The Journey: Potential Stars with Longer Timelines
Welcome back to The Journey, where we follow hockey prospects and their paths to the NHL, providing fantasy predictions and analysis along the way. One of the hardest tasks for fantasy managers in keeper and dynasty leagues is balancing upside and timeline. A prospect might appear to have a high ceiling, but if it will take them three or four years to reach it, you might not have the bench space or patience to wait that long.
This week, we'll take a look at a few prospects who currently have a decent chance to become stars at the NHL level but not for a number of years. First, a little game. See if you can guess the player being described here. He is an undersized defenceman (5-9, 170 lbs) who somewhat unusually chose to play in the Alberta Junior Hockey League in his draft year.
No, he is not Cale Makar, but he actually matched the Colorado star's draft year AJHL production exactly: both defenders scored 75 points in 54 games. From there, they both went the college route. Our mystery player chose the University of Denver. Any guesses?
Although his freshman year wasn't overly special, he exploded as a sophomore, finishing second in defenceman points and goals nation-wide behind New Jersey prospect Luke Hughes. His 38 points in 41 games bested better-known college prospects like Scott Morrow (CAR), Sean Behrens (COL), Henry Thrun (ANA), and Ryan Ufko (NAS)—all of whom had fantastic seasons themselves. He capped off a magical year by scoring the goal that secured the 2022 NCAA Championship for his school and was then named National Player of the Month for March and April.
If you guessed Mike Benning (FLA), permit yourself a quiet fist pump.
Here's the golden goal:
For fantasy, the burning questions around Benning are upside and timeline. Hockey Prospecting gives Benning a 20% chance right now of averaging more than 37 points over his career, which makes him an upper-tier defensive prospect by star potential. His ultimate ceiling will become clearer as he makes the jump to the AHL and demonstrates whether or not the offence will translate. Although smaller defenders are increasingly excelling in the NHL, players still need to be able to handle the physicality and intensity at hockey's highest level.
Benning will need to continue developing his stick work and gap control to maintain his defensive effectiveness, much like Makar demonstrated to perfection recently against the game's best player:
It is a bit strange that Florida has not yet signed the 20-year-old Benning to an entry-level contract but they will likely lock him down soon, perhaps over the summer. It would not be surprising to see him return to Denver for a year to help them defend their championship before joining the Panthers' AHL affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers, in 2023-24. That means we likely won't see him with a cat on his chest for at least another couple years—a long wait in fantasy. In most formats, that is too long to stash a prospect on your bench but if you can afford it in deeper dynasties, Benning is definitely worth an add.
Okay, one more: this next equally undersized player (5-9, 146 lbs) is also following an unusual route to the NHL. He was drafted by Detroit in the seventh round in 2019 after leading his MHL team in scoring during both the regular season (60 points in 60 games) and playoffs (14 in 20). He then played in the VHL (20 in 27) against men in his D+1 year as a 19-year-old before moving over the top Belarussian professional league in his D+2 campaign (32 in 43) where he finished just outside the top 10 in league scoring.
Any guesses yet?
Our second mystery player then made the jump to North America in 2021-22 and saw a nine-game audition with Grand Rapids (three points). Wings coach Jeff Blashill had this to say: "He makes a lot of good plays. He's got a pretty good mind offensively. He knows how to create space for himself. He's really slippery and smart. If you really watch him play, he's strong on the puck. There's no aversion to traffic, no aversion to holding on to the puck, no aversion to playing extremely hard."
If you guessed Kyrill Tyutyayev, take a second fist pump.
The feisty Russian has defied expectations at every level of hockey so far and seems poised to play a bigger role with Grand Rapids in 2022-23. He has gotten this far on the strength of his offensive instincts, creativity, and puck control but, given his size and rawness, will likely require at least a couple full years in the AHL to hone his defensive habits and improve his skating.
Here he is scoring a pretty goal at a Red Wings prospect game this past September by cutting to the net with a power move you might not expect from a player of his stature:
And here he is showing some impressive backchecking to break up a scoring chance during preseason action:
Devon Levi (BUF) is another college player who turned in an absolutely dominant 2021-22. He posted a sparkling 1.54 GA. and 0.952 SV% over 32 games with Northeastern, represented Team Canada at the Olympics, and then brought home the 2022 Mike Richter award for the NCAA's top goaltender. He was also nominated for the prestigious Hobey Baker award as the best overall college player but somehow lost to another goaltender, Dryden McKay.
Now is an excellent time to sell your Levi shares. You likely picked him up for free at some point this year, and unlike Benning, there is quite a bit of hype around the young Sabres prospect. But while Benning might conceivably be a two- or three-year wait, Levi could easily be four or five. He is currently only 21 years old and could easily play another couple years in college followed by a couple more as an AHL starter. At that point, maybe he makes the jump to the NHL primarily as a backup before ideally playing his way into a starter's role. So it could be 2026-27 before Levi posts his first NHL statistics with no guarantee that he is helpful to fantasy squads by that point.
If you can find a dance partner, point to Levi's stats and awards and move him in the offseason for a goalie prospect like Spencer Martin (VAN) or Ivan Fedotov (PHI) who is set to see NHL games as early as 2022-23. I have increasingly taken the advice of Dobber and others, including the Zero-G draft strategy from Apples and Ginos, to pass on shiny new G prospects with extended timelines in favour of older tenders on the verge of NHL action. Levi may indeed become an NHL star in half a decade, but both Martin and Fedotov have signed NHL contracts and appear set to play backup roles for their respective teams in 2022-23. You could strike fantasy gold with this approach if either Thatcher Demko or Carter Hart hits a rough patch or goes down with an injury next year.
Other goaltenders who would make sense to invest in now for these same reasons include Pyotr Kochetkov (CAR), Filip Gustavsson (OTT), Logan Thompson (VGK), Connor Ingram (NAS), Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (BUF), Daniil Tarasov (CBJ), and perhaps Ivan Prosvetov (ARI).
Until recently, Ilya Konovalov (EDM) would have been on this list but his agent recently announced plans to terminate his NHL contract and return to the KHL. As a side note, perhaps this news means Oilers prospect Ryan Fanti gets more hype now in fantasy. He posted an impressive 1.83 GAA and 0.929 SV% as an NCAA sophomore, though he falls into the same timeline trap as Levi and would be more of a speculative trade bait stash to hopefully snag an Oilers fan in your league.