East: Tortoises and Hares (2016)

by Eric Daoust on October 25, 2016

Pastrnak and the Bruins are among the Eastern Conferences hot starters. Who else has started fast?

 

Early in the season everything is magnified and shortsighted conclusions are drawn which can prove costly in time. One reason for this is the anticipation for the start of the new campaign. Obviously fantasy hockey managers are extremely passionate and are excited to get back in the flow. Another reason is the small sample size of games to date – a streak or slump in January is less impactful on the season numbers to date than the same thing happening in October. As a result hasty decisions are made which in the end will prove to be incorrect once more games are played and most players fall back to more regular production.

Many of these irregularities come in bunches as teams off to unexpected starts will have many of their players performing similarly. This is usually the case when teams suddenly get hot or cold during any stretch of time but as mentioned it sticks out a lot more in October. As a result, there is never a better time than now to play the game of buying low and selling high especially when your league has some team homers who let their biases get in the way of good decision-making.

Today we will examine six teams who are either pleasant surprises or major disappointments out of the gate. What has impacted their fates thus far? Who is producing at an unsustainable rate and who is due for a couple good weeks in the near future?

PLEASANT SURPRISES

Boston

The biggest positive for the Bruins this year has been the outstanding play of Tuukka Rask after a disappointing 2015-16 campaign. The Finnish goalie has a 3-0 record with a 1.67 GAA and .947 save percentage, which stands out even more given the increase in scoring league-wide. He has five years under his belt with a save percentage of .922 or better and could re-emerge as a high-end fantasy goalie if he can maintain his strong play while also getting enough goal-support.

Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak are off to red-hot starts and find themselves at the top of the league’s scoring race. Both are going to slow down (high shooting percentage, on-ice five-on-five shooting percentages) but should not be considered sell-high yet. Marchand’s good start means he has less ground to cover to repeat last year’s career best and could enter sell-high territory if he can continue producing at a nutty pace for a few more weeks. Pastrnak will not be a point-per-game player but has shown in his young career he can put up points and should be a viable option on the wing this year.

Beyond the Bruins’ top line the production drops off quickly. Some of them are due to have a good stretch in the near future including David Krejci, Ryan Spooner, Matt Beleskey and Jimmy Hayes. Krejci in particular is worth an investment given his great history which includes five years of 62 or more points. If his slow start continues he might even get dropped due to the abundance of centers available in Yahoo leagues.

Detroit

One of the top stories for the Red Wings has been the strong play of backup Jimmy Howard who has given the team a pair of wins. His role for the remainder of the year is to be determined but he should be on your radar. He has a history putting up great fantasy numbers including three seasons with a save percentage of .921 or better. If he can continue rolling he will force a platoon situation with Petr Mrazek which will give Howard stretches of consecutive starts.

The trio of Thomas Vanek, Mike Green and Darren Helm are off to great starts. Unfortunately all three are unlikely to sustain their good play long-term due to metrics such as shooting percentage and on-ice five-on-five shooting percentage. Green and Vanek have histories producing at star levels and might have some value on the trade front. Green is especially risky to own give his tendency to miss 10 or more games each year due to injury.

Meanwile, Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Tatar and Dylan Larkin are unlucky and off to cold starts and could be up for improvements in the near future. Take this opportunity to inquire about Tatar and Larkin in keeper leagues as their owners could be shortsighted and might have forgotten what they are capable of doing offensively. Buying low now could pay off for many years.

Montreal

The Canadiens can thank Al Montoya for helping the team start so strong. With starter Carey Price on the sidelines Montoya compiled a 2-0-1 record with a .962 save percentage. Barring injury Montoya will not see a lot of action this year but could be a valuable spot-starter if the Canadiens can sustain their play outside the crease.

So far the scoring has been pretty balanced including great production from the bottom-six. This area will suffer most in the coming weeks as it is difficult to sustain a high level of play with limited minutes. David Desharnais, Paul Byron, Torrey Mitchell and Philip Danault have enjoyed great starts but due to low ice time will be prone to scoring slumps.

