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CULLEN: 20 FANTASY POINTS – Rookies getting a long look at camp – Vasilevskiy goaltending shuffle? – Laine switching positions plus much more

NEWARK, NJ - SEPTEMBER 25: Philadelphia Flyers Forward Tyson Foerster (71) skates with the puck during a preseason game between the Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils on September 25, 2023 at Prudential Center in the Newark, New Jersey.(Photo by Andrew Mordzynski/Icon Sportswire)

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

This week, Tyson Foerster, Matt Coronato, Matthew Poitras, and Zach Benson are among the rookies getting a long look at training camps. The Lightning are trying to survive Andrei Vasilevskiy’s injury, Patrik Laine’s shifting positions, and more.

#1 Drafted 23rd by the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2020 Draft, Tyson Foerster has been steadily progressing and he tallied 48 points (20 G, 28 A) in 66 AHL games last season and added seven points (3 G, 4 A) in eight NHL games. The 21-year-old is getting a real chance to make the team this year. His most common linemate in the preseason has been Joel Farabee, followed by Morgan Frost and Sean Couturier. That might indicate that Foerster is not only going to make the Flyers, but he could get a look in a scoring role, which might give him the opportunity to be fantasy relevant.

#2 The past couple of seasons have been the most productive of Evan Rodrigues’ career and it looks like he will have a chance to continue producing with his move to Florida, where he is getting a chance to skate alongside Aleksander Barkov, both at even strength and on Florida’s top power play unit. Rodrigues has scored 35 goals and 82 points in 151 games over the past two seasons, playing for Colorado and Pittsburgh. Rodrigues has been a top shot generator, averaging 9.67 shots per 60 minutes of five-on-five play in the past two seasons, which ranks 33rd. He also has a shooting percentage in those two seasons of 8.2%, so he is just waiting for a bust-out season with improved percentages.

#3 There are few goaltenders in the league as indispensable as Tampa Bay Lightning netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has handled a heavy workload throughout his career, allowing the Lightning to invest little in their backup goaltender. However, now that Vasilevskiy is going to miss at least a couple of months to start the season due to a back injury and that leaves the Lightning with Jonas Johansson, Hugo Alnefelt, and Matt Tomkins between the pipes. Johansson has been a quality AHL goaltender – he had a .920 save percentage in 26 AHL games last season – but he has a .887 save percentage in 35 career NHL games, which hardly screams ready to handle a starter’s role for a couple of months. Alnefelt is a 22-year-old who had a .904 save percentage in 33 AHL games last season. Tomkins is a 29-year-old who had a .909 save percentage in 65 games in the Swedish Hockey League over the past two years. On top of all of that, the Lightning have precious little cap space, especially until they get Vasilevskiy on LTIR.

#4 Tampa Bay is not the only team with goaltending concerns. It’s just that the Lightning have the biggest concern. However, for teams that might need goaltending, there are enough teams with quality number three goaltenders that the waiver wire or trades could be a path to stabilizing the situation between the pipes. Buffalo’s Eric Comrie, Calgary’s Daniel Vladar, Detroit’s Alex Lyon, Florida’s Anthony Stolarz, Los Angeles’ David Rittich, Toronto’s Martin Jones, and Seattle’s Chris Driedger or Joey Daccord are among the goaltenders with NHL experience that could be available as the season approaches.

#5 The Anaheim Ducks lost veteran left winger Alex Killorn for 4-6 weeks with a broken finger and his absence likely helps someone like Frank Vatrano, who is going to have a better shot at playing in the Ducks’ top six and skating on the wing with someone like Mason McTavish at centre is a good opportunity. Vatrano has some deep league fantasy appeal as a two-time 20-goal scorer who ranks 30th in shots per 60 minutes over the past two seasons.

#6 An interesting development with the Blue Jackets is that they have shifted Patrik Laine to centre, between Johnny Gaudreau and Kirill Marchenko. While Laine’s skill set does not scream elite centre, if he can handle the role, he has the size to be a monstrous presence in the middle and with a playmaker like Gaudreau on the wing, Laine will still be able to fulfill his typical role as finisher. Laine has six points (3 G, 3 A) in four preseason contests. This development could be most interesting for Marchenko, who is getting a chance to skate with Columbus’ most dangerous offensive players, and it probably knocks down the value of Boone Jenner, who would potentially lose that spot on the top line.

