Going stride for stride with my Western Conference counterpart, I am providing an Eastern Conference version of Ryan Ma’s Earmarked for Success. As Ryan has cautioned, please do not fret over the line combinations. We are merely separating the top-six players from the bottom-six on each team, which can be applied to potential fantasy success for the upcoming season. Top-six players obviously get the lion’s share of ice time, both at even strength and on the power play.
I decided not to use the same terminology Ryan uses, so here’s a quick breakdown of mine if you couldn’t figure it out. Keep in mind that this terminology should be applied for fantasy hockey purposes in the coming season only.
- Golden Boys – Each team’s top six. The top-six role is theirs to lose.
- Challengers – These guys want to crack their way into the top six and depending on the situation, they just may.
- Checkers – these players are essentially fourth line players. Some may have very bright futures, but the path of the current team doesn’t seem to have top-nine minutes in store for them.
I’ll look at three or four teams each week, going in alphabetical order. Here’s Part Five.
Toronto Maple Leafs – top six locked, with a first-line center position potentially available
Joffrey Lupul – Tim Connolly – Phil Kessel
Nikolai Kulemin – Mikhail Grabovski – Clarke MacArthur
Tyler Bozak, Matt Lombardi, Colby Armstrong, and Nazem Kadri*
Mike Brown, Philippe Dupuis, Colton Orr, Daryl Boyce, and Jay Rosehill
In Toronto, one thing is certain: Kulemin, Grabovski, and MacArthur will skate on the same line. They’re a dangerous scoring threat with great chemistry, forming the perfect complement to a top line. Toronto’s top line isn’t the most ideal, but it isn’t terrible either. Joffrey Lupul has portrayed himself as a 60-65 point player in his better years, but he has also never held sole possession of a top role. He may rise to the occasion and turn 70+ points, but he is a very streaky hockey player and the safer bet is for him to stay around the 60-point mark (he’s listed as a Band-Aid-Boy but I’d consider him more of a Windex Wonder, injuries aside). Phil Kessel is a pure sniper and if he can skate with a healthy Tim Connolly for the majority of the year, the Leafs will be in great shape. The biggest question mark in Toronto though, is Connolly and any extended time out of the lineup will leave the door wide open for a couple challengers.
The Leafs’ third line will almost certainly feature Matt Lombardi and Colby Armstrong, both of which who will see time in the top-six at various points of the year, though unlikely to find a permanent home in the upper echelon. Tyler Bozak has the inside track on a third-line role and saw many extended looks on Phil Kessel’s line last year, making him the top candidate to replace an injured Connolly. Bozak had the most turnovers of any Toronto forward last year, but that should improve with age. He also took the most draws on this team and had an impressive (also team-leading) 54.6% accuracy. Nazem Kadri and his two-way contract are less likely to make the team out of camp, but if he does, it will be in a challenging role, rather than in a fourth-line role. In the 29 games Kadri dressed for last season, he averaged 2:35 on the power play. The skillset is certainly there and he’ll be a strong challenger if he can make the team.
Philippe Dupuis is a highly underrated fourth line center with speed and tenacity. His fantasy value isn’t likely to be high, but if you found yourself picking up Nate Thompson last year, you might keep an eye on Dupuis as a depth pickup as they deliver a similar style of game. Brown and Orr are decent PIM pickups, with Orr slated to provide the lion’s share in that category.
Washington Capitals – top-six penciled in to start, but open to change
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – Mike Knuble
Brooks Laich – Marcus Johansson – Alex Semin
Troy Brouwer, Mathieu Perreault, and Joel Ward
Jason Chimera, Jeff Halpern, Matt Hendricks, and DJ King
Last year the Caps tried a more defensive system and each of the big names saw decreased point production. After a quick playoff exit, we should expect Boudreau to give the players a longer leash, and the production of Ovechkin and Backstrom should almost certainly be on the increase. Don’t expect the team to immediately abandon the defensive system, but there has to be more offense going around in Washington next year. There HAS to. Mike Knuble has been a staple on the top line and he should start the year in this spot again. Knuble is getting older though and will likely lose his top-line spot to one of the challengers as the season progresses.
