Some of you might know me for my work at Talented Mr. Roto where I covered fantasy hockey the past two seasons. As you probably know by now, Talented Mr. Roto was acquired by ESPN where fantasy hockey gets barely more coverage than fantasy sheep herding. So I’ve moved on to DobberHockey, which I consider the premier fantasy hockey site on the Web.
Training camps open tomorrow or Friday for most teams so for my first column I’ll focus on things to keep an eye on as the pre-season unfolds. An important factor in evaluating a player’s fluctuation in value from one season to the other and even during the regular season is the players he lines up next to. Any player who had the good fortune of lining up next to Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux saw his fantasy value increase exponentially. So with this in mind, let’s take a look at some players whose fantasy value, and thus draft value, will hinge upon the linemates with whom they are matched during training camp. I won’t cover all teams, focusing only on situations that hold the most importance as far as poolies are concerned.
Andy MacDonald has been a great bargain for those who drafted him the past last two years. First jumping from 30 points to 85 points in 2005-06, then proving he was no fluke with a 78-point campaign last season. He was no fluke, but the bigger question is how much of his value was a byproduct of playing with Teemu Selanne. Since it looks like Selanne will retire, a big drop can be expected from MacDonald. How big a drop will depend on his ability to establish a rapport with Todd Bertuzzi. Big-Bert isn’t the same player since the Steve Moore incident and he’s certainly no Selanne. I won’t predict a return to 30 points for MacDonald, but I’d draft him expecting a 20-point drop unless Selanne returns.
The Ducks also have to deal with the loss of Dustin Penner. It’s anyones guess right now as to who’ll earn the chance to play with rising stars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. As listed on DobberHockey in a members’ poll, the candidates are plenty and not very impressive unless Bobby Ryan surprises and wins the job. Penner’s departure is unfortunate as it limits the values of both Getzlaf and Perry who were much more difficult to stop with the behemoth at their sides. However, if Selanne returns it would enable Bertuzzi to replace Penner and provide a big boost to all players on Anaheim’s top two lines.
Acquired by the Bruins last season, Chuck Kobasew had a very difficult season last year. He scored a mere five goals and missed over 30 games due to various injuries. He didn’t get much of a chance to establish himself with the Bruins, but he’ll should a shot to bounce back and prove that he can build on the 20-goal production he accomplished in 2005-06. However, he needs a good playmaker at this side so watch carefully to see if he can earn a spot on the top two lines.
Phil Kessel inspired many last season, battling back from cancer to play 70 games and scoring a decent 11 goals and 29 points as an 18-year old rookie. He has great upside, but is currently stuck as the team’s third center behind Marc Savard and Patrice Bergeron. There’s a chance that either Kessel or Bergeron will be asked to play wing. Such a move would enable Kessel to play on the top two lines and if that happens I wouldn’t be surprised to see him reach the 70-point mark.
There are several new faces in Chicago this season. This year’s first overall draftee Patrick Kane and 2006 third overall pick Jonathan Toews are expected to make the team and play an important role by season’s end. However, much of their fantasy value will be tied to the linemates they are provided with. The acquisitions of Robert Lang, Sergei Samsonov and Yanick Perreault by the Hawks could limit the two rookies ice time, but the team would be better off with Perreault and Samsonov on the third line so keep a close eye on things in Chicago. Toews might even end up centering Martin Havlat, which would give him an excellent shot at the rookie of the year award. If Lang wins the top line responsibilities, he’ll be a prime candidate to bounce back to the 60-point range.
It’s difficult to differentiate the number one line from the number two line when you have guys like Joe Sakic and Paul Stastny centering those lines. So whoever plays on one of these lines instantly garners fantasy interest. Free-agent signee Ryan Smyth will probably join Sakic and Andruw Brunette while Milan Hejduk will remain next to Stastny. You’d expect Wojtek Wolski to play next on the top two lines after a solid rookie season, but the arrival of Jaroslav Hlinka from Czechoslovakia, where he won the scoring title, makes this less than a sure thing. It will be difficult for Wolski to improve if he’s stuck on the third line, and he could even see a decline in production, but it would make Hlinka an interesting sleeper pick.
