The NHL season is rapidly approaching. To get you back in the right frame of mind and up to speed, here’s a quick look at every team in the Eastern Conference through a fantasy lens.
Motley crew of secondary scorers: We know David Krejci will be the center on the second line behind the Bruins’ all-world top line. But who else slots in? Jake DeBrusk had a good rookie season and Danton Heinen flashed potential, putting them in the lead for roles, but Ryan Donato is also in the picture and Anders Bjork still boasts potential. The opposition’s concentration in defending against the Bruins’ top-heavy attack means there is opportunity for fantasy-relevant secondary scoring if some chemistry develops. It will be a spot to watch through the preseason in identifying late-round targets. Donato is my favorite for now.
Even bigger things for Krug: Torey Krug was one point shy of 60 and among the top 10 scorers from the blue line — and he had only three points and a minus-9 rating in October. After his terribly slow start, Krug was on fire for the rest of the campaign. Give him even a half-decent October last season and he’s in the mix for the Norris. So can he eliminate the slow start and be a true D1 from the get-go? I’m a believer. The Bruins had a lot of new faces last season, and Patrice Bergeron wasn’t on the ice until halfway through the month of October. A stronger start should be in the cards, and I have Krug down as a top-five defenseman for fantasy.
Rasmus vs. Rasmus: There deserves to be plenty of debate as to whether Rasmus Ristolainen or Rasmus Dahlin should be the more coveted fantasy asset. Ristolainen has been serviceable as the Sabres’ fantasy D1 for the past few seasons, but if you take away power-play points, he has three consecutive seasons with 20 or fewer points. Ristolainen is also a collective minus-102 for his five-year NHL career. That’s not inspiring, but Ristolainen has experience as a key asset. The 18-year-old Dahlin, meanwhile, has a tall order to produce at the NHL level at anything remotely fantasy-friendly. After Phil Housley and Bobby Orr, Aaron Ekblad has the third-best all-time points total (39) for an 18-year-old defenseman. Even Erik Karlsson didn’t hit his stride until he was 21. Victor Hedman wasn’t really a force to be reckoned with until he was 26. It usually takes time for defensemen.
Hutton’s time to shine: All eyes will be on whether last season’s goals-against average and save percentage leader can take what he did in less than half a season of work for the St. Louis Blues and apply it to a full campaign with the Sabres. Carter Hutton turns 33 this season, which doesn’t mean he’s over the hill, but he isn’t a spring chicken, either. The list of goaltenders with sparkling ratios at 33 or older is sparse. I’m not saying Hutton can’t be the goaltender the Sabres have been looking for, but I am saying that having shares in Linus Ullmark in the later rounds is not a bad thing.
New-look offense: Aside from getting a complete third line from the Blues for Ryan O’Reilly, the Sabres also added rookie Casey Mittelstadt, Pittsburgh Penguins winger Conor Sheary and Carolina Hurricanes shooting machine Jeff Skinner. These pieces will integrate with Jack Eichel, Kyle Okposo and Sam Reinhart in some capacity, but the final pecking order is up for debate. Whoever is with Eichel and/or Skinner — and on the top power-play unit — will be the primary targets for fantasy, but it could take a while until a regular line is established. There is sleeper potential in other players, too, if the Sabres opt to balance outside the top six (Tage Thompson, Jason Pominville, Evan Rodrigues).
Kids are all right: The Wings need Tyler Bertuzzi, Filip Zadina, Anthony Mantha, Michael Rasmussen and maybe even Evgeny Svechnikov to have solid seasons for the rebuilding squad to show signs of a turnaround. Henrik Zetterberg is still around, and Dylan Larkin, while also young, will be leaned on as the top center, but the pieces around them will largely be filled by the aforementioned group. All of these offensive pieces appear to be coming at reasonable draft prices this season, so going in on high-ceiling players like Zadina and Mantha makes plenty of sense as your offense is filling out. Rasmussen can be left alone in shallower leagues until he officially makes the team.
Who is on D?: I don’t know if there’s a thinner defensive core for fantasy value in the NHL. Mike Green is Mike Green, so he’ll have streaks of value through the season, but that’s about where the buck stops. Filip Hronek is the only guy I’ll have my eye on as the season approaches. He turned some heads in the AHL last season running the Grand Rapids Griffins’ power play, but he’s still only 20.
