With the NHL taking a break for Christmas, I thought it would be a good time to discuss the top stories of the season to-date while discussing the fantasy impact of each item. I hope you all enjoy this deviation from the usual Nuggets of Wisdom format, which will return in my next instalment.
Revamped Flyers making a splash
When General Manager Paul Holmgren sent forwards Jeff Carter and Mike Richards packing last summer, many called him crazy for breaking up the nucleus of a relatively successful roster, but Holmgren seems to be having the last laugh. The departures of Carter and Richards have opened the door for many Flyers to take on bigger roles, none more so than Claude Giroux. Playing alongside a rejuvenated Jaromir Jagr and the feisty Scott Hartnell, Giroux has shaken off a mild concussion and sits atop the NHL scoring race. He has emerged as a bona fide star and is one of the most valuable assets in the fantasy game.
Cats taking league by surprise
The Florida Panthers’ transformation from also-ran to frontrunner seems to have occurred overnight, but a quick look at the roster overhaul that took place makes it evident this team is constructed differently than many others in the past. The secret to Florida’s success is the leadership they have received from players that were seemingly given away by their former clubs. The exception is Stephen Weiss, who General Manager Dale Tallon refused to deal at last season’s trade deadline, however Tomas Fleischmann, Brian Campbell and leading point-getter Kris Versteeg are all former cast-offs. Even netminder Jose Theodore, playing for his fourth team in five seasons, was picked from the scrap heap prior to the season. One man’s trash truly is another man’s treasure.
Tim Thomas showing Vezina form again
Thomas shattered records with the stats he recorded during last year’s magical season by posting a .938 save percentage and 2.00 GAA, which seemed like impossible feats to duplicate this year. To the amazement of the entire league, the 37-year-old is currently sporting a .943 save percentage with a 1.84 GAA while enjoying a 16-5-0 record with four shutouts in 22 starts. While he does receive more nights of rest than most starting netminders, it would be hard to name a more valuable fantasy goalkeeper.
Young Jets show promise in return to Winnipeg
It’s safe to say the fans in Winnipeg would be satisfied no matter how poorly the team performed this year, but they have actually played well enough to put themselves in a position to fight for a playoff spot thanks to the contributions of their young guns. The team has led in scoring by the trio of Evander Kane, Blake Wheeler and Dustin Byfuglien, all of whom have helped their fantasy owners greatly this year. Combined with the contributions of Bryan Little, Alexander Burmistrov and Zach Bogosian, the future looks very bright in Winnipeg.
Penguins thriving despite major absences thanks to dynamic duo
The Pittsburgh Penguins currently stand fifth in the tough Eastern Conference despite playing nearly the entire season without their captain Sidney Crosby and the past 13 games without explosive blueliner Kris Letang. Few teams could succeed in the face of such adversity, but the Penguins have been carried by forwards Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, who have discovered major chemistry on the team’s top line. Malkin is just three points shy of the league lead while Neal is two goals behind Marian Gaborik for tops in the NHL. Both have been fantastic assets to own in fantasy leagues and should remain among the most valuable all season.
Youth movement working for Oilers
When the Oilers selected Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with the first overall pick in last June’s NHL entry draft, many wondered whether he was ready for the NHL game, but the phenom has silenced all critics by ranking in the top 20 in league scoring through his first 35 career games. Along with sophomore aces Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, Edmonton boasts one of the most exciting teams in recent memory. In terms of keeper league value, there are very few more coveted assets than this trio. Given my choice of the three, I’d prefer to own Hall, but that’s really a matter of splitting hairs.
Coaching changes shake up league
Despite not yet reaching the mid-point of the season, we have already seen six coaching changes across the league. While each case has been different in terms of its fantasy ramifications, some of the hirings have had a greater impact than others. For example, Ken Hitchcock’s arrival in St. Louis has been nothing short of fantastic for the Blues. His defensive system has meant great fantasy numbers for both Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak while solidifying David Backes’ status as a fantasy stud. On the other hand, the Bruce Boudreau era in Anaheim has resulted in only three victories through his first nine games and he hasn’t yet managed to get Bobby Ryan or Jonas Hiller back to 2010-11 levels. It remains to be seen what impact the recent changes in Montreal and Los Angeles have on each team’s most important players.
Far and away the biggest story of the 2011-12 season to-date has been the plethora of head injuries diagnosed across the league, most notably those suffered by Sidney Crosby. Everyone knows Crosby’s story and waits with bated breath to see when number 87 might return to the ice, but the sheer volume of top players that have suffered concussions has reached staggering levels. While Crosby sits and waits for his symptoms to improve, Philadelphia’s Chris Pronger has already been ruled out for the remainder of the season with his career in jeopardy due to his concussion woes. Crosby’s teammate Kris Letang has already missed 13 games due to his own head injury while fellow blueliner Marc Staal has yet to play a game due to one he suffered last season. The Predators’ Shea Weber is latest NHL star to be sidelined due to a concussion and while some players, such as Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux, have returned after relatively short absences, this story figures to be one that affects the league for years to come.