Friday, October 7, 2022

Fantasy Hockey: 2022-23 NHL rookie preview includes former Michigan stars Owen Power, Matty Beniers

The favorite: Owen Power (D-BUF)

If you polled scouts around the league, you’d likely find the majority of them have Power as their favorite to win Rookie of the Year, which is understandable. The No. 1 overall pick from the 2021 draft, Power began last season at the University of Michigan, where he posted nearly a point-per-game. He also suited up for the Canadian Olympic team before joining the Buffalo lineup in mid-April. Power finished with three points in eight NHL games. He doesn’t project to see the power-play time last year’s Rookie of the Year, Moritz Seider, did for the Red Wings, but I’d be shocked if Power didn’t play 20-plus minutes per night and post at least 30 points in 2022-23. Power is a future franchise cornerstone.

The 2022 draftees: Juraj Slafkovsky (F-MTL), Shane Wright (C-SEA) 

Slafkovsky was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 draft, while Wright, the presumptive first overall pick for much of the draft process, ended up dropping to Seattle at No. 4. The two are completely different players. Slafkovsky is a hulking winger with a nose for the net, while Wright is a steady, do-it-all center with a higher floor and lower ceiling than Slafkovsky. Neither is a guarantee to crack their organization’s NHL roster this year, although I’d imagine the odds are greater than 50/50 both will get a look.

The returnees: Matty Beniers (C-SEA), Mason McTavish (C-ANA), Kent Johnson (C-CBJ)

 All three of these players made their NHL debuts last season. 

Beniers, the No. 2 overall pick in 2021 behind Power, also played at the University of Michigan and followed a similar path to the Sabres’ No. 1 selection, debuting late in the 2021-22 campaign. He played in Seattle’s final ten games, picking up three goals and nine points over that span. The presence of Beniers – who won’t turn 20 years old until early November – is the main reason I’m not confident Wright will play in the league this year. Beniers should be a top-six center for the Kraken from the get go.

McTavish spent time with five different teams last season. That is not a misprint. He played nine games with the Ducks (three points), three games with their AHL affiliate (two points), 29 games split between two different OHL teams (47 points), and five games with the Canadian Olympic team (one point). McTavish, the No. 3 overall pick in 2021, was recently named MVP of the pandemic-delayed 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship, which was played in August. He led the tournament in scoring with eight goals and 17 points through just seven games. Anaheim almost certainly will have no choice but to give McTavish a roster spot this fall.

Johnson played with Power and Beniers at the University of Michigan, and McTavish at the Olympics and World Junior Championship. In his nine games with the Blue Jackets late in the 2021-22 campaign, Johnson managed three assists. Based on pure offensive ability, Johnson has the highest ceiling of the three Michigan alums, but his role is currently less defined. The surprise signing of Johnny Gaudreau in free agency by Columbus this summer didn’t help matters in that regard, either. Johnson is ready to play in the league, but having him hang around to play nine or ten minutes per game at the NHL level doesn’t make much sense.

More returnees: William Eklund (LW-SJ), Cole Perfetti (LW-WPG)

Eklund played nine games for the Sharks last season, posting four assists. Realizing they wouldn’t be competing for a playoff spot and unwilling to burn a year on his entry-level contract, San Jose smartly shipped Eklund back to his native Sweden to finish the 2021-22 campaign. He’ll return this fall with an eye on a full-time job with the big club.

Perfetti, the No. 10 overall pick in 2020, made his long-awaited NHL debut last year. He played in 18 games (two goals, seven points) and would have easily exhausted his rookie eligibility had an upper-body injury suffered in mid-February not sidelined him the rest of the year. The Jets have a top-heavy offensive group with little scoring depth throughout their lineup, so Perfetti shouldn’t have any trouble securing a spot on the Opening Night roster during training camp.

The import: Andrei Kuzmenko (LW-VAN)

Kuzmenko was by far the most sought after undrafted free agent in this year’s cycle – he ended up signing a one-year, entry-level contract with the Canucks in July. The 26-year-old spent parts of the last eight seasons in the KHL, including a 20-goal, 53-point performance in 45 games for SKA St. Petersburg in 2021-22. The fact Kuzmenko has shown the ability to score in the second-best league in the world is a real positive. He’s an easy top-six talent who should be able to help with the man advantage. The main knock regarding Kuzmenko is that he doesn’t skate particularly well and his game lacks pace. Nonetheless, look for him to fill a significant role for Vancouver right out of the gate.

The injured … but now healthy: Scott Perunovich (D-STL), Shane Pinto (C-OTT)

Perunovich has been a personal favorite of mine for quite a while. He’s been NHL ready for at least two years, but he’s been unable to stay healthy. Perunovich played 19 games for the Blues last season, picking up six assists, before undergoing wrist surgery in early March. He returned to action for seven games in the postseason, posting four assists. Perunovich is an undersized offensive defenseman with elite hockey sense. The presence of Torey Krug could make it difficult for Perunovich, a former Hobey Baker Award winner, to see significant power-play time this year, but if given the opportunity, I’m confident Perunovich will be ready for the role.

Pinto shocked most everyone when he posted seven points in a dozen games for Ottawa in 2020-21. He played five top-level games last year before undergoing shoulder surgery that ended his campaign. The Senators brought in outside reinforcements (Alex DeBrincat, Claude Giroux) this summer, so Pinto is going to have to work his way back up the depth chart during training camp.

Quick hits: Alexander Holtz (RW-NJ), Wyatt Johnston (C-DAL), Aatu Raty (C-NYI), Jake Sanderson (D-OTT)

Holtz was brilliant in his first full season in North America in 2021-22, tallying 26 goals and 51 points through 52 AHL games. He managed just two assists in nine games in a brief cameo with the Devils. The Swede has a high-end shot and would look great playing alongside Jack Hughes, whether that will happen this year or at some point down the line remains to be seen.

Johnston was widely considered a reach at No. 23 overall in the 2021 draft. He responded by posting 48 goals and a league-high 124 points in 68 OHL games last year. He also led the league in playoff scoring (41 points in 25 games). He’s going to get a long look from the Stars during training camp.

Raty is probably looking at extended time in the AHL this season considering he’s played all of eight games in North America, but the Islanders lack offensive firepower, and he could certainly help in that area.

Sanderson has looked great since going fifth overall in 2020, displaying more offense in his game than many expected. He’s struggled to stay healthy, but the Senators need talented bodies on the blue line and Sanderson certainly fits the bill.

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