Well, after a two-year hiatus, I’m back in a familiar spot, trying to dispense sage fantasy advice on Eastern Conference matters. I’d like thank Eric Daoust for raising the bar and hope that I can measure up over the coming months.
Let’s kick this off by talking about what was ultimately a disappointing season for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Heading into this season, expectations were high after two fine postseason performances that saw the team lose two years ago in the Stanley Cup Final to Chicago, and then take the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Penguins to Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Final last season.
All that said, Tampa only missed the playoffs this year by a single point. The Lightning have some business to deal with this offseason with three important forwards being restricted free agents. For the record, I believe all three will re-sign in Tampa and that the team will be poised for a bounce-back season.
Let’s take a look at five forwards and what the upcoming season may hold for them:
One of my favourite under-the-radar fantasy players. Palat didn’t have a very good first half (and a bit), recording 25 points in 48 games, for just a 43-point pace. He finished the season with 27 points in 27 games, though and has scored at a 60-point pace over his four full NHL seasons.
In roto leagues that count hits, Palat has additional value, averaging 145 hits per 82 games over his four full NHL campaigns. This season, he also recorded the most power-play points (15) of his short career, and his 66 blocked shots were 14th best amongst NHL forwards.
Don’t let Palat fall too far down your draft lists, the guy should threaten the 60-point mark in addition to 140 hits and decent contributions in blocked shots and power-play points.
Overall, Tyler Johnson scored at a 56 point-pace this season, and in his final 28 games, he recorded 24 points (70-point pace). Over the course of his first 38 games, he scored at a pedestrian 45-point pace.
In his first four full seasons, he scored 50, 72, 38 and 45 points. This is a guy who has scored at every level; 115 points in his final junior year, 133 points in 127 career AHL games and whose trophy case includes the AHL Leading Goal Scorer and AHL MVP. He also has a history of stepping it up when it matters most with 35 points in 32 AHL playoff games and 42 points in 47 NHL playoff games.
Johnson will probably be undervalued come draft day, but if you can weather his higher than normal penchant for injury, keep TJ in mind on draft day. Assuming he re-ups with Tampa, he easily slots into the team’s top six and has 70-point upside.
How difficult will the upcoming contract negotiations be with Jonathan Drouin? He will likely have to settle for bridge deal, much like Palat and Johnson did. I would love to be a fly on the wall during those discussions. Drouin had a nice little breakout this season, scoring 53 points in 73 games. Many believe he is just scratching the surface of his prodigious offensive talents, too.
This guy oozes offensive talent. In his final year of junior hockey, he recorded 108 points…in 46 games. In the playoffs that year, he scored 41 points in only 16 games. In his rookie NHL campaign, Drouin had 32 points in 70 games, logging just over 13 minutes a game. His sophomore season was disappointing and filled with controversy, which included a trade demand and refusal to report to the AHL. However, he did score 14 playoff points and was a key piece to Tampa Bay's 2016 postseason run.
It’s no coincidence that he scored more when he increased the number of shots he took. In his four goal, 32-point season, he took 76 shots in 70 games. This season, he scored 21 goals and 53 points in 73 games while taking 183 shots. Another huge factor in Drouin’s jump in points was that he was firmly entrenched on the top power-play unit, notching 26 points with the man advantage.
Somewhat surprisingly, Drouin was able to put aside all the drama of the previous season and record a nice breakout season. Assuming the return of a healthy Steven Stamkos, only an acrimonious negotiation stands in the way of Jonathan Drouin’s next step in his development.
Heading into this season, Brayden Point wasn’t expected to be much of a factor. He turned out to be quite a revelation. Point finished the season strong, playing at least 20 minutes a game in 13 of his final 16 outings while registering 16 points.
So where does Point end up next season? Is he going to play in the top six? Assuming five of the top-six forwards will be Nikita Kucherov, Stamkos, Drouin, Palat and Johnson, that leaves Alex Killorn, Vladislav Namestnikov and Point to battle it out for top-six ice time.
The same can be said for the top power-play unit. Four players were clearly given top power-play minutes this season; Stamkos, Kucherov, Drouin and Victor Hedman all averaged at least three minutes with the man advantage. Five others averaged at least two minutes of power-play time per contest; Johnson (2:51), Palat (2:46), Point (2:31), Killorn (2:24) and Vladislav Namestnikov (2:05).
Unless at least one of the aforementioned players does not return to the Lightning, then Point might struggle to take a significant step forward offensively this coming season. Tampa still has a decent top nine, but without significant power-play minutes, improving his point totals will be difficult.
The Lightning have a treasure trove of talent up front, and another forward to look out for is Namestnikov. The 24-year-old Russian only had 28 points in 74 games this season, but he does have an offensive side. He recorded 139 points in 131 OHL games with London and 104 points in 134 career AHL games. His NHL best is 35 points in 80 games during the 2015-16 campaign.
I wouldn’t bet the house on it, but if Namestnikov can find some chemistry early on with say a fellow Russian named Kucherov, then the London product could turn out to be a sneaky late-round addition on draft day.
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