- Sean Allen
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Sleeper: Milan Lucic, LW -- I would list Phil Kessel, Michael Ryder and Patrice Bergeron here, but most savvy owners are already onto these guys. Let's go with Milan Lucic. The power forward is ready to emerge as a dominant fantasy force in the same mold as Brenden Morrow. Lucic has size, strength, skill and a bit of tenacity. The 2007 Memorial Cup MVP is a future 70-point, 150-PIM player and he could start making good on that potential this season.
Bust: Tim Thomas, G -- Tim Thomas left the impression that he was an All-Star goaltender with his surprisingly effective season, but don't get sucked in this time around. He now has to deal with a very accomplished, competitive and healthy Manny Fernandez. It would be be surprising if Fernandez didn't win the starting job outright and start the majority of Boston's games.
This Bruins club looks to build off last season's performance and will improve with the return of some healthy players who should have been there last season. Most of the fantasy skill resides in the forward ranks, where the team goes three lines deep with players who are at least intriguing for even shallow leagues. Down the middle, Marc Savard is a perennial No. 1 fantasy center thanks to his assist prowess, and Patrice Bergeron returns with a clean bill of health and could earn surprising No. 1 fantasy-center status while costing only a later draft pick. David Krejci is a sleeper entering his sophomore season but plays into only shallow-league consideration should injury strike the men ahead of him on the depth chart. Martin St. Pierre is also a real dark horse after a prolific scoring campaign with Chicago's AHL affiliate.
Savard should help return Michael Ryder to his 30-goal ways, as Ryder will also benefit from his long relationship with coach Claude Julien. Marco Sturm will have value filling out your wing positions and Milan Lucic and Phil Kessel profile as must-draft sleepers. Blake Wheeler is an intriguing deep option on the wing as he is a former collegiate linemate of Kessel's and is really getting his first fair shake at the NHL.
On the blue line, Zdeno Chara is a top-five defenseman pick because he contributes across the board in fantasy. Dennis Wideman is also a top option on the B's power play and emerged as a points/PIM contributor down the stretch last season.
In net, Boston boasts a respectable tandem in Manny Fernandez and Tim Thomas, but if the team wants to make a playoff run, it will need Fernandez doing the job he was signed to do last season before a knee injury took him out. Fernandez is a great sleeper pick since fantasy owners are avoiding him because of the presence of Thomas, but Manny will be the man. Given Fernandez's injury history though, it's prudent to mention top prospect Tuukka Rask. The Finnish phenom showed he could easily handle the AHL last season and, should Fernandez miss significant time, it wouldn't be a shock for the club to skip over Thomas and hand the reins to Rask to see what he can do.
Sleeper: Andrej Sekera, D -- Rivet did a decent job filling in as the power-play quarterback in San Jose last season after Matt Carle turned in a poor campaign, but he isn't the answer in Buffalo. Jaroslav Spacek has had his chances as the Sabres' main offensive defenseman, and he hasn't been the answer for Buffalo. That's why Sekera is the man. Anointing a sleeper by default isn't a strong endorsement, but the Sabres will have a good power play and Sekera is their most accomplished option on the point.
Bust: Ryan Miller, G -- It's not that Miller is a bad goaltender, it's just that he's an average goaltender. Given his ups and downs for two seasons, you have to stop banking on him as a No. 1 fantasy netminder. He still gets drafted there because he has the potential for 30-plus wins, but there are at least 12 other options in fantasy drafts who will finish with better numbers in all three important fantasy categories. Also playing against Miller's value is the fact that coach Lindy Ruff has already said Patrick Lalime will play 30 games because he feels Miller was overused last season.
The Sabres are what they are. They ice two solid fantasy lines, don't have a great defense for fantasy purposes and don't have a heck of a lot of value between the pipes. They are a good example of how a team can be terrific as a whole, but not so great when you break it down to its components. The best player for fantasy is definitely Thomas Vanek, whose slow start last season was much to the chagrin of many fantasy owners. He salvaged his campaign with a 13-goal February to finish with 36 markers. Close behind him for fantasy owners are Derek Roy and Jason Pominville, who are borderline No. 1 choices at center and right wing, respectively.
Tim Connolly is an injury waiting to happen, but he is also a skilled playmaker who, if healthy, would not only make himself a valuable fantasy asset, but would allow two wingers to become relevant to owners as well. Daniel Paille and Drew Stafford are the two who could move up the depth chart and surprise fantasy owners by playing with Connolly on the Sabres' second line, as Ales Kotalik and Maxim Afinogenov don't seem to be in favor to start the season. All four players are decent gambles in the later rounds as at least one of them will be worth owning. The problem is that we don't know which one. Stafford is a personal favorite as he is good enough to unseat Pominville on the top unit, but a similar case could be made for any of them. Kotalik carries some extra value as well, as coach Lindy Ruff used him on the power-play point last season because of his terrific shot and it increased his value dramatically as a good chunk of his production came with the man advantage. With the Sabres not having any proven power-play quarterbacks on defense, Kotalik may see this role continue.
