Are You For Real?: Cogliano, Mueller, Backstrom
They might not be old enough to order beer in the U.S., but fans expect adult-like performances from this year's crop of NHL rookies. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are garnering most of the attention with their explosive debuts in Chicago, but what about the rest of the league's fresh-faced youngsters? This week's edition of "Are You For Real?" addresses those just emerged from recent adventures through puberty.
Cogliano's spot on the Oilers roster was far from a surety last summer, and now he ranks fourth in team scoring with 16 points. But after consistent production in October and November, he's struggling of late, with only one point in his last five games. Is the honeymoon already over for the former Wolverine or is this latest slump just a blip in what will otherwise be a solid season?
John: If you know hockey, it's a given that you've heard of Cogliano. He has world-class speed and a playmaker's skill set. He can make goaltenders look silly, and best of all for the Oilers, his competitive spirit is rivaled by few others in the league. The only problem, from my point of view, is that coming into the season, I didn't expect him to make the Oilers roster from training camp. He has been productive at times, but his prospects for the rest of the year still don't excite me that much. Cogliano didn't have a single professional game under his belt until the beginning of this season. He hasn't even played in the AHL yet. He'll be great down the line, but re-draft league owners need not take too much notice yet.
Victoria: I wasn't as surprised he made the team, but the early production was slightly shocking. His six points in seven opening games certainly caught me, and a few NHL clubs, off guard. Unfortunately though, Cogliano is done with the bombshells for the rest of the year. He plays with fellow young lads Sam Gagner and Robert Nilsson, and although all three will be spectacular one day, they're not there yet. And happily, now they can take their time to mature and master the game at its highest level. Edmonton's top line of Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky and Dustin Penner has come alive; that gives Cogliano, Gagner and Nilsson a chance to develop and adjust with the pressure turned down. Although their respective fantasy values take a hit in the meantime, they'll benefit in the long run as hockey players.
Unlike Cogliano, Backstrom was much slower out of the gates in Washington. But the young Swede seems to have finally found his rhythm under the tutelage of new head coach Bruce Boudreau. With increased time on the power play and alongside Alexander Ovechkin (for now), he has five points in his last three games. The early favorite for the Calder Trophy is starting to meet expectations, but will that last?
John: I'm much more intrigued by Backstrom's chances to have a major fantasy impact for the rest of the year. With Michael Nylander out of the lineup for a while, the youngster is playing on a line with Ovechkin. He's said to be the best player to come out of Sweden in a while (that's saying a lot) and draws comparisons with a young Peter Forsberg. He's been the best player in Washington's system for a couple of years now, and his elite playmaking skills are a good fit alongside Ovechkin's goal-scoring abilities. As the season progresses, the Capitals will learn they have little chance at making the playoffs. They'll likely increase the role given to a younger player like Backstrom.
Victoria: The best part is that coach Boudreau absolutely loves Backstrom. As much as we like to slam the oh-so-annoying "teacher's pet" in life, the truth is, it's not the worst person to be. On the ice, the position translates into an increased role and more quality playing time. There's nothing wrong with that. I'm very curious to see what happens when Nylander returns from this mysterious injury. I bet Backstrom stays right where he is, at Ovechkin's side. The Capitals are playing much better since Boudreau took his position behind the bench, so why mess around with what's working? If you can get your hands on Backstrom now, without giving up too much, do it. His fantasy value is going to go through the roof shortly.
Mueller registered 78 points in 51 games in the WHL last season. Obviously he can score. However, the Coyotes rank only 27th in the NHL in goals per game. As a team, they don't score a heck of a lot. Can Mueller triumph on his offensively-stagnant squad, or is Phoenix just too much of a fantasy wasteland?
Victoria: I don't want any Coyote anywhere near my fantasy roster this season. There's not much scoring upside to a club where Shane Doan is the most explosive member. We can all see they're well-balanced offensively, but where's the benefit in that? Doan is the only Phoenix player with more than 20 points (22), while six members of the Carolina Hurricanes have 27 or more. There is little doubt Mueller is a fine, young, talented player, but in terms of fantasy value, he simply plays on the wrong team.
John: Mueller can certainly score, but it's hard to find out much else about the young center. Considering he was a first-round draft choice (8th overall in 2006) there's surprisingly little talk about him. He never scored more than 27 goals in his last three seasons as a junior hockey player, so one would believe this current pace is somewhat unsustainable. Also, I agree that the team itself is hurting his value. Considering the Coyotes' dreadful offense, Mueller will be hard pressed to carry that burden alone. There are not many who can do what Joe Thornton does in San Jose. Mueller might be an interesting pickup in deeper leagues, but I certainly won't be rushing out to grab him.
Victoria: Not a chance. No one from Phoenix deserves enthusiastic consideration. Not now, not anytime soon.
Victoria Matiash and John Pereira are fantasy hockey analysts for ESPN.com.
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