It’s fitting that this is about that time when students are taking final exams, as the NHL’s disciplinary system also faces a battery of tests this week.
As with just about any suspension-related decision, there are plenty of people who probably believe that James Neal’s five-game punishment was either too harsh or too light. Personally, I believe the NHL got things just about right, especially since the system is indeed encumbered by an appeals process that can hamstring big escalations in punishments.
Still, the Neal knee on Brad Marchand was kind of a layup. Think of it as that easy elective* that you devoted about five percent of your study time and one percent of your brainpower to compared to the other trials that await your caffeine-driven exploits.
Appropriately for this analogy, the real cramming begins in the next few days.
First, the NHL must do some crunching over history texts, as Dion Phaneuf might get his first suspension for a hit from behind on Kevan Miller. While you could argue that each hit can have its snowflake-like variations, the bottom line is that we’ve seen these types of checks before. And if anything, that almost makes it a tough call, as the league has been a little more unpredictable with these decisions.
Then we have the Shawn Thornton test, which is a lot like grinding through a grueling required class that has nothing to do with your major. It’s hugely important that the NHL soaks in the lesson - aka sends the right message - with an emphatic decision. Yet, like that class that had nothing to do with what you were going to college for but stood in the way of your degree, the impact of Thornton’s loss is mostly irrelevant fantasy-wise.
Really, the biggest debate for fantasy owners might be: how many Thornton games would equal five lost Neal contests? Would it be 5? 10? 15? 40?
Let’s discuss how to handle this Neal deal, then …
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DEAL FOR NEAL?
Generally speaking, I’ve kept my fantasy advice pretty straightforward in the Daily Dose. Every now and then, I’ll throw out a recommendation to trade for a struggling star likely to rebound when his perceived value is unnaturally low, but the main focus is on recommended pickups and shaking off injury annoyances.
It’s bad enough when a player underachieves, but Neal owners can be forgiven if they’re especially frustrated right now. I’d wager Neal went as high as a second-round pick in many traditional formats, but either way, he’s a pricey choice who only played about four minutes in October and will now miss five more games with a suspension.
The Penguins already played the first of five games that Neal will skip on Monday, but even so, he'll miss two more games this week and two more games next week, making him eligible to return on Dec. 19 against the Minnesota Wild.
So allow me a bold question: would you be willing to take on a dead spot on your roster for a limited amount of time to get a big upgrade at power forward?
If you’re comfortably in the top three of your league - bonus points if you’re facing a weak opponent in the next week or two - then why not roll the dice to gain Neal in the long run? Imagine your already-strong team with a nice upgrade?
Determining which player you’d like to trade is obviously up to you. My advice would be to keep your offers reasonable; maybe offer a guy with nice stats who could very well drop off (high shooting percentages are usually a dead giveaway) or perhaps offer a bundle that gives Neal’s owner the edge in two-out-of-three positions. And so on.
(That latter idea is a great bit for trades when you can identify easily replaceable - but solid - guys on your roster.)
THE REAL DEAL
Regardless, I’d be tempted to try to grab Neal when owners are at their highest level of frustration regarding the high-quality fantasy winger. Considering his time on the shelf, his value shines most obviously in averages.
In fact, according to Yahoo’s Fantasy listings, his season averages make him the second most valuable producer, even better than teammate Evgeni Malkin.
He's averaging more than a point-per-game (.6 average for both goals and assists), almost a penalty minute per night, an impressive .7 PPP average (Malkin and Alex Ovechkin are behind him at .6), almost a hit per game and a fantastic 4.1 SOG per contest. Only Ovechkin (5.4), Jeff Carter (4.2) and Evander Kane (4.2) are averaging more this season while he's tied with Zach Parise and Phil Kessel.
So, what’s the ultimate message? Neal is worth trading for. And, if you have him, absolutely do not trade him for anything but equal value and for all that’s holy, don’t drop him.
Unfortunately, you can’t place a suspended player on the IR. For some of you, that means eating an empty roster spot until Dec. 19. Personally, I’d look at this as the equivalent to having too many injured players for your given IR slots, with the unusual bonus of knowing when a key guy can return.
Still, maybe this suspension will cause some fantasy owners who set their rosters well in advance and don’t tweak things very often to open up their team pages for the first time in ages? For those of you who fit under that category, here are a few power forwards who might fill some of the Neal void … and who are probably worth keeping for one of the weaker guys on your roster when Neal returns, anyway.
Note: This isn’t a comprehensive list and I’m making the cut-off point for league ownership at 50 percent. (If you’re wondering, yes, you should grab Dustin Penner and/or David Perron if they’re on the waiver wire, though.)
Clarke MacArthur (48 percent owned) - The 25 points and +12 mark might be inflated (though he's long been an underrated forward), but he's no slouch in peripherals. with 22 PIM, 67 SOG and a promising 49 hits.
Steve Downie (45 percent) - A longtime Dose favorite, he's a solid scorer (normally gets goals, but he's been more of a playmaker this season with 14 of his 16 points being assists) with often monstrous PIM (a robust 67 despite missing some time) and respectable peripherals. Downie's most obvious lure is his ability to boost your PIM without totally destroying you in other categories, like most high-PIM guys can do.
Martin Hanzal (45 percent) - While he's on a three-game pointless streak, his offense still seems like an unexpected asset, which is fantastic since he really racks up the brute force stats. He's also a boon in FW; he has 32 FW in his last three games alone.
Brandon Dubinsky (45 percent) - Another guy whose strength is most evidence in averages, as he's missed a little time here and there. His per-game averages get better as the stats get deeper: .7 points, 2.6 PIM, 2.2 SOG and three hits.
Again, this is by no means a complete list. As a general rule for depth players, you should ask “Will this guy contribute even if he doesn’t score?” The guys above usually can bring something to the table in that way and Neal often does too.
You know, when he isn’t suspended.
QUICK HITS AND INJURIES (full list)
Evgeni Malkin returned to action on Monday and Pavel Datsyuk is expected to play on Tuesday. Great news … Shocked to say this, but Curtis McElhinney is actually worth monitoring. He’s been playing well and Sergei Bobrovsky probably won’t be back until early 2014 … Dougie Hamilton is expected to miss one week. The Bruins might get a boost as Johnny Boychuk may return tonight, though … Vincent Lecavalier (non-displaced fracture in his back) is expected to miss three-to-four more weeks … I've been a big Christopher Higgins proponent with John Tortorella pulling the strings. Oddly enough, his recent run doesn't accentuate the most obvious reason why he could have long-term value, though. He has two straight two assist games without a SOG. That contrasts sharply with his impressive 105 overall. He's not spectacular, but he's getting plenty of ice time and may even improve, as he's only connecting on 7.6 percent of his plentiful shots … Brooks Orpik is experiencing memory loss from a concussion and soreness in his neck and back. No word on his target date for a return yet … Martin Havlat is out with being Martin Havlat … John Tavares has 34 points this season, including a goal and an assist last night. Yet his team has lost 10 games in a row. At least there’s the Olympics, eh?
* - I’d throw out a specific subject, but let’s face it; a tough versus easy assignment can be relative. For some people, a low-level math class is more daunting than taking the LSAT.