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.