Are You For Real? Zetterberg, Richards, Cheechoo
Well, here we are in mid-November. It's about a month and a half into the NHL season, and each team has played close to 20 games. Believe it or not, almost a quarter of the 2007-08 season is in the books. An insignificant milestone to some, but fantasy owners now have a chunk of data to analyze and draw conclusions from. Several players are already on pace for exceptionally good or bad seasons. Let's have a look at some numbers and forecast whether these first-quarter performances will hold true.
Current point total: 27
On pace for: 123
The Red Wings show how a good group of scouts can keep a team competitive for a long time. This former seventh-round draft pick currently is tied for first in the NHL in points, tied for second in goals and ninth in assists. He took NHL first star honors for the month of October and recorded at least one point in each of his first 17 games this season. He's also on a 24-game home points streak that dates back to 2006. Can Henrik maintain this pace and win the Art Ross Trophy for most points? Could he continue to push and win the Maurice Richard Trophy for leading the NHL in goals? Is the league MVP designation out of the question? Henrik Zetterberg, is your first quarter for real?
Victoria: There's no reason to believe Zetterberg can't take home the whole kit and caboodle by the time spring rolls around. Why have any reservations about his performance so far? It's not out of recent character. Zetterberg improved exponentially, month by month, last season before falling to back spasms in late February. After registering only 26 points in his first 38 games (October to December), he exploded for 42 points in his last 25 (January/February). Pavel Datsyuk deserves a lot of credit; Zetterberg really came to life once they were reunited last winter. And skating with Tomas Holmstrom definitely doesn't hurt, along with having Brian Rafalski and Nicklas Lidstrom on the power play. The formula is set for Zetterberg to carry on lighting up the score sheet, if he stays healthy. Will he net 130 points by April? No, he'll garner around 115-120. Is any fantasy owner going to complain about that? Not likely.
John: No one has hit the 130-point plateau since Mario Lemieux picked up 161 in the 1995-96 season, so I would venture to guess Zetterberg will not break that mark this season. But, that doesn't mean that I don't think he can keep up this 120-point pace. I'm ready to call this a Ryan Howard-esque breakout circa 2006 season. Zetterberg has slowly been building toward a season like this for a couple of years and has been a fantasy favorite of mine, post-lockout. Victoria makes a good point regarding the power play situation; with a group like that, no wonder they are scoring 22 percent of the time with the man advantage. We may have not even seen the best yet out of ole Henrik; his shooting percentage is actually down about a point from last season.
Current point total: 20
On pace for: 96
Richards leads his team in goals, power-play goals and short-handed goals. That's quite the feat considering Simon Gagne and Daniel Briere also wear Flyers uniforms. Richards has seen more ice time and taken more shots than any other Philly forward; his chances to produce have been plentiful. Keep in mind, he's undersized and his current scoring pace would completely shatter a previous best of 34 points in a season, but he's been a highly touted prospect for years. Is this a natural progression to his full potential or just a hot start?
Victoria: Standing upright, right arm raised, I declare: Mike Richards is for real. Despite his smallish size, Richards is an exceptionally smart hockey player. He reads and envisions the game better than most, and I'll take brains over brawn any day. This much-improved Flyers team is nearly-perfect at home and surprisingly leads the Atlantic Division. Philadelphia's coaching staff will continue to throw Richards out there for more than 20 minutes a game if that helps maintain this success. My one concern with Richards lies with his history of injuries. He lost a lot of playing time last season with hernia and shoulder issues. But if he stays healthy, a 90-point season isn't inconceivable. And as an added bonus to fantasy owners, Richards is scrappy. Ninety penalty minutes by season's end isn't implausible either.
John: I begrudgingly must agree, Richards came into the league as a blue-chip prospect and was often compared to Steve Yzerman, so this really shouldn't be too much of a surprise. Richards, as Victoria has said, is a smart player and will no doubt be the captain of an NHL club some day, he often finds himself in a good position on the ice. He understands the offensive flow of the game and leaves himself good scoring opportunities. While I say 90 points is a bit of a stretch, it's not too far out of the realm of possibility.
Current point total: 7
On pace for: 31
It's not a typo, he's seriously on pace for 31 points by season's end. Right up (down) there with players like Michael Peca, Chris Gratton and Radek Bonk. This doesn't bode well for the 22nd pick in the average ESPN fantasy league. Cheechoo's goal and point totals dropped from 57/93 in 2005-06 to 37/69 in 2006-07. Is it reasonable to think the downslide will continue? These stats are concerning, but are they for real?
Victoria: It breaks my heart to admit, but I don't expect much out of Cheechoo anymore. As a Cheechoo fan, personally, I was optimistic even six weeks ago. He finished off the last regular season with 20 points in 13 games, a strong conclusion to an admittedly lackluster campaign. But, unfortunately, that output hasn't carried over in the slightest.
John: The problem with Cheechoo is that he is replaceable. Even during his breakout campaign in 2005-06, the most praise you generally ever heard from pundits was that he shot the puck well. That's it. He's not the type of player that creates his own opportunities; he's your prototypical "finisher." Joe Thornton used to do all the work for him and now Cheechoo isn't even guaranteed ice time with the big man.
Victoria: The emergence of right winger Devin Setoguchi really does hurt Cheechoo's scoring potential. When watching a Sharks game, the 20-year-old rookie simply stands out. His puck control is exceptional and his slap shot is lethal. Setoguchi already has six points in seven games, including five goals, and that's no accident. He carries far more presence on the ice than Cheechoo, not in terms of ice time, but in effectiveness.
John: The ice time will come. For how long Setoguchi can be trusted this season is still yet to be known, but we've seen many San Jose wingers show that they can quite easily step in and fill the role of Thornton's winger well. Be it Setoguchi, Cheechoo, Milan Michalek, Steve Bernier or Ryane Clowe, there is always someone willing to fill the role of the "hot hand" beside big Joe.
Victoria: Here's the deal: Cheechoo had one great year. One. He scored 56 goals in 2005-2006, won the Maurice Richard and that's the end of the fairy tale. You can't bank on someone to rebound to brilliance without a multi-season history of excellence. All in all, Cheechoo is due for a couple of hot streaks and he'll easily exceed the 31-point plateau. But don't expect a season total of 60 points. Or even 50, for that matter.
Victoria Matiash and John Pereira are fantasy hockey analysts for ESPN.com.