- Sean Allen
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The opening days of free agency in the NHL have left us with plenty to chew on ahead of the launch of our free, full-featured fantasy hockey league manager later this summer. Here's a breakdown of each team that made serious moves, whether it was signing new players or trading for them.
Chicago Blackhawks: There is one team that I think made the jump from also-ran to playoff contender on July 1, and that is the Chicago Blackhawks. Signing Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet is huge for a club that hasn't sniffed the postseason since 2002, but boy, oh boy does it murk the fantasy water. With Nikolai Khabibulin still in the picture, how do we decide which goaltender will be the No. 1 when it comes time to pick one? Chicago looks like a club that will help its starting netminder put up solid numbers, but who will it be? Khabibulin has a Stanley Cup and a storied NHL career and is by no means getting too old (he's 35, two years older than Huet). The 'Bulin Wall has had his issues with injury, but I don't know if that is reason enough to sign another potential No. 1 -- and make no mistake, that's what Huet is. I have concerns over whether this possible timeshare will be settled before most drafts take place, especially with general manager Dale Talon telling the Daily Herald on Tuesday that he expects Khabibulin and Huet to share the load. Now, he could just be talking GM-speak. Let's hope so, because otherwise you are going to want to draft both goalies or neither.
Then there is Brian Campbell, who now heads a young defense that features two players who might be better than him in a season or two. That's why I am baffled by the eight-year contract. Brent Seabrook and Cam Barker have more upside than Campbell ever did, yet won't get to take over the power-play quarterback duties for this season. Defensemen usually take longer to develop, but Seabrook is close and Barker won't be far behind. The Hawks bolstered their defense with Campbell, but he might be a little overkill for what the team needed. As for fantasy value, considering that Duncan Keith is also in the picture, I think Campbell doesn't get close to last season's numbers. He was the only defenseman with above-average offensive ability in Buffalo and in San Jose, but in Chicago, he is the best of a talented group. The wealth will be too spread out. You can still consider Campbell a No. 1 defensemen, but I'd rank him in the 65 to 70 range now, instead of in the top 50. Keith, Seabrook and Barker were in for a readjustment to their value before this signing but will now remain outside the top 100, with Keith and Seabrook somewhere near 130 and Barker as a late-round flier.
New York Rangers: It's going to be a different show on Broadway this season. Nikolai Zherdev, Wade Redden, Aaron Voros, Dan Fritsche and a returning Michal Rozsival are in, while Sean Avery, Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman are out. The jury is still undecided on Brendan Shanahan, Jaromir Jagr and Martin Straka. It's hard to gauge New York right now, as there are still moves to be made before this roster takes shape. From what we can see, Redden looks like a solid bounce-back candidate from an atrocious year in Ottawa, and Zherdev should get a boost in value moving from a team with no decent centers last season, to one that boasts Scott Gomez and Chris Drury. For once, Zherdev will have someone to pass him the puck for once and will repeat, if not exceed, his 61-point campaign. If he remains the Rangers best winger going into the season, 80 points isn't out of the question. As for Redden, a return to 50 points only depends on his ability to stay healthy. Voros looks like a replacement for the departed Avery -- well, a cheap, import version anyway. Voros won't come close to Avery's fantasy value because he won't score as many points, but the penalty minutes and offensive potential are intriguing enough to consider him for deep leagues.
Edmonton Oilers: I'll give GM Kevin Lowe some credit: He is showing more forethought in his moves this offseason. After a boneheaded contract offer to steal Dustin Penner from Anaheim and a snub from Michael Nylander at this time last year, Lowe has made positive steps that should help his core of budding young forwards take another step toward respectability. By trading ice time-eating forwards like Raffi Torres and Jarret Stoll, the Oilers allow the youth movement of Robert Nilsson, Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, Robbie Schremp, Ryan O'Marra and Gilbert Brule to find a bigger role with the club. And that's before we mention the power-play abilities of Lubomir Visnovsky on defense or the additional power-forward attitude of Erik Cole. Cole should slot in the No. 1 or No. 2 line with a mix of Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky, Dustin Penner, Sam Gagner and Robert Nilsson. That top six is going to produce two fantasy-relevant lines with upside. That's what makes me bullish about Visnovsky's situation as well (read more in the in the June 30 Notebook). I'll look to Cole as a No. 2 winger, though he could produce like a No. 1 thanks to his penalty minutes. Injury proneness is what holds me back from a stronger recommendation. Brule, meanwhile, will fight Nilsson, Schremp and Cogliano for a point-producing spot on the roster. All four players are at a similar point in development, so it is a crapshoot as to who you should back. Whoever ends up in the Oilers top six should provide a number of points and will deserve deep-league consideration.
