The 12 Knights of Postseason Glory
by Dustin Nelson
Postseason fantasy is a time for half-cocked theories and groundless superstitions. A salary-cap league I play allows teams to own the same players, all of which must play the entire week-long match-up without transactions. The openness of this drafting process often leads to wild gaming theories that can only be created by a madman who has spent weeks in his basement crunching numbers, probabilities, and moving colored fluids from one beaker to another. The madman emerges with a puff of smoke and a wild shock of hair to proclaim his findings.
He proclaims that the path to victory is fielding a team with players who will spend most of the week at home, or that you win by avoiding players who will tire quickly at the end of a long season (presumably the youngest and oldest players), or you must predict who has a match-up that is tough enough to lead to a seven-game series, but not so tough that it'll be a four-game sweep.
Personally, I don't subscribe to any of these kinds of theories. And I don't think you should either. Playing the theories of home ice and statistical probabilities wouldn't have had you betting that the Kings would drop the top three seeded teams and be unstoppable on the road last postseason, or that the top-ranked Rangers would be going seven games in their first two series.
What do I think wins games? Lots of things, but grabbing a few knockout sleepers in the final picks could be the difference between fantasy glory and actual defeat.
Here are a few sleepers and players with the ability to surpass expectations enough that you may want to look into them as you're plotting your own postseason lineup.
Lars Eller, Montreal Canadiens: In 46 games this season, Eller has had a career-high 30 points, breaking his previous record of 28 points in 79 games. What Eller lacks in playoff experience he is making up for in momentum with nine points in the last seven games. He'll likely continue to center veteran Michael Ryder and rookie standout Alex Galchenyuk. Ryder's playoff experience may help Eller keep the momentum going.
Nazem Kadri, Toronto Maple Leafs: Kadri has had a breakout year in Toronto with 44 points in 48 games, including 11 multi-point games. Kadri might not seem like a sleeper, but the secret to this pick is on his wing. Kadri has been at his strongest when he's got a healthy Joffrey Lupul at winger, notching 16 points in 16 games with Lupul in the lineup. Kadri is not just scoring more with Lupul, he's playing better. He is scoring on 15 percent of his shots with Lupul in the lineup; when Lupul is out, Kadri has only connected on 5.6 percent of shots. And Lupul is back in the lineup entering the playoffs.
Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks: Pavelski is always good, but I'm including him here because he's even better when he's placed in high-pressure situations. He had nine points in the last nine games of the 2011-12 season, 20 points in his last 13 games the year before that, and he ended this year averaging a point per game in his last five. Last year's playoffs were a strikeout for Pavelski, but he had 10 points in 18 games and 17 points in 15 games in the two seaons prior. There are few players that are as good under pressure as Pavelski.
Ryane Clowe, New York Rangers: If your league is going deep, Clowe might be a good late selection if he is in the lineup on Thursday. (Clowe sat out the season finale with an undisclosed injury.) Making it most of the season without a goal, you wouldn't be wrong for writing Clowe off, but look again. Since being traded to the Rangers he has eight points in 12 games and a plus-5 rating to accompany his 45 points in 68 career playoff games. Clowe has the potential to be an on-ice leader in New York throughout the playoffs with his experience and size.
T.J. Galiardi, San Jose Sharks: Galiardi moved to the top line with Brent Burns and Joe Thornton late in the season and he hasn't looked back. His season numbers don't show a player on the rise, as he only has 14 points in 36 games, but Galiardi had a slow start and a few healthy scratches to go along with a nine-game pointless stretch early in the year. Since then, he has been an integral part of the Sharks offense with seven points in the last 13 games. One indicator of how much he's come on is that Galiardi had 29 shots in the first 23 games this year, averaging 1.3 shots per game. In the 13 games since, he has 39 shots, averaging three per game. If he stays on the top line, Galiardi may be an important presence for the Sharks.
