15 Fearless Forecasts for 2017-18
Back in a familiar place, Patrick Sharp could outscore one popular, more highly-ranked player this season.
What would the beginning of a hockey season be without predictions? Here at DobberHockey, that means my annual fantasy-related Fearless Forecasts. Last season’s forecasts actually ended up with some decent hits and near misses, along with what I’ll readily admit were a few major air balls. Hopefully this year I’ll do even better. Plus, with 15 forecasts this time around – yes, you read that right, 15 instead of the usual 10! – I’m giving myself 50% more chances to be correct…….or wrong.
Before I get to the actual forecasts, let me reinforce a couple of important things. These are fearless forecasts, which means they’re supposed to be truly bold yet at least plausible. Also, you should assume the skaters involved will each play 75+ games and no netminders mentioned will suffer a major injury. With that out of the way, here we go!
1) At least 15 defensemen will score 50+ points
What do the following numbers represent – 9, 5, 9, 11, 12, 9? They’re the total number of 50+ point rearguards in each of the last six full seasons (i.e., 9 in 2010-11……..9 in 2016-17). Why do I see the total spiking to 15 in 2017-18, when it’s never reached 13 in any of the last six full seasons and was only 9 last season? For one, many teams are moving to a 4F, 1D power play, which could lead to better PP production for the lone rearguard. Further, my recent column on peak ages for defensemen noted that last season 15 rearguards aged 24-27 finished within the top 25 among rearguard scoring, representing the highest number in that peak age group for any season dating back to 1996-97. So from where I sit things are also aligned well age-wise for high production from top defensemen.
One fantasy tip – if indeed more rearguards score 50+ points, and fewer teams ice a 2D power play, the number of 40-49 point defensemen stands to drop. Therefore, don’t wait too long to draft your rearguards thinking you can get solid value later. In other words, I believe this season defenseman scoring will be top-heavier.
2) No Sharks forward will score 60+ points
Last year I predicted no Flyers forward would tally 60+ points, and I was two Jakub Voracek points away from being correct. This time I’m predicting fantasy doom for Sharks forwards.
Working against me are the facts that Joe Pavelski has scored 60+ points or at a 60+ full season pace each of the last eight campaigns, Joe Thornton is just one season removed from 82 points, and Logan Couture has scored 60+ or at a 60+ pace in four of his six campaigns. So why am I making this forecast? Age for one – Thornton is now 38, and Pavelski 33. Plus, Pavelski limped to the finish last season with five points in his last 12 regular season games.
Another major factor is the departure of Patrick Marleau. While Marleau’s overall scoring output had dropped for several seasons, he had averaged 22 PPP per season over his last four campaigns. Plus, the team’s 5×4 shooting percentage was highest in 2016-17 when Marleau was on the ice. Therefore, I expect San Jose’s power play to suffer, which especially concerning since 41 of the 118 combined points from Pavelski and Thornton last season came with the man advantage. Also, when Couture led the NHL in playoff scoring in 2016, guess who was his most frequent linemate? Yup, Marleau.
This has the makings of a long season in San Jose, although note that I said no Sharks forward, since I think Brent Burns will still manage to once again post 60+.
In the DobberHockey Fantasy Guide (still available here), Radulov is predicted to nearly double Sharp’s output (61 points vs. 31). That sentiment is the rule, not the exception, as poolies and pundits see Sharp as a has-been and Radulov as walking into fantasy nirvana. Not me though.
Make no mistake, Sharp looked terrible last year. When he wasn’t hurt, he was nearly invisible. But he had a 0.68 points per game combined scoring rate for 2014-15/2015-16, which was more for that period than Brad Marchand, Nathan MacKinnon, and Brayden Schenn. Beyond that, Sharp scored 78 points in 2013-14 on Chicago – the team to which he’s returning – in his age 32 season. Since 2000-01, there’ve been seven other forwards who scored at least that many points at age 32, and five of them recorded 70+ points at least once at or after age 35. In other words, if a player scores 78 as late as age 32, it normally means he’s a special player who has the capability to put up lots of points once he gets to (or even past) age 35. Plus, I think Chicago will give Sharp every opportunity to shine to help rekindle the team’s past magic.