Tampa Bay Lightning: The new owners of the Lightning are not fooling around. Ryan Malone, Radim Vrbata, Gary Roberts, Vaclav Prospal, David Koci, Adam Hall and Olaf Kolzig help improve a team that fell short of the postseason last year. Not to mention Steve Stamkos, who is also expected to make an impact. Let's see if we can't figure out where these guys will fit in. Malone still looks like the biggest benefactor, as his aggressive style should fit nicely with Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis on the first line. Now that the Lightning have secondary scoring ready as well, I am more than willing to rank Malone in the top 75 and bring St. Louis back into that group as well. St. Louis should be a low-tier No. 1 winger and Malone a top-tier No. 2. Now, I said in in the June 30 Notebook that if the Lightning were to sign Roberts or Brian Rolston, I could start getting excited about Stamkos. Well, the Bolts did me one better and nabbed Vrbata, Roberts and Prospal. Vrbata has had the talent, and he finally flashed it with a near-30 goal season for the Coyotes. He should post career-best numbers in the Lightning's top six. Roberts or Prospal also make nice bedfellows for the rookie Stamkos to learn the ropes. I think Stamkos can be looked at as a No. 2 center now that he has talent to work with. It's going to be weird seeing Kolzig wearing anything but a Capitals jersey, but it doesn't change the fact that he is a reliable goaltender. Unfortunately, he is in a similar situation to the one he left in Washington, playing for what will likely be a run 'n' gun offense, that doesn't pay as much mind to defense as it should. Olie the Goalie won't be questioned as the No. 1 in Tampa Bay, but he still doesn't look like a No. 1 in fantasy.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Quite a makeover continues in Columbus, as the Blue Jackets have beefed up their defense and shipped one of the most talented yet lackadaisical wingers in the league. Unfortunately, as far as fantasy relevance is considered, Fedor Tyutin, Christian Backman and Raffi Torres are almost afterthoughts, though Tyutin has a chance at value on the power play. The story is the players Columbus already has that will be given the opportunity to break camp with the team. Derick Brassard, Jakub Voracek and the recently drafted Nikita Filatov come to mind. Only Rick Nash and Kristian Huselius are locks for the wings among the top six, and R.J. Umberger has an inside track for one of the two center spots. Beyond that, the Blue Jackets scoring part of the roster is wide open. Brassard chewed up the AHL last season and earned a 17-game debut with the Jackets, playing only a checking role, while Voracek ate up the QMJHL in his sophomore season, scoring 101 points in 53 games. Both are potentially huge selections in the late rounds of fantasy drafts this year. Filatov has the potential to have the best debut from this year's draft class, but he has to cross the pond from Russia before that can happen, so don't hold your breath. Huselius, at this point, looks like as good a candidate as any to play with Nash. That would mean huge assist numbers, as Nash remains one of the premier goal-scorers in the NHL. I don't see him as a good fit for Nash, though, and don't advise investing in Huselius expecting him to stay on the top line all season. I think some of the aforementioned younger players are ready to steal his spot. Mike Commodore steps onto the Columbus blueline as the most experienced at playing an offensive role, but is a lackluster option as power-play quarterback. I'm looking at Kris Russell to take a big step forward this season unless the Blue Jackets acquire a better option.
Carolina Hurricanes: Either Tuomo Ruutu or Sergei Samsonov is going to be fantasy-relevant this coming season. By shipping Erik Cole to the Oilers, the Hurricanes have made room for one of the two talented but injury-plagued wingers to skate on the Eric Staal or Rod Brind'Amour lines. We'll have to see how this battle plays out as the season approaches, but Ruutu, Samsonov and even Patrick Eaves should be on your radar. Joni Pitkanen -- the return in the Cole deal -- is also someone to bump up your draft boards. After posting a season with 46 points in 58 games with the 2005-06 Flyers, Pitkanen has disappointed for the past two seasons. But, he has plus-vision on the ice and can be a top-notch power-play quarterback in the right situation. The Canes have had a void at power-play quarterback since Frantisek Kaberle turned out a fluke after their Cup-winning season. Considering that Joe Corvo -- who has less offensive talent than Pitkanen -- posted 21 points in 23 games after being assigned to the role of Carolina's offensive-blueliner last season, things bode well for Pitkanen. I'll take a chance on him as a No. 2 defenseman.
