Fantasy Focus: Comeback Candidates

Fantasy hockey is all about utilizing the later picks of your draft. A league can be won by taking the right risks at the right times. Take, for example, Max Domi. From 2016 to 2018, he struggled to top his 52-point rookie season with the Arizona Coyotes, yet he was a promising young player and a former first-round draft pick, so he still attracted some optimism within fantasy circles. Then came 2018-19, when he was traded to the Montreal Canadiens and erupted for 72 points. Those that took a risk on the struggling forward were handsomely rewarded.

Max Domi, Montreal Canadiens
No one increased his value more last season that Max Domi (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With fantasy leagues starting up again, there will be speculation as to who can bounce back after a rough season or two. Changes of scenery, changes in linemates, even the promise of a new contract can be enough of a motivator to get a hockey player to return to former glory. In 2019-20, several players fall into one or more of those categories, which should translate to a boost in point production. Here are 10 players this season who look to be prime candidates for a comeback.

Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars

In 2018-19, Benn only scored 53 points, his lowest total since he broke into the NHL in 2009-10. While his goal totals remained fairly consistent, only dropping from 36 in 2017-18 to 27 last season, his assists plummeted from 46 to a measly 26. One reason for the decline was the emergence of the speedy Roope Hintz, who pushed Benn off the top line by the end of the season. Without Tyler Seguin and Alex Radulov on his line, Benn had no one to set up for goals.

Jamie Benn, Scott Laughton
Dallas Stars left wing Jamie Benn keeping the puck away from Philadelphia Flyers center Scott Laughton (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Seeing the lack of forward depth, the Stars signed Joe Pavelski, one of free agency’s top targets, to anchor their second-line center. Now, Benn has a proven goalscorer (38 goals last season) on his line again, which will mean a boost in his assists. He also took notes from Hintz’s style and spent much of the offseason working on agility and power skating. All things combined, Benn could see 70 points in 2019-20, especially if Pavelski gels quickly with the Stars. However, if he doesn’t, it’s unlikely he falls below 60 points again.

Wayne Simmonds, New Jersey Devils

For multi-stat leagues, Simmonds has been one of the most valuable players, consistently recording 25-plus goals and 150-plus hits since 2011-12. But since 2017-18, he’s taken a steep nosedive, thanks in part to a slew of serious injuries. His 2018-19 season was by far his worst of his career: 17 goals, 13 assists, and 137 hits. His shooing percentage dropped to its lowest since his rookie year, and his power-play time was cut by nearly a full minute last season. But there are signs that it will bounce back in 2019-20.

Nashville Predators Wayne Simmonds
Wayne Simmonds during his very forgettable tenure with the Nashville Predators (David Berding-USA TODAY Sports)

First, Simmonds is on a one-year deal in New Jersey, and he’ll be looking to either earn an extension or get a big raise next season. The Devils also have an opening on the top power-play unit after Brian Boyle’s departure. Finally, Simmonds is injury-free, meaning he’s been able to work out consistently this offseason, which gives him a good shot at being the team’s second-line right winger on a line with Nikita Gusev and Jack Hughes. With the boost in ice time and power-play time, Simmonds is a good bet to return to 25 goals, 50 points, and 150 hits.

William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs

After scoring 61 points in each of his first two full seasons in the NHL, expectations were high for Nylander heading into 2018-19. However, a lengthy contract dispute caused the forward to sit out nearly half the season. Once he returned, he fell significantly short of his former production, ending the season with just 27 points over 54 games. Now, expectations are much more subdued for the 2019-20 season, which should allow savvy fantasy owners to pick him up in later rounds.

Toronto Maple Leafs centre William Nylander
Toronto Maple Leafs center William Nylander (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)

One major reason to expect a bounce back is that the more Nylander played, the more he looked like his former self; 24 of his 27 points came in the final 35 games. His shooting percentage of 5.4% increased to 7.1% in the playoffs — much closer to his 10.8% full-season average. His defensive game also improved without costing his offensive game too much, making him a much more responsible hockey player. According to Dobberhockey, “If I see a points-per-game average of 0.75 and then 0.74 over a player’s first two full seasons, and then a see him post 0.50 during a partial season, I ignore the partial season.” Expect another 60-plus-point season in 2019-20.

