Saturday, December 14, 2013



BOSTON, MA—We are officially passed the quarter mark of the 2014 NHL season, which means we're about one third of the way through OUR regular season, and about 20 games away from in-season contract signings. 

The standings are still super tight, which is having a big impact on the trade market. With only a small number of teams truly out of contention, it's difficult for GM's to know when they should go all-in with a big trade, pack it up and trade for futures, or--and I think most of us are in this boat right now--stand pat, ride out the storm and see what things look like in the new year. 

Following a 55-point night, Mario Zecca's New Jersey Wallflowers have vaulted into the contender's circle. Very interesting and balanced team here. Justin Williams, JVR, Phaneuf, and a resurgent Dustin Penner are leading the way up front, combined with a formidable trio of Corey Crawford, James Reimer and Ben Scrivens in net. Not sure about Scrivens' long-term value, but he's cleaning up well in the absence of Jonathan Quick. 55 points is the highest daily total so far this season, and if it's not the best mark in league history, it's certainly up there. 

In these notes I usually try to look for unusual or surprising trends, but there is no mystery to what is working well for Joe Mastrangelo's Boston Beernuts. Top five skaters? Ovechkin, Perry, Pavelski, Sharp, Kessel. Sprinkle in wunderkinds Nathan Mackinnon and Valeri Nichuskin, and you've got a nice recipe for both immediate and long-term success. Also, how about Steve Mason in goal? W-L record is misleading as the former Calder winner is letting in about 2 goals per game and stopping roughly 93% of shots fired his way. Great rebound for the kid that has been widely regarded as a one hit wonder. 

Running out of synonyms for 'unstoppable', so Saginaw isn't going to get as much ink in this column as in previous editions. One interesting note- as of this writing, Tommy Wingels has more fantasy points than fellow Spirit forwards Patrice Bergeron, Joffrey Lupul and Brad Richards. Also, here's hoping that Pavel Datsyuk isn't seriously injured after recently sustaining an elbow to the head. Losing him long term, on top of Stamkos, would be a real shame for hockey fans everywhere. 

Generally try not to mention glorious Sparta in these ramblings, but they have 179 more fantasy points from skaters than the league average (696). Next highest above-average number is 94 from Saginaw. W00T, and such. 

As for total fantasy points earned by goalies, Josh Deitell's Stuttgart Scorpions and Nathan Asdourian's Beantown Ball Busters are right up there with the Spirit. For Stuttgart, Josh Harding and MA Fleury have been downright sensational, going a combined 24-6 through the first two months of regular season play. As for Beantown, the rich are getting richer. Braden Holtby has been steady all year, Ben Bishop could end up being one of the best keeper signings ever, Frederick Andersen has shown promise in a limited role, and now Asdourian has Cam Ward back from injury. Lost in it all is prospect Jack Campbell, who is still learning the ropes in the American Hockey League. 

Scary moment for Altoona's Marty Brodeur over the weekend. After taking a puck off the back of the head, Brodeur lay motionless on the ice for a few minutes before shaking off the cobwebs and finishing the game. Personally, i thought Brodeur might get 30 starts max this season, but, health permitting, he's looking at far more than that. I guess if your HOF goalie (ancient or not) is playing halfway decent, you roll him until he says enough.

Speaking of goalies, as we so often do, I got to wondering where the best goalies of our time came from prior to emerging in the NHL. Well, let's wonder no more! 

Tuukka Rask (26) - Honed his craft for three seasons with Ilves Tampere of Finland's SM-liiga before learning the North American pro game for two years in Providence of the AHL. Broke in full-time with Boston in 2009-10. 

Josh Harding (29) - Four years with the Regina Pats and Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League before turning pro with Houston of the AHL in 2004. After 118 AHL starts and a few cups of coffee in the NHL, the original Minnesota Wild 2nd round pick established his role as a 1B tender in 2007-08. 

Carey Price (26) - Another Western Hockey League standout, Price played a full four seasons with the Tri-City Americans before pulling a Patrick Roy and winning a Calder Cup in his first AHL season in 2007. Price has just 12 career regular season GS in the AHL and clearly had nothing to gain from a prolonged stay in the minors. 

Ben Bishop (27) - It's taken some time for the former Hockey East standout to earn a starting gig in the NHL, but he appears to finally have one. After three stellar season with the University of Maine Black Bears, Bishop spent the next five years bouncing between Peoria and Binghampton of the AHL and short NHL stints with St. Louis and Ottawa. 

Antti Niemi (30) - Like fellow countryman Tuukka Rask, Niemi logged three seasons in Finland's SM-liiga before turning pro in the AHL. Also like Rask, Niemi didn't need long in the AHL before prying his way onto hockey's biggest stage. After just one year in the A, injuries to Cristobal Huet and Corey Crawford thrust Niemi into a starting role with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010. Many questioned his talent due to how stacked the Hawks were that year, but none can argue with Niemi's results since hoisting the Stanley Cup. 

