This week's edition of the Eastern Edge looks at the 2016 offseason outlooks for the Lightning and Penguins …
After covering the offseason outlook for the New York Islanders and Washington Capitals last week, we continue our march through the Eastern Conference. This week will see the spotlight put on the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins, the two teams that met in the Eastern Conference final. The focus will be put primarily on the short-term rather than the long-term future, although the developments of the next few months will certainly have a great impact on keeper leagues as well.
Teams previously covered
After losing in the Stanley Cup final in 2014-15, the Lightning made it to the conference final again before losing to the Penguins. On the surface, this was another successful campaign for the franchise. However, this season was much more complicated for the Lightning. After being the top-scoring team a year ago, they slipped to 12th this year with 224 goals.
To make matters worse, Steven Stamkos, a former 60-goal scorer and the team’s top offensive weapon is set to become an unrestricted free agent. Obviously, losing him would be a big blow to the Lightning, even if Stamkos has not been at the same level the past couple years. But as with all significant moves there are ripple effects well beyond the player in question.
Barring other changes this summer via free agency or trade, the benefactor of Stamkos’ potential departure would be Valtteri Filppula who has seen his production decline since putting up 58 points in 2013-14. Even though he averaged more than 18 minutes per game and saw plenty of time on the power play, Filppula would be put on lines with better wingers moving forward. This would help get his scoring back on track and makes him a dark horse this fall.
The other center set in a top-six role is Tyler Johnson who had a horrible year relative to expectations. Johnson’s year started with various injuries that kept him out for short periods of time, and he never really got going. It should go without saying, Johnson is a real buy-low in keeper leagues and a great mid-round steal in fall drafts. He may never reach the 72 points he posted in 2014-15 but he should be good for at least 60, especially if he is relied upon more heavily in the event Stamkos leaves.
Also in the top-six are Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn, a trio of forwards who performed reasonably well relative to their results obtained last year. Kucherov stood out and looked like a star, as he was achieved 66 points despite the team taking a step back offensively.
Additionally, a pair of young forwards will challenge for top-six ice time next year and may even work their way into the mix permanently. Jonathan Drouin, who has had his ups and downs with the club, had a highly-successful playoff run and looks to be ready to take the next step into fantasy relevance. Of course, he still has not put it together over a full schedule, so make sure not to rank him too high this fall. The potential is there but the risk is high and chances are one of your rivals will reach for him.
Also in the mix is Vladislav Namestnikov who had a successful sophomore campaign with 35 points while logging third-line minutes and playing a secondary role on the power play. He has a good track record of putting up points, as he was a point-a-game player in the AHL before becoming a full-time NHLer last year. The upside is there, but he may have to play second fiddle to Drouin, a former third-overall pick.
Outside of the top-six there is some multi-category appeal, as well. Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle and Cedric Paquette all disappointed offensively but could re-emerge as solid players to own if they can put a few extra points on the board. Of the three, Callahan has by far the most fantasy upside, as he still shoots a lot and has a history of scoring goals, although, he appears to be well past his prime.
On defense, the Lightning are led by Victor Hedman who produces at a 50-point pace when healthy. In addition to some moderate injury concerns, his role on the team is puzzling given his elite talent level. His average ice time sits at 23 minutes which is low for a top defenseman, and he actually ranked second behind Anton Stralman in power-play minutes. His utilization has been pretty steady over the years, so it does not appear a change is imminent, but there is some untapped potential should he be given the best opportunity for success.
Stralman had his second consecutive strong year in Tampa Bay but fractured his fibula before the playoffs began. In his absence, Jason Garrison stepped up and posted an impressive seven points in 17 playoff contests. With three 30-point campaigns under his belt, he is a dark horse to bounce back from his 11-point effort this year and could be a strong multi-category defenseman should he put it together offensively.
After falling off the map, Matt Carle could be destined for the AHL this fall. Nikita Nesterov has shown he can play a bottom-pairing role and both Slater Kokkoek and Anthony DeAngelo are pushing for a promotion to the highest level. Not to mention, losing Stamkos would leave some cap space that could be used to improve the depth on the back end.
