The offseason fantasy hockey outlooks for the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators…
This week features two teams who are still building towards becoming a true contender. Both teams looked impressive in the playoffs but still have flaws that need to be addressed. Nashville is trying to find the balance between defense and offense but needs to find it quickly as Pekka Rinne is not the elite goalie he once was. Dallas on the other hand has moved up the standings quickly since their acquisition of Tyler Seguin. They are now an exciting offense first team but they have significant issues on defense and in goal.
Over the last three years Nashville has improved on the offensive side of the puck while maintaining their stellar defensive play. In fact the Preds have improved on the defensive side of the puck while improving their offense having gone from 28.5 shots against per 60 two years ago to 27 shots per 60 minutes this past year. That is good for the ninth best shots against rate in the last three years and made them the best shot suppression team in hockey. Not only are they good at suppressing shots but they also excel at suppressing high danger shots as they possess the third best expected goals against per 60 minutes in the last three years. Their goaltending has let them down a lot as in two of the last three years their goalies have stopped less than 91% of the shots they faced. With that level of goaltending the Preds go from an elite defense in shot suppression to the 43rd best defense in actual goals allowed in the last three years. The Predators do not score well enough and as such are just better than a break-even team in goal differential. The Predators did not see an immediate spike in their shot rate after Ryan Johansen arrived so there is not necessarily a reason to believe there offense will take another step forward. Where the Predators have really suffered is on the power play where they have middle tier power play at best. Until they improve that they will not have the top 10 offense to match their elite defense.
Pekka Rinne has long been considered an elite fantasy goalie but his numbers have not backed that up in recent years. In three of the past five years Rinne has had a save percentage below the league average. This would be less concerning if Rinne was 23, but he is 33 and well past his prime. He has also battled significant injuries in recent years, which has no doubt played a role in his recent struggles. As long as the Preds remain a stellar defensive team Rinne will seem like a good play but it is hard to seem him bouncing back to elite status. With no one else breathing down his neck for the starting job and a cap hit of seven million for the next three seasons he is a very safe bet to at worst remain the starter in Nashville.
The Predators boast four fantasy relevant defensemen after Mattias Ekholm stepped up following the departure of Seth Jones. The elite fantasy defenseman on this team is now Roman Josi. as he has outpointed Shea Weber in each of the last two years and even outshot him last year. Weber had his fewest shots per game this past season since the 2006/7 season. Conversely Josi is now averaging two and a half shots per game, and has for the past two seasons, the highest shot rate of his career. Both Josi and Weber are safe bets for next year as they will remain the Preds’ top pairing in al situations. With a second pairing of Ekholm and Ryan Ellis the Preds have one of the best top fours in hockey. Ekholm is interesting because the Jones trade marked a huge shift in his fortune. He went from getting less than 10 seconds a game of power play time to getting just under two minutes per game after Jones’ departure. In conjunction with this usage shift he went from averaging a point every three games to a half point per game, which is the equivalent of going from 25 points to 40 points per season. The other half of the Preds’ strong second pairing, Ryan Ellis had an off season even though he had a career high in points but his production rate went down from the prior season. Ellis’ production was steady over the year even though he got more playing time once Jones left, however many of those extra minutes came on the penalty kill. Ellis should be able to hit 40 points as well as he showed in 2014/15 that he had that capability.
The Predators should have pretty much the same roster as they had last year as the only major free agents are Paul Gaustad, Filip Forsberg and Calle Jarnkrok with only Forsberg being due a significant raise. The Predators are a very deep team up front with the ability to go with three scoring lines, especially given the way Gaustad is used. By the end of last season the Preds had three distinct lines in their top nine. The top line featured Ryan Johansen between Forsberg and Jarnkrok. As a line they averaged more than three goals per 60 minutes. Johansen and Jarnkrok both averaged close to a point per game over the second half without crazy shooting percentages. This should not come as huge a surprise as this is the first time either has played with a truly high end linemate despite each having put up impressive seasons in the past with inferior linemates. 70 points from each is entirely reasonable next year, which should drag Jarnkrok to a 40 point season. Jarnkrok does not see enough power play time to produce at the same level as his linemates, nor does he have the same skill level.
The second line in Nashville is the Mike Ribeiro line, which is a pretty plush gig flush with offensive zone starts and easier matchups. This line is the chief beneficiary of playing with Gaustad, and him eating up all the defensive zone starts. Ribeiro is still an elite passer, and even though he struggled mightily in the playoffs he is still very effective during the regular season. With wingers like James Neal, Craig Smith and Colin Wilson available as linemates Ribeiro should have no shortage of wingers to feed. He has had prior success with almost every forward on the team and is a fixture on power play. Another 50 point season is entirely in the cards.
James Neal and Craig Smith look like the most likely linemates for Ribeiro should the Johansen line stay intact. They may be the perfect linemates for Ribeiro as they are both volume shooters, although Smith took a step back this past season. Smith is particularly due for a bounce back season as he had a career low shooting percentage of 5.6%. Both are close to sure things for a spot in the top six with Smith being a good bet to push 50 points.
