Key roles for players on each NHL team

Alex DeBrincat is expected to debut for the Blackhawks on Thursday. Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire

The 2017-18 NHL season is finally here. Camp broke, and rosters are set. Leading into the season, let’s break down key roles on each team’s roster:

Anaheim Ducks: While launching the 2017-18 regular campaign without Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen isn’t ideal, the Ducks can take some comfort in that both defensemen are on schedule to recover from their respective shoulder injuries by Nov. 1. “They’re progressing very well,” coach Randy Carlyle said over the weekend. “Hopefully they’re ahead of schedule …” Still, that’s an approximate loss of 11 games for both. Look for Josh Manson and Brandon Montour to see additional blue line minutes — including valuable playing time with the man advantage in Montour’s case – while Lindholm and Vatanen continue to recuperate.

Arizona Coyotes: Appearing to sustain a nasty knee injury just within the last couple of weeks, Oliver Ekman-Larsson nonetheless seems good-to-go for the Coyotes’ opener Thursday. Coming off a ho-hum 2016-17, at least by his standards, Ekman-Larsson is in position to benefit from the ever-improving corps of skaters up front. A bounce back 50-point campaign, including robust totals with the extra skater, is again well within his grasp.

Boston Bruins: Notre Dame alum Anders Bjork has impressed coach Bruce Cassidy enough to earn a spot on the top line with Boston heavyweights Patrice Bergeron (day-to-day with a lower-body injury) and Brad Marchand. Fellow rookie Jake DeBrusk initially joins David Krejci and David Pastrnak to round out the Bruins’ top six. This past collegiate year, his third, Bjork erupted for 21 goals and 31 assists in 39 contests with the NCAA Division I squad. As a top-six skater, the 21-year-old is worth a flier in deeper fantasy leagues.

Buffalo Sabres: If Evander Kane fails to build on last year’s most productive season yet with the Sabres (28 goals, 15 assists in 70 games), it won’t be for a lack of support from his new head coach. Publically offering the 26-year-old power forward a clean slate, while also calling him a “great role model”, Phil Housley has made it clear he has Kane’s back. Such cheerleading can’t hurt. Neither does Kane’s confirmed gig on Buffalo’s top line with center Jack Eichel. A relatively healthy run – a challenge for the winger since the last lockout season – should result in his first 30-goal campaign since 2011-12 with the Winnipeg Jets.

Calgary Flames: Jaromir Jagr and his considerable caboose – as assessed by fellow Czech Michael Frolik – are headed for Calgary. If the 45-year-old machine supplants Micheal Ferland on the Flames’ top line adjacent Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau, look out. If instead, Jagr settles in on a third forward unit with young center Sam Bennett, we’re less enthused as invested fantasy owners. Those drafting this week will have to decide on whether to roll the dice or not.

Carolina Hurricanes: Earning a roster spot out of camp, 18-year-old forward Martin Necas will get his first taste of NHL action this fall. However, this prospective stint already feels like a nine-game audition in the making. Hurricanes GM Ron Francis: “The biggest thing for us is making sure we do the right thing for [Necas] in his development, long term. We think his upside is tremendous. We think he is potentially a guy who can be a (number) one or two center man for our organization for a lot of years.” Our guess is the 2017 first-round selection (12th overall) is headed to the AHL or back to the Czech league (his choice) in relatively short order. At this stage, he’s a fantasy keeper consideration only.

Chicago Blackhawks: You can disregard his last-minute assignment to the minors— Alex DeBrincat is expected to skate in the Blackhawks’ season opener Thursday. Now whether the diminutive winger serves in a top-six role on a line with Patrick Kane or not remains to be seen. Keep an eye on it. DeBrincat erupted for 127 points, including 65 goals, in 63 games with the OHL Erie Otters in 2016-17.

Colorado Avalanche: Perhaps Alexander Kerfoot had a top-six gig in sight when he snubbed the New Jersey Devils – the club that drafted him in 2012 – to sign with the rebuilding Avalanche. If so, he’s already realized that goal. At last check, the 23-year-old Harvard grad was competing on a No. 1 unit with center Matt Duchene (still there) and reclamation project Nail Yakupov. A recent add to the ESPN.com game, Kerfoot has plenty of potential as an under-the-radar asset.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Following several seasons on the wing in Columbus and Ottawa, Nick Foligno is being shifted back to the middle out of necessity, temporarily or otherwise. While the 29-year-old is sure to manage well enough in this new supporting role, Foligno’s production is likely to wane some, although a healthy serving of prime power play minutes will help.

Dallas Stars: Just because he’s made the Stars’ NHL roster out of camp doesn’t mean Julius Honka will see much meaningful ice time in the next little while. “He’s not there yet,” coach Ken Hitchcock said of the 21-year-old blueliner. “He’s not in our top six, but he’s got a chance to be a top-four guy. We want to see how far we can get him in the first 10 days here.” If assistant coach Rick Wilson can’t get the talented Honka “far” enough in that limited period, a ticket back to the AHL will be in order. Still, a fantasy asset with a view to the future, the talented offensive-defenseman is one to watch as he develops this season and beyond.

