Today marks the beginning of the NHL season, a.k.a. Fantasy Hockey Christmas, when everyone is convinced their players will bestow upon them great gifts and not end up being lumps of coal. It also means predictions abound; and here you get my 15 (yes, I’m doing 15 again) Fearless Forecasts for the 2018-19 season. My 2017-18 forecasts had more hits and near misses than ever before, so I’ve got my work cut out for me to keep my predictions audacious yet my track record still somewhat solid.
Before I get to the actual forecasts, let me once again reinforce a couple of important things. These are fearless fantasy forecasts, which means they’re supposed to be bold yet at least plausible, plus fantasy relevant, as highlighted in the explanation for each. Also, you should assume all skaters involved will play 75+ games and no netminders will suffer a major injury. With that out of the way, here we go! Also, there’s a forums poll to vote on which of these will come true.
1) All three Vezina Trophy finalists will never have previously been a finalist
For fantasy purposes, what I’m saying is be prepared for a changing of the guard among top NHL/fantasy netminders, as Pekka Rinne, Devan Dubnyk, Tuukka Rask, Henrik Lundqvist, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Jonathan Quick all will not be nominees this year. My primary reasoning is simple – each is now past what last summer I surmised is the peak age for goalies.
My prediction also means I see Andrei Vasilevskiy and Connor Hellebuyck (both of whom were first time finalists last year) coming back to earth somewhat. For Vasilevskiy it boils down to him still yet having shown he can be a top netminder for an entire campaign (his GAA was 2.77, 2.89, 4.04, 3.03 in the last four months of the season), while for Hellebuyck it’s because of the added pressure of his new contract and playing for what is now a legitimate cup contending team. And I don’t see a comeback for previous winner Carey Price, whom I’m not sure will ever be the same post-injury plus will have a tire fire of a team in front of him. Previous finalist Ben Bishop likely will be hurt by the departure of goalie-friendly Ken Hitchcock in Dallas. And lastly, I’m also ruling out previous winner Braden Holtby since Stanley Cup hangovers are apparently real for netminders, as it’s been nearly 20 seasons since a reigning Cup winning team produced a Vezina finalist the following season.
Yes, I realize this happened last season and Michael Clifford has already mentioned it in his Ramblings; but I still think the vast majority of pundits have Tavares doing even better in Toronto, especially after his successful preseason, and Barzal shedding points. This includes Dobber’s Fantasy Guide, which has Tavares at 87 points and Barzal at 74.
But there will only be so many points to go around in Toronto; and Mike Babcock may opt to have Tavares center a 1A line, with Auston Matthews manning a 1B top line. Let’s also not forget Babcock is stingy with ice time. Last season Tavares averaged 19:56 per game, of which 3:10 was on the PP. In Toronto, the highest ice time for any forward in 2017-18 was Matthews at a mere 18:08 per game, and he also led the way with just 2:17 per game on the PP. So those who foresee Tavares manning a loaded PP unit that skates for 3+ minutes per game, cancel those plans. Once the regular season starts it’ll be two units with neither one receiving considerably more time versus the other.
In stark contrast, Barzal now becomes “the guy” for the Islanders. Of course the concern is whether he can truly step in for Tavares, particularly with defenses now being able to key in on his line and with the potential for a dreaded sophomore slump. But Barzal just might mesh well with Josh Bailey, with whom he’s been lining up with this preseason, as Bailey and Barzal shared the ice for only 10% of their even strength shifts last season yet Bailey scored 15% of his even-strength points with Barzal on the ice.
Also, although it’s not predictive data, there’s the fact that since 2000-01 only one other center age 20 or older scored 85+ points as a rookie: Evgeni Malkin, whom it just so happens bested his rookie output of 85 points (i.e., exactly what Barzal scored) by 21 in posting 106 points as a sophomore. What’s more, Malkin did so when Sidney Crosby missed 29 games; so there’s precedent for Barzal stepping up big time in his sophomore campaign to fill the role of a departed/injured star.
