The NHL landscape has changed drastically over the past five weeks, including the NHL Entry Draft, free agency, and teams' prospect development camps. With that in mind we will begin a series of articles looking at each division on a team-by-team basis to discern the important alterations that affect Fantasy Hockey. We will look at departures, additions and those rookies/prospects that are knocking on the proverbial door for roster spots.
This examination will not cover every player movement but rather those that are considered more pertinent for roto players. Thus don't be overly concerned if some fourth liners, backup goalies and sixth and seventh defensemen are omitted.
New Jersey Devils
Due to the large contracts of Brian Rolston ($5.06 million), Dainius Zubrus ($3.40 million) and David Clarkson ($2.67 million), this trio is basically impossible to trade away and thus take up a third of the team's top nine forward ranks. This makes it extremely hard for many of the top Devils' prospects to get a proper opportunity. Nick Palmieri is the exception as his latter season play with New Jersey (he finished the season playing on a line with Ilya Kovalchuk and Travis Zajac while overall registering nine goals and 17 points in 43 games) has elevated him to possible first line deployment. Those linemates for a full season would put the big (6-2, 212) right wing in deep sleeper territory with 20 goal/40 point upside.
If you add the three deadweight contracts together with 22-year-old Palmieri there's five spots left. Now include Kovalchuk, Zajac, restricted free agent Zach Parise and Patrik Elias. That leaves one spot available between Tedenby, Josefson, and Henrique. Whoever wins out will not be fantasy relevant this season barring a major rash of injuries. Tedenby and Josefson played together last season and could form 2/3 of the fourth line along with either Boulton or Janssen. Incidentally, the duo of Bouton and Janssen should free up more time and energy for Clarkson to try to re-discover his modest scoring touch, as with those two brutes around Clarkson shouldn't be called on for his pugilistic skills nearly as often as years past. Henrique projects as a potential future No. 2 center. The 21-year-old scored 25 goals and 50 points in 73 games last season for Albany of the AHL in his first season as a pro after amassing 111 goals and 228 points in 238 games in junior for Windsor of the OHL.
The Devils' blueline remains steady but unspectacular. They re-signed Andy Greene and Matt Taormina while letting Anssi Salmela walk. The biggest change is the addition of rookie Adam Larsson, who's already completed two full seasons in the Swedish Elite league (SEL). Larsson, taken fourth overall in June's NHL Entry draft, is expected to make the Devils as an 18-year-old rookie. Larsson had 26 points in 87 SEL games and four points in six games playing for Team Sweden at the 2011 World Junior Championships. As the Devils were frugal (shocking) in free agency when it came to signing offensive defensemen, Larsson should see power play time immediately. Moreover, before drafting Larsson the Devils may have been the only NHL team without a draft worthy D-man for standard 12-team leagues that start five defensemen. Andy Greene was supposed to be draft worthy last season, coming off a 37-point season in 2009-10, but he was abysmal in registering a mere 23 points in 82 games along with a dreadful minus-23. Greene and Larsson are the best fantasy bets among Devils D-men this season, but whether that translates into fantasy relevance in 12-team leagues remains to be seen. Matt Taormina, who had 50 points in 75 games for the Devils' AHL affiliate in 2009-10, started the season well for New Jersey with five points in 17 games, then fell to injury. Urbom is a promising big (6-5, 210) Swede who is perhaps a year away from a viable top-six role and could be fantasy relevant down the road.
New York Islanders
Unless Alexei Yashin comes back (is the contract offer real or just a favor by owner Charles Wang to his friend who fleeced him with indifferent play and a $17 million buyout?), there is no July free-agent impact on the Isles' top nine forwards. Meanwhile leading prospect Nino Neiderreiter faces a battle to crack the top nine despite scoring 41 goals in 55 games for Portland of the WHL last season. While there's no reason to rush the Swiss-born sniper, as he'll only turn 19 in September, the other stumbling block is Trent Hunter and his $2 million cap hit. The Isles will find it hard to find a taker for Hunter, as he's scored just 38 goals combined over the past four seasons (215 games) after scoring 36 goals between 2005-06 and 2006-07 (152 games) and he's coming back from a torn MCL in his left knee. The best-case scenario for the Isles and Neiderreiter would be if they can put Hunter on the long-term injury list.