As for the defense, Jaroslav Spacek, Craig Rivet and Henrik Tallinder are the most gifted offensively of the bunch, which isn't saying much. We've seen what Spacek and Tallinder can do, and it doesn't inspire one to select them in a fantasy draft. Rivet was OK as the power-play quarterback in San Jose last season before the Brian Campbell trade. He'll probably do OK again this season and carries extra value thanks to his penalty minutes, with Andrej Sekera as the dark horse.
Ryan Miller has to be considered an average goaltender until further notice. He still has intangibles working for him, such as a strong team in front of him, and makes a very strong complement to an elite No. 1 goaltender.
Sleeper: Sergei Kostitsyn, RW -- His brother Andrei was in this position last season, and the possibility of the two Kostitsyns flanking a talented center like Tomas Plekanec or Robert Lang bodes well for both of them. Just ask Henrik and Daniel Sedin how chemistry between talented siblings can work on the ice. Sergei had 131 points in 59 games on a line with Sam Gagner and Patrick Kane for the OHL's London Knights in 2006-07, and that propelled him to a midseason debut with the Habs last season. He didn't skate with his brother much because Andrei had found chemistry with Plekanec and Alexei Kovalev, but with the arrival of two new top-six forwards (Lang and Alex Tanguay), the Kostitsyns will get every opportunity to bond on the ice.
Bust: Saku Koivu, C -- Robert Lang's arrival quickly pushes Koivu down another peg on the Canadiens' depth chart. Tomas Plekanec emerged as the team's No. 1 center last season and Lang profiles as the No. 2, which sends Koivu to the third line. Now, Christopher Higgins and Guillaume Latendresse are better linemates than most other third-line centers can expect, but the ice time and defensive responsibilities usually associated with third-line duty won't make scoring easy for this unit.
Les Habitants are rich in fantasy goodness. The greatest value, however, flows from coach Guy Carbonneau's vicious power-play attack that led the league in effectiveness last season. Many of the catalysts from last season's unit return with a few more top-six forwards sprinkled in. However the lines get juggled, Alexei Kovalev, Andrei Kostitsyn, Tomas Plekanec, Alex Tanguay, Sergei Kostitsyn and Robert Lang should be owned in all fantasy leagues (probably in that order). Carbonneau will be hard-pressed to break up the trio of Kovalev, Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn considering their dominance down the stretch last season, but he does have the brothers link for the Kostitsyn brothers and the past chemistry between Lang and Kovalev from their days as linemates in Pittsburgh to encourage at least some experimentation.
Montreal also boasts a third line that is the envy of most other NHL teams. With captain Saku Koivu in the middle and talented youngsters Christopher Higgins and Guillaume Latendresse on either side, the Canadiens have a threatening third scoring line to march out and have the depth to handle any injuries that crop up on the top lines. While Koivu shouldn't be expected to match his point levels from previous seasons, he should be drafted in all leagues as he could move quickly up the depth chart if there are any bonding issues in the top six, but Higgins and Latendresse are only for deeper-league consideration.
On the back end, Andrei Markov is the man to own. He stepped up and showed he can handle the power play just fine on his own after Sheldon Souray bolted for Edmonton. Markov is a clear choice as a No. 1 defenseman thanks to the Habs' power play. Roman Hamrlik and Mike Komisarek are the only other D-men worth a little discussion, but neither warrants a pick in standard leagues. Hamrlik will get a bit more power-play time with the departure of Mark Streit, but should not be considered a threat for more than 30 points. Komisarek is a physical presence who may hold some value in leagues that require you to start five or six defensemen.
And then there is Carey Price. Price has been asked to play above his age and experience level his whole career and at every level he has answered the bell. Point to the playoff meltdown last season, his youth, his relative inexperience, the competence of Jaroslav Halak, whatever you want; the bottom line is that Price is a special talent and the stars are aligned (winning team, great defense) for him to take another step forward this season. His ceiling is as a top-three goaltender.
Key additions: Filip Kuba, D (trade); Alex Auld, G (free agent); Ryan Shannon, RW (trade); Alexandre Picard, D (trade); Brendan Bell, D (free agent); Jason Smith, D (free agent); Jarkko Ruutu, LW (free agent)
Sleeper: Brian Lee, D -- Pegging Lee as a sleeper is simple mathematics: Zero proven offensive defensemen plus one talented rookie equals a power-play quarterback you can draft late. When the Senators decided to ship off Andrej Meszaros to Tampa Bay, Lee was effectively handed the job of working the point on Ottawa's scary-good first unit. Filip Kuba has never been a great offensive blueliner, as evidenced by last season when he couldn't step up in place of the injured Dan Boyle in Tampa Bay. Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov are about defense first. This job is Lee's to lose.
Bust: Mike Fisher, C -- Fisher is one of the hardest-working players in the league and is an excellent hockey player, but he has been forced to perform well above his capabilities for the past couple of seasons. This is the year Chris Kelly steps up and seizes the No. 2 center role for the Senators. That means Fisher will comfortably work from a checking line role and do a good job of shutting down opponents.