#7 Some other players producing in the preseason, with a focus on players that might be exceeding expectations: Calgary rookie Matt Coronato has seven points (4 G, 3 A) in five games, Columbus’ Emil Bemstrom has six points (3 G, 3 A) in four games, Florida’s Oliver Ekman-Larsson has five assists in two games, Detroit’s J.T. Compher has five points (1 G, 4 A) in three games, and St. Louis’ Jakub Vrana has five points (3 G, 2 A) in four games. Small samples, obviously, but take the preseason production as an encouraging sign.

#8 A couple more rookies that are producing in the preseason and might just be forcing their way into NHL jobs: Bruins C Matthew Poitras, who has five points (3 G, 2 A) in five games and could at least get a trial as Boston’s No. 2 centre as the Bruins try to fill the gaping holes left by the retirements of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci. Buffalo’s Zach Benson, the 13th pick in the 2023 Draft, has been getting quality looks in Sabres camp, playing on the top line with first unit power play time, and has five points (3 G, 2 A) in five preseason contests.

#9 When the New York Islanders acquired Pierre Engvall from the Toronto Maple Leafs at last season’s trade deadline, he was given a bigger role, playing an extra couple of minutes per game with the Islanders, and he contributed nine points (5 G, 4 A) in 18 games. It looks like Engvall could have a chance to stick in the Isles’ top six, as he is skating with Brock Nelson and Kyle Palmieri on the second line. Engvall has a career high of 35 points coming into the season and it looks like he will have a real shot to play a bigger role with the Islanders.

#10 Looking back at the past three seasons, the points per 60 minutes leaders tend to be expected names – Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, Nathan MacKinnon, Connor McDavid, Matthew Tkachuk – but there are always some surprises that deserve more notice. Carter Verhaeghe ranks 12th among skaters that played at least 500 five-on-five minutes, with 2.62 points/60. Nikolaj Ehlers is 19th at 2.57 points/60, Jakub Vrana is 21st at 2.56 points/60, Michael Bunting 26th at 2.49 points/60, and Andre Burakovsky 34th with 2.43 points/60. That’s the second note in favour of Vrana.

#11 Turning the focus to goals per 60 minutes, the leaders are mostly as expected: Auston Matthews, Jakub Vrana, David Pastrnak, Max Pacioretty, Filip Forsberg, Jared McCann, Daniel Sprong, Carter Verhaeghe, Roope Hintz, and Cole Caufield, all coming in ahead of 11th-ranked Alex Ovechkin. There are some players who have missed significant time in the past three seasons, including Vrana, Pacioretty, Forsberg, Sprong, and Caufield, but that is a third positive reference for Vrana.

#12 Andrew Mangiapane is not only getting a look with Jonathan Huberdeau and Elias Lindholm on Calgary’s top line, but he is getting first unit power play time, too. Mangiapane went from a career-high 35 goals in 2021-2022 to 17 goals last season with his shooting percentage crashing from 18.9% to 9.3%, so he is a prime candidate to rebound and especially if he is going to get a shot with top offensive performers.

#13 When winger Sammy Blais returned to St. Louis at the trade deadline last season, he was given a new opportunity. He saw his ice time jump nearly five minutes per game, from 9:38 with the Rangers to 14:36 with the Blues, and Blais contributed 20 points (9 G, 11 A) in 31 games. He scored on 23.1% of his shots and that is not sustainable, but that increased role and productivity put Blais on the radar for fantasy managers because he also had 119 hits in 31 games. He is an injury risk as last season’s 71 games was the first time that he had played more than 40 games in an NHL season, but if opportunity knocks in St. Louis this year, Blais is going to be in position to chip in and offer fantasy appeal, at least in deep or banger leagues.

#14 An efficient depth player for much of his career, Ryan Donato is the latest to get a look on Chicago’s top line, skating alongside Taylor Hall and Connor Bedard. In the past two seasons, Donato has scored 29 goals at even strength, the same number as Pierre-Luc Dubois, and more than Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Evgeni Malkin, among others. With 1.08 goals per 60 minutes of five-on-five play in the past two seasons, Donato ranks 46th among skaters to play at least 1,000 five-on-five minutes. He may not last alongside Bedard and Hall but might be worth a late-round flier in a deep league just in case he sticks there and continues to score, only with more ice time, in Chicago.

