Free agency has opened and teams across the league are getting facelifts. While some teams — Columbus, Boston, Carolina — stand pat, a number of teams are making moves like Otis Redding, shaking things up for the 2014-15 fantasy outlook.
Below I take a look at players who have significant change in their value from free agency signings or recent trades. I'll also take a glimpse at some players you'll find in deeper rounds of the draft who might deserve an expectation adjustment due to recent moves.
A note: There are a number of fantasy relevant players I'm leaving out because their value is staying close to the same level I would have had them at with their previous team. I'm talking about players like Paul Statsny who is moving from one offensively dynamic team (Colorado) to another (St. Louis). Jarome Iginla who may have trouble keeping up with the speed of the young forward corps in Colorado, but is coming from a strong team who played better at both ends of the rink. Ryan Miller who is, as far as drafting is concerned, moving from the worst team in the NHL (Buffalo) to a middle-of-the-road team in an impossible division (Vancouver). Or someone like Olli Jokinen who is moving from one offensively hobbled team (Winnipeg) to another (Nashville).
Players whose value has increased:
Jason Spezza, C, DAL — Jason Spezza is stepping into a Stars lineup that is on the rise. By all accounts Spezza will be centering the second line, which, at a very early glance, is likely to feature Ales Hemsky and Antoine Roussel on the wings. That reunites Spezza with Hemsky, who were better than Powell and Loy together after Hemsky came to Ottawa for the last 20 games of the 2013-14 season. Hemsky had four goals and 13 assists over those games and Spezza had eight goals (three game-winners) and 13 assists. On top of that reunion (we hope) being a season long pairing, defenses are going to have less energy to focus on Spezza when the team's top line features Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and (likely) Valeri Nichushkin drawing their attention away from Spezza's line. Spezza will have more ice and more support. Spezza was drafted, on average, in the late 40s during 2013 fantasy drafts. It's easy to see him climbing the ranks this season, gaining a leg up on players who were drafted in his general vicinity like Joe Thornton, Max Pacioretty, Evander Kane, and Alexander Semin.
Thomas Vanek, LW, MIN — This is a bit of a gut call. Lots of writers are down on Vanek after what was perceived to be a poor playoff performance, but the 2013-14 season will likely go down as one of Vanek's toughest. He played for three teams, played in the Olympics, and made it to the Eastern Conference Championship. There may have been a bit of fatigue at play for him. Also, that discussion overshadows the fact that Vanek, despite having to make a lot of adjustments throughout the season, had a strong year. He totaled 27 goals and 41 assists over 78 games despite starting off on a terrible Buffalo team. Minnesota is a team on the rise, but in dire need of scoring. Vanek will be given space and ice time. Critics of drafting Vanek after signing to Minnesota may cite that there are a lot of young wingers in Minnesota who could climb the lineup and challenge Vanek if he struggles. That's fair. It's not hard to imagine players like Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Erik Haula, or Justin Fontaine battling hard to get themselves into the top six on a permanent basis. But that's if Vanek struggles. There's no doubt he's starting the season in the top six. The options are great for Vanek in the top six with either Mikko Koivu or Mikael Granlund at center and Jason Pominville or Zach Parise as possibilities on the other wing. Vanek could easily pass 30 goals again. One more note in his favor: If we can agree that last season was tough for Vanek and he performed solid, if not at his peak, then it's worth noting that he scored 20 goals in 38 games during the lockout shortened season before last. In 82 games that's on pace for 43 goals.
Brad Richards, C, CHI — Brad Richards has been a punching bag in the press over the last few seasons. Through all the beatings he's taken we may have inflated the sense of what you can expect from Richards. In his prime, he's a mid- to high-20s goal scorer. If he finds himself in a top six role in Chicago he can hit those heights again. Here at Rotowire we have potentially slotted in as the center to Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa. Between being on a more explosive offense where there's less pressure on him and getting time on what should be a very good Chicago power play, Richards could be worth more than you expect this season. Richards still has a little left in the tank and anyone would see a value bump if they're playing alongside the studs that Chicago's top six offers. He averaged a late eighth round pickup last season. Most projections before this signing would have had him dropping back. The case could be made that he should stay in that general vicinity.
