Are you ready? We’re back to the 82-game regular season format, which means more joy and also more pain. It’s a roller coaster of emotions every season because there are always surprises, and the good ones can make us feel like geniuses while the bad ones feel like belly flopping into an empty pool.
But we’re all gluttons for punishment, so we might as well stay as informed as we can to later rationalize why the fantasy hockey gods hate you. Yes, they specifically hate you.
2021-22 Fantasy Outlook: Tampa Bay Lightning
Last season: What more can you say about the back-to-back champs? After some clever cap maneuvering by GM Julien BriseBois, Nikita Kucherov returned just in time for the playoffs and didn’t miss a beat, leading the team in scoring with 32 points in 23 games. They finished eighth in the regular season standings but that was no longer the focus after a Presidents’ Trophy win in 2019 resulted in a first-round exit.
They were a solid team throughout, with three players scoring at least 40 points and another five who scored over 30, but lacked an elite scoring option with Brayden Point finishing just 34th in league scoring. Fantasy managers who took a gamble on Steven Stamkos in the late-first or second rounds banking on an injury-free, bounce-back season only reaped moderate rewards; the Lightning captain played almost at a point-per-game pace but appeared in just 38 contests. The ultimate gem was Andrei Vasilevskiy, and there’s little debate he’s the best goalie in the league right now.
Best option: Andrei Vasilevskiy, G
Kucherov has a chance at the Art Ross, Victor Hedman a shot at the Norris, and both Steven Stamkos and Point are reliable scorers, but no Lightning dominates his position like Vasilevskiy. He’s led the league in wins for four straight seasons, totalling 149 in 211 starts (.706 Win%) and ranks second in save percentage (min. 100 GP) and seventh in GAA. Sure, Kucherov is a fine pick in the first round, but he’s one of a handful of players who can easily score over 100 points – THN’s Pool Guide has him pegged for 104 points this season – but Vasilevskiy is the front-runner for the Vezina, and the only other goalie in his tier is Connor Hellebuyck, who is still a distinct second place. All other goalies are at least a tier below, and that makes Vasilevskiy a worthwhile first-round pick, especially if you consider how fraught with risk goaltenders are in fantasy.
Hidden gem: Anthony Cirelli, C
Yanni Gourde led all Lightning forwards in faceoffs taken last season with 649 as their go-to shutdown center, but he’s with Seattle now and that creates a pretty big void down the middle. Stamkos will take faceoffs depending on the situation, but he’s been deployed on the wing very often over the past few seasons, and in order to extend his career after a slew of injuries, it seems like the safe and smart thing to do.
That means Point and Cirelli will be relied upon heavily, and that should increase Cirelli’s fantasy value, especially in leagues that count faceoffs. He’s an all-situations type player, and last season ranked third on the team in shorthanded faceoff wins, fourth in power-play faceoff wins, and third in even-strength faceoff wins, and he’s going to take on a lot more responsibility without Gourde, Tyler Johnson and Barclay Goodrow. The one area of concern will be his offensive production; he’s coming off a slightly disappointing 22-point season, but he managed to score 44 points in 68 games in the prior season and at just 24 years old, he has yet to really reach his peak. If Stamkos lines up on his wing, it’s going to give Cirelli a big boost on offense, though the inverse might not be necessarily true. Don’t forget about Cirelli in the middle rounds.
Goalies: It’s Vasilevskiy’s net with Brian Elliott coming in to give him a break whenever he needs it, and don’t forget about the extra burden of the Olympics, too, where Vasilevskiy will star for Russia. Vasilevskiy’s the rare goalie who you can rely on for 60-plus starts, but that workload might be too much to handle. Elliott averaged 29 games over the past three seasons with the Flyers and his ability to take on a steady workload was probably one of the reasons the Lightning preferred him over the generally ineffective Curtis McElhinney as his backup. That being said, Elliott is a very matchup-dependent goalie; even with a winning record, he finished his Flyers tenure with a 2.86 GAA and .902 Sv% and played eight games in which he allowed four goals or more.
Outlook: The expansion draft and the salary cap took a huge bite out of their depth, but having a healthy Kucherov for the full season will surely stem some of those losses. They will be expecting quite a few of their prospects in the AHL to graduate and earn full-time roles, including Alex Barre-Boulet, Ross Colton, Boris Katchouk and Taylor Raddysh, but for the most part they will be still be leaning on their veteran core, which now includes Corey Perry.
Depth on defense might be their strongest suit now with Zach Bogosian and Andrej Sustr back for their second tours with the club, but the real highlight is the continuing progress of Mikhail Sergachev. The 23-year-old rearguard has played behing Hedman and Ryan McDonagh on the depth chart, but he had a very strong 2020-21 campaign and – at worst – will be their third option There’s no shortage of fantasy options on a Cup contender and they should feature prominently on winning teams.