Then there’s Radulov, also on the other side of 30 and whose career high in points came ten years ago. He posted 54 points in 76 games for Montreal, but that was somewhat of a disappointment considering he emerged with 21 in his first 23 contests. Also, he was scoreless in 41 total games, meaning he was M.I.A. for large chunks of the season despite being on a “prove yourself” one-year deal. What happens to his nightly effort level now that he’s received his big pay day?
And although signs are pointing to Radulov being slotted alongside Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, only twice in the past four seasons did those two share the ice with a third player for more than 50 percent of a season’s even-strength shifts. The first was with Sharp, who did post 55 points, while the second was with Valeri Nichushkin, who managed only 34. Thus, staying on a Seguin/Benn line isn’t a sure thing. Even when it pans out, big scoring doesn’t necessarily occur.
Let’s also not forget that Ken Hitchcock – now at the helm in Dallas –has managed to lead each of the last four teams he coached to lower goals scored totals in his first year on the bench than they posted in their previous season. And with Radulov’s well-documented past ”attitude” issues and Hitchcock’s prior run-ins with at least one “enigmatic” Russian player in Nikita Filatov, call me crazy but I envision this as a recipe for disappointment for Radulov more so than one tailor-made for success.
4) More than half of all teams will have a goalie appear in 60+ games
To put this in perspective, the number of 60+ game goalies per season has been 13 or less each of the last six full seasons (13, 13, 8, 12, 10, 13, in order from 2010-11 to 2016-17) and was last more than half of all teams back in 2001-02. So why 16+ this year? For one, several skilled back-ups (e.g., Antti Raanta, Scott Darling) are gone from their previous teams, who’ll likely lean on their starters more than in recent years. Also, at least three tandems (Dallas, Calgary, Pittsburgh) are seemingly things of the past.
There’s also the reality that in each of the past two seasons nine of the top ten netminders in number of appearances were on squads that made it to the playoffs. Plus, without the Olympics looming, there’s no concern about top netminders being overtaxed outside of the normal NHL grind, nor a compressed schedule. Thus, teams should see this season as an opportunity to lean on their #1 goalies more often.
Note that although I’m predicting a higher number of 60+ game netminders, don’t also expect more than the usual number (5-8 in four of the past six seasons) to surpass the 65 appearances threshold. While teams might be more inclined to push the envelope a little, they also realize there’s a fine line between playing a netminder enough to help secure a playoff berth and overplaying him to an extent he’ll be burnt out and subpar in the playoffs.
To put this in proper context, last season Ehlers had 25 goals, versus 51 points from Schultz. So how am I justifying this prediction? As great a season as Schultz had, he limped to the finish (five points in his final 15 regular season games). Also, this is the same Schultz who had eight points in 18 games in 2015-16 with the Pens, plus had disappointed literally every season since a rookie, before somehow connecting the dots when playing for his very NHL future. Beyond that, 24 of Schultz’s 39 assists last season were secondary, which was the third-highest number among all defensemen.
Let’s also not forget Kris Letang wasn’t even in the line-up when Schultz finished poorly. Plus, Letang is all but assured to be the lone/main PP1 d-man if he stays healthy, cutting into Schultz’s PP production that was responsible for 40 percent of his points last season. Lastly, say what you will about Letang’s health, but the only two other occasions where he finished a full season with fewer than 70 games he played in 71+ the next full season.
As for Ehlers, while Patrick Laine is Winnipeg’s truest sniper, Ehlers is no slouch. In fact, 21 of his 25 goals for 2016-17 came in his final 52 games. And Ehlers hit nine posts, meaning he was inches away from 30+ goals as it was. Also, he didn’t even take the ice for 50 percent of Winnipeg’s power-play shifts, so there’s room for him to organically improve there.
