With the season in its infancy, determining which teams will top the league is always a crapshoot. There are always a handful of teams that manage to overachieve and find their way into the playoffs against analyst predictions. Few would have considered Nashville or Calgary playoff teams at the start of last season, yet there they were when the dust settled. What is often far easier -- and far more predictable -- is determining who will be at the bottom of the league. Buffalo, Arizona, Edmonton and New Jersey were predestined to finish in the basement -- and any Leaf fan could have predicted another disappointing season. Year over year, these bottom-of-the-barrel predictions are truer to form than any playoff prognostications. There's also a lot of fantasy value in making this analysis.
It is extremely rare for a team in this list to overachieve by such a significant margin that you miss out on fantasy gold early. The last time I can remember this occurring was the Colorado Avalanche two seasons ago following the draft of Nathan MacKinnon and the hiring of coach Patrick Roy. That worst-to-first performance was one of the only times in modern NHL history where a team made such an enormous jump in one season; aside from that statistical aberration, you know what you're getting from these teams. Players will tend to have weaker performances than their peers on superior teams. Plus-minus categories -- for leagues where this is a stat category -- will be deeply in the minus for these players, and goaltenders on these teams will tend to be drafted late -- or not at all.
There is a natural tendency for fantasy owners to overvalue players on good teams, and undervalue players on bad teams -- to the point where third-line players on elite teams will be selected before first-line players on bad teams. This is very poor decision-making by a typical fantasy GM, and it leads to a lot of opportunity by shrewd managers who can recognize the cognitive impairment of their biases. Of course, you'll take a hit on some of the non-cumulative stat categories (like plus-minus), but there's so much potential for a player who will get 20-plus minutes of ice time a night versus the six minutes of ice time that a third-liner will see, that there's a big upside.
Here are some bad teams -- with associated players -- that have been underestimated.
1. Arizona Coyotes, Martin Hanzal C - The Coyotes this year likely will be pretty abysmal. While the youth of their team is well accounted for with Max Domi and Anthony Duclair making the team out of camp, neither is expected to charge out of the gate to high production. As a result, the top line of Martin Hanzal, Mikkel Boedker and Shane Doan will be looked upon to shoulder the burden of a majority of the goal-scoring. While none of the three likely will exceed 60 points this year, it's equally unlikely that any of them will be drafted in most fantasy pools with standard depth (12 teams, 23 players each). Hanzal's production year-over-year has been consistently good with a 0.5 points-per-game average; as his time on the ice increases with his first-line responsibility this year (assuming he stays healthy, of course) his production should approach or even exceed 50 points. Finding a 50-point player in the leftover bin of your draft is an excellent find.
2. Toronto Maple Leafs, Tyler Bozak C/Nazem Kadri C - After yet another crushing collapse, the Toronto fanbase is more distraught than ever. Pessimism is at an all-time low for the prospects of a playoff performance, and rightfully so. The Leafs this year are wholly undertalented and will be competing for the first overall draft spot rather than home ice come April. While lone standout James van Riemsdyk has been drafted relatively early in most of the drafts I've taken part of so far, both potential first-line centers have not been taken in any. The early opinion of Tyler Bozak is far too harsh, as is the criticism of understudy Nazem Kadri. One of these two will take a step forward to play on that top line with JVR -- and reap all the first-unit power play time that goes along with it. Prior to second half (aka "The Great Collapse of 2015"), Tyler Bozak was an excellent point producer and defensive stalwart. While partner-in-crime Phil Kessel has left for greener pastures in Pittsburgh, Bozak should still put up reasonably good numbers. If Bozak falls to the second line, and Nazem Kadri ascends, he too is fully capable of producing well enough. Don't believe the negative press -- there is value to at least one of them.
3. New Jersey Devils, Mike Cammalleri W - Much like the roster of the Coyotes, the Devils are bereft of high-end talent and production will be few and far between. The top line of Adam Henrique, Mike Cammalleri and Kyle Palmieri is a pretty good third line on some of the better teams. The struggle will be real for much of the season, but Cammalleri has been an excellent fantasy player for much of his career. He averages around 0.6 points-per-game, which approaches 50 points for a full season, but he also contributes with a lot of shots and a good number of power-play points, given he hasn't been on many first-unit power plays. His time in New Jersey on the top squad should see him exceed 50 points for the first time in seven years, and should he get traded later on, his value would skyrocket. Plus-minus will continue to be an issue for him, but considering the dramatic upside to increased ice-time and opportunity, in addition to extreme availability (his ownership is less than 2 percent), he's a risk that many people won't take, and you should.
Moral of the story: don't be afraid of good players in good spots on bad teams. They are often better bets than OK players in OK spots on great teams, and are often well undervalued.