Can Bernier emerge?: Jimmy Howard is 34 and his ratios took a hit last season, with him unable to follow up a 2016-17 campaign that offered a glimmer of hope. He’s in the last year of his contract and likely on his way to becoming a veteran backup sooner than later. Jonathan Bernier, on the other hand, has offered a tantalizing taste of high-ceiling goaltending as an injury replacement for two consecutive seasons. In short stints filling in for the Colorado Avalanche last season and the Anaheim Ducks the season prior, Bernier put in a body of work among the best in the NHL for short windows. I’ll have plenty of shares of him as a G3 or G4 for fantasy in later rounds and deeper leagues.
Hoffman’s new home: After his unceremonious exit from the Ottawa Senators, Mike Hoffman will settle into a top-six role for the Panthers. He hasn’t scored 30 goals or 65 points in the NHL, but both of those thresholds are at risk, especially with him likely to slot onto the power play with Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. I think he’s just inside the top 25 wingers thanks to his shots on goal total and improved plus/minus in Florida.
Another year with the tandem: Roberto Luongo will turn 40 before the season is over. James Reimer, despite many opportunities last season, couldn’t carve out a larger share of the starting pie. The team brought in Michael Hutchinson as the third-stringer. This is all to suggest that while Luongo is the best bet for fantasy value, he isn’t necessarily a good bet for fantasy value. An even split with Reimer is probably in the cards again, and while Luongo could have strong ratios, the volume won’t be there unless you micromanage your goalie starts.
Max vs. Max: In addition to sharing a first name and position, left wingers Max Pacioretty and Max Domi also are coming off very disappointing seasons. Pacioretty had hit 30 goals and 60 points for six consecutive seasons (prorating the lockout) but scored only 17 goals and 37 points in 2017-18. Domi, meanwhile, didn’t make it to double-digit goals for the second year in a row with the Arizona Coyotes. For Pacioretty, we can be reasonably confident in a return to form; last season spiraled out of control with injury for the Habs. Domi, on the other hand, I’m not so sure. The opportunity will be there, but I’m wondering whether the ceiling is capped at 60 points or so. After his rookie season, I believed it to be higher, but his mediocre seasons now outnumber the fantasy-relevant ones. And with the current iteration of the Habs’ offense, that ceiling might be tough to reach.
The Price is right: Terrible 2017-18 be damned. Carey Price is a G1 in fantasy hockey. No, he’s not a first-rounder or early pick this season because of his disastrous .900 save percentage last year, but you better believe he’s still a back-end fantasy starter. I’ve got him ranked around No. 60 for now, as the 11th goalie off the board, but there’s wiggle room to rise as the preseason plays out.
Where art thou, Weber?: With Shea Weber out until at least December, it’s tough to consider him anything more than a late-round stash in drafts. In the meantime, Jeff Petry should resume his duties from last season as the power-play quarterback for the Canadiens, a job he performed reasonably well. With half a season of work as the top dog, he is worth picking as a D3 for fantasy.
The Isle of Karlsson: While he’s not completely alone on the island, Erik Karlsson is the only elite fantasy asset the Sens will have to offer to open the season, and he might not even be there much longer. Mark Stone and Matt Duchene are draft-worthy but hardly exciting. Karlsson is coming off his worst relatively healthy season since 2010-11, when he was still learning the ropes as a sophomore. The minus-25 rating is still a massive risk, but he’ll still turn in D1 fantasy numbers overall. Remember that after the All-Star break, Karlsson had 31 points in 29 games and only a minus-1 rating. I’m still OK with him as the first defenseman off the board, but it’s debatable.
Low risk, probably low reward: As mentioned, Stone and Duchene are worth drafting but definitely later than most top-line forwards. After that, the Senators are packed with potential late-round fliers in the form of Bobby Ryan, Mikkel Boedker and Thomas Chabot. If the team can find better chemistry, there could be some fantasy value to go around with these no-risk acquisitions. That said, you probably don’t need to seek them at the draft table. Keep an eye on early-season returns and the free-agent market instead.
Let’s do it again, second line: Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde caught the league by surprise last season with 68 and 64 points, respectively. This season, everyone knows the Bolts are deeper than the combination of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov on the top line. I’d take the under on matching their point totals for this coming season but not by a lot. This duo showed plenty of chemistry and consistency on the ice, and they get a huge boost to their standard-league value through plus/minus.