6) Antti Raanta will finish in the top five in save percentage among 40+ appearance netminders
Raanta has a 2.32 GAA and .917 SV% in 94 career games since entering the league in 2013-14. Only seven netminders who have played 90+ games since 2013-14 have better cumulative stats in both areas, and guess what – all but two (Cam Talbot, Jonathan Quick) have finished within the top five in save percentage among 40+ appearance netminders in at least one of those four campaigns.
Also, although Arizona faced the second most shots on goal last season and at least the eighth most in each of the prior three campaigns, Raanta’s even strength save percentage was fifth-best in the NHL last season (at .934), meaning he’s well equipped to meet that challenge. Moreover, Raanta will be a UFA this summer, so he has added incentive to play his very best. Lastly, Arizona will be helped by being in the Pacific Division, which already last season was one of the NHL’s weakest overall and is now adding what figures to be a Vegas team that will struggle offensively.
One mistake I see made all too often in fantasy is valuing “new and shiny” over “tried and true.” Or to put it another way, placing too much value in younger players while devaluing veterans. Cases in point are Werenski, last year’s breakout rookie defenseman, and Pietrangelo, the 539 NHL game veteran.
For 2017-18, most poolies are expecting Werenski to pull a John Klingberg and build upon first year success, while worrying Pietrangelo’s production will suffer due to Colton Parayko. Notice I said most poolies, since I see Werenski as poised to falter and Pietrangelo’s production set to explode.
With Pietrangelo, it boils down to how outstanding he did after Mike Yeo took over as coach and Kevin Shaattenkirk left. Yeo has a long pattern of anointing one defensemen as “the guy” and playing him into the ground in all situations. We saw in 2016-17 that guy is Pietrangelo, who responded convincingly (18 points in 20 games after Shattenkirk was dealt), and who – let’s not forget –scored 50+ on two previous occasions. Meanwhile, Parayko had a mere seven points (and just one of his ten power-play points) in the same 20 contests, meaning his scoring rate somehow dropped versus before Shattenkirk was moved.
As for Werenski, past precedent isn’t on his side. Since 2000-01 only three other d-men (Dion Phaneuf, Tyler Myers, Shayne Gostisbehere) posted 45+ points as a rookie, with one (Phaneuf) finishing with essentially the same production as a sophomore (49 rookie points, 50 points in his second season) but the other two seeing a drastic drop in second year scoring (Myers from 48 points in 82 games to 37 in 80; Gostisbehere from 46 points in 64 games to 39 in 76).
Of course prior results aren’t future predictors; however, Seth Jones is a potential threat to Werenski’s plum PP gig, which accounted for 44.6% of Werenski’s scoring last season. Although Jones only took the ice for 38.7% of total Columbus power-play time in games he played, he was above that threshold in 13 of the last 15 games in which Columbus received a power-play opportunity, so there could be a power-play QB controversy brewing. In short, the stage is set for Pietrangelo to shine, and Werenski to falter. Just another example in fantasy of tried and true often being the far better option than new and shiny.
Last season these two tallied 177 points between them, with many thinking they should surpass that total in 2017-18. To me, it’s instead a recipe for disappointment versus lofty expectations. First and foremost, both have huge offseason deals weighing upon them and wouldn’t be the first to start squeezing their sticks a little tight under such circumstances. Also, in terms of McDavid, since 2005-06 just as many players saw their output drop in the season that followed their first 100-point campaign as experienced an increase.
