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FANTASY: The Weekly Look Ahead – Week 1 – October 10 – 15 – Teams with a favourable schedule and players to target

MONTREAL, QC - JANUARY 24: Look on Boston Bruins center Pavel Zacha (18) during the Boston Bruins versus the Montreal Canadiens game on January 24, 2023, at Bell Centre in Montreal, QC (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire)

Welcome to the first edition of my weekly look ahead. In this column, I’m going to highlight teams I believe have a particularly favorable schedule for the upcoming week and zero in on some potentially undervalued/underappreciated players on those squads who might be in line for a strong week. Going forward I’m also going to highlight hot players on those teams, but of course given that the regular season hasn’t started yet, I can’t really do that justice. I will make mention of preseason standouts instead this week, but please keep in mind that exhibition stats need to be taken with a large helping of salt.

Boston Bruins

The Bruins might not be the team they were a year ago, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see them start the season 2-0-0. They’ll begin the campaign with two home games, first against the rebuilding Blackhawks on Wednesday, then Saturday they’ll host Nashville, which is likely to be a middle-of-the-pack team.

Chicago’s offense is now led by Taylor Hall and Connor Bedard, so it will be interesting if nothing else, but Petr Mrazek and Arvid Soderblom is a pretty sorry goaltending duo that the Bruins should be able to take advantage of.

I’m particularly interested to see how Charlie Coyle does this week. The 31-year-old had 44 and 45 points in each of his last two campaigns, so he hasn’t been a major part of Boston’s attack, but there is the potential for him to play a bigger role in the post-Patrice Bergeron/David Krejci era. He’s gotten a chance to work alongside Brad Marchand during the preseason, which is a great opportunity for him. We might also see the NHL debut of Matthew Poitras. He has plenty of offensive upside and could begin the campaign in a middle-six role, so keep an eye out for that.

Boston was just 2-2-2 in the preseason, but David Pastrnak did stand out with two goals and four points in three appearances. Pavel Zacha, who might start the campaign on a line with Pastrnak, recorded three assists in three games.

Carolina Hurricanes

The Hurricanes have three games slated for their opening week. They’ll first host Ottawa on Wednesday, then play road contests versus Los Angeles and Anaheim on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. The Kings and Senators are projected to be playoff contenders, but not the cream of the crop, while Anaheim is still looking to the future.

The Kings were also the only one of those three opponents to finish in the upper half of teams in terms of goals allowed per game last year and even then, just barely – LA ranked 16th. To be fair, Ottawa did sign Joonas Korpisalo over the summer while the Kings scooped up Cam Talbot, so there has been turnover in net, but this still looks like a potentially favorable grouping for the Hurricanes’ forwards.

Perhaps we’ll see Jesperi Kotkaniemi get off to a strong start. The 23-year-old set career highs last year with 18 goals and 43 points in 82 contests, but the 2018 third overall pick still has room to grow. That’s especially true when you consider he averaged just 14:44 of ice time in 2022-23. He might start this campaign on the second line with Teuvo Teravainen and Martin Necas. Speaking of Teravainen, he had just 37 points last season, but is a huge bounce back candidate.

Carolina went 3-3-0 during the preseason with Michael Bunting doing particularly well, providing three goals and four points in three contests. Bunting, signed from Toronto, might end up playing a pretty big role with the Hurricanes. He’s been seeing time alongside Sebastian Aho and Seth Jarvis on the top line and crucially has also slotted into the first power-play unit.

Edmonton Oilers

The Oilers have only two games this week, but it’s an away-and-home series against Vancouver on Wednesday and Saturday. The Canucks are a weird team. They clearly have some star talent and goaltender Thatcher Demko might have a comeback season if he stays healthy, but they seem caught in that weird middle ground between building for the future and focusing on the present, with the outcome that they look mediocre on paper.

The player I’ll be most interested in during those two games will be Connor Brown. He didn’t record a point in four contests last season and the 29-year-old has never contributed more than 43 points in a single campaign – and even then, it was back in 2019-20 – but Brown has been seeing time on the top line with Evander Kane and Connor McDavid.

Brown is new to the Oilers, but not new to McDavid. The duo spent two years together with the OHL’s Erie Otters where they were two of the main driving forces of that squad’s attack. It’s been a while since Brown was that kind of offensive leader, but playing with McDavid should help.

Brown had two goals and three points in four preseason contests, which is solid, but it’s nothing compared to McDavid’s four goals and seven points in four exhibition games. Defenseman Evan Bouchard was also a preseason standout with six assists in five outings.

New Jersey Devils

The Devils will start the campaign with home games against Detroit and Arizona on Thursday and Friday, respectively. The Red Wings are a team on the rise, but they’re still questionable to even make the playoffs while Arizona likely still needs significantly more work.

Luke Hughes will be fun to watch as he begins his rookie campaign. While Bedard is understandably seen as the favorite for the Calder Trophy going into this campaign, Hughes is very much in the conversation too. The 20-year-old defenseman had 10 goals and 48 points in 39 NCAA games with the University of Michigan last season followed by a goal and four points in five appearances with New Jersey between the regular season and playoffs.

