East: Tortoises and Hares – Forwards (2016)

by Eric Daoust on November 8, 2016

Looking at the hot starters and slow starters in the Eastern Conference.

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.

For the hot starters the totals will usually be unsustainable. Sure, scoring is up from last year but only five achieved 80 points in 2015-16, with one of them being a defenseman. Even with an increase in goals hitting such a high mark will be impossible for most. On the other hand, those starting the year on the wrong foot are sporting numbers so far beneath expectations that an uptick is probable sometime in the near future.

Today we will examine a total of 15 forwards from the Eastern Conference either off to hot or cold starts. The key is to determine whether or not the early-season developments should change our expectation for the months to come. This will help sort out which players should be subject of trade talks – whether to buy or to sell. Obviously there are many more who could make this but not everyone can be covered.

Note: numbers below are prior to last night’s games.

HOT STARTS

David Pastrnak – Boston (9 GP, 10 PTS)

After showing good signs of development in his first two NHL campaigns, Pastrnak has been red-hot out of the gate playing on the Bruins’ top line next to Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. While this is a very appealing spot in the lineup, Pastrnak’s production to date is significantly higher than it should be. Consider his PDO, on-ice five-on-five shooting percentage and personal shooting percentage shown below courtesy of his Frozen Pool profile page:

All three are well above normal and bound to come down. However, short of landing a top star do not bother trying to sell. Even at a lower scoring rate he will still be a viable fantasy contributor capable of pushing for 60 points.

Jeff Skinner – Carolina (10 GP, 12 PTS)

Skinner has been incredibly inconsistent over the years combining ups and downs production-wise with some injury risk, although he has been more durable in recent years. This season he is off to a great start and is likely in for a second consecutive “up” year which will be aided by his average ice time of 18:10, his highest since 2012-13. However, this is a great time to sell high. In addition to the fact that his current numbers are likely unsustainable, he also plays for a team that lacks talent up front so his upside will be more limited moving forward.

Alexander Wennberg – Columbus (10 GP, 12 PTS)

We knew there would be a great opportunity for Wennberg to shine this year given he is the most talented center on the Blue Jackets’ roster. However, this is an incredible start fueled by a power play unit that has been extremely dangerous. The fact that eight of his points have come on the man advantage is a sign of unsustainability, as is his ice time which at 16:41 does not represent a top-line role. If someone truly believes he is a top center then you could do very well selling high but in any event he should be a solid contributor the rest of the way even if he slows down considerably.

Jonathan Marchessault – Florida (12 GP, 12 PTS)

Marchessault has been a great story to follow, taking advantage of an injury to Jonathan Huberdeau to become the Panthers’ top left-winger. He has responded with point-per-game production despite just two points in his last five. Amazingly, aside from his shooting percentage his other metrics fall in more normal ranges hinting he might not get hit as hard as others by regression. Eventually, Huberdeau will return which will kill Marchessault’s value as he will become more of a secondary scorer on the second or third line. Shop him if you can. If someone offers a player not in danger of losing his top-line spot you should make the move. It might hurt a bit short-term but the move will come in handy in the final months.

J.T. Miller – New York Rangers (13 GP, 13 PTS)

Miller has had an incredible start due to a great run of 11 points in his last nine contests. This is clearly an unsustainable rate which would not look as significant on the overall total if the same hit streak happened later in the year. The chart below from Frozen Pool paints some of the picture.

Additionally, he is averaging just 15:25 in ice time which is hardly second-line minutes and is not playing a significant role on the power play. To make matters worse, his most frequent linemates are Michael Grabner and Kevin Hayes, both of whom have not been great offensive players historically. Sell high if you can.

Kevin Hayes – New York Rangers (13 GP, 12 PTS)

Similar to Miller, Hayes is playing above his head at the moment. Most impressive is his six goals have come on just 20 shots, a rate not likely to continue for long. However, working in his favor is better ice time (16:17) and a larger role on the power play’s second unit. This will help him better sustain solid production over the long haul. Sell high if you can but otherwise Hayes should still generate second-line offense moving forward.

Jakub Voracek – Philadelphia (13 GP, 13 PTS)

Last year Voracek was a massive disappointment primarily because he had just 11 goals and scored on only 5.2 percent of his shots. As expected, he is well on his way to improving on that number this year but he is getting there a lot quicker than expected. Through 13 games Voracek has already scored six times thanks to an average of four shots per game. The shot volume is well above anything he has shown in the past so you can expect both his shooting and goal-scoring to slow down a bit in the coming months. The good news is Voracek is back as a premier right wing in the NHL.

Marcus Johansson – Washington (11 GP, 11 PTS)

Usually one who ends up in the mid-40s, Johansson has been a point-per-game player thus far. There has been some luck involved as he has six goals on just 23 shots, which computes to a shooting percentage of 26 percent. While he is almost assured of slowing down there is room for him to improve upon his career-high of 47 points. Looking at his line combinations there are encouraging signs.

