Search This Blog

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Little More Bang For Your Buck - Fantasy Hockey "Sleepers" (Goalie)


I figured I should probably wrap this up...the season's almost here, fantasy drafts are going faster than Lohan's dignity, and we haven't got to the enigmatic part of the game: goalies.  How the hell do you evaluate goalies in fantasy hockey?  Do you have a dartboard?

In fact, the dartboard method might actually work, provided you have a particular group of goalies for your first tier dartboard and a particular group for your second.  You see, I'm of the school that says that goaltending statistics vary such a great deal from year to year that it is simply not worth doing two things: a.) drafting a goalie in the 1st round, and b.) organizing your cheat sheet beyond identifying "solid" goalies (nearly guaranteed 30-40 wins, sub-2.75 GAA, and .905+ save percentage) and "high upside" goalies.  As I've mentioned before, basically every year you have one or two goalies that are on the waiver wire that emerge to post top-5 numbers (Jimmy Howard, Tuukka Rask, and Antti Niemi last year, Steve Mason in 2008-09, and if you go far back enough, the soon-to-be-butt-of-Swiss-cheese-related-jokes Cristobal Huet).  Note that some of these guys were available even late in the year, when fantasy championships are won or lost.  It's simply not worth passing up a scarcer point-per-game wing for the kind of production you will be able to find later.

If you do choose to take a goalie early, or even if you wait awhile, pay more attention to situation than anything else.  Martin Brodeur has been a great goalie for so long in part because of a marriage of playing style and a general manager that tailors the team to that playing style.  Brodeur is a great goaltender, but even he would have had trouble if the Devils had made the kind of tactical switch the Wild pulled last year.  Brodeur is draftable because he has a good situation (this is not a good situation), but he's drafted too high to be reasonable.  Here's my list of goalies that will help you without taking your valuable early picks...


Goalies

Marty Turco - Chicago Blackhawks
Average draft position: 83rd pick
Could easily match the production of: Marc-Andre Fleury (41st pick) and Tuukka Rask (39th pick)

Turco very likely triggers some fantasy players' gag reflexes, as he's been toxic the last couple of years.  Fact of the matter is, the quality of the Dallas defense has gone south (pun maybe intended, if funny), and it took around a year for Turco to adjust to it.  Last season was actually solid for Marty; while his 2.72 GAA seemed high, he posted his highest save percentage since his glory years (.913).  It suggests to me that, given the right situation, he still has some gas left in the tank.  The Blackhawks give him that ideal situation, and having parted ways with Antti Niemi the 'Hawks will hand Turco the keys.  The 'Hawks are still good despite their offseason subtractions, so don't hesitate on this guy.
2010-11 prediction: 70 games, 39 wins, 2.45 GAA, .912 SV%, 5 SHO

Antti Niemi - San Jose Sharks
Average draft position: 107th pick
Could easily match the production of: Niklas Backstrom (74th pick) and Jonathan Quick (67th pick)

Niemi moves into a highly favorable situation with a regular-season stalwart in the Sharks.  Evgeni Nabokov might not have won many playoff fantasy pools, but he was a stud for the fantasy regular season.  Niemi slides in to Nabokov's butt-warm seat and will catch a lot of those same juicy stats.  A lot of people are concerned about the presence of Antero Niittymaki, but Nitty has always been more effective as the 40 of a 60-40 split. Fair warning: Niemi will not duplicate last year's astronomical stats.  I guarantee he sees at least 45 starts (barring injury) and will give you serviceable numbers; his upside, though, could be a poor man's Nabokov.
2010-11 prediction: 50 games, 31 wins, 2.39 GAA, .909 SV%, 4 SHO

Dan Ellis/Mike Smith - Tampa Bay Lightning
Average draft positions: 158th and Not drafted, respectively
Could easily match the production of: Two Antti Niemi's (107th pick)

Like how I stacked onto the previous one?  It might seem antithetical to call Niemi a sleeper and then use him to describe the production of time-share goalies in the next paragraph, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the Lightning are going to exceed expectations defensively for the first time since some drunken, crazy-eyed goalie took them to the Cup a while ago.  Guy Boucher's system is built on busy forwards and stay-at-home defensemen, which will play nicely into their personnel.  The Lightning forwards have the talent to control and hold the puck for prolonged periods of time, which will keep shots down.  In addition, Ellis and Smith are both guys that have always performed better as part-timers, and the rumor is that they are enjoying a cooperative partnership in the Tampa net.  I'm going out on a limb here, but the bubbling bromance has a shot at working in a way not seen since the Manny and Timmy Show, which was really just the sequel to Fernando Rolo (<< "Between the Pipes?" haha...oh...kind of sick, now that I think about it).
2010-11 prediction: 40 games, 25 wins, 2.33 GAA, .906 SV%, 3 SHO apiece

So ends the hopefully sage advice.  The BN group will be part of our own league this year, with a few friends, so don't be surprised to see us using the blog to gloat about our spectacular teams.  The best part will be watching our resident Flyers homers (Weagz and Forsberg's Foot) fight over Darroll Powe, who looks like a fictional character.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Little More Bang For Your Buck - Fantasy Hockey "Sleepers" (Defense)

As we come to the last section of skaters, we are also coming to the less-heralded section in fantasy circles.  Sure, there are some that argue that defense should be drafted early and often (ahem, Blog Cosby), and I think there's a little bit of merit there.  The key is looking at what you're drafting as compared to the average player in each position.  Mike Green, without a doubt, is worth an early pick; he is a point-per-game player, capable of scoring 30 goals.  He is light years above any other defensemen, a gap worthy of waiting another round for a forward.  Beyond Green, I have a hard time seeing the value of drafting defensemen high, for the simple fact that most of the top tier are subject to change from year-to-year (think Dion Phaneuf the last couple of years and Zdeno Chara last year).  I could have drafted Phaneuf's or Chara's production in the last round (Stephane Robidas or Erik Johnson).  The point is, given the volatility of defense production, the players beyond Mike Green will fluctuate between 35-60 points, and in any given year you can find 40-50 point defensemen on the waiver wire.  Given how early you'd be drafting for potential 50-60 point defensemen (typically 3rd and 4th round), you'd be passing on a number of potential point-per-game wingers.

