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Open Ice: Dealing with disappointing starts

11/10/2008

If you break the season into five laps around a rink, we are just approaching the end of lap No. 1, with many teams hitting the 15-game threshold this week. While there are a few surprises overall in the league, a lot of things are playing out as expected. We expected the Sharks and Red Wings to lead the way in the West. It's no surprise that the East is still a tight mess. No one is shocked to see the Blues and Panthers bringing up the rear in both conferences.

However, there are some surprises, too. The Maple Leafs are threatening to enter the playoff race and the Bruins are jostling for the lead in the Northeast. The Stars are in an unfamiliar place, dwelling in the Pacific cellar while the Flyers are sinking to near the bottom of the Atlantic a season after having gotten back to the playoffs.

The same can be said, of surprises both good and bad, for players on your fantasy team. Now, the "good" surprises are easier to handle. Assess the situation and if the player merits a pickup off the wire, execute it. It's the "bad" surprises that can throw you for a loop. What if your second-round pick has barely sniffed the ice and is not only nursing another groin injury, but at a standstill with his team for contract talks? What if you drafted the Washington left winger named Alexander that isn't the one vying for the league goal-scoring lead? What if your sophomore No. 2 center hasn't scored a goal this season?

As these situations don't lend themselves to any easy solution, it's prudent to highlight a few less-than-stellar performers who were expected to be much better when you drafted them. Some are just off to a slow start, but some come with legitimate concern about their output this season. In some cases, bailing now might even be in order.

Alex Ovechkin, LW, Capitals: The poster boy for this discussion, Ovechkin has missed a couple of games and was surely distracted because of a death in the family, but two goals out of the sure-fire No. 1 fantasy pick is unacceptable. Pacing George Parros for goal scoring, one has to wonder what is up with "Alexander the Gr8." Is he not shooting the puck as much? Well, through 11 games this season he has 50 shots on net. He had 57 shots though 11 games last season, with eight goals to show for it. Ovechkin's shooting percentage is obviously down, but with his shots at a similar pace, we can't point to his taking fewer shots as an answer. What about the fact Alexander Semin seems to be the crux of the offense so far? For his part, Semin has averaged 3.05 shots per game over the previous two seasons. He is averaging 3.23 so far this season. Nope, Ovechkin's fellow Russian isn't hogging the puck. The Caps' power play hasn't been spectacular, could that be the reason? A 5-for-42 (12 percent) slump of late has the Caps at 9-for-58 (16 percent) on the power play this season. Through 13 games last season, the Caps were 10-for-61 with the man advantage (16 percent), so this doesn't look like the cause. But wait! That 5-for-42 funk dates back to October 16, and Ovechkin hasn't scored since October 11. If the Capitals' power play comes back around, will Ovechkin start lighting the lamp again? Most certainly, since more than a third of the Russian's career goals (59 of 165) have come with the man advantage. That's why you shouldn't field any offers for Ovy. Hold tight and the goals will come.

Chris Osgood, G, Red Wings :You're probably saying, "What? There is nothing wrong with Osgood!" You're almost right. Now 13 games into the season, Osgood has started nine contests and has six wins, a 2.97 goals-against average and .892 save percentage. There really isn't anything "wrong" with six wins, except that you could argue he doesn't deserve to be starting in a 10-team fantasy league with his overall numbers. That GAA is 17th in the league and the save percentage is 24th. You could stage a pretty good argument stating that Michael Leighton and Brent Johnson would have served you better for fantasy purposes thus far. This situation isn't going to change, either. The Red Wings will keep the shots on goal low, and Osgood will stop just enough for the Wings to win every night. It's a great system in the NHL, but doesn't serve well for fantasy. Try and swap Osgood for a lesser-named, but statistically-superior netminder while you still can. Wins can quite easily be overvalued for goaltenders; look to the ratios first.

Nathan Horton, RW, Panthers: With five goals and three assists in 14 games, Horton hasn't been off to an atrocious start, but it's short of the numbers expected from a player that was drafted, on average, in the fourth round. Like the rest of his teammates, Horton looks to be falling victim to the fact there of too many finishers and too few puck distributors in South Florida. Keith Ballard's eight assists lead all Panthers, but after Stephen Weiss' six, no one else has more than four. With no one setting the table, it's not a surprise the team is having trouble eating. Consider also that with the continued development of David Booth and the free agent signing of Cory Stillman, the Panthers boast three rough-and-tumble wingers with a knack for finishing. Similar styles don't always mesh well on the ice, as you usually need the right amount of each ingredient for the recipe to work. Watch a Panthers game to really see what I mean. Horton doesn't look to be anywhere near the best player on the ice for Florida this season.

