Fantasy Hockey: Love/Hate for 2008
I love fantasy hockey.
That's how this Love/Hate thing works, right? This column is a trademark of Matthew Berry (The Talented Mr. Roto) and is pretty straightforward in its nature: I "love" things that are undervalued by the masses and "hate" things that are overvalued.
So as far as the default rankings for fantasy sports are concerned, I "love" fantasy hockey. Football and baseball receive the vast majority of the press out there. Basketball is a strong-but-distant third in the eyes of the world. You could argue that the next tier includes PGA, NASCAR and hockey, but the order is debatable.
So in a draft of fantasy sports, I think the value you get by picking hockey is terrific. Obviously, football and baseball are first off the draft board for everyone, and they should be. One is the epitome of a marathon sport; the other exudes the quality of "Any Given Sunday." But once those two are off the board, I'll take hockey. It has all the same qualities as basketball does. For one, the number of games each team plays per week makes planning fantasy weeks tough. Fantasy also has a scoring category and an assist category, offensive players and defensive players. But fantasy hockey has some added value in the goaltender. Goalies separate hockey from basketball as my next-best pick. Like pitchers in baseball and individual defensive players in football, goalies get you points in completely different categories than the offensive players do, and therefore force you to try and weigh a .920 save percentage versus 60 goals. Apples and oranges, my friends.
So yes, I "love" fantasy hockey. It's an undervalued fantasy sport, and it's great to be here at ESPN.com, where fantasy hockey gets treated like a first-class citizen. The free game offered this year is better than anything you could wish to pay for anywhere else. And did I mention it's free?
Now, saying I love fantasy hockey is an example of how this love/hate thing works. I'm sure all of you are familiar with Matthew Berry's annual column for baseball, football and basketball. I'll recap anyway, though:
Though I "hate" Henrik Zetterberg and "love" Sergei Samsonov, it doesn't mean I think Samsonov will outscore Zetterberg this season. It means that I think Zetterberg is coming off a career season and is hyped up because he won the Conn Smythe Trophy. I don't think he's a good first-round fantasy pick. His versatility and strength at both ends of the ice might hurt him, because he seems the best candidate to slide back to the second line and play center (otherwise known as "getting booted off Pavel Datsyuk's line"). I think there you can draft other guys in the first and second rounds who will perform better than Zetterberg this season.
It also means that at the end of your draft, when you are filling out your final forward positions, I think Samsonov is a terrific pick. He finished the season with Carolina by scoring nearly a point per game and had an extra step in his game we haven't seen since his Boston days. Carolina has room for him in its very talented top six, and he could outperform his draft slot by a significant margin if he stays healthy.
It's all about value. To paraphrase Matthew Berry one last time, this is a version of a sleeper and bust list. It's a list of players I like more than the ESPN projections (love), and players I like less (hate).
Guys I love:
Rick DiPietro, G, Islanders: This goes for DiPietro, Ryan Miller, Martin Biron, Dan Ellis or any other goaltender who will start the majority of his team's games. I am not saying that our math is wrong, and I actually think the projections are very good for these players, but I do think that the math for ranking them so low can't possibly take into account the ups and downs of a fantasy season. Obviously, if you were to draft a team that locks in your rosters from start to finish, you could calculate percentages and use backup goaltenders with better ratios as your No. 2 goalie. But that isn't how a fantasy season is played. The math also doesn't take into account the need to meet weekly start minimums for head-to-head leagues. In summation, our math and projections are fine, but they need some human adjustment. I think that Miller and DiPietro are top-20 goaltenders and that Biron and Ellis are top-25 netminders.
Kyle Okposo, C, Islanders: Some will point to Okposo's early jump from college to the AHL (and another quick leap to the NHL) as a bad thing, but I think there is some method to GM Garth Snow's madness. The hiring of an AHL coach (Scott Gordon) further illustrates what I think will be a focus on youth this season. Okposo is the centerpiece of the club's future, and he will get his chance to shine this season. He'll come with an ugly plus/minus, but his production should be good enough that you'll still want him as a No. 2 center.
Wade Redden, D, Rangers: He is the power-play quarterback and offensive defenseman whom the Rangers have so sorely needed since Brian Leetch moved on. Look for Redden to provide No. 1 defenseman stats as he approaches his career highs on a very good Blueshirts power play.
Aaron Voros, LW, Rangers: When you are filling out your final wing positions in deep leagues, Voros offers plenty of penalty minutes and more production in every other category than your average goon. He could get 150 PIMs and 20 points with a positive plus/minus. Voros is definitely someone to have on your bench as an injury fill-in.
