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CULLEN: 20 FANTASY POINTS – Early Standouts – Significant early injuries – Who benefits from opportunity

OTTAWA, ON - OCTOBER 14: Ottawa Senators Right Wing Vladimir Tarasenko (91) after a whistle during second period National Hockey League action between the Philadelphia Flyers and Ottawa Senators on October 14, 2023, at Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa, ON, Canada. (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire)

Each week, I dive into the numbers to help make decisions when it comes time to make fantasy hockey decisions.

This week, a look at a new Panthers winger plus lots of early injuries including to significant players like Sebastian Aho, Gabriel Vilardi, Kirby Dach, Viktor Arvidsson, Matthew Boldy, Pavel Buchnevich, and more. That means new opportunities for others looking for a bigger role.

#1 In the past couple of seasons, Evan Rodrigues has proven to be a premier shot generator who could thrive in a supporting offensive role. In those two seasons – one with Pittsburgh and one with Colorado – he put up 82 points (35 G, 47 A) in 151 games while generating 2.85 shots on goal per game. That was something of a late breakthrough for the now 30-year-old forward who is looking at an even better opportunity this season in Florida. Rodrigues has opened the season skating on Aleksander Barkov’s wing and is averaging 18:54 time on ice per game, which would be a career high, on the way to producing five points (2 G, 3 A) and 17 shots on goal in his first four games. It is obviously a very small sample, but Rodrigues has the underlying numbers to make his production more sustainable. For a player that has never had 20 goals and 50 points in an NHL season, Rodrigues should be looking to exceed those numbers this season.

#2 Entering the season, there did not seem to be a lot of buzz surrounding new Ottawa Senators right winger Vladimir Tarasenko, a six-time 30-goal scorer who signed with the club as a free agent. The veteran winger has opened his Sens tenure with six points (2 G, 4 A) in four games, but that doesn’t alleviate the concerns about him entirely, either. He is averaging just 13:38 of ice time per game, which would be his lowest since his rookie season in 2012-2013, and he only has six shots on goal through four games. Although Tarasenko has been skating with rookie Ridly Greig at center, with Josh Norris returning to the Senators lineup, that could eventually help Tarasenko get more offensive opportunities, but the ice time and shot rate bear watching.

#3 It is not easy for Ottawa Senators defenceman Jake Sanderson to get power play time on a team with Thomas Chabot and Jakob Chychrun already, which is not to say that it never happens, only that he ranks second among Sens defencemen in five-on-four ice time behind Chabot. Even so, Sanderson is off to a stellar start, producing five points (2 G, 3 A) in four games. He only has five shots on goal, which is not encouraging, but Sanderson is going to get quality ice time, even if he is not always going to be quarterbacking Ottawa’s top power play unit.

#4 A lot was made of the decline in performance last season from Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman, but it might be premature to start the 32-year-old blueliner into a heavy decline phase of his career. Hedman has contributed five points (1 G, 4 A) and 13 shots on goal through five games, which is a promising start, but the Lightning have been getting outshot with Hedman on the ice (46.2 CF%), too, and that hasn’t happened for more than a decade.

#5 Carolina Hurricanes centre Sebastian Aho has been out for a couple of games and while his injury is thought to be a day-to-day thing, his absence is still felt. Through a couple of games, the Hurricanes were getting 79.1% of expected goals with Aho on the ice during five-on-five play, In Aho’s absence, Teuvo Teravainen has moved into the first line centre role and Teravainen has scored four goals in five games to start the season. Additionally, the Hurricanes have better depth down the middle as Jesperi Kotkaniemi continues to develop. The 23-year-old has started his sixth NHL season with five points (2 G, 3 A) and 14 shots on goal in five games, averaging a career-high 15:51 of ice time per game.

#6 In a move that didn’t make a huge offseason splash, the Detroit Red Wings brought in puck-moving defenceman Shayne Gostisbehere. While he does not have a huge role, averaging 18:53 of ice time per game, Gostisbehere is getting first unit power play time alongside Moritz Seider and Gostisbehere already has four points (1 G, 3 A) in four games with the Red Wings controlling play (53.2 CF%) in Gostisbehere’s five-on-five minutes.

#7 Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews is the early leader in all-situations expected goals (3.76), ahead of Matthew Tkachuk (3.23), Connor Bedard (3.10), Artturi Lehkonen (2.85), Filip Forsberg (2.74), and Jack Eichel (2.64). Bedard is obviously playing a lot for Chicago and creating chances, but they have yet to materialize into goals. For a player who enters the league with a legendary release, Bedard’s ability to generate high-quality shots bodes well for his future production. It’s also encouraging to see Eichel playing at such a high level. He had an outstanding playoff, but it appears in the early going that Eichel is going to continue at an elite level. He leads the NHL with 28 shots on goal in five games, though Nathan MacKinnon (27) and Auston Matthews (26) are close behind while playing just four games.

#8 Winnipeg Jets RW Gabriel Vilardi is out for four-to-six weeks with a sprained MCL, which is a tough situation for a player who was averaging more than 20 minutes of ice time per game through two games. Vilardi was also rocking a 73.3 CF%, but now the Jets will need to find someone to fill those minutes. It looks like Mason Appleton will get first crack alongside Kyle Connor and Mark Scheifele and that is a big opportunity for a 27-year-old who scored a career-high 25 points (12 G, 13 A) in 56 games in 2020-2021.

