Preseason Job Battles: The Forwards
Jordan Buckley, RotoWire.com
Savvy fantasy hockey poolies know not to put too much stock into preseason statistics among NHL regulars. For one, those that are locks for their respective NHL rosters don't play in every game and when they do, they are often playing with unfamiliar linemates on teams that are tinkering with their chemistry, giving prospects a shot to crack the big club in the process. Also, it's not exactly rocket science that the NHL's top talent doesn't always give us a maximum, pedal-to-the-metal effort during exhibition games, regardless of what they might tell the media.
However, that's not to say that training camp doesn't serve a purpose in the fantasy world. In fact, it's quite the contrary, as many key roster spots are up for grabs featuring job battles that can drastically affect the fantasy value of a player - or an entire line - heading into the regular season.
With puck drop on the 2014-15 NHL campaign just over a week away, let's take a look at some of the most intriguing, highest profile and fantasy-relevant forward job battles.
Stammer and Co.
Martin St. Louis is long gone, and while Ryan Callahan - who was acquired in trade for St. Louis last year - is a hard-nosed, useful player, he's no Art Ross-winning playmaker. Good thing, then, that the Bolts were able to fall back on two thirds of last year's Rookie of the Year candidates in Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, who spent a significant time alongside Steven Stamkos last season. Because of their breakout rookie campaigns in 2013-14 and the likelihood of them skating beside arguably the NHL's best goal scorer, both Palat (59 points, plus-32) and Johnson (50 points, plus-23) will garner significant attention in drafts. Both showed chemistry with the sniping centerman (and consensus top-3 fantasy pick), but Johnson is a natural center and Palat is a talented two-way forward capable of carrying a line on his own, so coach Jon Cooper may elect to spread his best offensive weapons outside of Stamkos throughout his lineup. Compounded with the fact that flashy 2013 third-overall pick LW Jonathan Drouin is expected to crack (and stick) in Tampa's lineup - bringing with him a scoring prowess that saw him put up a ridiculous 213 points over the last 95 games in Major Junior - it looks more and more likely that there will be some fluidity in Tampa's top-six. This could open the door for someone like Alex Killorn, sophomore Nikita Kucherov, or the aforementioned Callahan to slide in beside Stamkos and see some power-play time. Go ahead and draft Stamkos, Palat, Johnson and Drouin (who will miss the first one to two weeks of the season with a broken thumb) accordingly, but keep an eye on the Lightning depth chart as training camp concludes to see who might get an assignment on the first line. Regardless of who it is, he'll see an immediate increase in value.
Big D's Third Wheel
Seemingly out of nowhere, the Dallas Stars have one of the most dangerous top-six forward groups in the NHL. Monster efforts by first-liners Tyler Seguin (84 points, plus-16) and Olympian Jamie Benn (79 points, plus-21) last year established the Stars as a legitimate offensive threat, while key additions of Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky this summer rounded out their second line. It's widely believed that sophomore and 2013 10th-overall pick Valeri Nichushkin has the inside track on right wing privileges with Benn and Seguin, but like in Tampa, there could be a desire for coach Lindy Ruff to spread his offensive firepower around a little. This would create a spot on Dallas' top line for someone like veteran Erik Cole, PIM-specialist Antoine Roussel (third in league penalties with 209 PIM last year), or Ryan Garbutt (32 points and 106 PIM of his own). Furthermore, Spezza and Hemsky showed chemistry during Hemsky's brief 20-game stint in Ottawa last season, so Dallas figures to have a dynamic duo on each of their top two lines, a configuration that will reap benefits for whoever tags along - especially if they're lucky enough to skate with studs Benn and Seguin.
Long Island Paradise
The oft-maligned Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum may not be a paradise for the New York Islanders and their fans, but it certainly has paradise potential for Brock Nelson and Anders Lee - the frontrunners to grab the left-wing spot on the Isles' top line beside superstar John Tavares and Kyle Okposo. It's hard to believe that, despite the fact that this team traded away both Matt Moulson and Thomas Vanek at different times last season, they weren't able to acquire a comparable top-six forward in the process. That leaves a very large and important hole beside concensus first-round fantasy pick Tavares and his partner-in-crime Okposo, who broke out in a big way in 2013-14 with 69 points in 71 games as a 25-year-old.
Nelson -- a first-round pick from 2010 who turns 23 in October -- is believed to have the best shot at winning the coveted wing position on the left side of JT, as he brings some size (6-foot-2, 205-pounds) combined with a scoring touch that saw him notch 47 points in 42 games in his last season with the University of North Dakota and 52 points in 66 games in his only full AHL season. Nelson only managed 26 points in 72 games last year in his first season with the Isles, but the organization believes he has the pedigree and tools to line up nicely beside Tavares and fellow Minnesotan Okposo.
Lee (another Minnesota native) is more of a longshot, who reportedly needs development on his skating, but he made a statement last year when he found the back of the net six times in his first eight NHL games and notched 14 points in 22 total games. He's even bigger than Nelson (6-foot-3, 227-pounds) so both players present the appeal of that big-body dynamic that is so often necessary for the success of a top scoring line. If Lee can find a way to stick in Long Island and doesn't require additional time in the AHL, he could find himself in a dream scenario beside Tavares.