Nikolai Zherdev, RW, Rangers: A move to Broadway is just what the doctor ordered for Zherdev. The Rangers have plenty of talent to surround him, and Zherdev might have more untapped potential than any other player in the league with a career high of only 61 points. We project he'll end up with 60 points this season, but I'd be surprised if he doesn't finish with close to a point per game.
Claude Giroux, RW, Flyers: The Flyers go three lines deep with quality centers, so the speedy Giroux will have plenty of opportunities to earn a spot with a good playmaker. Giroux is coming off three straight seasons of triple-digit points in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and is a somewhat shorter version of Simon Gagne (but not as short as Canada's other famous Claude Giroux, a wrestler). Perhaps the most unbelievable feat he's accomplished is scoring a record 51 points in just 19 playoff games with his Gatineau team last May.
Alex Goligoski, D, Penguins: As a defenseman, Goligoski was second among all skaters in Calder Cup playoff scoring in the AHL last season. He is a natural set-up man, and should he make the Penguins' roster, he likely would play second fiddle (to Sergei Gonchar) on the power-play blue line. Considering the talent in Pittsburgh, that would be a pretty good role.
Phil Kessel, RW, Bruins: He has otherworldly talent that hasn't been tapped. We can cut him some serious slack, though, because coming back from cancer is beyond words. If Kessel ever breaks out, you want in on the first floor. I plan to draft him to my bench, then cut him loose when if doesn't look like it will be the year, and I'll repeat the process every year until he does.
Michael Ryder, RW, Bruins: He goes way back with head coach Claude Julien and has a chance to play with one of the best passers in the game (Marc Savard). He'll return to 30 goals without breaking a sweat.
Patrick Lalime, G, Sabres: The Buffalo brass already has said it will try to get Lalime 30 games this season to keep Ryan Miller rested. Few No. 2 goalies will get that kind of workload. If you are in a deeper league where there are more roster spots for goalies than for other NHL starters (a Fantasy Focus podcast-style "Man's League"), Lalime is a great target.
Drew Stafford, RW, Sabres: He's a 60-point right winger you can get on the cheap.
The Kostitsyn brothers, Canadiens: They didn't play on the same line very often last season, but Andrei and Sergei should play on opposite wings this year. Look for a kind of chemistry that rivals what Daniel and Henrik Sedin have in Vancouver.
Alexei Kovalev, RW, Canadiens: What he did with Montreal last year on the power play was absolutely for real, and with Alex Tanguay now in the fold, Kovalev could even exceed his ridiculous numbers from last season. He's a No. 1 right winger I might consider over even Marian Gaborik or Dany Heatley, but won't have to.
Carey Price, G, Canadiens: I completely believe in Price as the next big thing in net. I also don't think we'll have to wait to see him achieve that superstar level. Montreal remains a strong offensive and defensive team. Price has been challenged at what some would call a premature age in every stage of his development, but each time, he has risen to the occasion. Martin Brodeur is certain to finish as the top fantasy goaltender, but I think Price is a not-too-distant second.
Vesa Toskala, G, Maple Leafs: Ron Wilson is a smart head coach, but it doesn't take a genius to see that the Maple Leafs' biggest strength is defense. Wilson will stack the line all season and hope the two goals a game Toronto scores most nights will be enough to win. That should make Toskala the most-valuable fantasy player in Toronto and a viable No. 2 goaltender for your team.
Joni Pitkanen, D, Hurricanes: Sometimes players end up in the perfect situation. The Hurricanes used forwards on their power-play blue line until trading for Joe Corvo late in the season. Pitkanen brings better puck-moving skills to the table than Corvo and should be a mainstay on the power play. Look for him to be at the top tier of No. 2 defensemen.
Sergei Samsonov, LW, Hurricanes: See opening section.
Shawn Matthias, C, Panthers: It's all about value. I list Nathan Horton as a player I "hate" because he will cost a lot more than Matthias, and I'll bet they'll have similar numbers on the Panthers' first line. Matthias has to win the job first, but after bouncing up from the Ontario Hockey League to put in a two-goal game for the Panthers last season, I'll bet he'll have an inside track on the job.
Andrew Hutchinson, D, Lightning: There are so many candidates for power-play quarterback for the Lightning that I am just backing the cheapest horse and hoping for an upset. Hutchinson did lead AHL defensemen in points last season with 64 in 67 games, so it's not like I'm throwing darts with a blindfold on.
