Fantasy Hockey Mailbag: Kessel or Tarasenko in a Keeper League?

Fantasy Hockey Mailbag is a weekly column, answering your questions every Tuesday. No question is too big or too small, so if you want advice or feedback on any topic related to fantasy hockey, just ask away in the comments below.

fantasy hockey mailbagPay attention, people. With the pre-season now underway, this is where you’ll find your sleepers and your steals — especially for deeper leagues.

The next couple weeks will reveal roster surprises and opportunistic line combinations. These first few games are full of experimentation and short-term combos that won’t last into the regular season, but as the exhibition schedule winds down, teams tend to tip their hand on what’s to come when the calendar flips to October.

Take notes and draft accordingly.

Worth noting, Phil Kessel will be flanking Sidney Crosby for his Pittsburgh Penguins debut tonight, while Connor McDavid is starting his NHL career on a line with Taylor Hall and likely Teddy Purcell. That trio had a test run in last night’s pre-season opener, but Hall got hurt (minor facial injury) and Purcell didn’t do much. McDavid picked up a pair of third-period assists on goals by Leon Draisaitl and Nail Yakupov in a 4-2 win over the rival Calgary Flames, who sent a B-squad to Edmonton.

For fantasy purposes, put a little star beside Purcell because if he sticks with those two to start the season, he should get a decent amount of points by default. And there’s no shame in riding coattails when it comes to your late-round picks.

You want to watch for bigger-picture stuff like that — and injuries, know who is hurt and for how long — and don’t put too much stock into pre-season statistics such as scoring leaders. There is always some no-namer lighting it up at this time of year only to stay a no-namer when the games start to matter. It is easy to get suckered into that “potential” — Jon Sim or Brandon Bochenski, anybody? — but do your homework and hedge your bets. Remember that, for the most part, the guys who were good last season are going to be good again this season.

If you’re willing (or wanting) to take a risk, then gamble on guys who are locks to make the team — no point wasting a roster spot on somebody in the minors — and maybe look at a guy who was bad last year but good in previous seasons. A guy like Alex Semin in Monreal immediately comes to mind, and it sure sounds like he’s lighting it up in training camp with Alex Galchenyuk and Lars Eller. In fact, there’s video evidence of that too.

That’s not to discourage picking rookies or even European free-agent signings, but proceed with caution. The reward could be high, but the risk is seemingly greater with those types. McDavid is a safe bet (obviously), but a guy like Sergei Plotnikov in Pittsburgh could go either way — the next Jori Lehtera or the next Petri Kontiola.

Decisions, decisions . . . draft day is typically where your leagues are won or lost, and the Fantasy Hockey Mailbag is here to help.

Brett Miolen asks on Twitter: In a keeper league where I can keep one of these two. Kessel or Tarasenko? Kessel could have a huge season with Pitt …

Vladimir Tarasenko
(Amy Irvin/The Hockey Writers)
Vladimir Tarasenko is four years younger than Phil Kessel and just entering his prime now. To me, Tarasenko is the better short- and long-term keeper.

ANSWER: It’s true, Kessel could really light it up alongside Sidney Crosby with the high-flying Penguins. If it was a single-season league, maybe, just maybe, you gamble on Kessel over Tarasenko. Or maybe not. I probably wouldn’t. But as soon as I saw the word “keeper” in there, this answer became obvious for me. Tarasenko is the better keeper without question. I don’t think last season was a fluke by any means, I think he’ll be a point-per-game guy for a half-dozen years if not a decade to come. Kessel might be comparable for a couple more years, but if you’re in this league for the long haul, Tarasenko is the guy to stick with. If you let him go and he has a repeat season, you’ll never get him back. Now, if you’re not committed long-term and you only care about cashing in this season . . . the answer is still Tarasenko.

Cody Stothers asks via text message: Do you think Leon Draisaitl is a for sure Oiler this year? I’m thinking he’s a late pick for 40-plus points.

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports) Leon Draisaitl got thrown into the deep end as a rookie last season and struggled to stay afloat. He'll be better prepared this time around, and Todd McLellan is a better coach to ensure he's put in the best possible situation for success. To start the pre-season, that's on a soft-minutes third line with Anton Lander and Nail Yakupov on the Edmonton Oilers.
(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
Leon Draisaitl got thrown into the deep end as a rookie last season and struggled to stay afloat. He’ll be better prepared this time around, and Todd McLellan is a better coach to ensure he’s put in the best possible situation for success. If he clicks with Anton Lander and Nail Yakupov on a soft-minutes third line, Draisaitl could have a productive campaign.

