Ramblings: Line Combinations, Columbus Goaltending, Mark Giordano, and More (September 1)

by Michael Clifford on August 31, 2016
  • Hockey Rambling
  • Ramblings: Line Combinations, Columbus Goaltending, Mark Giordano, and More (September 1)

Anticipating Line Combinations, Columbus Goaltending, Giordano, and More

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As the NHL preseason approaches (is it September already?), there are things beyond studying an individual player’s numbers that need some inspecting. One aspect that requires some attention is that of line mates.

I bring this up because of something that was brought to my attention on Tuesday. In a Ramblings written a few weeks ago, I discussed the prospect of Carolina Hurricanes centre Elias Lindholm being a good target as a post-hype sleeper. Two reasons for this were his being a bit unlucky in his production last year, and the addition of some viable NHL producers like Lee Stempniak, and Teuvo Teravainen, with the latter being more of a “hopeful” NHL producer. A follower on Twitter indicated this to me:

Aside from me misattributing the notion of that top trio to Dobber rather than fellow Dobber writer Tom Collins (sorry, Tom!), it seems that Carolina wants to let its kids take over the team. Things change quickly in the NHL, so take this with a grain of salt, but if that is indeed the case, this is good news for fantasy owners of all three of Lindholm, Teravainen, and Sebastian Aho.

If I had to guess – and right now it’s just a guess – but Lindholm and company will probably be sheltered. That means not facing the other team’s top line/top pairing (or as infrequently as possible), while starting a fair amount in the offensive zone. Last year, Lindholm was among the team leaders in offensive zone faceoffs, while guys like Jay McClement and Jordan Staal started frequently in the defensive zone.

The impact of offensive/defensive zone starts can be overblown, so keep that in mind before going all-in on Lindholm. What I would draw from Lindholm’s deployment, and apparent new line mates, is that there will be a concerted effort from the Carolina coaching staff to give Lindholm et al. preferential offensive conditions.

Here are some other line combinations to be on the lookout for:

Winnipeg

We are often victims of recency bias, and the Winnipeg Jets finished last season with Blake Wheeler lined up almost exclusively alongside Mark Scheifele for the last quarter (or so) of the season. The thing to remember here is that came when Bryan Little was injured, and Wheeler and Little had played the vast majority of the season together at five-on-five until that injury (graphic taken from Puckalytics.com)

Not only did they play together frequently, they did so to very good results.

This is where I would (again) guess that Little and Wheeler two start the season together. This is because Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice explained recently that Patrik Laine is going to get a chance to, “excel right out of the gate.” Reading between the lines, I think (or hope) that this means the top duo of Little/Wheeler will be used primarily in a defensive role (playing against top lines, taking defensive zone starts), while Laine will be given his chance to excel while playing alongside Scheifele.

At this point it’s worth noting that Little was second on the team in percentage of faceoffs in the offensive zone last year. So maybe they put Laine alongside Little, and continue to shelter Little. As mentioned, this is guessing, but I think they give Scheifele more offensive zone starts, put Laine alongside him, and use Little/Wheeler more defensively. Regardless of which centre he draws, it seems as though Laine will be immediately given top-six minutes, and preferential deployment. This is music to the ears of (potential) Laine fantasy owners.

Buffalo

It’s easy to forget that Sam Reinhart didn’t actually spend the most time at five-on-five last year with Jack Eichel. He actually spent about 75 more minutes playing with Ryan O’Reilly than he did with Eichel. This was largely because the Sabres lacked right wing depth last year; there were times where Brian Gionta was used pretty consistently in Buffalo’s top-six. I posit that at this point in his career, if Gionta is a regular in your top-six, your team lacks right wing depth. For that reason, Reinhart was moved from centre to right wing, appearing on the top line quite often.

Things should be different this year with the signing of Kyle Okposo. With this talented scorer on the roster, it gives the team a legitimate top line right wing option to play alongside O’Reilly. That means the Sabres should be using Reinhart frequently alongside Eichel.

I say “should” because the Sabres don’t really have a ton of centre depth outside the top-six right now. Zemgus Girgensons hasn’t really developed as hoped, and while Johan Larsson is a fine NHLer, he’s more useful in a shutdown fourth line role than a hybrid third line role (in my opinion, feel free to tell me I’m wrong). It’s not inconceivable that Reinhart is used as a third line centre to spread the offence out a bit. Note: I do not expect this to happen with regularity during the regular season, so don’t yell at me about how stupid this is. I do think that it’s a possibility, so paying attention to the preseason lineups will be important.

There will be a lot of hype for Eichel once draft season rolls around, and rightly so. If Reinhart appears to be headed to Eichel’s right wing, though, that could make him the better value come draft day than his centreman.

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Often in these Ramblings, I’ve railed against using plus/minus as a category in fantasy. To this end, an article from Matt Cane of Hockey Graphs caught my eye over the weekend. It discussed the ability of prior on-ice save percentage (the rate at which shots are saved with a given skater on the ice) variables (Mr. Cane notes which specific ones he covers) to predict future on-ice save percentage variables. This is a relatively math-heavy article, but the results are explained, and I recommend readers to go through it.

