I love this time of year. There's white stuff on the ground. Friends, families and feasts abound. And the church of junior hockey is in session.
There's nothing blasphemous about it - look, I know the real reason for the season. But like thousands of other Canadians, I'm devoted to watching the World Junior Championships every year. I even save my holidays just for this tournament.
I'm crazy. But you knew that.
Still, the tournament that's being held in Calgary and Edmonton this year is an excellent way to see how the recently and soon-to-be drafted stack up as future fantasy finds.
We all love rookies, don't we?
We're blessed north of the 49th parallel. I can see pretty much any game I want...even Russia-Latvia. That is, if I wanted to watch a slaughter.
There are plenty of guys who have impressed me. Panthers prospect Jonathan Huberdeau (Canada) is a difference maker. So are two draft-eligible Russians - Mikhail Grigorenko and Nail Yakupov, who are currently rated one-two on the International Scouting Service's recent list for 2012.
The Isles' Ryan Strome (Canada) already plays an NHL game and is a sharp sniper. Minny's Charlie Coyle (USA) is big, smart and skilled, and his star is on the rise. And Washington's Evgeny Kuznetsov (Russia) finally showed his brilliance with nine points - yes, nine - on Thursday night, albeit against the lowly Latvians.
But for some players, their value will never be higher. And for keeper leaguers, there's no better time to leverage their success into something special. The Sens' Mark Stone (Canada) has an outstanding release and his skating has improved significantly. But let's be honest - how many sixth-round picks turn into 40-goal scorers in the NHL?
A guy like Stone - and for that matter, most of the others I mentioned, too - make excellent trade bait for rabid fantasy (read: Canadian) keeper owners. They'll overpay...no, seriously overpay for World Junior success.
And you'll be the beneficiary.
Just don't hang on to them too long. The glow only lasts so long.
Now let's take a look at who caught my eye this week.
Jason Arnott, C, St. Louis (10 percent owned) - The old man is on a roll. He has impressive mobility for a guy his size (6-foot-5, 225 pounds) and his hands are still as soft as a baby's bottom. And it's those mitts that have delivered seven points, including four goals, in his last seven games and 10 points in 11 games this month. Four of those seven points have come on the power play and while he doesn't bring you a lot of brawn, he does deliver shots (17 in his last seven games). His age will catch up to him. But he can add value to your squad if Ken Hitchcock can continue to use him as effectively as he is right now.
Anton Babchuk, D, Calgary (7 percent owned) - The pins are out; his hand is healed. And he could start firing rockets at opposing netminders as soon as Friday night. He still reminds me of a post-lockout Bryan McCabe - a big shot that's lethal on the power play but sketchy defensive coverage with poor gap control and suspect backwards skating. But then again, those last things didn't hurt McCabe's fantasy value and won't hurt this guy's either. At 27, Babs is heading into the usual prime for defenders. The Flames are 17th in power-play production but they could still use his help there. And that will only help you if you jump on board.
Jonathon Blum, D, Nashville (3 percent owned) - I'll admit his quote-unquote potential sucked me in during preseason drafts and I ended up owning him in several formats. So what happened? The laid-back surfer dude rewarded me by sleepwalking his way to a benching and a demotion. OK, so I dropped him long ago but he's back on my radar courtesy of points in back-to-back games. Maybe Santa brought him a brand-new composite. Or maybe it was a good swift kick in the keester. It doesn't really matter - he looks like the guy I thought he'd be. Grab him while Shea Weber is out.
Raphael Diaz, D, Montreal (1 percent owned) - Hmmmmm...is Diaz the next Mark Streit? The parallels are uncanny. Both are unheralded Swiss players who came to the NHL - and the Canadiens - in their mid-20s after strong offensive seasons in the Swiss league. Both are great skaters with nerves of steel, great hockey smarts and strong lateral agility. Diaz has really impressed me since Christmas - five assists in two games should catch anyone's eye. I dropped Zach Bogosian (20 percent) and picked up Diaz on Thursday night in my league that rolls five D. Sometimes you just have to take a flyer on a guy.
