Sunday, March 30, 2014



BOSTON, MA--Mid way through the World Hockey League semifinals, the list of Championship hopefuls has been whittled down to the two New England-based Commissioners and the two GM's living in California. Josh Deitell's Stuttgart Scorpions are hanging tight as they seek a second consecutive upset, while Sparta's high powered offense looks to stay hot against the hungry and more balanced Portland Pints. Following their Round 1 victories in the consolation bracket, Mount Vernon and Brooklyn have advanced to play top-seeded West Palm and second-seeded Altoona, respectively, while the six most-improved teams in 2014 have entered the fray after a week 1 Bye. 

Early Exit for Saginaw: Led by the hot hands of Gustav Nyquist and staunch goaltending from Jonathan Quick, the Stuttgart Scorpions piled up 62.4 points last weekend en route to a massive quarterfinal upset over the #2 ranked Saginaw Spirit. Josh Deitell's dark horse crew outscored the favored seed in goals and assists and kept it razor close in all other categories. The Spirit, meanwhile, struggled to find its legs despite being a regular season juggernaut. Perhaps most frustrating for Saginaw faithful was a pair of miscalculated goalie starts (or non-starts, rather) from veteran GM Tom Lusty, which led to a combined 17.6 points being left on the bench from stalwarts Roberto Luongo and Tuukka Rask. A truly disappointing and surprising fate for a team that owns half of the season's top ten daily points records. 

Commissioners March On: No team's goalies made fewer saves in the quarterfinals than those between the pipes for Sparta Praha. Unfortunately for Beantown fans who were pining for some genuine ball busting, Nate Asdourian was unable to take advantage of the sparsely populated Spartan crease, registering a first round low-100 shots on net through the first week of postseason play. To put that into context, the top 8 playoff teams averaged 143 shots on goal in Round 1. 

It didn't quite come down to the home ice advantage bonus, but Portland's quarterfinal series with the Boston Beernuts was incredibly tight. Colin Smith's Pints tied Wolfsburg for most goalie wins in the opening round and was dominant in the faceoff circle--a hallmark of the Pints franchise. Similar to the regular season, Joe Mastrangelo's Nuts were paced by Alex Ovechkin, Corey Perry and Steve Mason, but were ultimately done in by an uncharacteristically porous outing from Viktor Fasth. The Beernuts now turn their attention to locking up core pieces such as Boone Jenner and Evgeny Kuznetsov. 

Consolation Needed in Moscow:Timely offense from leading scorer Wayne Simmonds and a 14-point shutout from Evgeny Nabokov proved to be too much for injury-depleted CSKA Moscow, as Mike Zecca's Brooklyn Cylones emerged from its first round skirmish with a mere 0.8 point margin of victory. Erik Karlsson remained awesome and Mathieu Perreault stepped up for Nate Fournier's hard luck club, which was without starting goalie Ondrej Pavelec as well as Cam Fowler and Jonathan Huberdeau for the entire first round. In other consolation quarterfinal action, Chet Merola's Mount Vernon Blades came alive on the backs of newly-acquired Rick Nash and Derek Stepan and dispatched the significantly favored New Jersey Wall Flowers. Mario Zecca's Flowers outshot the Blades 124-101, but this one boiled down to goaltenders. 317 saves were made during the WTF-MVB series, second only to 352 saves between California and Wolfsburg. 

Vipers Show Bite in Loss: Before our playoffs began, this series had all the makings of a first round slaughter, but the result was anything but. If you discount the home ice advantage bonuses, Mike Greeley's Vipers amassed more points during the quarterfinals (137.7) than any other playoff or consolation team, except, of course, the damn Kwijibos. What's a team to do when their PED-laden opposition racks up a whopping 165 points? No other team has cracked 160 puntos in a week this season, and the truly scary part is that wasn't even California's best outing. During the final week of our regular season, the Kwijibos pumped out a staggering 178 points, which unofficially has to be a league record. Short of Jonathan Bernier being healthy and weaving a few miracles, there really isn't much more that Wolfsburg could have done in this one. Deadline acquisitions Joe Thornton and Dustin Brown performed as advertised, and Vanek was Vanek, but in the end, admirable gave way to indomitable. 