Olaf Kolzig, G, Lightning: To stick with a team for well nigh a decade with very few winning seasons, then be tossed out on your ear when things start looking up I can't even imagine. Kolzig has something left in the tank and definitely has something to prove to Washington. I've never been a big believer in Mike Smith. Kolzig will play the majority of Tampa Bay's games this season and should provide adequate goaltender numbers.
Sergei Fedorov, C, Capitals: This is almost entirely a gut feeling. Something tells me that a career like the one Fedorov has had won't fade slowly into the night. Here's betting he'll go out with a bang in Washington this season.
Eric Fehr, RW, Capitals: Injuries have derailed his development for a number of years, but Fehr should be a beneficiary of head coach Bruce Boudreau's familiarity with him. Look for Fehr to fight for a top-six forward role.
Mike Green, D, Capitals: He takes more shots than most other defensemen and has a reasonable chance to score 25 goals. What's not to love? Remember, most of what Green did on offense last season happened after the November firing of head coach Glen Hanlon.
Dustin Byfuglien, D, Blackhawks: It's looking like the Hawks will have to use "Buff" at forward if they want him in the lineup. He's huge and has a powerful shot. He'll be inconsistent, but as a forward you can play in a defensive roster spot, Byfuglien has tremendous value.
Jack Skille, RW, Blackhawks: The Hawks should ice three quality offensive lines, and Skille could be a part of the fun. Depending on his role in Chicago, he's a dark horse for the rookie scoring race.
Jonathan Toews, C, and Patrick Kane, RW, Blackhawks: Let's just say that after this season they may talk about Kane and Toews in Chicago in the same way they talk about Crosby and Malkin in Pittsburgh.
Pascal Leclaire, G, Blue Jackets: Leclaire puts the durability issues behind him this season and backstops the Blue Jackets into the playoffs. A much-improved defense should make sure he has one of the best save percentages in the league.
Rick Nash, LW, Blue Jackets: Columbus finally has the defense and supporting cast in place for Nash to realize his potential. A 40-goal, 90-point season with a respectable plus/minus is in store for this left winger. Give me Ovechkin, Crosby, Iginla and Nash on offense. I love him that much.
Jimmy Howard, G, Red Wings: Howard should wrest the backup job from Ty Conklin to start the season and is a must-handcuff to Chris Osgood. It might not even take an injury to Osgood for Howard to start stealing away starts. Keep in mind that even 30 starts from a Detroit goaltender could mean more than 20 wins.
Nicklas Lidstrom, D, Red Wings: Getting a top-tier defenseman this season is more important than ever. There's a big group of mediocre guys who will score 50 to 60 points without contributing across the board. Lidstrom, Dion Phaneuf, Chris Pronger, Zdeno Chara and any other defenseman who looks like he'll be separated from that middle pack of value guys needs to be picked a little higher than usual.
Ville Koistinen, D, Predators: Nashville has several more-talented defensemen on the roster, but Koistinen's game is tailor-made for the power play, while Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Dan Hamhuis are physical shut-down guys.
Pekka Rinne, G, Predators: Let's just say I don't believe in Dan Ellis. Not for a minute. In fact, include Chet Pickard as an option in really deep leagues.
Steve Sullivan, RW, Predators: There are still mixed reports about whether his back will heal in time for the season, but for a last-round pick, you could get the Predators' top scorer.
Todd Bertuzzi, LW, Flames: You just never know. Clearly, head coach Mike Keenan still sees something in Big Bert, as he also acquired him for Florida two seasons ago. Bertuzzi showed flashes last season, and Jarome Iginla is a heck of a leader on the ice. We might see the Bertuzzi we haven't seen since before "the incident." He's definitely a late-round flier to take.
Matt Keetley, Leland Irving and Curtis McElhinney, G, Flames: In that order. Miikka Kiprusoff is on a three-year slide for wins, goals-against average, save percentage and shutouts. Whoever wins the backup job in Calgary needs to be on your radar. Irving might have the most future potential, but Keetley isn't far behind and is a little closer to being NHL-ready. McElhinney is the presumed backup but isn't a future No. 1.
Andrew Raycroft, G, Avalanche: I think that he'll win the starting job by late November that he'll show much better form than he did in Toronto. Goaltending coach Jeff Hackett worked miracles with Jose Theodore, so he should be able to teach Raycroft how to use his glove hand.
Sam Gagner, C, Oilers: I wouldn't draft him as more than a No. 3 center in deeper leagues, because I think it'll take a Shawn Horcoff injury for Gagner to really excel. But on that off chance, Gagner is a player to have stashed on the bench.