#15 The second pick in the 2020 Draft, Quinton Byfield has been making slow progress, but has loads of potential and has an opportunity to break through as he skates on the Kings’ top line with Anze Kopitar and Adrian Kempe. Byfield had 22 points in 53 games last season, managing just three goals, but he did have some flashes. He had nine points (1 G, 8 A) during a 10-game stretch in the second half of the season and contributed four points (1 G, 3 A) in six playoff games against Edmonton. It would help if he could increase his shot rate, but it is also too soon to be giving up on a 21-year-old who is 6-foot-5 and can skate like Byfield, so this could be a pivotal season for his development.

#16 Sticking with the 2020 Draft, top pick Alexis Lafreniere has not fulfilled his potential yet, either and it leads to complicated discussions. In three NHL seasons, Lafreniere has produced 44 even strength goals, which ranks 81st in the league. It’s the same number as Anze Kopitar and one more than Mika Zibanejad, which would seem like pretty good company, but Lafreniere has a total of six power play points in 216 games and that leaves him with uninspiring point totals. With a new coach, Peter Laviolette, behind the bench for the Blueshirts, it looks like Lafreniere should have a chance to play in the top six, but it also looks like he is not getting power play time, and that is going to put a limit on his fantasy appeal.

#17 Nashville’s top power play unit is interesting. Filip Forsberg and Roman Josi are obvious veteran anchors for the unit, but Tommy Novak and Luke Evangelista are getting regular spots and then there is a spot for either Ryan O’Reilly or Cody Glass. If the Predators are trying to rebuild on the fly, giving young players like Novak, Evangelista, and Glass a real chance in prominent roles is a way to find out if they are going to be able to remain competitive through the process. For fantasy managers, that does elevate the appeal of those less proven Preds.

#18 With Vasily Podkolzin getting cut and Ilya Mikheyev’s health in question in Vancouver, that makes it look like Nils Hoglander and Phil DiGiuseppe will have regular spots in the Canucks lineup. Hoglander does offer more upside, scoring 24 of his 26 career goals at even strength, but he managed just nine points (3 G, 6 A) in 25 games before getting demoted to the AHL last season. Hoglander had 27 points (13 G, 14 A) in 56 games as a rookie in 2020-2021 but was going in the wrong direction, so this might be the opportunity he needs to get back on track.

#19 Looking back to the 2022-2023 season, there were a few players who really surged after the All-Star break. Many are the top players in the league, but some might come as a surprise. Arizona’s Clayton Keller, for example, ranked fourth with 45 points (19 G, 26 A) in 32 games following the break. Dallas defenceman Miro Heiskanen had 33 points (4 G, 29 A) in 31 games, Nashville’s Tommy Novak had 32 points (13 G, 19 A) in 32 games, Buffalo’s Casey Mittelstadt produced 31 points (8 G, 23 A) in 33 games, and Washington’s Dylan Strome had 29 points (12 G, 17 A) in 29 games. He missed some time, but Columbus’ Patrik Laine had 21 points (8 G, 13 A) in 19 games to finish last season.

#20 Finally, with the season just around the corner, beware of the injury bug. Last week, I wrote about how John Klingberg was getting a chance on Toronto’s top power play unit, and he hasn’t played since, as he nurses an upper-body injury. Roope Hintz and Wyatt Johnston have both been out for the Dallas Stars and while they appear to be making progress, it seems possible that they might not be ready for opening night. Mattias Ekholm has been out of the Oilers lineup, leaving a gaping hole on the Edmonton blueline. Ottawa centre Josh Norris is working his way back from shoulder surgery, but with Shane Pinto still unsigned, that leaves the Sens suddenly thin down the middle, at least for the time being. Pittsburgh’s Jake Guentzel was not expected to be ready for the start of the season, following offseason ankle surgery, but has been practicing with the Penguins so he may be getting close. San Jose’s Logan Couture does not appear likely to be ready for the start of the season. That probably gives Mikael Granlund a bigger role for the Sharks. Neck spasms have been keeping Jets winger Nikolaj Ehlers out of the lineup, a huge absence for Winnipeg, and Winnipeg is being careful so he may not be ready for the start of the season either.