By Jason Chen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
Here's a look around the league at the latest trends after another week of hockey. Some food for thought, some leftover stats, and, of course, some fantasy advice. Let's dig in.
It's Always Sunny in Florida: Panthers’ top line continues to impress
Here are the 5v5 xGF/60, CF/60, CF% and numbers for the lines that feature some of the top-15 scorers, and a random sprinkle of other top lines of interest (all fancy stats courtesy Natural Stat Trick):
There's no way around it: The Panthers' top line of Aleksander Barkov, Carter Verhaeghe, and Anthony Duclair is one of the best in the league. To address the Panthers' lack of depth on offense, coach Joel Quenneville opted to split Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, and it's paid big dividends. They're off to a surprising 4-0-1 start and any drama involving Keith Yandle's playing time and Sergei Bobrovsky being overpaid has been swept under the rug.
Verhaeghe's 33.3 S% is indeed unsustainable, but collectively they're at 9.09 S%, which is still lower than Duclair's (12.7 S%) and Barkov's (13.3 S%) individual career average. In other words, it suggests that when Verhaeghe falls from his 56-goal pace, his point-per-game production might not suffer much because he's potentially assisting on goals scored by Barkov and Duclair — a combined two goals on 36 shots — as they return toward the mean.
It's worth mentioning Verhaeghe (17 percent rostered) has some pedigree; he's a third-round pick who couldn't crack the Lightning's top six, which was arguably the best in the league last season but led their AHL affiliate in scoring with 82 points in the 2018-19 season. Duclair (27 percent rostered) has also been very good with six assists and a plus-5 rating. As long this line's getting the opportunities, Verhaeghe and Duclair are both worth rostering unless something drastically changes.
The Real Short Squeeze: Goalies to be affected by the altered season
Through Saturday, the Central Division has played just 12.5 percent (56 of 448) of their games, the lowest portion in the league. The North (15.8 percent), East (15.2 percent), and West (14.7 percent) are ahead, and if the league concludes the season on May 8 as planned, that means the three Central teams that have played the fewest games — Florida, Dallas and Carolina, with five each — will have to play their next 51 games in 97 days, or one game every 1.78 days. Last season, teams didn't play their 50th game until the 106th day of the season, or one game every 2.12 days. That's going to cut into the playing time of No. 1 goalies who were expected to have a big workload, including Sergei Bobrovsky, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Juuse Saros, and Anton Khudobin (at least until Ben Bishop's return).
That means Chris Driedger (20 percent rostered) and Pekka Rinne (14 percent) could start more games than previously expected. Also, look for Curtis McElhinney (3 percent) to make his season debut with Tampa Bay playing its first back-to-back in Nashville on Feb. 8 and 9. Rather than worrying about which goalie leaves the ice first during morning skates and stalking the waiver wire, more practical managers should just simply roster the backups in the Central Division, especially if they already have the starter from the same team. They can be easy access to wins if the backup plays on a good team (e.g., McElhinney), and it's also a good insurance policy in case of injury. Case in point, Petr Mrazek left Saturday's game and did not return, which means James Reimer (11 percent) should be picked up now.
There Can Be Only One: Goaltender battles to monitor
Speaking of goalies, we expected some goaltending battles this season. We're barely two weeks into the season but three goalies have emerged as frontrunners to take over the starting job for their respective team: Chicago's Kevin Lankinen (26 percent rostered), Washington's Vitek Vanecek (47 percent), and Vancouver's Thatcher Demko (50 percent). All three goalies deserve to be rostered in most standard formats, especially in a season where quality goaltending seems to be more scarce than usual. Entering Saturday, the average save percentage in the league is .906, the lowest since 2008-09.
