Welcome to the premiere of a weekly feature on NHL fantasy hockey.
In this edition, I offer my thoughts and suggestions on those players whose predictions may have changed since our initial rankings in the 2012-13 McKeen’s Hockey Pool Yearbook.
Once the NHL gets rolling, we will update predictions and also add individual player comments for subscribers. There will be monthly ranking revisions during the season as well. I will also examine interesting storylines around the world of hockey - and specifically how they relate to winning your fantasy pool. A number of developments and trends have emerged now that a chunk of games have been played in the AHL, junior, and overseas - and since our initial rankings published in August.
Thanks to the NHL lockout, we are facing a truncated schedule of under 60 games at this point. That reality will alter the dynamics of which team ultimately prevails. It will be a season possibly won in bursts - and with wildly uneven scoring patterns across players and teams. The start promises to be chaotic with players operating at varying fitness levels - and given less time to learn team systems. However, in the madness, some shrewd deals can be made if you keep a cool head.
A shortened season will mean some inescapable truths:
More games will be compressed into a shorter time frame
- It could prove to be a very long season for some players who will have already played a full schedule in another league. Younger players and injury-prone players become riskier picks.
Training camp will be brief - with some players at game fitness levels and others only practising. There is a difference
- It will result in an uneven start and some surprises out of the gate. The first 20 games, or potentially a third of the season, could prove critical to winning if you can pad your stats early. The start can often be a bit wacky even in a normal campaign, but expect it to be even crazier this time. Plan accordingly and be active on the trade market.
- With fitness levels varying from player to player - and without full training camps - it will be crucial to pay attention to any news prior to the opening of the season. We can assume, all things being equal, that players having game competition should produce better starts.
Many players are playing in leagues with different skill levels, ice-surface sizes, and systems
- Teams such as Pittsburgh, with solid systems and a strong returning core, are more likely to find a groove early. Conversely, it may take a Minnesota longer to mesh having to integrate lots of new personnel. If it takes a third of the season to get it together, that may be too late.
Chemistry and opportunity always factor into certain players producing breakout seasons - and these themes are emerging as we examine some of the more intriguing storylines thus far.
Justin Schultz leads the AHL in scoring
All the young Oilers are likely beneficiaries of playing together with the AHL Barons prior to the start of a lockout-shortened season. Eberle (15-6-13-10), Hall (7-3-3-6), and Nugent-Hopkins (14-7-10-17) are rated highly with McKeen’s, with PPG projections between 0.87 to 0.91, so it may be unrealistic to expect a large jump, albeit reaching the point-per-game level becomes an achievable reality. That would push Eberle into the top twenty in scoring at the very least. However, the most exciting development is the opportunity to establish chemistry with newcomer Justin Schultz (15-8-13-21), who is having a 'lights out' pro debut, leading the AHL in scoring while showcasing impressive skill and composure. Initially projected for 25 point in 69 games, based on an expected NHL adjustment period, Schultz might bump to 40-45 points, having been afforded an opportunity to establish himself as the quarterback on what could be an excellent power play. However, you may need to draft in that range now as he's certainly on everyone else's radar as well. A fast start will be expected from the talented young Oilers' core, due to the aforementioned reasons: chemistry, fitness, and timing. It also means they will be playing a ton of hockey - and how they fare in the truncated NHL season to follow will be important to watch. With Hall and Nugent-Hopkins having already missed time due to injury, we can likely anticipate some downtime or, at the very least, some fatigue factoring in down the stretch. Watch closely for wear and tear as the season progresses and respond accordingly. It could be a winning strategy in an odd season where the old rules won’t necessarily apply.
