Central Division preview
A look at every central division team from the fantasy perspective
First line: Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane
Second line: Andrew Ladd, David Bolland, Kris Versteeg
Third line: Troy Brouwer, John Madden, Dustin Byfuglien
Fourth line: Ben Eager, Colin Fraser, Adam Burish
Just Missed: Tomas Kopecky, RW; Jack Skille, RW; Marian Hossa, RW (out until December)
The Lineup and Plus/Minus EffectDave Reginek/NHLI/Getty ImagesJonathan Toews will be the sparkplug that makes the Blackhawks offense go.
Coach Joel Quenneville is a fan of stability across his lines and made major changes to his top units only when injury forced his hand last season. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are a virtual lock to spend most of the season alongside each other, but a big decision will have to be made in November or December when Marian Hossa returns. Patrick Sharp has shown chemistry with Toews and Kane, but it will be hard to resist putting Hossa with the two young stars. If Hossa ends up on the second line in Chicago, it could be a big midseason boost for David Bolland and Andrew Ladd. As far as plus/minus is concerned, there are many players on Chicago who can help your fantasy team in that department. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are an adept defensive pairing and are almost assured to finish above plus-20. Toews and Kane aren't known for their two-way abilities, and it is in fact the second line with Bolland and Ladd where you can find some hidden plus/minus value. The strong defense in Chicago will keep Cristobal Huet from getting worn out. The Blackhawks were among the top 10 teams last season for limiting shots against.
While Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are the defensemen to own for plus/minus, Brian Campbell and Cam Barker are the Hawks' power-play point men. They'll average almost twice as much time on the man advantage as other defensemen in Chicago. The rest of the first unit will consist of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp, at least until Marian Hossa returns. Dustin Byfuglien is the power-play specialist on the club. He uses his 6-foot-3, 250-pound frame to park in front of the net on the team's second power-play unit. For deeper fantasy leagues, he is a good speculative pick in hopes he does an impression of San Jose's Ryane Clowe on the power play. Overall the Blackhawks' power play was middle of the pack last season at 19.3 percent, and Hossa's arrival might be just what the team needs to crack the top 10. Unfortunately, we have to wait half a season to find out.
Keep An Eye On
If one of the top four defensemen in Chicago is a fantasy bust, it's because Niklas Hjalmarsson stole his thunder. The Hawks' top prospect will look to work his way up the depth chart as the season wears on. Campbell and Barker can't afford to slip up. Until Hossa returns, Byfuglien, Jack Skille, Kris Versteeg and Troy Brouwer will be fighting for a featured role among the top six, and whoever makes the best impression over the first two months of the season should have value down the stretch as more injuries set in.
Additions: Mathieu Garon, G (Edmonton); Samuel Pahlsson, C (Chicago)
Subtractions: Jason Williams, C (Detroit)
First line: Rick Nash, Derick Brassard, Jakub Voracek
Second line: Kristian Huselius, Antoine Vermette, Nikita Filatov
Third line: R.J. Umberger, Samuel Pahlsson, Derek Dorsett
Fourth line: Raffi Torres, Andrew Murray, Jared Boll
Top goalie: Steve Mason
Backup: Mathieu Garon
Just Missed: Jason Chimera, LW
The Lineup and Plus/Minus EffectClaus Andersen/Getty Images Rick Nash has scored 78 goals in the past two seasons.
Ken Hitchcock is as Ken Hitchcock does, and the coach of the Blue Jackets is in a situation that has fantasy owners on the edge of their seat. Some of the most talented young players in the Blue Jackets' system are just waiting to break onto the fantasy scene, yet the man in charge of their role and ice time is notorious for holding back youth. It will be difficult for any restraints to be put on Derick Brassard after his breakout start to last season, but whether or not Jakub Voracek, Nikita Filatov or Kris Russell can be a fantasy regular remains to be seen. The ceiling on their talent is so high, it is worth taking the risk. Despite what looks like a combination of good offense and strong goaltending, the Blue Jackets aren't responsible enough in their own end to be a source of plus/minus for fantasy owners. They shouldn't be negative enough to do any damage though, so don't discount the Jackets anymore over fears of a bad plus/minus.