Detroit Red Wings: Veteran defenseman Trevor Daley is poised to anchor the Red Wings’ No. 1 power play. Badgered by injuries in Pittsburgh last year, including six weeks lost to knee surgery, the 33-year-old was his most productive with the Stars back in 2014-15, notching 16 goals and 22 assists in 68 games. Taking ownership of the top-unit gig with his new Detroit club, along with remaining relatively healthy, could see Daley again flirt with similar figures.

Edmonton Oilers: Following all this summer’s talk of splitting up Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the forward pair remains linked on the Oilers’ top line for now. As a result, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins ends up splitting the second scoring unit between Milan Lucic and surprise camp standout Kailer Yamamoto, while new Oiler Ryan Strome falls from his projected perch on McDavid’s right side to center the third line. While this current recipe sucks a lot of air out of Strome’s potential fantasy value, it still feels rather fluid. For one thing, the just-drafted Yamamoto has to stick beyond his nine-game audition. Keep a close view to any and all shuffling in the first couple of weeks.

Florida Panthers: Surprisingly, new Panthers forward Jamie McGinn could be fantasy-relevant to start 2017-18. Acquired in a trade with the Arizona Coyotes earlier this month, the 29-year-old journeyman is the front-runner to accompany the forward duo of Vincent Trocheck and Radim Vrbata on Florida’s second scoring line. With opposing clubs focused on shutting down the top trio of Johnathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Evgeny Dadonov, the Trocheck line could wreak a fair bit of productive damage. Historically a fantasy dark horse on occasion, McGinn has enjoyed his share of scoring moments with the San Jose Sharks, Avalanche, Sabres and Ducks, before falling flat in the desert last year. Alongside Trocheck and Vrbata, he strikes as an intriguing bargain Daily Fantasy asset in particular.

Los Angeles Kings: While Marian Gaborik continues to battle a chronic knee problem off-ice, University of Minnesota-Duluth grad Alex Iafallo is carving himself out a spot on a Kings’ top-six line with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown, however temporarily. As long as the speedy forward remains in that position – instead of, say, veteran winger Michael Cammalleri – he merits monitoring as fantasy-relevant. Iafallo scored 21 goals and 30 assists in 42 games with the Bulldogs in his final collegiate year.

Montreal Canadiens: He’s healthy and skating on a top line with Max Paciorettyand Montreal’s newest skating deity Jonathan Drouin. Under such conditions, there’s no reason Brendan Gallagher can’t break through the 50-point mark – if not 60 – for the first time in his pro career. However, if Gallagher does fall hurt (again) or doesn’t rise to task on that talented top line, look for Sophomore Artturi Lehkonen or veteran Ales Hemsky to sub in quickly.

Minnesota Wild: A couple of better-safe-than-sorry skipped games out the gates or just the first two absences in an eventual string of many? For its part, Minnesota management is breezily downplaying the gravity of Zach Parise missing the first week of the season. “Zach actually feels great, but he’s having a hard time getting over the hump, having a hard time getting to 100 percent,” GM Chuck Fletcher said. “So we’re just going to pull it back a bit. The way the schedule sets up, we have two games each of the next three weeks, so I think it’s smart to give him the time he needs to get closer to 100 percent and feel better …” Sure, okay, but considering Parise’s recent history of injury issues, we’re wary of making any great fantasy investment in the 33-year-old winger until he’s back on the ice for a decent spell. Look for Nino Niederreiter to fill in on the left side of the top line in the meanwhile.

Nashville Predators: After spending the offseason recovering from a broken leg, Nick Bonino insists he’s debut-ready. “Barring any setbacks, I feel good,” saidBonino, who practiced but didn’t compete throughout training camp. “That’s something we’ll take a look (at) with the docs and make a final assessment, but I feel as good as I can right now.” Centering a second line with wingers Scott Hartnell and a fully-healed Kevin Fiala (fractured femur), Bonino is projected to make productive strides now that he’s out from under the dark Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin shadow cast in Pittsburgh. Just give him some time to develop rhythm with his new squad.

New Jersey Devils: With veteran Travis Zajac (pectoral surgery) out for the better part of 2017-18, the Devils are opting to open with Pavel Zacha centering a top linebetween Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri. That’s quite the opportunity for the 20-year-old sophomore. Conversely, Adam Henrique takes a hit to his fantasy value in falling to third-line center on the depth chart behind rookie Nico Hischier.

New York Islanders: Undoubtedly to the relief of club management, star John Tavares and fresh import Jordan Eberle lasted through all of camp together on an Islanders’ top line. That No. 1 trio, also including left wing Anders Lee, initially offers the most fantasy promise as genuine competition gets underway.