Damian Brunner and Henrik Zetterberg find chemistry together with EV Zug in Switzerland
Brunner leads the league in scoring (GP 17 G 11 A 17 P 28) and is now playing with Zetterberg (GP 7 G 8 A 5 P 13) and showing great chemistry. It is a given they will line up together on opening night and it will be interesting to see how they continue to play in the smaller North American rinks with NHL checking. It is definitely worth considering Brunner at higher than the McKeen’s projection of 39 points in 69 games and a PPG of .57, however exercise some caution at the draft table and pick him no higher than a PPG of .65 - .70. He will be new to the NHL and could face the same fatigue concerns as the young Oilers. That being said, he could be an early season gem. Their line mate Linus Omark (GP 19 G 7 A 19 P 26) did not make our ranking, but his performance likely has him on many peoples radar, and inevitably in trade rumors to Detroit to keep the line together. He will be hard pressed to make the Oilers with Yakupov and Paajarvi ahead of him, among others. His size will limit him to a top six role if he is to make a fantasy impact this season and that is unlikely on the Oilers. It is also unlikely on the Red Wings as Gustav Nyquist (GP 14 G 8 A 9 P 17) is second in the league in scoring behind Schultz and is all but ensured a spot in the top six on Detroit on opening night. I would not get overly excited about Omark except in very deep leagues and do not see a trade to Detroit. However, if he is moved to a team in search of top 6 scoring, he may be of interest in deep leagues. He certainly becomes an interesting chip for Tambellini to play with.
Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier lead Adirondack Phantoms offense
This time in the AHL could be very advantageous to these two ex-Team Canada teammates. They are not playing on the same line, but do see a great deal of ice time together on special teams. Couturier (GP 10 G 2 A 8 P 10) in particular could see his offensive game elevated in returning to the NHL. He will still be on the third line and expected to play a shutdown role, but he and Matt Read (in Switzerland - GP 13 G 4 A 15 P 19) could provide some great scoring depth to the Flyers. Schenn (GP 12 G 7 A 7 P 14) will see top six minutes alongside Danny Briere. If he is on a roll early in the year, and sees some power play time, he could be a strong value pick, particularly if your pool allows LW eligibility for him. McKeen’s had a PPG of .68 for Schenn, .60 for Read and .50 for Couturier. Schenn and Read should still be drafted at a similar spot but Couturier should be bumped to .60 in the predictions. They could have a very interesting start to the year which makes them intriguing in a shortened season.
Marcus Foligno dominating in the AHL
After a strong showing upon being called up at the end of last season, showing instant chemistry with Tyler Ennis, his dominant play in the AHL should have him in fine form if the lockout were to end soon. Foligno (GP 13 G 6 A 9 P 15) was projected at 43 points in 77 games (0.55 PPG) and could threaten 60 points in a full season, if he picks up where he left off. Draft him somewhere for somewhere between 43 and 50 points (0.55 - 0.65 PPG), not more, and he should provide great value, and a potential hot start. He brings some important dimensions to the Sabres that they need. His continued strong play will ensure that Buffalo makes him central to their immediate plans post lock out.
High draft picks in CHL off to a strong start
In the CHL, I would recommend caution with all but a very few exceptions. If the NHL is recalled, they will move quickly, which will mean no training camps to give the coaching staff the ability to assess the NHL readiness of their recent draft picks. On the other hand, the NHL coaching staff has had more time to scout their prospects than they normally would have had the luxury of doing at this point in the season. What familiarity breeds remains to be seen, but to start the season, they will go with a proven line-up. The exceptions to keep an eye on would be Mikael Grigorenko (GP 18 G 16 A 20 P 36), Ryan Murray (GP 22 G 2 A 15 P 17), Alex Galchenyuk (GP 20 G 13 A 19 P 32) and Mark Schiefele (GP 19 G 14 A 18 P 32). They have all had great starts and were likely to start the NHL season with their team already. Grigorenko is biggest question mark of the four, but his performance so far this season makes a compelling case. Like Foligno, he offers Buffalo the size they covet. In all instances, tread cautiously with prospects from the OHL in a shortened season. Depending on what the CBA says about entry level contracts teams will be careful about wasting a year with their very young prospects.
I will take a look at the KHL and the impact of injuries in the lockout in the next column.