Looking Ahead: Early Team Schedules and Players to Target

by Mike Schmidt on September 30, 2016
  • Looking Ahead
  • Looking Ahead: Early Team Schedules and Players to Target

'Looking Ahead' returns with a peek at early schedules, and effective short-term and long-term options.

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All fantasy owners need help in the short term AND the long term. The Looking Ahead feature identifies one player to plug into lineups in the short term, a second to invest in for the long term, a third to be wary of for the time being and a fourth who is primed to disappoint over the long haul. Since this is the inaugural installment for the 2016-17 season, the format has been tweaked a little bit. However, the regular column will return once the games commence. Now without further ado…

 

The Cost-Effective, Short-Term Option:  Seth Jones, D, Columbus – This time a year ago, Jones was viewed as an up-and-coming player brimming with untapped fantasy potential. Unfortunately, he was employed by a Nashville squad blessed with a wealth of depth on the blue line at that time (Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Mattias Elkholm and Ryan Ellis were among the defensemen who joined Jones on the Predators’ 2015-16 Opening Night roster). Fantasy owners were forced to accept the fact that both the quantity and quality of his ice time were going to leave a lot to be desired.

All that changed with the blockbuster trade that sent the talented, young blue liner to Columbus in exchange for Ryan Johansen. Jones saw his ice time jump almost five minutes per game, and he became a fixture on his squad’s power play, ranking first on the squad in total action seen per contest on the man advantage. While 20 points (2 goals and 18 assists) in 41 games played for the Blue Jackets don’t necessarily portend impending and immediate fantasy greatness for Jones, it’s fine to say he performed pretty well for a 21-year-old who was trying to adjust to a new role on a new team following a blockbuster trade.

Also, it’s not unreasonable to suggest he could take a step forward in 2016-17. His talent is undeniable, and the opportunities to produce will be there. According to Yahoo Draft Analysis, Jones’s average draft position currently sits at 126. That ranks 33rd among NHL defensemen. Simply stated, Jones is worth grabbing late in drafts based on both his upside and projected usage. He’s an early plug-and-play option with the potential to evolve into something more.

 

The Monster-In-Waiting: Matt Dumba, D, Minnesota – Speaking of young defenseman seeing a ton of advantageous action… Dumba ranked second behind Ryan Suter among Wild defensemen in power-play ice time per game in 2015-16. He also ranked second among Minnesota blue liners in goals scored a year ago (behind Jared Spurgeon). While Suter and Spurgeon have been critical to the Wild’s success in recent years, Dumba is the odds-on favorite to be the organization’s next franchise player. With 152 games of NHL experience under his belt, the 22-year-old blue liner is expected to transform some of his immense potential into tangible statistical production. A little more playing time could go a long way for Dumba, as he saw just 16:50 of ice time per game in 2015-16. If that jumps significantly this year, Dumba becomes a relevant fantasy defenseman in all formats. According to Yahoo Draft Analysis, he is being drafted eight spots behind the aforementioned Jones at 134. That makes him quite the intriguing option late in drafts. Buy him at a discount now, hope for the best, and be positioned to enjoy the spoils of his on-ice production later.

 

Useful, But Overrated: Roberto Luongo, G, Florida – It’s been just a shade under five months since this 37-year-old netminder underwent surgery for a torn labrum in his hip. While Luongo’s recovery has gone well thus far, and he saw some action this week in a preseason tilt against Nashville, the seriousness and recency of the injury should give fantasy owners some pause heading into the upcoming season. Exactly what he is capable of in terms of fantasy production is very much in question. Luongo’s averaged about 60 starts per campaign, as well as a goals allowed average of 2.35 and a save percentage of .921 in his two full seasons with Florida. As crazy as it may sound, those numbers actually best his career marks. So it seems unlikely he’ll approach such statistical heights in 2016-17.

The Panthers also employ James Reimer as Luongo’s backup, and he is expected to receive 35-40 starts in net this year. With all that being said, there’s a lot to be worried about with Luongo right now. He’s long been a trusted option at the position, yet he’s anything but until further notice. According to Yahoo Draft Analysis, Luongo is being selected just four picks behind Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask. Yet, Rask is nearly a decade younger, boasts a higher career save percentage, is the undisputed starter on his team, and isn’t coming off a serious hip injury.

Here’s the point… While fantasy owners shouldn’t completely overlook Luongo in drafts, he’s not a great value pick and could be a big disappointment in net this year. Expectations for his production should be tempered.

 

The Bust: Ryan Kesler, C, Anaheim – On the surface, Kesler is a fairly consistent and reliable fantasy option. He suited up for just 17 games during an injury-shortened/lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, but in every other season since 2011-12 he’s been quite the predictable player at the center position. He scores 20-ish goals. He racks up 45 to 50 points. He registers 50-plus penalty minutes. However, one aspect of Kesler’s game has changed quite a bit in the past few seasons. He shoots the puck A LOT less than he used to in the past.

 

 

Season

Games Played

Shots On Goal

Shots

Shots Per Game

2011-12

77

222

416

5.4

2013-14

77

239

406

5.3

2014-15

81

205

384

4.7

2015-16

79

164

347

4.4

 

How much longer can the 32-year-old Kesler be expected to produce at a capable level? What if his shot totals continue to trend in the wrong direction? What if he is unlucky in terms of shooting percentage this upcoming season? Center is a deep position in fantasy, and a lot of interesting players are being drafted behind Kesler in Yahoo leagues right now. They include the following: Montreal’s Alex Galchenyuk, Los Angeles’s Jeff Carter, Tampa Bay’s Tyler Johnson and Ottawa’s Derick Brassard. It’s not unreasonable to like all of them more for fantasy purposes in 2016-17.

 

By taking some time to analyze the upcoming NHL schedule, poolies can gain a significant and measurable edge over their opponents. Now let’s identify some teams that will hurt fantasy owners in the season’s opening weeks.

 

Love ‘Em (These squads are sure to pay dividends in the coming days)

 

New York Rangers – There’s not much to dislike about this team’s schedule to open the season. King Henrik Lundqvist and the rest of the Rangers squad will take to the ice at Madison Square Garden eight times in their first 11 games.

 

Pittsburgh Penguins – The rich get richer… The defending Stanley Cup Champs (I still can’t believe the turnaround they had after last season’s slow start) open with four of five in Pittsburgh. Take advantage.

 

New York Islanders – Bad news: The Islanders begin the upcoming campaign with two straight games on the road. Worse news: Those two games will be played against two talented teams in the aforementioned Rangers and the Washington Capitals. Better news: They follow up those pair of contests with 10 of 11 at home.

 

Leave ‘Em (These squads will leave fantasy owners sorely disappointed in the short term)

 

Carolina – Don’t expect a strong start from the Hurricanes in the season’s opening weeks, as the squad is scheduled to commence with the 2016-17 campaign by playing its first six games on the road.

 

Arizona Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Co. are looking to take a step forward on the ice this year, but their schedule in the first few weeks of the campaign does not portend an early-season winning streak. The Coyotes will be playing away from Phoenix for six of their first seven.

 

Anaheim – A certain fantasy analyst who shall remain nameless predicted a Stanley Cup victory for this veteran-laden squad a year ago. So much for that… Now the Ducks open the season with five straight on the road. Pump the brakes on the expectations for any and all fantasy-relevant Anaheim players as the games get under way.