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Fantasy Hockey Cage Match - Chris Kunitz vs. Brooks Laich

 

One of the most difficult assessments in fantasy hockey is determining the value of secondary scorers. These players usually have a lot of value to real NHL clubs but on fantasy teams these guys may be borderline waiver wire fodder. Just a few points can mean the difference between adding and dropping a player. That means just a few bounces can decide who is valuable and who isn’t but we as fantasy owners cannot control the bounces. Instead, we fantasy owners must look at the big picture and hope that the bounces even themselves out. This means assessing each player’s situation and determining whether or not it is lucrative. Essentially, we are looking at who is receiving the most quality minutes with the best players.

 

Consider this week’s Cage Match; Brooks Laich vs. Chris Kunitz. Both players are most certainly secondary scorers on their respective teams but are also lucky enough to be skating on two of the most superstar laden teams in the NHL – the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins – so for Laich and Kunitz to possess fantasy value they must achieve chemistry with their respective team’s superstars.

Chris Kunitz certainly has chemistry with his superstars or maybe he just has the sort of game where he can play with anyone. (And there may be something to that theory considering Kunitz spent most of his time in Anaheim on a line with Getzlaf and Perry.) Since landing in Pittsburgh Kunitz has been glued to Crosby’s hip and when Crosby could barely get out of bed this season Kunitz was teamed up with Malkin and Neal. It would seem that so long as he is in the Penguins lineup, Kunitz cannot lose.

Staying in the lineup has been Kunitz’ only problem. This past season was Kunitz’ first fully healthy one in Pittsburgh as he skated in all 82 games for the first time since the season he was dealt from Anaheim. It is thus no surprise that Kunitz set career highs with 26 goals and 61 points this past season.

Career highs are great for fantasy owners but since Kunitz turns 33 in September that should also be triggering alarm bells. Players are not supposed to set career highs after hitting the big 3-0. It simply does not happen enough so Kunitz would seem to be an obvious candidate for a decline except that he only bested his career highs by one goal and one point. Kunitz also did not deviate from the 0.73 point per game pace that he has scored at since landing in Pittsburgh. In fact, he actually shot at a lower percentage than his career average. He did not so much overachieve as he simply met par for the course while staying healthy. I would still bet on a decline from Kunitz but only for the fact that as a 33-year-old who plays as physical a style as he does (180 hits last year), Kunitz is not a player you should count on to play 80 games.

Kunitz looks like a good bet to skate in around 70 games, which would mean 15-20 goals and around 50 points. His per game scoring should not deviate much since we know he is going to be given quality minutes.

Last season Kunitz skated 18:19 minutes per game with 3:31 coming on the power play. Even after Crosby came back his minutes did not budge and he maintained his place on the top power play unit. Concerns that Kunitz may be replaced by Neal are not really legitimate. There is room for both Kunitz and Neal on the power play even with Crosby and Malkin out there. The fact is that Kunitz is a valuable player for puck retrieval as well as for providing a net presence. While Neal could play this role also, it would neutralize some of his amazing shooting ability. For that reason Kunitz’s skillset remains unique in the Penguins lineup.

Laich on the other hand is not quite so fortunate. It is true that Laich has been given similar minutes as Kunitz (18:29 per game with 2:12 on the power play last season) and even played a similar role as “net-presence guy” on the Capitals power play but that is where the comparisons end. Laich, unlike Kunitz, plays predominantly center at even strength. Worse yet, Laich is employed as the Capitals shutdown centerman, skating against the opponents’ top offensive lines shift after shift, night after night, starting most of his shifts in the defensive zone. Laich also has penalty kill responsibilities, skating 2:28 minutes per game down a man last season. Kunitz only skated eight seconds per game on the penalty kill last season. Laich simply is not being put in a position to score.

That may all change next season. There was once a time when Laich was given plenty of minutes on the wing and given a chance to skate alongside the Capitals’ stars at even strength so it could happen again. The Capitals are undergoing their second coaching change of the past couple months, bringing in recent Hall-of-Famer, Adam Oates. Oates will presumably unleash the big guns in Washington but that may not mean Laich gets another chance at a scoring role. In fact, the recent acquisition of Mike Ribeiro may push that in the complete opposite direction.

With Ribeiro and Backstrom occupying the top two center positions there is absolutely no room for Laich to move up the middle of the lineup. What’s more, by having two offensive centermen instead of one, there may be more motivation for the coaching staff to keep Laich in a defensive role since there are now presumably two offensive lines to eat up the easier minutes.

Laich could of course be moved back to the wing and that is a situation that bears watching. Currently the Capitals have five wingers under contract for next season; Alex Ovechkin, Jason Chimera, Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer and Marcus Johansson. Only Ovechkin and Johansson can be considered locks to play top six minutes, however Brouwer, Chimera and Ward are all capable. If Semin is brought back or a replacement is found then the door should be considered shut on Laich. However, if the Capitals instead sign a defensive center then that could mean Laich is moving up.

For now the lack of alternatives for defensive centermen in the Capitals lineup should keep Laich in his defensive role. The landscape of free agency also does not bode well. There are plenty of top six wingers available, however the list of third line centermen begins and ends with Paul Gaustad.

Assuming Laich maintains his role as shutdown centerman it is entirely possible that he loses his job as “net-presence guy” under the new coaching regime. Last season Laich began on the top power play unit receiving over three minutes per game with the man advantage. Once Bruce Boudreau was fired his power play minutes dropped precipitously, down to just 1:25 per game during the third quarter of the season. Only in the final quarter of the year, with Backstrom out, did Laich return to the top power play unit because of the need for a centerman who could win faceoffs. With both Ribeiro and Backstrom in tow Laich may not even be able to jump to the top unit with an injury. The Capitals also have plenty of big wingers (Brouwer, Ward) who can play in front of the net on the power play.

One advantage Laich has is his durability. The fewest games Laich has played in a season since establishing himself full time was 73 and he has only missed four games in the past five seasons. The problem is that Laich may need to skate in 100+ games to match Kunitz’s totals. Laich was a Boudreau favourite and was rewarded as such with all the power play time he could handle. This is not to say that Oates and company will not be fans of Laich’s – as surely Laich plays the sort of gritty/responsible game anyone can enjoy – it is just that they may not be as big of fans of his offensive skills.

Monitor the Capitals winger situation closely. If they do not sign anyone (highly unlikely) then boost Laich up a notch. If they do sign someone then that makes Laich a 35-45 point option. He is a fantastic secondary scorer in real life but in fantasy he just does not get enough offensive minutes to make many squads. Kunitz, on the other hand, is living the dream and is in the perfection situation for fantasy value. He gets figuratively fat on offensive minutes. Even if he loses 20 games next season Kunitz should have at least as much value as Laich and that means he wins this Cage Match.


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