Fantasy Hockey Mailbag: Slow-Starting Stars and Streaking Rookies

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.

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Sidney Crosby, fantasy dud. Oscar Lindberg, fantasy stud.

Who saw that coming from the opening week of the NHL season?

Not to mention Connor McDavid looking like a total bust in Edmonton — that’s tongue-in-cheek, folks, put down the pitchforks.

Crosby not only went pointless but also shotless in Pittsburgh’s first two games, as the Penguins were blanked 3-0 by the Dallas Stars and downed 2-1 by the Arizona Coyotes, who are supposed to suck but shockingly won their first two games.

Crosby is supposed to be the league’s best player, the favourite to win the Art Ross Trophy as leading scorer every season. He’s been disappointing, to say the least, so far.

In those opening games, the high-powered Penguins fired a combined 65 shots on Antti Niemi and Mike Smith but none of them came off the stick of No. 87 despite Crosby totaling 42:57 in ice-time. Pittsburgh’s only goal came off the stick of Phil Kessel, but it was unassisted.

At least Kessel physically shot the puck into the net — that’s more than McDavid and the Oilers have accomplished. Edmonton was shut out 2-0 by Nashville and dropped a 3-1 decision to St. Louis, only getting on the board thanks to an own goal by the Blues that was credited to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. This, despite Nugent-Hopkins not even appearing to touch the puck on a cleanly lost faceoff before the defenceman banked a clearing attempt off a teammate and into the net.

Speaking of faceoffs, McDavid is struggling at the dot, winning just 5-of-24 draws through two games. That won’t impact his fantasy status, but aside from a couple electrifying rushes, McDavid has only three shots to show for his efforts over 36:09 of ice-time to start his NHL career. Not to fret, he’ll find the scoresheet soon enough — the sky isn’t falling, and McDavid isn’t destined to be the next Alexandre Daigle.

Lindberg has been much more impressive for the Rangers so far, scoring in every game. The soon-to-be 24-year-old Swedish rookie was flying under the radar for most, but people are taking notice now that he has netted four goals through three games. So if Lindberg is available in your league, drop what you’re doing and go grab him immediately — I’m half-kidding, but holy lightning, he’s off to a hot start. If Lindberg lights the lamp again tonight against Winnipeg, he’ll definitely become the flavour of the week and deservedly so. Over the course of season, I’d still be surprised if Lindberg scored more than 20 to 25 goals, but that’s probably five to 10 more than I anticipated a week ago.

The rookie you do want to own is Chicago’s Artemi Panarin — this little Russian is the real deal. I’d consider him the frontrunner for the Calder Trophy right now, even ahead of the favourites, McDavid and Buffalo’s Jack Eichel. Panarin’s got two goals and four points in three games, including a snipe on Henrik Lundqvist.

Whereas Lindberg is centering a third line, Panarin is flanking Patrick Kane in the top-six and getting power-play time too. That’s a prime spot with the potential to keep producing at a pretty good clip — I’m thinking closer to 30 goals and 60-plus points could be within the realm of possibility for Panarin.

As for other hot-starters, now is not a bad time to own any member of Detroit’s top line — whether that is Henrik Zetterberg, Justin Abdelkader or rookie Dylan Larkin — while Florida players could also be a hot commodity with the Panthers entering a busy four-game week and fresh off a seven-goal outburst in their opener against the Philadelphia Flyers.

In last week’s Mailbag, I was asked for a list of fantasy-relevant players sidelined by injuries and there are a couple more names to add after the opening week of action. The most notable are Buffalo goaltender Robin Lehner (ankle, 6-10 weeks) and Carolina defenceman James Wisniewski (knee, 6 months). The latter is likely done for the season unless he makes a miraculous recovery or the Hurricanes miraculously make the playoffs. So if you’re in a single-season league, you’re probably safe to drop Wisniewski now — as much as it hurts — rather than wasting an IR spot. Lehner owners are feeling the pain too after he got his skate caught in a rut during the Sabres’ opener, causing this freak injury. He’ll be back in about two months, but keep an eye on Buffalo’s crease situation because the Sabres will probably be shopping for a temporary replacement rather than relying on backup Chad Johnson. There are a few third-stringers available via trade in Minnesota’s Niklas Backstrom, Edmonton’s Ben Scrivens and one of Calgary’s Jonas Hiller or Karri Ramo.