Even Strength Line Combinations

 

Freq

Line Combination

46.70%

BACKSTROM,NICKLAS – BURAKOVSKY,ANDRE – JOHANSSON,MARCUS

33.50%

JOHANSSON,MARCUS – KUZNETSOV,EVGENY – WILSON,TOM

8.90%

BACKSTROM,NICKLAS – JOHANSSON,MARCUS – OSHIE,T.J.

7.70%

JOHANSSON,MARCUS – KUZNETSOV,EVGENY – WILLIAMS,JUSTIN

3.20%

ELLER,LARS – JOHANSSON,MARCUS – WILSON,TOM

 

 

Unlike last year when Johansson spent considerable time on the third line, this year he is a fixture on the wing next to Nicklas Backstrom or Evgeny Kuznetsov. While this situation is not guaranteed to last, it increases the odds of him reaching a new height this year following such a great start.

COLD STARTS

David Krejci – Boston (11 GP, 4 PTS)

The Bruins have suffered from a severe lack of secondary production and Krejci is the most notable name to be performing this poorly. Last night he finally potted his first goal of the season but is still well below his regular rate of production and is currently minus-seven. Most concerning is his average ice time which sits at 17:36, down almost three minutes from 20:18 a year ago. Obviously he will get better but at the moment the conditions limit his upside. Instead of finishing somewhere in the 60s we might have to settle for something between 50 and 55.

Aleksander Barkov – Florida (12 GP, 5 PTS)

Last night Barkov snapped an eight-game point-less skid which is at the heart of his slow start. So far his on-ice five-on-five shooting percentage is way down and his shot volume is also down. Both are bound to improve and help Barkov get back into a reasonable production range. The fact Marchessault has been such a great fit on Barkov’s wing bodes well for the near future and in the long run Barkov will no doubt benefit from the return of Huberdeau. He is definitely a buy-low option with huge upside.

Tomas Plekanec – Montreal (12 GP, 4 PTS)

With Alex Galchenyuk moving to center full-time Plekanec has taken on more of a defensive role. His average ice time is down to 17:25 (18:32 last year) and he has been reduced to rotating in and out of the second power-play unit. Another concerning factor: only 33 percent of his shifts have started in the offensive zone. With that said, Plekanec has been snake-bitten this year at five-on-five but under these conditions his upside is severely limited. In Yahoo leagues that have too many center-eligible players he is likely a drop at this point.

Andrew Ladd – New York Islanders (13 GP, 2 PTS)

Like Krejci, Ladd scored his first of the year last night, one of the lone bright spots in what has been a disastrous start with the Islanders. Given the huge contract he signed this past summer it was expected he would be given every opportunity to thrive on the top line next to John Tavares. Sure enough, Ladd managed to play himself down the depth chart. If he can string together some good performances he will get more looks on the big line. However, looking at his performances in recent years it may be more reasonable to expect the low end (45-50 points) rather than some of the higher projections made during the offseason.

Nick Bonino – Pittsburgh (12 GP, 4 PTS)

Following Bonino’s strong outing last spring expectations were raised going into this year while being flanked by Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin. The Penguins have had an up-and-down start and Bonino’s mediocre production led to the line being broken up. Looking at his line combinations thus far we can see why Bonino has struggled.

Even Strength Line Combinations

 

Freq

Line Combination

41.40%

BONINO,NICK – HAGELIN,CARL – KESSEL,PHIL

30.40%

BONINO,NICK – HAGELIN,CARL – RUST,BRYAN

24.10%

BONINO,NICK – RUST,BRYAN – WILSON,SCOTT

2.40%

BONINO,NICK – HORNQVIST,PATRIC – WILSON,SCOTT

1.70%

BONINO,NICK – KUNITZ,CHRIS – RUST,BRYAN

 

Aside from Kessel and Hagelin, Bonino has been stuck with options that are not ideal for offense. Until this changes look for Bonino to continue to disappoint. Of course, the “HBK” line could be reunited at any point which could lead to a hot streak.

Ondrej Palat – Tampa Bay (12 GP, 4 PTS)

Last night Palat snapped a seven-game slump where he was held without a point. Given his history the last three years it was only a matter of time before he would snap out of it. During those three campaigns his points-per-game rate ranged from 0.65 to 0.84. Additionally, he has been seeing a lot of time with Steven Stamkos and also has had great chemistry with Tyler Johnson in the past. Even with some line-shuffling throughout the year Palat should be in a great position to keep producing. Last night’s goal is an indicator the buy-low window is closing.

Evgeny Kuznetsov – Washington (11 GP, 6 PTS)

Going into the year one of the concerns with the likelihood of Kuznetsov repeating last year’s 77-point performance is the fact he was not often on Alexander Ovechkin’s line. Surprisingly, he opened the year centering Ovechkin and, oddly enough, he failed to produce at a high level. For the time being Nicklas Backstrom is back with Ovechkin as Kuznetsov leads the second unit. The initial concerns remain about his ability to match last year without being the focal point of the team’s offense. However, he remains a great fantasy player who may be a great buy-low options if his middling start continues.

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