This past year was a season of extremes for fantasy hockey.
It seems as if either everything was awesome or everything sucked, depending on your point of view. Scoring was up, but goaltending suffered. Youth is king, but older players are just as valuable. Tampa put together a season not seen in years, but everyone is talking about an expansion squad.
Below are the top 10 fantasy-related storylines from this past season.
10. Tampa’s dominance
This was a great year to load up on Lightning players. The squad’s 3.54 goals-per-game mark was the highest since 2009-10. Nikita Kucherov hit 100 points and was the only serious Hart trophy candidate of the first half of the season. Steven Stamkos had 86 points despite only potting 27 goals. Rookie Brayden Point had 66 points, while undrafted rookie teammate Yanni Gourde finished with 64 points (the second highest for a rookie undrafted player in the past 30 years). Victor Hedman is up for the Norris-trophy season after a 63-point season. Netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy led the league with 44 wins. All in all, Tampa Bay had a season that we probably won’t see replicated for years.
9. Reverse KHL movement
About five years ago, a big worry was whether big-name Russian and European players would leave their NHL squads to go play in the KHL. Now it seems like the trend is reversing, leading to more talented players to for fantasy general managers to draft. In the past few years, Alexander Radulov, Evgeni Dadonov and Artemi Panarin left Russia to play in the NHL. Vadim Shipachyov also gave it a shot before going back to Russia. Nineteen-year-old Eeli Tolvanen was expected to spend a few years in the KHL, but signed with Nashville in late March, while Washington just signed goaltending prospect Ilya Samsonov. Ilya Kovalchuk is expected to sign in the NHL this summer, and Vyacheslav Voynov has stated he wants to come back as well.
8. The trades that never were
The NHL trade deadline is always overhyped and turns into a dud, but this year seemed crazier than normal as plenty of big names were rumoured to be on the block. Erik Karlsson led the way, but guys like Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Max Pacioretty, Mike Hoffman, Max Domi, Alex Galchenyuk, Jeff Skinner and Tyson Barrie were all rumoured to be leaving their squads. Obviously, none of them did, but it sent shivers through the fantasy world. Trade values spiked: “Imagine Karlsson in Tampa with Hedman,” or “How great would it be for OEL to be in Toronto?”
7. No coaches fired
While this may not seem to have an obvious fantasy angle, a coaching change can have a huge impact on a team’s performance. Remember when Peter Horachek took over from Randy Carlyle in Leaf land in 2015, and the squad went from scoring 3.25 goals per game to 1.93? Or when Mike Sullivan took over in Pittsburgh in 2015, and the squad went from scoring 2.39 goals per game to 3.3? Or more recently, when Boston fired Claude Julien in 2016-17, and the Bruins went from out of the playoffs and averaging 2.6 goals per game, to an 18-8-1 record and 3.37 goals per game with Bruce Cassidy. That’s a lot of players whose fantasy seasons relied on a mid-season coaching change. No coaches were fired during the season, so we were robbed of seeing how the impacts would have been on our fantasy squad.
I’ve mentioned this a few times over the past couple of months, but it bears repeating: You can be just as successful in fantasy hockey with older talent as opposed to younger talent. Of the top 10 point leaders, six were at least 30 years old (and that doesn’t include Alexander Ovechkin, who led the league in goals at the age of 32). Five of those players (Claude Giroux, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Anze Kopitar and Blake Wheeler) reached 90 points. Overall, there were 25 players this year that were at least 30 years old and finished with 50 points. As well, nine of the 19 goalies to reach 25 wins were at least 30 years old. Never underestimate the power of the greybeard.
5. Helle of a season
Let’s take a minute to look at how special a year Connor Hellebuyck actually had. He was coming off a 2016-17 campaign where he performed so poorly that the Jets signed Steve Mason to be the team’s number one goalie. Hellebuyck was, on average, the 46th goalie taken off the board in Yahoo drafts last fall. By the end of the season, Hellebuyck led the league with 44 wins while posting a .924 SV % and a 2.36 GAA with six shutouts. He finished as a top-three goalie in almost every league.
4. Remarkable rookies
Back in October, it didn’t feel like there would be an elite rookie like in previous years. There wasn’t a Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews that had all eyes on them and most expected the top picks in last year’s draft to struggle. In the end, this was probably the best crop of rookies in years. Matthew Barzal led the way with 85 points, the most by a rookie since Ovechkin and Crosby in 2005-06. Seven players had 50 points, and 13 players reached the 40-mark plateau.
3. Knights are golden
At the start of the season, most thought the top scorer on Vegas would wind up with around 50 points. They ended up with five players hitting that mark (only Toronto, Nashville and Tampa had more 50-point players). William Karlsson’s 43 goals were third-highest in the NHL, and both he and Jonathan Marchessault broke the 75-point barrier. Erik Huala became fantasy relevant with 55 points. Defenseman Colin Miller led the way for Vegas defensemen with 41 points. Marc-Andre Fleury had a Vezina-calibre season, and only injuries kept him out of the trophy race.
2. Goalie struggles
With scoring up (more on that in a second), someone had to be the fall guy, and unfortunately, that happened to be the netminders. Many starters struggled and torpedoed any hope many had at a fantasy championship. Last October, you were probably overconfident if you had any combination of Carey Price, Matt Murray, Brayden Holtby, Jake Allen, Cory Schneider and Cam Talbot on your squad. And that doesn’t include the struggles of second- and third-tier goalies such as Steve Mason, Scott Darling, Craig Anderson, Brian Elliott, etc. This opened the door for a few backups to steal the show. Heck, New Jersey and Washington both went into the playoffs with their backup as the postseason starters.
1. Scoring is up
The NHL averaged 2.97 goals per game per team, up from 2.77 in 2016-17 and the highest since 2005-06. Power play opportunities were up slightly (although it was actually the second-lowest total it’s been in decades), but teams converted at a much better percentage (20.18 per cent, the highest since 1989-90). Of course, the extra uptick in goals led to the elite players posting elite totals. Just look at the stats.
- Three players had 100 points. The last time that happened was 2009-10.
- Nine players had at least 90 points, the most since 2006-07.
- Twenty-four players that played a minimum of 50 games was at least a point-per-game. That’s three times as many as 2016-17, when there were eight players, and the most since 2006-07.
This year was a crazy season, but it seems like the fantasy general managers who benefitted the most would have been those who shunned goaltending and went all-in on offense.