Semifinals Underway: There's certainly a lot to love about this west coast affair between top-ranked California and seventh-seeded Stuttgart. Carey Price and Jaro Halak vs. Jon Quick and Marc-Andre Fleury is a marquee goalie matchup at no mistake. On the skater front, Andrew Ladd continues to be the straw in the Kwijibo cocktail, followed closely by two red hot contributors that you might not expect given the bevy of talent on this Cup-favorite roster--Scott Hartnell and Radko Gudas. 

For Stuttgart, Gustav Nyquist has been dynamite in the postseason with six goals in Round 1, and two thus far in the Semis. The former UMO Black Bear leads all skaters in fantasy points over the past seven days and, at this pace, will easily perform beyond the pay grade of his new two-year, $25 contract. After California's 181.84-point outburst last week and a seasons worth of good fortune, the sharp sting of karma may be in the cards. Meanwhile, in the Commissioner's brawl, Colin Smith's Portland Pints entered the semifinals with hearts ablaze and lingering memories of their quarterfinals loss to the Spartans in 2012. This matchup of perennial contenders is sure to entertain and figures to be a nail-biter to the bitter end. 

Game on! 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014



BOSTON, MA--At long last, World Hockey League playoffs have arrived! For just the second time in seven years, WHL managers will duke it out head-to-head style for cash prizes, draft positioning, and summertime bragging rights. Before delving into match-up previews, lets recap how the next month will go down. First, the money. The total pot is 900 bucks, with $300 going to the playoff champion, $200 to playoff runner-up, $200 to the total points winner, $100 to the 3rd place finisher, and $100 to the last team standing in the consolation bracket. That's right--the consol winner gets a nice, crisp c-note in addition to the first overall pick in September, so keep fighting till the bitter end, Kingslayer! 

As for the playoffs themselves, all 18 teams will compete across two different brackets for the duration of the NHL regular season. The top eight seeds in the overall standings are fighting for their right to party with Lord Stanley, while the remaining ten clubs were seeded into the consolation bracket by percentage of improvement in 2014. Both ladders incorporate three rounds of play, and draft order for next year will be determined by playoff performance (consolation winner drafts first, Champion drafts last, runner-up second-to-last, etc., with M.I. standings settling all tiebreaker scenarios). Alright, if you need more foreplay, you know where the rule book is. On to the match-ups! 

(1) California Kwijibos vs. (8) Wolfsburg Vipers 
Weekly Average (season): 131.49 (CK) - 114.37 (WLF) 
Last Week: 178.7 (CK) - 131.3 (WLF) 

Talk about the rich getting richer. Not only have the Kwijibos loaded up on elite rental players for the stretch run, but Carey Price is back in action and Jaroslav Halak looks to have pried away the starting job in Washington just in time for the postseason. With so many high profile skaters to keep track of, it's easy to miss that Andrew Ladd quietly led all Kwijibo skaters in regular season fantasy points. Value McStudMuffin. While things couldn't look rosier on paper for the top seed, Mike Greeley's Wolfsburg Vipers open the playoffs with untimely injuries to their top goalie, Jonathan Bernier, and top skater, Chris Kunitz. Until those players are healthy enough to return, the upstart Vipers will rely heavily on David Krejci and Jimmy Howard, as well as newcomers Joe Thornton, Dustin Brown, and Mark Giordano. Gio in particular has been on fire over the last ten games--among skaters, only Jamie Benn has had more fantasy points over that span. This one has the potential to get ugly, but the bottom seed always has a puncher's chance. 

(2) Saginaw Spirit vs. (7) Stuttgart Scorpions 
Weekly Average (season): 127.74 (SS) - 114.54 (SCOR) 
Last Week: 152.2 (SS) - 100.4 (SCOR) 

Perhaps the scariest thing about Saginaw heading into the second season is that no one player has been driving the boat. To be sure, Tuukka Rask and Patrice Bergeron have been the rudder and sail of the U.S.S. Spirit all season long, but Tom Lusty's crew has been firing on all cylinders. Bergy, Backes, Kopitar, Steen, etc. are known quantities, but a real difference maker could be the relatively unheralded Anders Lee--scooped off of waivers on March 5th and has quietly tallied 14 fantasy points over the final five games of the WHL regular season. Meeting the Spirit head-on is Josh Deitell and the Stuttgart Scorpions, a.k.a. Jonathan Quick, Marc-Andre Fleury, and the children of the corn. Tyler Seguin ended our regular season with twice as many shots as any of his teammates--a team that includes fellow studs Nathan MacKinnon, Taylor Hall, Valeri Nichuskin, and Gustav Nyquist. The kids have nothing to lose against a juggernaut foe--a classic first round scenario. 