Crowded blue line: Victor Hedman is the pack leader, so it’s unfortunate that Mikhail Sergachev and, to some extent, Ryan McDonagh will have their fantasy values held in check by Hedman’s presence. Sergachev was on pace for a fairly historic season given his youth, but he hit the doldrums in the middle of the campaign. McDonagh wasn’t called upon for an offensive role by the Bolts after the trade deadline move. With Hedman hogging the power-play activity, it’ll be a tall order for either of these guys to make fantasy waves.
Ice time conundrum continues: Auston Matthews was due a boost to his overall ice time this season. But, in a seemingly impossible coup, the Leafs managed to make him the team’s No. 2 center by acquiring one of a handful of guys in the league who could justifiably relegate him to the second line. John Tavares easily lifts all boats for the Leafs, including Matthews’ boat, but I think it still takes Matthews down a notch from where I would have ranked him for this season without Tavares. Matthews’ 18:08 per game last season was criminally low for an elite superstar pivot and should have pushed into the 20-plus-minute range. Now I’m not so sure he’ll get those extra opportunities to ply his trade.
Dougie on D: The Hurricanes’ blue line is impressive. Not that Dougie Hamilton is a far greater asset than Noah Hanifin long term, but he’s further along in his development and ready to hit his prime. After a weak showing by Justin Faulk last season, Hamilton should be the Hurricanes’ top defensive go-to and get every chance to run the power play, either with Faulk as a partner or without him. Hamilton should make the move into D1 territory this season and may even crack the top 50 fantasy assets.
Youth movement gets accelerated: By trading away Jeff Skinner, the Hurricanes have further accelerated the takeover by the team’s emerging talent. Teuvo Teravainen and Sebastian Aho established themselves last season, while Andrei Svechnikov, Martin Necas and Valentin Zykov will get every opportunity to do the same this season. With Jordan Staal and Justin Williams still around for veteran presence, only so many bodies can line up on the scoring lines and power play. We should have a better idea of whom to draft as the preseason gets underway.
Guys, there’s an offseason: When adding third-line center Riley Nash is the highlight of the changes from last season, it’s a sign that the Blue Jackets are happy with what they have for now. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the team boasts top defensive assets in Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, Sergei Bobrovsky in goal and a top line anchored by Pierre-Luc Dubois, Artemi Panarin and Cam Atkinson. What’s changed since this time last year? Jones is the preferred fantasy asset on the blue line and could easily be D1 material, while the second line with Nick Foligno and Alexander Wennberg can now be treated with more of a wait-and-see approach.
Next step for Nico: Last season’s 52 points got Nico Hischier‘s feet wet as a rookie, but expectations will be much higher for his encore. Hischier scored 23 points in 34 games after the All-Star break and showed some late-season chemistry with Taylor Hall that should bleed into a prime opportunity to start this season as the team’s No. 1 center. The 70-point threshold should be in the conversation with a talent like Hall at his side.
Schneider still No. 1: For now, Cory Schneider is still the Devils’ best option in net to start the season. His statistical decline that now covers the past two seasons is disheartening and concerning, but that’s why he will come with a steep discount at drafts this season. Take it. He’s good enough to put these campaigns behind him, and the Devils should be taking another step forward as a team this season. His hip injury has been bothering him for some time, so it could have just been a matter of finally getting the surgery to fix it this past May. The leash will be shorter and Keith Kinkaid is waiting in the wings, but the investment in Schneider this time around won’t hurt so much if he falters again — which he shouldn’t.
Life goes on without Tavares: Mathew Barzal now has to follow up his Calder campaign with the job of filling John Tavares’ shoes … no biggie. The Islanders still have plenty of help for him, and his chemistry with Jordan Eberle can continue. Barzal should be fine for fantasy squads as a top-75 asset, while Eberle will be worthy of most squads. The rest of the skaters come with some risk and questionable reward. Will Anthony Beauvillier, Anders Lee or Josh Bailey get the other top-line wing? Will Ryan Pulock finally break through? Can Brock Nelson hold down a second line with sneaky value?