This is one of the inherent problems with plus/minus as a fantasy category – too much is at the mercy of randomness. Last year, Chris Tierney of the San Jose Sharks had a .901 five-on-five save percentage behind him, while the team as a whole was a .923. This led to a minus-16 rating. The year before, however, he had a .926 save percentage behind him at five-on-five, while the team was a .919, and he had a plus-3. In a span of one season, his plus/minus dropped by 19 goals. Did he suddenly become an abysmal defensive forward, or, more likely, was it just mostly luck? Mathieu Perreault? Ditto. Brandon Dubinsky went from a plus-11 in 2014-2015 to a minus-16 in 2015-2016 (by far the worst of his career). The list of similar situations goes on and on (and goes the other way, too).

Please, fantasy owners and commissioners of the world, stop the madness. We can purge the plague that is using plus/minus as a fantasy category. 

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Last year was a disaster for the Columbus Blue Jackets. After starting the season 2-10-0, the team was pretty much eliminated from playoffs by the time Halloween rolled around. That’s almost impressive in its level of failure.

The thing is, from November 1st on, the team went 32-30-8. I don’t particularly like the kind of analysis that includes, “well if you remove the part of the season when the team was really bad,” but their underlying results were actually pretty good for that month of October. Consider that for the first month of the season, the Blue Jackets were ranked in the entire league as follows (according to Corsica Hockey, all at five-on-five):

  • Seventh in scoring chance differential (54.48-percent)
  • Twelfth in expected goals for percentage (50.94-percent)
  • Eleventh in corsifor percentage (50.92-percent)

Those numbers don’t scream as a team that should go 2-10-0 in a 12-game span, right?

So maybe those are outliers. That is a fair question to ask given a sample of 12 games. Here is where Columbus ranked in the entire league in those same three categories from November 1st through to the end of the regular season:

  • Seventh in scoring chance differential (52.74-percent)
  • Seventh in expected goals for percentage (52.09-percent)
  • Twenty-second in corsifor percentage (47.61-percent)

Their CF% wasn’t stellar for the rest of the season, but it wasn’t far behind Florida (48.74-percent), and was a bit ahead of other playoff teams (Minnesota, 47.36-percent; NY Rangers, 47.27-percent). The point is they were due for a serious turn in luck, but they dug themselves too big of a hole early in the season to really make any noise by the time March and April rolled around. For the record, 32-30-8 translates to about 87 points over a full 82-game season, or good for 10th in the East last year.

Columbus still has their issues, like giving up a lot of shots and chances. They were basically Dallas-East last year, though obviously with less all-world talent.

This relates to fantasy hockey because, as I discussed with fellow Dobber writers/editors Eric Daoust and Steve Laidlaw on Tuesday, I think it’s worth taking the gamble on Sergei Bobrovsky and Joonas Korpisalo this year. I would wager that Constable Bobrovsky could be had around fifteenth goalie off the board, with Korpisalo drafted as a late round pick. This is a team with a young core that will only be better this year, and the goaltending duo can be had for cheap. I wouldn’t bet my fantasy season on them, but if I was waiting on goaltending, or took an elite goalie early and then held off for several rounds, I think they’re a viable option. Columbus isn’t an elite team, but I think they’ll be closer to a playoff team than the bottom-5 team they were last year.  

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It seems like there’s a perennial lack of respect from some in the fantasy community for Calgary defenceman Mark Giordano. So far this year, Giordano is ranked outside the top-12 roto defencemen on ESPN, and last year he was ranked around the ninth defenceman overall on FantasyPros.

This is kind of surreal to me, at least in standard roto leagues. Consider the following (From the Hockey Reference Play Index):

This year, it’s not inconceivable that all of Brent Burns, Dustin Byfuglien, and Kris Letang will be drafted regularly among the top half-dozen of fantasy defencemen. It’s also not inconceivable that Giordano is regularly drafted outside the top-10.

I get the hesitation with Giordano, as he has played under 65 games in two of the previous three seasons. However, even if he only plays 70 games, he probably racks up 50 points in that span, and the remaining 12 games can be supplemented by a waiver wire addition. Last year, only 12 defencemen cracked 50 points. Assuming a fantasy owner can get that from Giordano alone as the 12th overall defenceman for 70 games, whatever is contributed by the waiver wire addition is the profit potential.

In a 12-team league, it’ll probably be possible to not draft a defenceman for the first four rounds, draft three d-men somewhere between rounds five and nine, and still end up with some mix of Giordano/Yandle/Krug/Shattenkirk/Faulk/Barrie. The elite like Karlsson and Burns are truly elite, but once we get past that top tier, I think it’s prudent to just keep going past the Doughty/Suter/Carlson tier and just grab two or three of those names mentioned in this paragraph. The value is there, and Giordano is a good start to the defence corps for relatively cheap.

*Stats from Hockey Reference, Hockey Analysis, Corsica, and Behind The Net