If there are losers in the top nine they are Mike Fisher and Colin Wilson. Wilson had another good playoff run but that has not translated to guaranteed top six spot for him. Fisher and Wilson together face a usage that is tilted a little towards the defensive end. It is not as extreme as the usage that Gaustad faces but they are definitely the third wheel on the Nashville offense. Fisher at least gets some power play time and as such, when he is healthy he has some value. Wilson, on the other hand, is barely even a 30 point player in his current role. Barring a usurping of Jarnkrok’s top six spot he will struggle to score 20 goals again.
The Stars do two things well; generate shots and score on those shots. The Stars offense generated the second most shots per 60 minutes in the leagues last year, behind only the Penguins, which was good for top 10 of any team over the last three years. The difference between the Penguins and the Stars is that Stars score on 10% of their shots, and thus scored goals at the highest rate of any team over the last three years and the third highest rate over the last five years. Lest anyone think that this was purely a result of luck the Stars are one of only two to score on 10% of their shots in more than two of the last five years. This elevated shooting percentage is partially due to the Stars’ amazing power play. The Stars also generate a lot of high danger shots as can seen by their expected goal rate being higher than the Pen’s rate despite generating fewer shots. Thus while their shooting percentage is a little high it is not as shockingly high as it might be in other situations. On the other side of the puck the Stars do not have the most responsible defense corps but they do a solid job of limiting shots as they were top 10 in shots against rate this past season, they do give up a lot more high danger shots than would expected of a team with the ability to limit shots the Stars do. Where the Stars suffer is in net where they pumped 10 million dollars into two 32 year old goalies who combined for the sixth worst save percentage in the league. This is a team that defends by turning the puck around as quickly as possible but suffers when the opposition can gain a foot hold, this will likely continue as there tons of question marks on defense and even more in net.
The Stars need to figure out what is happening with Kari Lehtonen. Before his concussion a couple seasons ago he was an upper echelon goalie, since then he has been abysmal. He shows flashes of that old form but not consistently or for prolonged periods of time. Unless the Stars trade for a better goalie there is not much value in their goaltending other than wins. Niemi on the other hand has only really ever had two seasons where he was better than a league average goalie. That includes playing behind some quality defenses in San Jose as well as in Chicago. If he could not post a league average save percentage in those easier situations it will be very difficult behind a defense that allows a lot of high danger shots. As a platoon this is a disaster, which strips both of any fantasy value.
The Stars have a ton of free agents on their back end. John Klingberg will be there for the long haul and should be counted amongst the league’s top defensemen especially given his role is this offense. Alex Goligoski is an unrestricted free agent (UFA) and may not be in the cards for the Stars next year. His fantasy value was limited in Dallas as it was so this would not be a huge loss assuming the Stars are able to replace him. Goligoski was relegated to the second powerplay unit, which is a huge step down in production. Behind Klingberg the Stars will bring defensive defensemen in Stephen Johns and Johnny Oduya. Jason Demers is another UFA but he does not have a ton have fantasy value and is better suited to a second or third pairing role should he return. The Stars have a number of young defensemen in the system in Esa Lindell, Julius Honka, Patrik Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak and Mattias Backman. While Oleksiak and Nemeth were with the team last year Lindell is the best bet to have a fantasy impact next year. Even then it is doubtful that he plays top pairing minutes which means that the defenseman who will likely have the biggest fantasy impact after Klingberg probably is not yet in the organization.
There is considerably more stability up front for the Stars as Patrick Eaves and Valeri Nichushkin are the only two free agents who are even mildly fantasy relevant. Any discussion of the Stars has to start with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. They are both legitimate threats to winning the scoring title each year, although Seguin has struggled with injuries in each of the last two years. The third wheel on the Stars’ top line is in for a big boon in production as four of their five most common linemates were on for an extra goal and a half per 60 minutes when on the top line. That third spot generally goes to Patrick Sharp making him a legitimate 50 point threat, and he will continue to be one until one of the Stars’ younger options step up.
Jason Spezza is basically a first line center in terms of production because he is a key cog on the Stars’ lethal power play. To that end he had 33 points at even strength and 24 points on the power play. In both situations he had primarily primary points and did not rely on elevated shooting percentages. If there is any reason to worry with Spezza it is that his goal rate was at a career high last season. At the same time his assist rate was at a career low but it seems to be the new normal for his assist rate in Dallas.
Spezza does not see many consistent linemates as in just under 950 minutes at even strength he did not play with a single linemate for even 500 minutes. That means that the second line is a revolving door with Mattias Janmark, Valeri Nichushkin, Patrick Eaves and Ales Hemsky taking turns passing through. Cody Eakin is also floating up and down the lineup. A spot in the top six is key as the bottom six is used to take on much more defensive roles. The difference can be seen in the rate at which the Stars’ bottom six scored compared to the top six , namely the bottom six was lucky to average two goals per 60 minutes whereas the top six bottomed out at 2.75 goals per 60 minutes.
Radek Faksa showed some promise at the end of last season and continuing in to the playoffs. On a line with Hemsky and Antoine Roussel Faksa had seven points over the last 18 games, while Hemsky averaged nearly a point per game and Roussel put up nine points over that span. If Faksa and Roussel are able to put up 30 points they will become strong multi-category options, with Roussel bordering on being a stud.
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