Eastern Edge: Previewing Islanders/Panthers and Maple Leafs/Blue Jackets

Brennan Des

2020-07-28

In this week's Eastern Edge, we'll break down the New York/Florida and Toronto/Columbus matchups from a fantasy hockey perspective. Obviously, no one knows what's going to happen in the playoffs, but hopefully these thoughts can give you some ideas as you prepare for your playoff pool.

Check out last week's article where we looked at the Montreal/Pittsburgh and Carolina/New York matchups.

 

  1. New York Islanders (35-23-10) vs. 10. Florida Panthers (35-26-8)

 

I mentioned this last week, but I think it's worth repeating as we discuss the Panthers-Islanders series. If you have to draft one fantasy roster that you stick with throughout the playoffs, you should avoid drafting players from matchups that seem even. You see, if you're stuck with the same roster throughout the playoffs, you don't want players that are likely to be eliminated in the play-in round. According to the oddsmakers, Florida and New York are pretty evenly matched. Although the Islanders are slightly favoured, smart mathematicians in Vegas think that each team has roughly a 50-percent chance of winning. However, that also means each team has a 50-percent chance of losing. Does it make sense to load up your roster with a bunch of Islanders if there's a 50-percent chance they get eliminated in the play-in round?

The Florida Panthers performed well offensively this year, scoring 3.30 goals per game. The team's forward corps features a couple of superstars in Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov. Huberdeau scored at a 93-point pace this season, proving that his 92-point campaign last year wasn't a fluke. However, Barkov wasn't quite able to replicate last year's scoring dominance, putting up a 77-point pace this season after tallying 96 points last year. Regardless, 77 points is nothing to scoff at, especially considering his elite defensive abilities.  Aside from their superstars, Florida also has a number of offensive threats spread throughout the lineup. For starters, there's Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov, who make up the second tier of offense in Florida. Both players have demonstrated strong offensive abilities, flirting with the 30-goal and 70-point marks frequently in recent years. If your league counts power-play points, Hoffman is definitely a player to target – only Alex Ovechkin took more shots on the power play this year. As the trigger man on Florida's star-studded power-play (ranked 10th in the NHL), Hoffman should be able to tally a few points with the man advantage.

I've already named four strong offensive players, but it doesn't stop there. If you think Florida is going to make a run at the cup, I have a few underrated depth options in mind for you to target in your playoff pool. First up on the list is Brett Connolly, who doesn't see a lot of ice time, but makes the most of what he's given. As a member of the Washington Capitals last season, Connolly put up 22 goals and 24 assists in 81 games – averaging just 13 minutes and 20 seconds of ice time. We saw more of the same from him this year as he scored 19 goals in 69 games with the Panthers, skating 14 and a half minutes per game. Next up is Noel Acciari, who surprised us all by scoring 20 goals in 66 games this season. If Florida is going to have playoff success this year, Acciari seems like a strong candidate to be one of the team's unsung heroes. Finally, there's Frank Vatrano who has been spending a lot of time alongside Barkov and Dadonov in training camp. Obviously, lines in training camp aren't necessarily going to carry over into the playoffs, but Vatrano could be in a great position to put up some points in the postseason. I've spent a lot of time reviewing Florida's forwards, but it's also important to highlight a few key defenders that provide great offensive support. Keith Yandle has always provided scoring from the blueline and this season was no different. However, Aaron Ekblad's 50-point pace came as a surprise this year, considering his offensive output hovered around 35 to 40 points in the past. I think Ekblad can continue to be an offensive threat in the playoffs under the guidance of coach Joel Quenneville. If you're looking for an option in deeper leagues, Mike Matheson is a solid choice.

While they had no trouble scoring this year, the Panthers certainly struggled to prevent other teams from scoring. Florida surrendered 3.25 goals per game – only Detroit and Ottawa had more trouble keeping the puck out of their net! When you take a look at Sergei Bobrovsky's numbers, it's no surprise that Florida conceded so many goals this year. The two-time Vezina- winning netminder put up a 3.23 GAA and .900 save percentage through 50 regular season games. He needs to be a lot better in the playoffs for Florida to make a deep run this year. Fortunately, it sounds like Bob had a great training camp.

Before the 2019-2020 campaign was put on hold, the Islanders and Panthers were heading in opposite directions. Florida managed to win 15 of their 30 games since January 1st. In contrast, the Islanders won just 10 of their 30 games in the same span.

This series between Florida and New York presents a really interesting dynamic because Florida had a strong offense and weak defense during the regular season, while the Islanders had a strong defense and weak offense. New York scored just 2.78 goals per game and their leading scorer Mathew Barzal was comfortably outperformed by Huberdeau and Barkov. Our expectations for Barzal have been sky-high following his 86-point rookie season, so his 72-point pace this year doesn't seem all that impressive. In my opinion, Barzal's offensive creativity is being stifled under the team-first, defensively-minded system that coach Barry Trotz has implemented in New York. While I'm tempted to say that this system will limit individual scoring in the playoffs, that wasn't necessarily the case last year. During the 2019 playoffs, Jordan Eberle led the team with nine points in eight games and Barzal tallied seven points in the same span. Ultimately, though, I don't think the Islanders have the same kind of offensive ceiling that the Panthers have.

