As training camp for the 2016-17 season approaches, a number of teams are prepared to hold competitions for open and unsettled positions. While some players will surely seize the chance granted by a premier role and run with it, some of these job battles may be ongoing throughout the season. Drafting for talent is never a bad idea, but the confluence of talent and opportunity is where fantasy championships are made.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins vs. Leon Draisaitl
Second-year phenom Connor McDavid is all but assured the first-line center role, but the Oilers have two capable options vying to be the other pivot in the top six. Still just 20 years old, Draisaitl finished second on the team with 51 points last season – but Nugent-Hopkins, 2011’s No. 1 overall pick, was on pace to match that output if not for a broken finger that limited him to 55 games. Since RNH has already eclipsed 50 points three times and comes with a hefty $6 million salary, he probably has the edge at the moment. Draisaitl still has to prove capable of producing without playing alongside the recently departed Taylor Hall, although the team’s current personnel suggests the third line will also have an offensive-minded approach – albeit with lesser ice time.
Auston Matthews vs. Toronto’s Veterans
The Toronto media has unsurprisingly already held a coronation for Matthews, this year’s No. 1 overall pick, as the franchise’s long-awaited savior, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him eased into the NHL in a third-line role to take some pressure off. Then again, these are the Maple Leafs we’re talking about, so seeing him thrust into the spotlight as the team’s top pivot from Day 1 wouldn’t shock anyone either. Both Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak have proven consistently capable of breaking 40 points with the potential for more, but the younger Kadri has the upper hand after leading the team’s forwards in ice time last season. The most likely scenario has Toronto splitting the difference on Matthews, slotting him in behind Kadri and ahead of Bozak so as to pair him with skilled players while avoiding the opposition’s best.
John Tavares’ Linemates
Coach Jack Capuano tried a revolving door of players alongside his star center last season, but failed to find a long-term combination that he liked. New York’s captain has shown the ability to elevate his linemates’ production, so anyone who could lock down a consistent role beside Tavares would gain a substantial boost in value. Newcomer Andrew Ladd and retread P.A. Parenteau could do just that on the left and right side, respectively; they should at least earn the first look over previously tried options like Anders Lee, Ryan Strome and Josh Bailey. The three incumbents fared significantly worse whenever they were shifted away from Tavares, so their respective stocks would take massive hits if they were to be separated permanently.
Jonathan Toews’ Left Wing
It’s safe to assume that the Artemi Panarin-Artem Anisimov-Patrick Kane line sticks together after a collectively monstrous 2015-16 campaign, but a salary-cutting roster purge has left a notable hole in Chicago’s top six alongside Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. Richard Panik found some success in that role as coach Joel Quenneville desperately searched for solutions against the St. Louis Blues in the postseason, but the recently re-signed forward will have to fend off challenges from the likes of Tanner Kero and Ryan Hartman if he wants to stay there long term. There are multiple open forward spots available for the Blackhawks’ collection of unproven youngsters to seize, but Panik holds the upper hand in the race for by far the most important one.
Who Joins Getzlaf & Perry?
Anaheim has two-thirds of an elite first line in center Ryan Getzlaf and right wing Corey Perry, but who will fill left wing alongside them? Two viable options from last season in Patrick Maroon and David Perron are no longer on the roster, and Rickard Rakell is better off playing his natural center position to bring some balance to the lineup. As a result, the early favorite seems to be 2014 first-rounder Nick Ritchie, but his four points in 33 NHL games don’t exactly scream “can’t-miss prospect.” Unless 30-year-old Mason Raymond suddenly rediscovers the form that saw him pot 25 goals back in 2009-10 or the team opts to break up the chemistry of its other scoring line by promoting Andrew Cogliano, it seems Ritchie will be handed the opportunity of a lifetime on a silver platter despite his lack of success up to this point.
Minnesota’s First-Line Right Wing
It’s widely held that Finland’s Mikko Koivu will center countryman Mikael Granlund, which will allow newcomer Eric Staal to grab top-line duties with Zach Parise on his left wing. What’s less clear is which right wing will enjoy the extensive opportunities and minutes that come with Minnesota’s top-line opening. Jason Pominville has spent time most of his career as a top-six forward, but the 33-year-old is unlikely to bounce back after being dropped to the third line during a disappointing 36-point campaign. That leaves Charlie Coyle (a 21-goal scorer last year) and Jason Zucker (a 21-goal man two years ago) to duke it out for the top spot. Since the NHL is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league and Coyle’s point total has risen in each of his first four seasons, expect him to have the edge over his fellow 24-year-old. The problem for him is that simply being the better option may not be enough to win him the job long term, as Zucker could end up being promoted anyway if his lack of size doesn’t mesh well with the even smaller Granlund on the other wing.
