Hutch's Hockey: Time To Pounce

Hutch's Hockey: Time To Pounce

Fifty-four goals in their last nine games – that's what the Panthers have done since the end of the NHL's holiday break. They've won all but one of those games, the exception being a 6-5 thriller in Dallas on Jan. 6. Typically, poking around the litter box isn't going to yield anything of value, but the Cats are a fantasy goldmine right now. 

First, a look at the big names. Jonathan Huberdeau's vaulted himself into the Art Ross race with 20 points during this fantastic run. We've known he's a talented playmaking winger for years – only an Achilles injury in 2016-17 has kept him from the 60-point mark in the last five campaigns. This year, he's on pace to break the century mark. He's found more talent separated from Aleksander Barkov, who has racked up five goals and six assists since the break. This has given the Panthers two arguably elite line, serving as a Midas touch for Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett, Carter Verhaeghe and Anthony Duclair. They're all over a point-per-game pace during this nine-game stretch. 

On defense, Aaron Ekblad rightfully gets a ton of credit. He's picked up two goals and nine assists in those nine games, and his 35 points in 37 outings puts him fifth league-wide among defensemen. He's six points off his career-high 41 from 2019-20 – and there's still half a season left. Ekblad's success was predictable, although maybe not to quite this lofty of a pace. MacKenzie Weegar, however, has looked every bit as good as he did last season. He's got three goals and seven assists, plus 28 hits and 24 shots on net, while playing in a more defensive role. I was hesitant to believe he could approach his pace from last season, and he's made me eat my share of crow. Brandon Montour (six assists in his last nine games) hasn't been as prolific on offense, but his 18 points in 37 contests overall, with six on the power play, makes for a solid depth option in fantasy. 

It's important to note that the Panthers' best success has come at home. They're shredding teams in Sunrise, but they've also played 24 of their 41 home games already. They're 5-4-5 on the road heading into a week-long run through Western Canada and Seattle, but I imagine their next five opponents – all with their own obvious flaws – can't be too excited to see the Cats stretching their claws and licking their lips as they try to take their show on the road. The fantasy angle is this: buy in where you can. No one's going to trade you Barkov or Huberdeau, but trading for their linemates (or adding them off the waiver wire in shallower formats) could prove to be a big boost. This team is playing good hockey, top to bottom. The bottom-six forwards and bottom-four defense more or less add physicality across the board. Patric Hornqvist has five points, 24 shots and 18 hits since the break, playing a fourth-line role. Take a gamble now and see if he gives you a boost for a while. 

Among the other 31 teams, Erik Haula looks like he's finally settled in as the Bruins' second-line center. He's picked up points in seven of the last eight games (two goals, five assists), and he's seen time alongside Taylor Hall and David Pastrnak. The Bruins needed to spark the offense a bit, and Haula's been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the shake-up. For the season, he's at 12 points, 70 hits, 55 shots on net and 19 PIM, but a lot of that production (or lack thereof) was while he was toiling in the bottom six. Charlie Coyle should probably get another turn in Haula's spot eventually, but head coach Bruce Cassidy isn't going to mix things up too much while the Bruins are on a five-game winning streak. 

You heard it here first: Maxime Comtois is back. Limited to just one assist in 14 games during the 2021 portion of the season, the winger is back from hand surgery and a stint in the COVID-19 protocols, and he's in a groove. He's got two goals and three assists in his last seven games. The Ducks have faded after a hot start that the 23-year-old was largely a passenger for, but continued absences up front have allowed him to get alongside Trevor Zegras at even strength. Remember the bump Sonny Milano got in that role – Comtois is looking like he'll get a similar boost. 

Esa Lindell started the season way too cold to last. This past week has been what appears to be the start of a correction – he's got a goal and two assists in his last three games. The Finnish blueliner is a reliable depth option in fantasy. He usually scores enough to be helpful, but it's the hits and blocked shots he piles up in spades that helps to steady the ship when his offense runs dry. For the year, he's at nine points, 74 blocks, 65 hits and 70 shots on net in 35 games. Prior to this season, he had at least 20 points in the last three full campaigns and 16 points in 56 outings in 2020-21. 

There's reasons to be encouraged by Jonathan Toews' recent performance. For one, he's provided four assists in his last five outings. His goal-scoring skills have bounced back after a slow start to the year. Toews is sitting at an average of 17:52 of ice time per game – after missing all of last season with a chronic illness, it's understandable that he won't be a 20-minutes-per-game center. He's still shooting just 6.2 percent this season, which suggests a player of his caliber has the chance to be much better in the second half. The Blackhawks don't need to push him to be their MVP, so hopefully he'll thrive with less pressure for a team that's not likely to make the playoffs. 

For defensive depth, John Marino really tends to fly under the radar. He plays on the Penguins' second pair and sees some power-play time – 1:16 per game – while being just generally solid across the board. He's notched four assists in his last seven games to reach 16 points in 37 contests overall. He's added 42 hits, 40 blocked shots and a plus-2 rating. The 24-year-old won't win you any single category, but he'll chip in across the board. Steady play works fine for me in my deeper formats. 

Wrapping up the skaters portion of my recommended players this week, I present a pair of Kraken. Calle Jarnkrok (three goals, four assists in seven games) and Marcus Johansson (two goals, two helpers in four games) have started to find their way on offense. Both players are making an impact on the power play, where the Kraken have been humming along at 25 percent over the last month (compared to 19.2 percent for the season). While head coach Dave Hakstol has been pretty quick to mix things up with his forwards, both Jarnkrok and Johansson have more or less been fixtures in the top six. It's worth taking a look in fantasy if your scoring production has sagged a bit lately. 

Ville Husso is beginning to get on my radar in goal. He's won his last two starts since returning from a lower-body injury. In those games, he's allowed just two goals on 59 shots against the Capitals and Kraken. Yes, it's a small sample size, and yes, only one of those teams is really playing well, but both of those games have been outside of back-to-back sets. It's too early to say if Husso has forced head coach Craig Berube to initiate a timeshare in net – if you've got Jordan Binnington, Husso is especially attractive as injury insurance. The Blues' roster is no concern, as the they have depth throughout the lineup and should be pretty close to full strength by the end of the week. 

Adin Hill is another goalie gaining some traction, thanks to James Reimer missing the last couple of weeks with a lower-body injury. Even with Reimer healthy as of Saturday, there's a compelling case to make for Hill maintaining his playing time. Hill went 3-1-1 with a 2.24 GAA and a .922 save percentage in his last six appearances. The 25-year-old was unsteady early in the season, but he's built a little momentum, and goalie games are more valuable than ever. 

If you look ahead of the schedule this week, you'll notice a significantly lower rate of postponed games compared to the last few weeks. For one, since so many players have been in and out of COVID-19 protocols, there's not many more who can realistically test positive. The NHL also knows if this is going to be a full 82-game season, the games that have already been postponed will need to be made up without adding too many more to the pile. We're not out of the woods yet (unfortunately) but we're probably past the middle of the worst of it now. Let's find ourselves some open fields this week. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shawn Hutchinson
Shawn has covered sports independently since 2010, and joined RotoWire in 2019. He serves as a beat writer for the Calgary Flames and contributes in hockey and baseball. Shawn also enjoys soccer, rooting on his hometown teams: Sounders FC and Reign FC.
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