ANSWER: That point total might be a bit ambitious, but I do think Draisaitl will be in Edmonton’s opening-night lineup. He’s currently penciled in as the third-line left-winger — alongside Anton Lander and Nail Yakupov — and that spot will be Draisaitl’s to lose during the pre-season. But he isn’t a lock and could still get sent down to start the season if any of the following players outperform or out-produce him in the exhibition games — Lauri Korpikoski, Tyler Pitlick, Iiro Pakarinen and Andrew Miller. Those four represent Draisaitl’s competition, but I think he has a leg up in the minds of the coaching staff and management at this point. He would have to struggle in the pre-season or get significantly outplayed for a demotion to happen. As for 40-plus points? That’s really pushing it. Draisaitl had two goals and nine points in his 37-game stint last season. That pro-rates to four goals and 20 points over a full 82-game season. Draisaitl definitely made strides playing junior in Kelowna, but to expect him to more than double his point-per-game pace from last season is probably unrealistic. Split the difference and hope for about 10 goals and 30 points if he plays a full season. That might be underselling Draisaitl a bit — much like Peter Chiarelli did for Connor McDavid in his preview with TSN’s Bob McKenzie — but I’d hate to get your hopes too high. Draisaitl is a playmaker with incredible passing ability and vision, so it is possible his stat-line could be closer to 10-35-45, but that is absolute best-case scenario.

Mark Burke asks on Twitter: Thoughts on Nick Ritchie and Jake Virtanen. Either of them big-time prospects? Will Bjorkstrand score at NHL level?

ANSWER: Having watched Bjorkstrand dominate the WHL over the last couple seasons, I can tell you that he has a special skill-set. Every time he touches the puck, you get the feeling that something good is going to happen for his team. He’s dangerous at all times in the offensive zone and electrifying off the rush. I do think those traits should translate to the NHL as a top-six forward on a scoring line, possibly as early as next season or even partway through the upcoming season. I’m high on Bjorkstrand’s potential. Some people doubt him in part because Sven Baertschi also came through Portland as another high-scoring import who’s somewhat fizzled at the next level. I haven’t given up hope for Baertschi yet either — this could be a make-or-break year for him in Vancouver — but Bjorkstrand’s career could mimic another former Portland import in Marian Hossa. Granted, Hossa was a first-round pick back in 1997, but he made the jump straight from junior to the NHL and put up 15 goals and 30 points in his rookie season. That might not be unrealistic for Bjorkstrand if he earns that opportunity. For the record, that wasn’t meant to be a comparison of playing styles, with Bjorkstrand more like Marian Gaborik than Marian Hossa.

As for the first part of Mark’s question, both Ritchie and Virtanen project as multi-stat guys who could be valuable in leagues with several scoring categories including shots and hits. Virtanen has higher offensive upside, in my opinion, and he really impressed me in a live viewing at the Young Stars — from flattening Connor McDavid in the tournament opener to scoring an overtime winner on a breakaway in the finale. He raised his fantasy value in my eyes with that showing. Even at the world juniors, I preferred Virtanen to Ritchie, which I guess makes sense considering Virtanen was the sixth overall pick and Ritchie the 10th in 2014. That said, the Ducks do a good job of developing their prospects, so Ritchie could close the current gap and become an impact player as well. But as of today, I would take Virtanen, knowing there is a pretty good chance he sticks with the Canucks this season.

Steve Hornbeck asked a two-part question via email: Looking for some insight on the direction I have taken my team. In a dynasty league where my team had made the playoffs in 2013 and then regressed in 2014, have I done enough this off-season to compete for the championship?

PRE-ANSWER: Despite being in this same league as a rival GM, I needed some background prior to answering and I felt it necessary to share with our readers, so we’re all on the same page. For starters, Steve made the following seven trades this off-season:

INCOMING — Frans Nielsen and Dalton Thrower

OUTGOING — Tyler Bozak

INCOMING — Dougie Hamilton

OUTGOING — Hampus Lindholm, Jon Merrill, Brandon Gormley and Ty Rattie

INCOMING — Marek Zidlicky

OUTGOING — Danny Kristo and 2016 later third-round pick

INCOMING — Brad Richards

OUTGOING — Jesper Fast

INCOMING — Brent Seabrook

OUTGOING — Matt Dumba

INCOMING — Justin Abdelkader, Eric Gelinas and Anthony DeAngelo

OUTGOING — Sam Reinhart, Marcus Foligno, Josh Jooris, Zach Trotman and Dalton Thrower