With that in mind, I'm devoting this sleeper section to one guy that has slipped a bit (undeservedly) and three D that can be had in the late or final rounds of your draft.

P.S. I am using Yahoo Sports 2010 fantasy draft rankings and positions in the mostly standard Yahoo 12-team format.

Defense

Shea Weber - Nashville Predators
Average draft position: 69th pick
Could easily match the production of: Dion Phaneuf (51st pick) and Chris Pronger (44th pick)

Weber was a popular early pick in last year's draft, so I think his draft position this year might be a vindictive one.  Yes, he didn't crack 20 goals as he had the year before, but no defensemen topped 20, and Weber's 16 were good enough to tie Drew Doughty for 3rd best among defensemen.  Weber's numbers suffered after some dings late in the year, but he still managed a +/- of 0 on a defensively-mediocre Nashville squad.  Those injuries, mostly to the "upper body", affected his shot, which was used 30 fewer times last year than in 08-09. A healthy Weber still has a booming shot, and should still be considered capable of scoring 20 goals.  It might not be Mike Green territory, but he is slipping in a lot of drafts, and if you can get him in the 6th or later round you could be getting great value.  Those concerned about his PIM dropoff, I can assure you Weber's game will not often net him around 30 PIM per year.  He booms too much for that.  80 PIM is a bit optimistic, though, because his value as a shooter means Trotz won't want him getting into fights or taking dumb penalties.
2010-11 prediction: 82 games, 22 goals, 32 assists, 54 points, +2, 22 PP points, 255 shots, 58 PIM

Pavel Kubina - Tampa Bay Lightning
Average draft position: 136th pick
Could easily match the production of: Erik Johnson (72nd pick) and Zdeno Chara (57th pick)

One of the more consistent heavy-shot defensemen of the 2000s, Kubina has always been valued a bit high in the past.  After last year, though, he has dropped significantly on many draft cheat sheets, to the point of almost not being drafted.  That is a serious mistake when you take into account his numbers and situation.  Kubina has moved away from the sinking Thrashers to the surging Lightning, a team that has one of the best powerplays in the league.  Kubina automatically becomes the quarterback for that powerplay, and his shot from the point will be ably screened by their big-bodied forwards (Lecavalier, Malone) and rebounded by their skilled snipers (Stamkos, St. Louis, Gagne).  Recall, also, that his shooting % last year was about half his career %, so he is bound to get back to 7-8% shooting.  His +/- will be tempered by a Tampa defense that is still finding itself, but expect Kubina's shots, goals, assists, and PP points to climb.
2010-11 prediction: 80 games, 13 goals, 39 assists, 52 points, +1, 28 PP points, 178 shots, 85 PIM

John Carlson - Washington Capitals
Average draft position: 157th pick
Could easily match the production of: Kimmo Timonen (117th pick) and Brian Campbell (99th pick)

I think this one is straightforward: Carlson is young blood, and the Capitals want to make him part of the powerplay (possibly the only PP unit better than Tampa Bay's).  He had a strong showing in the playoffs and his 22 game trial last year, so this kid has great potential.  Keep in mind, though, that he's not a big shooter right now, so he won't be a monster in the goals and shooting categories.  An added bonus?  He's been chippy in the past (over 1 PIM/G in the USHL & OHL).
2010-11 prediction: 72 games, 8 goals, 40 assists, 48 points, +15, 26 PP points, 125 shots, 72 PIM

Jamie McBain - Carolina Hurricanes
Average draft position: 180th pick
Could easily match the production of: Alex Goligoski (94th pick)

McBain was given a trial-by-fire last season, not only playing the 'Canes final 14 games, but averaging almost 26 minutes per game.  He played on the powerplay, the penalty kill, and even-strength, and how'd he do?  Just 3 goals and 7 assists (4 PP points).  No biggie.  Seriously though, McBain passed his test with flying colors, and it wasn't an anomaly; he has stormed through every level starting with NCAA hockey in 08-09 (37 points in 40 games) and continuing through the AHL in 09-10 (40 points in 68 games).  The only question is situational: can the Hurricanes move aside some of their stiffs on the blue line (Corvo, Gleason) to give McBain a larger role?  He's almost certain to slot into the powerplay, but if he can get top-pairing minutes he'll make a few people very happy as a last-round fantasy pick.
2010-11 prediction: 77 games, 10 goals, 35 assists, 45 points, -5, 22 PP points, 154 shots, 30 PIM

As you can see, the projections for these players are cautious, but could easily match some of the higher-profile names we're seeing drafted in the middle rounds.  If you're confident your defensive draft pick can significantly outperform the second tier, by all means pick him early.  If not, keep this list in mind.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

NHL Preview: Northeast Division Forwards

Note: The above pic is my creation, not Weagz's, so don't blame him.  - Matteau


Toronto Maple Leafs
Kris Versteeg - Tyler Bozak - Phil Kessel
Nikolai Kulemin - Mikhail Grabovski - Colby Armstrong
Luca Caputi - John Mitchell - Fredrik Sjostrom
Mike Brown - Christian Hanson - Colton Orr

I gotta confess: I am a huge fan of the moves that front offices make and how they structure a team. I don’t know why it is, but I guess I think that success starts at the top. When the Maple Leafs named Burke their GM in 2008, I said to my friends--well, “our fun in the sun is over, we will not be able to laugh at how bad the Leafs are much longer…” Well, we’re still waiting, aren’t we? I would have thought that the Leafs forwards three years into the Burke experiment would look something like this…

Jagr - Gretzky - Hull
Bossy - Lemieux - Selanne
Kurri - Messier - Dionne
Nieuwendyk - Forsberg - Ciccarelli

By the way, in my bizarre world, Brian Burke also has superpowers. Yet, instead, we get Phil Kessel, some young guys, and a bunch of brutes.

Tyler Bozak is the most interesting of the young guys, putting up 27 points in 37 games last year and placing him alongside Kessel will obviously help to bring him along, but I’m not sure how well this line will do on the road against some of the big defensive pairings in this conference (Chara - Seidenberg; Myers - Leopold; Markov - Gorges). Versteeg is an interesting add to this team, but he does not scream “top-line scoring” guy to me.