(3) Sparta Praha vs. (6) Beantown Ball Busters 
Weekly Average (season): 127.65 (SPTA) - 115.49 (BOS) 
Last Week: 129.2 (SPTA) - 120 (BOS) 

For two glorious seasons near the turn of the century, Nate Asdourian and I played goal for the same high school team. Years later, we find ourselves on opposite sides of the puck in the WHL quarterfinals. Everyone knows it's all about timing in fantasy playoffs, and without a clear workhouse goalie at the moment, Sparta will continue to count on Gabe Landeskog, Evander Kane, P.K. Subban, and Zach Parise to carry the mail. The "dark horse" for the Spartans will be Steven Stamkos, who is mere weeks returned from a broken right shin and looking like he won't be 100% until next season. Nathan Asdourian's Beantown Ball Busters, on the other hand, have to like their chances with the current league MVP, Ben Bishop, in net, and man beasts like Ryan Getzlaf and Milan Lucic rolling at a torrid pace. Two lower profile players to keep an eye on in this series: Tommy Wingels and Carl Soderberg. Wingels still isn't a household name despite averaging 2.0 points per night all season long (albeit with Saginaw until recently). Soderberg had a slower start in 2013, but has turned it on recently with a 2.0 average of his own over the last ten contests. 

(4) Portland Pints vs. (5) Boston Beernuts 
Weekly Average (season): 124.27 (PINT) - 119.60 (NUTS) 
Last Week: 140 (PINT) - 126.9 (NUTS) 

When his #1 goalie doesn't play at all the week before the playoffs, it might seem strange to claim that the stars are aligning for Colin Smith's Portland Pints. And yet, they totally are. Signs are pointing to an imminent return for Kari Lehtonen, Claude Giroux has averaged over 4(!) points per game over the last 15 days, and Sergei Bobrovsky has only allowed five goals in his last four starts. On top of that, Erik Johnson, Scottie Upshall and Mikael Granlund have been pulling their weight (and then some) for what seems like most of 2014. Also, Sidney Crosby. Things are looking promising in P-town, but Smith--a perennial contender still searching for his first championship, will no doubt remain tight-lipped and cautiously optimistic until the final buzzer sounds. Meanwhile, the Beernuts enter the Cup Crusade riding a massive surge from Steven Mason, Joe Pavelski, and half man-half Yeti, Brent Burns. Joe Mastrangelo's Nuts will have their hands full, but an optimist would say that the likes of Bobby Ryan, Phil Kessel, and Nathan Horton have been suspiciously quiet lately. Just sayin'. 

Top pick up for grabs: While West Palm, Altoona, Porter, Tatutic, Montreal, and last year's champion Lokomotiv Yukon have earned a one week respite in the opening round of the consolation playoffs, the four remaining seeds have no time to rest. The 7th-ranked NJ Wall Flowers have a clear advantage over a struggling Mount Vernon Blades team that hasn't cleared 100 points in a week since mid January. It's no secret that manager Chet Merola has been fully committed to building for the futre, evidenced by selling off his major assets for uber-prospects Tomas Hertl and Vladimir Tarasenko, both of whom are injured as of this writing. While taking one on the chin may be a foregone conclusion, the bright spot for the Blades has been Merola's ability to sign promising players to attractive deals for next year and beyond. 

Speaking of young players with bright futures, NJ's Sean Couturier looks to be finally coming out of his shell after many months of patience from owner Mario Zecca. Corey Crawford, Ben Scrivens, and James Reimer offer a range of options in net, and they will need to be the backbone of Zecca's team as they pursue the 1st overall pick. In the other consolation quarterfinal, #8 CSKA Moscow takes on the 9th-ranked Brooklyn Cyclones in a dust up between two of the WHL's Original Six. Moscow's James Neal might not be out for the season after all, which would lend a much-needed boost with starter Ondrej Pavelec nursing a LBI, and Erik Karlsson trying to carry the entire Red Army on his back. Mike Zecca's Cyclones have been dormant for much of the season, yet they continue to roll out an intriguing lineup with pieces like Ryan O'Reilly, Kyle Okposo, Kyle Turris, and of course, Antti Niemi, who is capable of stealing a consolation round on his own at any given time. 