3) Ilya Kovalchuk will score 35+ goals, but under 55 points
In each of the five campaigns he spent in Russia since abruptly leaving the NHL prior to the 2013-14 campaign, Kovalchuk tallied more assists than goals. And in all his NHL seasons he never once finished with even ten more goals than assists, posting only 18 more goals than assists for his NHL career to date (417 G, 399 A). Moreover, of the last seven instances of wingers age 35+ (Kovalchuk is 35 years old) who scored 35 or more goals in a season, six had more assists than goals in the same campaign.
So why am I predicting Kovalchuk will put up Cy Young stats for the 2018-19 campaign, when it’s not really in character with his past numbers nor with what other aging goal scorers did in their twilight years? It largely boils down to a perfect storm of sorts between Kovalchuk’s power-play specialization and the team’s need in that exact area.
Kovalchuk, who led the NHL in average power-play time per game among forwards a whopping six seasons in a row during his first NHL tenure, is clearly a power play specialist and figures to be deployed prominently with the man advantage. But beyond that, in the last five seasons no LA forward has tallied more than 11 PPGs in a season, so they need a finisher when it comes to the man advantage. Kovalchuk will be looked upon to fill LA’s PPG void, and my take is he’ll be more than up to the task of doing so, in the process padding his goal total to an extent that it will dwarf his assists.
4) No more than five goalies will get 5+ shutouts
Over the past three seasons the number of goalies who had 5+ shutouts was 8 (2015-16), 9 (2016-17), and 7 (2017-18). But prior to that, there was a stretch of six straight seasons where 10+ goalies had five or more per season, with 12+ goalies having 5+ shutouts in five of those six campaigns. So why would the number shrink even more than 2017-18, when scoring was already its highest in many seasons?
For one, scoring could go even higher, as many atop the 2017-18 leaderboard are still in peak scoring years. Beyond that, the NHL doesn’t figure to have many terrible teams. Sure – Montreal and Ottawa should have poor records like they did last season, but probably not be much worse. That’s important, since when the dust settled on 2018-19 only one team had fewer than 200 goals scored, namely Buffalo with 198, and they should be vastly improved for 2018-19. Looking back over the previous two seasons, there were always two (or even more) truly dreadful teams, with two squads potting 186 or fewer goals in 2015-16, and three with 180 or fewer in 2016-17. In other words, there will be fewer cakewalk games in 2018-19 for goalies to rely upon to pad their shutout numbers.
Add to that the somewhat condensed schedule to accommodate each team’s bye week, plus teams being more conservative than ever in terms of regulating goalie starts. Then there’s, as noted above in my first fearless forecast, the aging crop of former great NHL netminders whose skills – including shutout prowess – are eroding. All these factors should result in the number of goalie shutouts dropping enough for this forecast to come true.
I know that by my own informal research Marchand and Bergeron are past peak age for NHL forwards, but what can’t be ignored is Bergeron, Pastrnak and Marchand’s output during the Bruce Cassidy era. Bergeron’s 2016-17 consisted of 29 points in 52 games, then 24 in 27 under Cassidy, Pasta had 43 points in 48 games pre-Cassidy, then 46 in 47 after the new coach was installed, while Marchand had 55 points in 55 games before ending with 35 in 30 under Cassidy. So since Cassidy took over, Marchand has 115 points in 93 games, while Pastrnak and Bergeron each sit just below the point-per-game threshold (106 points in 109 games for Pasta, 87 in 91 for Bergeron).
And beyond that, Marchand and Bergeron both missed time last season, which likely cost all three of them points, what with Marchand and Pastrnak having to settle for Riley Nash as a center for a stretch of time and Bergeron and Pasta making due with Danton Heinen or Anders Bjork as a second winger while Marchand was out of the lineup. If the three able to play an entire season together under Cassidy, then the sky could be the limit; and when the dust settles, two of the three might just form the best NHL forward duo in terms of point production.