Christian Ehrhoff, D, PIT — This signing has be touted by many as one of the best of free agency. That's largely for the financial aspect, but there's a lot to love fantasy-wise as well. Ehrhoff is a puck-moving defenseman who plays power play and has offensive upside. He put in six goals and 27 assists last year with Buffalo. Moving to Pittsburgh, seeing top four minutes (he's averaged over 20 per game for seven straight seasons) and getting time playing point on a power play that features Sydney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin ought to mean that Ehrhoff will see improved numbers this season. He was drafted in the mid 130s last season on average. If you can get him there, he's a steal. Defenseman in that range last year included Jack Johnson, Dennis Wideman, Slava Voynov, Brent Seabrook, and Michael Del Zotto. I'm taking Ehrhoff over all of them with the possible exception of Voynov.
Players whose value has decreased:
James Neal, LW, NSH — After a rough season, Nashville is hoping to kickstart their offense and made a splash by trading for James Neal. I love this move for the team; I hate this move for fantasy. Neal scored 40 goals in the 2011-12 season, was on pace for 40 in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, and was on pace for a 38-goal season if he didn't miss time with an injury last season. He will not repeat those numbers in Nashville. The power play isn't as dynamic and his options at center are either Mike Fisher (who was reported to have ruptured his achilles tendon Monday) or Olli Jokinen. Either way, that's a significant downgrade from Malkin. Neal was going in the mid-20s during 2013 drafts and I'm not looking to touch him until a couple of rounds later, which probably means I'm not getting him at all. He's a legitimate threat on offense, but without the supporting cast he had in Pittsburgh, I'm not reaching to draft him. If he's available (miraculously) in the fifth or sixth round*, I'd take him, but I'm not rolling the dice any earlier than that when players like Tyler Seguin, Ryan Suter, Ryan Getzlaf, and Marian Hossa were going later than him last year.
Brian Gionta, RW, BUF — I love what's happening in Buffalo. They're going to be a scary team in the East soon. But "soon" won't be the 2014-15 season. Gionta is a great pickup for the team, who need some veteran leadership and proven scoring talent. Gionta will provide both, but it doesn't bode well for Gionta's fantasy numbers. He's moving from a team that made it to the Eastern Conference Finals to the team who finished dead last in the NHL. The young talent on the team could surprise and provide a nice compliment for the aging Gionta, but it's unlikely that it's enough for him to match his 2013-14 numbers, which are on par with his slowing scoring pace over the last three years. You can say similar things about Matt Moulson, who I'd also tag as trending downward. This will be his first full season without fantasy stud John Tavares. He might have retained some value if he stayed in Minnesota, but it's hard to see what his compliment is in Buffalo right now. Moulson's speed is a problem and without a superstar at his side I'm wary of what kind of numbers he's going to post.
Jussi Jokinen, C, FLA — Here's yet another player entering or leaving Pittsburgh. The team has their issues, but playing alongside Crosby and Malkin is gold for fantasy. Jokinen was the benefactor of the "Pittsburgh Bump" for a season and some change after being acquired by the Pens in the 2012-13 season. That season he totaled 11 points over 33 games for Carolina where he saw his ice time cut. After that he tallied 11 points over ten games for Pittsburgh. Last season he had 21 goals and 36 assists for Pittsburgh. That's the most points he's had since the 2009-10 season and the second most he's ever had in a nine-year career. Is he having a renaissance or was it the "Pittsburgh Bump"? I'm going with the latter and think his numbers will take a big hit in Florida, whose offense boasts some talented young players, but very little proven talent, especially when compared with the talent he was playing with. Jokinen's value will likely be somewhat inflated in the 2014 draft. I'm avoiding him no matter where he's going in the draft.
Matt Niskanen, D, WSH — Stop me if you've heard this one before: Matt Niskanen may not be as good as his numbers from last season indicate. He saw a lot of time on the ice with the elite forwards in Pittsburgh, giving good reasons why he saw ten goals and 36 assists come his way. Those numbers blow away his offensive totals from the rest of his career, where he's only broken 20 points three times in seven seasons. He spent time last year on a team that was responsible defensively and is heading to a Washington Capitals team whose forwards boast some pretty atrocious plus/minus ratings. (Alex Ovechkin was minus-35, Nicklas Backstrom was minus-20, Mike Green was minus-16.) The advanced stats on Washington tell a more nuanced story, but fantasy doesn't score corsi. Niskanen could blossom in Washington, especially if he finds himself at the point on the top power play unit, which is a definite possibility if speculation comes to fruition and the Caps deal Mike Green. However, he could be facing a steep growth curve as the team develops into a more defensively responsible system under the tutelage of new head coach Barry Trotz. For me, his draft position depends a lot on the fate of Green. If he's gone, Niskanen is a shoe-in for the top power play unit. If not, he could be utilized as a leader on the second unit, which doesn't bode as well for his PP production.