Moreover, the fact that Edmonton did so well in the 2017 playoffs could lead to retooling its approach. With the Stanley Cup seemingly in realistic reach, they might use the regular season to build for playoff success, which could mean paying more attention to defense and spreading around scoring more. The latter could result in splitting up McDavid and Draisaitl, which would affect their scoring since they shared points on 39 goals at even strength last season, tied for third highest in the NHL. Long story short, things in Edmonton might become a bit less run and gun, and that, plus other factors, could lead to somewhat lower scoring for McDavid and/or Draisaitl.
Yes, Tampa traded Ben Bishop because of confidence they had in Vasilevskiy. But arguably the more pressing motivation was they couldn’t re-sign Ben Bishop and still keep their all-important skater core intact. In other words, it was a trade largely borne of cap necessity. Then they turned around and brought in Peter Budaj, whom they know from his stint in LA can step in and be a serviceable starter if needed.
Of course Tampa wants Vasilevskiy to seize the reins and be a true #1; but if we look at March and April after Bishop was traded, we see six games with one goal or fewer allowed by Vasilevskiy but also seven with three plus, including four goals allowed per game in a stretch of four of five starts. Let’s also not forget there was largely no microscope on Vasilevskiy last season because Tampa was out of the playoff hunt. Who’s to say what might happen in a new season amid renewed high expectations?
Make no mistake – the Lightning are in win-now mode and thus cannot afford to start a shaky goalie on a regular basis. At the same time, if they envision Vasilevskiy as their goalie of the future and he plays poorly, they’ll likely figure it’s better to let Budaj get added starts rather than tossing Vasilevskiy out to the lions night after night, in order to protect Vasilevskiy from the kind of mental damage that could have a long-lasting negative impact. All these factors combine to give me the sense that even if Vasilevskiy begins the season as the Lightning’s anointed #1 or #1A, he’ll finish as more a #1B, with Budaj getting the majority of starts.
10) The Winnipeg Jets will score the most goals of any NHL team
Last season Winnipeg finished 7th in goals at 246 (32 behind league #1 Pittsburgh). That was despite converting only on 18.2% of its power-play opportunities, which was not only behind each of the six squads which scored more goals last season, but also another 11 other teams as well. That percentage should improve with the maturing of Winnipeg’s young stars.
And looking at the six teams who finished above them in scoring last season, several (Penguins, Rangers, Capitals) are aging or seemingly took a step back this summer, others (Wild, Blue Jackets) may have overachieved in 2016-17, and the last (Maple Leafs), like I noted with Edmonton above, could be implementing a more well-rounded approach in hopes of advancing farther in the playoffs. What these teams also have in common is a starting goalie who, on paper, is superior to Winnipeg’s Steve Mason or Connor Hellebucyk, making it all the more likely the Jets rely heavily on offensive firepower.
There’s also the likelihood of more games from Patrik Laine, more power-play time for Nikolaj Ehlers (who, as noted above, took the ice for less than 50 percent of his team’s power-play time last season), and a healthier Bryan Little to bolster the second line. Put all these factors together and I think they can potentially climb to the top in team goals scored for 2017-18.
11) A Carolina forward will score 75+ points
I’m hedging my bets a bit by not predicting a specific player, but I’m comfortable in this still being a sufficiently fearless forecast. After all, only one Carolina forward topped 49 points last season (Jeff Skinner’s 63) and the team hasn’t featured an over 70-point player since 2010-11.
But hidden beneath the surface somewhat is that several Canes players could be on the cusps of offensive breakouts. Elias Lindholm played at a 66-point pace for more than half a season and will be looking to ensure a big RFA payday next summer. Lindholm also had only five secondary assists among his 34 total last season, which suggests he can easily luck into more points over the normal course. Then there’s Jeff Skinner, who, finally healthy, has produced at a 65-point pace for the better part of the last two campaigns. Sebastian Aho finished stronger than he started, plus both Teuro Teravainen and Victor Rask will be playing in their “magical” fourth seasons. To me, that’s enough to figure at least one player making the leap into 75+ territory.
