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Fantasy keeper leagues ripe with under-23 talent

by Sean McCullen /

If you're in a keeper league, chances are Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, John Tavares, Tyler Seguin, Claude Giroux and the like are already on a roster heading into your draft for the 2015-16 season.

If you're fortunate enough to own one of the upper-echelon fantasy producers, you may be willing to reach for Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers or Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres to add to your keeper group.

The two highly touted rookies aren't the only young players I think you should target in keeper leagues, though. There's elite talent you can get in later rounds.

Here are eight players under 23 years old you should be able to get after the first two rounds, or even much later, and then keep in your lineup for seasons to come:

Aaron Ekblad, D, Florida Panthers -- Ekblad, the No. 1 pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, had 12 goals and 39 points last season to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie. He's going to reach 50 points in his second season; even 60 is possible. Eleven NHL defensemen had 50 or more points in 2014-15, compared to 78 forwards, and only three D-men had 60-plus (Erik Karlsson, P.K. Subban, Brent Burns). Ekblad, 19, will also provide coverage in other categories playing for the up-and-coming Panthers; he had a plus-12 rating, 170 shots on goal and 109 hits as a rookie. Take him in the third round of keeper drafts.

Brandon Saad, LW/RW, Columbus Blue Jackets -- Saad is a hot commodity in fantasy after he was traded from the Chicago Blackhawks this offseason. That's because he's likely to play on a line with center Ryan Johansen, who established an NHL career high with 45 assists last season. Saad, 22, had 42 goals, 57 assists and a plus-27 rating in 160 games over the past two seasons. His 203 SOG (T-59th in the NHL) in 2014-15 were 44 more than the previous season, and you can count on that number continuing to go up playing with Johansen.

Sean Monahan, C, Calgary Flames -- Monahan, who turns 21 on Oct. 12, followed up a solid rookie season (34 points in 75 games) by scoring 31 goals with 31 assists and a plus-eight rating in 2014-15. He and rookie left wing Johnny Gaudreau had instant chemistry, and there's no reason to expect any drop-off with the young duo this season. Monahan had 191 SOG (T-25th among centers), 51 more than as a rookie in 2013-14. He's worth a fourth- or fifth-round pick in keeper drafts.

Marko Dano, C, Chicago Blackhawks -- Dano was part of the package sent to Chicago to get Saad to Columbus. Like Saad, the 20-year-old lands in a great situation; he might start the season playing left wing (he's listed as a center by Yahoo) on the Blackhawks' top line with center Jonathan Toews and fellow Slovak Marian Hossa. It's not unreasonable to think Dano could score 20-25 goals this season after he had eight in 35 games as a rookie last season; he's got 40-goal potential. If he's still there in the ninth or 10th round of your keeper draft, you must take him.

Matt Dumba, D, Minnesota Wild -- Dumba, 21, had six goals and 10 points in his final 27 regular-season games as a rookie in 2014-15, and had two goals (each on the power play) and two assists in 10 Stanley Cup Playoff games. His plus-13 rating in 58 games led NHL rookie defensemen and was the best ever for a Wild rookie D-man. Dumba has 50-point potential and could reach that mark as soon as this season, particularly if he gets the ice time that would come with a promotion to one of Minnesota's top two defense pairs. With Jared Spurgeon sidelined by injury Feb. 18-March 10, Dumba scored four goals and had a plus or even rating in all 11 games while averaging nearly 19 minutes per game playing on the Wild's second pair.

Valeri Nichushkin, RW, Dallas Stars -- Nichushkin, 20, is coming back from a hip injury that required surgery and limited him to eight games last season, but he's a lock to improve on his solid rookie season of 2013-14 (14 goals, 20 assists in 79 games). Nichushkin could play on the Stars' top line with Seguin (77 points, seventh in the League) and reigning NHL scoring champion Jamie Benn (87 points). If he does, 50-plus points are a very realistic possibility. If not, he'll still be productive playing on the second line with center Jason Spezza (45 assists in 2014-15) and wing Ales Hemsky. If there is a "next Vladimir Tarasenko" already in the League, Nichushkin is it, so look to steal him in the 11th or 12th round of keeper drafts.

Ryan Strome, C, New York Islanders -- Strome had 50 points (17 goals, 33 assists) and was plus-23 (T-5th among centers) in 81 games in 2014-15, his first full NHL season. Though I don't think his ceiling is as high as the four forwards mentioned above, the 22-year-old is going to put up 60-70 points per season as long as he's playing with the young, skilled Islanders, whose 596 goals since 2012-13 are eighth in the NHL.

Teuvo Teravainen, LW, Chicago Blackhawks -- Teravainen, who turns 21 on Friday, made a name for himself in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, when his four points (two goals) tied Hossa for the Blackhawks lead. Chicago's first-round pick (No. 18) at the 2012 draft, Teravainen's numbers will improve once he figures out NHL goalies, becomes stronger and gets more comfortable in the League. He had 66 SOG in 34 regular-season games as a rookie (1.94 per game) last season, displaying elite vision and hockey sense at times, but scored four goals. He's definitely worth taking in the 15th round or later in keeper leagues.

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