Minnesota Wild: If Carolina has lacked a true offensive defensemen, there is no way to describe how inept the puck-movers have been on the Wild's blue line. It had been years since a Wild defenseman cracked the 30-point barrier before Brent Burns stepped up and had a 43-point season. Now he has someone to work with after the Wild traded for power-play quarterback extraordinaire Marek Zidlicky. Whereas Burns has the big shot, Zidlicky has the tape-to-tape passes. These two will be a big hit on the blue line, and I think Burns needs to be a strong No. 2 defenseman in drafts, while Zidlicky can be taken as a No. 3 with upside. Marc-Andre Bergeron will also be part of the power play, but I expect Zidlicky and Burns to be the go-to guys. Andrew Brunette will have a homecoming to Minnesota to try and replace the departed Brian Rolston. While more a playmaker than the sniper Rolston, Brunette can still play top-six minutes for the Wild. So far, only Brunette, Marian Gaborik, Mikko Koivu and Pierre-Marc Bouchard are sure things for those top two lines, but that shows Brunette will find a line he can work on. Will he come close to his 83-point season alongside Joe Sakic in 2006-07? No, but he can approach 65 points as a No. 3 fantasy winger.
Washington Capitals: The Caps weren't let down last season by their goaltending. In fact, Olaf Kolzig did a bang-up job, and Cristobal Huet was even better after coming at the trade deadline. However, both goalies have moved on and Washington didn't hesitate to sign Jose Theodore as a replacement. Theodore had been awful after the lockout until something clicked last season and he found his old form, posting more than 20 wins, a sub-3.00 goals-against average and a save percentage north of .900 for the first time since 2003-04 in Montreal. If Theodore can repeat last season's performance for a Capitals team that keeps getting better with age, he would be a No. 1 goaltender. I want to see it twice before I believe it, though. I'm going to rank Theodore as a No. 2 goaltender, but tag him as the goalie with the most upside after the safe bets are gone. Washington's defense is still below-average, and Theodore might not be comfortable back within a two-hour flight of the Montreal media.
Boston Bruins: I know this quote from a famous pet detective is dated by like 10 years, but Michael Ryder fits the Bruins "like a glove!" Seriously, I want to express it another way, but I can't resist that line. I think he is in the perfect spot not only to get back to his ways as a 30-goal scorer, but also to set a new career high for tallies. Why am I so excited about Ryder (beyond the fact Claude Julien probably knows him better than his parents, having coached him through juniors, the NHL and the AHL)? Marc Savard, that's why. Savard is one of the premier passers in the game. He produced 63 assists last year and 74 the year before that, yet the Bruins didn't have a single 30-goal scorer on their team. Glen Murray is on the decline and Marco Sturm will never be a 30-goal guy. Savard needs Ryder, and Ryder needs Savard. Blake Wheeler is also a perfect fit for the Bruins. The former Coyotes' prospect opted to become a free agent rather than sign with Phoenix now that he is turning pro. The Bruins scooped him up, and if nothing else, he can help Phil Kessel back on track. Kessel and Wheeler were sometimes linemates on the 2005-06 Minnesota Golden Gophers team, the season before Kessel became the No. 5 draft pick. Kessel has enough unrealized potential to be among the best in the NHL yet is not on track to get there. Maybe a blast from the past like Wheeler can get him in gear. For his part, Wheeler should be on your radar because his history with Kessel might give him a leg up on making the team.
Vancouver Canucks: A team in transition as former leaders Brendan Morrison and Markus Naslund remain unsigned and look unlikely to return, the Canucks have made a few moves. Kyle Wellwood is a playmaker by trade with terrific hands that haven't been used to their full potential in Toronto. Wellwood is a prime candidate to play with (and succeed with) the Sedin Twins. Not that I'll take him as a 70-point player in fantasy drafts, but that potential is there if he plays with Henrik and Daniel. Darcy Hordichuk is more likely to find consistent playing time in Vancouver, as the Canucks lack overall toughness. If he is not sitting in the press box on a consistent basis, Hordichuk earns enough PIMs to be relevant to fantasy players who like to get their penalty minutes by drafting "goons."
Colorado Avalanche: The Avs hired on a couple of Maple Leaf castoffs, but the significant news for Colorado hasn't happened yet. Will Joe Sakic and/or Peter Forsberg return for another season? The decision may be a week away, but you can be assured that Darcy Tucker and Andrew Raycroft won't appease fans if neither of the team's signature centers return. Also troubling is that, as of this writing, Colorado only has Peter Budaj and Raycroft in net to open the season. Budaj is an above-average No. 2 goaltender, but I question his ability to carry the load. Raycroft needs to recapture his game now -- or never. An undecided captain and no real No. 1 goalie are some serious concerns for a team that is a perennial playoff contender. I know this is just speculation, but is there any better potential suitor for Ray Emery right now? The departure of free agent Andrew Brunette actually bodes well for a franchise with a wealth of young players that could use more ice time for their development. T.J. Hensick and Chris Stewart could benefit from the opening in the top six. Tucker, for his part, looks a little out of his element on the Avalanche. With Toronto, he was one of only a few wingers with offensive ability, but in Colorado he is one of an army of wingers with a nose for the net. Notable as well is the fact that Ryan Smyth does Tucker's job of being a pest in the crease on power plays, only better. Tucker is unlikely to have any value except in deep leagues.
