As the chill from fall arrives, training camps open around the league, and the prospect of fantasy drafts are just on the horizon. Hockey fans everywhere crack out their jerseys from the back of the closets, and start to pay attention to potential line changes, key additions and subtractions in the off-season, and the hopes of playoff hockey in the spring.
Isn't it just the best time of year?
There were a lot of changes this offseason; seemingly more than ever. Three stood out that, from a fantasy perspective, could be potential goldmines for GMs who buy in early and buy in heavy -- but also pose a fair risk.
Pittsburgh is all in on offense, and has the potential to be a juggernaut
By any reasonable measure, last year's performance was an unabated disaster for the Pens. Plagued by injury and consistency issues, they just managed to squeak into a playoff spot, and were summarily trounced in the first round by a superior Rangers squad. Key losses of Olli Maatta, Pascal Dupuis and Christian Ehrhoff for significant periods and significant stretches of time without Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Patric Hornqvist led to an unpredictable but explainable drop in Pittsburgh success.
With Sidney Crosby turning 28, and Malkin turning 29, management decided it was the right time to push all-in. Key acquisitions of elite sniper Phil Kessel, rough-and-tumble Nick Bonino, veteran Eric Fehr and potential power-play quarterback Sergei Gonchar has reinforced an already powerful roster. Combined with a clean bill of health for a number of key players, this offense has the potential of being the highest-scoring that the league has seen in quite some time.
Much has been said about the beleaguered Kessel in his time in Toronto, but his skill is undeniable. While he may not be a player you can build a franchise around, in Pittsburgh, he doesn't need to be that player. He's very much like another player who found a home in Pittsburgh for a long time -- Marian Hossa. So far in preseason, it appears as though he'll be on the top line with Sid and Chris Kunitz, which should be a dramatic upgrade from the incumbent winger, Patric Hornqvist. People have laughed at my prediction -- maybe rightly so -- but I don't believe 300 points for the trio is unreasonable, given its universal penchant for production.
Given the apparent increase in productivity, fantasy GMs would be wise to add as many Penguins as they can in mid-level drafts. Early selections of Crosby, Malkin, Kessel and Kris Letang are laughably natural picks, but there is a lot of value to be had on mid-tier picks such as Chris Kunitz, Patric Hornqvist, David Perron and Olli Maatta in later rounds. I selected these last four consistently past the 100th pick in many drafts; I'm convinced that all will be significantly higher -- especially Maatta, who should project to hover around 100th midseason and has been ranked in the 300s.
The Lightning bandwagon is full, given their success from last year, but I'm convinced that Pittsburgh is the team to beat in the East -- given a relatively healthy year, which is anything but a given.
Edmonton is the wild-card in the West
Stop me if you've heard this tune before -- team gets the top overall pick in the draft, replaces the coach, makes a couple of key adds and goes from worst to first on the back of youth, determination and grit. Sounds exactly like the story of Colorado from 2013-2014, with Nathan MacKinnon and Patrick Roy.
Edmonton's turnaround may be even more dramatic, given it just drafted the biggest prospect since Sidney Crosby in Connor McDavid and hired one of the best coaches in the last decade in the West in Todd McLellan.
There's nothing I can say that hasn't already been said about McDavid about a hundred times. Even superstar Steven Stamkos has come out and said that McDavid is probably better than he is right now -- a massive compliment given how dominant the elder Stamkos has been in the NHL. The addition of the youngster could give the troubled Oilers team the crown jewel around which it can develop its abundance of high-end talent. Fantasy GMs take notice -- if the trio of McDavid, Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall live up to their potential, this could be a line second only to the aforementioned Crosby-Kessel-Kunitz in scoring.
Add to that some key acquisitions in Cam Talbot and Andrej Sekera and the apparent promotion of blue-chip prospect Darnell Nurse, and it appears as though the other side of the puck may see significant improvement as well.
There will be significant hype in northern Alberta, but their history of not performing should be noted. It wouldn't surprise anybody if this team became one of the elite in the West given what they have -- but it probably wouldn't surprise anybody if they were dead last, either. That's a dangerous risk to take in the draft. Try to find a balance by selecting a few key guys for your bench squad -- both Nurse and Talbot are sitting on my teams as a hedge against investing too heavily on the bigger, more expensive names.
Dallas has reinforced key weaknesses
Just like the previous year, the Stars have invested yet again in some key weapons -- this time, former Blackhawks -- that could be magnificent fantasy investments.
June saw Dallas sign Antti Niemi, to platoon with the oft-injured and inconsistent Kari Lehtonen. The hope is that the combination pushes both to be better than they are -- the reality of the situation is like that Niemi will win over the starting roll, relegating Lehtonen to either backup or trade fodder in the middle of the year. Overall, a positive improvement.
July brought with it two key adds: Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya. The former brings potent offensive tools that look to provide Jason Spezza with a similarly talented partner, much like the top-line tandem of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. The secondary scoring punch of that second line could be a revelation for the entire team, and provide an absolutely sizzling power play combo of all four and defensive quarterback John Klingberg. Oduya looks to slot in on the top pairing to provide a conscious to Klingberg, and allow him to flourish in the top offensive defenseman role in Dallas. While his fantasy production will likely be low, his addition will provide a catalyst for transition goals, and will calm a team that has allowed far too many goals.
Dallas will have a hard time cracking the playoffs in the West; the division is loaded with a number of fantastic teams, all of whom had solid years last year. If these additions can provide slightly more offense, while putting a dent in their near-worst goals-against, they look to be in good shape to do just that.
Drafters should look to add Sharp and Klingberg if appropriate at mid-levels in the draft. Also, don't forget about Antoine Roussel -- a wonderful fantasy player who often gets overlooked. He just may end up serving on that second line to provide some sandpaper.