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2017: A Fantasy Hockey Odyssey (PHT Year in Review)

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(Pro Hockey Talk is taking a look back at the year in hockey. We’ll be presenting you with the best goals, saves, moments, players and much more as we bring you the best of 2017.)

You’ve likely read this already if you’re perused some best/worst of 2017 lists, but I’m not breaking rank: these 12 months were often a beatdown for humanity.

Luckily, pop culture, sports, and other distractions responded to the carnage like a bat signal, providing us with precious diversions as the universe crumbles. Fantasy hockey falls in line with that, if you ask me, so let’s look back at 2017, combining hearty portions of 2016-17 and 2017-18 for a kind-hearted retrospective.

This guy, That guy, and everyone else

If you want to look at the two most successful hockey players in the world, you’d probably go Sidney Crosby (Stanley Cup, strong regular seasons, international glories) against Connor McDavid (2016-17’s only 100-point season, freak of nature, plausible future glories).

From a fantasy perspective, it’s about two scorers … but only McDavid makes that duo, if you’re being harsh. And also if you’re ignoring playoff pools, which are denizens of randomness, if you ask a fellow who’s only delved into them a bit.

No, in using NHL.com’s refined results settings, two scorers stand alone during this calendar year (OK, Jan. 1 to today): McDavid and Nikita Kucherov. These are the only two scorers who’ve hit 100-plus points during that span, with the closest contenders stuck at 87 points (John Tavares, Patrick Kane, Blake Wheeler, and Mark Scheifele, with the latter player hopefully being OK as 2018 approaches).

Remarkably, you could very sanely argue that Kucherov’s been better, as goals are tougher to come by than assists, and he’s hit his near-identical mark in three fewer contests:

McDavid in most of 2017: 81 GP, 30 goals, 72 assists, 102 points, 242 shots on goal, +29, somehow just a 39.8 faceoff winning percentage, I felt the need to mention.

Kucherov in most of 2017: 78 GP, 51 goals, 50 assists, 101 points, 279 SOG, +21, eight GWG to McDavid’s six.

Again, no one else even hit 90 points during this span. Remarkable. It stands as another reminder that Kucherov’s brilliance needs to be trumpeted, preferably from a high vantage point, Ricola-style.

These two guys are special, but no longer seemingly aliens

If you drafted Brent Burns and/or Erik Karlsson high heading into 2017-18 (bless your soul and sanity if they were among your top three picks), then you’re well aware that the two seemingly-untouchable defensemen have looked decidedly human this season. Granted, Karlsson is still incredible, but the fantasy returns have been more minimal.

Well, the calendar year numbers back that up. Karlsson and Burns are up their among the four highest defensemen, but they’re joined by Victor Hedman and John Klingberg as the guys who’ve hit 60+ points. Burns leads with 65 (and a ridiculous 307 SOG, more than Kucherov and McDavid, by the way), Hedman has 64, while Klingberg and Karlsson are tied at 62.

When in doubt, draft Swedish defensemen and/or dudes who could pass as Chewbacca.

(Note: Karlsson scored his 62 points in 71 games, so … he’s still possibly a Martian.)

Braden Holtby is the new Martin Brodeur

In case you haven’t poked around Hockey Twitter much, or blogs for that matter, Martin Brodeur isn’t the no-brainer superstar some assume. Well, at least when you compare him to, say, Dominik Hasek. In certain communities, that is.

You see, Brodeur frequently hobbled behind the true elites in terms of save percentage, and many believe that his puck-moving skills didn’t make up that difference.

That said, on the fantasy side, Brodeur was often fried gold.

The all-time wins leader obviously won a lot, and for most of his career, you could count on him to play a ton of games. He’d nab a lot of shutouts, to boot. As unpredictable as netminders can be thanks to the teams in front of them and health breaks and arrests go, Brodeur was as steady – and effective – as you could really ask for.