So, among the top five goalies as of this writing, we've got two Finns, two Western Juniors and a former Black Bear. Extending into the top 10, there's another WHL-er (Holtby), a couple of QMJHL-ers (Fleury, Crawford), an OHL-er (Smith) and a Russian who came to the AHL after just one season in his native land (Varlamov). This super intensive analysis reveals two key findings. One, the WHL churns out better goalies (on average) than either of its Junior League counterparts, and two, one in five Finnish babies are born with tiny catching gloves. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Soaring Start


BOSTON, MA—It's been an exciting start to the 2013-14 season with several teams charging out of the gate, and a few historically strong teams struggling to find their footing. As we all know, the fantasy hockey season is a marathon, but sometimes a team insists on sprinting. Case in point, the Saginaw Spirit. After capturing the crown in our inaugural 2008-09 ESPN campaign, Tom Lusty's crew churned out a string of decent yet underwhelming seasons. Now, riding the stalwart play of Tuukka Rask and the goalscoring prowess of Joffrey Lupul and Daniel Sedin, the reinvigorated Spirit have already posted TWO 50+ point nights. 

Defending champion Lokomotiv Yukon, on the other hand, is making waves in a different way. Darryl Schnarr's typically robust squad has finished 2nd, 1st and 1st dating back to the 2010-2011 season, but now finds itself struggling to gain momentum. Not to take away from their individual performance, but you know things aren't 100% when Matt Niskanen and Jiri Hudler are the leading scorers on a team that boasts the likes of Malkin, Jamie Benn, Kesler, and Henrik Sedin. Goalies--generally the pillar of Yukon's success, are sputtering in the early going. Ryan Miller is doing work (ranked 2nd in saves despite an 0-4 record). It's Devan Dubnyk that is the real head-scratcher so far, posting negative points in all four of his starts along with a hideous 5.43/.829 peripheral stat line.

Again, it's a long season with plenty of time to turn things around. And if you look back through the annals of league history, you will be reminded that Lokomitv won it's first league championship not as a juggernaut, but as the #7 playoff seed. 

ROOKS ON THE RISE: By now you've hopefully seen the four-goal effort from Tomas Hertl, which is a big part of why the rookie is leading all California Kwijibos skaters in fantasy points. Many had Sean Monahan pegged as one pup that might stay in the NHL beyond nine games mostly out of necessity, but the Mount Vernon greenhorn has at least a point in each of his first five games, including a four game goal-scoring streak. A feel good surprise from the kid that was largely overshadowed by MacKinnon, Drouin, Jones, Barkov, etc. 

PATIENCE PAYING OFF: Pint-sized Nathan Gerbe is finally getting an honest chance to strut his stuff on the main stage. After averaging just 12:30 TOI/G last season, Gerbe is logging over 18 minutes a night for Portland and currently ranks among the Top 10 leaders in shots on goal. After plugging away as a grinder for most of the last four seasons, Justin Abdelkader is getting a golden chance to stick on a line with Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. And after being on the Stuttgart Scorpion's trading block for the better part of the last two seasons,Jack Johnson has more fantasy points through the first two weeks than Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin. Not exactly a bankable trend, but surely a welcome change for GM Josh Deitell. 

EARLY RETURNS: How about that Alex Killorn? Two goals and four assists through his first five games and is currently CSKA Moscow's top scoring left winger. What a solid start for arguably the most surprising pick of the draft (43rd overall, round 3). Also, how did more NHL teams not offer Brad Boyes a one year deal this past summer? The former 43-goal scorer has potted four goals through his first five games with Wolfsburg, tops among all Vipers skaters. 

CANADIAN COMEBACK:My super early and completely unbiased nomination for bounce back of the year goes toSemyon Varlamov of le Canadiens de Montreal. After averaging a paltry 2.2 fantasy points per game last season, Varly is rocking a 4-0 record along with a 1.00/.970 split and a robust 8.4 points per game average. What a MONSTER. Also, Patrick Roy is the greatest coach in league history. See? Totally unbiased. Just sweet, pure, truth. 

Great start to the year, guys! Keep fighting and don't forget to take the longview as we navigate through the coming months. 

2013 Draft Recap (Hockey's Back!)

If you took a moment to collect your thoughts after the draft, you may have missed the start of the season! Thanks to the forthcoming 22nd Winter Olympics in Sochi, the World Hockey League's 7th season kicked off a full week earlier than usual. As for the draft itself, we clocked in at 4 hours 15 minutes (averaging out to less than one minute per pick) which if you ask me is pretty damn good for a jumble of Google Docs, and varying degrees of web connectivity and sobriety levels.

