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. 

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