Sunday, November 22, 2015



After nearly two months of evaluating players and acclimating to our new digs, the World Hockey League's 9th season is taking shape. Some early growing pains are subsiding, while others only seem to grow stronger. And yet, as wild as the undulations have been, most of the WHL's 18 clubs remain very much alive. As of this writing, 8th place is roughly 120 points out of of 1st---a sizable chunk to be sure---but things look much closer when considering that 3rd and 8th place are separated by less than 70 points, or that, despite there being a 60-ish point gap between 8th and 9th place, 9th and 17th are roughly 50 points apart. Some early anomalies were not meant to last, like it taking several weeks for both Sidney Crosby to collect more assists than the Dallas Stars goalies, and for Tuukka Rask and Sergei Bobrovsky--two of the last three seasons' Vezina trophy winners--to cross over into positive points. Other puzzling cases and pleasant surprises have carried on into late November, like Ryan Getzlaf only recently joining the top 100 fantasy centers, or the top eight fantasy-scoring rookies over the first month of play not being named Eichel or McDavid. 
Early Calder Standouts
Normally, this is the time of year when we’re talking about which highly touted rookies were banished back to junior. Instead, most of the discussion has been about what’s shaping up to be one of the best Calder races in years. Among the early Calder hopefuls, Dylan Larkin trails only Henrik Zetterberg in points among all Red Wings skaters, Nikolaj Ehlers continues to prove that he is just fine without Junior teammate Jonathan Drouin and 25-year-old goalie Mike Condon won six of his first seven NHL starts after sensational back-to-back seasons in the ECHL and AHL. On the blue line, defenseman Colton Parayko is looking right at home on hockey's biggest stage after three years at University of Alaska-Fairbanks and just a handful of games in the American League. These performances and many more have made for a fun first month and change, even if history tells us that some of these guys will fade as the season goes on.

Eyes On The PrizeWhile the defending Champion Portland Pints have been surging lately and certainly have the chops to repeat, the West Palm Beach Rangers have been consistently dominant. Since finishing 7th in their innaugural 2009 season, West Palm has finished outside the top ten four times, and has never finished higher than 5th. So far this season, none of that seems to be a cause for concern for GM Bob Guarasciso, whose Rangers currently have ammassed the 2nd-most fantasy points from skaters and the 4th most from goalies. Beyond raking in the points from obvious sources like Henrik Lundqvist (arguably the league MVP to this point) and Top-10 forward Max Paciorety, West Palm has positioned itself at the head of the pack by earning valuable points in less glamouros areas of the game--namely, blocking shots and winning faceoffs--two categories where the Rangers rank in the top three. 
New Blood
Four new owners joined the WHL ranks during the offseason, bringing with them a boost of energy and a refreshed sense of competition. Boston-based Casey Barnacle and Nick Buote of the Brooklyn Brawlers (formerly the Brooklyn Cyclones) took a page out of the Dahms Brother playbook, forming the league's second GM duo. Fellow Bostonians, Derek Maxfield and T.J. Smith have taken the helm of the Porter Pirates and New Jersey WallFlowers, renaming their respective clubs to the North Shore Netminders and the Philly Cheesesteaks. Barnacle, Buote, Maxfield and Smith all joined the league at the recommendation of existing owners, continuing the WHL's trend of attracting quality owners and keen hockey minds. 
Trade Roundup
Traditional wisdom preaches patience in the early going as owners figure out exactly what they've got, but that hasn't stopped a few GM's from working the phones and making some big trades. The Northshore Netminders and Northern Cheefs got things going a mere two days after the draft when GM Derek Maxfield patched a glaring hole in nets by acquiring Brian Elliott and a 2016 4th round pick from Kyle Hamel's Cheefs for Jordan Eberle and Ryan McDonagh. For Hamel, letting go of Elliott demonstrated a high degree of trust that at least one of Martin Jones, Petr Mrazek, Andrei Vasilevskiy, or one of the other hundred goalies he owns is the real McCoy. So far, Jones has shattered expectations, settling in as a top ten goalie through the first month and a half of play. Not to be outdone, Cheesesteaks GM, T.J. Smith made a splash of his own, dealing Mike Smith to Tayutic Team Rasta for elite center Claude Giroux and journeyman tender, Al Montoya.
2015 Draft In Review
Despite being one of the shorter, if not the shortest draft in league history, the 2015 draft wasn't wanting for action. Les Canadiens de Montreal had themselves a feast in the early going--before the midway point in the draft, veteran GM Tyler Ladd already had Ovechkin, Blake Wheeler, Bobby Ryan and Dion Phaneuf wearing the bleu, blanc et rouge. Mike Greeley and the Wolfsburg Vipers only had six picks at their disposal, but they made them count, taking Patrick Sharp, Eric Staal, Marian Gaborik, David Perron, Mike Cammalleri, and Dylan Strome. After selecting both McDavid and Eichel with the 1st and 4th overall picks, respectively, Boston Beernuts GM Joe Mastrangelo did a bang up job surrounding his prize rookies with veteran leadership, including Thomas Vanek, Patrick Marleau and Andrei Markov. 
It's early yet, but any conversation about early standouts for the top value pick of the draft should include the aforementioned Colton Parayko, taken in the 7th round (129th overall) by the California Kwijibos, Leo Komarov, drafted by the white-hot Portland Pints in the 8th round (130th overall), and--homer alert--Tobias Rieder, nabbed 129th overall by Sparta Praha. Parayko trails only Mount Vernon defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk in total TOI among rookies, leads all rookie defenders by a wide margin in shots on goal, and to this point has racked up more points (goals and assists) than Eichel, Ehlers, and Kwijibos teammate Sam Bennett. Even the historically-predictable opening rounds of the draft included a few surprising gambles. For instance, Tayutic Team Rasta GM Rich Abbondante  used the 12th overall selection on Cam Fowler, who finished as just the 77th ranked WHL defenseman last season. Rounds 2 and 3 featured a tale of two Russian imports. The first, Artemi Panarin, drafted 37th overall by the Stuttgart Scorpions, trails only Larkin and Parayko in total fantasy points among rookies. The other, Sergei Plotnikov, taken ten spots before Panarin by Mount Vernon, is currently on waivers. This is a perfect example of how difficult it can be to predict a player's transition to the NHL.
The Saginaw Spirit scored themselves a few sweet under-the-radar picks--mainly, Matt Niskanen at 80th overall and  the ageless Jaromir Jagr five spots later at 85th. Jagr, in case you didn't know, is the last active player from the 1990 NHL season. When Jagr scored his first goal in the NHL, Berlin has just started tearing down some wall, and this thing called the World Wide Web was in its infancy. A quarter of a century later, Jagr is still relevant on the ice, and in this virtual pastime we call fantasy hockey, leaving us to wonder how much party the Mullet has left.