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Fantasy: Prospects with potential to break out

Mitch Marner, Nick Schmaltz among those who could make impact this season

by Ben Zweiman @BZweimanNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

Every season, young players emerge to surprise us all. Most of these prospects are high draft picks from previous years, and others fly under the radar, either from the NCAA, overseas or selected in later rounds. The ability to scout these players before they emerge is crucial in being the first to claim them either in a fantasy draft or on the waiver wire. Players like Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere and Detroit Red Wings center Dylan Larkin can provide that boost that gets your team to the championship.  

Gostisbehere, a third-round pick (No. 78) by the Flyers in the 2012 NHL Draft, was called up in November and stuck with Philadelphia the rest of the season. He finished first among rookie defensemen with 46 points (17 goals, 29 assists) in 64 games and was 17th among defensemen in Yahoo's performance-based rankings after going undrafted in standard fantasy leagues. 

Video: WSH@PHI, Gm4: Gostisbehere blasts puck home for PPG

Larkin, selected with the 15th pick by the Red Wings in the 2014 draft, surprised many when he made the jump from the NCAA to the NHL last season. He led Detroit with 23 goals, a plus-11 rating and 221 shots on goal, and was tied for third with 45 points. Larkin finished 123rd in Yahoo's rankings last season, 30 spots ahead of his average draft position. 

Here are players from past draft classes who are NHL rookie eligible and could provide upside this season (Note: most players listed haven't played in the League or have played fewer than 10 games): 

Mitch Marner, C/LW, Toronto Maple Leafs
First-round pick (No. 4) in 2015 

Marner's accomplishments in juniors with London of the Ontario Hockey League are well documented. Last season, he led the Knights to the OHL championship, won OHL playoff MVP (44 points in 18 games) and won the 2016 Memorial Cup title, leading all scorers with 14 points in four games. 

Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock told the Toronto Sun on July 9 that Marner "has a path set up for himself." If Marner can continue down that road, it could lead him right to a spot in the NHL. It would be wise for the Maple Leafs to bring Marner up with other young, promising prospects William Nylander and Auston Matthews, each of whom are virtual locks to be in Toronto's top six this season. Marner can either make the NHL or be sent to London for his final junior season, but what else does he have to prove in the OHL? Nothing. The flashy forward is worth a flier late in fantasy drafts and has the potential to put up huge numbers if given the opportunity. 

Video: Mitch Marner Highlights- May 25, 2016

Nick Schmaltz, C/RW, Chicago Blackhawks
First-round pick (No. 20) in 2014 

The Blackhawks are in the midst of another roster overhaul. Forwards Andrew Shaw and Teuvo Teravainen were traded, and forward Andrew Ladd signed with the New York Islanders in free agency. Chicago's only free agent signing so far has been fourth-line forward Jordin Tootoo, so there is expected to be plenty of competition at training camp in September. 

Schmaltz, 20, had 11 goals and 46 points in 37 games for the University of North Dakota last season, helping it to the NCAA championship. He knows the opportunity is there to grab a spot on the Blackhawks roster and told the Chicago Sun Times on July 11 he's going to "do whatever it takes." Schmaltz's most likely destination is on the third line, possibly with fellow up-and-coming prospect Tyler Motte out of the University of Michigan. He has the type of skill that could even get him a look next to center Jonathan Toews at right wing. Anyone playing next to Toews is worth owning in fantasy. 

Zach Werenski, D, Columbus Blue Jackets
First-round pick (No. 8) in 2015 

After Werenski was a point-per-game player last season at Michigan (36 in 36 games), he signed an entry-level contract with the Blue Jackets and joined their American Hockey League affiliate in Lake Erie in time for the Calder Cup Playoffs. He scored a goal in seven regular-season games and stepped up in the playoffs, finishing second among defensemen with 14 points in 17 games to help Lake Erie win the Calder Cup. 

