Offseason Notebook: Sharks, Sabres and Lightning swap power-play point men
One of the driving forces behind a solid fantasy season is the ability to pick the players that not only will skate more minutes at even strength, but also contribute offensively on the power play. Most leagues use power-play points as a category, but even if you don't, power-play goals accounted for 28 percent of all goals scored in the NHL last season. Considering that most teams don't spend that percentage of a game on the power play, well, you can see how the man advantage parlays into offensive production.
I'm even willing to boost Thornton's and Cheechoo's rankings because of this signing. When Matt Carle turned out to be a bit of a fraud last season, the club turned to Craig Rivet to quarterback the power play until making the deadline deal for Brian Campbell. Cheechoo missed some games late last season, but there was an uptick in Thornton's production after Campbell arrived. In March, Thornton exploded for 11 goals -- the most he scored in a month since March 2001. He was plus-13 for the month, after not besting plus-5 in any other month last season, so even off the power play Campbell impacted Thornton's game; and remember, Boyle may even be better than Campbell. Michalek and Cheechoo, working with a puck-mover like Boyle and a passer like Thornton, could both eclipse the 30-goal mark this season. Cheechoo won't get back to his 56-goal ways, but that is because Thornton shares the love and puts the puck in the net himself. The top line still produced goals last season and the season prior, but you have to divide them among Michalek and Cheechoo rather than give them all to Cheechoo (his Rocket Richard Trophy came before Michalek really stepped onto the scene as a legitimate first-liner). San Jose is going to be pretty top-heavy, but it's not as if teams can ignore Setoguchi, Mike Iggulden, Patrick Marleau and Jeremy Roenick, either.
Look for the Sharks to produce more offense than they have in any other season of the Thornton era.
Let's have another look around the league at other teams making changes, and the clubs that have been standing still.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Watching Ryan Malone and Gary Roberts leave for Tampa Bay, while Georges Laraque and Jarkko Ruutu split for Canada, had to spurn the Penguins a little bit. The real bitter taste comes from Marian Hossa going to rival Detroit for fewer years and less money. Now, aside from Hossa -- and, to an extent, Malone -- these were all players Pittsburgh could afford to lose as they had to concentrate on locking up core players Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury. Still, Sidney Crosby and Malkin need someone to work with on the ice. In come two Islanders free agents: Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko. Both players have an immediate shot at the top six for the Penguins, and they could witness a resurrection to their fantasy value similar to what Petr Sykora experienced last season. Satan has more talent, but is getting on in years and has often had his motivation questioned. That may be less of an issue in Pittsburgh, as it's hard to understand where he would have found motivation with the supporting cast the Isles have rolled out in recent seasons. I could see Satan turning in a strong season as a No. 2 winger. Fedotenko has flashed us his 26-goal potential in a Cinderella season with Tampa Bay, and you never know how he might react to working with Crosby or Malkin. However, I am hesitant to immediately consider Fedotenko anything more than a deep-league gamble at the wing.
Calgary Flames: Out with Owen Nolan, in with Todd Bertuzzi. Betuzzi gave us flashes midseason that he still can be a net-crashing, fist-tossing, goal-scoring fantasy ace, but injuries limited him last season. If he finds the perfect -- and I mean perfect -- role among the Flames top six, he really could post Bertuzzi-esque numbers (70 points, 120 penalty minutes). The odds are stacked against him, though. If we get word of Big Bert playing on a line with Jarome Iginla and Daymond Langkow, you can officially start to get excited. A more likely role is on Craig Conroy's and Rene Bourque's line, pairing Mike Cammalleri with the top unit. As I've said before, coach Mike Keenan likes top-heavy lineups.
Minnesota Wild: Speaking of Owen Nolan, the Irish-born Canadian finds himself in new surroundings with the Wild. In his past two seasons (one with Phoenix, one with Calgary), Nolan didn't get over the 40-point barrier despite relatively healthy campaigns. Nolan may not be so lucky as to land a top-six role with Minnesota and could be largely ignored.
