Commentary

Super Soph or sophomore slump?

Updated: September 21, 2010, 1:30 PM ET
By Tim Kavanagh | Special to ESPN.com

Projecting the output of second-year NHL players can be tricky, especially given the fact that some of them are still too young to legally buy a beer, and have yet to fully mature into the player that they'll become. In addition, as with any player, much of what will happen to them comes as a result of the chemistry they develop with players around them, and this can change season to season.

There are cautionary tales in either direction. Looking at last season, Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos took a leap forward, finishing tied with Sidney Crosby for the league scoring lead at season's end with 51 goals after just 23 during his rookie season. Meanwhile, St. Louis Blues center Patrik Berglund went from scoring 47 points -- and finishing an impressive plus-19 and being named to the 2008-09 NHL All-Rookie team -- to mustering just 26 points in only five fewer games as a sophomore.

Between the pipes, value swings can be even more drastic. Steve Mason was the most recent example, going from the Calder Trophy winner as a rookie to destroying fantasy rosters across the land as a soph, but he's not alone in that regard, as Andrew Raycroft has yet to match the level of his rookie performance in five seasons since. Meanwhile, Mason's contemporary, Pekka Rinne, put together another solid season in his second campaign; although the ratios slipped a bit, he went 32-16-5, earning a contract extension for himself and a one-way ticket to Tampa Bay for his erstwhile time-share mate Dan Ellis.

All that said, here are some 2009-10 rookies that are poised to make the leap or take the plunge in 2010-11.

John Tavares, C, New York Islanders: The 2009 No. 1 overall pick wound up leading the Isles in points by season's end, and as the folks who took a chance on him in fantasy last season will tell you, this was actually in spite of a midseason slump: In 20 games played in January and February, Tavares managed just six points. The Mississauga native ground through the rough sledding, and by season's end he was skating more than 20 minutes per game and scoring at a pace befitting someone of his talent level. We know Tavares himself will continue to develop in Year 2. The issue will be whether or not he can get another big season out of Matt Moulson (who seemingly came out of nowhere to pot 30 goals) and help Kyle Okposo get back on track. If that line can click, Tavares will push for some consideration in standard leagues; otherwise, there are many better options at fantasy hockey's deepest position.

Matt Duchene
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireMatt Duchene was taken third overall in the 2009 draft and played in 81 games in his rookie season, scoring 24 goals and adding 31 assists.

Matt Duchene, C, Colorado Avalanche: Like Tavares, Duchene benefits greatly from the opportunity he's given, anchoring the second scoring line in Colorado. Duchene was actually a hotter fantasy commodity than Tavares last season, as he scored one additional point but was 16 points better in plus/minus. The key to Duchene's continued growth is his chemistry with wingers Peter Mueller and Milan Hejduk. Upon his trade to the Avs, Mueller scored 20 points in the final 15 games of the season, with Duchene accounting for 13 in the same span. With Mueller recovered from the concussion that ended his 2009-10 season, this could be a duo on the rise; in fact, if you extrapolate those numbers to a full season's worth of duty, it'd give Mueller 109 points for 82 games and Duchene would have 71. For Mueller, that'd be double his career-best, but the number for Duchene is doable, just a bump from the 55 of 2009-10.

James van Riemsdyk, LW, Philadelphia Flyers: CSN Philadelphia word that van Riemsdyk will be starting the preseason on the Flyers' top scoring line with Jeff Carter and KHL reclamation project Nikolai Zherdev. Sure, it's just a preliminary report because training camp hasn't even opened as of this writing, but on paper, that's a lot of talent with which to line up. The fact that van Riemsdyk committed himself to adding strength this offseason -- as evidenced by his reported weight gain -- lead one to believe that the 21-year-old New Jersey native will be able to handle a bigger workload than 2009-10, when he skated an average of just 12:58, with that number dipping to 11:54 per game in the playoffs. Given where he's going to be drafted, van Riemsdyk should return quite a bit on his value. Will he be able to develop chemistry with Zherdev and Carter? It's worth a late-round pick to find out.

Niclas Bergfors, RW, Atlanta Thrashers: Acquired by Atlanta in the deal that sent Ilya Kovalchuk to the New Jersey Devils, Bergfors will be looking to replace some of the scoring that the team lost when they shipped their franchise winger to the swamp. Bergfors began his season in Jersey with a lot of hype, the Swede finally delivering some return on his first-round selection in 2005. In the first 41 games of the season, Bergfors managed 27 points, but his relationship with Devils coach Jacques Lemaire soured, and he was used more sparingly just prior to his trade. (This was also the time that he endured a 13-game pointless streak.) In 27 games with the Thrashers, he netted eight goals while playing mostly with Nik Antropov and Maxim Afinogenov. Maxim is gone now, but with another season working with Antropov down the middle, Bergfors could blossom into a legitimate fantasy option on the wing.

Tyler Bozak, C, Toronto Maple Leafs: Forced into active duty as the No. 1 center in Toronto after Brian Burke's trading binge last season, Bozak responded by establishing great chemistry with top sniper Phil Kessel. Bozak himself managed 21 points in his last 26 games, and with a full season of Dion Phaneuf leading the defensive effort, his minus-5 should be -- in the words of the immortal Brian Johnson of AC/DC -- back in black. Provided Bozak sticks next to Kessel on the first line, he's a definite sleeper candidate.

Colin Wilson, C, Nashville Predators: Wilson scored a modest 15 points in 35 games for Nashville last season, but also picked up 34 points in 40 games while with the AHL affiliate in Milwaukee. With Jason Arnott out of the picture, Wilson should see an uptick in ice time, and more ice time should lead to more scoring. Although Wilson is more of the rugged type than a natural sniper, he could be a useful cog if the cards fall a certain way and he finds himself centering one of the top lines. Worth drafting only in deep leagues, but a name to keep in mind as waiver wire fodder early on depending on the line combinations.

