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Well, it’s the middle of August. It’s the dead zone for the NHL. Normally, this is the point where we might see some minor, late off-season trades, or some cheap one-year deals. This year, most people are just waiting for the avalanche off restricted free agents yet to be signed. There are a lot of very good players that are somewhat comparable so when the first shoe drops, the rest will come.
It also means there isn’t a whole lot to talk about. I have a giant series of Ramblings planned for early September, mostly related to rankings. Things like over- and under-rated players, positional battles, deep sleepers, and more. These are things that have already been touched on all off-season (just check out our Ramblings archive), so it’ll just be more of a continuation and focusing on the same topics we’ve covered at times.
So what do we talk about when there’s nothing to talk about? Well, let’s talk about process.
Before every fantasy season, in both baseball and hockey, I make a list. Well, I make a lot of lists, but this particular list is young guys who’ve impressed me but maybe haven’t yet earned the prime production minutes necessary for fantasy goodness. It’s often guys who are stuck on the third forward line or third defensive pair. Maybe they get some secondary PP minutes but that’s about it. But they do give indications that they can handle more minutes that can lead to adequate fantasy production down the road. Over the last few years, this exact process has helped me get in on the ground floor of guys like Mike Hoffman and Viktor Arvidsson. Sometimes they pan out (those two and Colin Miller being prime examples), and sometimes they don’t (Zemgus Girgensons, Dmitrij Jaskin, and Artturi Lehkonen are three guys I’ve been higher on than most in recent seasons). When they don’t pan out, you just have to go fishing for a replacement on the waiver wire. It’s no big deal. But when they do pan out, you get a valuable fantasy contributor for most of the year.
Here are a few guys who’ve already appeared in the NHL, will probably start the year in the bottom half of their respective rosters, but who I’m looking to in case of a change in circumstance.
Among rookies, Anthony Cirelli finished with more points than Andrei Svechnikov, Jesperi Kotkaneimi, and Robert Thomas. He did so while posting 94 hits and 34 penalty minutes playing fewer than 15 minutes a game. For those in face-off leagues, he managed 502 face-off wins at a clip of 52.8 percent, just four FOWs off the team lead. All in all, a pretty solid opening fantasy effort for a 2015 third rounder stuck on the third line with limited PP time.
It wasn’t just a fluke, either. Cirelli shot 15.2 percent, which is a bit concerning, but he did a good job driving the play and was very solid defensively. That last point is important because if the coach knows he’s solid defensively, then he’s not in any real danger of losing his current role, and that’s always a concern with younger players. It allows Cirelli more leeway when the puck isn’t bouncing the right way.
There is going to be a season in the not-too-distant future where Stamkos gets Claude Giroux’d and is moved to the wing for good. Is that 2019-20? I don’t know. What I do know is when it happens, Cirelli will likely move up to play with one of Stamkos or Nikita Kucherov at even strength. When a guy has done what he has at such a young age, that is an exciting prospect.
I wrote about Kotkaniemi last week so I won’t spill more digital ink on it but I envision Kotkaniemi moving up the lineup as I do Cirelli, just in a different manner. Kotkaniemi has the chance to prove himself the top centre on the team; Cirelli won’t surpass Brayden Point.
When discussing power plays, it’s important to remember that players aren’t just stuffed into various roles. Players are generally used in situations that play to their strengths – shooting roles for shooters and playmaking roles for playmakers; it’s why Washington’s power play has T.J. Oshie and Alex Ovechkin in one-time positions. When things are clicking, coaches really don’t like to shake things up.
That brings me to Toronto’s power play. Over the last three years, with Nazem Kadri and Mitch Marner on the ice, the Leafs PP scored 11.2 goals per 60 minutes, an elite number. When Kadri was off the ice, whether or not Marner was on there, their goal production fell by as much as 40 percent. The team often ran a top unit of Marner/Kadri/Tavares/Matthews in 2018-19, and they scored 10.2 goals per 60 minutes together. I am assuming they leave the trio together and then add a fourth.