Marty Turco, G, Stars: Only Johan Hedberg has a worse goals-against average and no one has as poor a save percentage as Turco this season. Of course, we didn't expect him to be anywhere near the league leaders for those numbers either, right? Turco hasn't been among the league leaders since before the lockout. Still, many expected a bit of an improvement from Turco and the Stars this season, after three years of OK numbers. One of the best defensive forwards in the league, Brad Richards, was joining a team that still boasts Jere Lehtinen and his superior two-way skills, and Sergei Zubov and Philippe Boucher, who would be back after missing much of last season. So are you surprised Turco is struggling, noting Richards looks lost on this team and Lehtinen, Zubov and Boucher have all had injury troubles? You have to be patient with Turco right now. The team is taking baby steps in the right direction. In fact, Turco is coming off his first back-to-back games allowing only two goals -- those two games also happened to be Zubov's first two games back from injury. Coincidence? Maybe, but as the team gets healthier and continues to make progress, Turco will be an asset.

Jonathan Toews, C, Blackhawks: Looking at the Hawks' top line of Toews, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp, it becomes immediately apparent that one of them is, perhaps, being left out of the fun. Kane has 18 points, Sharp has seven goals and 16 points, and Toews scored for the first time this Sunday to give him nine points. Do Kane and Sharp have some amazing chemistry that has developed and left Toews on the sideline? Or is this just a matter of circumstance so far and Toews will be right up there by the end of the season? Looking at Kane's numbers, he has been in on six goals this season when Sharp also has a point. Not only is that not very many (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin lead the way with 13), but Kane and Toews have also been in on six of the same goals this season. That leads to the conclusion that Toews has just been a victim of circumstance so far, and he will get his.

Miikka Kiprusoff, G, Flames: Kipper's numbers have been dropping for three straight years, but if you were to follow the trend of his drop in goals-against average and save percentage, the current production would have been expected from the 2009-10 version. In other words, the fact Kiprusoff is sitting at 3.33 and .888 right now is concerning and even worse than naysayers like myself would have expected. This start is not entirely unexpected, as Mike Keenan-coached teams don't have a history of great goaltending (you have to do some serious digging to find a goaltender not named Roberto Luongo with league-leading numbers and Keenan at the helm), but also the decline in Kiprusoff's overall numbers every season has been undeniable. Even his shutouts and wins have been declining at a steady rate. Blindly following the trend his numbers traced, we would expect him to finish the season with a 3.00 GAA and .898 save percentage. He'll have to play better than that now just to get back to those levels, and there's no guarantee he'll be able to do that.

Sunny Days Ahead

Jason Williams, RW, Thrashers: It was just a matter of time before he got acclimated to his new surroundings with a superstar linemate. Now both Williams and Ilya Kovalchuk are riding a four-game point streak that happens to coincide with Atlanta's four-game winning streak. Look at Williams to be a No. 2 right winger from here out now that he and Kovalchuk are meshing.

Mikhail Grabovski, C, Maple Leafs: All weeks won't be this hot, but now that Grabovski has found his legs, expect decent production from here out on a month-to-month basis. He'll score enough to be a regular contributor as a No. 3 center in deeper leagues, and will be a good pickup for his hot streaks in even the shallowest of leagues. Right now, he would be on a hot streak, by the way.

Drew Doughty, D, Kings: He finally figured out how to work the power play in recent games. Doughty has two straight multipoint efforts, with all three of his power-play points this season coming in those two contests. The Kings have talent on their first power-play unit and with this 18-year old rookie figuring out how to run things on the blue line, he could break out in a big way.

Mark Recchi, RW, Lightning: Recchi has six assists in his past six games. Five of those six assists have come on Jussi Jokinen goals. The Bolts need all the goals they can get and Jokinen, Recchi and new linemate Gary Roberts will get every chance to continue scoring. They may not be the youngest line in the league (in fact, they may be the oldest), but they are getting the job done.

Brent Johnson, G, Capitals: Is he the answer to the Capitals' overall goaltending problem? No, but Johnson is a talented backup who is stealing more and more time away from a struggling Jose Theodore. Coach Bruce Boudreau has no issues resting his multi-million dollar man either, as Johnson has started three straight contests. Look at him this way: Boudreau is taking a chance on him to see what he can do, so it's the least you can do in your fantasy league.

Storms A Brewin'

Dwayne Roloson and Mathieu Garon, G, Oilers: Both Roloson and Garon have been atrocious of late, and the only stable part of Edmonton's three-headed monster in net has been the three-named monster, Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers. Roloson and Garon have been linked, at times, to trade speculation -- with Double-D mentioned every time as the future of the club. Well, it might not be that much longer before the future arrives. Unless Roloson and Garon both pick up their paces, Drouin-Deslauriers may get the chance he needs to emerge.

Paul Stastny, C, Avalanche: With only two points in seven games and a minus-5 in that span, Stastny embodies that sinking feeling you get in your stomach when thinking about the Avalanche. His 13 points look good because he started the season with a seven-game point streak, but head-to-head fantasy leagues can't put up with someone who plays for seven and disappears for seven. In head-to-head leagues consider swapping Stastny for a more consistent producer who is also on pace for 80 points.

Sean Allen is a fantasy baseball and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.