Moving on to this week’s Mailbag . . .

Stefan Morrone asked on Facebook: I’m in a head-to-head league. My forwards are pretty good, but my D is somewhat weak. I have Mike Green, Nick Leddy, Matt Niskanen and Aaron Ekblad. I’m thinking about swapping out Leddy for Jack Johnson, but I’m concerned about his +/-. Do you think this is a good idea?

ANSWER: That’s a good question, but a tough one. I’m leaning towards yes, I think it is a good idea. I can understand your concern, but I think the increased point potential is worth the plus-minus risk. I believe the Blue Jackets are going to be much improved this season — despite their 0-2 start — so that will help Johnson’s plus-minus rating, even though Leddy’s will probably still be better on a stacked Islanders team. Johnson should get more power-play time than Leddy, which should result in more points. I was torn on what to tell you, but then I thought of it this way: What if Stefan had been proposed a 1-for-1 trade, Leddy for Johnson? I would tell him to take that deal, so it makes sense to also swap them via the waiver wire if that’s an option. I’m pretty sure I’d trade Niskanen for Johnson too, but would I trade Niskanen for Leddy or vice versa? Hmm, that’s even tougher. I think I’d be tempted to drop Niskanen before Leddy, but you can probably go personal preference between those two. Barring injuries, they should finish within five points of each other whereas Johnson could be five points ahead of both.

“Flow” asked on HFBoards: I’ve seen a lot of lists talking about breakout forwards, but are there any good candidates for D-men? Would Justin Schultz be a good late-round pick up this season?

ANSWER: Ignoring the Oilers’ lack of early offence — it’s only been two of 82 games — Schultz should be a solid pick, especially if you can get him in the late rounds. He’s going to be the feature defenceman on what should become a potent Edmonton power play. The Oilers are going with four forwards plus Schultz, so he’ll get lots of touches, which should translate to assists if not goals. Schultz would be among my top breakout candidates, along with (in no particular order) New Jersey’s Adam Larsson, Minnesota’s Matt Dumba, Toronto’s Morgan Rielly and/or Jake Gardiner, Nashville’s Seth Jones and/or Ryan Ellis, Buffalo’s Rasmus Ristolainen, Columbus’s Ryan Murray, Winnipeg’s Jacob Trouba, Pittsburgh’s Adam Clendening and/or Derrick Pouliot (if/when called up), Carolina’s Ryan Murphy, Colorado’s Brandon Gormley and/or Nikita Zadorov, Anaheim’s Simon Despres (assuming Cam Fowler and Hampus Lindholm are already known quantities), Ottawa’s Cody Ceci and/or Patrick Wiercioch, Washington’s Dmitry Orlov, Tampa Bay’s Nikita Nesterov, Montreal’s Nathan Beaulieu, Chicago’s David Rundblad, Arizona’s Michael Stone and/or Stefan Elliott, Philadelphia’s Brandon Manning and/or Evgeny Medvedev, plus one or more of Boston’s Zach Trotman, Colin Miller and Joe Morrow. Those are the names that jumped out at me when scanning my Big List of the Top 165 Fantasy Defencemen. They are ranked according to point potential there, but I personally like Schultz, Larsson, Dumba, Jones and Ristolainen as my top five. If you have a chance to own any of them, make it happen — especially if you’re in a keeper league.

Mike Hall, who is becoming a Mailbag regular and my new buddy, asked via email: I was just offered Joe Pavelski for Kyle Turris, good trade for me or keep Turris? I have Joe Thornton and he has Mark Stone.

ANSWER: Yes, that’s a good trade for you. I’d much rather have the Joes, even though Turris is off to a hot start as well. Pavelski has topped 70 points and 35 goals in two straight seasons and scored a hat trick in his first game this season. Turris is five years younger but has career highs of 26 goals and 64 points. Turris could eclipse 70 points this season, but Pavelski is more of a sure thing, in my opinion. Playing with Thornton, a world-class playmaker, Pavelski will be gifted 20 goals and might have to break a sweat to get the other 20. I wouldn’t hesitate in pulling the trigger for Pavelski, unless you truly believe in Turris’s breakout potential — we’re talking a 10- to 20-point increase on last season.