Before delving into a recap of the draft, a few personal remarks are in order. First, as some of you are aware, Joe Dahms of the Altoona Angry Beavers recently underwent successful surgery, and according to the man himself all systems are go for a full, albeit painful recovery. Best of luck, Joe! Meanwhile, the other Joe (Mastrangelo, Boston Beernuts) is now my coworker, and technically, my boss. It's only a matter of time before he issues some kind of "trade me X or you're fired" ultimatum. Also, Tom Lusty (Saginaw) has been providing me with a temporary home while I look for an apartment in Boston. WHL support system for the win! And now, on to a summary of Draft Day 2013:

To the surprise of no one, nine of the first 18 picks were goalies. Also not terribly surprising was last year's MVP, Antti Niemi, going 1st overall to the Brooklyn Cyclones. Mount Vernon wasted zero time filling both of his goalie slots in the early going, taking Jimmy Howard and Tim Thomas 2nd and 13th overall, respectively. Most surprising 1st round pick - Anton Khudobin 15th overall by Mike Greely's Wolfsburg Vipers. Perhaps it was a bit of a reach with guys like Perry, Datsyuk and Kessel still out there, but WLF did nab Chris Kunitz just two picks later.

The Saginaw Spirit scooped up the first rookie--Johnathan Drouin--at the number 19 spot only to learn that the kid had been returned to Juniors earlier that day. It's unfortunate, but in case you haven't noticed, the Spirit don't really need to lean on the budding star right now. Nathan MacKinnon went off the board shortly thereafter to the Beernuts, thus continuing Boston's trend of sniping Avalanche rookies from yours truly. The next 20 picks were all solid skaters that you would expect to go in the 2nd and early 3rd round … until Alex Killorn was  43rd overall to CSKA Moscow. Easily the front runner for biggest reach of the draft, but you never know what injuries might eventually push Killorn into Tampa's top six.

Pick Swaps Revisited:

CK traded 1st round pick to Scorpions (M.A. Fleury)
CK traded 8th round pick (SS) to Scorpions (Marcus Foligno)
CK traded 8th round pikc (SPTA) to Scorpions (Andrew Shaw)

SCOR traded 1st round pick to Kwijibos (Dustin Brown)
SCOR traded 3rd round pick to Kwijibos (Scott Hartnell)
SCOR traded 7th round pick to Kwijibos (Mikkel Boedker)


BOS traded 1st round pick to Beernuts (Corey Perry)
BOS traded 3rd round pick to Beernuts (Michal Neuvirth)
BOS traded 5th round pick to Beernuts (Jamie McGinn)
BOS traded 13th round pick to Beernuts (Erik Gudbranson)

NUTS traded 1st round pick to Ballbusters (Cam Ward)
NUTS traded 6th round pick to Ballbusters (Christian Ehrhoff)
NUTS traded 11th round pick to Ballbusters (Chris Phillips)


SS traded 1st round pick to Cyclones (Antti Niemi)
SS traded 6th round pick to Cyclones (Sergei Gonchar)
SS traded 9th round pick to Cyclones (Lubomir Visnovsky)

BK traded 1st round pick to Spirit (Rick Nash)
BK traded 3rd round pick to Spirit (Cody Franson)
BK traded 5th round pick to Spirit (Mark Streit)


Totally Subjective Value Picks:
Mikael Samuelsson, MVB, 236th overall (Round 14)
Artem Anisimov, TTR, 222nd overall (Round 13)
Elias Lindholm, SCOR, 210th overall (Round 12)
Drew Stafford, CK, 203rd overall (Round 12)
Erik Johnson, PINT, 197th overall (Round 11)
Josh Bailey, BK, 188th overall (Round 11)
Sean Monahan, MVB, 182nd overall (Round 11)
Shawn Matthias, WTF, 171st overall (Round 10)
Boone Jenner, NUTS, 165th overall (Round 10)
Mark Giordano, MTL, 158th overall (Round 9)
Lubomir Visnovsky, BK, 145th overall (Round 9)
Derek Roy, POR, 136th overall (Round 8)
Damien Brunner, SS, 127th overall (Round 8)
Mike Fisher, BOS, 106th overall (Round 6)
Mike Richards, SCOR, 84th overall (Round 5)
Brad Richards, SS, 72nd overall (Round 4)

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Future Watch

With FIVE weeks to go before we (already!) reach the end of the 2013 season, managers are either working the phones to try and make a final push, or exploring what they can do to improve in the future. At the moment, nine teams are seriously competing for prize money. YUKON, PINT, and MTL have occupied the top three spots for most (if not all) of the season, while WPB, SPTA, BOS, AAB, WTF, and SS round out a very interesting and crowded top half of the standings. The bottom half has some nice buns in the oven as well. So, while it's only natural to focus on the home stretch this time of the year, I thought it would be a fun change of pace to take a closer look at future WHL talent being groomed in or "recently" called up from the Junior World Hockey League.