Alexander Radulov has produced a ton of chances thus far but was a bit unlucky prior to last night’s game against the Flyers. His lack of luck shows in his low on-ice five-on-five shooting percentage. Any uptick in production, such as the two points he poste last night, will rub off on his linemates Artturi Lehkonen and Tomas Plekanec. Lehkonen has brought a shooter’s mentality to the NHL and is off to a solid start. He has also killed penalties which shows some versatility and increases his chance of making it work long-term. He is definitely worth an investment in keeper leagues.

New York Rangers

The team’s strong play out of the gate has been headlined by the newly-assembled duo of Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad. Kreider could be on his way to finally rewarding patient owners in keeper leagues who have waited for him to become a dominant power forward. However, you should not expect him to keep up such a torrid pace all year. In particular, his shot volume (23 shots in five games) is on pace for over 350 by year’s end, a very difficult rate to sustain. A reduction in shots would surely cut into his goal-scoring. Meanwhile, Zibanejad has benefited from an elevated on-ice five-on-five shooting percentage but will be impacted more by any change to Kreider’s production.

Brandon Pirri’s start of four points in six games has been very interesting. With just under 11 minutes per game he is firmly entrenched in a bottom-six role. However, he has also been getting a lot of looks on the power play which is mostly responsible for his strong start. As long as he can be deployed in advantageous situations he will produce some points but without proper ice time his current pace will be next to impossible to maintain. Not to mention he has just six shots this year. Consider him a 30-35-point player capable of heating up for stretches until his situation changes.

Rick Nash and Derek Stepan, both fixtures in the top-six, are off to slow starts and should see small upticks in production moving forward. The two are coming off down years and at this point could be in buy-low territory due to their ongoing mediocre totals. Stepan is obviously the more productive of the two at this stage of his career but Nash’s winger eligibility makes him valuable in some leagues. Additionally, he is 32 which helps lower his trade value.

DISAPPOINTMENTS

Buffalo

The Sabres were not expected to be a powerhouse this year but have the pieces in place to take a step forward from where they were last year. So far injuries to key players like Jack Eichel, Kyle Okposo and Evander Kane have hurt the team’s ability to play to its potential.

Two candidates for an improvement in the near future are Sam Reinhart and Tyler Ennis, who both have yet to score a goal this year. Unfortunately, Reinhart’s play has not dipped enough to really put him in buy-low territory but he has star potential so any time he has a setback you should inquire in your keeper league. Ennis is too talented to be this bad but being down to third-line minutes with below-average linemates is very concerning.

Captain Brian Gionta is off to a great start despite lining up with the likes of Marcus Foligno and Johan Larsson. The fact he is averaging just under 17 minutes per game with plenty of time on the power play certainly helps. However, the last two years he has been held under 40 points even with good ice time. Expect more of the same moving forward. In fact, he could be the one to take on a lesser role if Ennis can work his way back up the depth chart.

It is worth noting the lackluster start for Robin Lehner, who suited up for all four games. He will have to get his save percentage back up in the range of the .924 save percentage he posted last year if the Sabres are to challenge for a playoff spot. For fantasy purposes his play is even more concerning because of his injury-proneness. If managers are to take the risk of owning him they need him to deliver when healthy.

Pittsburgh

The Penguins have had a decent start but have not played like the elite team many have thought. Obviously, being without Sidney Crosby, who is out with another concussion, hurts a lot. In his absence Matt Cullen has stepped up and has posted five points in six games while logging close to 18 minutes per game. Once Crosby returns look for Cullen to return to a more limited role which will severely cut into his production.

Meanwhile, the line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel, which caught fire in the second half last year has been cold thus far. Although the line has been split for the time being, look for this combination to come back together often as the team tries to recreate last spring’s magic. If the slow start continues Kessel becomes the obvious buy-low option. He was similarly bad last fall and showed down the stretch he is still a high-end scorer at right wing. Bonino might also have value in deeper leagues once he gets going if you are suffering from injuries or poor play at the center position.

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