12) Milan Lucic will score fewer than 40 points
If you think Lucic can bounce back from last season (when he was age 28), here’s a stat line to send shivers down your spine: 82 games, 22 goals, 32 assists – identical to Lucic’s from 2016-17, except with a few more assists. That was the output of Dustin Brown in his age 28 season. Since then, Brown’s high for a full season has been 36 points, and he finished with fewer than 30 in three separate campaigns, all despite a sky-high salary and plenty of chances to play alongside top players.
Whether his competitive fire has been dampened, or years of rough-and-tumble play has caused him to lose a step, Lucic managed only half his goals and assists at even strength in 2016-17. Perhaps most concerning is his negative effect when slotted alongside Connor McDavid. Here is the WOWY data for McDavid and Lucic (a “With Or Without You” comparison of goals per 60 minutes at 5×5 for Edmonton when McDavid was on the ice with Lucic compared to when they weren’t playing together):
G/60 at 5×5 playing with Lucic
G/60 at 5×5 playing without Lucic
This shows when McDavid shares the ice with Lucic, Edmonton is a worse team by half a goal. By comparison, the “with” data (3.67) is more favorable and the “without” data (3.81) less unfavorable for McDavid and Patrick Maroon. If you’re the Oilers, who do you trot out to protect McDavid, while still trying to stay productive? The answer probably is Maroon rather than Lucic.
With Edmonton thinking Stanley Cup, they won’t let Lucic’s contract dictate him getting prime ice time if he struggles, just like Brown was relegated to third and fourth lines roles when his game slipped even as the Kings were in cup contention. In fact, we already had a preview of apparent things to come over the course of Edmonton’s last ten regular season games of 2016-17, eight of which featured Lucic receiving less than his season-long average ice time.
13) Alexander Wennberg will finish within the top three among NHL forwards in assists
Last season Wennberg had 46 assists, tying for 11th among NHL forwards. I see a major leap coming, for several reasons. First, there’s his trajectories of assists per 60 minutes and points per 60 minutes having increased, respectfully, from 0.9, to 1.75, to 1.88 and from 1.13, to 2.19, to 2.41 in his NHL seasons thus far. And this is…….drumroll please…….…his “magical fourth season” where many an NHLer has seen his production spike significantly.
Beyond that, Artemi Panarin is a significant upgrade over any forward with whom Wennberg had previously played in his young career, and makes those around him better. In fact, for those who argued it was Patrick Kane who boosted Panarin’s production rather than vice versa, consider that when they both shared the ice in 2016-17 Chicago averaged 3.56 goals per 60 minutes at 5×5, but when Kane skated without Panarin, the rate dropped to 2.60, whereas the rate dropped to only 2.79 when Panarin took the ice without Kane.
There’s also the probability that Cam Atkinson will become the third member of a Wennberg and Panarin line. That would be beneficial to Wennberg in that although he and Atkinson shared the ice for under a tenth of Wennberg’s total 5×5 minutes last season, the results were very positive – 3.26 G/60 at 5×5 for Columbus.
14) No player from the Metropolitan Division will have more goals than Anders Lee
For those who don’t have division lists handy, the Metropolitan includes, among other teams, Pittsburgh and Washington. That means Lee would have to pot more goals than Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, who happen to be the only players to have led the league in goals in the past five seasons. Also in the Metropolitan are Columbus’ Cam Atkinson and Carolina’s Jeff Skinner, who both finished ahead of Lee in markers last season and who were both touted above.
Nevertheless, while most are labelling Lee as a player to avoid due to his 17.8% shooting percentage from last season, I’m all in. For one, goal scorers have high shooting percentages. Sure – maybe not quite that high, but among 67 instances of 34+ goal scorers (Lee having scored 34 last season) since 2010-11, 25 had a shooting percentage of 15.0 %+ and 38 were at 14.0 %+. Plus, Lee’s output was significantly backloaded, with 50 of his 52 points and 33 of his 34 goals coming in his last 61 contests. Beyond that, Lee could still stand to receive more power-play time, as he was just barely above 50 percent for the season.