* Known for his competitive and sometimes fiery disposition, [b]Robin Lehner[/b](MTL) has also been a very patient man in the Ottawa system. After three impressive stints with the Sens since 2010, the 21-year-old Swede is doing everything he can to show that he's ready for the bigs (.946 SvP% this year in limited NHL action, .938 in the AHL--best in the league). Craig Anderson is under contract for two more seasons, while Ben Bishop is an RFA, perhaps opening the door for Lehner to take on a full-time 1B role next year.

* Pegged to spend at least part of the season in the JWHL, [b]Jakob Silfverberg[/b] has been fixture on Mount Vernon's roster since being recalled on January 12th. The slick Swede has taken full advantage of increased ice time due to Ottawa's injury woes, and currently leads all NHL rookies in shots on goal. [b]Brandon Saad[/b] began the year in the JWHL for MVB, but was traded to the NJ Wall Flowers in late January. Saad (20) has looked increasingly comfortable skating with Toews and Kane over the past month--picking up all 11 of his assists this season since Feb. 28th.

* AAB: After battling back from a nasty concussion and delivering 31 points in 43 games for the Toronto Marlies this season, [b]Jake Gardiner[/b] is back with the big club. The University of Wisconsin product has drawn comparisons to Scott Niedermeyer for his smooth stride and nose for the net. [b]David Ullstrom[/b] has showcased his versatile game at the AHL level, registering goal-heavy and assist-heavy seasons over the past two years. HF projects Ullstrom as a solid two-way threat with more NHL upside than fellow Islanders RW prospects, Kirill Kabanov and Kirill Petrov, which is very high praise.

* BOS: Will the B's get [b]Carl Soderberg[/b] or won't they? Reports have been floating around for weeks now about the Eliteserien's scoring champion possibly crossing the pond once his team's season is finished and lacing up for his first NHL game since being drafted in 2004. Soderberg's club Linkopings HC recently advanced to the semifinals, meaning that the B's might have to wait at least one more week. Beantown's second JWHLer is another 27-year-old Bruins prospect, and son of the legendary Raymond Bourque--[b]Chris Bourque[/b]. The diminutive winger has been a prolific scorer in the AHL, but has thus far been unable to translate that success to the NHL. Hey, there's always hope for a Matt Moulson-like renaissance.

* NUTS: [b]Jack Campbell[/b] is currently backing up Kari Lehtonen after neither Richard Bachman nor Cris Nilstorp were able to get the job done. "Soupy" made his name with USA Hockey, winning WJC gold medals in 2009 and 2010 before being drafted by the Stars, 11th overall. Campbell initially struggled with his transition to the OHL, but it appears that facing some of the best Junior shooters on a regular basis has paid dividends for his overall development. A 1st round pick of the Washington Capitals in 2010, 20-year-old [b]Evgeny Kuznetsov[/b](NUTS) is already playing in his 4th season for Chelyabinsk Traktor of the KHL. The lanky and talkative forward has steadily increased his output each year, making the Caps hope that next year is finally the year that Kuznetsov brings his wizardry stateside.

* BK: [b]Anton Khudobin[/b] isn't the biggest (5.11) or youngest (26) prospect in the world, but he is battle tested at the ECHL, AHL and KHL levels, and currently has 13 NHL starts under his belt. More importantly, in those games Khudobin is rocking a 1.81 GAA and a .941 SP%. He is a superb backup behind Tuukka Rask with the ability for more, making one wonder if Khudobin will re-sign with Boston, or head elsewhere in search of more playing time.

* CK: Second only to Brandon Saad in the Chicago Blackhawk's pipeline, [b]Teuvo Teravainen[/b] is currently honing his craft with Jokerit Helsinki of the SM-liiga. The blue chip pedigree is clearly there (31 points in 44 GP), it's just a matter of how long Chicago wants the explosive skating 18-year-old to play overseas before crossing the pond. There isn't much to say right now about [b]Jake Allen[/b], except that he has more points than Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott combined. Small sample size aside, this is damn impressive stuff from a prospect that not too long ago was thought to be sliding down the St. Louis goalie depth chart.
* MTL: After scoring 22-62-64-and 56 points in four seasons with the QMJHL's Shawinigan Cataractes, [b]Michael Bournival[/b](MTL) ranks second in total points for the Hamilton Bulldogs in his first pro season. His final season of Junior points is deceiving, because Bournival played in 15 fewer games that year than in the previous year, and actually scored more goals (30 vs. 28).

* CSKA: The Wild's top prospect has All-Star potential, but hasn't been able to dive right into the NHL as so many had predicted. Still, anyone who has seen [b]Mikael Granlund[/b] play isn't worried about his future. The kid has racked up 26 points in 25 AHL games since being sent down to find his pro touch, so yeah, he'll be back. Not surprisingly, Nate Fournier (resident WHL prospect guru) has a second former WJC star in his other J slot. [b]John Gibson[/b] led Team USA to Gold in the most recent tournament, also reeling in best goaltender and overall tournament MVP honors. Gibson will report to the AHL next season following two stellar years with the Kitchener Rangers, and looks on track to compete for an NHL gig sooner rather than later (especially if the Ducks opt not to re-sign Jonas Hiller).