Tampa Bay Lightning: With so many new faces in the locker room, one of the only concerns about this Lightning offense should be how well they coexist. Add Brandon Bochenski and Mark Recchi to a forward crew consisting of Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts, Radim Vrbata, Steve Stamkos, Vaclav Prospal, Jussi Jokinen, Ryan Craig and Michel Ouellet, and those are 12 names already. And I've only listed the ones with potential fantasy value -- enough for four lines. How's that for a new strategy in the NHL? No grinders or checkers, just four lines of pure offense? I doubt that is the game plan under new coach Barry Melrose, but you never know. At the end of the day, it is likely only the top six will have positive fantasy value, so watching line combinations will be priority No. 1 at Tampa Bay's training camp. What about the defense, though? Offensive catalyst Dan Boyle is off to San Jose, leaving a giant void at power-play quarterback. Matt Carle could prove the brass in San Jose wrong and recapture his 42-point 2006-07 form, but all the elements were in place for him to succeed last season and he didn't. Ty Wishart (also from the Boyle trade) is an top offensive defenseman prospect out of the Sharks system and also will get a chance. In this debate, however, I think I will side with the un-sexy but known commodities of Filip Kuba and Paul Ranger. I think they, as well as Carle, all post No. 4 defensemen numbers for fantasy, as no real dominant force emerges from the Lightning blue line.
Vancouver Canucks: The rumored Pavol Demitra signing clouds things back up again, as he can play all three forward positions. Before that announcement, I was looking at Steve Bernier as a real sleeper this season. Considering the Canucks used a merry-go-round of right wingers to try to fill the No. 1 line next to Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin, and the highest-scoring right winger for Vancouver was Ryan Shannon with 13 points, it's safe to say that a skilled right winger has massive upside here. I've never been a Bernier fan, but put an orca on a line with the Sedin twins and they'll bounce the puck off its face enough for the whale to post a 50-point season. Now, whether it's Demitra or Bernier (or even Kyle Wellwood), I'm definitely touting whoever gets tabbed to play with the twins as a huge upside pick in fantasy. On a side note, even if Demitra does sign and line up with the Sedins to start the season, Bernier is still a good value pick, as Demitra never has been the poster boy for durability.
Nashville Predators: The Predators expected to be quiet for free agency, and certainly followed through with that expectation with no notable fantasy signings. We can pencil in Jason Arnott, Alexander Radulov, J.P. Dumont, David Legwand and Martin Erat for their top six, but that still leaves one open spot. The injured Steve Sullivan, who missed all last season, is one fantasy sleeper who could fill that role. Sullivan still needs to be evaluated for his healing back, but with more than a year spent out of hockey, one would expect him to be ready to go by this season. Sullivan had back-to-back 60-point seasons despite missing several games during that span before missing last season, so he has some tremendous upside. The other option for that last spot would be prospect Patric Hornqvist, who has been honing his game in the Swedish Elisterien. Although he doesn't have Sullivan's upside, he is a sound position player and could become fantasy relevant based on his linemates.
Philadelphia Flyers: Also on the quiet side this offseason were the Flyers. Re-signing Jeff Carter seemed to be their first priority, and beyond that the team doesn't need to make too many changes. A healthy Simon Gagne to prop up a relatively disappointing Daniel Briere should give fantasy owners more to get excited about in Philly. One important thing to remember is that Mike Richards' bust-out season was for real, and he is easily the first Flyer that should come off any fantasy draft board. With Richards, Briere and Carter ready to play center, the key training camp storyline will be watching where talented wingers like Gagne, Mike Knuble, Scott Hartnell, Steve Downie, Scottie Upshall and Joffrey Lupul slot in; as well as the possibility of Claude Giroux or even James van Riemsdyk (remote possibility) earning a roster spot. Overall, the Flyers have good reasons for remaining on the sidelines during the current free-agent frenzy.
Sean Allen is a fantasy baseball and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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