6) Zach Parise will score 70+ points
It wasn’t long ago that Parise was an elite fantasy winger who was consistently being drafted within the top 50 picks in roto and H2H leagues. Fast forward to now and Parise, who turned 34 years old during the offseason, has scored a mere 66 points in 111 games during his last two injury-plagued seasons for Minnesota, leaving him to be forecasted to score at a mere 47 point pace in the Fantasy Guide and as of this past weekend was being selected around spot 165 in Yahoo leagues, after the likes of Conor Sheary and Tomas Hertl.
But things might not be as bad as they seem. For one, Parise had 16 points in his final 20 games to end 2017-18, firing 59 SOG despite taking the ice for an average of only 16:15 per game during that stretch. Also, although it’s true that Jason Zucker’s break out could serve as a roadblock for Parise being the top LW for the Wild, let’s not forget that the team ices two solid lines and PP units, ensuring that if Parise’s game is up to the task he’ll still have a spot to produce.
Beyond that, we know the Wild are more than happy to let deserving grey beards push youngsters aside if warranted. Look no further than teammate Eric Staal, who’s just three months younger than Parise and who himself posted 76 points last season after having surprised the fantasy world by rebounding from 33 points in 65 games in 2015-16 to 65 in 82 contests in 2016-17. I’m certainly not advocating that you draft Parise among 70-point players; but don’t entirely disregard him on draft day, as his strong finish to last season, his motivation to succeed given his large paycheck, and his ability to produce in past years (67 point scoring pace from 2013-14 through 2015-16 for the Wild) could make him the next………Eric Staal.
7) At least ten teams will score 10+ Shorthanded Goals
Over the past five seasons the numbers of teams scoring 10+ SHGs has been, in reverse chronological order, 5, 5, 6, 2, and 5. So why do I see the number spiking to ten this season? First, more and more teams are embracing a 4F, 1D powerplay, and that either means a 1-3-1 orientation with just one player back to guard against a breakaway, or a second point man who’s normally a forward. In either case, it paves the way for teams on the PK to get shorthanded tallies.
The second reason is teams are embracing the idea of using their top scorers to kill penalties. Just last season Anze Kopitar, Mikko Koivu and Brayden Point has over 2:00 each per game on the PK, and more than a dozen forwards who scored 60+ points (or at a 60+ point full season past) in 2017-18 were out there for at least 90 seconds of PK duty per game, including Dylan Larkin (1:59 per game), Mikael Granlund (1:55), Sean Couturier (1:54), Dustin Brown (1:51), Patrice Bergeron (1:49), Brad Marchand and Vincent Trocheck (1:48 each), Aleksander Barkov (1:45), Max Pacioretty (1:43), Reilly Smith (1:40), William Karlsson (1:38), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (1:37), John Tavares (1:34), plus Ryan O’Reilly and Tyler Seguin (1:33 each). With that much talent seeing that much time killing penalties – not to mention the other great players getting a minute or more – plus the proliferation of 4F, 1D PPs, teams will be less shy about deploying their top players on the PK. Accordingly, there will be more shorthanded goals scored, enough I think to essentially double the high from the past five seasons.
I consider this a fearless forecast, not just because of past results but also the Fantasy Guide predicting 86 points for Stamkos versus only 72 for Miller. Last season Stamkos finished with 86 points after 20 in only 17 games during an abbreviated – due to injury – 2016-17. But last season’s totals are deceiving, as he started with 35 points in 20 games, meaning he tallied only 51 in his final 58 contests. And the 2016-17 injury was his second major one, with him posting only 136 points in 159 contests in the two seasons immediately following his first. Stamkos also turns 29 this season, and thus likely has already peaked.
As for Miller, he admittedly has nowhere near the resume of Stamkos, having posted 58 points last season to best his previous career high of only 56. But Miller will be turning 26 this season and thus is likely reaching his peak, plus he ignited for 20 points in 22 games upon being traded to Tampa. And Miller not only staked out a spot on the potent Tampa PP1, taking the ice for 59% or more of its man advantage minutes in eight of the team’s last ten regular season contests, but seven of those 20 fourth quarter points came on the PP, versus a mere four for Stamkos, through whom the PP used to be run.
