Fantasy hockey is all about the numbers. Identifying trends, patterns, and making correct projections is usually the difference between consistently winning and consistently losing hockey pools. I like to look for short-term arbitrage (capitalizing on market imbalances) opportunities in order to maximize player values. I rarely win my pools because of strong drafts alone; it is often with shrewd trading throughout the year at certain times that I am able to move up in the standings.
I posted an article a few weeks ago about using the World Junior Championship to your advantage, and the following strategy is somewhat similar. It involves identifying young players and prospects on struggling teams.
Trade deadline day in the NHL has been a bit less exciting since the debut of the loser point after the lockout. What it did was falsely inflate the records of mediocre teams in order to increase parity in both conferences. What it also did was drastically cut down the number of teams clearly willing to sell off veterans and free agents-to-be on deadline day. A 35-25-22 team is “technically” above .500, but in reality has a losing record of 35-47.because of the loser point, the team may find itself in playoff contention. This is just a hypothetical situation obviously, as I am sure most of our readers are very aware of this (and a team dropping 22 extra time games is extremely unrealistic).
Less sellers hurts deadline fun, but it helps for this strategy. Identifying the teams out of the playoff race is pretty easy, and you can even get a start on it now. Carolina, Toronto, and Florida will have a tough time out East (with an honorable mention to Tampa Bay), and the same goes for St. Louis (there won’t be a second consecutive miracle run down the stretch), Columbus, and Edmonton. Assuming these basement dwellers do end up becoming sellers, it would be logical to assume they will deal away at least a veteran or two from the regular lineup. And what would that do? Directly, it would bring back assets in the trade, probably in the form of futures (draft picks or prospects). Indirectly, it opens up roster spots. Current roster players may get an opportunity to play more significant minutes, or the team may reach down to the farm to give the kids a chance.
Suddenly, the fantasy value of these young kids increases exponentially. Never ever underestimate the value of visibility – poolies place immensely more value on a player they can watch play compared to one they can only read about. Theoretically speaking, say Tyler Bozak gets the call up to the Leafs after they trade Alexei Ponikarovsky. Instead of reading about how he is playing for the Marlies, you (and your competition) will get to see him play on national television. If he plays well, the strategy works even better. What good is it to have a wealth of underrated prospects if you are looking to win now? Conversely, why would your competition trade you a proven NHL star for some player who isn’t even in the NHL?
The Hurricanes are going to move as many veterans as they can at the deadline this season. GM Jim Rutherford has gone on record as saying he expects roster turnover of at least 50% heading in to next season. That means there will be lots of open roster spots for young players to fill. Up front, the trio of Zach Boychuk, Drayson Bowman, and Jiri Tlusty are all very close to being NHL players. Brandon Sutter can be included in this group, but he already playing a regular shift with the Hurricanes. Sutter projects as the long-term (and short-term) second line center behind Eric Staal. His upside is probably around 70 points, but it depends how much power play time he is given. Carolina may want to develop him in a defensive role, similar to Jordan Staal in Pittsburgh. Don’t forget, Carolina will most likely end up with one of Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin at the 2010 Entry Draft as well.
Boychuk is coming off a terrific December in which he scored five goals in 12 games with Albany. He got off to a bit of a slow start to his professional career, but has played much better lately. Expect him to see more ice time down the stretch with the Hurricanes, and he has a great shot at sticking with the team next season if he has a strong camp.
Like Boychuk, Bowman had a slow start to the 2009-10 season with Albany as well. He is one of the better snipers I have seen come out of the WHL in quite some time, and his 89 goals over his final two seasons with Spokane speak to that. He has eight goals through 26 games in Albany, but has improved his play in recent weeks. Now that he is more acclimatized to the professional game, expect Bowman’s production to improve dramatically. He is a bit further away from the NHL than Boychuk, but he still projects as a scoring line player.
Jiri Tlusty was surprisingly dealt by the Leafs earlier this year. For whatever reason, Toronto didn’t want him, even though he is very close to making an impact at the NHL level. Tlusty is not a flashy player and often gets underrated because of this. He is a solid skater, a decent passer, and a decent goal scorer. In five games with the Hurricanes, he has a goal and an assist. Expect him to see lots of minutes after the deadline with Carolina. He is a lock to make the team for next season.
Carolina has a few decent young defensemen in Brett Carson and Bryan Rodney, but the real gem on the blue line to watch for is Jamie McBain. He has 15 points in 39 games with Albany this season, and possesses a ton of offensive upside – in his final year at the University of Wisconsin, McBain scored seven goals and added 30 assists. He may not be ready for top-four duty yet, but that is where he is penciled in for next season. The only guarantees to return next season are Joni Pitkanen and Tim Gleason, so expect McBain to be given every opportunity to earn a roster spot.
Like Carolina, expect Toronto to have a very different roster in 2010-11. The Leafs have several veterans that they will shop at the deadline, potentially opening up roster spots for a trio of talented young forwards: Viktor Stalberg, Tyler Bozak, and Christian Hanson.
Stalberg is the closest of the three to being an impact player at the NHL level. His combination of size and speed is very rare, and he should develop into a very solid 25-30 goal winger once the hands and head catch up to the NHL game. Bozak has high-end skill, but is struggling to adjust to the professional game. He has only four goals with the Marlies this season. Because he was signed as a free agent, his cap hit is close to $4 million with bonuses, so Toronto won’t be able to call him up unless they clear some salary (which is bound to happen at the deadline). His poor play can be attributed to some bad luck – he battled the H1N1 virus, and then had ankle problems right after. Now is probably a great time to make a play for him, as there is bound to be at least one Leafs fan in your pool who will overpay for him once he starts playing for the big club. Hanson has the least upside of the three, but he is a safe bet to make the NHL. He has 21 points in 22 games with the Marlies.
Next week, the players to watch for on Florida, Edmonton, Columbus, and St. Louis will be covered.