Eastern Edge: Fantasy hockey takeaways – Part 2
In this week's Eastern Edge, I'll continue highlighting important fantasy hockey takeaways for each team in the Eastern Conference. I tried to include information from the 2019-2020 campaign that may be forgotten during this extended offseason. Hopefully, these reminders will be useful when NHL action eventually resumes. This is the second of four installments, where we'll cover Columbus, Detroit and Florida. Check out last week's article where we highlighted key storylines from Boston, Buffalo and Carolina.
Columbus Blue Jackets – Bjorkstrand's Breakout
If you're a frequent reader of our articles here at DobberHockey, you're probably familiar with Oliver Bjorkstrand. For some time now, many of our writers – including Dobber himself – have been endorsing Bjorkstrand as someone to target in fantasy hockey leagues. Bjorkstrand broke out in a big way this year, tallying 36 points through 49 games – a 60-point-pace! He had a slow start to the season but eventually found his stride, posting 30 points in his 30 most recent appearances. Bjorkstrand's breakout was supported by a huge increase in ice time, as he jumped from less than 15 minutes of action in recent seasons, all the way up to 18 minutes this year. With this increased role, he emerged as a high-volume shooter, averaging 3.3 shots per game.
Despite our rigorous coverage of Bjorkstrand this year, I fear that an 'out of sight, out of mind' mentality might cause you to underestimate his fantasy hockey value. For starters, with the NHL season on hold, Bjorkstrand's 30-game stretch of point-per-game production is becoming a distant memory that gets easier to forget with each passing day. This 'out of sight, out of mind' effect is intensified for Bjorkstrand because he only appeared in 49 games this year – missing two significant stretches of the season due to an ankle and rib injury. In addition, his strong performance isn't even the most compelling hockey story out of Columbus this year, as we witnessed a 20-goal campaign from defenseman Zach Werenski and an insane stretch from rookie netminder Elvis Merlikins – who posted an eight-game winning streak that included five shutouts.
My dear friends, when NHL action eventually resumes and you face the temptation of underestimating Bjorkstrand's fantasy hockey value, I hope this article reminds you to think twice.
Detroit Red Wings – Underrated Up-and-Comers
In order to achieve success in fantasy hockey, I think it's important to incorporate undervalued players into your roster. An easy way to do that is by targeting good players on bad teams, even if your league counts plus/minus as a category. While it's true that players on bad teams tend to have a worse plus/minus rating than those on good teams, there's so much variance in the category from one year to the next. I don't think it makes sense to put weight into plus/minus when you can focus on scoring categories that tend to be more predictable and usually hold more weight in your league's scoring system. From a fantasy hockey perspective, I think it's beneficial to ignore the fact that Detroit is a bad team and that most Red Wings will finish with a minus rating. In doing so, you'll be able to appreciate the fantasy value of guys like Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Tyler Bertuzzi and Filip Hronek. While they may hurt you in one category (plus/minus), I feel like they make up for it with production across other categories. So please don't miss out on value because you're scared of owning players from a bad team.
With that little rant out of the way, let's take a walk through the fantasy hockey storylines that came out of Detroit this year.
Robby Fabbri burst onto the fantasy hockey scene, tallying 15 points in his first 16 games with the Red Wings after being traded from St. Louis. He couldn't maintain that pace as he went on to tally just 16 points in his next 36 games.
Dylan Larkin led the team in scoring, but his 61-point pace represented a step backward after he posted 73 points through 76 games last season.
Tyler Bertuzzi took on a greater role this year, skating over 19 minutes a night and seeing 60 percent of the team's total power-play time. His 55-point pace wasn't a huge step up from last year's 53-point pace, but I still think he's capable of being a 60-point player alongside Larkin and Mantha on Detroit's top line.
Another player who saw their role increase this year is Filip Hronek, who skated nearly 24 minutes a night and saw 55 percent of Detroit's total power-play time. The 22-year-old defenseman posted a 39-point pace during his sophomore season, showing that the 41-point pace from his rookie campaign was no fluke.
Finally, Mantha tallied 38 points in 43 games this year – a 72-point pace! He missed two significant stretches this year due to injury, which ultimately prevented him from posting more impressive point totals. Mantha also put up 33 points in his final 38 games last season, so I'd say we have a large enough sample size to call him the real deal. I think you'd be wise to target Mantha in your fantasy hockey leagues going forward.
Florida Panthers – Ekblad's Emergence
During the offseason, Florida made a couple of big moves to strengthen their roster for the 2019-2020 campaign. The Panthers signed two-time Vezina-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and brought a three-time Stanley Cup winning head coach behind the bench in the form on Joel Quenneville. While Quenneville seemed to bring out the best in his skaters, Bobrovsky fell short of expectations, posting a 3.23 GAA and .900 save percentage through 50 appearances this year. Bobrovsky's struggles were covered extensively during the season, so I don't think it makes sense to discuss them again. Instead, I think it's important to highlight a few impressive performances from the team's forwards and defensemen.
For starters, Noel Acciari managed to score 20 goals through 66 games this year despite being considered a depth forward for most of his career. While I wouldn't expect Acciari to match this output next year, I think it's important to mention that coach Quenneville has a reputation for riding the hot hand – if a depth forward is playing well, he isn't afraid to give them more ice time.
With 78 points in 69 games, Jonathan Huberdeau has been Florida's best player. He managed to tally 16 more points than Aleksander Barkov – who sits second in team scoring with 62 points through 66 games. Huberdeau and Barkov impressed us last year as they each broke the 90-point barrier. While Huberdeau was on pace to do the same this year, Barkov's 77-point pace was slightly disappointing for fantasy owners. At first, it's tempting to think that Barkov's status as an elite two-way forward caused Joel Quenneville to use him in more of a defensive role this year, which limited his offensive production. However, Barkov was starting many more of his shifts in the offensive zone this year compared to previous seasons. So, I don't think there's any reason to worry about Barkov's offensive output going forward.
Keith Yandle continues to provide elite offensive numbers from the blueline as he was on pace for 53 points this year. While that may seem like a step backward following last year's 63-point output, it's important to remember that 39 of those 63 points were scored on the power play –which is a difficult total to replicate, even for a PP specialist like Yandle. He remains Florida's top power-play defenseman, seeing 67% of the team's total time with the man advantage.
One fantasy storyline from this season that didn't get enough attention is Aaron Ekblad's impressive offensive output. Prior to this season, Ekblad had established himself as a 40-point defenseman and I feel like a lot of people had written him off as an overrated asset in fantasy hockey leagues. Well, he was scoring at a 50-point pace this year despite a limited role on the power-play. I feel like we forget that Ekblad is just 24 years old and continuing to develop into a better player. Considering Yandle is going to turn 34 this year, I don't think it's far-fetched to say that Ekblad may take over power-play duties in Florida within the next few years. Although he was drafted first overall in 2014, I think Ekblad remains an underrated option in fantasy hockey leagues.
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