Besting a field that includes past Richard Trophy winners and other snipers will be no easy task. But with the chemistry Lee and Tavares displayed and Tavares having UFA motivation to pile on points, chances are Lee will see his goal total rise into the 40s – perhaps even high enough to finish as the goal scoring leader within his division.
15) Neither Jake Guentzel nor Conor Sheary will outscore Evander Kane
My reasoning is twofold – Kane is playing for his very NHL future, and there’s almost no track record of full season success for Pens wingers who don’t get ample PP1 time.
On the first point, we know Kane has talent based on what he displayed in juniors and his early seasons with Atlanta/Winnipeg. But as an NHLer, he’s had what could at best be termed a questionable attitude and level of dedication. The difference now is he must do well to ensure a lucrative long-term deal this summer. Can big money motivate players to step up? Let’s ask the aforementioned Justin Schultz and Alexander Radulov, plus the likes of Loui Eriksson, David Clarkson…….you get my idea.
The reality is some players coast until they have no choice but to play well/hard in order to earn a new deal. I can see Kane as one of those players, making this the season for him to stop coasting and step on the gas. In fact, there were already signs of him starting to come to life, as last season he had 37 points in 46 games sandwiched between two in ten games and four in 13. Also Buffalo is more than willing to give him all the top six time he needs, and as the season wore on he was getting additional power-play time. It’s as if they both know they can help each other, and the result should be points – lots of them – for Kane in 2017-18.
On the other hand, there’s Guentzel and Sheary. Neither is six feet tall or 200 pounds. That might seem like a minor point, but it presumably puts them on the outside looking in when it comes to PP1. The reality is during the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin era, there’s always been a “big body” on PP1 for the Pens, whether Chris Kunitz, James Neal, or, most recently, Patric Hornqvist. Say what you want about Hornqvist, but the Pens had their highest team shooting percentage at 5×4 in 2016-17 with him on the ice. And since we know Crosby, Malkin, and Phil Kessel aren’t being replaced on PP1, that could leave Guentzel and Sheary on the outside looking in.
Why is time on Pittsburgh’s PP1 so important? First off, care to guess how many forwards other than Crosby and Malkin have scored 60+ points in a season for the Pens since 2005-06? Five – just five in 11 full seasons! So already the odds are stacked against Guentzel and Sheary. Plus, of the five, the average number of power-play points in their 60+ point season(s) was 25, with only one instance (Chris Kunitz’s 61 points in 2011-12) corresponding to a player having fewer than 22 power-play points.
How did the five get all their power-play points? Being stapled to PP1 of course, with none of the five averaging under 3:31 per game with the man advantage during their 60+ point season(s). Do Guentzel and Sheary have a realistic chance at reaching that power-play time average, let alone with Hornqvist still around? Not in my book. And in turn, there goes whatever shot they had at the 60+ points Kane should achieve.
* * *
There you have it – 15 fantasy-related fearless forecasts for 2017-18. While of course my goal was for you to enjoy the list, I’m hopeful you didn’t just read it solely with an eye toward fun or speculation, but also to discern the fantasy lessons and cautions explicit or implicit in each one, since that’s where you can get useful insight to help you win your leagues. Good luck in the 2017-18 fantasy season!
Want to weigh in on which of these forecasts you think will come true, or do you have forecasts of your own? If so, click on this link to go to the Forecasts thread in the DobberHockey Forums, where you can do both!
One last note – it was five years ago this week (October 5, 2012 to be exact) that my first ever column for DobberHockey went live. In these five years, it’s always been – and remains – an immeasurable privilege to write for the what is without doubt the most knowledgeable and dedicated fantasy hockey audience there is. Thank you for your readership and inspiring me to deliver the best possible content I can on a week-to-week basis.
No data at this moment.