Is Stamkos more naturally talented than Miller. No question he is. But nearing age 30 and following two major injuries, the truth is other than a run of 17 games in 2016-17 and 20 games in 2017-18, Stamkos has been a 70-point player since 2014-15. It might just be that Miller, armed with a fresh new $5.25M per season contract, emerges as the #2 weapon for the Lightning, outscoring Stamkos in the process.
9) Philipp Grubauer will finish within the top four in SV% among 40+ game NHL netminders
One of my major hits last year was predicting that Antti Raanta would finish within the top five in netminder save percentage, with him going on to lead the league! So I figured I’d go to the well again for 2018-19, this time selecting Grubauer, but making it a slightly bolder prediction by saying he’d finish in the top four, not top five.
And guess what – my logic in making the prediction is largely the same, as Raanta is first in the NHL in even strength save percentage since 2014-15, but guess who’s second? None other than Grubauer. And although he’s ostensibly walking into a 1A/1B situation in Colorado, I see him easily seizing the starting job by the all-star break over UFA to be Semyon Varlamov and, when all is said and done for 2018-19, finishing in the top four in save percentage among NHL netminders who play in 40+ games.
Last season Laine potted 44 goals, to JVR’s 36, with those 36 tallies being 17% higher than JVR’s previous career best of 30. So why do I think JVR can outsnipe perhaps the purest young and up and coming goal scorer in the league this season? Goals per 60 minutes rates, and linemates.
What do Brad Marchand, Vladimir Tarasenko, Sidney Crosby, and David Pastrnak all have in common? They scored more goals that JVR’s 65 over the past two seasons yet each also had a lower goals per 60 minutes than JVR’s 1.55, which was seventh best among all NHLers who played 140+ games during that span. Just last season JVR potted 36 while playing only 14:54 per game. And if we go by his 1.79 G/60 from 2017-18 alone and project that to 18 minutes per game – voila, the result is 44 goals.
And JVR is coming back to Philly at what seems like a perfect time in that Wayne Simmonds might be dealing with after-effects of injuries that limited his effectiveness last season, plus is now 30 years old and could be looking at a lesser role, particularly as he’s set to be a UFA. Moreover, with the money they’re paying JVR, it’s all but a lock that at ES and/or on the PP he’ll play alongside one or more of Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek, who each dish out assists more so than score goals.
Then there’s Laine, who although a staple – and feared weapon – on PP1, is a second liner at even strength. And not just that – a second liner who lost the center (Paul Stastny) who helped him explode for 17 goals in his final 23 games last season. Now Laine most likely will be back to being centered by Bryan Little, who, although likely to produce better than last season, is a step down from Stastny both in general and in terms of chemistry with Laine.
And whereas JVR’s ice time should spike, Laine’s will likely continue to lag due to the emphasis placed on the Winnipeg top line. Sooner or later Laine will be on that top line, at which point the sky will be the limit; yet for now, best to temper expectations. While we’re on the subject of the Flyers……….
11) Philadelphia will finish within the top three in team goals scored
Most prognosticators, including Dobber himself, have top Flyer scorers each shedding points versus last season, which in turn would translate to the team’s scoring output dropping. But I think what we saw last season, plus the addition of JVR, should only serve to bolster the team’s production, as should the fact that they have two top notch defensemen who can each lead a PP, allowing the team to have a better second unit, which, in turn, should help improve their overall PP conversion percentage.
Their 249 total goals scored last season (averaging to 3.03 goals per game) also is somewhat deceiving, as they finished much stronger than they started, tallying 61 goals in their final 19 regular season games, for an average of 3.31 goals per game. Translated over an entire season that would be equal to 272 goals, which in turn would’ve been good enough for third in the league for 2017-18.
