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.
The Flames should have continuity on their side entering next season, as they made few changes in re-signing all of their prominent free agents, including 69-point left wing Alex Tanguay and 35-point defenseman Anton Babchuk.
The forward group is fairly set with only the disappointing Niklas Hagman (11 goals/27 points in 71 games) likely on his way out. The big question for the Flames is who plays first line center alongside top-scoring captain Jarome Iginla and Tanguay? Last season that job was shared amongst many, including Brendan Morrison (43 points in 66 games). Morrison won't be ready to start the season, as he's rehabbing his left knee after April surgery on his ACL. While Olli Jokinen, with 54 points in 77 games, was both the highest scoring center and first power play unit pivot, he took a regular shift most of last season with Rene Bourque and Curtis Glencross. This may be the time to see what former first-round draft choice Mikael Backlund, chosen 24th overall in '07, is capable of. Backlund and Matt Stajan will likely compete for the first line pivot spot while Morrison heals, assuming they decide to keep Jokinen on the second line with Bourque and Glencross. Newly acquired Lee Stempniak seems destined for the third line playing one wing position with David Moss playing the other.
Calgary traded Robyn Regehr to Buffalo at last June's NHL Entry Draft for a package that included younger defenseman Chris Butler (24 years old) and forward prospect Paul Byron (22). Babchuk is back and should play alongside Mark Giordano (43 points) on the first power play unit. The second power play unit is expected to include Jay Bouwmeester (24 points) and the newcomer Butler. With the free-agent signing of Scott Hannan, prospect T.J. Brodie (34 points in 68 games for the AHL's Abbottsford in first pro season) will likely have to stay in the AHL for another season barring injuries to any of the top six.
Colorado has some questions at left wing. Peter Mueller missed all of last season with a concussion and the jury is very much out on whether the 23-year-old can return to the form that excited Avalanche fans after his late-season arrival in 2009-10, when he scored 20 points in 15 games after the trade from Phoenix. Assuming he does return - summer reports out of Denver say he's skating symptom free - a reunion with linemates Matt Duchene and Milan Hejduk seems logical. The other top scoring line features Paul Statsny at center and probably David Jones at right wing. Their left wing could very well be the No. 2 pick overall in last June's NHL Draft, 18-year-old Gabriel Landeskog. The young Swede scored 60 goals and 112 points in 114 games over the past two years for Kitchener of the OHL so we know he can play on the smaller ice surface. Moreover, Kitchener gave up their rights to Landeskog (to sign another Euro, they have quotas), so he's not going back to junior. Then there is his size, 6-2/201, and his maturity and leadership - he has been compared favorably to former Kitchener Ranger captain Mike Richards, now of the L.A. Kings. The next best left wing is T.J. Galliardi. The 23-year-old Calgary native had a promising 2009-10 campaign for the Avs in his first full season with the team scoring 15 goals and 39 points in 70 games but he regressed last year, partly due to injury, finishing with just seven goals and 15 points in 37 games. The third line right wing spot will likely go to offseason acquisition Chuck Kobasew or Brandon Yip. Kobasew, a three time 20-goal scorer, managed just a paltry nine goals and 16 points in 63 games last season for an offensively challenged Minnesota squad while Yip scored 22 points in 71 games for Colorado after scoring 19 points in 32 games in 2009-10. The third line center will be Ryan O'Reilly, a 20-year-old who's already played 155 NHL games in his young career.