If you are looking to target a few Islanders for your fantasy playoff pool, Eberle and Barzal are certainly at the top of the list. Next up would be Brock Nelson, who finished second in team scoring this year with 54 points in 68 games. In my opinion, Anders Lee and Josh Bailey make up the next tier, as both players finished with an identical 43 points in 68 games – a 51-point pace. Anthony Beauvillier and Derick Brassard are two productive players that may fly under the radar in most playoff pools, but they're important to incorporate into your fantasy roster if you think the Isles are going to make a deep run this year. From the team's blueline, Devon Toews and Ryan Pulock are both solid options. I know it seems like I've forgotten about Jean-Gabriel Pageau, but I'm still not quite sure how he fits into New York's roster. Pageau enjoyed a lot of success with the Senators, but we've only seen him play seven games as an Islander, during which he's tallied two goals and no assists.

I think this is going to be a really interesting series. From my vantage point, the Panthers possess more game-breaking individuals, but the Islanders have a really strong team dynamic going for them. Overall, I'd say the Panthers have enough offensive talent to overwhelm New York's strong team defense. I think Sergei Bobrovsky's performance will have a huge impact on this series, whether it be good or bad. In this case, I'm betting on Bob's best behaviour.

My Prediction: Panthers in 5.

 

  1. Toronto Maple Leafs (36-25-9) vs. 9. Columbus Blue Jackets (33-22-15)

 

When discussing the Panthers and Islanders, I mentioned the dynamic of strong offense vs. strong defense – a dynamic which is also present in this series. Toronto's offense ranks third in the league this season as they scored 3.39 goals per game. In contrast, their defense ranks 26th, conceding 3.17 goals per game. Columbus, on the other hand, displayed the opposite pattern. Their offense ranks 28th in the league – scoring 2.57 goals per game, while their defense ranks fourth in the league, allowing 2.61 goals per game.

In this series, the Leafs obviously have the edge when it comes to game-breaking superstars. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares all have the ability to take over a game and determine the outcome through their individual play. On the other hand, you'd be hard pressed to find an obvious 'superstar' within Columbus' forward corps. Oliver Bjorkstrand had an excellent breakout showing this season with 30 points in his final 30 games, but he still has a long way to go before being mentioned in the same conversation as Matthews, Marner and Tavares. Similarly, Pierre-Luc Dubois is on the right path to become an elite center in the NHL, but he's nowhere near the level of Matthews and Tavares just yet. Even Cam Atkinson, who has a 35-goal and 41-goal season under his belt, doesn't have the same offensive ceiling as Toronto's top players.

If you're backing the Leafs to win this series, William Nylander, Tyson Barrie and Morgan Rielly represent a few more obvious choices for your fantasy roster in addition to the three I already mentioned. If you're looking for a couple of less obvious options, I'd suggest Zach Hyman and Ilya Mikheyev. Hyman was on track for a career-high 59 points over 82 games this year. He's also had strong performances in the playoffs before, tallying four points through six games in 2017 and four points through seven games in 2018. Mikheyev was sidelined for most of the season after his wrist was cut by a skate blade in late-December, but he managed an impressive 23 points in 39 games before the injury.

If you're backing the Blue Jackets to win this series, Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are two important players to target in your playoff pool (in addition to the forwards I've already mentioned). During last year's postseason run, Jones and Werenski put up nine points and six points in ten games, respectively. Those two play a big role in transitioning defense into offense, which will be extremely important in order for Columbus to win this series. Gustav Nyquist is another forward you may want to target in fantasy leagues as he managed a respectable 11 points in 20 playoff games with the Sharks last year.

While we can easily rely on point totals to support offensive skill, strong defense is much harder to conceptualize and quantify. As a result, I think it's almost instinctive to give Toronto the advantage in this series, because they have the better offense. When we evaluate matchups, most of the easily accessible stats and storylines revolve around scoring and offense, because like I said, offense is easier to quantify and understand. So, it seems that we have more evidence to support Toronto winning this series, because most of the information we've taken in revolves around offense. However, I think Columbus' defense is an extremely underrated aspect of this series and could easily see the Blue Jackets winning this series – surprising many of us as they did last year. With all that being said, I still think Toronto's deep offense will overwhelm Columbus' strong defense and inexperienced goaltending.

My Prediction: Leafs in 4.

UPCOMING GAMES

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STARTING GOALIES

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HOT PLAYERS

  Players Team GP G A P
BRAYDEN POINT T.B 5 5 3 8
NIKITA KUCHEROV T.B 5 1 7 8
VICTOR HEDMAN T.B 8 3 6 9
ONDREJ PALAT T.B 5 3 2 5
JOE PAVELSKI DAL 5 4 1 5
JOHN KLINGBERG DAL 8 1 7 8
MIRO HEISKANEN DAL 4 1 2 3

LINE COMBOS

  Frequency VAN Players
17.5% JAY BEAGLE TYLER MOTTE JAKE VIRTANEN
13.2% BROCK BOESER BO HORVAT TANNER PEARSON
13.2% BO HORVAT TANNER PEARSON TYLER TOFFOLI

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