The NHL landscape has changed drastically over the past five weeks. This five-week window has included the NHL Entry Draft, the start of free agency and all 30 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 and additions as well as those rookies/prospects that are knocking on the proverbial door for key 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.
The Canes let the aging yet still productive veterans Cole and Stillman go and signed Anthony Stewart. They're hoping that a massive upgrade at center for Stewart (a.k.a. playing alongside Eric Staal) will help him further his progression as the late-bloomer, now 26, put up 14 goals and 39 points last season for Atlanta after playing the entire previous year in the AHL. Stewart is a big body (6-2, 235) and former first-round pick and is a definite sleeper candidate heading into next season with 20-goal/50-point potential should he stick with Staal on the first line. While Alexei Ponikarosvky will push for a top-six role, he is likely headed for third line duty playing alongside center Brandon Sutter and winger Chad Larose.
After registering 70 points in 76 NCAA games and 64 points in 70 AHL games, the 21-year-old Zac Dalpe appears ready to make the jump to full-time NHL regular. With five of the Canes' top six spots seemingly taken - Staal, Tuomo Ruutu, Jussi Jokinen, Jeffrey Skinner, and Stewart - Dalpe (a center/right wing) appears to have the edge on Ponikarosvky, who's a natural left winger and two seasons removed from NHL effectiveness.
Zach Boychuk, taken 14th overall in 2008 with 102 points in 114 career AHL games and just 21, will have to wait until someone like Jiri Tlusty (just 91 games played over the last three seasons) gets injured. Bowman is a 22-year-old left wing with 29 goals and 62 points in 107 career AHL games who's likely another year away from NHL duty.
Tomas Kaberle should be motivated to put last season behind him. While Kaberle won a Cup with Boston his role declined as the Bruins went deeper into the playoffs. He was deeply humbled in seeing his role reduced to that of a sixth defenseman by the end of the playoffs (he played 9:54 in Game 7). With 529 points in 902 NHL games and deployment on a first power play unit with Staal, Jeffrey Skinner, and the underrated Joni Pitkanen, we are confident that he'll be a 45+ point D-man as usual. Jamie McBain, with 30 points in 76 games last season, is the third Carolina D-man to possibly draft.
Knocking: Erik Gudbranson
The biggest fantasy plum in Florida at forward is the first line gig alongside Stephen Weiss and David Booth. The early speculation has Fleischmann playing here. Assuming that holds true (Flash got the biggest deal amongst the UFA forwards that Florida signed and has the speed and skill set to play there) the other four (Upshall, Kopecky, Versteeg, Bergenheim) will battle it out for second-line duty on the wings playing with either Mike Santorelli or Shawn Matthias at center. Expect Upshall and Versteeg to be split amongst the second and third line, as each player brings the same sandpaper-type game to their respective lines. With so many of these new Florida forwards capable of 20+ goals and 45+ points here's our early roto ranking of wingers after Booth: Fleischmann, Upshall (including PIMs), Kopecky, Versteeg, Bergenheim. Moreover, here's this writer's prediction on the second and third lines:
Each line has grit, a young prospect, and a Euro. Each line also has a winger (Kopecky, Versteeg) that can play center. Versteeg could man the third line spot and make it easier for Matthias' development as a full-time top nine forward.
The trade to Florida from Chicago should jump-start Brian Campbell back to Fantasy relevance. Some of you may have forgotten that Campbell averaged 49 points per season in the five seasons prior to last year's disappointing campaign in which he only managed 27 points in 65 games. A return to 45+ points seems rational based on the fact that he will receive the most power-play time amongst all of the Florida D-men.
Ed Jovanovski, 35, received far more money ($16.5 million) and a longer term (four years) than many expected. While his leadership, heart and toughness cannot be questioned his days of first power-play duty are likely over and he has become injury prone in his later years. Jovo Cop has missed 48 games over the past two seasons with 48 points in 116 games played. Dmitry Kulikov, who's still just 20 and scored 26 points in 72 games in his second NHL season last year, or rookie Erik Gudbranson will likely get the other first power play unit point position alongside Campbell. The 19-year-old Gudbranson, the third pick overall of the 2010 draft, is a 6-4 smooth skating blueliner who almost made the team last year (contract could not be agreed upon). He returned to junior, filled out physically and racked up 15 goals and 39 points playing a combined 51 games for Kingston of the OHL and Team Canada at the World Junior Championships.