On the second line, Kulemin is another young guy that might come into his own, but Grabovski and Armstrong are not really consistent scorers--this isn’t really a second line that’s going to pitch in that much. Caputi and Mitchell are too young to assess and Fredrik Sjostrom is well, a third-liner for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Colton Orr? Christian Hanson? Really? Come on Burke! The first line is an average second line for a decent team. The second line is an average third line for most teams. The third line is a fourth line for most teams and the fourth line doesn’t belong in hockey.

How much longer do we have to wait, Burke? Hockey needs the Toronto Maple Leafs to be relevant--and this group ain’t doin’ it.

Montreal Canadiens
Mike Cammalleri - Scott Gomez - Brian Gionta
Travis Moen - Tomas Plekanec - Andrei Kostitsyn
Tom Pyatt - Lars Eller - Maxim Lapierre
Benoit Pouliot - Jeff Halpern - Mathieu Darche

The Canadiens are an interesting group--at first glance you have to be somewhat impressed, especially since the Habs are about defense and goaltending, they do not need to roll four scoring lines. They appear to have a really nice top line; Cammalleri can do some damage, Gomez is a stud, and Gionta scored 48 goals. That’s when you start to pull back the covers on this thing. Gionta hasn’t gotten anywhere near 48 goals since 2005-06 and Gomez is a 6% shooter, folks. The second line is Travis Moen (huh? Who?), Andrei Kostitsyn, and Tomas Plekanec--admittedly, I’m impressed with Plekanec’s 70 points last year and 20 goals in each of the last five years. Yet, one man does not a line make. Then it gets dicey. Tom Pyatt, Lars Eller, Maxim Lapierre, Benoit Pouliot, Jeff Halpern, and Mathieu Darche are steady defensive-forwards, but let’s not expect more than a handful of goals from these guys.

I like some of the pieces for the Habs; Cammalleri and Plekanec are gamers, Gomez and Gionta are still riding off the coattails of the Devils success early in their career, Andrei Kostitsyn isn’t in prison--so that’s something. The rest of these guys--I just don’t see it.

Ottawa Senators
Milan Michalek - Jason Spezza - Daniel Alfredsson
Peter Regin - Mike Fisher - Alexei Kovalev
Nick Foligno - Chris Kelly - Chris Neil
Jarkko Ruutu - Jesse Winchester - Roman Wick

At first glance, this too looks like a well-constructed NHL team, but a closer look reveals that there are cracks in the ice. Spezza and Alfredsson are so good, though, that they instantly make this set of forwards better than the Habs. However, in his first season since coming over from San Jose, Milan Michalek greeted the fans in Ottawa by laying a fresh steaming -12 +/- rating turd on center ice--his first negative rating in his career.  His points dropped precipitously as well. Hockey GMs have to start to realize that just because you put up points in Washington, San Jose, or Chicago, that doesn’t mean you are going to put up points everywhere.

On the second line, Mike Fisher married shorthanded in life, but he has to play with Dr. Alexei and Mr. Kovalev on his right side.  Dr. Alexei is still capable of flashes of greatness, but Mr. Kovalev is often mired in long stretches of indifference. Peter Regin pitched in 29 points in 75 games, which is a nice contribution for a second-liner. This group is capable of generating a second scoring option, but as Kovalev goes, so does this line and I don’t think he’s capable of doing it much this year--and surely not for 82 consecutive games.
Nick Foligno, Chris Kelly, and Chris Neil do a yeoman's job on the third line. Jarkko Ruutu is on the fourth line--can somebody tell me why this guy is still in the league? Winchester and Wick are fourth liners.

If Michalek and Kovalev show up, this could be the best line of forwards in the Northeast, but I am guessing that they will each show up for about 20 games this year, which is not quite a full season.

Buffalo Sabres
Thomas Vanek - Derek Roy - Jason Pominville
Jochen Hecht - Tim Connolly - Mike Grier
Tyler Ennis - Paul Gaustad - Patrick Kaleta
Nathan Gerbe - Rob Niedermeyer - Drew Stafford

This is what I call a big-boy lineup. The Sabres have what you would want in a set of forwards--they’ve got a big-name sniper that can pitch in as much as 40 goals, they’ve got a center who can get him the puck, and even a winger on the other side that's not much of a slouch. The second line is centered by a guy that can find the back of the net and some wingers that aren’t strangers to the net themselves. The third line is young, but has already demonstrated that they know how to get the rubber past the goalie as well. The fourth line is centered by a guy who has made a career of being one of the best fourth line centers in the game and also pitching in more than a handful of goals himself, while getting limited ice time. When you consider that these guys historically play within their system and are often very solid defensively, the pieces are here for a very silent-but-deadly set of forwards.

Vanek gets the press, because he’s the sniper, but don’t discount the contributions by Roy, who has put up 81, 70, and 69 points in the last three years. Pominville has strung together three straight seasons of 20 goals and Hecht found twine 21 times last year. Connolly had almost 50 assists last year, to boot. Ennis only played 10 games last year, but he had 9 points in those games! Gaustad may reach 30 points on the third line. To be able to get 80 goals from a first line, 60 from a second line, 40 from a third line, and 20 from a fourth line is about as good as a team in the Salary Cap Era can hope for--Buffalo’s forwards might be able to make that happen.

Boston Bruins
Marco Sturm - Marc Savard - Nathan Horton
Milan Lucic - David Krejci - Mark Recchi
Blake Wheeler - Patrice Bergeron - Michael Ryder
David Paille - Tyler Seguin - Shawn Thornton

On talent alone, the Bruins are pretty tough to beat, especially down the middle. Savard was injured last year and the Bruins appeared to suffer across the board. Now Savard is back and they have also added Nathan Horton, who is often injured himself, but is a legit winger to add some scoring power along the wings to support the depth down the middle. Tyler Seguin is listed as the fourth line center, but he isn’t really a fourth-liner, but we can’t assume that he’s going to come into the league and be better than Savard, Krejci, and Bergeron.

Ed. Note: It appears that Savard might still be suffering from post-concussion syndrome, and will be out for a while.  As of right now, Tyler Seguin has a good chance at being the replacement for however long Savard will be out.

Savard may be able to set Horton up for a big season (again, health issues aside)--Sturm will ride along for lots of points. Lucic will also get to ride shotgun for Krejci setting up Recchi--although it’s hard to say how much Recchi has left.