Tyler Myers
Kevin Hoffman/US PresswireTyler Myers, a 2008 first-round pick, beat out Jimmy Howard, Matt Duchene and John Tavares for the 2010 Calder trophy as the NHL's top rookie.

Tyler Myers, D, Buffalo Sabres: Like Hedman, Myers was thrown heavily into the mix as a rookie, although his ice time increased as the season went along and into the playoffs. Unlike Victor Hedman, the Calder Trophy-winning giant is his team's clear No. 1 defenseman, and finished tied for the No. 11 spot among all rear guards with 48 points in 2009-10. However, a somewhat momentous change occurred in Buffalo over the summer, as Myers' mentor and pairing-mate, Henrik Tallinder, was set free. In his place, the team signed Jordan Leopold; however, it's uncertain how the loss of Tallinder will affect Myers psychologically, and how this intangible change will manifest itself in tangible ways. There were instances when Myers was bailed out by Tallinder after miscues, and he'll need to establish quick chemistry with his next partner. Don't get me wrong, Myers will still be a boon in the ice-time category, and anyone playing in front of Ryan Miller will do well in plus/minus; moreover, his puck-moving skills are already elite. All of that said, Myers could easily stand still or take a step back in points, and this would push him out of the realm of No. 1 D-men. Given the hype surrounding him as the Calder winner, he's going to be drafted early, and there are more reliable options in that spot.

Victor Hedman, D, Tampa Bay Lightning: The second overall pick of the 2009 draft, Hedman was given No. 1 D-man ice time out of the gates, averaging 24:59 in 11 October contests. That number declined a bit, with the 6-foot-6 Swede (who turned 19 on Dec. 18 of last season) finishing the season third in ice time among Lightning defensemen. Season 2 means no Kurtis Foster, but it does bring Pavel Kubina into the mix for the Lightning. Depending on new coach Guy Boucher's plan for his defensive pairings, Hedman could take a big step forward. This is a team that hasn't had trouble scoring, so if the soph finds himself on the top pairing and power play, he will take the leap to being a solid D2. Otherwise, he's a lower-end option, but still quite valuable to fill out a roster for ice time and penalty-minute contributions.

Cody Franson, D, Nashville Predators:. There are several parallels between Franson and teammate Colin Wilson, although Franson may have a higher ceiling. As Wilson's opportunity increases with the Predators' loss of Jason Arnott, so does Franson's with the departure of Dan Hamhuis. In 61 games in 2009-10, Franson logged just 14:12 in average ice time, but the British Columbia native has a chance to slide into the second defensive pairing at the start of the season, so that number would obviously increase. Furthermore, like fellow Preds defenseman Shea Weber, he has a cannon from the point, so a role on the second power-play unit is certainly his for the taking. Franson is a worthy D3 if he lands on that second pairing and gets some work on the power play.

Tuukka Rask, G, Boston Bruins: Rask was an absolute revelation in 2009-10, snatching the starting job away from defending Vezina Trophy winner (and consensus first-round fantasy draft pick) Tim Thomas. Rask finished the season leading the league with a .931 save percentage and 1.97 goals-against average. Sustaining those numbers will be difficult, and there is some uncertainty as to how Rask can hold up for an entire campaign considering how he looked against the Flyers in Round 2 of the playoffs. It's unsurprising, then, that the Bruins hung on to Thomas as the team's 1B option. From a reality perspective, it's smart. For fantasy owners, however, Rask's potential to enter the upper echelon of roto keepers is limited. He'll be a solid contributor (a borderline No. 1 goalie), but given the time-share, beware of over-drafting.

Jimmy Howard, G, Detroit Red Wings: Howard is different than many of the others on this list in that he's 26 years old, seasoned by a lengthy preparatory phase in the minors. So his emergence as the Red Wings' top goalie in 2009-10 was basically expected; anything less would've been a surprise. The main question on Howard will be whether or not he's able to mentally withstand the pressure of being the team's No. 1 during the offseason leading into his sophomore campaign. Given that he's been groomed for this day for the past several years, I don't see a dropoff at all. In fact, with no real push from below on the depth chart -- Chris Osgood is effectively a player-coach at this point, and Thomas McCollum isn't quite ready for the parent club just yet -- more starts should equal more stats, and Howard is ready to become one of fantasy's elite.

Antti Niemi, G, San Jose Sharks: Niemi is the rare goalie who goes from backstopping his side to the Stanley Cup to begin unemployed within months. The Chicago Blackhawks chose not to retain Niemi following a glorious run, and he was eventually signed by their Western Conference rival in San Jose. Although he was involved in a time-share with Cristobal Huet in 2009-10, Niemi still retained quite a bit of value, with a .912 save percentage, 2.25 goals-against average and 26 wins, including seven shutouts. It's going to be a very different situation in San Jose, however, as he'll continue to be in a time-share, this time with fellow offseason addition Antero Niittymaki (it's going to be a rough season for the folks who edit the team's beat writers), and with a defense that relents significantly more shots per game. So were Niemi's stats a product of the Blackhawks' system? We'll find out soon enough, but he's not reliable enough to warrant a major role on a fantasy team from the get-go. In fact, given the notoriety he earned from winning the Cup, he's sure to be over-drafted, and therefore may have the highest potential for under-performing among all the sophomore netminders.

Tim Kavanagh is a fantasy hockey analyst for ESPN.com.

Tim Kavanagh

Fantasy and Insider
Tim Kavanagh is an associate editor for ESPN Fantasy and Insider, with specific responsibility for NHL and fantasy hockey coverage in addition to other sports.