* YUKON: After piling up 241 points in 282 games for the Western Hockey League's Saskatoon Blades, [b]Stefan Elliott[/b] hasn't quite panned out for the Colorado Avs. Labeling Elliott a bust at this point would be premature, but 9 points in 39 AHL games this year isn't what anyone had in mind for the offensively-gifted defenseman. [b]Kevin Poulin[/b] is another promising prospect battling through a lull this season, at least by his standards. After going 26-18-4 with a .912 SP% in 2011-12, Poulin is playing .500 hockey with a SVP% that currently ranks 41st in the AHL (.904). Still, DiPietro's days in the NYI system are numbered, and Nabokov isn't getting any younger. Poulin's time as a full-fledged #1 will come, and he is currently enjoying a cup of NHL coffee.

* Sticking with goalies, the future looks bright between the pipes for the Porter Pirates. [b]Malcolm Subban[/b] (19) is a future stud with undeniable skill, but he's also a long-term project. With relatively young goalies Tuukka Rask and Niklas Svedberg ahead of him in the queue, it's not a guarantee at this point that Boston will end up being Subban's ultimate NHL destination, but the kid will be a gamer wherever he may roam. [b]Jhonas Enroth[/b] is slight of build, but as quick and agile as they come.  One point of concern is Enroth's deteriorating ice time and the effect it might be having on his development. After pumping out 58, 48, and 41-game seasons at the AHL level, Enroth has started just 41 NHL games since 2010. Nothing left to prove in the minors--ready for more.

* The fact that 18-year-old [b]Mikhail Grigorenko[/b](PINT) wasn't able to stick in the NHL for a full (half) season says a lot more about how difficult the transition from Juniors to the NHL can be than it does about this future star's potential. Despite earning just one goal and four assists through 22 NHL games, the experience that Grigorenko gained on the defensive side of things is only going to elevate his performance now and in the future.

* I'm reluctant to say the the NHL's 6th overall pick in 2010 has been flying under the radar, but he kind of has, thanks in part to his boring name. After posting 15 points in 68 NHL games last season with the Tampa Bay Lightning, [b]Brett Connolly[/b] (PINT) currently sits 5th in AHL scoring. We might actually have a competition for the most colorless name among JWHL prospects! As fate would have it, [b]Tyler Johnson[/b](SS) has been Brett Connolly's teammate in Syracuse for most of this season. And like his fellow Crunch, Johnson has scored at nearly a point-per-game clip down on the farm. Points are points, as they say, and both of these kids are legit, yo.

* Unfortunately, things aren't so rosy at the moment for Saginaw's other prospect, [b]Nino Niederreiter[/b]. It's hard to say what's going wrong in Nassau county when it comes to grooming prospects. It's one of those situations that can't possibly be as bad as it's generally portrayed, but it doesn't exactly help NYI's reputation when Nino has reportedly asked for a trade. The big guy absolutely tore it up in Juniors, scoring 77 goals in 120 games for the Portland Winterhawks before managing just ONE goal in 55 games for the Islanders in 2011-12. Niederreiter is sort of doing things in reverse, first by sticking around with the big club for way longer than was appropriate for his development, and now scoring with relative ease in the AHL, which is where he should have started his pro career.

* SCOR: Projected by many to light it up alongside Pavel Datsyuk for most of 2013, the Detroit Red Wings instead decided to give [b]Gustav Nyquist[/b](SCOR) a second season to strut his stuff in Grand Rapids. After accumulating 58 points in 56 AHL games last year, Nyquist currently leads the AHL in scoring. Even though the former UMaine Black Bear could hold his own in Detroit right now, it has long been the Red Wing philosophy to not rush prospects. [b]Morgan Rielly[/b] has the look of a future power-play QB for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but like most young offensively-minded defensmen, Rielly's top priority needs to be improving his defensive game. With Phaneuf, Gardiner, and the reemergence of Cody Franson in Toronto, there should be an intense battle for ice time (especially PP time) in September.

* TTR: Judged to be the best defenseman of the 2013 World Junior Tournament, [b]Jacob Trouba[/b] is a big, two-way technician with a smooth stride and a heavy shot. Trouba's 27 points in 35 GP for the University of Michigan is good for 5th on the team and a clear 1st among Wolverine defenders. Not bad for the freshman who was drafted 9th overall by the Winnipeg Jets in 2012. [b]Stefan Matteau[/b], 19, surprised a lot of people by logging 17 games with the New Jersey Devils this season after completing two years with the U.S. National Development Team. Hockey's Future projects Matteau (who was recently assigned to the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada of the QMJHL) as a complementary second liner with the tenacity to log checking line minutes when called upon.