Then again, coach Jack Capuano has been experimenting with the recently-signed Mikhail Grabovski (who is expected to center the third line beside old Maple Leaf teammate Nikolai Kulemin) on the wing opposite Okposo on Tavares' line during the preseason. Michael Grabner could get a shot on the big line as well -- even though he's better suited to a second or third-line role -- so you'll want to monitor the Islanders' line combos closely heading into the regular season, with an especially keen eye for Nelson and Lee.
Getting Along With the Twins
2013-14 was a complete disaster for the Vancouver Canucks. Their fall from grace as one of the West's best teams over the previous several years to a 25th-place finish was only the beginning, as they also traded Roberto Luongo (finally) and beloved two-way center Ryan Kesler, fired both head coach John Tortorella and GM Mike Gillis, and bought-out David Booth, whose 51 points in 134 games with Vancouver made him a monumental bust. They did, however, go out and get notables in goaltender Ryan Miller, center Nick Bonino, D-man Luca Sbisa, and sniping right-winger Radim Vrbata - the 33-year-old shooting machine who is expected to line up beside the Sedin twins on the Canucks' top line.
Vrbata will be entering his 13th season in the NHL with career totals of 215 goals, 249 assists and 464 points in 792 games. His 263 shots last year with the Coyotes were good for 11th overall in the league, so the Canucks will be looking for their shiny new top-six forward to fire a ton of rubber on net while creating offense with the Sedin twins, who are due to bounce-back in a big way after a horrendous campaign (50 points for Henrik, 47 for Daniel - their lowest totals in 10 years). Vrbata is most certainly an upgrade over Jannik Hansen and Alex Burrows, the two players the twins spent the most time with last year outside of Kesler, but what if the chemistry just isn't there? It happens, and if Vrbata doesn't jell with the Sedins the way Van's brass hopes he will, that leaves a spot on the top line ripe for the picking for someone like the big Zack Kassian, who has played with Henrik and Daniel before, or Linden Vey, a center by trade who played for new head coach Willie Desjardins in Medicine Hat in major junior. Of course, Alex Burrows is always an easy Hail Mary option for rekindling some of the magic with the twins that saw him pile up 67 points and a plus-34 rating in 2009-10, although the odds of that happening are slim after he scraped together just 39 points over the last 96 games, and only 15 in 49 last year.
No matter what happens (and regardless of their age), the Sedins under a new coach and a fresh start in Vancouver are due for at least a modest turnaround this season, and whoever spends the most time with them will surely benefit. Stay tuned.
Mile High Ride Along
The Colorado Avalanche has emerged as an explosive, exciting young team. They're loaded up front with several offensive weapons, most of which have become household names (see: Matt Duchene, Gabe Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon) after beating out powerhouses Chicago and St. Louis to capture the Central Division title with 112 points last season.
Joining the trio above in the Avs' top six are one of the NHL's elite two-way forwards, last year's Lady Byng Trophy winner Ryan O'Reilly, as well as recently-acquired power winger Jarome Iginla - who brings 1,167 points in 1,310 career NHL games to fill the void left by Paul Stastny's summer depature to St. Louis. But outside of these five, who will step in to round out the top-two scoring units in Denver as the sixth and final forward?
The main competitors in this job battle are 34-year-old Alex Tanguay and seventh-year NHLer Jamie McGinn. McGinn is coming off a career high in goals (19), assists (19), points (38) and shots on goal (167), after spending the majority of his time with Duchene and O'Reilly on a scoring line as a fill-in for injured teammates P.A. Parenteau and Tanguay. Speaking of Tanguay, multiple injuries limited him to just 16 NHL contests last year (by far the lowest of his 14-year career), in which he managed to tally a respectable 11 points. Heading into 2014-15, Tanguay should have an edge in finding a home among Colorado's top-six, based not only on his track record as a productive NHL forward (773 points in 938 games), but also on his chemistry with Iginla, a friend and former Calgary Flames teammate who reportedly came to Denver partially based on the opportunity to reunite with Tanguay. Tanguay's best NHL season - an 81-point campaign in 2006-2007 - came while riding shotgun with Iggy in Cow Town, so we could see some real magic here.
However, if the aging Tanguay isn't able to stay healthy, that would open the door for McGinn to slide back in with the big boys and pick up where he left off on last year's career bests. McGinn fell one goal short of becoming a 20-goal scorer last year, so you can bet that he'll be hungry to build on his recent success. Of course, the extent of McGinn's production depends on the caliber of his linemates, so if Tanguay goes down with an injury, McGinn's stock could rise exponentially if he's able to ascend the Avs' depth chart. His projected company on the third line (John Mitchell, Daniel Briere and/or Max Talbot) aren't exactly prolific point producers, so he'll need to grab some coattails and hang on for dear to have a shot at potting 20 this season. Also, it's worth mentioning that although the declining Briere probably doesn't have the legs to keep up with Colorado's speedy young guns, but it's safe to assume that coach Patrick Roy will give the former 95-point scorer (!) a look next to Duchene or MacKinnon at some point, making him a noteworthy dark horse candidate in his first season in Denver.