New York Islanders: The Islanders are still a team in transition as they wait for Kyle Okposo to develop into the team leader, but that doesn't mean they are bare of fantasy potential. Doug Weight should join Bill Guerin to form the No. 1 scoring line for the Isles, and though they may seem over-the-hill, the duo could combine for decent totals if left to toil as the main source of goals. Don't get me started on how damaging their plus/minus might be, though. Mark Streit is an enigma. He should remain eligible as a defenseman next season, but there is a chance the Islanders use him as just that, a D-man. Streit got his fantasy value from the fact that Montreal would use him as a forward depending on the situation. Playing up front elevated his point total to relevant, considering you could play him as a defenseman. We'll have to wait and see where he is eligible and where the Islanders use him.
Dallas Stars: Sean Avery will get the opportunity to duplicate his terrific fantasy showing from last season as he joins the Dallas Stars and fills a void in their top six. Whether he lines up with Mike Ribeiro or Brad Richards on a regular basis, Avery will top 30 points and easily blow past 150 penalty minutes, making him a steal at the wing in any fantasy league. Look for him to go in the first six rounds of your draft.
Atlanta Thrashers: Ron Hainsey is a must-draft on defense. He should be cheap because he has never been a top-20 defenseman, but he'll finish among them this season. Hainsey has the Atlanta power play all to himself, and I don't care if it's only Hainsey and Ilya Kovalchuk on the ice, Kovy will find a way to put the puck in the net. Look for a huge assist total out of Hainsey this season.
Detroit Red Wings: You can check out Pete Becker's spin on the Marian Hossa signing here, but I'll sum it up by saying that whether he's on the top line with Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg or -- more likely -- on a line assembled with two of Daniel Cleary, Johan Franzen, Jiri Hudler or Mikael Samuelsson, Hossa and his fantasy owners have nothing to worry about. Remember how Ty Conklin came out of the woodwork to carry fantasy teams through the middle of the season? Don't let that memory slip too far from your mind, as Conklin will get the opportunity to back up the streaky and aging Chris Osgood. I wouldn't roster Osgood without backing him up with Conklin later in the draft.
New Jersey Devils: A homecoming for Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik is good news for one of them and irrelevant for fantasy owners for the other. Care to guess? It's Rolston and his super-accurate shot that get the blessing here. In Minnesota, Rolston rarely worked with Marian Gaborik and often played a second-line role, yet was a No. 2 fantasy winger every season. Look for Rolston to maybe even improve on his numbers as he gets to line up on the first power play and maybe even the top line. Zach Parise and Patrik Elias would certainly welcome the sniper into the fold. Holik only becomes an issue for fantasy owners if the Devils insist on playing him as the second-line center over a developing Travis Zajac. Not only does that hold one player back from being useful, but it would force the occasional pick up of Holik as the season wears on. And no one wants that.
Toronto Maple Leafs: The tank job continues. Niklas Hagman is now the second-highest paid forward on the Maple Leafs, after Jason Blake. Competing for top-line center will be Matt Stajan and Nik Antropov. Jeff Finger constitutes a notable signing on defense (cough cough journeyman). Curtis Joseph, a backup goaltender who'll maybe play 15 games if Vesa Toskala's hips hold up, is the most notable signing. Toronto now meets the minimum required under the salary cap (thanks to Hagman's $3 million a year), so don't expect them to make more impact moves. The John Tavares watch is in full effect.
Florida Panthers: After shipping Olli Jokinen to bolster the team's defense (and that's what Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton did), things were looking pretty grim for Nathan Horton and and [insert cricket noises here]. So that may be an exaggeration as Stephen Weiss, David Booth and Rotislav Olesz are by no means chopped liver, but still, it's clear the Panthers are looking for their players of the future to be the players of right now. In the meantime, Cory Stillman will join Horton on the Panthers top line next season after signing a three-year deal. Stillman won't have a whole heck of a lot of fantasy value here, but he could earn No. 2 winger stats if everything goes perfectly and the Panthers are competitive. I don't expect that just yet, and Stillman is likely a fill-in No. 3 winger for this season.
Sean Allen is a fantasy baseball and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.