* WLF: The first-year Vipers are overflowing with young players, all vying to stick with the team for next season. At the heart of Wolfsburg's budding crop (not counting established NHL rooks Nazem Kadri and Nail Yakupov) is arguably the top prospect in U.S. College Hockey, [b]Nick Bjugstad[/b]. The Minnesota native is currently in his Junior season with the Golden Gophers, leading the team with 21 goals. To give you an indea of how much the Florida Panthers value their 6'6'', 220 pound centerman, Dave Tallon was reportedly unwilling to trade Bjugstad for Roberto Luongo last summer. Joining the giant gopher in the JWHL is [b]Matthew Hackett[/b] of the Minnesota Wild. Matt is the nephew of long-time NHL goalie Jeff Hackett, and is currently getting his reps with the Houston Aeros of the AHL. With Niklas Backstrom's (35, UFA) time in Minnesota perhaps nearing an end and Josh Harding's battle with MS clouding his future as a professional athlete, Hackett's chance to fulfill his potential as a starting NHL goalie (or at least a 1B) could be drawing near.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Silver and Gold

Every champion in WHL history has shared one unifying hallmark: world-class goaltending. Evgeni Nabokov and Niklas Backstrom shut the door for Saginaw in 2009, Ryan Miller/Nabokov and Miller/Lundqvist guarded the Spartan keep in 2010 and 2011, and most recently, Miller and Jonas Hiller led a miraculous playoff run for Lokomotiv Yukon in 2012.

As of February 26th, Kari Lehtonen, Corey Crawford, and Ray Emery boast a combined W/L/OTL record of 23-2-4 for the current top dog Portland Pints, while Yukon has been relying on a four-headed monster comprised of Jonas Hiller, Devan Dubnyk, Ben Scrivens, and the well-seasoned Ryan Miller, who has played a prominent role on each of the last three WHL championship teams.

"Ryan Miller is the most proven goalie on Yukon, but [the Sabres have] struggled mightily," said Yukon GM Darryl Schnarr.  With a personal record of only 6-10, Miller still averages 2.7 FPPG."

"I've been a Dubnyk believer since watching him live in Kamloops, and the current NHL seems to value size of goalies more than ever," continued Schnarr. "Dubynk and Scrivens are both big, athletic goalies, and Hiller is a world class talent. He'll come around."

The fact that the current top two squads have accrued more fantasy points from goalies than any other teams is about as surprising as another Star Wars movie being made. However, a closer look at the Pints and Yukon rosters reveals that while goalies are essential for fantasy success, the strength of a cup contender extends beyond the crease.

"Kari is our rock, no doubt, and we don't want to be without him for an extended period of time," said Portland GM Colin Smith. "But I do think we've shown in his recent absence that the Pints don't rely on any one player. No one is bigger than the team."

The second tier of a cup caliber ensemble is the oft-overlooked defensive corps. When they're not racking up hits and blocks in their own zone, the best fantasy defensemen are creating offense with crisp outlet passes and gutsy pinch plays. And with two more roster spots to use on D than for any other skater position, it makes one wonder why some owners don't give blueliners the same attention as forwards.

Smith is not one of those owners.

"The Pints have always believed very strongly that you build from the back end. We prize two-way defensemen who may not be flashy, but bring a toughness that's been the hallmark of successful Pint teams," said Smith. "We think that in Hedman, Faulk and Hamonic we have the makings of a solid core for several years."

Victor Hedman in particular is making some serious hay as the third most productive skater in Pintville. The 2nd overall pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft is currently out-pacing proven fantasy assets, Joe Pavelski, Dustin Brown, and Mike Fisher.

"Hedman's obviously taken strides forward, but we've known all along he was capable of this and saw glimpses of it last year. He can be such a force when he crashes the net."

While Lokomotiv's blueline isn't quite as formidable as Portland's, Darryl Schnarr remains committed to improving in his own end.

"We continue to have inconsistencies on the blue line for sure," said Schnarr. "I focused on the goal as well as on forwards with both my keepers and during the draft. Case in point, trading Seabrook for Dubnyk. That being said, I have made due.  A healthy Letang helps out immensly, and a guy like Grossman adds a tonne of grit. I have inquired about trading for a higher-end defensman, but that has been fruitless so far."

The third and final key to fantasy prowess is an obvious one, and sweet Buekeboom do both teams have it in spades. Any cup contender is going to score lots of goals, but to dance a more specific jig, these teams will generally be led by a clear one-two punch up front that is complemented by a steady wave of secondary scoring.

This is where Portland and Yukon stack up particularly well. Sidney Crosby and Ilya Kovalchuk lead a crew of Pints forwards and d-men that is currently producing the 3rd most fantasy points from skaters. Just a click behind Portland's pace, Lokomotive is churning out the 5th most fantasy points from skaters, thanks in large part to Evgeni Malkin and Zach Parise.