The big X-Factor is how much of a role will Hughes play off the bat. It’s hard to say what his even-strength role will be initially, but there’s a strong chance he’ll serve on the second power-play unit.

Also, while it must be said over and over again that preseason stats don’t mean much, it will be interesting to see if the Devils are able to carry any momentum from their 7-0-0 exhibition run into the regular season. In particular, Jesper Bratt, Jack Hughes and Dawson Mercer dominated with nine, eight and five points, respectively – each in four preseason contests.

Pittsburgh Penguins

After falling short of the playoffs last year, the Penguins made significant changes over the summer to try to push back into contention with their most notable addition being defenseman Erik Karlsson. With their aged roster, a lot is on the line in 2023-24, and Pittsburgh has a golden opportunity to start off on the right foot. The Penguins will host Chicago on Tuesday, play in Washington on Friday and then host Calgary on Saturday. All those three teams joined the Penguins in the most recent draft lottery.

Between that favorable schedule and the absence of Jake Guentzel (ankle), Drew O'Connor might hit the ground running. O'Connor had four goals and five points in four exhibition games and while, yes, it’s preseason stats, it also seemed to be enough to demonstrate to the Penguins that he’s deserving of temporarily playing alongside Sidney Crosby and Bryan Rust while Guentzel recovers.

If you want a real stretch, I have a little interest in Jeff Carter. He had just 29 points in 79 contests last season and is inching towards his 39th birthday on Jan. 1, so not much is expected of him. That said, he’s projected to start the campaign on the Penguins’ second power-play unit, which is an underrated assignment. Obviously, the top unit should do better, but getting anyone from that group is naturally costly. Meanwhile, the second unit is (due to the acquisition of Karlsson) now headlined by Kris Letang, who is immensely overqualified for his new role. This could be a pretty effective unit and Carter is one of the easiest to obtain from it.

As already noted, O’Connor was a preseason standout for Pittsburgh, but Marcus Pettersson and Rickard Rakell did well too, each recording three points in three games.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa Bay will begin the campaign at home Tuesday versus Nashville before facing Detroit and Ottawa on the road Saturday and Sunday, respectively. None of those three teams made the playoffs last year, though to be fair, all three of them should be in the mix in 2023-24. Still, the Lightning should be looking to take at least two of three against those middle-of-the-road squads.

The big X-Factor is goaltending. The Lightning won’t have Andrei Vasilevskiy (back), so they’ll probably have to rely on Jonas Johansson for two of those three starts. With how strong of an offensive team Tampa Bay is, Johansson seems like a strong pickup for the duration of Vasilevskiy’s absence.

Outside of Johansson, Conor Sheary is worthy of consideration. After signing a three-year, $6 million contract with the Lightning over the summer, Sheary seems to be settling in on a line with Steven Stamkos. That could be a significant boost for Sheary, who had 53 points in 61 contests with Pittsburgh in 2016-17, but has struggled to replicate that success since, most recently recording 15 goals and 37 points in 82 contests with Washington.

Steven Stamkos is also worth keeping an eye on. Obviously, he’s a star and is expected to put up big numbers regardless, but even by his standards, he might have a big start to the campaign. Stamkos expressed disappointment with the lack of offseason discussion about a contract extension, and he could make the Lightning literally pay for waiting by coming out strong this campaign.

During the preseason, Brandon Hagel and Sheary were two of the Lightning’s best performers, each recording four points (Hagel in four games, Sheary in five). Johansson saved 94 of 96 shots during exhibition play.

Vegas Golden Knights

The Golden Knights will start their defense of the Stanley Cup with a difficult home game versus Seattle on Tuesday. However, they’ll follow it up with what should be a pair of comparatively easy contests: one in San Jose on Thursday and a contest back in Vegas versus Anaheim on Saturday.

Vegas won’t have defensemen Alec Martinez (upper body) or Zach Whitecloud (upper body) this week, which opens the door to both Brayden Pachal and Ben Hutton dressing in the Golden Knights’ opener. Neither player is a significant offensive threat, but if you’re in the market for blocks, hits or penalty minutes, then Pachal is worth taking in the short-term. Pachal had eight PIM, 12 blocks and 27 hits in 10 contests with Vegas last season. He also had 90 PIM in 55 contests with AHL Henderson – his second straight 90 PIM campaign at the AHL level.

Adin Hill and Logan Thompson should also be good for some situational starts this week. It might be best to avoid going with Vegas goaltending Tuesday if you can, but Hill and Thompson are likely to split the San Jose/Anaheim contests. The Sharks and Ducks ranked 25th and 31st, respectively, in terms of goals per game in 2022-23 and neither is likely to be a major offensive threat this year.

Vegas was a mediocre 3-3-1 in the preseason, but Jack Eichel managed to score two goals and eight points in four contests while Jonathan Marchessault finished with three goals and seven points in three appearances.