They also play in the East, home to six of the eight worst team in goals against last season. Granted, so do some of the teams which finished ahead of them in scoring as well, but as noted above I’m banking on a Stanley Cup hangover for the Caps, plus the Pens are aging and were luckier than normal in dodging injuries last season. The B’s are too dependent on one line, and Toronto’s stars don’t get the ice time needed to produce in droves. Thus, put the Flyers down for third in goals behind the Jets and Tampa, and move their skaters up your draft boards accordingly.
12) At least two non-rookies who’ve never scored 55 points in a season will score 80+ in 2018-19
Lost amid there being 21 players who posted 80+ points in 2017-18 (marking the first time since the 2009-10 season that even ten players reached that threshold) was that only one non-rookie (Mikko Rantanen) did so without having scored at least 55 points in a prior season. So what’s the big deal, this kind of scoring leap probably happens all the time right? Nope. Prior to last season the most recent instance of any player scoring 80+ points without having posted 55+ in a prior season was Taylor Hall in 2013-14, and that was after he posted 50 in 45 games in the 2012-13 campaign. You get the point – it’s a very rare occurrence.
Despite this, I think not only will it happen again in 2017-18, but two or more players will do so. And while my forecast doesn’t require me to say who exactly will fulfill the criteria, I’d go ahead and tell you the three I think have the best chance. Nico Hischier, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and Sam Reinhart.
Hischier was a first overall pick, and there is precedent for big breakouts for them in their second season (see, e.g., Steven Stamkos); plus he figures to be playing alongside Taylor Hall yet again, which certainly won’t hurt his cause. For Dubois, he was getting not only top line duty in the final quarter of the season, but seeing oodles of power-play time and helping to ignite Artemi Panarin while at the same time ending the campaign with 17 points of his own in his final 16 games. As for Reinhart, it’s his “magical fourth season” and he had nearly a point per game over the second half of the season as it appeared all his dots had finally connected.
13) At least 13 defensemen will score 15+ goals
Despite the surge in high point producing rearguards last season (as was predicted in one of my correct forecasts from 2016-17), only a total of nine defensemen potted 15 or more goals. And as it turns out that was just about the average of eight over the previous four seasons (based on yearly totals of 6, 10, 10, and 6).
So why do I see a big jump in the total during this coming season? For one, all nine rearguards who accomplished the feat last season were at or below the peak age for defensemen, so they don’t figure to do worse. Beyond that, four others (Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Tyson Barrie, and Torey Krug) were on pace for 15+ except for missing too many games. Right there that’s already 13 in total, and that’s not even factoring in new members of the 15+ club.
But perhaps the key factor prompting this prediction is more d-men than ever are firing lots of pucks on net. Last season 44 rearguards played 60+ games while averaging at least two SOG per game, which was up from 33 in 2016-17, 31 in 2015-16, and 29 in both 2014-15 and 2013-14. That’s a big jump, and I don’t see it as a trend that will reverse itself this season, which should lead to more 15+ goal scorers. While we’re on the subject of SOG……
14) At least nine players will score 30+ goals without exceeding 200 SOG
As poolies, we associate high volume goal scorers with high volume shooters, and vice versa. Rightfully so, since of the 18 forwards who registered 250+ SOG last season 11 had 31+ goals and none had fewer than 22. But on the other side of the coin, of the 32 players who scored 30+ goals last season, six had fewer than 200 SOG, marking the second straight season that six players met both criteria, up from four in each of the 2015-16 and 2014-15 seasons and zero in 2013-14. I’m sensing a trend – one that will only continue to grow.
Simply put, there’s a new breed of player emerging in today’s NHL – what I’ll call the selectively shooting sniper. And as often happens in the NHL, trends get noticed are adopted, especially if they lead to success, and lo and behold all six who potted 30+ goals despite less than 200 SOG last season were on teams that made the playoffs.
As for the fantasy impact, be careful when drafting for SOG and/or goals. The days of one being high meaning the other is likewise automatically high – although still true in the majority of cases – is no longer a given.
And last but not least, those of you who’ve read my forecasts over the years know that I swing for the fences each year with my last pick, so without further ado…….