With Malkin dealing with a recent concussion, Schnarr will need heart-and-soul players like Pascal Dupuis and recent returnee Ryan Kesler to carry the "O" while the star forward recovers.

"Having a healthy Kesler is like adding a roster spot," said Schnarr. "He's personally one of my favorite players in the league and a stud in a league format like ours. I'm also pleased with Dupuis and hopeful that Viktor Stalberg sees an increased role soon in Chicago."

The battle for the 2013 crown is far from over, with teams like Montreal and Altoona (among others) still very much alive. One thing is for certain though. Whoever emerges from the fracas on April 28th will have found their gold in more than one place.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Great To Be Back


We made it guys! Our pride and joy is finally back. Here's a look at each combatant as we dive into this three-month Battle Royale!

Altoona Angry Beavers 
Joe Dahms returns with high hopes for an improved sophomore season. Rinne, Ryan, P.Kane, Phaneuf, and Skinner are the known quantities in Altoona, however, rebound performances from Bryzgalov and Duchene would be critical in taking "Beaver Fever" to the next level. Another key for success will be the continued ascension of 23-year-old Lars Eller. Dahms was incredibly active on the trade market last year, but time will tell if wheeling and dealing was a means to an end, or an ongoing strategy.

Beantown Ball Busters
Since finishing 3rd in 2008-09, Nate Asdourian's Ball Busters have dipped in each successive season. This year, Beantown looks to leverage a strong draft and a robust nucleus of talent into a return to the upper echelon. Getzlaf and Perry remain one of the NHL's most prolific duos, and Lucic and Ott will provide a valuable mix of goals n' grit. Asdourian's season could swing on two things: whether or not Jimmy Howard can thrive in a post-Lidstrom world, and whether or not Braden Holtby has truly arrived.

Boston Beernuts
Like his Beantown rival, the Beernuts are entering their 5th WHL campaign. Joe Mastrangelo made an ultra-aggressive run last year, but fell just short in the Final against Lokomotiv Yukon. This year appears to be mostly about regrouping for the future, unless Joe gets bored and decides to get trade happy again. DiPietro and Mason in net leave much to be desired (as in, a goalie), but Boston is overflowing with young talent. Pietrangelo, Schenn, Smith and Hamilton will patrol the blue line this season, while blue chippers Filip Forsberg, Ryan Strome and others wait in the wings.

Brooklyn Cyclones
Mike Zecca's gang has been an important part of the WHL since the beginning. In fact, MVB, WTF, WPB, and TTR would not be in the league today if Mike hadn't decided to wander into our quirky club back in 2007. On the ice, Brooklyn has averaged a 13th place finish since nabbing 3rd in our inaugural season, but the future is looking brighter. Tavares, Ryan O'Reilly (when he returns), Goligoski, and Fowler remain at the core, joined by a strong supporting cast that includes Weiss, Ribeiro, Michalek, and Jeff Carter. Brooklyn appears to have it's goalie of the future in Anders Lindback, with old schoolers Brodeur and Nabokov as insurance.

California Kwijibos
This will be season number 4 for Paul Zeman and the Kwijibos, who figure to once again challenge for the crown. Miikka Kiprusoff returns for a fourth consecutive season and Jaroslav Halak for his third, continuing California's tradition of elite goaltending. As for skaters, each baby Kwijibo seems to have a veteran counterpart. Tarasenko-Cole. Hanzal-Lecavalier. Nikitin-Markov. Speaking of Tarasenko....what a debut effort from the rook. Two (beautiful) goals, five shots, and a hit!

Canadiens de Montreal
Tyler Ladd's Montreal franchise (Maine Habs, Montreal 100's, now the fully Frenchified "Canadiens de Montreal") has averaged a 10th place finish since 2007, but now looks ready to rise to the top half of the league where they belong. This "Original Six" team has all the makings of a winning WHL formula: elite snipers (Neal, D.Sedin), consistent supporting cast (Elias, Stastny, Erat, Stafford, Streit), budding youngsters (Carlson, Anisimov, S.Kostitsyn), solid goaltending (Anderson, Varlmaov), and to top it off, buckets of cap space for the future. Patience should pay off soon for Ladd. Ole!

CSKA Moscow
Another Original Six team on the rise. Moscow placed in the top 5 in each of its first three seasons before going into rebuild mode in 2010. After two years in the basement, Nathan Fournier appears ready to rebound. Datsyuk-Couture-RNH is easily one of the top center trios in the league, and Karlsson, Suter, and AHL sensation Justin Schultz anchor the back end. Add Pavelec, Brian Elliott and top Finnish prospect Mikael Granlund to the mix, and it's plain to see that Fournier has much to be excited about.