Ryan Johansen, RW/C, Columbus (2 percent owned) - Big, tough and talented - Johansen has the tools that make scouts and fantasy owners drool. And Tuesday night, those tools got him promoted to the top line with Rick Nash and Jeff Carter. That's a line that could rival the infamous Legion of Doom if they stick together. Even if they don't, he looks to be poised for a little run. He has four points in his last four games after a 10-game point slump. And his tools plus his eligibility on the wing makes him a possible injury fill-in for those of you in deep leagues.
Nazem Kadri, C, Toronto (3 percent owned) - This guy is seriously overrated and a bit of a head case. But at the same time, he has special offensive gifts that come out when he's properly insulated alongside strong two-way linemates. And that's what he has right now with Tim Connolly and Clarke MacArthur. I give him credit - he looks like he's learned something in the AHL. He still gives the puck away too much for my liking. And I still see him as a Darcy Tucker-like third liner. But he'll provide decent fantasy value once he gains his RW designation. Put him on your watch list and snap him up when it comes - there aren't many third liners out there with his kind of gifts. Or three goals in their last four games.
Tyler Kennedy, LW/RW, Pittsburgh (12 percent owned) - This hard-nosed firecracker is so hot right now that the public address announcer at the Mellon has gone hoarse with his drawn out, WWE-style "Missstaaaah Kennnnnnedy" calls. Kennedy has impressive wheels and a quick release, and that combo netted him 21 goals and 45 points last season. And he, Jordan Staal (71 percent) and Matt Cooke (9 percent owned) form one of the best third lines in hockey this year. And his two points on Thursday night stretched his point streak to five games and seven points (two goals, five helpers). He's not a natural puck-handler but he understands his limitations. And right now, he looks like he could be a perennial 20-20 - or even 25-25 - guy. That means he should be owned in a whole lot more leagues than six of every 50.
Pavel Kubina, D, Tampa Bay (2 percent owned) - I had given Kubina up for dead this season. And maybe he still is. But the Bolts desperately need someone to pick up the slack on the back end and it looks like he's decided to flash some of his old charms. I'm not saying he can be a 40-point, 100-PIM guy again. But his current three-game scoring streak is a nice little boost if you're desperate for help on the back end.
Tim Stapleton, RW, Winnipeg (0 percent owned) - This little guy (generously listed at 5-foot-9) has blazing speed and a glorious opportunity - to fill the skates of the injured Bryan Little on a line with Evander Kane and Blake Wheeler. He's currently the Jets' fourth-line center but his talent, speed and smarts see him slide up and down the lines. He had a goal and an assist on Tuesday night and coach Claude Noel even trusts him at the point on the power play. He may find himself in the press box when Little returns. But until then, he might give you a quick boost in super deep formats.
Anton Stralman, D, NY Rangers (2 percent owned) - Once upon a time, Stralman was one of the Leafs' most promising young offensive defenders. He never quite lived up to the hype and has shuffled around, but he hasn't lost his ability to successfully initiate the transition and join the rush. And that's something the Rangers haven't had on the back end for quite a while. He had a three-game, four-point streak snapped Wednesday but that shouldn't stop you from picking him up, particularly if you're in a deep format. He has five points and a plus-nine rating in 12 games so far and could deliver on a 40-point pace going forward.
Back to the World Juniors.
That glow I mentioned earlier? It really doesn't last that long.
I should have traded away Cody Hodgson right after he potted six goals and 16 points in six games with the 2009 gold medal team. He's all but worthless now, at least in the format where I have him.
Ditto Nino Niederreiter after he made the All-Star squad at the 2010 tourney following a six-goal, 10-point outburst in seven games. His effort last year wasn't near that. And I should have moved Magnus Paajarvi (three goals, seven assists in six games) after the 2010 tourney, too - no-one wants him at all.
I can't drop him. But I sure can't move him. And he's not helping me at all.
Keeper leaguers need to focus on a three-year window of production - trade anyone who won't deliver solid output for you in that span. And doing it now might just net you the greatest possible return on your investment.
Just make sure you trade your World Junior studs shortly after next Thursday night's gold medal game.
That kind of move could be the difference between winning a league trophy this year and finally being a contender...in 2015.
P.S. You can stream the games live if you don't have a Canadian TV feed. Just search "live stream world junior games" and you'll find what you need.
Until next week.