Arber Xhekaj (MON) and Nick Blankenburg (CBJ), two of Twitter’s favourite rookie defencemen of late, have had a noticeable early impact on their respective teams. Both offer limited scoring but solid peripherals: Blankenburg has 10 hits in four games, while Xhekaj is currently tied for fifth in the league for hits with 26 alongside noted beast Tanner Jeannot (NAS) but with one fewer game played. The Canadiens defenceman—dubbed “WiFi” because his last name resembles a router password—has also contributed 13 penalty minutes in those six games.
I’m personally not a fan of fighting in hockey at all but as far as fights go, this one has a pretty clear outcome.
What kind of offensive output could we expect from Xhekaj on top of these excellent peripherals? The universe has ordained that he will finish with exactly 17 points—six goals and 11 assists.
Whereas Xhekaj is a monster at 6-4, 238lbs—perhaps one of the biggest players in the league—Blankenburg stands at 5-9, 177lbs. But do not let the smaller package fool you. This guy can hit like a train.
He can also score.
You never know with late-blooming offensive defenceman but I doubt Blankenburg, 24, will emerge from Columbus’ pack of scoring blueliners (Werenski, Boqvist, Bean, Jiricek, Mateychuk) as a consistent scoring threat. Not only will his opportunities be limited moving forward but his historical production has never blown the doors off like the other five players mentioned. He came up through the NCAA, where he played for four years—scoring only 39 points over his first 95 games (first three seasons) with Michigan but then putting up 29 in 38 last year as a Senior.
He missed Tuesday’s game against Arizona with a sore elbow and is day-to-day.
Beleaguered Erik Brannstrom (OTT) owners must be encouraged with his strong start to the 2022-23 campaign. Once considered a premier prospect, the Swede’s stocks have been falling for years now because of his sputtering production and uncertain role. But he has come out this year looking much more poised and confident with the puck.
Keep expectations for Brannstrom, 23, tempered for the time being, though. He has always looked very good on models like Hockey Prospecting but was trending steadily towards “Bust” territory heading into this year—-much like fellow HP darling, Juuso Valimaki.
Even though he is looking more dynamic out there, two points in six games is not exactly lighting the world on fire. He is still averaging only about 14 minutes a game with basically no time with the man advantage. Plus, Thomas Chabot is the top dog in Ottawa and Jake Sanderson has now arrived for good—those two have been hogging all the PP minutes so far in 2022-23. It is going to be tough for Brannstrom or any other Senators defenders to post meaningful production in their twin shadows.
Brannstrom owners should be hoping that he continues developing his newfound confidence and is traded before too much longer to a team with more opportunity. Until then, we can likely expect something like early-career Sam Girard numbers—although Girard had PP time—as in, 25 to 35 points
Speaking of Valimaki, the Finnish defender now has the primary assist on both of Dylan Guenther’s first two NHL goals—both scored on the powerplay with Matias Maccelli also helping out.
All three of these players hold intrigue in fantasy. I covered Valimaki in a recent Ramblings after he was picked up by Arizona, concluding that “if he can see regular minutes and get some confidence back…the 24 year old might still be able to offer some mid-range fantasy value in a year or two.”
He is definitely seeing regular minutes and seems to be getting his confidence back too. Arizona immediately handed him over 40% of the available PP time—though he is still playing second fiddle to Shane Gostisbehere, and Jan Moser is also in the mix. Valimaki’s short-term projection is likely similar to Brannstrom’s: 25-35 points. But the power play exposure (and early success) suggests Valimaki has a better opportunity in Arizona than his Swedish counterpart does in Canada’s capital.
Good thing he was deserted by the Flames.
Rookies Wyatt Johnston (DAL) and Kent Johnson (CBJ) are both riding multi-game goal streaks. Johnston has now scored in back-to-back games to give him three goals and four points in seven games, while Johnson has scored in three straight. Both are working with limited ice time and receiving some looks on the power play.
Johnston’s goals have come from him having good positioning and being opportunistic at the goal mouth. He is making an impact on this strong Dallas team, pushing hard to stick past his nine-game audition.
Johnson has likewise used his slick hands and quick shot in tight to pot his three goals. He has so far been able to translate the incredible handling and artistry he displayed at lower levels to the NHL.
As a Elvis Merzlikins owner in multiple leagues, I am increasingly watchful of Columbus backup Daniil Tarasov, 23. I am not exactly concerned yet—after all, Tarasov’s workload and numbers at lower levels have been inconsistent, and Merzlikins’ early struggles should be considered in the context of his team’s sluggish start.
But Tarasov is a highly touted goalie prospect who has been called Columbus’ goalie of the future, and he increasingly feels like the kind of goalie who could explode into NHL success without a lot of warning. Get your hands on him if you own Merzlikins. Tarasov’s excellent win against the Rangers that earned him the start in Arizona last night was a glimpse of things to come.
For this year, expect Tarasov to be sent down to see more consistent minutes in the AHL when Joonas Korpisalo eventually returns. It sounds like he will not be out much longer.
Finally, in case you missed it, Central Scouting released their initial list of A-rated skaters for the 2023 draft yesterday.
Over half of the 23 A-listed Forwards are Centers, with a fairly even split on the Wing. Though prospects often end up moving to the Wing at least to start when they hit the big leagues. This early glimpse makes it look like the 2023 draft will be light on defencemen and goalies.
Thanks for reading! Follow me on Twitter @beegare for more prospect content and fantasy hockey analysis.