Holtby is becoming that guy: tons of reps, dependable, very good but maybe not getting mentioned as the cream of the crop as often as, say, Carey Price or Sergei Bobrovsky. It makes perfect sense, then, that he’s unmatched when it comes to wins (though his .920 save percentage speaks for itself.)

Now, I was pumping his tires as the next Henrik Lundqvist earlier but … Henrik Lundqvist still seems like Henrik Lundqvist, so let’s go with The Next Brodeur for now.

Reigning rookies

In 2016-17, Auston Matthews led a crop of outstanding Toronto Maple Leafs youngsters while Patrik Laine looked like the heir apparent to Alex Ovechkin. Jake Guentzel really blossomed during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, while Matthew Tkachuk annoyed everyone in his path to fantasy glory.

Shockingly, 2017-18 is producing a comparable crop of rookies, to the point that the volume makes it difficult to name everyone.

Mathew Barzal and Brock Boeser are both (at least temporarily) altering the trajectories of their teams. Yanni Gourde and Jesper Bratt likely deserve a bit more credit for their teams’ startling improvements. Nico Hischier looks like he’ll live up to being a top pick, while Clayton Keller is making teams kick themselves for passing him up, even for a few picks. Defensemen like Will Butcher, Charlie McAvoy, and Mikhail Sergachev are making splashes of their own.

Rookies are tough to figure in fantasy, what with uncertainty about even staying with the big team and no/little prior NHL numbers to use as a reference. Taking chances on them, only to see them explode, makes the successes so much sweeter, then.

***

So, those are some of the trends and stories that stood out to me in fantasy this year. No end-of-year list is complete without people groaning about choices, however, so share your omissions and opinions in the comments, on Twitter, or via email.

Previously:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Domi’s passing skills impress Habs’ Gallagher

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If you want to paint the grimmest picture for the Montreal Canadiens’ side of Friday’s trade with the Arizona Coyotes, consider goal stats for Max Domi and Alex Galchenyuk.

It’s been noted that Galchenyuk scored almost as many goals in one season (30 in 82 games during the 2015-16 campaign) as Max Domi has during his entire NHL career (36 in 222 games). Brutal, right?

Yes, but it probably oversells the gap between the two as overall players, even if Galchenyuk has undoubtedly enjoyed the superior career.

For one thing, Domi’s enjoyed his moments. He scored 18 goals during his impressive rookie season, the only year he’s enjoyed a respectable shooting percentage (11.5 percent).

As you zoom out, the comparison gets less lopsided. Glance at overall points and things get closer. Domi’s generated 135 points over his 222-game career, good for an average of .60 points per contest. Galchenyuk, meanwhile, comes in at .61 (255 points in 418 games). So, if those averages stood during an 82-game season, Galchenyuk would score 50 points while Domi would generate … a fraction less than 50 points.

Now, you can counter those observations by fairly noting that goals come at higher premium than assists. Again, it’s clear that so far, Galchenyuk’s been more dynamic.

But that’s not the point. Instead, one should realize that Domi is a superior threat as a passer, not a shooter. (Galchenyuk, meanwhile, can be a deadly sniper.)

Domi’s teammates seem to notice that distinction, especially Brendan Gallagher, who won gold with him at the 2016 World Championship.

“He plays extremely hard, he competes hard, but he’s a pass-first kind of guy. It was shocking at times, the way he sees the game,” Gallagher said to Dan Braverman of the Canadiens website. “If you’re out on the ice with him, you have to be ready to shoot the puck, because he’s looking to feed his linemates, which is always nice to play with.”

In a fascinating breakdown for Sportsnet, Andrew Berkshire points out that playmaking has been an issue for the Canadiens for quite some time, even with the addition of a creator like Jonathan Drouin. Berkshire wonders if Domi (who Berkshire deems a “borderline elite playmaker”) could make a big difference in that regard.

