Offseason Notebook: Free-agent frenzy
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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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.
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.
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