Blake Wheeler may take a few steps forward, he pitched in 38 points last year and he’s at that age where a lot of guys take their career to the next level. Ryder, Paille, and Thornton aren’t exciting but they aren’t going to hurt you that much either. Ryder can even add some scoring on the third line.
The question is whether or not their two dangerous wingers (Horton and Recchi) can stay healthy and contribute. It will also be interesting to see if Seguin gets some PP time as well. Overall, we are going to assume that Savard is going to come back to form and boost the Bruins to the best group of forwards in the Northeast.


Northeast Division Forwards Ranking
1. Boston Bruins
2. Buffalo Sabres
3. Ottawa Senators
4. Montreal Canadiens
5. Toronto Maple Leafs

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Little More Bang for Your Buck - Fantasy Hockey "Sleepers" (Wingers)

Moving on to our next section of "sleepers" (for explanation of center "sleepers" and why I put quotes around "sleepers", go here), we come to the most important group in fantasy hockey in my opinion: wingers.  The only other group even close is goaltending, but in a majority of leagues, goalies come and go, rise and fall.  There are a couple of mainstays, but in competitive leagues where you have 12 or more teams, everyone is going to be playing the "find your goalie" game.  One of the most stable statistics in goaltending, save percentage, testifies to the fact that there is very little variance in the performance of the top tier of goaltenders versus the middle and bottom.  Therefore, every year, a savvy owner can get a top 5 goaltender off the waiver wire.  

Wingers, on the other hand, are less volatile, but incredibly important because the difference between the top tiers and the lower tiers are much more substantial than any other position on the ice.  The key is catching a winger on the rise in later rounds, who can hopefully either offset a disappointing winger or bolster an already-solid position on your team.

P.S. I am using Yahoo Sports 2010 fantasy draft rankings and positions in the mostly standard Yahoo 12-team format.

Wingers

Corey Perry - Anaheim Ducks - RW
Average draft position: 43rd pick
Could easily match the production of: Patrick Marleau (32nd pick) and Jarome Iginla (30th pick)

Corey Perry's annoying to some people, and I understand that.  But those sentiments have no place in fantasy sports, where he has rapidly become one of the top RW's in the game.  He has averaged 29 goals, 38 assists, a +7, 21 PP points, 251 shots, and 109 PIM over the last 3 seasons, and there is every reason to believe he will duplicate those numbers.  Goal-scoring is a scarce commodity at any of the positions, so the prospect of having a 30+ goal scorer on your team is valuable.  Not to mention a 30-goal scorer that can give you 70 points and 100+ PIM.  It seems like splitting hairs, but a spread of 10 picks in the early rounds is too far apart between Perry and Marleau and Iginla.  Marleau played a bit over his head last year, and will give you virtually no PIMs, whereas Iginla might give you more PIMs but will likely be joined again by Olli Jokinen who will take away a significant chunk of Iginla's shots.  Perry, on the other hand, loses Bobby Ryan on the left wing and gains shot opportunities in the process.  And really, I'm basing my analysis on what we know Perry can do (previous years' stats); there are some who believe he could build on last year.
2010-11 prediction: 79 games played, 33 goals, 45 assists, 78 points, +2, 25 PP points, 290 shots, 105 PIM

Ales Hemsky - Edmonton Oilers - RW
Average draft position: 103rd pick
Could easily match the production of: Daniel Alfredsson (56th pick)

Let me begin by saying that no one will lose their fantasy season if their drafting mantra is "Avoid all Edmonton Oilers."  That being said, I do think that there might be at least one draft-able player in Hemsky.  I think it's a little too easy to pass off Hemsky as "injury-prone", as he had one rough year after two full seasons (in today's NHL, anything above 71 games is a full season to me).  Plus, he went under the knife and has looked good early in training camp.  Recall that his injury was to his left shoulder and he shoots right; it would be a tougher injury to recover from if he were in a position that relies on slap-shot skills and physical play rather than wrist-shots and stick-handling.  He was a point-per-gamer when paired with Penner, and that is likely where he'll play again.  He's still only 27 years old and has a lot of gas in the tank after rehabbing much of last year.  Alfredsson, I hate to say, is a bit past his prime and is not in an ideal offense to lift his point totals.  Sneak Hemsky onto your team as a #2 right winger and don't be surprised if he becomes your best.
2010-11 prediction: 75 games, 24 goals, 52 assists, 76 points, +1, 33 PP points, 200 shots, 35 PIM

Brenden Morrow - Dallas Stars - LW
Average draft position: 125th pick
Could easily match the production of: Dustin Penner (86th pick)

How quickly we forget the Morrow of yesteryear.  Before his ACL injury in 2008-09, Morrow was rising to a level of production consistent with some of the best fantasy LW's.  Had he not lost his 06-07 and 08-09 seasons to injury, he could easily have posted 63 and 68 points, respectively, giving him four straight seasons of 20+ goals, 30+ assists, and 100+ PIM.  Instead, his knee and wrist injuries interrupted him, and while he clearly recovered from the wrist injury the knee seemed to affect his play last year.  It's very possible that his recovery was slow, and there are reasons to be optimistic.  For one, he will be moving back into the same role as previous seasons as the top LW and, now healthy, will be able to play the physical game that brought him so much success.  Don't forget that he logs significant minutes on the PP.  Also, his shooting percentage last year was down from previous seasons, a stat that will likely rebound.  While I can't guarantee Dallas will be a successful team, there's every reason to suggest that Morrow can return to his previous form.  I look at this as not a condemnation for Penner, but rather an optimistic view of Morrow.
2010-11 prediction: 82 games, 28 goals, 40 assists, 68 points, -1, 25 PP points, 180 shots, 90 PIM

Tuomo Ruutu - Carolina Hurricanes - LW
Average draft position: Not Drafted
Could easily match the production of: Ryan Smyth (104th pick)

