After more than four months without hockey, our team of RotoWire experts is here to get you back up to speed ahead of the eight play-in series kicking off Aug. 1 in Toronto and Edmonton. Via eight preview pieces over eight days, we get into positional breakdowns, injury updates and series predictions to help you chart the course for your frozen fantasy journey this summer!
No. 7 New York Islanders (35-23-10, 6th in Metropolitan, .588 points percentage)
No. 10 Florida Panthers (35-26-8, 4th in Atlantic, .565 points percentage)
Islanders: Kicking things off on a negative note (sorry), the Islanders lost their last seven games and didn't feature a single point-per-game player. Additionally, Brock Nelson was their only asset to score at a pace that would have amounted to 30-plus goals (26 in 68 games). It's not all doom and gloom on Long Island, though, as 23-year-old elite disher Mathew Barzal hit the 60-point threshold for the third straight year just ahead of Nelson's 54 points. Four others accumulated more than 40 in Anders Lee (43), Josh Bailey (43), Jean-Gabriel Pageau (42, but only two in seven gaves with New York) and Jordan Eberle (40). Ultimately, the Islanders were able to get the job done in the win column frequently enough to reach the playoffs due to their defensive prowess under head coach Barry Trotz more than their offense. It's paramount to keep that in mind from a fantasy perspective, since even if you believe the Isles have a shot at a deep run, they're not likely to produce elite scoring production from any single player. Veteran Derick Brassard is a bottom-six scoring threat with plenty of playoff experience (60 points in 99 career games) and should spend time with 2015 first-rounder Anthony Beauvillier, whose 39 points were a new career high in his fourth full NHL campaign. Of course, veteran grinders Cal Clutterbuck, Matt Martin and fully recovered Casey Cizikas (leg) round out the bottom six and provide arguably the most energy and physicality of any line in hockey – which is perfectly suited to the postseason grind.
Panthers: Florida, on the other hand, is loaded with offensive weapons. Jonathan Huberdeau led the way with 23 goals and 78 points, while four others also found twine 20-plus times in Mike Hoffman (29), Evgenii Dadonov (25), Aleksander Barkov (20) and Noel Acciari (20). Brett Connolly adjusted well in his first campaign in Sunrise, as his 19 goals had him on pace for a new career high. Barkov's production (62 points in 66 games) was actually down significantly from last season's 35-goal, 96-point explosion. The Finn ended on a six-game point drought, so if he catches fire in this series, look out. Frank Vatrano (16 goals, 34 points) often sees time in the top six and can be streaky offensively, while Erik Haula – who rang up 29 goals not that long ago in 2017-18 with Vegas – knows how to put the puck in the net, despite what his modest stat line (12 goals, 12 assists) this year suggests. Just be mindful that he's only suited up seven times with the Panthers since being acquired from Carolina in February, so his fantasy utility as a middle-six cog in the offense remains mostly unknown.
The Blue Line
Islanders: New York allowed the fifth least goals in the NHL this year thanks to a commitment to defense under Trotz. As a result, offense from the back end was stifled, with Ryan Pulock leading the way with 35 points followed by Devon Toews (28) Nick Leddy (21). Veteran Johnny Boychuk is recovered from his terrifying eye injury that required 90 stitches in early March and is set to jump into a top-4 role. Those looking to turn back time with a fantasy flier could look to his 30 points in 101 playoff contests for some inspiration, though it's unlikely he'll make any type of notable offensive splash. Outside of Pulock, who led the D-men with eight power-play points, and Toews, who paced the back end with 2:14 of average man-advantage time, there just aren't many Islanders defenders to get excited about from a fantasy standpoint. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Pulock also put up triple-digit hits (110) and blocked shots (139), so if your pool counts defensive metrics, he's worth bumping up a few spots on your cheatsheet.
Panthers: Keith Yandle continues to get it done at the age of 33, as he led Cats blueliners with 45 points and landed 12th among league defenders. 2014 first-overall pick Aaron Ekblad wasn't far behind with 41 and led the team in ice time (22:59 on average). Mike Matheson (20 points) and veteran Anton Stralman (19) are a significant step down fantasy-wise. That said, in deeper formats it might be worth keying on MacKenzie Weegar, who often skates with Ekblad and set a new career high with 18 points in 45 games – a pace that would amount to a respectable 33 over a full 82-game season.