Defensively, Mark Streit is expected back this season and will anchor the power play once again. Streit averaged 56 points per year over the past three seasons leading up to last year, which he missed entirely due to a major shoulder injury which required surgery last October. Andrew MacDonald (27 points in 60 games) and Travis Hamonic (26 points in 62 games) will compete for the other point spot on the first power play unit.
Al Montoya is an intriguing sleeper goalie for three reasons: first, he played very well last season and revived his career at the age of 26; second, Rick DiPietro has played just 39 games in the last three seasons; third, the Isles look like a team on the upswing and has a potentially potent top three lines and power-play. Montoya is worthy of a latter round pick as a speculative No. 3 or 4 fantasy goalie.
New York Rangers
The Rangers landed easily the best center and offensive player in free agency. Richards' arrival also bodes well for Marian Gaborik. The big question heading into training camp is who plays left wing on the first line with them? Whoever wins out is automatically a person of interest in 12+ team leagues. It would seem foolish to break up one of the more promising second line combos (Brandon Dubinsky-Ryan Callahan) in hockey so it should come down to a choice between Wojtek Wolski, Derek Stepan or Sean Avery. The second line, probably Anisimov-Dubinsky-Callahan, could really flourish with all the attention focused on the Richards line.
The Blueshirts will be fairly green on defense this year with 27-year-old Dan Girardi expected to be the oldest among the proposed top six. While Girardi, Marc Staal, Ryan McDonough and Michael Sauer form a young but steady top four the other two remaining spots are likely to be taken from this trio of very young defensemen: Tim Erixon (20), Michael Del Zotto (21), and Pavel Valentenko (23).
Erixon, a Swedish national who was born in New York state while his father Jan Erixon played for the Rangers in the early 90's, was the 23rd player taken in the 2009 draft. Erixon has already completed three full seasons in the Swedish Elite league, registering 24 points in 48 games last season for Skelleftea HC. Del Zotto scored 37 points in 80 games as a 19-year-old for the Rangers back in 2009-10. The Rangers hope it's a case of one step back to make two steps forward, as they kept him in the AHL for a significant portion of last season to have him work on improving his defensive zone coverage – he was a minus-20 in '09-10. MDZ was a plus-11 in 47 games last season for the Rangers, though his numbers (11 points) slipped despite receiving similar power play time. Valentenko led the Blueshirts' AHL team in plus-minus and blocked shots last season. He's built for the North American game at 6-2, 220, and plays with an edge that will serve him well in the NHL.
In case one or more of this trio isn't quite ready yet for full-time NHL duty the Rangers brought back veteran Steve Eminger, who played 65 games last season and finished as a minus-5 with 143 hits and 103 shot blocks.
Departures: Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Ville Leino, Kris Versteeg, Nikolai Zherdev, Brian Boucher, Daniel Carcillo, Darroll Powe, Sean O'Donnell
Additions: Ilya Bryzgalov, Jaromir Jagr, Maxime Talbot, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn
Knocking: Brayden Schenn, Erik Gustafsson
With Richards and Carter gone there will be more ice time and power play time for Danny Briere, Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk. Jagr is a fossil yet he could still score 20-25 goals and 55-60 points. That would make him a No. 2 or No.3 right wing in most roto leagues. Jakub Voracek could be Ville Leino's replacement on the Briere-Hartnell line with numbers (20goals/50points) a bit less than Jagr, who should draw the right wing spot on the first power play unit over his younger countrymen. Simmonds is a gritty third-line winger at this point with 15-goal/45-point upside. The blue-chip prospect Schenn will probably start slowly, like most rookies 20 or under usually do.