Mike also asked: What’s your thoughts on Valeri Nichushkin? Would you take him ahead of Andres Lee, Jonathan Drouin or Nathan MacKinnon?

ANSWER: In a keeper league, I would strongly consider swapping Nichushkin for Lee, but not the other two. In a single-season league, I might stick with Lee considering he’s riding shotgun with John Tavares. Drouin and MacKinnon both have higher short- and long-term ceilings than Nichushkin, in my opinion, so I would take them out of the equation. I think Nichushkin could go on to have a better career than Lee — that is, if the big Russian machine can stay healthy. Nichushkin has the size and skill to be a real force in the years to come, and especially for fantasy leagues that count shots as a category. Then again, Lee is no slouch in that category and kind of possesses a similar skill-set to Nichushkin. For this season, Lee could be the better option, but I prefer Nichushkin’s upside as a keeper. Nichushkin — who is slated to be a healthy scratch against Edmonton tonight — was actually just traded in one of my keeper leagues over the weekend, but more on that later.

As a continuation to that question, Mike asked: What’s up with Patrick Roy playing MacKinnon on the third line? I think that’s crazy to have that talent on third line.

ANSWER: Good question, but Roy — and many coaches at this time of year — already have the blender fired up, so don’t read too much into line combinations right now. Look at Edmonton, for example, where Todd McLellan separated McDavid and Taylor Hall after only one game and put McDavid between lesser wingers Benoit Pouliot and Lauri Korpikoski before later pairing him with Nail Yakupov. Coaches are going to experiment early in the season to see what works and what doesn’t in finding the right fits and developing chemistry. To me, it looked like Roy was trying to ice three balanced scoring lines rather than loading up the top two. So I wouldn’t call that a third line as much as it was a 1C line. Not to worry, MacKinnon will probably still see plenty of time with the likes of Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene, both at even strength and on the power play over the course of the season. MacKinnon picked up a couple points in his debut — and is up to five points after only two games — so he’s already off to a good start in what should be a bounce-back campaign. MacKinnon suffered through the dreaded sophomore slump, but he’s an elite talent and could be a top-20 scorer in the league for a decade to come. If you own him, consider yourself lucky.

My Fantasy World

Keeper 1

Parity has never been more prevalent in this 20-team league, following up our most successful auction draft to date with our most competitive opening week to begin our sixth season. Across the board, the scores — and the individual categories — were crazy close, with the exception of one semi-blowout that was closer than the result indicated. With Period 1 in the books, 18 teams are separated by only four points in the standings — spanning second place to 19th. We compete in a head-to-head format with 10 scoring categories, so you can imagine the nail-biting that took place over the weekend.

We swapped out a scoring category for the first time in a long time this season, replacing plus-minus with shots on goal. This change has already added a ton of entertainment value — especially since CBS live-tracks the shots — but it proved bittersweet for me. I entered Sunday’s lone game trailing my opponent by four shots and appeared to pull even — thus salvaging a point for tying — but the final stats update somehow left my team one shot shy, falling 81-80.

I’ll go ahead and blame Crosby — I still can’t believe that bum couldn’t muster a single shot. Here’s hoping he’ll step it up a notch dozen notches in the second week and become the game-breaker I bought him to be.

Sadly, on Saturday night — the night that head-to-head matchups always take a turn, for better or worse — Crosby put up the same stat-line as his healthy-scratch teammate Bobby Farnham against the Coyotes of all teams. I mention Farnham because I also had him in my lineup over others — such as Brad Boyes — who would have won me the shots category and swung the overall outcome in my favour. I picked Farnham in our reserve draft, thinking he’d be a penalty-minute machine in replacing last season’s league-leader Steve Downie’s presence for Pittsburgh. With the PIMs category up for grabs, I decided to dress Farnham against Arizona — Downie’s new team — in hopes of fireworks there, but that backfired in a big way.

