Are You For Real? Afinogenov, Horton, Mason
Spring isn't the only time of year when households go through a slight metamorphosis. Early November is when most of us in North America gather ourselves and hunker down for the colder temperatures. Up go the storm windows! On rolls the pool cover! Patio furniture and barbecues are sequestered out of Mother Nature's harsher elements. Bathing suits, shorts and flip-flops are put into storage in place of jackets, mittens and chunky, elk-print sweaters (all the rage this year, again).
But the time and effort put into autumn yard work tops all else. Pounds and pounds of fallen leaves must be collected off the ground and out of eaves' troughs, now just brown, torn, decomposing shadows of their former green and luscious existence. Having served their oxygen-providing purpose for several months, these leaves are reduced to nothing more than soggy, rotted, dead weight. Sound familiar? Just because that particular forward or defenseman flourished in March doesn't mean he'll reblossom this season. Much like the deciduous leaves in November, some formerly productive players need to be bagged and thrown to the curb for disposal elsewhere. Harsh, but true.
Afinogenov played a large part in Buffalo's success last season. Now the Sabres are struggling (5-7-1), and the speedy winger is faring even worse. He's 11th in team scoring with only five points in 13 games. It's a far cry from his average of over a point per game in the past two seasons. Is Afinogenov suffering from a depreciated role in Buffalo's reshuffled lineup? Can we expect more from him as the season wears on? Or is this as good as it gets?
Victoria: The Sabres just aren't as good without Daniel Briere and Chris Drury. Neither is Afinogenov. With Briere and Drury gone, an attempt at a collective scoring effort is underway in Buffalo. Too many cooks hustling in the kitchen, with no one excelling, is a fantasy player's nightmare. For now, Afinogenov is skating on the third line with Ales Kotalik and Paul Gaustad. You can kiss that 80-point (or even 70-point) season goodbye. Afinogenov will pick up this dismal pace a bit, but not to last season's level. Keep an ear open toward trade rumors as well.
John: You're way off, Victoria. Afinogenov posted 73 and 61 points during his past two seasons and there is no conceivable reason that he would drop down to the 30-point range this season. Sure, the Sabres lost Drury and Briere, and the team is much worse off without them, but Afinogenov has to be better than the 11th-best scorer on this team. He's only seven points behind Tim Connolly, who leads the team with 12 points, so the whole team isn't scoring much. They'll turn it around as a unit, at some point, and Afinogenov will be leading the charge.
A surprise to many, but the Panthers are playing some fairly competitive hockey and Horton is one reason why. He's second only to Olli Jokinen on the season score sheet with 12 points in 15 matchups. The six power play points and 28 penalty minutes give Horton exceptional well-rounded fantasy value as well. Without a history of numbers like these, can we count on this production to last?
John: Correction, without a history of numbers like these in the NHL. As a junior, Horton was a highly touted prospect for the Oshawa Generals in the OHL. He's shown he's a competent power forward with ample offensive upside, which is why the Panthers drafted him third overall in 2003. Horton is following the career path everyone predicted for him, and this season should be no surprise. Horton collected 47 points in 2005-06, 62 points in 2006-07 and is on pace roughly to hit the 70-point plateau this season. As long as he's playing with Olli Jokinen, expect those numbers to continue to climb.
Victoria: I have to admit, begrudgingly, that I completely agree with you, John. There's no reason Horton shouldn't light it up in Florida this season. He's coming off two full years' NHL experience. He has the tools: above-average stick handling abilities and a killer shot. He's playing with a young, exciting squad on the upswing. He has his money (six-year extension, $24 million). And perhaps most importantly, after injury issues in the OHL, he's healthy. Horton will not only hit, but break the 70-point echelon this season. Mark my words.
Mason is having a really rough go of it so far. Even though Nashville is a respectable 7-7, the Predators' starter is 3-7 with a .878 save percentage and a 3.68 goals-against average. This is a big shock considering how well Mason played last season when Tomas Vokoun got hurt. Even worse, Nashville's backup is a perfect 4-0 with a couple of shutouts. So how much longer does the team stick with Mason before they give the No. 1 designation to Dan Ellis? Was last season's performance an anomaly or the rule? Is this the real Chris Mason?
John: Yes, this is the real Chris Mason, and yes, I am willing to say I told you so. Let's look back to our preseason hockey coverage (20 Questions). Here's my response to a question regarding which backup has the best chance of earning a starting role:
"In Nashville, Pekka Rinne has a good chance of becoming a full-time starter this season. I'm not sold on Chris Mason finally finding his game at the age of 30. Career swings like that are few and far between."
Victoria: Pekka Rinne? Nice call.
John: OK, so I was wrong about Rinne, Ellis is poised to steal the job instead, but I was right about Mason. The Predators erred in judgment when they let Vokoun walk away and gave Mason the job. I'll chalk last season up to a well-timed hot streak. Trade him now while he still has some value.
Victoria: That's a bit extreme and premature. This is Mason's season to make it or blow it. After toiling away as a slightly used NHL backup since 1998, Mason needs to prove last season was not an exception and that he's a legitimate No. 1. And despite his horrid start, I'm going to give him a little more time to settle himself before passing judgment.
Let's keep in mind, he's not alone out there. Nashville is a different team this season. Paul Kariya, Peter Forsberg, Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen are all gone. Those leftovers are still pretty decent, but they won't co-lead the West in goals like they did in 2006-07. I want to see how David Legwand, Martin Erat and Alexander Radulov respond to higher expectations, and that will take more than just four weeks. Secondly, Shea Weber is still hurt. Let's see how the team reacts when he comes back (fairly soon). And finally, nothing against the guy, but Dan Ellis is going to have to win more than four games to prove he can start in the big leagues. He's 27 years old and has the NHL experience of one, single, solitary game before this season (Dallas, 2003). Not exactly a hot prospect. So is Chris Mason for real? He won't replicate last season's numbers, but he is their genuine starter. He'll have his chances to get better and he'll take advantage of them.
Victoria Matiash and John Pereira are fantasy hockey analysts for ESPN.com.