Bryzgalov was already a top-five fantasy goalie but now he has a shot at more wins with an improved forward ranks compared to Phoenix. One major caveat is the health of Chris Pronger, who, when healthy, is easily the best defenseman on the team and provides a level of physical intimidation unmatched by any other Flyer (defensemen or otherwise). While the six-foot six rearguard is expected to make a complete recovery from surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back in May, it's almost certain that he won't be ready to play at the start of the season. Pronger, who will turn 37 in early October, suffered numerous injuries last season causing him to miss 32 games. Pronger is nearing the end of a Hall of Fame career but one wonders if he has it in him for one more stellar and healthy season. The Flyers defense without Pronger is smaller, weaker, and easier to play against both physically and obviously talent-wise.
Looking at the defense without Pronger, Mathieu Carle and Andrej Meszaros become even more important players both in Fantasy and reality. Carle is coming off a 40-point season in which he was an impressive plus-30. Meszaros also finished with a plus-30 along with 32 points, while ending the year strongly - he had five goals and 12 assists in his last 27 games (regular season and playoffs combined). Carle and Meszaros, who played 21:59 and 21:07, respectively, last season will be expected to increase their workload with Pronger out. Braydon Coburn averaged 21:04 while Kimmo Timmonen led all of them with 22:28. The 36-year-old Finn has seen his point totals drop for four straight seasons, finishing last year with 36 points, 15 power play points along with a plus-three. After the aforementioned four, the drop off in talent is quite significant and without Pronger there are two spots still to fill. Until Pronger returns to the lineup two of Andreas Lilja (36 years old and a minus-15 in 52 games for Anaheim last season), Oskars Bartulis (24, minus-16 in 66 career games), Matt Walker (31, played 4 games in NHL last season, 310 career games) and Erik Gustaffson (22, was named to AHL All-Rookie team 2010-11, 56 points in 77 AHL games) are the third pairing. That does not bode well for Bryzgalov owners.
Sullivan could see a real boost in scoring playing alongside either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. If the two young centers are back to their usual greatness Sully has a serious chance at returning to his former scoring ways, though the Timmins Tornado will need to stay healthy (he's 37). Throw him into the deep sleeper pile. As always the talk of who plays with Sid and Geno keeps Fantasy astrologists busy. The early odds seem in favor of James Neal and Chris Kunitz with Crosby and Staal and Sullivan with Malkin, though there are those who insist on keeping Pascal Dupuis with Crosby over Neal (ridiculous). If Dupuis sticks with Crosby, Sullivan could drop out of the top six. Training camp will solve the riddle but for now here's this writer's ranking of roto-worthy Pens wingers: Neal, Staal (if he switches to top six wing), Kunitz, Sullivan, Dupuis, Kennedy, Williams. Williams is a long shot to crack the Pens' lineup but he could surprise with a strong training camp and exhibition play. Coach Dan Bylsma likes the fact that Williams has played the point on the power play often in his NHL career and that could help his plight.
Jeffrey and Tangradi will probably need some injuries to get into the top nine. Jeffrey, 23, had 17 goals and 45 points in 40 AHL games last season in addition to scoring seven goals and 12 points in 25 games for Pittsburgh. Tangradi, 22, had 18 goals and 33 points in 42 AHL games last season in addition to potting one goal and three points in 15 games for the Penguins. Should Staal play left wing as expected, the third line center spot would belong to Mark Letestu. The 26-year-old pivot emerged last season in scoring 14 goals and 27 points in 64 games.
Pittsburgh's defense returns relatively unchanged, with Alexandre Picard (eight points and 17 PIMs in 43 games with Montreal last season) a depth signing. The one cloud on the horizon is the health of Brooks Orpik, who underwent hernia surgery this summer for the second summer in a row. Orpik had surgery in early June of 2010, was out of action for nearly three months, and missed the first six games of the season. This summer he had surgery in mid-July so there is very reason to believe that he will miss part if not all of October, which would be up to 13 games. Picard's signing becomes that much more important and he'll give Deryk Engelland and Ben Lovejoy some competition for playing time. If Jason Williams makes the Penguins it will likely mean less power-play time for Zbynek Michalek and/or Matt Niskanen because Williams plays the point with the man advantage. The first PP unit QBs will likely remain Kris Letang and Paul Martin.