INCOMING — Rick Nash and 2016 top-three pick

OUTGOING — Nathan MacKinnon, Michael Matheson and Chris Bigras

Here is the end result when combining those trades. I’ve listed the assets in order of my perceived value going forward:

INCOMING — 2016 top-three pick, Rick Nash, Dougie Hamilton, Brent Seabrook, Anthony DeAngelo, Frans Nielsen, Justin Abdelkader, Brad Richards, Eric Gelinas, Marek Zidlicky

OUTGOING — Nathan MacKinnon, Sam Reinhart, Hampus Lindholm, Matt Dumba, Tyler Bozak, Jon Merrill, Brandon Gormley, Jesper Fast, Michael Matheson, Ty Rattie, Marcus Foligno, 2016 later third-round pick, Chris Bigras, Zach Trotman, Josh Jooris, Danny Kristo, Dalton Thrower

In total, Steve received 10 incoming assets in exchange for 17 outgoing assets, which isn’t unusual when you’re the buyer.

Here is a look at Steve’s roster prior to the 2014-15 season:

Starters — Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, Drew Stafford, Michael Frolik, Tyler Bozak, Alex Tanguay, Hampus Lindholm, Travis Hamonic, Matt Dumba, Jon Merrill, Jonathan Bernier

Bench — Mikael Backlund, Martin Hanzal, Calle Jarnkrok, Marcus Foligno, Jesper Fast, Josh Jooris, James Reimer

Reserves — Sam Reinhart, Chris Tierney, Reid Boucher, Ty Rattie, Phillip Danault, Danny Kristo, Jordan Martinook, Brandon Gormley, Michael Matheson, Chris Bigras, Elvis Merzlikins

Here is a look at Steve’s current roster heading into the 2015-16 season:

Starters — Rick Nash, Matt Duchene, Justin Abdelkader, Alex Tanguay, Drew Stafford, Frans Nielsen, Dougie Hamilton, Brent Seabrook, Travis Hamonic, Marek Zidlicky, Jonathan Bernier

Bench — Michael Frolik, Martin Hanzal, Mikael Backlund, Brad Richards, Calle Jarnkrok, Eric Gelinas, James Reimer

Reserves — Chris Tierney, Reid Boucher, Phillip Danault, Jordan Martinook, Tony DeAngelo, Elvis Merzlikins, 2016 top-three pick, 2016 later first- and second-round picks

(Photo Credit: Andy Martin Jr.) Rick Nash is a beast in this league, which has multiple scoring categories including shots on goal. He'll give your forward group a good boost and help your team get back into the playoffs, but you did pay a handsome price to land him, so hopefully that deal proves worthwhile going forward.
(Photo Credit: Andy Martin Jr.)
Rick Nash is a beast in this league, which has multiple scoring categories including shots on goal. He’ll give your forward group a good boost and help your team get back into the playoffs, but you did pay a handsome price to land him, so hopefully that deal proves worthwhile going forward.

ANSWER: Congratulations Steve, you are a playoff team again for the upcoming season, barring a rash of injuries to key players. That’s the good news. The bad news is your team still isn’t a serious title contender. At best, I would rank you fifth and, at worst, I would rank you 10th in this 28-team league divided into four seven-team divisions. Your division has a lot of parity, but the trades you’ve made this off-season position your team among the frontrunners. I foresee you finishing second, but quite possibly first, and I think you should see the second round of playoffs based on your roster as of today. Beyond that, there are no guarantees — you could lose in the second round or go all the way. Time will tell.

You’ve clearly shifted into win-now mode and you’ve improved your forward depth as evidenced by Frolik going from a starter to the bench. You are in good shape up front, your collective group of forwards arguably ranking among the league’s the top five. But you paid a pretty penny to accomplish that, with MacKinnon and Reinhart on the verge of becoming fantasy studs for a decade. Your defence has made strides too, and Zidlicky landed in a nice spot by signing with the New York Islanders. Still, you could use another depth defenceman to rotate in until DeAngelo is NHL-ready. You’re goaltending will likely be a weakness, assuming the Maple Leafs finish closer to the draft lottery than the playoffs again. Bernier and Reimer are both decent goalies, but the Toronto tandem isn’t going to help you much this season.

If you’re really wanting to ‘go for it’, you’ll need to add a couple more pieces, which means parting with more of your youth. That makes for a nice segue to the second part of Steve’s question . . .

In addition, what are your thoughts on the top three players in the 2016 draft — whether they are franchise cornerstone players — or would I be better off flipping that pick?

