Let’s start with some news items (mainly signings) that happened on Friday:
The Penguins have signed head coach Mike Sullivan to a four-year extension. Sullivan’s feud with Phil Kessel became well-known, so this was a case where the GM decided to side with the coach instead of the player. In fact, this is quite a lengthy extension for Sullivan, whose two Stanley Cups with the Penguins likely factored in. With teams in the Metropolitan Division like the Rangers and Devils loading up during the offseason, combined with the potential loss of offense from the departure of Kessel, this will be an important season for Sullivan and the Penguins.
The Canucks have signed Josh Leivo to a one-year, $1.5 million contract. For a team that has numerous bad contracts (Loui Eriksson, Brandon Sutter, Jay Beagle, Roberto Luongo), this is a very reasonable signing. Leivo, who was the odd man out in Toronto for quite some time, now has a year to prove himself to rise above the crowd and be a true top-6 forward for the Canucks, which will result in a contract with more dollars and term after the season. That could involve more opportunity with Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser, his two most frequent linemates in 2018-19. If he shows to be nothing more than replacement level, then expect the Canucks to move on from him after the season.
The Avalanche have signed Nikita Zadorov to a one-year contract. Zadorov doesn’t supply much offense (14 points in 70 games in 2018-19), but over the past two seasons he has more hits (506) than any other defenseman. As the Avs have improved, so has his plus-minus (minus-20 in 2016-17 to plus-19 in 2018-19). As well, he is fourth among defensemen over the past three seasons with 251 PIM. If you have multiple “bangers and mash” categories and play in a deeper league, Zadorov might be worth considering.
The Canadiens have signed forward Nick Cousins to a one-year, $1 million contract. Cousins scored 27 points (7g-20a) in 81 games last season, a career high for him. Due to injuries and a lack of depth on the Coyotes, Cousins’ most frequent linemates turned out to be Alex Galchenyuk and Clayton Keller. Cousins can produce with the right linemates, but it won’t be easy for him to receive top-6 minutes with the Habs.
The Lightning have signed Cedric Paquette to a two-year contract worth $1.65 annually. Paquette scored a career-high 13 goals while chipping in 80 penalty minutes for the Bolts last season. He fills a bottom-6 role for the Lightning, so he isn’t worth targeting in straight scoring leagues at all. However, his 269 hits were sixth in the entire NHL last season, and his 80 penalty minutes led the Bolts in that category.
The Sabres have signed Zemgus Girgensons to a one-year, $1.6 million extension. The former All-Star scored 18 points (5g-13a) in 72 games last season and has failed to crack the 20-point mark for four consecutive seasons. Aside from trailing only Rasmus Ristolainen in hits on the Sabres last season, Girgensons holds very little value in fantasy leagues.
With the Vegas Golden Knights tight against the cap, one name that keeps appearing in trade rumors is that of Nikita Gusev, especially to teams with considerable cap space. Even though the soon-to-be 27-year-old dominated the KHL last season (82 points in 62 games for SKA St. Petersburg), he would seem to be on the outside looking in for a top-6 role with the Golden Knights’ scoring lines seemingly all set. If George McPhee can squeeze Gusev in, the Knights could find themselves with a strong third line, which because of injuries turned out to be a weakness for the Knights last season.
How do we know that Gusev won’t be the next Vadim Shipachyov, who you may remember turned from sleeper to bust in a matter of days two seasons ago? Shipachyov was 30 years old two seasons ago, didn’t get a fair shake with the suddenly deep Golden Knights, then bailed for Russia after refusing an AHL assignment. You may also remember that KHL veteran Evgenii Dadonov signed with the Panthers at around the same time as Shipachyov and has performed well (65 and 70 points in his two seasons). Then there’s another KHL import that recently cashed in on July 1. His name is Artemi Panarin.
Watch for that trade, though. If Gusev can find his way onto a team without the depth of the Golden Knights, then there’s tremendous upside. He’s a true wild card sleeper pick in fantasy leagues, as his own upside and his team situation are both relative unknowns at the moment.
After an amazing start to the 2018-19 season (1.62 GAA, .950 SV%), Semyon Varlamov’s fantasy value faded as the season wore on. After January 1 he was too risky to start if you had designs on winning your league (2.95 GAA, .906 SV%), while by March he had given up the starting job completely to the red-hot Philipp Grubauer, whose contract situation also made him the heir apparent in net anyway. In a way, his up-and-down season reflects his season-by-season numbers, which have swung between great and awful.
What happens when a struggling goalie finds a strong system? If Varlamov hopes to revive his career, he couldn’t have picked a better spot than Long Island, where Barry Trotz and Mitch Korn turned the league’s worst defense (in terms of goals allowed) into the league’s best defense. Robin Lehner wasn’t the only goalie to succeed in that system. Thomas Greiss also put up some top-5 numbers in both goals-against average (2.28 GAA) and save percentage (.927 SV%).
Performance-wise, I don’t have enough faith in Varlamov that he’ll take the starting job outright. In addition, Greiss still got into 43 games in spite of Lehner’s impressive season, so there’s a chance this could turn into another timeshare. It might be a reach to assume that Varlamov will have a Lehner-like season, but I’ll say that I like him better now because of this signing than I did at the end of last season. In addition, he was gifted the four-year contract, so if any goalie has the edge here, it’s Varly. If he can truly benefit from the Isles’ system, there could even be some keeper value. Greiss has only one year remaining on his contract; however, KHL star Ilya Sorokin may make his way over from Russia after that.
If you ask me which goalie I’d rank higher between Varlamov and Lehner, I’d still say Lehner, even with what I wrote about in yesterday’s Ramblings. I’ll also qualify that by saying that depending on how both goalies are ranked, I may prefer to wait on Lehner a bit compared to his ADP (average draft position), while I perhaps I reach a bit on Varlamov if his ADP mainly reflects his second-half performance in Colorado.
For more fantasy hockey information, or to reach out to me directly, you can follow me on Twitter @Ian_Gooding.
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