Ruutu was a popular pick last year that many assumed disappointed.  Fact is, he was actually on roughly the same pace in 09-10 as he was in 08-09 across the board.  This year, as according to the 'Canes team site, he will regain his prime position on the top line alongside Eric Staal and 09-10 revelation Jussi Jokinen.  Even on bad teams, there is occasionally a little statistical enclave that could be called "success", and I think Carolina's first line will be a good example.  Supposedly moving over to right wing, Ruutu will retain his LW eligibility and gain RW eligibility, a nice little perk to having him.  I happen to think that not only will Ruutu regain his form, but he will benefit from a solid rebound season from Eric Staal, resulting in more assists and garbage goals.  Like Perry, Ruutu is a pest, but that only spells more value for him in fantasy.  Ryan Smyth, on the other hand, looks like a great pick on the surface but is really still just Ryan Smyth.  Yes, he had a great start to the year, but by mid-season he was dipping back into the Smyth-y inconsistency we're all used to seeing.  I think Kopitar and Dustin Brown will be the stars on that top line, and Smyth will continue to have cyclical "coming-out" parties (if you know what I mean, Goldilocks).
2010-11 prediction: 77 games, 24 goals, 36 assists, 60 points, -3, 21 PP points, 190 shots, 85 PIM

You'll notice some consistency across these picks, as most of the players are on mediocre-to-poor teams and have had some injuries in their past.  Both are good reasons for caution, but not necessarily good reasons to entirely write them off.  Remember, the big differences are between the top tier wingers and the bottom of the barrel, and these guys (except Perry) are examples of great safety valves to make sure that your wingers are all at or near the top tier.


Friday, September 17, 2010

NHL Preview: Atlantic Division Forwards

New York Islanders
Matt Moulson - John Tavares - Kyle Okposo
Josh Bailey - Rob Schremp - Blake Comeau
Jon Sim - Frans Nielsen - Trent Hunter
Trevor Gillies - Doug Weight - Zenon Konopka


The Islanders are a team with no more than a top line. And really, it’s not much of a top line…I’m sure Scott Gordon can make something happen with these guys since he’s been coaching for two years in the NHL and is very consistent(ly bad). Ok, so maybe this won’t be the year for the Isles, and the same may go next year. But rebuilding a team is tough, and you have to live with a few shortcomings…or many shortcomings. The top line is very young and showed they know how to stir a defense when on top of their game last year. The only problem is they have no history of repeating that. 2010-11 will be the year that tests whether the top line is or isn’t for real. Players like Okposo and Moulson need to continue last year’s production or Gordon won’t be afraid to throw in replacements. Bailey, Shremp, Comeau, Nielson, and Hunter all showed signs of talent and really could fit anywhere on this roster. In fact if you put this roster through a random generator, I bet you’d come out with roughly the same output. They will be the team that whoops up on a high seed a couple times this year because of the consistent lines, but they most definitely will be at the bottom of this division…again.

New York Rangers

Vaclav Prospal - Erik Christensen - Marian Gaborik
Alexander Frolov - Brandon Dubinsky - Ryan Callahan
Sean Avery - Chris Drury - Todd White
Brandon Prust - Artem Anisimov - Derek Boogaard


The Rangers have been in limbo for the last 15 years and are due to challenge the division leader. Their top line will be great, and their second will be as good as the Isle’s first. Their third is perfect and their fourth is just plain scary (Boogeyman). The only problem is you never know what happens within the Rangers’ locker room (apart from Boogaard getting snapped in the ass with a wet towel). I don’t think the coach has real control over his team and I think his team is trying to figure him out, without success. Torts is such a strange fella (probably the guy on the other end of the wet towel). He will flip out, and he will sit with all his Torty looks:
These looks are what make the lines for the Rangers so unpredictable. When Torts stops shuffling lines and “teaching his players a lesson” the Rangers will level out into a strong competitor.

New Jersey Devils
Zach Parise - Travis Zajac – Ilya Kovalchuk
Patrik Elias – Jason Arnott – Jamie Langenbrunner
Brian Rolston – Dainius Zubrus – David Clarkson
Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond – Rod Pelley – Vladimir Zharkov

The rise of the Devils is always as scary as their top lines, and this year will be deadly. Parise has proven he is the young foundation of this team and Zajac will forever be at his side. With last year’s addition of Kovalchuk, and 
the possibility of Kovy moving over to the right to accommodate Parise, line 1 could be in the top 5 of the NHL.
They have sufficient depth that was proven by big performances last year by Zubrus and occasionally Clarkson. The comeback of Arnott will solidify the defensive side of the game. Expect a rock solid performance that could land them in the top spot in this division.

Philadelphia Flyers
Scott Hartnell - Mike Richards - Nikolai Zherdev
James van Riemsdyk - Jeff Carter - Claude Giroux
Ville Leino - Danny Briere - Ian Laperriere
Darroll Powe - Blair Betts - Daniel Carcillo

The Flyers loss of Gagne may just work with the addition of Zherdev. Zherdev’s second attempt at the NHL could pay off after having a pretty good season in the KHL (52 games, 13 goals, 26 assists, and 39 points). The youngsters of years past should be primed enough to fulfill the roles they are expected to. If Hartnell gains back what he once had, the outlook for Philly could be a repeat with a better ending. Their depth is near perfection, and the only thing they don’t have is a forward who we know will put up a point-per-game, though at least two forwards certainly could. The possible addition of Guerin (signed to a tryout) would top the tank. Their depth is the strongest in the division.


Pittsburgh Penguins
Chris Kunitz - Sidney Crosby - Mike Comrie
Eric Tangradi - Jordan Staal - Evgeni Malkin
Tyler Kennedy - Max Talbot - Pascal Dupuis
Matt Cooke - Mike Rupp - Arron Asham

Can the Penguins do it again? It’s hard to say. We all know they have two of the best in the league, and their power play is superb (though less now without Gonchar). They do have a new top-line right wing that we all don’t believe in. Comrie has proven he’s not what everyone hoped he’d be. I will be upset however if he’s the target of high expections just because he can occasionally fumble around with a pass from Sid. I know the Penguins try to create depth, but the truth of the matter is we’d like to see Malkin and Crosby together.
It’s like taking Backstrom away from Ovechkin; no one needs to see that. Kunitz has proven he was a fluke in Anaheim and will continue his sub-Saku numbers here in the Pitts. I do like the last two lines because they play the way the team needs them to play. With the addition of Asham, I think the fourth line will get a little more time than most others in the league and it will show on the scoreboard. Look for them to squeak out a top spot in the division.

This division is a crap shoot for the top three, and I may even be inclined to say four, but the only thing I can say for sure is the Islanders will hold strong at number 5.