In goal, the Lightning ranked fifth with 198 goals against thanks to the stellar play of Ben Bishop who is a nominee for the Vezina Trophy. How the Stamkos situation plays out may have a great impact on which goalie is retained long-term. If Stamkos stays there will be fewer dollars available and the Lightning may turn to Andrei Vasilevskiy, as their guy instead of the more proven but more expensive Bishop.
Regardless, with Fredrik Andersen being moved the goalie market is already shrinking. Look for the Lightning to go into next year with both Bishop and Vasilevskiy with a decision being made at the trade deadline or next summer.
The Penguins had a rollercoaster year on their way to winning the Stanley Cup. The team came together and was dominant in the postseason but went through months of stagnation before a coaching change gave them a spark. In the end the Penguins finished second in the Metropolitan division with 104 points while ranking third with 241 goals and sixth with 199 goals against.
The winning combination up front consisted of three lines, each with one offensive star. The line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel shined during the postseason and will obviously be given a long look next year to try to re-create the magic. Kessel disappointed mightily during the regular season, posting just 59 points after coming in with expectations of pushing or 80. The former two had decent years overall and will be in for a boost offensively, especially if this line sticks together.
During the playoff run Sidney Crosby was deployed mainly with Patric Hornqvist and Conor Sheary. Hornqvist might have an extra gear but for the most part we know who he is by now. Meanwhile, Sheary is a wildcard going into next year as he is not a big name but playing next to Crosby could make him a solid depth scorer in fantasy leagues. It is worth noting Sheary had 81 points in 90 career AHL games prior to his promotion to Pittsburgh.
Evgeny Malkin was mainly on a line with Chris Kunitz and Bryan Rust. At 36, Kunitz has slowed down but remains a solid multi-category option, as he can still produce a bit while offering a lot of shots and hits. Like Sheary, Rust is a big winner here, as playing next to Malkin will likely maximize his potential and could make him fantasy-worthy.
Of course, with three scoring lines there is plenty of room for line shuffling. This will have more of an effect on the support players who rely on ideal conditions to produce. So while Sheary and Rust deserve to be on the fantasy radar, they may be more useful as short-term additions when things get rolling in their favor.
Should injuries become a problem there are candidates to take advantage. Tom Kuhnhackl, Beau Bennett and Eric Fehr are talented enough to get a look next to one of the stars and could do some short-term damage. On the farm, Scott Wilson and Dominik Simon appear to be the most ready to be promoted and put a few points on the board.
On the blueline, Kris Letang showed he can be an elite defenseman when he is healthy enough to play a reasonable amount of games. However, it is difficult to rank him among the elite on your draft list because he is so unreliable. Even in leagues with IR spots he can be difficult to own as injuries can happen in large numbers and quickly. If you decide to select Letang early be sure to understand your league settings and not draft too many other injury risks afterwards.
After being acquired from Chicago, Trevor Daley produced at a 34-point pace with the Penguins. Clearly, he would be appealing to own in a lot of leagues if he is able to continue this level of play. His production could be in danger if Olli Maatta is able to rebound from his own rash of ailments and become the defenseman he was previously.
Justin Schultz appears to have settled in as a depth defenseman with the Penguins. Unfortunately, being so low on the depth chart crushes the upside he once possessed and probably takes him off the fantasy radar for now. Derrick Pouliot would have more upside if he can finally put it together but is also far more risky. Adding to the concern is the fact he only suited up twice during the playoff run.
The crease in Pittsburgh became a lot more interesting when rookie Matt Murray stepped up and led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup. He will be given every opportunity to run with the starting gig next year as he evidently has golden boy status.
Meanwhile Marc-Andre Fleury is considered trade bait by most. However, do not be surprised if he returns with the Penguins this fall. It is usually difficult to get a great return for a goalie on the trade market and a young inexperienced goalie like Murray is not immune to ups and downs. Fleury would provide solid insurance as he has a track record succeeding as a starting goalie in the NHL. Regardless of where he plays next year Fleury is worthy of fantasy consideration. If he stays in Pittsburgh be sure to grab both goalies on draft day.
Follow me on Twitter @DH_EricDaoust.
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