Domi spent a huge chunk of last season playing on a line with Christian Dvorak, and he shot 9.9 per cent after scoring on 17 per cent of his shots last season, so his presence doesn’t guarantee anything, but the playmaking ability Domi displays is absolutely something the Canadiens are trying to address here, and I think they’re banking on adding that playmaking ability to a group of shooting forwards making a bigger impact on team goals than Galchenyuk’s style of play would.

Again, this isn’t to say that Domi is more valuable than Galchenyuk. (Berkshire ultimately describes Galchenyuk as “the better, more talented, more dynamic player,” for example.)

Instead, it’s merely important to recognize that this might not be as egregious as the Shea WeberP.K. Subban trade.

Interestingly, it’s easy to imagine both Galchenyuk and Domi enjoying improved results in 2018-19, at least if healthy. Domi might not be much of a goal threat, but it’s tough to imagine him suffering through another six shooting percentage. Galchenyuk fell off his typical goal pace thanks in part to an 8.9 shooting percentage in 2017-18 (versus 16.3 percent in 2016-17 and 12.4 for his career).

There’s also the matter of Domi’s cap hit ($3.15 million) coming in cheaper than that of Alex Galchenyuk ($4.9M), but you can dive deeper into those aspects here.

Does this mean that the Canadiens won the trade? Right now, the answer seems to be “No.”

The point is that this might not be remembered as the sort of head-shaking disaster that the Subban – Weber trade ended up being and the Mikhail Sergachev – Jonathan Drouin swap looks like after the first year.

That said, it’s still worth giving Marc Bergevin a hard time about, because “maybe not as bad as it looks” isn’t the ideal peak for a GM’s recent trades.

More on the Domi – Galchenyuk trade

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Blues GM confirms Kovalchuk interest, makes Jagr comparison

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PHT’s Adam Gretz placed the St. Louis Blues fifth in his power rankings for potential Ilya Kovalchuk destinations earlier week, citing the team’s need for a boost on offense (while highlighting the tantalizing potential of Kovalchuk with Vladimir Tarasenko).

It sounds like Blues GM Doug Armstrong is throwing his team’s name in the hat, if nothing else. He confirmed the Blues’ interest in Kovalchuk, according to Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“Always looking to improve our team,” Armstrong said. “We’re like all teams. He’s 35 years old, there’s risk involved with players of that age. But he could be Jaromir Jagr. He could start slowing down at 41. Or he could come back and hit the wall. You never know.”

Armstrong also mentioned that, unlike teams such as the Sharks and Kings, the Blues didn’t arrange a face-to-face meeting with Kovalchuk. It’s unclear if that fact indicates a lower level of interest from St. Louis and/or Kovalchuk.

The age comments are more than just pointing out the obvious, by the way.

Kovalchuk would count as a 35+ contract, and with his most recent ask being a manageable cap hit yet a deal that would ask for some term at three years, a team would need to be confident that signing him would be worth it in the future. Not just now.

Taking a look at the Blues’ Cap Friendly page, such a risk would be reasonable for St. Louis, yet they would need to mull over the ramifications.

Three especially noteworthy players currently have three years remaining on their contracts: Jaden Schwartz, Jake Allen, and Alexander Steen. It might surprise some to realize that Steen is already 34, but Schwartz and Allen are young enough that the Blues must acknowledge that raises could be coming.

(Personally, that seems most pressing for Schwartz, as Allen has his critics as an up-and-down No. 1 goalie.)

A couple other looming raises could make Kovalchuk’s hypothetical three-year deal a bigger burden, as such a deal would run concurrently with raises in 2020-21. Both Alex Pietrangelo ($6.5 million cap hit) and Brayden Schenn ($5.125M) stand to make a lot more money once their bargain deals expire after 2019-20.

Overall, the Blues are in a fantastic situation to make it all work.

They only have about $62M committed to 18 players heading into next season, and the only plus of Robby Fabbri‘s terrible injury luck for St. Louis is that the RFA is likely to sign a team-friendly contract. (Assuming that Fabbri gets a clean bill of health.)