James Neal, Edmonton Oilers

Neal is at an interesting point in his career. He’s definitely in decline, having failed to surpass 25 goals or 50 points since 2015-16. But he’s also certainly better than we saw last season, when he scored just seven goals with the Calgary Flames. After signing a $5.75 million deal that takes him to 2023, the Flames were eager to move on from their apparent mistake. During the offseason, Neal was traded to the Oilers for fellow problem contract Milan Lucic. However, Edmonton opens several new opportunities for Neal, prompting many to see a potential bounce-back season in 2019-20.

Calgary Flames James Neal
Former Calgary Flames left wing James Neal (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

The Oilers have minimal depth on their wings, all but guaranteeing Neal a spot on the top line alongside Connor McDavid. Last season, Zack Kassian doubled his goals from 2017-18 to 2018-19 while playing mostly on the top line, setting a career high with 15 goals. Neal, who’s a natural goalscorer with a career-high 40 goals in 2011-12, should be a perfect receptacle for McDavid’s passes. The only thing holding Neal back from a 50-60 point season is his diminishing speed. If he can’t keep up with either McDavid or second-line center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, he’ll be buried once again, so draft responsibly.

Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets

Laine had a strange season in 2018-19. After showing signs of becoming the greatest goalscorer since Alex Ovechkin, posting totals of 36 and 44 goals in his first two seasons, Laine dropped to just 30 in 2018-19. While it may not seem like a big drop, he only scored nine goals from December to April. With his entry-level deal expiring this summer, it was a year to go big and earn a massive raise. Instead, he produced the worst point total of his young career, which has some concerned that there may be something else working against the talented Finn.

Patrik Laine Winnipeg Jets
Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, it’s more likely that 2018-19 was just an off season for Laine. There were reports of a back injury that may have slowed him down, as well as the chemistry between Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler on the top line, which the Jets were unwilling to break up while they were winning. The result was a wide fluctuation in Laine’s ice time, leading to greater inconsistency. That will get sorted out, though, as he’s just far too good to stay quiet for long. Some have even penciled him into the Rocket Richard conversation for 2019-20.

The only issue is that, at the time of publication, Laine is still without a contract and the Jets seem to be preparing for life without their young sniper. Muddying the waters, recent trade rumors have emerged, as well as speculation that Laine may not want to sign in Winnipeg long term. But, as of now, they remain rumors, and most are hopeful that Laine will re-sign soon, just like recent holdout Mitch Marner.

Nick Schmaltz, Arizona Coyotes

After a breakout season with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2017-18, where he scored 21 goals and 52 points, Schmaltz was traded midway through the 2018-19 season to the Coyotes. He was expected to give the Arizona offense a major boost, but he finished the season with just 28 points, a career low. While this may look troubling, as the Coyotes have been one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league, Schmaltz looks primed for a bounce-back and may surpass his career high in 2019-20.

Nick Schmaltz, Alec Martinez
Arizona Coyotes’ Nick Schmaltz is defended by Los Angeles Kings’ Alec Martinez (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Schmaltz was far more productive with the Coyotes than he was in Chicago, despite playing on a line with Patrick Kane. After 17 games with the Coyotes, he had 14 points, while only scoring 11 points in 23 games before the trade. A large part of that was his chemistry with Clayton Keller on the second line. During their 17 games together, Keller and Schmaltz combined for 35.2% of all points scored for the Coyotes. The only thing that got in their way was a knee injury that ended Schmaltz’s season on Dec. 30. Coming into 2019-20, Schmaltz will be healthy and has a new deal of seven years at $5.85 million per season, two excellent motivators to bounce back.