John Carlson’s Defense Partner
Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen have built terrific chemistry over the past two seasons, so it’s possible they’ll stay together this year, which would leave Brooks Orpik, Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt to compete for the spot alongside Carlson, Washington’s top defenseman. Orpik held that place last season, but the 35-year-old stay-at-home veteran is another year older and slower. Playing with the more offensive-minded Orlov or Schmidt would likely help Carlson maximize his scoring ability five-on-five; it would also do wonders for the playing time and rating of his sidekick. Orlov is the clubhouse leader coming off a 29-point campaign, but he’s far from solidifying his role. All that said, Carlson and the defensively minded Alzner also have history together, so they could be paired up as well, leaving the less premium second-unit role alongside Niskanen as the contested spot.
New Jersey’s Power-Play Point Man
Anyone following the Devils is well aware that a key offseason departure has left a hole on the team’s blue line. We’re talking, of course, about David Schlemko, who signed with the Sharks after leading New Jersey with 12 power-play points last season. New Jersey’s ninth-ranked man advantage should be even more dangerous with the addition of Taylor Hall, and someone has to step up to a job on the point with the top unit. The two most obvious candidates are John Moore and Damon Severson, who accounted for six and five power-play points, respectively, in 2015-16. Moore has just one power-play goal in 303 NHL games, so the Devils will likely want to see what they have in the soon-to-be 22-year-old Severson, but either one would experience a nice bump in value by earning this valuable spot.
Rounding Out Colorado’s Top Four
Francois Beauchemin, Erik Johnson and Tyson Barrie have all established themselves as top-four defensemen, as each averaged north of 23 minutes per game in 2015-16. Nick Holden was the clear-cut No. 4 as the only other blueliner to top 17 minutes per game, but he’s now a member of the Rangers. His departure opens up a prime opportunity for one of the team’s remaining defensemen to see about five extras minutes per night while playing with a much higher-quality partner. The man in best position to seize this chance is Nikita Zadorov, who played in just 22 games with the big club last season but led them in relative Corsi For percentage during that time. Eric Gelinas, Fedor Tyutin and fellow youngster Chris Bigras will all make a push for that spot, but Zadorov’s superior ability to drive possession makes him the best left-handed complement to either Johnson or Barrie on the right. Even though Bigras spent more time with the big club last season, the Russian’s play was more deserving of a promotion.
No (Ha)lack of Options in Net for Isles
Jaroslav Halak was the unquestioned starter entering last season coming off a 38-win campaign, but his injury issues and the emergence of Thomas Greiss have significantly muddled the picture. The Isles may try to move the more expensive Halak since they also like 25-year-old Jean-Francois Berube, but the Slovakian and Greiss are likely to open the season in a timeshare if no palatable deal emerges. Halak is the favorite to seize a slightly larger workload due to a more extensive history of NHL success, but expect a near-even split between the top two netminders early on.
Bob Beware: Jackets’ Goaltending Logjam
Sergei Bobrovsky should open the season as the man in Columbus, but the 2012-13 Vezina Trophy winner is coming off two consecutive subpar seasons, with his 2.75 GAA and .908 save percentage in an injury-ravaged 2015-16 representing a further step down from 2014-15’s 2.69 GAA and .918 save percentage. Career backup Curtis McElhinney could keep that job if it’s all smooth sailing for Bobrovsky, but any stumble by the Russian would open up a Pandora’s Box of possibilities due to the presence of two hungry youngsters in the system. Joonas Korpisalo posted a .920 save percentage in 31 appearances last season, and with the 2017 expansion draft looming, the Blue Jackets have more incentive to see what the 22-year-old can offer in a larger NHL sample than to keep him in the AHL for more seasoning. Meanwhile, 23-year-old Anton Forsberg supplanted Korpisalo during the AHL playoffs and won all nine of his starts in guiding the Lake Erie Monsters to a Calder Cup title. It’s ultimately Bobrovsky’s job to lose, but the competition for the backup gig is wide open, and both these young netminders are ready to take over as the starter should the Russian get hurt again or fail to regain his old form.