Brooks Laich is now making $4.5 (cap hit) per season over the next six years. Laich is still an underrated player who does just about everything but now his role should be clear – he’s a top-six forward. He scored seven points in nine playoff games and should easily hit 50 in the coming year, while flirting with 60 or more. Johansson proved last year that he deserves to be with the team, despite carrying a two-way contract. Last year Semin scored at a 68-point pace, but he also averaged 81.5 points per year over the previous two seasons. And that was with an average of only 70 games played. He’s had injury problems in the past, but don’t let that scare you off. He should dress for at least 60-70 games and reward those who draft him quite nicely.
Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer play very similar styles of hockey to each other…but also to Mike Knuble. The Capitals are looking for some healthy competition out of these two to see who can eventually take over for the aging Knuble. If Laich is shifted to third-line center (unlikely due to his aforementioned contract), Semin would slide to LW, which could open the door for both Ward and Brouwer to slide into the top-six. This isn’t the most probable situation, but one that could realistically occur if Boudreau feels the need to shake up his lines. Mathieu Perreault is on a two-way contract as well, but shouldn’t have too much trouble making the team due to lack of competition. If it came down to it, the Caps would move Perreault to the wing.
Winnipeg Jets – not much competition from the challengers…yet…
Andrew Ladd – Bryan Little – Blake Wheeler
Evander Kane – Nik Antropov – Eric Fehr
Ben Maxwell*, Alexander Burmistrov*, Patrice Cormier*, and Tim Stapleton
Rick Rypien, Jim Slater, Chris Thorburn, and Tanner Glass
Andrew Ladd absolutely broke out last season, scoring one shy of 60 points and leading the team in scoring. The team rewarded him with a nice fat contract and the captain’s C on his chest. Occupying the top center role has been Bryan Little, who took the most faceoffs on this team last year (1,331), despite winning only 46.3%. Little and Ladd should be locks to stay on the top line and the third cog for them last year was Blake Wheeler. Wheeler spent nearly 65% of his shifts in Atlanta on this line (even-strength and power-play) and although the Jets have new coaching staff, among a new rink, city, etc., Wheeler should be the one occupying the RW spot on this line.
Rounding out the top-six is the budding Evander Kane, the newly acquired Eric Fehr (who could challenge for Wheeler’s spot), and the unpredictable Nik Antropov. Kane led the team in hits last year (154) and nearly hit the 20-goal mark. As he continues to adjust to this league, he’s just going to get better. Antropov had increased his point totals in each of the three seasons previous to last before scoring his lowest total since 2007. He can do better than last year, but maybe not as good as two years ago. Eric Fehr is a guy who had fewer and fewer opportunities in Washington, but will receive plenty of ice time in a scoring role in Winnipeg. The former 2003 first-round choice would love to show that he has plenty of offense in him, but time will tell if he turns out to be another Steve Bernier, drafted two spots in front of Fehr.
The challengers in Winnipeg are quite interesting. It’s extremely likely that Alex Burmistrov and Tim Stapleton (one-way contract) will stay in town, leaving Ben Maxwell and Patrice Cormier fighting for a spot. If I were a betting man, I’d guess Maxwell gets the nod due to age and professional experience, with Cormier receiving more seasoning. Having said that, this one could easily be a coin flip. If both players outperform Stapleton, I don’t see any reason why the Jets wouldn’t waive Stapleton either. Burmistrov was likely rushed into the league, but it’s unlikely the Jets send him down now. This third line is a dice roll. If a top-six spot opens up due to injury (very unlikely a top-six forward is traded without another top-six caliber player returning), Burmistrov should be the first one to see an increased role.
Winnipeg’s checkers include Rypien, Slater, Thorburn, and Glass. Slater won a very impressive 61.5% of his draws, which should solidify a spot for him on the team, then Rypien, Thorburn, and Glass will fight (pun intended) for the remaining ice time. Thorburn had a career-best 19 points last year (nine goals, also a career best) and might chip in more offense than Glass or Rypien, but will also have fewer PIMs.
Fact: Sandwiched between Steve Bernier and Eric Fehr, the New Jersey Devils selected Zach Parise at 17th overall in the 2003 draft.