Deadline Shopping Spree: No doubt inspired by the abundance of trades leading up to the NHL trade deadline, the World Hockey League saw its fair share of bag-packing leading up to its own trade deadline last week. 10 teams got in on the action, shipping out 37 players across 11 deals, and like any good deadline, there was a solid mix of steals, puzzlers, and at least one rage-inducing bombshell. 

Turns out that even the most formidable armies can always use more soldiers. As if acquiring Martin St. Louis, Dustin Byfuglien, and Blake Wheeler back in December wasn't enough, GM Paul Zeman worked some more magic by reeling in Johan Franzen, Jarome Iginla, Zdeno Chara, and Brendan Gallagher at the deadline. All due respect to Mika Zibanejad, Lars Eller and Zach Bogosian, but how Zeman has assembled this All-Star lineup without losing any draft picks is maddeningly impressive. Nate Asdourian's Beantown Ball Busters was another active participant in the shake up dance, parting with key pieces Jonathan Huberdeau, Alex Chiasson and Anze Kopitar in exchange for the enigmatic yet potential-laden Jacob Markstrom, as well as attractive keeper options such as Pavel Datsyuk and Tommy Wingels. We have a youth movement to report in the streets of Montreal. in addition to the previously mentioned Chiasson, Ty Ladd worked the phones like seasoned pro, landing prime keepers Mark Scheifele, Craig Smith, and Alex Galchenyuk. 

As for specific trades, there were so many interesting ones, but one in particular that caught my eye was Wolfsburg dealing Nick Bjugstad and Tim Thomas to Moscow for Joe Thornton and Dustin Brown. I like this trade for many reasons--Mike Greeley sensed a need for a short-term boost heading into a quarterfinals matchup against the Cup Favorite, while Nate Fournier shrewdly acquired a younger version of Thornton in Bjugstad, and a veteran starter in Thomas to give his team some depth in a key position and possibly an edge in the consolation ranks if Lehtonen experiences any complications. Another high-value deal for both parties involved was Saginaw's acquisition of Marian Hossa, Jakob Silfverberg, and Justin Abdelkader from Mount Vernon for Derek Stepan and Rick Nash. Merola netted Nash and Stepan at very reasonable prices for next season, especially Nash, whom most would agree is due for a bounce-back in 2014-15. For Saginaw, Hossa provides obvious short-term value if he can stay healthy over the final month, but the real boon of this trade for the Spirit was freeing up cap space to sign Jordan Schwartz. Game on, good luck, and don't forget to tie down those jerseys. 

Monday, March 17, 2014



BOSTON, MA—With Olympic hockey in the books and both the trade deadline and fantasy playoffs rapidly approaching, precious time is ticking away as WHL managers finalize their rosters for the stretch run. The deadline for in-season wheeling and dealing arrives at Noon (Eastern Time) on Wednesday, March 12th--a full week after the NHL trading deadline. Just five days later on Monday, March 17th, the puck will drop for fantasy quarterfinals and the opening round of consolation fisticuffs. The WHL postseason, which will be just the second tournament in the league's seven-year history, will encapsulate the final four weeks of NHL regular season games and 209 total games. 

Broken down by NHL team, 8 teams will play 15 games (BOS, DET, MIN, OTT, PHI, PIT, STL, TBL), 13 teams will play 14 games (ANA, BUF, CAR, CBJ, CGY, CHI, COL, DAL, FLA, LAK, NJD, NSH, PHX), another 8 clubs will throw down 13 times (EDM, MTL, NYI, NYR, SJS, TOR, WPG, WSH), and VAN will see the least action during our playoffs, with 12 games. 

Olympic Review: 122 WHL players represented their country in the XXII Winter Olympic Games. Tayutic Team Rasta and the Saginaw Spirit sent the most athletes at 13 apiece, however, looking at the top 100 point scorers and goalies with at least 1 game started-- les Canadiens de Montreal and Tayutic Team Rasta each contributed a league-high seven skaters along with one tender. From a total points perspective, Saginaw skaters edged Montreal with a whopping 25 points from six skaters (compared to Montreal's 24 points from seven)--including a pleasantly surprising 3 goals and 2 assists from Finnish youngling, Olli Maatta. Meanwhile, looking at average points per participant, it was a three-way draw between Portland, Moscow and the Boston Beernuts, all racking up 14 points from 3 skaters, or 4.7 points per shooter. 