Columbus' blue line isn't very crowded with six defensemen signed to a one-way contract. Werenski is far and away the Blue Jackets' best defenseman prospect and is arguably more talented than everyone on their defense not named Seth Jones. He's an excellent skater and puck mover who has potential to play in all situations. If there's any rookie defenseman this season that can duplicate what Gostibehere did for the Flyers last season, it's Werenski. 

Pavel Zacha, C/LW, New Jersey Devils
First-round pick (No. 6) in 2015

The 6-foot-3, 210-pound forward out of the Czech Republic provided a glimpse of his ability to Devils fans last season. After scoring 28 goals with 64 points in 51 games during the regular season and 13 points in seven OHL playoff games for Sarnia, Zacha, 19, made his NHL debut against the Maple Leafs in New Jersey's season finale. His impact was felt immediately with an assist on Devante Smith-Pelly's goal 9:10 into the first period. Zacha finished with two assists, a plus-4 rating and three shots on goal in 16:51, not to mention 4:14 of power-play ice time. 

The Devils likely will enter training camp with at least two spots available in the top-12 forward group. Zacha wasn't able to participate in development camp last week because of a hip pointer, but is expected to be ready in September. He offers size and skill at either center or wing, and his defensive prowess is what will be key for him landing in the League this season. NHL.com's Mike Morreale projects Zacha to start the season as the Devils' third-line center, a spot that would give him consideration in fantasy leagues assuming New Jersey's offense takes a big step with the addition of Taylor Hall.

Juuse Saros, G, Nashville Predators
Fourth-round pick (No. 99) in 2013

The 21-year-old Finn was among the best goaltenders in the AHL last season, finishing 29-8-0 with a 2.24 goals-against average and .920 save percentage in 38 games for Milwaukee. Saros made his NHL debut for the Predators on Nov. 28 against the Buffalo Sabres, allowing three goals on 23 shots in a 4-1 loss. Don't be discouraged by those results, though, since two goals Saros allowed came when Nashville was shorthanded. 

Backup goalie Carter Hutton left for the St. Louis Blues in free agency, leaving Saros in a competition with Marek Mazanec for the spot behind Pekka Rinne this season. Mazanec is 8-11-4 with a 2.77 GAA and .902 save percentage in 27 NHL games. Though a small sample size, those numbers are relatively uninspiring. If Saros can beat out Mazanec, he likely would see around 20-25 starts if Rinne stays healthy, which is a big if for the 33-year-old who has had injury concerns in the past and allowed a League-high 161 goals last season. Predators general manager David Poile told The Tennessean on July 16 that Saros is "a terrific athlete" and sees little separation between each potential backup.  

Mathew Barzal, C, New York Islanders
First-round pick (No. 16) in 2015

There were some injury concerns surrounding Barzal in his draft year, but he put those worries to rest last season with Seattle of the Western Hockey League. He had 27 goals and 88 points in 58 regular-season games, and helped the Thunderbirds reach the WHL finals with five goals and 26 points in 18 playoff games. Barzal plays a solid two-way game and has incredible vision; he had 146 assists in 161 WHL games in three seasons. 

The Islanders lost center Frans Nielsen and right wing Kyle Okposo in free agency this offseason. They signed Ladd and veterans PA Parenteau and Jason Chimera, but none of the three are centers. The only true centers on the Islanders roster are John Tavares and Casey Cizikas, who will occupy the first and fourth-line roles, respectively. This means New York will decide its second- and third-line centers during training camp, and Barzal will be in that mix after impressing at camp last season. Since being drafted, Barzal has been viewed as the Islanders' future second-line center, so why waste any more time handing him the reins if he shows up ready in September? 

Other prospects to monitor: Mikko Rantanen, RW, Colorado Avalanche; Julius Honka, D, Dallas Stars; Dylan Strome, C, Arizona Coyotes; Kevin Fiala, LW, Nashville Predators

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