Jose Theodore (15-11-3 with a 2.71 GAA and .916 save percentage) and Scott Clemmensen (8-11-7 with a 2.64 GAA and .911 save percentage) will compete in training camp and exhibition play for the No. 1 goalie spot on a team that will be breaking in as many as 10 new players. Theodore has far more experience and pedigree but neither should be considered as anything more than a No. 3 or No. 4 Fantasy goalie (at best).
While Simon Gagne's free-agent departure seems like a big loss, the Bolts still have a ton of firepower in Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier as well as effective secondary scorers like Teddy Purcell and Steve Downie. However, with Ryan Malone out - he recently underwent arthroscopic shoulder surgery and will be out 4-to-6 months - an opportunity exists for someone to get a top six role for at least the first two or three months of the season. Here are four candidates: Dominic Moore, Ryan Shannon, Mattias Ritola and Richard Panik. Moore is such an effective third line center that it's hard to pull him away from there, whereas new arrival Shannon (a former point-per-game player in both the NCAA and the AHL) is a speedy winger with jam who could be effective in that role. Ritola and Panik are long shots, as they have yet to establish themselves as NHL regulars. Ritola, a former Red Wings draft pick with 133 points in 228 career AHL games but just nine points in 38 career NHL games, may get the early nod if Shannon meshes with Moore on the third line. Panik, taken 52nd overall in 2009, has just completed two seasons in the OHL. The 20-year-old amassed 48 goals and 97 points in 111 OHL games while being introduced to the smaller-ice North American version of the game after growing up playing in Slovakia. Panik, at 6-2 and 203, has both the size and skill to succeed at the NHL level but may need a year in the AHL to acclimate to the pro game. With 15 career goals and 22 points in 19 career games at the World Junior Championships, Panik has shown he can excel playing against the best of his peers.
Defensively the Bolts re-signed Eric Brewer, who was their best defenseman last year, though don't expect much offense from him as he registered just two points in 22 games for Tampa Bay after his trade from St. Louis and none on the power play despite averaging 3:34 with the man advantage. Victor Hedman is on the verge of breaking out, despite the 20-year-old's meager 26-point output last season. It is a known fact that bigger defensemen often take longer to develop, as they learn the pro game and fill out their large frames. One thing's for sure, he'll need more than 1:44 of power play time to get into the 35+ point category for NHL defensemen. Pavel Kubina's 23 points in 79 games was also a disappointment, considering his past three years were 38, 40, and 40. Surprisingly, Brett Clark was the most productive of all Tampa defensemen with 31 points, including six power play goals, in 82 games. His 3:07 average for power play time was second behind only Brewer. Marc-Andre Bergeron had eight points in 23 games as a Bolt but none on the power play and he was a brutal minus-10. They added former Ranger Matt Gilroy and former Islander Bruno Gervais to improve the depth on defense, though neither player would be Fantasy relevant even if a rash of injuries were to hit the defense.
No team arguably had a better five weeks (from the draft on) than the Caps. If you look at the departure list most of them were either oft-injured (Varlamov, Fehr) or mostly ineffective (Arnott, Sturm). Hannan was a steady-if-overpaid stay-at-home defenseman (more on their upgrade later). Now look at the additions - each fills a specific need and the four new skaters all play a physical playoff-style brand of hockey.
Washington is one of the few teams in the league that didn't need more scorers this offseason. Their reduction in scoring last season was a bad side effect of their decision to play more defensive hockey. They really should re-visit that idea, as it's become quite unpopular in Fantasy circles. Seriously though, the Caps were short on grit at forward. This shortfall was not about fourth line grinders, every team has those. The need was for forwards that could play on the top two or three lines and bring a physical dimension as well as the necessary skill set to be effective at each end of the ice. Brouwer, a power forward at 6-2/215, has potted 39 goals over the past two seasons and won a Cup with Chicago two years ago. Ward led all Nashville scorers with seven goals and 13 points in 12 playoff games last spring as the Predators played into the second round for the first time in franchise history. In addition to adding Brouwer for the second line and Ward for the third line, they re-signed two players who also play top nine minutes, physical hockey, and can score some goals - Brooks Laich and Mike Knuble. Want another Cap forward that can play on the top lines, score and hit? Marcus Johansson. Now add Alexander Ovechkin. That's a lot of talent that will also run into people. Washington also has a couple of less physical scorers named Semin and Backstrom. Best top nine in hockey? They are certainly in the conversation.