Rickard Rackell, Anaheim Ducks

Rakell was just beginning to rise as the new top forward in Anaheim, scoring 42, 51, and 69 points in consecutive seasons. However, in 2018-19, he hit a speed bump and sunk down to 43 points again. It was a worrisome result for the Ducks, who were in the midst of one of their worst seasons of the decade due to the decline of long-time stars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. If Rakell was tied to Getzlaf’s success, then there would be cause for concern, but, thankfully, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

Anaheim Ducks Rickard Rakell
Anaheim Ducks left wing Rickard Rakell (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

When head coach Randy Carlyle was fired in February, Rakell had just 26 points in 51 games, but in March, he had his best month of the season, scoring 15 points in 16 games. The coaching change helped him break out of his funk, despite general manager Bob Murray (who stepped in after Carlyle) not having any coaching experience. Now with Dallas Eakins taking over behind the bench, bringing with him a faster, more offensive system, Rakell should look like the player he was in 2017-18. The odds are good for him to hit 60 points again, but that could be higher if he and right wing Ondrej Kase find good chemistry.

Vincent Trocheck, Florida Panthers

Like Rakell, Trocheck was beginning to establish himself as one of the top point producers on his team before 2018-19. Then a nasty ankle injury derailed his season and when he returned in January after missing 27 games, he was not the same player. In the first half, he was nearly a point-per-game, but over the final 37 games in 2018-19, he only scored 20 points. Just a season removed from 74 points, the sudden drop was concerning, making some see 2017-18 as more of an outlier than the norm.

Vincent Trocheck, Florida Panthers
Vincent Trocheck, Florida Panthers, Oct. 17, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, it shouldn’t take much to get Trocheck back to a 30-goal pace. His shooting percentage was way down last season — 6.3% — thanks to the injury, so it should return to around 10% if he remains healthy. He also will have a new winger in Brett Connolly, a wily veteran who put up 46 points with the Washington Capitals last season. Then there’s the addition of coach John Quenneville, which should give everyone on the Panthers at least a little boost in production. One of the most versatile players on the roster, Trocheck will most likely bounce back under the new system to his previous career high.

Jordan Eberle, New York Islanders

While Robin Lehner had a career season in Long Island that ended in a Masterton Trophy, the Islanders as a whole regressed. Most noticeably, Mat Barzal took a step back from his incredible 85-point 2017-18 season to just 62 in 2018-19, but it was Eberle who suffered the most. A frequent linemate of Barzal’s over the past two seasons, Eberle plummeted from 59 points to 37, his lowest total ever over a full season. However, it shouldn’t be expected to become his new norm.

New York Islanders Jordan Eberle
New York Islanders Jordan Eberle (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen)

During the Islanders’ miraculous postseason run, Eberle was electric, scoring nine points in eight games to lead the team. It prompted him to re-sign to a below-market-value deal of $27.5 million over five years in order to stay with the team and players he loves. Anders Lee also returned amid speculation he would leave for big money, meaning the top line will stay together for 2019-20. It’s prompted some to consider Barzal for the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s point leader, which will no doubt give Eberle a huge boost on his 2018-19 totals. Sixty points shouldn’t be unexpected, and it could be more if Barzal flirts with his first 100-point season.

Charlie Coyle, Boston Bruins

With the Minnesota Wild, Coyle wasn’t worth more than a late-round fantasy pickup. His career high was 56 points in 2016-17, but before then he had never surpassed 42 points in a season. Still, he looked to build on his career best, but an injury-riddled 2017-18 prevented that. He then got off to a slow start in 2018-19 and after 60 games, he’d only scored 28 points, prompting the Wild to trade him to the Bruins for Ryan Donato. In Boston, he didn’t fare much better, scoring just six points in 21 games.

Bruins center Charlie Coyle
Bruins center Charlie Coyle (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Yet there are several reasons why you could expect Coyle to have a bounce-back year in 2019-20. In the playoffs, he finally found his groove, scoring 16 points over 24 games and serving as a core piece for the Bruins’ run to the Stanley Cup Final. It’s earned him a spot on the second line alongside David Krejci and Jake Debrusk, as well as a spot on the second power-play unit. Then there’s the fact that Coyle will be playing for a contract and he’ll be itching to get a raise on his $3.2 million salary. With the Bruins looking to be a good bet for another deep Cup run, he will inevitably be a key piece and primed for a big year of at least 50 points.

Those are our 10 comeback candidates! Who will you pick in your fantasy pool? Do you have any other players who you expect to bounce back in 2019-20? Let us know in the comments.