Every early regular season seems to bring with it some speculation regarding the shortfall in performance of players that fantasy owners have counted on, in recent years. Fantasy team owners have a right to get a bit nervous about slow starts for some of the league's superstars.
For instance, Eric Staal has only scored three goals and two assists in Carolina's first nine games. All three of his goals have been scored on the power play. With no goals at even strength and playing upwards of 20 minutes per game, more is expected. Looking at his career, we can see that he has been a model of consistency in scoring at least 29 goals and 70 points in each of the last six seasons. Given that he has been relatively injury free throughout his career and will be turning only 27 years old on October 31, we should have faith in his ability to overcome this slow start and reach his usual scoring level by season's end.
On the other hand, Martin Brodeur has only appeared in two games for the Devils and is dealing with a minor shoulder injury. Can we expect him to bounce back? In this case, while he has enjoyed a remarkable career in setting numerous all-time records for goalies, we cannot discount the fact that he has now suffered injuries in three of his last four seasons. Prior to these last few years, he had been able to play at least 70 games per season for 10 straight seasons. Father Time seems to have caught up to this sure-fire Hall of Famer, though, as he is 39 years old and has slowed in recent years. Added to that, the Devils' defensive acumen is nowhere near what it was during the majority of Brodeur's career. So in this case, it's a matter of "buyer beware" and very unlikely that Brodeur is going to remember this as one of his most productive years.
Some shooters have already come roaring out of the gate and are likely carrying their fantasy owners into the front ranks of their pools. At the top of this list is Phil Kessel, who earned the dubious distinction of being the last player chosen in the All-Star weekend draft. This has temporarily obscured the fact that Kessel entered this season as one of only nine current NHL players who have counted at least 30 goals in each of the last three seasons. The Leafs' top gun turned 24 years of age earlier in October and has raced to the league scoring leadership this season with nine goals and six assists in Toronto's first eight games. While nobody expected him to reach these heights, it is encouraging to note that he has achieved his early success without the benefit of a regular top-line center (owing to injuries to Tim Connolly and Tyler Bozak. Kessel is just now entering his prime years in the NHL and with the early improvement of the Leafs, based on the improved depth of the organization that is now in place, there is reason to believe that Kessel is on the verge of a career-defining season.
A pair of Ottawa Senators has also gotten off to a great start. Jason Spezza entered this season after an injury-plagued time last season, where he was limited to 62 games and 57 points, the same scoring total that he achieved in the 2009-10 campaign where he did play in 80 games. This year he is enjoying a new lease on life, with 12 points in nine games. In trying to forecast whether this can last, it is necessary to remember that the Senators have a very inexperienced club, which is leaning heavily on its top line. So far Spezza has delivered, but as the season progresses he will see the opposition's top checkers and his inexperienced teammates will likely endure some significant growing pains.
Part of Spezza's early success (and vice versa) is attributable to the resurgence of winger Milan Michalek, a four-time 20-goal scorer, who has scored 10 points so far this season. Again in reviewing his career, we see a high of 66 points earned in 2006-07, while he was with San Jose. In his two years as a Senator, he tallied only 34 and 33 points and lost chunks of time to injury in each campaign. This looks like it could be a nice rebound year, on the surface, but, again, I recommend caution because Ottawa has a serious lack of experienced depth and is expected to be a non-playoff team. Spezza and Michalek have earned a lot of attention and that will make a continuation of their early success more difficult and unlikely to translate to the rest of this season.
We mentioned Kessel earlier and invariably he will always be compared to Tyler Seguin, because they were the principle pieces in a big trade. Seguin has apparently benefited from a very different and deliberate approach to his early development. Usually the top draft choices go to teams where they are expected to fit into immediate top line roles with mediocre clubs or alternatively, they are sent back to junior leagues to continue their development. In Boston, Seguin was not included in the Bruins' active roster to take an immediate lead role. Instead, it was management's view that he could learn a great deal from being around a talented roster. The ultimate bonus was that this turned out to be a championship season for Boston. They asked nothing of Seguin that he didn't deliver. He was a nice periodic addition on their power play and in their shootout rotation. This year, that development pace has stepped up as he has already recorded nine points in eight games played, earning between 16 and 18 minutes of playing time among the club's top scoring units. We see a nice upward trajectory for his career at this early stage.
Fellow young gun and former recent first round pick Alexander Burmistrov is also enjoying a fine start, with seven points in eight games with the Winnipeg Jets during his sophomore season in the NHL. He is not in the same circumstance as Seguin, in terms of quality of supporting cast. As such, he can't expect to put up big numbers just yet or even expect to be protected by big burly linemates, such as Nathan Horton or Milan Lucic (to say nothing of Zdeno Chara), who help look out for Seguin. Add the fact that the young Russian had only one year in the OHL to begin his learning curve for the North American game and all of these factors point to Burmistrov still having some struggles over the rest of this season.
In Philadelphia, Matt Read, a 25-year old graduate of Bemidji State University and the WCHA, has parlayed that relatively unconventional path (given that he was born in Ilderton, Ontario, Canada) and has emerged as an early season revelation with the Flyers. Read was a point per game player through his college career, so the Flyers knew he had some skills. He even showed very well in a late-season cameo with Adirondack of the AHL (seven goals and six assists in 11 games) to indicate his possibly readiness (no pun intended) for the NHL. After the early returns of this season, Read has delivered the goods, tallying two goals and four assists in his first eight games played. He is surrounded by tremendous offensive depth with the Flyers and is already earning time with their talented special teams.
Some players may still be dining out on the basis of one strong year. A case in point here is Steve Mason the four-year veteran goalie of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Mason posted an awesome rookie season set of statistics with his debut in 2008-09. He had a 2.29 goals against average and a .916 save percentage, all punctuated by 10 shutouts. In the two full seasons since then, his goals against average has sunk to a below par level of over 3.00 goals per game. This season, he's really struggled early on and has won only one of his nine starts, seeing his goals against (3.25) and save percentage (.889) into unwanted territory. The most alarming aspect of this regression is the fact that the talent level of the Blue Jackets has never looked better. Mason will have to turn things around quickly or he will be replaced.
My vote for the most disappointing team thus far is the Montreal Canadiens. Coming off a season where their fans pointed to the fact that they took the eventual Cup champs to overtime in a seven game series, there was a fair bit of optimism around this club. After all they added Erik Cole, a big experienced scoring winger and were hopeful that Andrei Markov, the team's premier offensive defenseman was hopefully going to come back from long-term injury woes. Things couldn't be worse in Montreal right now as the Habs have stumbled to a 1-5-2 mark, for their worst start to a season since 1941, and has them holding on to last place in the Eastern Conference. Cole has struggled with only two points, and Markov is still not healthy. Add the recent injury to their current leading scorer, Max Pacioretty (he will miss several games with a wrist problem) along with the inefficient work of All-Star goalie Carey Price and you have a disaster brewing in Montreal.
As a Maple Leafs fan, part of me is really enjoying the turmoil with the "forever rivals" team in Canada's French Quarter.
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