Beernuts winger Phil Kessel and Moscow defender Erik Karlsson were deservedly selected by the IIHF as best at their respective positions, along with a more ceremonious selection of Tayutic's Teemu Selanne as the tournament's Most Valuable Player. If one were inclined to select an Olympic MVP based purely on on-ice performance, that process would likely start and end with California Kwijibos guardian Carey Price. Even with the full brunt of Hockey Canada in front of him, Price maintained a microscopic 0.59 GAA and .972 save percentage through five starts en route to a gold medal finish. West Palm's Henrik Lundqivst also had himself a stellar tournament, logging the most starts (6) along with a kingly 1.50/.943 peripheral split and a silver medal. Stuttgart Scorpions rookie Valeri Nichushkin was the youngest Men's hockey player at the Olympics, edging Porter Pirates rookie Aleksander Barkov by six months. Best player name from Sochi? Why, that would be Austria's Thomas Hundertpfund. 

Most Improved Race Update: Two months into 2014, Mike Greeley’s Wolfsburg Vipers find themselves in an interesting position--simultaneously atop the most improved standings and in the 8th and final playoff seed. Without a 2014 1st round pick to attempt to transform into the first overall selection come September, it seems as though Wolfsburg intends to take a run at the big money. Meanwhile, Bob Guarascio’s West Palm Beach Rangers, the current top two seeds--California and Sparta, and Rich Abbondante's Team Rasta round out the Top 5 most-improved clubs in the new year. At the other end of the spectrum, Chet Merola's Blades of Mount Vernon have understandably struggled to improve since Jan. 1 after unloading impact players Thomas Vanek, Matt Moulson and Jimmy Howard in late December, followed swiftly by Dustin Byfuglien, Marty St. Louis and Blake Wheeler on January 10th. 

Youngbloods: By now everyone knows Stuttgart’s Nathan MacKinnon as the undisputed front-runner for the Calder trophy. The wunderkind is currently leading all rookie skaters in goals, assists, and has about 40 more shots on goal than the next guy in line. What's more, as much as Patrick Roy loves his golden child, Mack Attack is averaging roughly 16 minutes of ice time, which ranks just 6th among newbie forwards. The two rookie forwards leading in TOI/g, Tyler Johnson (WPB) and Ondrej Palat (TTR) are putting together impressive seasons in their own right—both play for Tampa Bay in real life and currently sit 2nd and 3rd, respectively, in total points among first year skaters. Nipping at their collective heels are Wolfsburg skaters Mark Scheifele and Torey Krug, and Mount Vernon’s Chris Kreider. Total points are the obvious measure, but if you look at which rookies are ripping the most shots on net--after MacKinnon, of course, Nick Bjugstad (WLF), Alex Chiasson (BOS), and Sean Monahan (MVB) begin to creep their way into the outer limits of the R.O.Y bubble. 

Night Vision Googles: Introducing the latest release from Colin’s laboratory—the Guesstimator. Available in its own tab in the Keeper Cost Doc, this tool is designed to help managers estimate what a player will cost at the end of the season. While total accuracy cannot be guaranteed, it can be a handy supplement to your own intuition and research, especially if you find yourself torn over whether to sign a player in-season or during the summer. 

RFA Auction: Starting one week following fantasy playoffs, the WHL will hold its first Restricted Free Agent auction. For our purposes, an RFA is any player that entered this season on a contract, but is not yet signed for next year (full list available in its own tab in the keeper cost doc). So, how exactly will this auction work and how long will it last? Answer(s)--it will run for a full week from Sunday, April 20th through Sunday, April 27th, during which all contract signing will be frozen. Owners will have the opportunity to submit a max of two RFA offer sheets, which will essentially be blind bids for a one-year contract (one of these bids may be conditional on NOT receiving the other player). The minimum opening bid will be the player's final keeper cost, and however much a bid exceeds the Y1 keeper cost may be used to extend an RFA deal to two or three years. For example, if a player would cost $18/22/25 and you bid $21, your multi-year options would be $21/24/27 (+$3 for each year). All successful bids will be binding and will be announced at the end of the week. Also, in true RFA fashion, original owners will have the chance to match the highest bid on any of their RFA's. 

A final thought about auctions in general--you may recall a league survey last summer, in which owners voted heavily in favor of moving to a dynasty format. For the record, this has been my hope for many years, but it made sense to Colin and me to gradually move the league in that direction. Part of this transition--which may go into effect as soon as next season--will be shifting from a full draft to a smaller rookie draft and, you guessed it, an auction! So, while participation in the RFA auction will be optional, it would be a solid plan to at least check it out. 

Game on and good hunting.