ANSWER: The projected first overall pick, power forward Auston Matthews, is absolutely supposed to be a franchise player. If he had been born four days earlier, some think he would have went second overall in this year’s draft ahead of Jack Eichel, so that’s very telling of how impactful Matthews should be. For that reason, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to trade that pick, wait and see how that team (original owner of pick) starts the season and the moves that GM ends up making. If he goes into tank mode, you should probably hang onto the pick or make sure you’re getting an elite talent in return. I’m talking somebody like Alex Ovechkin, who appears to be on the trade block again in that league. I’d probably make that 1-for-1 offer today if I was you because the earlier you get Ovechkin (or a similar star), the better your chances at a championship. Also, if that original owner starts trending upward, even into say bottom-five territory, that pick significantly loses value.

I’m guessing it will end up as a top-three pick. Matthews is the consensus No. 1 prospect. The next tier features the likes of OHL defenceman Jacob Chychrun (potential franchise anchor for blue-line), OHL power forwards Matthew Tkachuk (Keith’s son, chip off the old block) and Max Jones (sort of a Lawson Crouse type), along with Finnish forwards Jesse Puljujarvi (perhaps next-best forward behind Matthews, big centre similar to Sasha Barkov) and Patrik Laine (fast-rising power forward at 6-foot-4). I would personally throw WHL forward Tyler Benson into that elite mix as well, making it about seven deep at the top of the draft. But there is a definitive drop-off from No. 1 to No. 2 at this point, though we’ll see how Matthews fares in Switzerland. So far, so good, with two goals in as many games.

Would I trade that pick? Not yet, not unless somebody wanted to give me an Ovechkin-type talent straight up. I wouldn’t trade it for lesser talents, not even for another Rick Nash type. Not unless you see the original owner making win-now moves to get out of the draft-lottery range, then definitely pull the trigger on the best player possible as soon as you can.

Would I trade other youth for upgraded veterans? Yes, if you’re planning to ‘go for it’, then go all-in. So Tierney, Boucher, your own two picks, even DeAngelo (potentially) would be in play if I were you. Using those assets, without the 2016 top-three pick, you could have beat the package that landed Nicklas Backstrom (Washington forward) this summer. That was an underpayment for him, but you should be able to add a significant player or two for those other pieces. More sellers will emerge after the first month of the season, as per usual, so if you get off to a winning start and still want to be buyer, you can time those fire sales and perhaps get a bargain. Or you can always stay the course with what you have and be content to return to the playoffs, possibly make a little (but not a lot) of noise, then draft a really good prospect in the top seven.

I might lean towards that last approach, just because the top two teams in this league are untouchable right now. You’d need to drastically upgrade your goaltending, get Ovechkin and get at least one more top-four defenceman to compete with either of them. I’m not sure you have the assets to make that all happen, even if you’re willing to part with that top-three pick. You might still come up short and end up regretting those moves. Just my two cents, so take it for what it’s worth.

My Fantasy World

Keeper 1

Nothing to see here, we are still counting it down to our Oct. 3 auction — 11 days, 12 hours, 20 minutes, 38 seconds as I hit submit on this column.

Keeper 2

This is the dynasty league that Steve is also in. There has been a lull in action there too, with most teams now seeming content with their rosters to start the season. But this is just the annual September calm before the October storm.

To keep us entertained, one of the veteran GMs always releases his pre-season power rankings around this time. That process has started and he’s through about 10 teams already. Unfortunately for me, I was ranked in his bottom 10 — 21st out of 28 teams, or eighth-worst in the league by his evaluation. I’ll be honest, I was expecting to be ranked in the mid-teens, so that was a bit of a blow, but also added motivation to prove him wrong and continue to improve my roster going forward. I believe he ranked me 14th the previous off-season and I placed seventh overall. So if I could climb seven spots again and place 14th by season’s end, I’d be happy with that. Then again, it might be in my best interests to try to finish bottom-seven and add one of those prospects I was telling Steve about. This season could go either way for my team, because I have several players who could either breakout or bounce-back. If they do, I could push for the top 10 and make the playoffs again, but a first-round exit appears inevitable as a best-case scenario.

Those power rankings always include a humorous write-up, which I would share here, but it’s NSFW or more like NSFTHW — get it, not safe for The Hockey Writers! Nevertheless, despite the extremely low ranking, he did express an understanding of the direction that I’m taking this team. That being, to trend younger and build from the blue-line. It’s a blueprint that has been laid out by other contenders, including those two aforementioned powerhouses (of which he’s one). To me, it’s a two-horse race from start to finish in this league for the upcoming season, which might take away some of the fun for the rest of us, but it should be entertaining to watch them slug it out in the end.

Do you have a question for the Fantasy Hockey Mailbag? Ask it in the comments below.

Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.