Finally! An exciting fantasy season is upon us. The one week mini-camps won’t allow for much data to clue us in on possible lines, pairings and specialty units. Nor will it give us any clues as to chemistry levels between new teammates. Coaches will scramble to install new systems without the benefit of exhibition games to test them out.
A short, compacted regular season is sure to produce its share of unpredictable events and stories. However from a fantasy standpoint, there are factors that can help us gage the level of production we can expect from certain players: game-shape (has the player been competing in a pro league during the lock-out?), projected lines and pairings, projected team strengths or weaknesses and coaching styles.
Throughout this specific analysis, it is also important not to lose site of the fact that the elite offensive players should remain the same. Remember the 1995 lock-out year? Eric Lindros and Jaromir Jagr tied for the scoring championship. There is no reason to believe a shortened season will mean any kind of drop-off for the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeny Malkin, Steven Stamkos, Erik Karlsson or Claude Giroux. Although if you draft them in a standard pool, you should weigh them differently than you would for a full 82-game season, simply because the total point differentials between them and second tier players will not be as dramatic.
As everyone scrambles to prepare for this frenetic-paced campaign, today we look at some of the not-so-obvious players (forwards, defensemen and goalies) we identified as “safe bets” or “buyer beware” and offer a brief explanation.
FORWARDS – SAFE BETS
Patrice Bergeron and Tyler Seguin (BOS): Projected mates on the Bruins 1B line, both dominated the Swiss league. Bergeron had 29 pts in 21 games when he left Lugano and led Canada to a landslide championship at the Spengler Cup. Seguin was even more impressive scoring at a near goal-a-game clip (29-25-15-40) for Biel. The two had already started clicking in the second half of last season. They look like a scary pair!
Brad Richards (NYR): The playmaking center finally has a top-flight goal scorer to feed in Rick Nash. Richards had a mediocre season in 2011-12 for his standards (82-25-41-66) and his assist ratio is sure to improve. Now 32, the extra rest (inactive during the lockout) should only benefit the veteran.
Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Dany Heatley (MIN): The Wild’s new All-World line is a match made in heaven. Not all ultra-skilled lines find immediate chemistry, but the speed of Parise, smarts of Koivu and shot and hands of Heatley should create 5-on-5 and PP magic in the Twin Cities. Parise’s and Koivu’s work ethic and enthusiasm are also certain to rub off on a sometimes indifferent Heatley.
EDM’s young guns: Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall have arrived. NHL stardom is theirs to grab. They proved during the lockout that their precocious NHL success was no fluke, tearing up the best of all lockout leagues, the AHL. Moreover, their skill sets are complementary and will be augmented by PP quarterback and early Calder favorite Justin Schultz. Already in mid-season form, they present an explosive potential not seen in Oil-Town since the Gretzky-Kurri-Messier-Coffey combo.
FORWARDS – BUYER BEWARE
Kyle Okposo (NYI): It’s a common mistake fantasy owners make: overrating the third wheel on an explosive top line. John Tavares and Matt Moulson are proven commodities and will produce, even without their former linemate P-A. Parenteau (now with Colorado). But Okposo is a corridor winger and a shooter, a stark contrast to Parenteau’s playmaking skills. Tavares will become the playmaker on the line, but Moulson is likely to pick-up most of the goals, leaving only a few crumbs (in terms of points) for Okposo.
Ryan Callahan (NYR): The biggest fantasy loser with the arrival of Rick Nash, Callahan should be bumped from the first to the third line (going from Brad Richards to Brian Boyle as a centerman). He probably won’t see much time on the PP’s top unit either, since the Rangers will be looking for Derek Stepan to take on more of the offensive load.
DEFENSEMEN – SAFE BETS
Sergei Gonchar (OTT): Yes, the 38 y/o’s numbers have been down the past couple of seasons, but the sharp drop-off from three years back (when he was 62-11-39-50) suggests some kind of upward adjustment in his stats this year. The Sens have allot of skill up front and play an up-tempo offensive style. Add two impressive PP units that should produce and a solid KHL stint (36-3-26-29) and all signs point to a hot start for Erik Karlsson’s mentor.
Ryan Suter (MIN): See Wild’s All-World line above: he will be the only one pushing the puck up to those guys and the quarterback of a now elite PP unit. He’s officially out of Shea Weber’s imposing shadow.
Alex Pietrangelo (STL): Our best bet to have an Erik Karlsson-type breakout year. Same skill set and a young up-and-coming set of offensive forwards to feed the puck to. Coach Ken Hitchkock loves him and will keep riding his young horse to the tune of 25-30 minutes a game.
DEFENSEMEN – BUYER BEWARE
Here, we identify a few D-men that have exhibited offensive potential in the recent past, but find themselves in new circumstances that might hurt their chances of producing a significant amount of points this season. You should avoid over-evaluating these players based solely on their past production or potential.
Nikita Nikitin (CLB): A full season of James Wisniewski and Jack Johnson manning the points on the first PP unit means precious few quality offensive chances for Columbus’ bright light from last year.
Ryan Whitney (EDM): Justin Schultz will eclipse him and take over as the first unit quarterback. The Oilers are likely to use 4 forwards on the squad, bumping Whitney down to a much less threatening second unit.
Tom Gilbert (MIN): It’s a mistake to think Gilbert’s numbers will automatically improve because of his new explosive entourage in Minnesota. He should get top PP minutes, but he is the obvious weaker link of the unit. Make no mistake, most scoring plays will run through Suter and the forwards, and since there are only three points available on every goal, Gilbert will often be one of the two members left off the scoresheet.
GOALIES – SAFE BETS
Henrik Lundqvist (NYR): The defense in front of him is strong individually and also very cohesive under John Tortorella’s tight system. He’s been the most consistent netminder for the past three seasons. You can bank on Hank!
Tuukka Rask (BOS): His time has come. Tim Thomas’ one year hiatus has paved the way for the young Finn to backstop one of the elite teams in the East. No reason to doubt the Claude Julien lead squad will be anything but disciplined and responsible in their zone.
Mike Smith (PHO): Some might think last season was a fluke, but we have always believed this type of breakthrough was inevitable for this big, athletic stud of a goalie. Dave Tippett’s defensive system is a proven playoff-guarantying commodity and his defense is bolstered by the return of shot-blocking and under-rated Zbynek Michalek.
GOALIES – BUYER BEWARE
Carey Price (MTL): He is a young horse and the Habs do have a deep defense corps, but they will be grossly over-matched offensively on most nights. This will put enormous pressure on the wonder-kid and will mean more inconsistent play despite the added grit to the Montreal roster. The Canadiens need an influx of talented forwards to allow for more puck-possession time before Price becomes a prized fantasy asset.
Braden Holtby (WAS): Holtby’s incredible playoff run came under Dale Hunter’s strict defensive scheme. New bench boss Adam Oates has promised a return to the run-and-gun style of the past in the Capital, which bodes well for Alex Ovechkin and company, but might hurt Holtby’s numbers. He also got off to a slow start in the AHL this year, before finding his bearings.
Pekka Rinne (NAS): The loss of Ryan Suter’s steadying influence cannot be understated. Don’t expect a huge drop-off, as Rinne’s fantasy value has been well established over the past three seasons. But Nashville’s defense will feature three brand new pairings and very little experience. Rinne was also uncharacteristically inconsistent during his lockout stint in the KHL (.897 SP).