Everything about the Senators begins with the big three. Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson are, and deserve to be, gone by the time 25 players have been selected in your draft. Coach Craig Hartsburg tried to separate them through the preseason, but not even a new coach can keep them apart. They played as a unit for the bulk of the Sens' final preseason contest against NHL competition, and it would be surprising not to see Hartsburg resort to keeping them together whenever the going gets tough. That should mean that all three are deserving of their selection as a No. 1 forward on most fantasy squads. If one of them gets downgraded a little, it's Alfredsson because he is the one who drops to the second line whenever the big three are separated.
This will be a season of transition for the Senators on the second and third line, and how those lines fare will go a long way to determining the fate of this team. Chris Kelly needs to take another step forward to become a true second-line center, allowing Mike Fisher to return to the third line. The same dynamics can apply to Antoine Vermette and Nick Foligno, as well as Chris Neil and Jesse Winchester. There is a clear division between new troops and old guard here, and the Sens need the young players to take over as the second line so the veterans can be repurposed for checking roles. Foligno, Kelly and Winchester will be very interesting if they can take that step forward. Meanwhile, Chris Neil provides some decent depth for fantasy teams, as he can be projected for 200 penalty minutes and 20 or more points, which is not a bad total for a goon.
This isn't a half-bad NHL defensive unit, but it's very poor by fantasy standards. The trouble is that the three "best" defensemen in Ottawa (Jason Smith, Anton Volchenkov and Chris Phillips) are valuable for their defensive abilities and not their offense. That is why Brian Lee should be considered a sleeper as the rookie's puck movement and passing ability are almost equal to that of the veterans on the club. Filip Kuba's upside as a power-play quarterback is quite limited.
In net, Martin Gerber doesn't inspire a heck of a lot of confidence from fantasy owners, but there is an opportunity here for huge value because he is going late enough in drafts that he won't cost much to pick up. Gerber was terrific last season as the surprise starter while Ray Emery spiraled out, but started to fade at the end of the season with the rest of the team. Gerber has never appeared to be much more than a No. 1a goaltender in the NHL, but guys like him can stay hot for a whole season (just look at his 2005-06 year with the Hurricanes). Because of the upside, I think he should be a main target in the middle rounds for owners who miss out on goaltenders during the early rounds. Alex Auld is an unattractive backup for fantasy purposes. The true handcuff here would be the AHL starter (Brian Elliott) rather than the NHL backup (Auld).
Sleeper: Mark Bell, LW -- Bell's sentence for a DUI that he served over the summer (a six-month incarceration which was commuted to work at a California jail) could prove to be the inspiration that Bell needs to recapture his form and become a true power forward again. If nothing else, he benefits from being on a Toronto team that doesn't offer much competition for a role as a top-six forward. In his last two seasons in Chicago (pre- and post-lockout), Bell had nearly 50 points and more than 100 penalty minutes, numbers he would likely duplicate if he skates with the semblance of talent that remains in Toronto.
Bust: Niklas Hagman, LW -- Any fantasy owner who drafts Hagman and hopes for an improvement on his 27 goals from last season is going to be severely disappointed. The Maple Leafs are not the Stars, and Hagman is not penciled in to play top-six minutes in Toronto, so don't be fooled by the fact he was the highest-profile free-agent signing for the team. That only speaks to how lousy the offseason was for the front office.
There is still plenty of fantasy value to be had on this team that looks destined to miss the playoffs yet again. Coach Ron Wilson is good at what he does and will make sure this Toronto team plays to its strength and tries to win games 2-1 or 1-0. That means Vesa Toskala, even though he may not win 30 games, will still have valuable ratios for fantasy purposes.
There will be players to scoop up on defense as well, as Tomas Kaberle remains a solid choice as a No. 2 defenseman. This power play is now his to manage, though Mike Van Ryn and Pavel Kubina might get some time as well. That could make Kubina mildly valuable as he will also approach triple-digit penalty minutes. Van Ryn, if healthy, offers a booming point shot, but he often finds a way onto the injured reserve. One wild card here could be Anton Stralman and Jonas Frogren. The two Swedes are expected to skate together and they have the potential to play some strong puck-control hockey that could prove to be a breeding ground for plus/minus. Don't draft them, but watch to see how they fare in the early going.
There are probably half a dozen or more forwards who could earn relevance in fantasy leagues, but we won't know who they are to begin the season. Some combination of Nik Antropov, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Alexander Steen, Jason Blake, Mikhail Grabovski, Niklas Hagman, Nikolai Kulemin, Jiri Tlusty and Mark Bell will form the No. 1 scoring line in Toronto. Unfortunately, Antropov is probably the only safe bet at this point. Still, given his injury history and the uncertainty of all the other skaters, you really don't have to draft a single Toronto forward. That's not to say Antropov, Steen and Blake aren't worth gambling on, but you should be able to snatch the best Toronto forwards from the waiver wire once the season begins.
Sean Allen is a fantasy hockey and baseball analyst for ESPN.com.