Lehner gets another second chance: I still think Robin Lehner‘s save percentage on some poor defensive squads is indicative of untapped potential as a solid NHL starter. At the very least, he should offer the Islanders a better chance at success than his competition, Thomas Greiss. As a stash for a G3, I like Lehner for this season. The coaching will obviously be improved with the reigning Stanley Cup champion coach behind the bench, and Lehner should have very affordable sleeper value.
King Henrik’s reign in jeopardy: Not that the Rangers have a choice given his storied history with the franchise, but Henrik Lundqvist will have every chance to regain his form this coming season. Last year was not pretty by any means: His 2.98 goals-against average was the worst of his career by a long shot. But the real bad news? His second-worst GAA was two years ago, and his third-worst was three years ago. Smell a trend? That said, the investment for Lundqvist should be minimal at the draft table, and his experience and lock on the job should make him a G2 for fantasy, rather than a bench stash.
Anyone’s guess for top skaters: There are truly nine players on the squad who wouldn’t shock me if they wound up on the Rangers’ top line this season. It’s a very well-balanced, developing offense that has plenty of assets. Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider are the obvious favorites, but both should be taken outside the top 100 at the draft. After that, my top stashes from the offense are Pavel Buchnevich and Filip Chytil. On defense, Kevin Shattenkirk may be overlooked coming into the campaign after his injuries last season, but he should be considered an outside shot for D1 value that can be obtained at a discount.
JVR returns: James van Riemsdyk should be a lock for a dangerous Flyers power play given his net presence, but Wayne Simmonds is already here. These two might be the best crease crowders in the Eastern Conference, and they play for the same squad. The power play is key for fantasy stats with the Flyers’ offense, so keep an eye on the battle. At even strength, JVR should be fine whether he lines up on either scoring line.
Voracek, Simmonds diminished roles: Toward the end of last season, both Jakub Voracek and Simmonds had their roles reduced with the emergence of Travis Konecny. Voracek’s superstar production from the first half became only elite in the second half of the season. Simmonds also slipped down the depth chart, sometimes playing with the third line at even strength. His overall numbers suffered from his lack of PIM, much lower shot totals and another season of poor plus/minus play. In order to get some shares of both players, I want to see them slide down drafts compared to where they were coming into last season.
Murray must be better: Matt Murray found out the hard way that you don’t get a Stanley Cup after every season you play in the NHL. The 24-year-old goaltender, whom the Penguins cleared the crease for, struggled throughout the campaign to a barely fantasy-worthy season. Injuries limited him to the same number of games he played while sharing the crease with Marc-Andre Fleury the season prior. The Penguins are still a powerhouse on offense and will give Murray a chance to win most nights. I don’t know that I’d pay full price for him, but he’s close to the top 10 goaltenders coming into the campaign and probably has the fewest number of variables that need to break right for him to be top five.
Which winger’s which?: We know Phil Kessel will play with Evgeni Malkin, but it gets messy from there. Jake Guentzel could line up with either Malkin or Sidney Crosby, but since he’ll get one of the two, let’s not split hairs and just call him fantasy-relevant. Patric Hornqvist, if healthy, should occupy another wing spot in the top six. That leaves Carl Hagelin, Derick Brassard (switched to the wing?) and maybe Daniel Sprong to fight for a scoring-line job. As always, whoever wins will be worth having on your team.
Ovi’s encore: The reigning champs are bringing back, more or less, the same offense to defend their title. Alex Ovechkin had quite the summer with Lord Stanley’s mug and will have to put in some work to avoid a Cup hangover. Ovechkin had his best season since the triple-digit heydays of 2009-10 and was one goal shy of 50. He’s 33 this season but showed no lack of gas in the tank just two months ago. If your league counts shots, you can argue him as your first overall pick.
How to handle Holtby: Braden Holtby‘s breakdown through the end of the regular season was horrific to watch. He regained much of his composure during the playoffs, but let’s not just shrug off how ugly things got for fantasy pools. The terrible ratios should make Holtby come at a significant discount compared with his first-round value last season. That said, last season could have been a good thing for Holtby going forward. From what we know, there was no injury that caused him to turn into a dumpster fire in February, which means this was a confidence or mental slump (which was stated a few times). Getting over it, staying prepared and earning his starting role back to take his team to the Stanley Cup probably did wonders for his confidence. While you can possibly wait a couple of rounds to take Holtby in drafts this season, I wouldn’t quibble with a plan to sneak him in the second round after Andrei Vasilevskiy is off the board.