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By Murray Townsend
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. OK, it was just the worst of times, and certainly it was an unprecedented time.
And now, we’re coming off two reduced schedules that have raised many questions and uncertainties. Fantasy players have plenty of those at any and all times, so let’s try to address them each in turn.
Each reply begins with, “Good question,” so we’ll just leave that out.
> Can we just project players’ points in 56 games to an 82-game pace and call it a day?
The answer to that one is no, no, no.
The only way that would work is if everybody played the same number of games, which, of course, they never do.
Let’s say five players on a team played every game and scored 20 goals each, and five other players on that team scored 10 while missing half the contests. Simply projecting the half-season players to 82-game paces would give that team 10 separate 20-goal scorers. That would require some sort of team goal-scoring record.
If somebody replaces an injured top-line player on the power play, for example, they will be getting opportunities otherwise unavailable to them.
And that’s only the beginning. See the next question.
> OK, but if a top-tier player played every game, we could prorate their pace over 82 games, right?
It would be a guideline, sure, but it was such a weird year that it’s not so clear-cut. There were many unique factors at play: more games against the same opponent, be they weak or strong; less travel, with consecutive games in the same city, so players weren’t as mentally or physically tired; fewer off-ice distractions because there weren’t many off-ice activities away from the team; players battling COVID, who would sometimes come back still feeling the ill-effects; and taxi squads, which allowed for more lineup fluidity.
Because of those factors – and the shorter schedule with more frequent meaningful games – top players played more, and weaker players played less. If you examine minutes per game, you’ll see many bottom-six forwards saw their average ice time reduced by two or more minutes.
> With so many goalies getting to play this year, what did we learn about the position?
It’s not so much what we learned but what we already knew that was further emphasized. If you’re good enough to be a professional goalie, you’re good enough to play in the NHL, generally speaking. Especially over the short term.
Because there aren’t many NHL spots to go around, many qualified goalies often don’t get the chance to show their stuff. When they do, they need to make a lasting impression.
More goalies than usual got that chance last season due to COVID, taxi squads, injuries and expansion-draft eligibility requirements. Even in a shortened schedule, 98 stoppers – more than three per team – still saw NHL action in 2020-21.
Boston, for example, had an elite tandem in Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak. But injuries pressed first-year pro Jeremy Swayman into action. The untried rookie posted a goals-against average of 1.50 and a save percentage of .945 in 10 games for the B’s.
In Carolina, rookie Alex Nedeljkovic, another injury replacement, went 15-5-3 with a .932 SP and a 1.90 GAA. Jack Campbell, signed as a backup in Toronto, couldn’t lose, eventually going 17-3-2 for the Leafs.
That’s not to say we don’t still have our Andrei Vasilevskiys and Carey Prices or that one goalie isn’t better than the other(s) on a particular team, but rather that a goalie call-up can make a huge impact in a short stint and the right situation. Don’t be afraid to pick those untried pros off the waiver wire if you see they’re getting a chance. They won’t all work out, but some will.
> Where should we draft Andrei Vasilevskiy?
You normally wouldn’t use a high pick on a goalie, but Vasilevskiy is so far above the rest that he’s the exception.
It also depends on how your league handles fantasy points. In one fantasy platform, Vasilevskiy’s average draft position was 6.5 and his fantasy points ranked him fourth, behind Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Auston Matthews.
The top four in your draft should be pretty standard, again, depending on how fantasy points are earned. You have the players mentioned above, plus Nathan MacKinnon.
Then you start thinking about Vasilevskiy in the tier with Nikita Kucherov, Artemi Panarin, Brad Marchand, Mitch Marner, Patrick Kane and even Sidney Crosby.
So, No. 5 is the first spot you should take Vasilevskiy. If you’re in a 12-team snake draft and he slips down to No. 9 or 10, you should pounce because the elite scorers are probably already gone, and you’re picking again soon, so you’ll still get a highly productive scorer.
There may be a slightly higher risk of a goalie getting injured, but ask last year’s Jack Eichel drafters how they feel about that.
The thing about Vasilevskiy is, if he’s healthy, you can spend the whole season worry-free at the most worrisome position.
> How important are advanced stats in fantasy?
As important – or unimportant – as you want them to be.
There’s only so much fantasy information you can digest, and advanced stats are way down the priority list. Among the more important ones are a player’s scoring history, his likely team assignment, his age and his upside or downside risk.
And, of course, one non-stat: actually watching the player play the game.
Tim Stutzle had poor metrics last season. But are you going to let that stop you from drafting him? Not likely.
If you want to pay attention to the expected-goals stat, go right ahead. But note this stat that might help you more: actual goals scored.
> Who were last year’s waiver-wire superstars, and can they repeat?
Jason Robertson had only three NHL games to his credit before becoming a full-timer in Dallas’ lineup due to injuries. He finished second on the team in goals, assists and points and was a Calder Trophy finalist. He can repeat, for sure.
Michael Bunting was a much later addition, scoring 10 goals in 21 games for Arizona. He’s a career minor-leaguer who hit a hot streak, which can happen to anyone. Once. That’s not to say it won’t lead to more of an NHL opportunity, but don’t count on him recreating that magic with Toronto. Bunting was pointless in 10 games at the World Championship for Canada at season’s end.
> Why have top draft picks had so much trouble making an immediate scoring impact lately?
It’s a head-scratcher. Jack Hughes was expected to light it up, but he wasn’t ready for the NHL. He was too light on the puck, had little help in New Jersey and didn’t get a lot of tough competition experience playing for the U.S. NTDP team.
It’s a delay, not a derailment, but it’s one we didn’t expect.
Kaapo Kakko, the No. 2 pick in 2019, has yet to come around, and last year’s sure-fire first-overall pick, Alexis Lafreniere, wasn’t sure-fire at all, although he picked it up later in the season.
It’s difficult to say if the trend will continue, but the immediate result is that we’re not going to want to invest our own high draft picks on unproven top NHL picks.
> Why doesn’t being a McDavid linemate come with its own gold-plated scoring pass?
Theory time. It’s difficult playing with a superstar because you lose track of your own game and tailor it to his. You spend your time trying to get the puck to him because that’s what you’re “supposed” to do. How dare I skate the puck up the ice when there’s a perfectly good superstar right over there.
Another issue is third wheels often doesn’t join the power play because there are better options on the second line.
And if McDavid and Draisaitl are on the line, you’re an afterthought. Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto had difficulties in that role as the Oilers searched for the ideal fit.
The best third wheel in the game last year was (potential new McDavid linemate) Zach Hyman, who was the perfect complement to Marner and Matthews. His job was to retrieve pucks, bang bodies and make life easier for the two stars. He thrived in that role.
Tom Wilson, a frequent flyer on Washington’s top line, is another example. Leo Komarov also took on similar responsibilities for the New York Islanders in the playoffs – and went all 19 games without a goal.
> Which player in recent years broke the fantasy-progression mold?
Chandler Stephenson was, at best, a low-scoring fourth-liner for years with Washington. Now, instead of a 12-point scorer playing 12 minutes a night, he’s a top-six, 50-point-potential guy playing 18 minutes a night in Vegas.
> Any big second-half surges from last year?
Yes, both from the New York Rangers. Mika Zibanejad went from 17 points in his first 28 games to 33 in his next 28. Adam Fox had 16 first-half points and 31 in the second half. Zibanejad had a slow start, Fox, a fantastic finish. Two different scenarios.