Atlantic Division Forwards Ranking 

1. Pittsburgh Penguins
2. Philadelphia Flyers
3. New Jersey Devils
4. New York Rangers
5. New York Islanders

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Little More Bang For Your Buck - Fantasy Hockey "Sleepers" (Center)

Like my sister has reminded me time and again, some people LARP, some people do fantasy sports.  I always try to counter this with some feeble rationale that, because it's sport, it's more socially accepted.  In reality, we substitute being imaginary Frodo's for being imaginary hockey experts and GMs.  Hey, it's an excellent tool for procrastination.  Could you imagine someone skipping out on work to lead a peasant revolt?

Admittedly, I like the speculation of fantasy sports from year-to-year, and how close it brings me to the sports I like.  Which leads me to wonder, if I was to put anything on here fantasy sports-related, what would I put?  Well, just so happens that two things occurred to me: a.) the most important thing in terms of fantasy sports advice is a well-explained and -supported "sleeper" list, and b.) all of us at BN are joining a fantasy league together.  As the league is still a little ways off, I'll take a few posts to discuss what might be called a "sleeper" list.

The reason I put quotations marks around "sleeper" is because it is a bit of a misnomer for this list.  A true "sleeper" is someone few people expect to succeed but ends up exceeding those expectations (usually significantly).  Really, it is just as important to recognize players rebounding from injury-plagued seasons that others might have forgotten, or finding players of equal talent to others that could, nevertheless, fall further in drafts.  A good way of identifying these players is by using comparisons.  For example, a few smart people last year kept Patrick Marleau in the back of their mind and scooped him up in later rounds.  The return, of course, was great.  Here are a few players at each position capable of matching that kind of jump (or are simply under-appreciated as they are):

P.S. I am using Yahoo Sports 2010 fantasy draft rankings and positions in the mostly standard 12-team format.

Centers

Nikolai Antropov - Atlanta Thrashers
Average draft position: 148th pick
Could easily match the production of: Travis Zajac (104th pick) and Ryan Kesler (62nd pick)

I don't know why everyone's so sour on Antropov, as he has slowly but surely developed into a fairly impressive hockey player over the years.  Let's try that again...people don't like him because he's on the Thrashers.  But I think last year proved that there are many things about his production that are defensible.  He's always been just a shade under point-per-game production, with above-average shooting ability (lifetime 14%).  He's always thrown around his gargantuan (6'6", 240lb.) frame, accruing 527 penalty minutes in 603 games.  He's perennially included in his team's PP unit and, coming into 2010-11, he'll be the most heavily-used forward in Atlanta.  His 19% shooting will probably regress, but his shots will surely increase, and it is worth noting that he performed even better after Kovalchuk left town (11 goals and 25 points in the final 25 games).  Finally, his +13 was a full 7 points higher than any other full-time Atlanta player.  He's a late-rounder, but not necessarily a downgrade.
2010-11 prediction: 75 games, 30 goals, 37 assists, 67 points, +5, 28 PP points, 201 shots, 80 PIM

Patrick Sharp (C,LW) - Chicago Blackhawks
Average draft position - 100th pick
Could easily match the production of: Jeff Carter (39th pick)

A few years ago, the Flyers sent Sharp to the Blackhawks for the measly return of Matt Ellison and a 3rd round pick (which would be used to get possible AHL-lifer Jonathan Matsumoto).  Sharp has since developed into one of the more complete players on the 'Hawks, getting loads of playing time on the power play and penalty kill.  A talented shooter, when he moved to a secondary shooter role last year he learned the play-making aspects of the game to the tune of a career-high 41 assists.  When many had Jeff Carter pegged to build upon his breakout 2008-09 season, Carter dropped to nearly the same points-per-game as Sharp (.82 to Sharp's .8) and 22 PP points (to Sharp's 16).  There are reasons to believe that Sharp and Carter will stick very close to one-another this year, in terms of production, including the fact that it is becoming clear that Carter is much closer to the player he exhibited last year than the one he was in 2008-09.  He's a career 10.9% shooter, a mark not far from the 10.3% he posted in 2009-10, and with as many weapons as the Flyers have, he might not reach the 300-shot level again.  The emergence of van Riemsdyk and the addition of Zherdev and possibly Bill Guerin will eat into his shot totals, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Claude Giroux grow into more playing time and a greater role in the offense.  Sharp, on the other hand, had a 3-year low in shooting percentage with 9.4%, after years of 17.2% and 14.1%.  He's a career 12.5% shooter.  The Blackhawks' off-season saw the departure of two bigger shooters in Byfuglien (211 shots) and Versteeg (184 shots) and little to take their place.  While Carter's +/- took a substantial dip in 2009-10, I don't think he and Sharp will be significantly different this year, as the Blackhawks and Flyers are pretty close to each other skill-wise.  Of course, the coup de grace for this argument is Carter's loss of dual- position eligibility, as he has improved his face-off taking skills.
2010-11 prediction: 82 games, 30 goals, 40 assists, 70 points, +10, 21 PP points, 280 shots, 45 PIM

Short list, huh?  In general, I'm not too concerned with centers, because unlike many of the other positions you can usually add serviceable centers over the course of the fantasy season, even in deep leagues.  You'll see far more players in the next installments of wingers and later defensemen, then a nice tidy finish with goaltenders.


Saturday, September 11, 2010

NHL Preview: Southeast Division Forwards


We're blowing the dust off the blog a bit as the NHL season's wheels get a-turning here at BN.  The summer has crept by, sowing seeds of sensational stories (that's alliteration) in its wake.  I pretty much agree with Battle of California that they were mostly lame, though I somewhat enjoyed poking fun at Dan Ellis before everyone (on both sides) decided they were offended by the charade.  I think it's closely related to the phenomenon I call "reverse-pissed," where my wife gets angry at me for being angry at her.  Anyways, it's all double rainbows for me now; he joins elite company with Sean Avery, Mike Commodore, Alexander Semin, and Jiri Tlusty as the butt of the occasional joke.  Welcome.

