With all the talk of concussions and sidelined players, you would think there have been very few positive stories in the NHL this season. However, there are a number of players who are putting together career years. We are going to look at their performances and forecast whether they should be considered sustainable through the rest of the 2011-12 schedule. Fantasy pool owners might want to pay attention because we will be touching on issues to assist in the process of evaluating players.
Phil Kessel (20 g, 22a, +2), Joffrey Lupul (16 g, 23 a, +5) - We start with this pair of surprising additions to the NHL scoring race because their efforts are so closely linked to one another.
Kessel came into this season, with a string of three consecutive 30-goal campaigns - one of only nine NHL players with such a streak that remained intact at the start of this season. Kessel has reached this scoring level without linemates who would be considered first-line types. This season he is off to the best start of hos career and has been among the top scorers in the league from day one. He is primarily responsible for this hot start because he has appeared more willing to skate into the more dangerous scoring areas near the net, whereas in prior years he has relied on his ability to shoot from peripheral portions of the attacking zone.
His confidence also appears to be at an all-time high and he is quick to give credit to his current linemates, Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak, for joining him in one of the best up-tempo forward lines in the entire league. Lupul is well on his own way to smashing career high scoring plateaus in a career that has been marred by injury but also has seen four 20-goal seasons. He has been a great foil for Kessel because he has shown a consistent ability to maintain puck possession in the attacking zone and has working to create many great scoring opportunities with Kessel on a nightly basis. Leaf GM Brian Burke deserves credit for bringing Lupul onto the Leafs roster. He was well aware of the winger's skill set from their time together in Anaheim and was quite willing to take on an apparently onerous cap hit (4.25M per year through 2012-13) to see Lupul in the Leafs' colors.
The pairing of Kessel and Lupul has ignited Leaf fortunes and is proving to be a uniquely beneficial union among this list of revitalized players.
Despite his amazing skill set and the fact that he always seems to play for one of the top teams in the NHL, Marian Hossa has only been a point per game player in four of his 13 seasons in the NHL heading into this campaign (and not since the 2006-07 season). This year he is off and running with 16 goals, 24 assists and a (+24). He has played predominantly with Hawks' captain Jonathan Toews and been a fixture on the top power play unit. In reverting to his best form as an offensive force, he has not sacrificed attention to defensive detail and has become one of the league's top two-way players once again. At 32 years of age he should still have some good years in him and is surrounded by one of the league's deepest reservoirs of talent in Chicago.
A year ago Jordan Eberle made his NHL debut with the Oilers, albeit in the shadows Taylor Hall, the top choice in the 2010 Amateur Draft. Eberle has taken a more deliberate route after being the 22nd overall selection in the 2008 Draft. He parlayed a strong finish to his junior career into a nice debut where he totaled 43 points in his maiden voyage with the Oilers last years. During this season, he looks like a much more mature talent as he has already notched 16 goals and 22 assists in only 35 games played. What excites Oiler fans is this guys high Hockey IQ. He is increasingly aware of the open spaces on the ice and is making better use of his teammates with his tremendous on-ice vision. Ironically, he is outperforming his more heralded teammate this season.
Kris Versteeg has bounced around the league, most often cast in a third line role, as he has moved through four teams in the last two and a half seasons. He came into his first season with the Panthers following three straight 20-goal seasons, so observers knew he was capable of providing secondary level scoring. With the Panthers, however he has been thrust into a first-line role and he has responded impressively to that challenge in compiling 17 goals, 21 assists and a (+15) rating. These totals are even more impressive when we are reminded of the almost total absence of secondary scoring with the Panthers. Opponent will be keying more heavily on Versteeg and his linemates in the second half of this season, making it hard to imagine that he'll be able to keep up this unprecedented personal scoring pace.
Olli Jokinen emerged as a bona fide NHLer after a sluggish start to his career. He became the signature player on a weak Florida team during the 2002-03 season. He would go on to become one of the league's premier power forwards even though complementary players never surrounded him. The Flames were excited to bring him into their organization in the 2008-09 season and planned to match him up with Jarome Iginla, Calgary's acknowledged leader. They would prove to be incompatible in that first attempt, so it came as a big surprise that the Flames would welcome him back to Calgary when he was a free agent prior to the 2010-11 season. The two stars did not play together last year, but they were reunited to start this season. This time, they are meshing very well and Jokinen's productivity is quickly approaching the best years of his career. With 31 points in 37 games and centering the top line and power play unit, he is once again relevant in all fantasy sports formats.
Alexander Edler has emerged as the go-to offensive blueliner in Vancouver and is firmly entrenched on the power play as well, after sharing those roles with other players in previous years. With 25 points in only 36 games, he is going to provide fantasy owners with a great return on their investment, particularly since he would have been a later round selection in most drafts because this level of productivity was not expected at the outset of the season. The moral of this story is that it's never a bad pick to select an offensive-minded defenseman from a top team, regardless of a team's depth at that position.
Dennis Wideman came into this season on the heels of three 10-goal terms in his last four years. The veteran blueliner has slipped in terms of his defensive skills, a fact that is highlighted by a (-14) rating that he earned while toiling for the 2009-10 Bruins, perennially a top defensive-minded team. Still, poolies are attracted by Wideman's offensive ability. On the surface his 23 points in 34 games are certainly not a disappointment, but three of his five goals came in one game, so we are left to wonder if he might be on the verge of a decline. The Capitals appear on a similar downward trajectory of late and this may not bode well for Wideman.
The Florida Panthers are the biggest surprise of the 2011-12 season so far and much of that credit goes to defenseman Brian Campbell, who came onboard with the Panthers, largely because his hefty salary cap hit would lift the Panther payroll above the cap floor. He has emerged as a catalyst for the Panthers as their power play quarterback and has routinely dictated the pace of play on a nightly basis. With 30 points on 37 games, he is well on his way to career-high scoring totals and has fast-tracked GM Dale Tallon's rebuild of the Panthers. Since the two were both together while associated with the Blackhawks, you have to think that Tallon had a good idea about the total package he was importing here.
The most surprisingly productive fantasy hockey performer has to be St Louis goalie Brian Elliott, who signed as an afterthought with the Blues for a paltry $600k in the off-season. He was expected to back up Jaroslav Halak who still has two years remaining on a pact that will pay him $3.75 annually through the '13-14 season. Elliott's microscopic 1.63 goals against and 94% save percentage in 19 appearances have been an unexpected bonanza for Elliott's fantasy owners, but they may also give St. Louis management a unique opportunity to parlay one of their goalies into other assets at the trade deadline. If Elliott continues at anything near this pace, you have to believe he'll be in line for quite a bump in pay after this season. It is unlikely that the Blues could afford to keep both goalies in the organization.
One of the oldest starting goalies in the NHL, Nikolai Khabibulin, is a surprising entry among the top performers at that position so far this year. He has turned the clock back the tune of a 2.14 goals against and a 92.7% save percentage, both numbers representing career best totals. Before getting overly excited though, poolies need to drill down a bit and notice a disturbing trend. His October goals against mark was 1.12, November was a still respectable 2.45 and in December it continues to rise to 2.88. The Oilers are not going to be confused as a defense-first team as they are currently constituted, so the “buyer beware” sign should go up beside this name as your pool's trade deadline approaches.
I would like to wish my readers the very best in 2012! Thanks for reading From the Pressbox. I will be back, next week, as usual. Cheers, everybody.
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