It also didn’t help that I had a handful of Oilers among my 12 forwards — Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, Benoit Pouliot and Anton Lander — on a night their team failed to score a single goal. That won’t bode well for a fantasy team under any circumstances.

With those five firing blanks and Crosby no-showing, my team finished with a league-low 12 points — the league-high was 26 points.

Fortunately my other ringer, Carey Price, came to play and did his part by winning me both goaltending categories (wins and save-percentage). I was holding out hope that Erik Karlsson could steal me another category or two on Sunday, but his encore left a lot to be desired — going pointless, with only one shot — after a three-assist performance on Saturday. I probably shouldn’t complain too much about that guy, considering his heroics have singlehandedly won me matchups in recent years.

My Oilers are back in action tonight — finishing their season-opening road trip in Dallas — but now I’m torn because I own Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen in my other keeper and I desperately need him to regain the starter role there. Edmonton has four games this week, also facing St. Louis back at home, then division rivals Calgary and Vancouver on the weekend, so maybe the Oilers can save their offensive explosion for those foes.

I made two minor roster moves on Sunday, waiver claims to drop Dustin Tokarski for Brandon Manning and Kyle Baun for Quinton Howden. I ditched Tokarski after Mike Condon won his first NHL start to further solidify the backup role behind Price that once belonged to Tokarski. Somebody beat me to Condon on the waiver wire, but I like Manning’s potential as a points-PIMs defenceman for Philadelphia. With Howden, I’m hoping to capitalize on Florida’s four-game week even though he and Chicago’s Baun have both been healthy scratches early on. Howden should draw in for a game or two and he’ll (hopefully) be motivated to stay in the lineup going forward.

As long as the playing field stays this level, I’m not sure how many trades we’ll see in this league. The only deals that went down during the first week were made to complete goaltending tandems. The GM that owned Petr Mrazek paid a pretty penny to bring in Jimmy Howard by sending out Patrick Marleau, Nic Petan, a third-round pick and Jonas Gustavsson. The other trade was a 2-for-2 goalie swap with the owner of Andrew Hammond landing his partner Craig Anderson and James Reimer in exchange for Cam Ward and Karrio Ramo.

In a league that requires two goalie starts each week in order for your stats to count, the tandem approach can be a wise one because it essentially guarantees you meet that mandatory criteria. Short of having two high-end starters from different teams — and there aren’t enough of them to go around — going with a tandem is a good idea, even more so if they are platooning in real life.

Keeper 2

It was a losing opening week all around for my fantasy teams, but this one exceeded expectations — at least based on the pre-season power rankings for this 28-team league. I put up a good fight and was leading at times before succumbing to one of the title favourites despite totaling the eighth-most fantasy points — not bad for being ranked 21st. My opponent had been ranked third and lived up to that billing by finishing third overall in fantasy points for the week.

My team finished seventh overall last season but is admittedly trending down through an intentional shift towards youth. That said, I expected to be ranked somewhere in the mid-teens — at least a few spots higher than 21st — so hopefully my upstart squad can continue to “overachieve”.

Much like my other league, I made a couple waiver moves — one that paid immediate dividends and another that should help in the coming week. I dropped Rene Bourque mid-week to make room for Panarin on my active roster, just in time for his three-point night. More recently, I dropped Jacob Josefson for Jakub Kindl because I felt I needed an extra defenceman with one of my spares — Tampa Bay’s Nikita Nesterov — serving as a healthy scratch to start the season.

I have another tough matchup in Period 2, facing the league’s leading point-getter from Period 1, but my team has already shown some upset potential. Wish me luck!

There were a few trades in this league, with one of the rebuilding franchises moving Nichushkin — a quality building block, in my opinion — for forward prospect Anthony Beauvillier and what will certainly be a late first-round pick from the team that just beat me. The rich get richer with that deal, but there could be some long-term gain for the seller as well.

The other deals were nothing special — a team landed Joffrey Lupul for Shawn Mathias and Miikka Salomaki, while Micheal Ferland was dealt for prospect Vladislav Kamenev.

This league does tend to be more active on the trade front, because of its dynasty nature and a noticeable discrepancy between rosters held over from last season. There are a few powerhouse teams stacked with elite talents, while many bottom feeders are actively trying to retool for the future.

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.