Neutral Zone Wrap
by Evan Berofsky
Fall arrives when the leaves change and the TV shows return. The end of September may signal a new season, but the outside temperature remains pleasant in most parts (sorry about that snow, Alberta). Doesn't it sound like the perfect time to start focusing on hockey?
The fantasy game provides both joy and frustration, sometimes simultaneously. We do the research, we read the sources, and then we think we know who to pick. Fantasy also allows the Roto participants to speculate how players will perform throughout the season. As the process of individual prognostication is often tricky, here are a few rules to remember:
1. Use available media and common sense to guide your analysis, but take caution in applying them as there are so many facts and figures floating out there. Proper usage: I believe Player X will be motivated to do well because he lost 15 pounds/gained 15 pounds of muscle during the offseason. Improper usage: I believe Player X will be motivated to do well because one of the cows on his family farm gave birth during the offseason.
2. Never judge an established NHLer based on his first week or month. Maybe this skater is known to do well at the beginning and then tail off or vice-versa. If he has switched teams during the offseason and starts poorly, then factor in an extended adjustment period. However, if he comes out flying, then maybe he is clicking with new linemates and/or really likes his new surroundings. (CAVEAT: This rule will not always apply to this column during the season. For fantasy purposes, I am obligated to highlight streaks and slumps.)
3. Check out emerging line combinations in preseason action. Maybe a duo is being reunited due to past success or is merely together because their summer homes are next to each other.
4. Be wary of any Columbus forward who doesn't line up with Rick Nash. No exceptions.
So who will exceed expectations? And who will suck the life and pull the hair from his fantasy owners?
Top 6 Fantasy Surprises
The following haven't exactly appeared out of nowhere, but are often lost in conversation due to recent subpar showings, injuries, or brief foreign excursions. Currently below the top-tier, but a couple may not be too far off by season's end.
Anton Babchuk, D, Carolina - The Ukranian giant with the cannon shot shocked many when he tallied 35 points in 2008-09 (including 15 on the power-play). Babchuk decided not to re-sign and took a one-year KHL sabbatical, where he posted a respectable 22 points in 49 games. His return to Carolina could be hindered by Joe Corvo's reunion or Jamie McBain's late-season showing (10 in 14), but stronger defensive skills and experience will give him the advantage.
Nikita Filatov, F, Columbus - Like Babchuk, Filatov opted to head back to Russia after matters became complicated on this side of the Atlantic. The former top selection never seemed to be on the same page as former head coach Ken Hitchcock, who frequently made him a healthy scratch. For his hometown Moscow side, Filatov flashed enough magic (22 in 26) to provide the confidence he needed to give Columbus another go (not to mention Hitchcock's dismissal). Imagine him on a line with fellow 1st-rounders Jakub Voracek and Derick Brassard and watch their skills mature together.
Sam Gagner, F, Edmonton - One would assume Gagner's role would be diminished following back-to-back 41-point seasons and having RFA negotiations progress deep into the summer. But with the Oilers set to introduce at least three top rookies (four if you count trick-shot sensation Linus Omark), the 21-year old Gagner can serve as a mentor. The fact he is building chemistry with Ales Hemsky doesn't hurt his chances for statistical improvement.
Evander Kane, F, Atlanta - Atlanta lost more serviceable forwards during the offseason (Maxim Afinogenov, Slava Kozlov, Colby Armstrong) than they collected from the Blackhawks' garage sale and other ventures. This should help Kane, who struggled for large chunks as an 18-year old (11 points in first month, only 15 after). The experience and pedigree will guide Kane to better results and his spot at the front of the depth chart will allow him to become a leader.
Chris Mason, G, Atlanta - From all this buzz surrounding the Thrashers' upgrades, you'd think they were Cup contenders. That notion may be far-fetched, but I believe someone said championships begin in net. In comes Mason, 34, who was handed the keys in St. Louis after proving his #1 status (2.53 GAA, .913 SV% in 61 appearances) until Jaroslav Halak showed him the garage door. He moves to Atlanta, where winning has been sparse since the team's inception but there is reason for optimism with tons of talented youth showing the way. Ondrej Pavelec should be the starting goalie, but he's never stepped up. Maybe Mason's arrival will change that.
Dennis Wideman, D, Florida - Remember when Wideman was making waves with a 50-point campaign and was skating step-for-step with teammate Zdeno Chara? Hey, and do you recall how the next year he slipped down to 30 and was promptly shipped for forward help? Yeah, those were some great memories. Let's shift to the present, where Wideman finds himself as one of the alpha blueliners on a very young Florida squad. Top power-play duty? Looks promising. Recovery to 50 points? Don't get your hopes up too high.
