centers on his roster. They also have a touted forward prospect in Mitchell Marner, who is expected to compete for a lineup spot in training camp. Avoiding injuries is always crucial, but the Maple Leafs could assemble a good enough top-nine forward mix to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs a feasible goal in the Atlantic Division. They also have an emerging puck-moving defenseman in Morgan Rielly, who signed a six-year contract in April, and a new No. 1 goalie in recent trade acquisition Frederik Andersen.
Fantasy outlook: Matthews could have some growing pains depending on the roster Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan and general manager Lou Lamoriello build around him. But the 18-year-old center should still work well with the young players currently on the roster and be in position to eclipse 50 points in a full season. He had balanced point totals in his rookie season overseas and is a candidate for at least 20 goals and 20 assists, something four rookies did in 2015-16 (Artemi Panarin, Jack Eichel, Dylan Larkin and Anthony Duclair). Fantasy owners should pay close attention to Matthews' average draft position once Yahoo's fantasy game opens this summer, but he is certainly worthy of a selection if available in rounds 7-9 of standard drafts.
Best-case lineup scenario: NHL Central Scouting has listed Laine as a right wing, but he played left wing for Tappara. He won tournament MVP at the 2016 IIHF World Championship, playing mostly right wing against stiff competition. That lineup flexibility, along with his finishing ability, could be key to him earning a top-line spot next to Jets forwards Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. Though Wheeler has played recent seasons with Bryan Little as his center, his late-season chemistry with Scheifele in Little's absence because of injury could be too much for Jets coach Paul Maurice to ignore. If a Laine-Scheifele-Wheeler trio stuck together for the entire season, it could feasibly finish as a top-10 line in the NHL. That's the dream scenario.
Supporting cast: Laine is not the only promising young wing on the Jets roster; Nikolaj Ehlers, 20, did not play top-six minutes on a full-time basis but still finished ninth among rookies in points (38), seventh in power-play points (11) and fourth in shots on goal (167). Wheeler may be the most underrated player in all of fantasy hockey, finishing 19th overall in 2014-15 and 21st in 2015-16 in Yahoo's performance-based rankings. Scheifele, who could become a restricted free agent this summer, had a career-best 29 goals and 61 points in 71 games this season and has legitimate 70- to 80-point upside in 2016-17. Little has missed time because of injuries in each of the past two seasons, but is a 55-60 point player when healthy. Marko Dano, 21, is another young forward poised for top-nine minutes in Winnipeg. If injuries mount, Drew Stafford and Mathieu Perreault, who are entering contract years, are more-than-serviceable veterans and have played in top-six roles over the years.
Fantasy outlook: Laine is more of a fantasy wild card than Matthews, and will likely have a lower Yahoo ADP from the start. But, unlike last season where Connor McDavid was the slam-dunk, early-round fantasy pick compared to Jack Eichel, the talent gap is smaller between Matthews and Laine. Drafting center-eligible assets early is usually the way to go in fantasy, but Laine is a sleeper candidate on the wing any time after the 10th round, especially with the chance to play alongside Scheifele and Wheeler. Andrew Ladd being out of the picture opens the door for Laine and Ehlers to be late-round gems in fantasy drafts. He's a legitimate threat to join the short list of rookies in the past 10 seasons to score at least 30 goals (Michael Grabner, Evgeni Malkin, Logan Couture, Jeff Skinner, Bobby Ryan, Panarin).