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It’s that time of year again.
The time when you start building that mammoth excel spreadsheet with detailed player projections for hundreds of NHLers. You end up sitting awake until four o’clock in the morning trying to figure out who is going to be on every team’s first power-play unit, which goalies are destined for a time split, and who is the next Keith Yandle. After downing your fifth coffee, with shaking hands and bloodshot eyes, you say “screw it”, and decide you’re just going to tank this year and try to land Connor McDavid (not a bad plan, mind you).
Of course if you’re in a one-year league there is no such option, meaning it’s ‘win’, or be forced to listen to your jerk friend Steve go on and on about his fantasy dominance for another 12 painful months (man, I freakin’ hate Steve).
When developing a draft strategy I inevitably end up focusing on forwards first. That’s not to say there isn’t value to be had with defencemen and goaltenders – there certainly is. But in the majority of formats, forwards, especially those of the ‘star’ variety, have the greatest influence on your week-to-week production.
In the early rounds, nabbing one or two elite assets is always key. In previous seasons there was a case to be made around targeting an elite blueliner or tender, helping solidify positions that don’t generally boast a lot of quality depth. Today, with starting goalies playing less and less games (no one started more than 64 last year) and defencemen not-named-Karlsson falling prey to significant swings in value, the simplest approach is to select your team’s core forwards first.
Which is as good of place as any to start our preview:
I won’t waste any time talking about the BIG four. You know about them already. All of Crosby, Malkin, Ovechkin and Stamkos will likely be off the board at the start of your draft
Tyler Seguin, Dallas Stars
He’s been all over fantasy sites of late, with some outlets predicting he could un-seat Sidney Crosby as the league’s number one scorer. While that feels unlikely, he’s still in line for a terrific year. The addition of Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky, along with further maturation from Valeri Nichushkin, should give Dallas one of the better offensive groups in hockey.
Taylor Hall, Edmonton Oilers
At 22 years old, he’s entering what will be his peak production years. The only remaining issue with his stats is that pesky plus/minus (which is more of a team issue anyway). As Edmonton improves – which they will, one day – that issue will take care of itself. He may have the highest ceiling of anyone outside the BIG four. Not many players are capable of 35 goals and 55 assists, but he’s one.
We’ve been waiting for his official breakout season, where he ascends from the ‘very good’ fantasy ranks to the ‘elite.’ Prior to his unlucky injury at the Olympics, 2013-14 looked like just that, with 66 points in 59 games (a 92 point pace). With the offseason additions of Halak, Grabovski and Kulemin, New York will ice its best roster since Tavares arrived. This could be the year Tavares starts to edge his way into that top group.
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
The former number one overall pick seems to have found some consistently in his production. It’s not that he was a disappointment before – far from it. But there was never any certainty as to whether a 70- or 80-point year was on the horizon. Now, he appears to have settled into the point-per-game, 250 shot range. With Chicago’s core remaining intact, there’s no reason to expect a step backwards in his game. He’ll be targeted in the late first round of most formats.
Phil Kessel, Toronto Maple Leafs
It might be time we start referring Mr. Kessel as one of fantasy’s preeminent assets. 2013-14 marked his third consecutive year as a top 10 scorer, and his sixth straight campaign with 30 or more goals (I’m going to go ahead and assume he would have accomplished it in the lockout shortened season). He’s the fulcrum of Toronto’s offence, and that isn’t likely to change anytime soon. The additions of David Booth and Daniel Winnik should help add some secondary scoring to a bottom six that was desperately in need of it. He may be a bit older than some of the “next” wave stars, but there are plenty of outstanding years left. And you can tell he takes his role as a fantasy superstar very serious.
The Goal Scorers
There is a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ with guys that score the goals. Maybe it’s the sports center highlights, or the fact they always got picked first in shinny. Whatever the case, poolies tend to place a bit of extra value on goals.
Rick Nash, New York Rangers
Last year’s three goals in 25 playoff games didn’t exactly endear him to poolies, and no one will blame you if there’s a lingering bad taste in your mouth. But Nash remains one of the game’s most proven volume shooters. Even during that drought, he managed to fire 83 pucks on net, more than anyone. We know that shooting percentages tend to even out over time. As long as he’s shooting, there’s a good chance he’ll be back over 30 goals and 65 points in 2014-15.