Jeff Halpern is one of those "prodigal son" stories as the Maryland-born center is a former Capital captain and still popular with the fans and in the dressing room. His return and centering the fourth line is instant karma as the Capitals embark on a legitimate Stanley Cup quest.
Defensively the Caps drastically reduced their goals against last year while adding both Dennis Wideman and Scott Hannan to their blueline during the season. Hannan is gone but his replacement is a huge upgrade in Roman Hamrlik, who can play 22-plus minutes per night, play physical hockey and work the point on the second power play unit. Hamrlik is very effective against big forwards and it was his performance against Ovechkin in the 2010 playoffs that made acquiring him that much more alluring for management. While Ovechkin had eight points in the Caps' three victories in that series, he had just two points in their four losses and was shut out in two of the games. Hamrlik was a big reason for Ovechkin's struggles in that series.
Assuming a healthy Mike Green on the point for the first power play unit, the other point man will be either Wideman or John Carlson. The Caps may be the only team with four defensemen worth drafting in standard 12-team leagues with the early draft order being Green, Carlson, Wideman, Hamrlik. It also bears mentioning that Karl Alzner and Carlson became the Caps' top pairing last season and they should be kept intact. The Caps are loaded with puck-moving defensemen this season, as only Jeff Schulrz and John Eskine could be considered traditional stay-at-home defensemen.
Tomas Vokoun should be one of the first four or five goalies drafted this season. The Caps' ability to land Vokoun for just $1.5 million is incredible, especially when you think about what their old Patrick Division rivals the Flyers had to do to upgrade their goalie situation - basically gut their team and turn over more than a third of their roster. The Caps' 23-year-old former No. 1 goalie Michal Neuvirth, 27-12-4 last season wih a 2.45 GAA and .914 save percentage, makes for a prudent handcuff for Vokoun owners, as the 35-year-old Vokoun has played 631 games over the past 12 seasons.
When you look at the core group of players on last season's
Despite the acquisition of Fehr, a borderline top-nine but not top-six player on most teams, the fact of the matter is that the Jets are a little thin on talented right wingers. Looking at the few remaining top-six free agent forwards out there, only J.P. Dumont plays right wing and many hockey observers feel that Dumont's done at 33. Dumont saw his ice time drop significantly over the last two seasons in Nashville. He played just 11:11 per game last season (1:37 on the power play) and 14:32 (3:17) the season before (2009-10). The three-season span before the precipitous drop in ice time saw him score 66 goals and 203 points in 244 games. Another low-cost option is Trent Hunter, two years younger but far less accomplished than Dumont.
Overall, the Jets have taken it relatively easy in free agency, knowing that the pressure to win right away is not as paramount in Winnipeg as it would be in a non-hockey market bringing in a new team. They have a solid nucleus of forwards but are depending on the growth of their younger trio of Bryan Little, Evander Kane and Blake Wheeler - the last two of whom are on the brink of being emerging power forwards. They will also need Andrew Ladd to prove that last year's breakout season of 29 goals and 59 points wasn't a fluke. While most have written off Nikolai Antropov as simply too slow for the new NHL, especially after hip surgery in summer 2010 seemed to make him even slower and his numbers dropped significantly, the fact of the matter is that nobody else is going to think about picking up his contract ($4.06 million this season and next) until he puts up some numbers that prove all his detractors wrong. Thus the Jets are stuck and they have to give him top six minutes to start the season. Alex Burmistrov, who won't turn 20 until after the start of the 2011-12 season, remains a work in progress. Until Burmistrov gets top-six minutes and decent power-play time, we'll never know what he's truly capable of.
On defense the team brings back its top six from last season, including the dynamic duo of Byfuglien and Enstrom. The two first-unit power-play QBs combined for 31 goals, 73 assists and 104 points. After that deadly duo the rest of the D is sound with Ron Hainsey, up-and-comer Zach Bogosian, Johnny Oduya and Mark Stuart. Randy Jones was signed as a depth defenseman and could see second power play unit minutes if any of the top four were to get injured.