Robert Nilsson, LW, Oilers: If you're a longtime reader, you know that I see the world through Nilsson-colored glasses, so you take this with a grain of salt. He is the second-best passer the Oilers have (with NHL experience), and should anything happen to Ales Hemsky, Nilsson would benefit.
Josh Harding, G, Wild: He is the best goaltender the Wild have, and it's just a matter of time before he'll receive the playing time he should.
Steve Bernier, RW, Canucks: I've never been a Bernier fan, but his style of game would fit perfectly with the Sedin twins'. He may not win the role right away, but if given the opportunity, he can have the kind of chemistry with Daniel and Henrik that Anson Carter displayed.
Jason Krog, C, Canucks: One of these years, he'll get his shot. Although his contract status is somewhat up in the air because of the Kontinental Hockey League-NHL debate, Krog is still a nice bench pick in deep leagues. He led the AHL in points and goals last season, scoring 24 more points than any other challenger. Then, he led all AHL playoff scorers in points and goals, scoring 10 more points than anyone else. Vancouver definitely has the room for more offense at center, especially if they lose the Sundin sweepstakes.
Loui Eriksson, LW, Stars: There's an opening in the Stars' top-six forwards, and Eriksson is a candidate to fill that role. While everyone else is being wooed by Fabian Brunnstrom, take Eriksson and laugh all the way to the bank.
Jere Lehtinen, RW, Stars: He'll match or better Brian Rolston's output, but doesn't get nearly the same respect.
Enver Lisin, RW, and Mikkel Boedker, LW, Coyotes: The Coyotes are stacked with talent at center, so whoever wins a job as a top-six winger will have tremendous value. These two rookies have the best upside of those competing for a job. Lisin is blistering fast, and Boedker is a terrific sniper.
Joe Thornton, C, Sharks: He's fallen outside the top 10 in our rankings, but he'll be back next year. With Dan Boyle to run the power play, Thornton should have no trouble putting in one of his best seasons, and he's the No. 5 guy on offense for me (see Rick Nash).
Joe Pavelski, C, Sharks: Thornton isn't the only Joe I love in San Jose. Pavelski is underrated as the team's versatile No. 3 center. He can slide to the wing if necessary and will find a way to get 40 points.
Guys I hate
Brian Rolston, RW, Devils: He's been a "love" guy for a few seasons now, but I don't like his move back to New Jersey. The Devils have more options for offense than Minnesota had, despite both teams' defense-first philosophy.
Bill Guerin, RW, Islanders: He'll be the leader for the Islanders. But he'll do most of his work leading them in the dressing room. The young players will be the leaders on the ice.
Mark Streit, D, Islanders: The Islanders won't use him as a forward the way the Canadiens did, and the Long Island power play won't compare with Montreal's. Streit will be a big disappointment.
Chris Drury, C, Rangers: The Rangers get pretty thin on the wing after the first line. Unless Brendan Shanahan hurries up and signs, Drury will be pretty lonely when he is looking for someone to set up for a goal.
Ryan Whitney, D, Penguins: Whitney returned to a more defensive role for the Penguins last season, and with more viable offensive options likely to be regulars this season (Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski), look for that trend to continue. (Editor's Note: Ryan Whitney is now out three and five months after undergoing an osteotomy on his left foot )
The Ottawa Senators' top line: The Senators have lacked depth at forward since the lockout, but they made up for it with depth at goaltending and defense that allowed Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson to do their thing (which is score -- a lot). This season, the Sens are questionable just about everywhere expect for that No. 1 line. That is too much responsibility and too little support. I think they'll all finish with decent seasons, but I wouldn't peg the trio as being worthy of first- or second-round picks this season.
Martin Gerber and Alex Auld, G, Senators: Gerber has had some good moments, but he's also cracked when the pressure is on. The heat will be turned up to full blast this season, so look for him to fold like laundry. Auld isn't the answer, either. I expect the Senators to turn to the trade market or a prospect (Brian Elliott) before the season is too old.
Nikolai Kulemin, LW, Maple Leafs: The Maple Leafs have to hype whomever they can, and the result is great expectations for, at best, a third-liner. Kulemin is Niklas Hagman, part II.
Tobias Enstrom, D, Thrashers: The Thrashers' power play won't be as strong without Marian Hossa and Mark Recchi, and Ron Hainsey will steal some of Enstrom's thunder. Expect a drop in points and a terrible plus/minus.
Matt Cullen, C, Hurricanes: Joni Pitkanen and Joe Corvo will take all the power-play ice time Cullen saw last season. That makes him a deep-league No. 4 center at best.