I'm taking on the Southeast Division today in part because nobody else sounded very excited about it, and Forsberg's Foot straight out said he wanted to have nothing to do with the division.  And I'll admit, figuring out the forward lines and defensive pairs is a little exhausting for teams that almost perennially have no depth.  But someone has to do it, so here are the teams in my order of the top set of forwards to the bottom:

Washington Capitals
Alexander Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - Alexander Semin
Tomas Fleischmann - Brooks Laich - Mike Knuble
Jason Chimera - Dave Steckel - Eric Fehr
D.J. King - Boyd Gordon - Matt Bradley

As we'll likely do with the other teams, I took a few liberties in making all the lines fit: Yahoo! and CBS have Fleischmann on the 3rd line, but that's not really his spot.  Look for Fleischmann on the second line as either he or Laich will move over and take faceoffs.  Laich was better than Fleischmann on the draw last year and the year before, so it's the more logical choice.  Steckel is a superior faceoff taker than either, but he lacks the skill-set for 2nd-line duty and is a better fit on the 3rd line.

The song remains the same with the Caps, as the top line is the most dominant line in the league.  While it would benefit the Capitals to spread their best forwards among the top 2 lines, Semin's production drops substantially when that happens.  Unlike other teams, the top-heavy forward lines don't seem to be a major problem (except when you are playing the Canadiens in the playoffs).  The second line is solid (literally, try to move Laich or Knuble), and even if Knuble experiences a decline because of his age, Eric Fehr is more than capable to take over.  I loved the Chimera addition last year, and if he stays healthy this team has a great 3rd line complement to the top 2.  Keep an eye on Mathieu Perreault, a speedy little center with little left to prove down in the AHL.  He posted 9 points in a 21-game cup-o'-tea last year, and could sneak onto the 2nd line if Fleischmann is inconsistent (again).

Tampa Bay Lightning
Martin St. Louis - Steven Stamkos - Steve Downie
Simon Gagne - Vincent Lecavalier - Teddy Purcell
Ryan Malone - Dominic Moore - Sean Bergenheim
James Wright - Niklas Persson - Marc Pouliot

One of the stories of the year was Stamkos's jump from promising rookie (he ended 2008-09 strong) to full-blown star in 2009-10.  Forcing his way ahead of Lecavalier, the expectations are huge for this season.  On his right side will be another player that has a lot to live up to.  Steve Downie's 22 goal season last year was a surprise to many who assumed he was beginning a slow descent to goon-dom.  As a former first-round pick, nobody will be surprised to see another 20 goal season, though Lightning fans shouldn't get too excited.  It will be hard to sustain the 19% shooting Downie experienced a year ago.  What's much easier for him to sustain is the high number of boneheaded minor penalties, something that could land him in the doghouse and cause the Lightning to find a way to get expensive Ryan Malone off the 3rd line.

I like the top 2 lines and I like the addition of Gagne, but let's not forget that Gagne has a.) not scored more than 40 goals since 2007, b.) never scored more than 79 points, and c.) never played a full season.  He's a potent addition to an already-good power play unit, but he's not likely to break any records as, at best, the fourth forward option on this team.  The third and fourth line are bit-parts, with the exception of Malone who might find his way back onto the top 2 lines this season.

Carolina Hurricanes
Jussi Jokinen - Eric Staal - Tuomo Ruutu
Jiri Tlusty - Brandon Sutter - Chad LaRose
Zach Boychuk - Riley Nash - Erik Cole
Sergei Samsonov - Patrick Dwyer - Tom Kostopoulos

Now, before you get up in arms, I'm merely posting the depth chart as it is shown on the 'Canes web site.  Yahoo and CBS have completely different renderings, both with Ruutu on the left side, but we'll just pretend. The big changes are the losses of two older players, Ray Whitney and Rod Brind'Amour, one of which was still pretty good, the other really bad.  Sorry Rod the Bod.  Distinct drop-offs from Ruutu (injury) and Samsonov (some say age, but I think he's shrinking) made this a really poor offense last year, and there will need to be a rebound for 2010-11 to be any better.

Jokinen's success last year needs to be sustained, even if his 18.8% shooting likely won't be.  He will always be pretty good in shootouts, which is worth a win or two every year.  I like the idea of Erik Cole on the third line, because I think he could legitimately re-invent his career by focusing on defense.  The 2nd line here projects atrociously, but the potential is there for Sutter to at least match his 20 goals from the previous year.  If LaRose can't hack it on the 2nd line, expect Cole and maybe Kostopoulos to be bumped up, and I'm almost certain that Riley Nash will not get regular 3rd line duty.  The reserve players aren't pretty either, though Oskar Osala is good at not winning fights.

Atlanta Thrashers
Evander Kane - Nikolai Antropov - Niclas Bergfors
Andrew Ladd - Rich Peverley - Bryan Little
Fredrik Modin - Jim Slater - Chris Thorburn
Ben Eager - Jared Ross - Spencer Machacek

The Thrashers took a couple of major hits in 2010, losing Ilya Kovalchuk and Maxim Afinogenov.  Add that to losing Kari Lehtonen, and these aren't your mother's Thrashers (which is a joke, because they haven't been around that long, get it?).  Reports have Dustin Byfuglien playing defense at camp, which further thins out an already-spotty set of forward lines.  Andrew Ladd and Fredrik Modin were added so that Atlanta could have both the biggest eyebrows and the strongest jaw on the planet.

Like the 'Canes, the Thrashers are relying on players getting back to form and others realizing their potential.  Bryan Little had a lot of hype in last year's previews because of his 31-goal sophomore campaign, but failed to follow it with a strong third year.  Antropov and Peverley were the lone bright spots that should continue their solid production; Antropov played surprisingly well even when Kovalchuk left town (11 goals, 14 assists in 25 games after the trade).  We all love Evander Kane for obvious reasons, but now is his chance to justify his draft position and build upon the 26 points in 66 games and a +2 he posted last year.  Even though he's a dickhead and nobody likes him, Patrice Cormier might sneak onto the big club before the year's out.  Overall, the fact that this team doesn't even boast one complete, solid forward line puts them a notch below Carolina.

Florida Panthers
David Booth - Stephen Weiss - Michael Frolik
Cory Stillman - Steven Reinprecht - Radek Dvorak
Rotislav Olesz - Shawn Matthias - Steve Bernier
Christopher Higgins - Marty Reasoner - Michael Grabner

Like a lot of people, I have the Panthers pretty low on my 2010-11 expectations, but I think they are closer to the Thrashers and 'Canes than others might think.  There is a lot of youth on the table in Florida, and I truly think they benefit in leaving behind the unfulfilled potential of Nathan Horton.  Rather than waiting for a "click" that never came, they can give full-time minutes to up-and-comers like Frolik, Grabner, and (hopefully) Michal Repik.  If Booth can fully recover from his concussion this year (a big "if"), he is the right person to get a primary-shooter role.  Weiss is more of an in-the-shadows good, and Reinprecht and Stillman are solid-if-unspectacular veterans.