Deeper Picks To Watch
Cory Conacher, C, NYI — Remember Calder Trophy favorite Cory Conacher? The first 35 games of his career were played in a Lightning uniform and featured a red hot rookie who notched nine goals and fifteen assists. Then Tampa traded him and things unraveled a bit. Entering the third season of his young career he's suiting up for his fourth team. Last season he only managed to score seven goals and 19 assists through 79 games. Conacher's numbers would make him a very deep draft pick, if he's picked at all. Nonetheless, Conacher has proven that he has the ability to score and be a productive member of a team. If he finds his scoring touch again, there's space in the Islanders top six alongside some stellar players. If he finds his groove, he could be a great sleeper pick or early season waiver grab. I'm not touching him in the draft, but I'll be keeping a close eye on him through the season's opening weeks.
Martin Havlat, RW, NJD — I know, you're about to close this tab and chalk this article up to a mistake, but bear with me for the rest of this paragraph. We're dabbling in some advanced stats here, but you'll understand why in the end. Havlat is certainly a risky pick. He's had injury issues for years now. However, most fans have written him off, which means you may be able to grab him very deep in the draft. Todd Cordell at Hockey Buzz breaks down Havlat's production nicely. It's not amazing, but he's going to an offensively starved Devils team and Havlat's P/60 (points per 60 minutes of game time) last season would have ranked second only to Jaromir Jagr on the Devils. If he's healthy and paired up with his friend and countryman Patrik Elias and, say, Adam Henrique, Havlat could be better than you expect. Don't expect him to hit the numbers he was getting in his prime, but he could certainly be worth a late round flier. Yes, he's probably going to get injured, but there's the potential for Havlat to thrive and that's worth keeping an eye on.
Tom Gilbert, D, MTL — Tom Gilbert is a tricky pick. I'm not personally a huge fan of Gilbert's skill set or consistency. However, it's hard to argue with the results he posted in Florida last season after being bought out by Minnesota. He finished with three goals and 25 assists, his highest point total since the 2009-10 season. Part of that can be chalked up to the fact that, aside from Brian Campbell, he was the best offensive defenseman for the Panthers. But those numbers are worth tracking. He posted those numbers on a pretty terrible team. He won't be an offensive leader in Montreal, but there's a lot more offense to go around there. He'll likely earn a top four spot with the Canadiens and that means he'll be playing with P.K. Subban, Alexi Emelin, or Andrei Markov. I'm wary, but there's the distinct possibility that Gilbert improves upon his numbers from last season.
Mike Santorelli, C, TOR — If you grabbed Santorelli off waivers last season (like I did) then you're already with me. There was no one — in fantasy or real hockey — that was as good of a bargain as Santorelli. It was unfortunate that his season was cut short by injury, but he should enter the 2014-15 season healthy and likely undervalued. In 49 games last season he posted ten goals and 18 assists. Pretty solid for a guy who has been written off since his one outstanding year in Florida during the 2010-11 season, the only full season he's played. The secret is out on Santorelli inside the NHL, but not necessarily in fantasy. He's still a bit of a flier. One good season doesn't make the house, but if he can come close to what he was doing last year he's more than worth a late round pick up. He was on pace for 17 goals and 30 assists in an 82 game span last season. If that had happened, he would have finished the season tied in points with Daniel Sedin, Mark Giordano, Mike Ribiero, Shane Doan, and Brandon Saad. Not bad for a player who largely went undrafted in 2013 fantasy drafts, wasn't a guarantee to make the Canucks' opening day roster, and had a contract paying him $550K a season. There's no guarantees here, but he could be a stellar sleeper for your team.
* "Rounds" here are assumed based on a ten-team league.