15) Jeff Petry will lead the Montreal Canadiens in scoring for 2018-19
Despite the tire fire that was the 2017-18 Montreal Canadiens season, Petry, whose previous career best had been 28 points, shined. He seized upon an opportunity when Shea Weber got hurt and not only ended up with 42 total points but posted 28 points of those 42 in his final 41 games, for a 56-point full season pace. Newsflash – that would’ve led the team in scoring last year. And with Shea Weber out until at least mid-December and possibly longer, Petry will get a chance to pick up where he left off.
But what this really boils down to is Brendan Gallagher, Jonathan Drouin, Max Domi and Tomas Tatar all not taking a step forward. The relevant details on Drouin is in my cage match on him from earlier this offseason and I covered of Gallagher in my special bubble keeper week edition of Goldipucks and the Three Skaters from July. But here are the high (low?) points.
Of Drouin’s last 99 points, 48 have come on the power play. To be so reliant upon man advantage scoring is not a recipe for a high output, especially on the 2018-19 Habs. There’s also the fact that despite being more of a focal point offensively last season, Drouin’s SOG rate actually dropped from 2016-17 to 2017-18. He’s also not only never had an IPP (i.e., the percentage of goals scored while he’s on the ice on which he received a point) above 70%, which is the number usually achieved by star players, he’s actually never even hit the 65% mark, which means he doesn’t have a nose for scoring. And that was despite having an offensive zone starting percentage of 62%+ not only last season but each of the prior four!
For Gallagher, although he had only had 23 assists (versus 31 goals), his secondary assists rate was his highest since 2013-14, suggesting despite so few assists he overachieved in that area. And given his already high goal rate, chances are if his secondary assists rate drops he wouldn’t expect to get more goals or primary assists, which in turn means fewer points.
Gallagher also established a career high in IPP, a function of having to do more on his own due to playing with subpar linemates. But guess what – with Montreal not having upgraded this offseason the same thing is likely to occur, except this time teams are clued in and will focus more on Gallagher’s line. Lastly, his personal shooting percentage last season (11.2%) was higher than it’s been in any full season and marked only the second time it was above 9.4%. And his average shot distance was 25.8, up from 25.2 last year and 23.4 in 2015-16; so he was shooting from farther away yet more shots were resulting in goals. Together this data suggests he lucked into probably a handful of goals he shouldn’t have tallied.
As for Domi and Tatar, my concern is shellshock coming to the hotbed of Montreal, where the media and fans are ravenous and unforgiving. And with Domi being a former top prospect plus son of an NHLer most Habs fans remember, I think he’ll fare especially poorly under the spotlight, leaving Petry as the team’s de facto scoring leader.
* * *
There they are –15 Fearless Forecasts for the 2018-19 season. A few were last minute additions because originally I had ones that included Alex Galchenyuk and Seth Jones, but injuries made it so I had to replace those. Am I making excuses? No, but I wanted that to be known. The magic question is how many of these will actually come true? Only time will tell; but as usual I’m giving you a say, as here again the link to vote on which forecast (or forecasts) will end up being correct predictions, while also adding your own predictions if you’re so inclined. Last year your votes correlated pretty well with the ones that did, in fact, come true, so let’s see if you can match or even exceed your past success this time around.
One last note that I like to always emphasize. While of course I want this to be a fun read, I’m hopeful you didn’t just digest it solely with an eye toward fun or speculation. Whether or not the forecasts come true there are fantasy lessons embedded in each one, so make sure you go back through the list and seize upon those takeaways to help get a leg up in your league.
- Ramblings: Yes Giordano Norris blah blah, Tarasenko’s slump, under-the-radar players and more (Dec 17)
- Ramblings: Hart Called Up; Hakstol Fired; Dumba Injury; Disappointments - December 18
- Top 10 Surprises of 2018-19
- 20 Fantasy Hockey Thoughts
- Eastern Edge: Reviewing Recent Turnaround Predictions
- Geek of the Week: Matt Dumba
- Lining Up: Top-Performing Lines in the East - December 18
- Fantasy Hockey Podcast - Hayes Of Our Lives