The biggest concern I have of the Panthers is the lack of a true 3rd line.  Bernier isn't bad on a 3rd, but I see few other players that you could trust in a shut-down role.  This was the same problem last year, hence why Weiss logged so many minutes against opposing teams' top lines.  This year might not be the year for the Panthers, but down the road there may be reasons to believe the rats can come back.

This is still the Capitals' division to win, and true development on any of the other four teams is going to require the young players developing a thick skin.  Ultimately, don't expect a lot of surprises out of the Southeast this year.

Southeast Division Forwards Ranking
1. Washington Capitals
2. Tampa Bay Lightning
3. Carolina Hurricanes
4. Atlanta Thrashers
5. Florida Panthers

P.S.  Today, we commemorate a great tragedy in the United States, one that changed many (if not all) of our lives.  While debates, investigations, wars, and showy, overblown rhetoric have profoundly changed the event and our recollection of it, I hope we can all just pause and give our regards to those who have passed.  R.I.P.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Cry, the Defensive Forward

Re-reading Ken Dryden's The Game the other day, I came across his ode to Bob Gainey:

If there is such a thing as a "player's player," it would be Gainey.  A phrase often heard and rarely explained, it is seldom applied to the best player of a sport, as Gainey is not, for performance is only a part of it.  Instead, the phrase is for someone who has the personal and playing qualities that others wish they had, basic, unalterable qualities - dependability, discipline, hard work, courage - the roots of every team.  To them, Gainey adds a timely, insistent passion, an enormous will to win, and a powerful, punishing playing style, secure and manly, without the strut of machismo.  If I could be a forward, I would want to be Gainey.
- Ken Dryden, The Game, p. 82


As many of us know, Bob Gainey is in the Hall of Fame (a first-balloter, no less), enshrined for that very will to win as a solid defensive forward on some of the most successful teams in NHL history.  He, by all means, deserved the accolades, winning the first four Selke Trophies (a record that still stands, pending a Datsyuk challenge), the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1979, and 5 Stanley Cups.  The great architects of the Soviet hockey program, Anatoli Tarasov and Viktor Tikhonov, proclaimed Gainey to be the world's best all-around player in his prime.  The Hockey News pegged him at #86 on their 1998 list of the greatest hockey players of all-time.

All of these honors are pretty incredible when you think of his career stats (as so many of the current HOF-eligible players are thus analyzed): 1,139 games, 239 goals, 262 assists, and 501 points as a left winger.  In his best years, he averaged just over a point-every-other-game.  He finished with an overall +196, a tidy number though small compared to some of his teammates (Lemaire - +349, Lafleur - +453, Shutt - +393, Robinson - +730).  Inducted in 1992, his more dubious reputation as a GM was too late to influence any voters (I know it shouldn't regardless, but it does, people).

Thus, we know that Gainey's contributions were not measured by the final stats, but by the large volume of praise for his less-tangible accomplishments.  He was the defensive forward, an essential component of any successful team in any period of NHL history.  He's also unique, being one of the few HOF inductees of the NHL's last 40 years that was almost solely a defensive forward, the other being Bob Pulford (barely...he retired in 1972).

This all begs an important set of questions:  Were Gainey and Pulford the only electable defensive forwards of the last 40 years?  Are there no comparable talents that matched Gainey and Pulford's contributions and success?  When we think of HOF-calibre players today, what does it take to consider a player with Gainey's career stats?  Would a forward that scores many goals but completely neglects his own end of the rink be more likely to be elected than a forward that played solid (think, award-winning) defense in addition to the occasional goal/assist?

Since the 1980s, I'd argue that there's a reluctance to recognize the defensive forward, an important player lost in the astronomical offensive numbers we saw three decades ago, rarely to be recognized even when the defensive game re-emerged in the mid-90s.  Sure, if there comes a player that joins point-per-game offense with relatively good defense, he enters the conversation, and when Selanne's opportunity comes around his average defense will be sufficient.  But what about those defensive forwards?

Case in point is a player that entered the league in Gainey's waning years, and survived the 1980s and early 90s with his elite defensive reputation intact.  Guy Carbonneau toiled over 19 NHL seasons, winning 3 Selkes and 3 Stanley Cups, all the while carrying the label of the league's best defensive forward.  Beyond that, he did something incredibly well that Bob Gainey rarely ever did: win faceoffs.  In the process, Carbonneau played 1,318 games, scoring 260 goals, 403 assists, and 663 points along with a career +/- of +186.

Another more-recent example is a player currently without a job, Jere Lehtinen.  Also the recipient of 3 Selkes and a Stanley Cup, Lehtinen has had a more prolific scoring career than Gainey or Carbonneau, but this was certainly not to the detriment of his defensive game.  For sure, if you were to ask 100 hockey experts on the best defensive players of the period 1995-2010, Lehtinen would enter the conversation for almost every one.  With 875 games played, 243 goals, 271 goals, 514 points, and a career +176, who could argue?  He only had one season where he finished with a minus (Gainey had two, and Carbonneau four) despite playing on a number of suspect Dallas teams.  He and Modano were constants on teams that boasted some of the most incredible goaltending statistics in NHL history, including Ed Belfour's 1997-98 and 1998-99 and Marty Turco's 2002-03 and 2003-04.  Yet it is unlikely that Lehtinen will get his due, much like Carbonneau sees each year come and go without a chance to join his Montreal brethren in the hallowed Hall.

In a time when statistical analysts are bringing us ever closer to defensive player value, it's time to remember that those Red Wings, those Devils, those Penguins, didn't get there without Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, Jay Pandolfo, John Madden, Jordan Staal, etc.  The defensive forward is still important, still integral to regular season success, playoff hockey, and the Silver of all Silvers.  I'm not saying enshrine Michael Peca on principle, but I do believe that each generation boasts at least one defensive forward that deserves enshrinement along with the multitudes of point-per-gamers nominated from year-to-year by our hockey writers and dignitaries.