Defensively, the Avs will roll out Erik Johnson on their first power play unit but who plays the point alongside him? And who plays the point on the second power-play unit? The second first power play unit QB spot will likely come down to one of two guys named Kyle - Kyle Quincey or Kyle Cumiskey, depending on their health. After averaging 34 points over the previous two seasons, Quincey saw his production plummet to just one point in 21 games last year. He missed eight games with a concussion and 53 games with a shoulder injury that required surgery. Cumiskey had eight points in 18 games then missed the remainder of the season with a concussion. Matt Hunwick played 1:32 per game on the power play for Colorado for 51 games last season but mustered just 10 points. Two rookies are knocking on the door and each were outstanding offensive defensemen in the Western Hockey League. Stefan Elliott (241 in 282 games for Saskatoon) and Tyson Barrie (228 points in 256 games for Kelowna) are names to know now in keeper leagues and their performance in camp and preseason should be monitored. One of them, or possibly both, could crash the party and land a power-play spot for this season. They're both just 20 years old, though Elliott is six months older. However, with NHL veteran D-men Jan Hejda and Shane O'Brien joining the team this summer, there may not be enough room on the roster for the promising pair of rookies.
The Avalanche jettisoned both of their goalies from last season and traded a first-round draft pick and a second-rounder to the Capitals for Semyon Varlamov. As the talented 23-year-old Russian netminder has been injury prone in his early NHL career (he missed 29 games last season, nine games the previous season), the Avs also signed two goalies in free agency. Former Stanley Cup Finals MVP Jean-Sebastien Giguere (34) will be the backup while former Tampa Bay goalie Cedrick Desjardins (25) will be the No. 3 and start the season in the AHL. Desjardins performed admirably in his two starts for Tampa Bay last season (2-0 with a 1.00 goals-against average and .968 save percentage) and could conceivably vault past Giguere should Varlamov get injured and be forced to miss a significant amount of time.
One could argue that half of the forward group is "knocking". With so many kids on the team’s roster, the Oilers needed an infusion of 30-something top-nine talent and picked up two this summer in the former team captain Smyth (35) and the two-way center Belanger (33), a model of consistency who's scored between 13-17 goals and 33-40 points over the past eight seasons. The top six is set but the exact configuration remains in doubt. According to the team's website, the first line features a reunion with Smyth at left wing with Shawn Horcoff at center and Ales Hemsky on the right side while the second line is a "kid line" with 2010 No. 1 overall pick Taylor Hall (19 years old) on the left with fellow youngsters Sam Gagne (22) at center and Jordan Eberle (21) on the right.
This writer believes it would be more prudent to mix up the three veterans with the three youngsters. As it stands now Hall may have to spend part of his time, more than management would like, defending his less physical line mates. Barring a major surprise, Belanger will center the third line flanked by left wing Magnus Paajarvi (20 year old) and either Linus Omark (24) or Ryan Jones (27). Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the 2011 No. 1 overall pick, unlike Taylor Hall last season, is far from certain to make the team, as he needs to add at least 10-15 pounds to his 6-0/175-pound frame.
Defensively, the Oilers have added Cam Barker, who'll push Tom Gilbert for the second point spot on the first power play unit across from Ryan Whitney. Barker's career took a turn for the worse when he was traded to Minnesota a couple seasons back after posting 40 points in 68 games for Chicago in 2008-09. The 25-year-old is on a one-year deal and knows this year is crucial to his chances at securing another lucrative long-term contract. Jeff Petry, who will compete with newcomer Andy Sutton for the sixth spot on defense, will man the point alongside Gilbert on the second PP unit when he's in the lineup. Petry is a 23-year-old drafted 45th overall in 2006 who scored 24 points in 41 AHL games last season after racking up 67 points in 118 games over a three-year career at Michigan State.
While nine teams had fewer points in the season-ending standings than the Wild last season, only four teams scored fewer goals. They feel they've addressed that shortcoming by picking up two top six forwards in Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi. Heatley basically stank last season for San Jose in scoring just 26 goals after averaging 44 goals per season over the previous five campaigns. Heatley is considered an upgrade over the more injury-prone Martin Havlat. Heatley should be rejuvenated by the move to Minnesota. Some pundits consider him a "tin man" – with neither heart nor desire to play in the high-traffic areas anymore. He will have a big center in Mikko Koivu, who has averaged 67 points over the past three seasons playing with less talented wingers. Setoguchi takes a lot of shots (199 on goal in 72 games last season), like his former Sharks teammate Heatley (217 shots on goal in 80 games). As such it would behoove the Wild to split them up. Under this assumption the best candidate to play the other wing spot on the first line is Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Bouchard missed all but one game of the 2009-10 season due to a concussion. The four seasons prior saw him average 56 points per season, including averaging 24 power-play points and 40 assists. That is the kind of set up man who can help propel Heatley back to his former 40-goal form. Bouchard played 59 games this past season and had a modest 12 goals and 38 points - that's a 52-point clip over 82 games. Just think what could happen if he plays 70 games with Koivu and Heatley? If this scenario proves accurate, joining Setoguchi on the second line would be Matt Cullen and Guillaume Latendresse.