#9 Montreal lost centre Kirby Dach to a torn ACL, ending the 22-year-old’s season prematurely. He had two assists and 70.4 CF% in two games before getting hurt. Alex Newhook will slide into the middle of the ice to fill the hole created by Dach’s absence, while Tanner Pearson will move up the depth chart to take Newhook’s spot on left wing. Pearson, who played just 14 games last season, has two goals in three games to start his Habs career.

#10 On the Florida Panthers’ run to the Stanley Cup Final last season, Sam Bennett was an impact player at centre, between Carter Verhaeghe and Matthew Tkachuk. Bennett has yet to play this season because of a lower-body injury, so Eetu Luostarinen is getting that opportunity. Unfortunately, he has yet to record a point and has just one shot on goal in four games. That is not making the most of the situation.

#11 Los Angeles Kings winger Viktor Arvidsson has been an excellent and sometimes underrated contributor, but he is out long term after undergoing back surgery, which means new opportunities on the right side in Los Angeles. Arthur Kaliyev is skating in Arvidsson’s typical spot, alongside Phillip Danault and Trevor Moore, while rookie Alexis Laferriere has landed a prime spot on the wing with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Kevin Fiala. Kaliyev may have the higher upside as a scorer, as he has shown a strong ability to generate shots, even in limited ice time. Arvidsson’s injury should help ensure that Kaliyev sees a good jump in ice time this season, opening the door for a breakout season.

#12 Injuries have hit the Minnesota Wild hard early in the season. Rising star winger Matthew Boldy and defencemen Jared Spurgeon and Alex Goligoski are all out of action for Minnesota and they are not easily replaced. Taking Boldy’s spot is Samuel Walker, a 24-year-old who has two points (1 G, 1 A) in 10 career NHL games and did not have any points in two AHL games this season, but he did produce 48 points (27 G, 21 A) in 56 AHL games last season, so this is a real chance to Walker to show his stuff at the NHL level. Spurgeon’s absence also gives Calen Addison the role of first unit power play quarterback, which is an area in which the young defenceman has excelled, with 18 of his 29 points last season coming with the man advantage.

#13 While fourth lines are not going to bring big fantasy appeal, it’s worth noting what is happening in Detroit, where Christian Fischer (83.7 xGF%) and Klim Kostin (80.2 xGF%) are dominating play to a ridiculous degree. Austin Czarnik has played only two games, but Detroit has controlled 86.3% of expected goals during five-on-five play with Czarnik on the ice.

#14 Staying in Detroit, veteran winger Robby Fabbri made it through one game before suffering another injury and Fabbri’s injury presents an opportunity for Michael Rasmussen to climb up the depth chart. Rasmussen had a career-high 29 points (10 G, 19 A) in 56 games last season, but his average ice time has increased by more than a minute per game in the early going this season and he has a couple of points (1 G, 1 A) in four games.

#15 Although he can get overshadowed by the top two centres on the Devils roster, Erik Haula’s upper body injury is notable for a team that thrives on its depth. With Haula out, Michael McLeod moves from the fourth line centre to third line centre and while McLeod has established that he is a solid fourth liner, his offensive production has kept him in that role. He has just 10 goals in 157 games over the past two seasons, so if McLeod is ever going to shake his fourth-line label, he will need to take advantage when he gets the chance to play in the top nine.

#16 Expectations were already very low for the San Jose Sharks coming into the season, but it has been made even more difficult with veteran centres Mikael Granlund and Logan Couture out of the lineup. Rookie Thomas Bordeleau and veteran Luke Kunin are handling the middle six centre roles for the Sharks. Bordeleau has managed one goal and five shots on goal through four games while he has been caved in when it comes to puck possession (31.1 CF%). Kunin has yet to record a point and is not much better at driving play (33.0 CF%). This should come as little surprise, but it reveals how much of an uphill fight it is for San Jose right now.

#17 St. Louis Blues winger Pavel Buchnevich suffered an upper-body injury when crushed into the boards by Seattle Kraken defenceman Jamie Oleksiak, and while Buchnevich has been out, the opportunity has fallen to 21-year-old Jake Neighbours, who has managed zero points and two shots on goal in three games this season. A chance to play in St. Louis’ top six is not bad, but it is up to Neighbours to show that he deserves to stay in a significant role over the long term.

#18 It is still super early, but there are some forwards raising red flags with their early struggles. Timo Meier was benched for the third period against Florida and has zero points and four shots on goal in three games. Meier has always been able to generate shots, so that is a notable concern with his game in New Jersey, but he really should be able to figure it out.

#19 When he returned to action last season following hip resurfacing surgery, Washington Capitals centre Nicklas Backstrom struggled, to a degree that he never really had in the NHL before. With a fresh start this season, 35-year-old Backstrom is still struggling to find his way. He has zero points in three games and is averaging 15:45 of ice time per game, which would be the lowest rate of his career. Backstrom is still getting top unit power play time but is skating between Sonny Milano and Tom Wilson at even strength, so he is not nearly the dangerous scoring threat that he was during his prime.

#20 After getting bought out by the Winnipeg Jets, 37-year-old right winger Blake Wheeler landed with the New York Rangers. Through four games with the Blueshirts, not only does Wheeler not have any points, but he is playing just 12:26 per game, which would be the lowest time on ice of his career. He is skating on a line with centre Vincent Trocheck and rookie left winger Will Cuylle. While Wheeler’s all-around game has declined in recent seasons, he still produced 55 points (16 G, 39 A) last season and early returns suggest that he will not be continuing at that level this season.