Lokomotiv Yukon
With Malkin, Parise, Letang, Miller and Hiller all returning, there is little reason to suspect a regression from the defending champs. Entering his 4th season, Darryl Schnarr did well to surround his foundation via draft and trade with the likes of Dennis Seidenberg, Viktor Stalberg, Jarome Iginla, and Devan Dubnyk. As if that isn't enough firepower, Peter Mueller and Joni Pitkanen look poised to chip in that extra production which so often gives great teams that X-factor.

Mount Vernon Blades
There probably isn't a team that is hungrier for redemption than Chet Merola's Mount Vernon Blades. The #1 seed heading into last season's playoffs, Merola endured a particularly untimely injury to his starting goalie at the time (Lundqvist), and went on to lose to the #8 seed Beernuts. MVB certainly has the goods to make another run this season. Fleury and Theodore take over in net, and Backes, Callahan, and newcomer Marty St. Louis will pace the attack. Merola also has some intriguing youngsters on board, most notably Chris Kreider and Ryan Ellis.

NJ Wall Flowers
Mario Zecca's Wall Flowers have struggled since entering the league in 2009, but Zecca has also steadily built up a respectable collection of players. A realistic chance is there for Jersey to best their club-record 10th place finish (09-10). For that to happen though, Zecca will need Sergei Bobrovsky and JVR to exceed expectations, in addition to nothing less than elite production from Claude Giroux, Zdeno Chara, and Keith Yandle.

Porter Pirates
Newcomer Bill Fyler takes over for the former Rhode Island Redcoats franchise which couldn't finish higher than 11th over the past three seasons. Fyler has his work cut out for him to fully right the ship, but a group of defenseman that includes keeper gold like Tyler Myers, Michael Del Zotto, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Tobias Enstrom, and Ryan McDonagh is one hell of a start. Niklas Backstrom should be serviceable in net, and Eric Staal, Spezza, Vanek, Vrbata and Ennis are expected to drive the lion's share of Porter's offense.

Portland Pints
The Pints have been on Lord Stanley's doorstep in each of the last five seasons. Colin Smith's crew has finished as high as 2nd (2009-10) and never lower than 8th. This year, Smith is gunning for 1st, and it's hard to bet against any team with a healthy Sidney Crosby at its heart. Sid will be backed up by an impressive bouquet of talent on the wings that includes Kovalchuk, Eriksson, Brown, and Pavelski, and a band of brawny defenders anchored by Wisniewski, Giordano, Hedman and Hamonic. Oh, and Kari Lehtonen is in net. Not bad.

Saginaw Spirit
Tom Lusty and the Spirit have been on a roller coaster ride since winning it all in 2009, finishing 11th, 4th, and 12th in subsequent years. If that pattern is to continue, then it's time for an upward swing! The most compelling reason to believe in a Saginaw resurgence is in goal, where Cam Ward, Tuukka Rask, and Roberto Luongo will handle puck stopping duties. One of Lusty's calling cards has always seemed to be choosing a full slate of good-to-very good players in lieu of a small number of "stars." This year is no different, with Bergeron, Stepan, Steen, Lupul, Semin, Stewart, Clutterbuck, Shattenkirk, and Byfuglien all set to do their part.

Stuttgart Scorpions
Unlike other teams that have faltered a bit since beginning their WHL careers on a promising note, Josh Deitell's Stuttgart Scorpions posted a franchise-best 6th place finish last season after spending two years in the teens. A modest regression may be in the cards as Stuttgart continues to stockpile young talent and position itself for a cup run in the near future, but the skill is there to surprise. Veterans Rick Nash and Mike Richards join a promising nucleus that already boasts Seguin, Hall, Wilson, and Doughty.

Tayutic Team Rasta
Rich Abbondante's team looks much improved on paper compared to his debut ensemble in 2012. With Antti Niemi in net, Shea Weber on the point, and Marian Gaborik, Jonathan Toews, Brad Richards, and Patrick Marleau up front, a top 10 finish looks doable for TTR. The key for Rasta will be whether or not Olli Jokinen, Derek Roy, and Ray Whitney can capitalize on their new NHL surroundings and provide a crucial second wave of fantasy output.

West Palm Beach Rangers
After locking up key players Max Pacioretty and Alex Edler last season, and claiming the 1st overall pick in the 2012 draft, Bob Guarascio has put together a solid team for 2013. It's no secret what Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa and Henrik Sedin can do, but Carl Hagelin and Teddy Purcell look ready to turn some heads. There are obviously worse problems to have, but I still don't envy Bob for having to pick one of Lundqvist, Smith or Price to sit when all three starters are rolling.

Wolfsburg Vipers
Mike Greeley, the other new kid on the block for 2013, begins his tenure as a WHL GM with no pressure, and plenty to look forward to. Alex Ovechkin, Scott Hartnell, David Krejci and Mike Green can produce now, but it remains unclear which of them (if any) will fit into Wolfsburg's long-term plans. One guy who likely won't be going anywhere: rookie sensation Nail Yakupov.