The cost of upgrading at forward for the Wild was stud defenseman Brent Burns. Burns scored 17 out of the Wild's 206 goals last season. There is only one proven power play QB on the roster - Marek Zidlicky. No. 2 center Matt Cullen has played the point on the power play before but that still leaves two point positions to fill over two power play units. Jared Spurgeon, 21, averaged 1:28 on the power play in the 53 games he played for Minnesota last season but finished with just 12 points. Spurgeon put up an impressive 170 points in 266 games in the WHL so he's definitely in the conversation. Marco Scandella, also 21, had 19 points in 33 AHL games last season. He had 82 points in 154 games in the Quebec junior league and was good enough to make the 2010 Canadian World junior squad. Former Tampa Bay defenseman Mike Lundin is another possibility though he's yet to prove himself offensively in the NHL with only 33 points in 224 NHL games.
The Wild did not bother to re-sign Jose Theodore to back up Niklas Backstrom. This year the backup will be Josh Harding, who missed last season after tearing both his ACL and MCL in a preseason game last September. The 27-year-old has decent peripherals in his 82 career games - a 2.66 goals-against average and .915 save percentage with four shutouts.
Knocking: Cody Hodgson
While some may disagree, the Canucks weren't tough enough to win the Cup and they've done nothing to address this over the summer. OK, back to Fantasy hockey. We know the Sedin twins will both be top-five picks in most drafts. The first debate is who plays with them at even strength, Mikael Samuelsson or Alexandre Burrows? Our money is on Burrows. The second line has its own questions, where Canucks leader Ryan Kesler may not be ready to start the season. Kesler had hip labral surgery the team announced Aug. 2, and the expected recovery time was announced at 10-12 weeks. When he returns sometime in October who will be his line mates? According to the team's web site it's Chris Higgins (28 points in 62 games) and Samuelsson (50 points in 75 games). Also in the hunt is Marco Sturm, whose 2010-11 season was an injury-riddled write-off. Prior to last season Sturm had scored 22 goals or more in four of the five previous seasons. Overall, Sturm has had seven 20-goal seasons and he's still just 32. Cody Hodgson will get top-six minutes while Kesler recovers from his hip procedure and it will be interesting to see what the former junior star (114 goals, 243 points in 197 games) can do. The third line should include Manny Malhotra and Jannik Hansen. Mason Raymond, who suffered a vertebrae compression fracture in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, is expected to be out until at least November. Once healthy, Raymond will be pushing for a top-nine role with possible top-six upside depending on the health and performance of guys like Higgins, Sturm and Hodgson. Mark Mancari, signed as a free agent, had 64 points in 56 AHL games last season but faces an uphill battle to crack the opening day roster. Ditto for former All-Star Owen Nolan, now 39 years old and coming back to North America after spending last season playing for Zurich in the Swiss league. Super pest Maxim Lapierre is expected to center the fourth line.
On defense the team saw Christian Ehrhoff leave in free agency. The first power play unit will feature Alex Edler (33 points in 51 games) at one point spot with the other point spot up for debate. The oft-injured Sami Salo, who played just 27 games last season, may get first dibs with Kevin Bieksa (22 points in 66 games) and Dan Hamhuis (23 points in 64 games) next in line. After that it would be Keith Ballard, the 11th overall pick of the 2002 NHL draft, who had just seven points last season after averaging 30 points per annum over his first five seasons in the league.