Nathan Horton, RW, Panthers: After finishing two straight seasons with a plus-15 rating, it seems rude of me to predict a minus rating for Horton this season. But I see Horton as a role player, not the leader the Panthers seem to think he can be sans Olli Jokinen. We have him projected for a career high in points, plus/minus and penalty minutes, but I don't see him reaching a single one of those thresholds without a viable superstar on his line. (No offense, Cory Stillman.)
Tomas Vokoun, G, Panthers: I see a Panthers team that will grow too far away from what its focus should be (defense) and try to do too much where it doesn't have the talent (offense). That should lead to some pretty lopsided affairs. If the Panthers don't try to win every game 1-0, things could get ugly quickly. There are much safer picks at goaltender.
Vaclav Prospal, LW, Lightning: Check out his yearly points output going back several seasons. I'll bet he'll score 55 points this year.
R.J. Umberger, C, Blue Jackets: He'll be a great No. 2 center for the Blue Jackets. Unfortunately, they don't have the depth on the wings to keep him fantasy-relevant.
Chris Osgood, G, Red Wings: I just don't think Osgood can last a whole campaign as the team's No. 1 netminder, and Ty Conklin showed some serious chinks in his armor toward the end of last season. It'll be Jimmy Howard time in Detroit at some point this season.
Henrik Zetterberg, LW, Red Wings: See opening section.
Jason Arnott, C, Predators: The team's best young winger would rather play in Russia, J.P. Dumont shows up for only a few months of the season, and Mark Parrish is actually considered as a possible solution. Things don't look so great for Nashville's offense.
Alexander Radulov, RW, Predators: It doesn't matter where he plays. If he is in Russia, he can't help your fantasy league. If he is in Nashville, it'll be because he is being forced to play there. How much effort do you think he'll put in?
Brad Boyes, RW, Blues: Oh, he'll score you plenty of goals. But his statistics are empty beyond that. Unless you've built a roster specifically designed for the addition of a one-category wonder like Boyes, you're better off with some balanced production.
Daymond Langkow, C, Flames: There are too many ways that Mike Keenan could shift Langkow off the top line in Calgary. Michael Cammalleri can play center, and there is still a history of chemistry between Craig Conroy and Jarome Iginla. Overall, with only three of the top-six forwards in Calgary being returning players, there is too great a chance that Langkow would get lost in the shuffle for you to bank on him as a No. 2 center.
Milan Hejduk, RW, Avalanche: The Avalanche's depth at center looks pretty questionable without Joe Sakic, and Hejduk is beginning to show us that there isn't much to his game when he isn't paired with a superstar.
Andrew Brunette, LW, Wild: Brunette had uncanny chemistry with Joe Sakic that I don't see him recreating in Minnesota. Unless the Wild shock the hockey world and coax Sakic to sign with them (Ha!), consider Brunette an afterthought.
Roberto Luongo, G, Canucks: There are three reasons I am making this statement. First, although I don't think it's a huge deal, the new goalie-equipment rules will affect Luongo more than most goaltenders. Second, the Canucks' defense has been a walking hospital ward for two seasons running. Sami Salo and Mattias Ohlund never stay healthy for a full season, and even Kevin Bieksa fell into the (in)action last year. Third, I don't see the Canucks as a playoff team this year, and that means wins may be harder to come by.
Brendan Morrison, C, Ducks: Teemu Selanne or no Teemu Selanne, I don't see Morrison as a legitimate threat on the Ducks' second line.
Mathieu Schneider, D, Ducks: Stick a fork in him. Schneider is way down the Ducks' defensive depth chart, and the return of Scott Niedermayer should render him useless in fantasy. Even a trade wouldn't help him too much; Schneider seemed to have lost a step last season.
Fabian Brunnstrom, LW, Stars: The hype machine is in full gear, but Brunnstrom will disappoint. He could develop into a top-line guy down the road, but even his GM in Sweden, Hakan Loob, has said that rushing the 23-year-old into a top-six role would be a mistake in the NHL. He can go undrafted in all but the deepest of leagues.
Jonathan Bernier, G, Kings: The Kings have no reason to rush him. He should play a year in the AHL.
Jack Johnson, D, Kings: He'll be a heck of a defenseman at some point in his career, but the Kings don't have the pieces in place for him to take a big step forward this season. Johnson, Thomas Hickey and Drew Doughty should be a force to reckon with in 2009-10, though.
Mats Sundin, C, TBD: The teams most often linked to Sundin (Maple Leafs and Canucks) might not even help him become a No. 1 fantasy center if he does return, so what is the point in taking a risk on him?
Sean Allen is a fantasy baseball and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.