Between the Pipes
Islanders: The Islanders have yet to name their starter for the playoffs, but both veteran netminders fared similarly during the regular season. Semyon Varlamov's numbers (2.62 GAA, .914 save percentage) were barely superior to those of Thomas Griess (2.74 and .913), but we're keen to give Varlamov the inside track at the starting gig given his larger sample size (39 starts to Greiss' 29). Varlamov (26 career appearances) also has twice as much playoff experience as Greiss (13) – with the pair again posting similar numbers – which is another tick in Varly's favor when trying to hypothesize who will get the first crack at the crease. Keep an eye on both throughout camp and cross your fingers that Trotz names his starter prior to draft day. For those on the DFS side, you really can't go wrong with either netminder on paper. As long as you're not scared away by Florida's offense, that is.
Panthers: Sergei Bobrovsky is fully healed after suffering a minor lower-body injury on March 1 and is the undisputed starter heading into the play-in round. His two-time Vezina-winner status and 115 (!) wins over the previous three seasons with Columbus make him an attractive play between the pipes – especially against a low-scoring team like the Islanders. However, Goalie Bob floundered in his debut in south Florida, posting a miserable 3.23 GAA and .900 save percentage, both of which were well off his career marks of 2.54 and .917. His playoff struggles are worthy of note, as well, with a bloated 3.14 GAA and pedestrian .902 save percentage over 30 starts (and just 11 wins) rightfully scaring off many fantasy suitors. Bobrovsky is perfect for the high-risk, high-reward crowd. Sure, he could get hot and the Panthers could fill the net early and often to go on a little postseason run, but are you prepared for the opposite outcome?
Other than Ekblad sitting out July 24's camp session after being deemed "unfit to participate", both teams are healed/healthy heading into the best-of-five series. That includes the aforementioned Cizikas, Boychuk and Bobrovsky. Ekblad is expected to be ready for Game 1 on Aug. 1.
Jordan Buckley: I've been a big fan of Huberdeau, Barkov & Co. for awhile now, and I think this is the year they experience some playoff success. Bobrovsky is a major concern, but the Panthers are quick, creative and dynamic offensively (even without Vincent Trocheck), and I just don't think New York's top six can hang with Florida's. That said, the Isles' fourth line is arguably the most valuable grind-unit in hockey come playoff time, and I believe they'll be a factor in slowing the opposition's attack. This series will go the distance, and Florida will be smothered at times by New York's defensive scheme, but I'm taking Panthers in five.
AJ Scholz: After what they did to the Penguins last season, it's hard to bet against the Islanders overcoming any perceived deficiencies in their lineup. Still, Bobrovsky remains one of the top netminders in the league despite having a down season. The Panthers hurt their chances by trading away Trocheck but should still be capable of putting in enough goals to sneak past New York. I'll take the Panthers in five.
Kyle Riley: On paper these teams are pretty close, with the Panthers getting the edge in terms of top-end talent, but I think Trotz will expertly deploy the Islanders' well-rounded roster to limit chances for the opposition while creating favorable matchups for New York's scoring lines, which will ultimately be the deciding factor in this series. Islanders in five.
Jason Chen: The Islanders are the higher seed, though it doesn't feel that way. They were 0-3-4 before the break and the two best players in this series — Barkov and Huberdeau — play on the other team. Still, there's no confidence with Bobrovsky in net, and the Islanders are a little more balanced. Islanders in five.
Evan Berofsky: The Panthers struggled down the stretch and will need to pick up their attack if they want to get past a tough Isles' D. Florida's top-six forwards are scary good, but New York boasts plenty of star-stoppers — including three solid centers. Even if Bobrovsky can reclaim some of his Vezina form, his offense will find it difficult at the other end. Islanders in five.
Jan Levine: This is Barzal's chance to shine and show he is a true No. 1 center, paving the way for a long-term, big-money deal as his ELC expires. The Islanders have two solid, unspectacular lines, heading their forwards, but their grind line of Martin-Cizikas and Tom Kuhnhackl or Clutterbuck could be a difference maker. Adam Pelech's return bolsters the blue line. The Panthers dealt Trocheck to Carolina at the trade deadline, Hoffman is a pending UFA, as is Dadonov, making this possibly Florida's last stand. The key to the series is which Bobrovsky shows up. If it's the 2019 postseason version, Florida will advance. If it's the 2019-20 regular season Bob, Chris Driedger will be net as soon as possible. Unless Bobrovsky can somehow turn back the clock, Islanders in five.