(Honorable Mention: Jason Blake, F, Anaheim; Dave Bolland/Viktor Stalberg, F, Chicago; Tyler Bozak, F, Toronto; Kyle Cumiskey, D, Colorado; Mark Giordano, D, Calgary; Antero Niittymaki, G, San Jose)
Top 6 Fantasy Duds
The term 'dud' usually refers to someone who serves as a total waste of roster space. But here, the player in question serves more as a disappointment compared to expectations or is in obvious physical/competitive decline:
Keith Ballard, D, Vancouver - He may be (in)famous for his unintentional hatchet job on Tomas Vokoun, but Ballard has proven himself to be an excellent two-way defenseman. While not the strongest offensively (peaking at 39 as a rookie in 2005-06 with Phoenix), he was an unquestionable leader in Florida and easily a #2 or #3 in the pecking order. In Vancouver, however, Ballard is arguably #4 or #5 on the D-list. His dependability should earn him significant minutes, but his fantasy value would increase if the Canucks decide to trade either Kevin Bieksa or Sami Salo.
Dan Ellis, G, Tampa - How I Spent My Last Six Months, by Dan Ellis: Lost top honors in Nashville to Pekka Rinne. Spent a few days as a member of the Canadiens. Got to ride the Lightning. Tweeted my way out of the blogosphere.
Ellis may have had an eventful half-year, but it's straight to business in Tampa. He will have to compete for the top job with old buddy Mike Smith, who has been working extra hard to come back from injury and inactivity. While the Bolts have improved across the board, the defensive state of the blueline remains iffy. So even if Ellis sees the majority of the starts, be prepared to accumulate some wins in exchange for a lower GAA and SV%.
Olli Jokinen, F, Calgary - If it weren't for Daymond Langkow's lingering concussion issues and Matt Stajan's separated shoulder, we wouldn't be considering Jokinen for a spot alongside Jarome Iginla. GM Darryl Sutter obviously considered his team's fragility down the middle when he re-acquired the former dressing room disturbance. But now, The Flaky Finn is penciled in on the first ‚Ä¶ wait, he also injured himself in preseason action?! Oh boy. Let's just say that if Jokinen is healthy and motivated, he'll top out in the low-to-mid 60s. Ah, who are we kidding: what's really going to inspire him at this stage of his career?
Filip Kuba, D, Ottawa - Kuba emerged as a 15-goal scorer in Tampa before setting up shop in Ottawa and became a valuable fantasy commodity. He continued his success last season (28 in 53) before a back injury stopped his progress. Meanwhile, Erik Karlsson went nuts in his absence (18 in 16) and the Sens dropped a big bag of cash on Sergei Gonchar. And just last week, Kuba broke an ankle and will be sidelined for at least six weeks. Maybe he'll learn from the last problem and not try to rush his return.
Alexei Ponikarovsky, F, Los Angeles - After years of toiling in Toronto, Ponikarovsky was granted his release to Pittsburgh in March. What was expected to be an instant injection turned out to be a mediocre move. Although the numbers weren't poor (14 in 27), they should have been better considering he was riding shotgun with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. He had been projected to skate with Anze Kopitar, but that has changed in training camp to a place on the third line. Let's hope this spurs Poni to climb his way back to the top.
John Tavares, F, NY Islanders - The comparisons to Steven Stamkos are almost endless: junior wunderkind, first overall pick, slow beginning to NHL career with a late surge, etc., etc. Many believe this boom will translate to a monster second season, just as Stamkos potted 51 goals and ended up fifth in the league with 95 points. Not to take away from Tavares's immense talent, but the major difference in the two is the lack of a supporting cast on the Island. Another success factor to consider lies in the man-advantage, as Stamkos racked up 41 PPPs last year. With a top-10 power-play quarterback like Mark Streit out for months and with a lethal forward like Kyle Okposo looking at significant surgery, it'll be mighty difficult for Tavares to build up his offensive totals without the necessary personnel.
(Honorable Mention: Joe Corvo, D, Carolina; Victor Hedman, D, Tampa; Saku Koivu, F, Anaheim; Guillaume Latendresse, F, Minnesota; Jonathan Quick, G, Los Angeles; Nikolai Zherdev, F, Philadelphia)
Evan Berofsky enjoys writing. Seriously. When he's not trying to shove hockey miscellany down your throat, he gets his kicks playing tournament Scrabble. If you have anything to say about Evan's work (or need any hot word tips), feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter (@evanberofsky).