The Blue Jackets have been struggling for seasons with a woeful power play, and last season they hit rock bottom. The team finished with an NHL-worst 12.7 percent power-play conversion. Now, Coach Hitchcock remains adamant that Kris Russell is too young to play point on the man advantage, but how much longer can he hold back his best offensive defenseman while the power play flounders? In the meantime, Brassard will open on the blue line for the power play, with Fedor Tyutin alongside him. Up front, Rick Nash, Antoine Vermette, Jakub Voracek and Kristian Huselius should split time.
Keep An Eye On
Nikita Filatov is the Blue Jackets sleeper that needs to be noted, as he is a 40-goal scorer waiting to happen. It may take him some development to get to that point, so that's why he shouldn't be drafted as a starter for your team. Besides, he has the Hitchcock factor working against him. While Kristian Huselius and R.J. Umberger were trendy sleepers last season, it's clear now they have no place skating with Rick Nash and they can safely be ignored. Monitor Steve Mason's use through the season. The rookie was clearly fatigued by the time the playoffs rolled around last season, and the Jackets have a good backup in Mathieu Garon this time around. For that reason, Mason may play a little more sparingly. However, that should help his stats when it matters most for fantasy owners down the stretch.
Additions: Jason Williams, C (Columbus); Todd Bertuzzi, RW (Calgary)
First line: Tomas Holmstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg
Second line: Ville Leino, Johan Franzen, Todd Bertuzzi
Third line: Daniel Cleary, Valtteri Filppula, Jason Williams
Fourth line: Kirk Maltby, Kris Draper, Patrick Eaves
The Lineup and Plus/Minus EffectDave Reginek/Getty ImagesPavel Datsyuk has scored 97 points in back-to-back seasons and at least a point per game every season since the lockout.
While there may be some new faces in Detroit, the team will still set the NHL standard for plus/minus. Coach Mike Babcock runs such a tight ship in the team's own end that Detroit will feature some players approaching plus-40. The effect of the positive plus/minus flows right through the Detroit lineup, so don't underestimate Detroit's role players. We don't know exactly how the top two lines or first power-play unit will shake down with the departure of several key players, but we do know Babcock sticks to his guns once he decides on a lineup. So once you see who has the star roles on this team, jump on them. Ville Leino, Jason Williams and Todd Bertuzzi in particular, will sink or swim depending on what role they play on which line.
When referencing players who stand in front of the net and cause trouble on the power play, Tomas Holmstrom and Todd Bertuzzi are two oft-cited examples. Now the Red Wings boast both players. Holmstrom will likely remain on the first power-play unit, but don't be surprised if both players end up with similar stats. Of course, neither is the picture of health and durability. The Red Wings' power play led the league by scoring on more than one in every four chances last season. Some of the key players like Marian Hossa and Jiri Hudler may be gone, but Ville Leino, Bertuzzi and Jason Williams will help keep Detroit as the class of the league on the man advantage. Brian Rafalski and Nicklas Lidstrom will man the point, while Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Tomas Holmstrom will be up front of the first unit. But don't underestimate the second power-play unit for Detroit, as that quintet will get plenty of ice time as well. Leino, Bertuzzi, Johan Franzen and Niklas Kronwall are the names to know.
Keep An Eye On
Watch for the continued decline of Chris Osgood. You can point to his stellar playoff run all you want, but at the end of the day that doesn't do anything for fantasy owners. Osgood turned in the worst regular season of his storied career last season, and Jimmy Howard is more than deserving of a chance to take over this team for years to come. With Ty Conklin out of the way, expect Howard to worm his way in at some point this season. It's no secret that Ville Leino is the big sleeper on Detroit. Not your traditional rookie, Leino has spent some time honing his game in Finland, and was the Finnish League's MVP. Don't forget that despite the enormous drawbacks and potential to be a complete bust, the upside with Todd Bertuzzi makes him pretty attractive in fantasy drafts once your starting lineup is looking almost set.