Corey Perry, Anaheim Ducks
For a while it appeared that his 50-goal campaign back in 2010-11 was going to be one of those outliers that really didn’t fit with the rest of his career. Well, he disproved that, scoring 43 goals and finishing behind only Ovechkin. He and Getzlaf are locked up until the end of time (ok, 2021 ) which bodes well for continued excellence in the future. The only worry, and it’s a small one, is that he’s approaching the dreaded 3-0.
Jeff Skinner, Carolina Hurricanes
Last year was cut short for Skinner, but he still managed an impressive 33 goals in 71 games. Of guys that played in 400 or more minutes at 5v5, he finished second in shots per 60 minutes (behind only Nash). If he can stay healthy for a full season (admittedly a big IF), he’ll be among the top 10 in both goals and shots. If rumors of him seeing extended time Carolina’s first powerplay unit come to fruition – watch out.
Assists can be a fickle category. Sure, there are the mainstays – Thornton, Backstrom, Giroux…etc, the guys putting up fantastic numbers year-in-year-out. But beware of the balance between primary and secondary assists, not every passer is quite as good as he may seem.
Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks
They may have taken away his “C”, but it’s hard to imagine that will have much of an impact on his assist totals. Even at 35, he remains one of the game’s elite set-up men. All of the stats (even the fancy ones) show no significant signs of decline for Jumbo. If he’s traded (nothing more than a rumor at this time), he’d still be nearly as valuable in any uniform. Thornton is a one man fantasy team, dragging those around him up to career-high heights.
Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets
He’s not a player you typically think of first when naming quality playmakers, but he should be. His 41 assists last season put him 27th in the league, and within earshot of the top 15 (Patrick Sharp had 44). His new $33 million dollar contract should help guarantee more time on Winnipeg’s top line with Ladd and Little. After the more well-known names are off the board, he should provide quality mid-round value.
Jaromir Jagr, New Jersey Devils
Is it 2001 all over again? Jagr is like the Die Hard franchise: Just when you think they can’t possibly make another one, they do! His 43 assists last year placed him 17th, ahead of guys like Kopitar and Vanek. New Jersey’s addition of Cammalleri will give him another sniper to work with, if not at even strength then most certainly on the man advantage. 42 is old for most athletes. Jagr is not most athletes.
David Krejci, Boston Bruins
Maybe it’s because of their team depth, but Krejci rarely receives enough credit for the fantastic set-up man he’s become. 2013-14’s 50 assists was the ninth most in the league, more than Seguin, Duchene and Benn. The loss of Iginla to Colorado will hurt, but with Eriksson (hopefully) returning to full health Boston will have replacements.
The New Age Categories
Hits and blocked shots are growing in popularity. Partly because poolies were getting bored of the same old categories, and partly because no one could understand why penalty minutes was our only proxy for “toughness.”
David Backes, St. Louis Blues
Amazingly, despite being a core part of St. Louis’ offense, he also posted 273 hits (third in the NHL). To put that in perspective, a ‘good’ hit total for star forwards is around 80. If your league includes both hits and penalty minutes, there’s an argument to have Backes bumped up to the late first round.
Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets
The move to forward full time will be an interesting one for the former Hawk. He doesn't provide the point totals of an elite winger, but few can match his numbers in the hit column. He finished second on the Jets with 213 in 2013-14. The only area of concern heading into this year is his blocked shot totals, which will dip with his full-time move up front.
Scott Hartnell, Columbus Blue Jackets
The move out of Philadelphia will hurt his offensive numbers, but he'll remain an elite asset when it comes to penalty minutes and hits. He's one of those rare forwards you can count on for 100 minutes in the box, plus 150 hits. If he can somehow land a spot on a the top line, he'll retain a good chunk of the value he once had as a featured piece alongside Giroux.
Darren Kennedy (@fantasyhockeydk) is a writer for DobberHockey. He once proclaimed that Nikita Filatov was the next Pavel Bure, so trust his advice at your own risk.