The Blackhawks came into the season figuring one of their three goalies would take the reins at some point, but I didn't think it would be this early. Lankinen, an undrafted 25-year-old who led Finland to a gold medal at the World Championships in 2019 and was named to the AHL All-Star Game last season, has clearly been the best option, starting five of their nine games with a .930 Sv% and 2.16 GAA. Those kinds of numbers will give the Hawks a chance every night even if they average just 2.56 goals per game, which ranks 22nd in the league. They were early season picks to be one of the league's bottom-five teams, but with such strong goaltending and a power play (35.7 percent) that's off to a brilliant start, the Hawks could surprise. Lankinen's numbers suggest he's the real deal, and as such should be rostered in the majority of leagues as a second or third goaltender.
Vanecek's rise is a bit more surprising, and had Ilya Samsonov not been placed in the COVID protocol after testing positive, we might not even be having this conversation. Samsonov was always the apparent heir to Braden Holtby, and everyone assumed the transition would be fairly seamless. It was the backup that the Caps worried about; they were so unsure they signed Craig Anderson just days before the season started. But, it was all for moot since Vanecek is 5-0-2 with a .918 Sv% in seven starts — four of which did not feature Alex Ovechkin — compared to Samsonov's 1-0-1 record and .868 Sv%.
The Caps will probably default back to Samsonov upon his return, but the shortened schedule is tough to handle, and finishing first is important because it could mean avoiding a first-round playoff matchup against the Bruins. Samsonov might be on a short leash, especially now that coach Peter Laviolette knows he can start Vanecek with confidence. It wouldn't be the first time a young goalie has struggled with the expectations of being a No. 1 starter, and the Caps have a history of developing good goalies, from Philipp Grubauer to Semyon Varlamov to Holtby to now Samsonov and Vanecek.
In Vancouver, where Holtby was expected to be the 1A to Demko's 1B, coach Travis Green has opted for an equal split, but following a sweep of the Sens and a 4-1 win against the Jets on Saturday, Demko now has the upper hand in the battle for the crease. The Canucks do not have any back-to-backs in February, which gives Green a chance to commit the bulk of the starts to one goalie. Considering how tight the North Division is, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Canucks keep rolling with the goalie with the hot hand. Both of Columbus' goalies, Elvis Merzlikins (68 percent) and Joonas Korpisalo (71 percent), are rostered in more than half of Yahoo leagues despite splitting their starts evenly, while Demko still trails Holtby by a 30-percent margin. Grabbing Demko is a high-reward move, with a worst-case scenario a standard 50-50 split with Holtby on a team in playoff contention.
At the other end of the spectrum, the goaltending situations for Pittsburgh, Ottawa, and San Jose already seem beyond saving. Tristan Jarry (.859 Sv%), Matt Murray (.859 Sv%), and both Devan Dubnyk (.902 Sv%) and Martin Jones (.871 Sv%) continue to hold fantasy value because they can rack up saves — just don't ever expect to see low goals-against averages or high save percentages. It might even be a good time to shop them and see what they're worth on the fantasy trade market. This early in the season, chances are managers are still looking to acquire goalies at a deep discount, hoping they can HODL to the moon. However, the underlying metrics suggest Jarry, Murray, Dubnyk, and Jones are just plain bad, not to mention each is supported by defenses of questionable quality and depth. There's hope for Pittsburgh, given its talent up front, but the first month has been marked by negative surprises, both on and off the ice.
It's crazy to think the Canucks might have a Calder contender for the fourth consecutive season, but it's true. Nils Hoglander broke camp on Bo Horvat's right wing and, save for a few shifts, has stayed in that spot. He's an undersized winger with slick hands, but what makes Hoglander so successful has been his tenacity in winning puck battles along the wall, making him an ideal third wheel for Horvat and Tanner Pearson's punishing forecheck below the goal line. Through 10 games, Hoglander ranks second on the team and 12th in the league in CF/60 (71.15) and his line with Horvat has dominated their matchups. Hoglander was credited with his third goal of the season — and the eventual game-winner — Saturday against the Jets. In both deeper leagues and dynasty leagues, Hoglander is a name to keep an eye on.