Kyle Okposo, New York Islanders: Okposo has been a great leader on an Islanders team that has surprised this season and his scoring pace has only quickened as the season moved along. He has 24 points in 48 games this year, an average of .5 points per game. However, if you just look at the last 17 games, he has 12 points, averagingÂ .71 points per game. Over the last six? He's got a point per game. Okposo, in his sixth season, will see his first playoff action and he seems well-suited to the grit and speed he'll face against the top-ranked Penguins.
Brandon Saad, Chicago Blackhawks: With his move to the first line alongside Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa, Saad has been a pleasant surprise for Chicago, tallying 27 points in 46 games. Those numbers are good, but they look even better when you know he scored 22 of those points in the last 25 games. Saad has been on a roll and, as a rookie, his postseason may benefit from the shortened season.
Francois Beauchemin, Anaheim Ducks: With 24 points in 48 games and a plus-19 rating, Beauchemin has been scoring at the best clip of his career. He hasn't scored much in his past three postseason appearances but in the two prior to that he had 17 points in 36 games. He'll have plenty of time on the ice as well, as he leads the Ducks this season averaging 23:27 per game.
Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks: Burns has been incredible since he was moved to wing on San Jose's top line in mid-March. He played forward before the always-defensive-minded Jacques Lemaire moved him to defense for the Wild years ago. But coach Todd McLellan's move has him back to wing and he has posted 20 points in 23 games at forward. Why is he a sleeper with those numbers? Because his season stats don't tell the full story and if he still has defenseman eligibility in your league, he's a steal.
Raphael Diaz, Montreal Canadiens: Diaz was putting up some great numbers before going down with a concussion on February 25, tallying 13 points in 19 games, with a plus-5 rating. He didn't return with the same fire, adding only one point in the four games since his return. Nonetheless, Diaz has proven that he can be a dangerous offensive-minded defenseman and he'll have plenty of time to find his stride as he's averaged 20:33 on ice this season.
Niklas Backstrom, Minnesota Wild: With a cursory glance over the match-ups, you might think of Backstrom as the first goalie to stay away from since he's been given the dubious task of facing the President Trophy-winning Blackhawks. His .909 save percentage isn't outstanding either. But note that in the three games where he was pulled in the first period - letting in 11 goals on 26 shots collectively - pretty much killed that stat, and he has a .917 save percentage if you remove those three outings. Nevertheless, Backstrom has been a workhorse this season, playing 42 of 48 games for the Wild. He has proven that he has the stamina for the playoffs and has been surprisingly good against Chicago all season, despite letting in four goals on 17 shots in the first period of one tilt. He has a .934 save percentage in three starts against Chicago, including a shutout victory early in the season. Not bad against a team that ranks second in the NHL averaging 3.10 goals per game. Backstrom is 3-8 all time in the playoffs with a .911 save percentage. He's not an obvious pick, but he was solid in past appearances and he's playing behind the most explosive offense he's had in any postseason. He might not get wins, but he may be able to keep the score down and post some good numbers.
James Reimer: Reimer has been patchy at the end of the year, finishing two of his last three games with a save percentage under .840. On the other hand the game before that set he stopped 49 of 50 shots in a win over Ottawa. Reimer has been very strong against the Bruins this year with a .948 save percentage while going 1-1-1. Reimer is an unknown playoff quantity, but he's shown significant improvement over the last three seasons and tallied four shutouts this year. It doesn't hurt his chances that Boston has had a tough time kick-starting its power play this year. The B's rank 26th in the NHL with a 14.8 percent success rate.
There are a number of other players that may surprise and be good late-round picks if you want to roll the dice: Kyle Turris, Braden Holtby against a struggling Rangers offense, Charlie Coyle, Chris Stewart, Dougie Hamilton, Damien Brunner, Devin Setoguchi, Kyle Palmeri, Derick Brassard, or Brenden Gallagher among them. They're no replacement for an Ovi or a Geno, but finding that player who plays above his draft number could be the reason you are hoisting that fantasy playoff trophy in June.