With the decline and possible move of Sergei Fedorov to defense, the number one center job is open for the taking. Ideally, Gilbert Brule would step up his game and take command of the top line, but he hasn’t showed anything to make me think it will happen anytime soon. An interesting possibility is rookie Derrick Brassard who could force the team’s hand with a strong camp. And since much more is expected from Rick Nash than the 27 goals he scored last season, he’ll need a capable playmaker and the Blue Jackets have none more talented than Brassard.
The only thing keeping Jiri Hudler from becoming a poolie favorite this season is precious ice time. Hudler averaged only ten minutes per game last year, but could get the opportunity to play on the top two lines this season. If that happens, he’ll have no trouble doubling last season’s production.
Several rookies will be competing for spots, notably Rob Schremp and Andrew Cogliano, but I would be surprised if either had much value this season due to limited playing time. The player I’ll be keeping an eye on is Robert Nilsson who was banished to the AHL last season following a promising 20-point campaign in 2005-06 with the Islanders. He averaged almost a point per game in the AHL and could surprise if given a top-six role.
The Kings acquisition of Ladislav Nagy, Michal Handzus and Kyle Calder provides the Kings with depth they have not seen in years. It will be interesting to see what combinations coach Marc Crawford comes up with considering he also has promising youngster Patrick O’Sullivan in the fold. Whoever joins Mike Cammalleri on the second line will deserve to be upgraded on your draft board.
As was the case last year at the same time, the Wild will be looking for the perfect companion to Marian Gaborik and Pavol Demitra. The 2006-07 season saw a multitude of players parading with the two stars, but none found the right chemistry. It doesn’t look like things will change much this season, but keep a close watch in case someone clicks with these two during camp.
I fully expect Alexander Radulov to be Nashville’s top goal-scorer this season and I expect increased production from whichever center gets the chance to set him up, be it David Legwand or Jason Arnott.
New York Islanders
There were so many changes in New York that we have no idea how the line combinations will pan out. Miroslav Satan finds himself at risk of being left off the top line, which would feature Mike Comrie and Bill Guerin. If such is the case, you can forget about Satan getting back to the 30-goal plateau.
New York Rangers
Will it be Scott Gomez or Chris Drury? Obviously, whichever gets the chance to center Jaromir Jagr sees a big increase in value. It’s so obvious that I won’t go into any details.
The only real interesting thing to watch for is whether Daniel Carcillo keeps the regular playing time he earned at the end of last season. If so, he’s a great sleeper in leagues that count penalty minutes since he can easily rack up over 200 minutes and add over 20 points as a bonus.
Who’ll line up with Sydney Crosby? Who’ll line up with Evgeni Malkin? What will they do with Jordan Staal? There’s plenty of talent in Pittsburgh, but other than Mark Recchi lining up with Malkin, not much is certain on the top two lines. Petr Sykora should be paired up with Crosby giving him the opportunity to match or top his career years of 68 to 81 points produced between 1998 and 2001 in New Jersey. Gary Roberts also should be among the top six forwards, leaving one spot that could go to Staal if the Penguins decide to play him on the wing instead of using him as their third line center. Staal’s value is closely tied to the position he’s play.
Brad Boyes was a huge disappointment last season, which now makes him an interesting sleeper pick. With Keith Tkachuk’s return and Paul Kariya’s arrival, the Blues have some decent offensive weapons, so if Boyes can find a spot on the top line, we could see him return to his rookie production.
The Sharks played around with their lines pretty much all season last year. It could happen again this year, but training camp will give us an idea of who has the inside track amongst Ryan Clowe, Joe Pavelski and Steve Bernier to play a top-six role.
There isn’t much question that newcomer Michael Nylander and rookie Nicklas Backstrom will pivot the top two lines. It’s assumed that Nylander will center Alexander Ovechkin, but training camp will confirm that and if the job were given to Backstrom, he’d rocket up draft lists. Bear in mind that playing on the second line with Alexander Semin isn’t a bad consolation prize.