There are going to be claims for Jason Spezza to join the top PP unit. The thing with that is Kadri played the bumper spot, or the middle of the ice on the PP. That isn’t where Spezza plays on the PP, rather he plays on the half-wall where Marner sits. Spezza won’t replace Marner, so that idea is out the window.
There are going to be claims for William Nylander or Kasperi Kapanen, and each have their merits. Except Nylander also plays the half-wall where Marner sits – so he and Spezza are going to have to figure something out – while Kapanen has kind of been used all over the place. He could play the bumper, but I have someone else in mind.
Here is Andrea Johnsson’s PP heat map from 2018-19 (from Hockey Viz):
Doesn’t that seem like a much more logical replacement for Kadri? And they both shoot left! Johnsson will be one my favourite end-of-the-draft picks this year. I am a firm believer that he’ll move, or be moved, to the top PP unit early in the season, if not right out of the gate.
This isn’t a case where he’ll play his way up the lineup. This is a case where he’s the roundest peg to fit in the round hole left by the Kadri trade.
Toews’s rookie AHL season saw the defenceman post 45 points in 76 games as a 22-year old. Over parts of the next two AHL seasons, he posted 41 points in 54 games. Those are all very good offensive numbers.
It was a stellar rookie season in 2018-19 once he got the call in December, posting 18 points in 48 games while playing under 18 minutes a night. But he did earn the trust of the coaches eventually, at least offensively, as after the trade deadline, he led all Islanders blueliners in PPTOI (it was just a few seconds more than Nick Leddy, but still). That’s a good sign for his future value.
The problem is it’s effectively a three-headed monster as far as PP minutes are concerned, and only one will (likely) play the top PP at a time. I imagine all three rotate in through the season at some point which will make them frustrating to own. Ryan Pulock owners will reap the peripherals but the PP production will likely be inconsistent.
Drafting Toews comes down to his play – he was bordering on the 90th percentile in driving shot attempts for his team in that small sample last year – and the opportunity. Basically, I see him and Leddy as more or less equal players this year, making Toews the (likely) much better value at the draft table. If the coaches continue to trust him, there’s a 40-point season in the making here. He just may not provide a lot of peripherals.
Now, the Predators might envision something different, but this is how I see Nashville’s top two lines looking to start the year:
That seems pretty logical. The thing is that it doesn’t really leave a lot on the third line. There’s the possibility of a Kyle Turris bounce back, but that’s also relying on guys like Rocco Grimaldi, Calle Jarnkrok, or Austin Watson to help chip in with the scoring.
What if, and hear me out, the Preds used Granlund with Turris? It would give them a legitimate scoring punch on that third line. But it would open a spot on the second line. A spot for Eeli Tolvanen.
It feels like a dog’s age since the hype on him was boiling over but Tolvanen only turned 20 years old in April. As a 19-year old in the AHL last year, he put up 35 points in 58 games, averaging 2.7 shots per game. Doing that on a team that was near the bottom-third of the league in goal scoring is quite the achievement. All Tolvanen needed was a bit of time.
I’ve been enamoured with the guy since watching him in some showcase tournament a couple years ago. The way he works with the puck when he shoots, it’s almost symbiotic. He has every look of a guy that’s going to be a perennial 30-goal scorer.
Granlund is going to be UFA in a year. With Roman Josi needing a contract, and the team having committed over $60M to next year already, I don’t think he’s going to be re-signed. In that way, it would make sense to have Tolvanen spend another year in the AHL while having Granlund keep his spot warm for him on the second line. On the other hand, I’m a believer that talent wins out, and Tolvanen has it in spades. He won’t be worth a draft pick outside of deeper leagues, but he’s a guy to put on watch lists in shallower leagues, being ready to jump on the waiver wire at a moment’s notice.