New York Rangers: Just over a month ago, Filip Chytil was 17 years old and facing his second season with Zlin ZPS HC in the Czech league. Now, the 2017 first-round draft selection (21st overall) is poised to make his NHL debut centering a Rangers’ scoring line with Rich Nash and Mats Zuccarello. If you haven’t already, quickly acquaint yourself with this potential keeper league gem. Chytil remains widely available in ESPN.com competition.

Ottawa Senators: Recovering from foot surgery, Erik Karlsson is likely a no-go to start the regular season for the Senators. Mind you, there was talk, not long ago, that the elite blueliner might be recuperated in time to skate in the opener, so this absence shouldn’t endure much longer. Next week, maybe? Veteran Dion Phaneuf is penciled in to anchor Ottawa’s top power play between now and then.

Philadelphia Flyers: After suffering an upper-body injury in preseason action Sunday, Shayne Gostisbehere insists he’s “good to go” for Wednesday’s opener in San Jose. Unleash him as you usually would. The Flyers’ top offensive-defenseman led Philly’s blue line with 39 points in 76 games this past season, including 23 with the man advantage. Meanwhile, striving to build on a 30-point rookie campaign, young Ivan Provorov sits second behind Gostisbehere on the club’s fantasy blue line depth chart.

Pittsburgh Penguins: You can rule out Patric Hornqvist for the start of the 2017-18 campaign. As he continues to recover from offseason hand surgery, the 30-year-old forward has been placed on injured reserve. Sophomore Jake Guentzel, one of Sidney Crosby’s wingers at even strength, is again expected to replace Hornqvist on the squad’s top power play for the time being, which adds additional shine to the 22-year-old as an already appealing fantasy commodity.

San Jose Sharks: While hotshot prospect Timo Meier fell short of wowing those behind the bench in training camp, Kevin Labanc has seemingly snatched a top-line gig alongside Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski. As such, the 21-year-old former Barrie Colt, who collected 20 points in 55 games through his Sharks’ rookie season, should be monitored closely as a prospective fantasy asset in these early goings.

St. Louis Blues: Through no fault of his own, forward Jaden Schwartz is losing his spot on the Blues’ No. 1 unit. In the quest for balance, coach Mike Yeo is shuffling Schwartz to the second scoring line alongside new center Brayden Schenn, boosting Vladimir Sobotka to the top unit as replacement. While competing alongside Vladimir Tarasenko and Paul Stastny enhances Sobotka’s fantasy value considerably, Schwartz’s ‘demotion’ – should it last – could prove disappointing to his respective owners.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Defensive prospect Mikhail Sergachev has sufficiently impressed his bosses to earn a spot on the Lightning’s opening day roster. How long he lasts there is altogether another story. “It could be nine games, 10 games, 40 games,” GM Steve Yzerman recently said, rather unhelpfully. That matters not in most deep keeper leagues, though. The 2016 ninth-overall draft pick (by the Canadiens, mind you) is a must-own fantasy prospect.

Toronto Maple Leafs: It isn’t often a fourth-line forward garners our fantasy attention, but Connor Brown isn’t your everyday supporting cast member in that sense. Scoring 20 goals (plus 16 assists) in his rookie season, Brown would seamlessly slide in as a top-six winger on many other NHL squads. And Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock strongly hints the 23-year-old could rise the ranks as the season progresses. Keep watch.

Vancouver Canucks: Rookie winger Brock Boeser has, as anticipated, made the Canucks’ roster ahead of Saturday’s opener, and the 20-year-old’s future appears exceptionally bright. Joining center Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi on the Canucks’ newfangled top line, Boeser sports 50-plus-point potential right off the bat. Owners in deeper and/or keeper associations should jump on the former first-round draft pick (2015) now, as he won’t be available in 88 percent of ESPN.com leagues for long.

Vegas Golden Knights: Don’t panic. Despite Tuesday’s assignment to the minors, center Vadim Shipachyov remains favored to make his NHL debut Friday on a top forward line with Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith (while James Nealrecuperates from a hand injury). The move (possible since Shipachyov doesn’t have to clear waivers) allows GM George McPhee a bit of time to make other changes before Friday’s opener, while becoming roster compliant by Tuesday’s deadline.

Washington Capitals: Despite enjoying a solid camp on a dangerous line with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, sophomore Jakub Vrana could still kick off 2017-18 in the minors, as the Capitals are interested in signing Alex Chiasson, and Vrana is the solo waiver-exempt player remaining on the Capitals’ roster. However it shakes out, even if Vrana is demoted this week, consider the situation fluid. The 21-year-old is projected to compete in the NHL for the majority of this season.

Winnipeg Jets: To the vexation of many Jets fans, Kyle Connor has been reassigned to the Manitoba Moose. Fact is, there’s little to gain from keeping the club’s top forward prospect up in the majors with only limited ice-time available. If/when another prominent forward or two fall injured, Connor should be considered for quick promotion. In the meanwhile, he’ll benefit from the experience of playing meaningful minutes with the Moose. Keeper league owners already invested in the promising 20-year-old should remain patient a while longer.

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