Additions: Marcel Goc, C (San Jose)
First line: Steve Sullivan, Jason Arnott, J.P. Dumont
Second line: Martin Erat, David Legwand, Ryan Jones
Third line: Joel Ward, Colin Wilson, Jordin Tootoo
Fourth line: Jerred Smithson, Marcel Goc, Ben Guite
The Lineup and Plus/Minus EffectTom Szczerbowski/US PresswireSteve Sullivan has 190 points in 191 career games with the Predators.
The Nashville offense is really starting to get thin, but the defense is so good it makes up for it. Coach Barry Trotz barely has a top line to compare to most NHL clubs, but if Steve Sullivan's back holds out, the trio of Sullivan, Jason Arnott and J.P. Dumont should be respectable. The Predators are likely to be about as close to an "even" team as they come. While they won't be scoring a ton on offense, the players' plus/minus will be kept near zero thanks to the strong defense and the play of Pekka Rinne.
There isn't much debate about who plays the power play in Nashville, given the lack of depth among the forwards. Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are the defensemen on the point, and Jason Arnott, Steve Sullivan and J.P. Dumont will be up front. Martin Erat is the first understudy should Sullivan's back not hold up. The Predators' power play was a ho-hum 15.7 percent last season and a paltry 14.8 percent the season before, so there is no reason to believe it will make a big improvement with many of the same participants.
Keep An Eye On
Really, only Colin Wilson seems to have the potential and opportunity to greatly exceed expectations for the Predators this season. But even he isn't worth drafting in most leagues. Don't invest too much in David Legwand and Martin Erat, who are likely going to struggle with the lack of an additional scoring winger for the second line. Cody Franson and Jonathan Blum represent the next wave of high-scoring defensemen in Nashville (and there is more behind them), but there may not be room on the roster for both. They also have an uphill battle for quality ice time so are probably a year away even if they make the roster.
Additions: Ty Conklin, G (Detroit)
First line: Andy McDonald, David Backes, David Perron
Second line: Paul Kariya, T.J. Oshie, Brad Boyes
Third line: Alexander Steen, Patrik Berglund, Keith Tkachuk
Fourth line: Brad Winchester, Jay McClement, B.J. Crombeen
Starting goalie: Chris Mason
Backup goalie: Ty Conklin
The Lineup and Plus/Minus EffectMark Buckner/NHLI/Getty ImagesPaul Kariya has played all 82 games in five of the past seven seasons.
Andy Murray found success with his lines last season, but the return of some injured stars means he'll have to juggle things and come up with three scoring lines instead of just two. While that's an enviable problem for many NHL teams, it does mean some Blues will end up with fewer minutes and fewer opportunities than you might think at first glance. The "kid" line from last season will most certainly be broken up, possibly with one of each of David Perron, T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund on three different lines. Andy McDonald will also likely get asked to stay on left wing, where he finished last season with much success. Unfortunately for Oshie, Berglund and Perron, who were very responsible defensively last season and finished with great plus/minus ratings, splitting up the lines will mean they run the risk of being paired with defensively inept partners like Brad Boyes (minus-20). Such a matchup would cancel out the positive and negative sides of that ledger, and so it's safe to consider most Blues players as neutral in that category this season.
The Blues had a pretty good 20.5 percent power-play conversion last season. The key to their success was spreading out the time between two units. Andy McDonald, Brad Boyes, Paul Kariya, David Perron, T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund will all be pretty close in sharing minutes. One big question is who plays on defense. Carlo Colaiacovo led the team in power-play minutes amongst defensemen last season, but Erik Johnson and Alex Pietrangelo are in business this season and should push for minutes on the man advantage.
Keep An Eye On
Don't forget Chris Mason was arguably the best goaltender in the NHL after the calendar flipped to 2009. Ty Conklin is here only as a backup and is no threat to pry away any more than 15 starts if Mason stays healthy. With former rookie of the year Barrett Jackman already in tow, and former first overall pick Erik Johnson having avoided golf carts this offseason, the Blues' defense is really starting to look exceptional. Alex Pietrangelo, who may be one of the best prospects in all of hockey at this point, should also push for a roster spot.
Sean Allen is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is the 2008 Fantasy Sports Writers Association, Hockey Writer of the Year award winner. You can e-mail him here.
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