The Blues stand as a dark horse candidate for John Tavares for the same sort of reasons that Kovalchuk would make sense. While last season’s failure to make the playoffs was a disappointment, they’ve generally been competitive. A big-time addition could really accelerate that improvement, and this team has money to burn (for now). St. Louis also boasts some prominent players in the thick of their primes.

And, sure, Tarasenko’s presence cannot hurt.

St. Louis isn’t exactly like the Ducks, a team that hasn’t drafted a Russian player since 2009. While Tarasenko is the most prominent countryman on the Blues roster, St. Louis also employs Ivan Barbashev, Dmitrij Jaskin, and Nikita Soshnikov. (Czech forward Vladimir Sobotka also isn’t far removed from a three-year sojourn in the KHL, for whatever that’s worth.)

Long story short, the Blues have plenty of reasons to legitimately pursue Kovalchuk, and there’s some reason to believe that St. Louis would be a good fit for him.

That said, they’ll need to get in line … and they may not be in the front of that queue when free agency begins in July.

MORE ON THE KOVALCHUK SWEEPSTAKES

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Flames probably won’t land first-rounder (or helicopter?) in 2018 NHL Draft

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When the Calgary Flames sent a rich package of future assets to the New York Islanders for Travis Hamonic, it seemed like a reasonable risk. Especially for a team with lofty aspirations.

Sometimes a failed trade is obvious immediately; other times, hindsight provides clarity. In retrospect, GM Brad Treliving and the Flames suffered a big loss there. Calgary missed the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and Hamonic wasn’t the steadying force on defense the Flames were hoping for.

Missing the postseason was already painful for the Flames, but next weekend’s draft weekend figures to rub salt in those wounds.

Thanks to Treliving’s (not unreasonable) decision to push some of his chips to the middle of the table, the Flames don’t have a pick in the first, second, or third rounds as of this writing. (Mike Smith worked out better for Calgary, but he also cost them their third-rounder.)

After the dust settled and people lost jobs, the Flames’ first two picks are currently slated for the fourth round: choices 105 and 108.

At least Treliving provided a great line about the Flames’ low odds of trading into the first round, via NHL.com’s Tim Campbell.

“Would we like to get into the first round? Yeah,” Treliving said on Friday. “I’d like a helicopter too.”

“There’s a price. We’re not going to do something just so we can call a name on Friday. It takes a fairly good price to get in there. Are we trying to manufacture some more picks? Sure. We’re looking it.”

One can only imagine the helicopter memes and Photoshops that might surface from this comment, at least if we’re lucky. Really, the bigger question is: do you go with references to Arnold in “Predator” or do you go a little more arthouse with “Apocalypse Now?” Flames fans and front office members will have time to consider these things while other teams ponder which prospects they should nab.

All kidding aside, Flames fans should be pleased that Treliving isn’t trying to sell the farm (or chopper) just to save face during the draft.

A lesser GM might compound the mistake by losing another trade to get a better pick or two. Instead, the Flames seem more likely to live to fight another day.

Maybe July 1, or early July, could stand as that day?

Via Cap Friendly, the Flames currently allocate $62.51 million in cap space to 15 players. Depending upon the height of ceiling, Calgary could carry approximately $18-$20M. While they have quite a few RFAs, none are really of the major variety. So Treliving set himself up with room to maneuver if he likes what he sees on the open market.

Granted, the Flames do need to be careful, as Matthew Tkachuk‘s rookie deal will expire after 2018-19, and the same is true for aging veteran Mike Smith’s $4.25M cap hit.

All things considered, the Flames are probably justified in swinging for the fences again, even if last season’s failure might inspire some trigger-shyness.

Yes, some key players such as Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Tkachuk, and Dougie Hamilton are all in their prime years (or Tkachuk is set to enter his), but there are also substantial players whose windows could close soon. Norris-caliber defenseman Mark Giordano is 34. Smith is 36.

There’s a lot to like with that roster, to the point that it remains surprising that they endured such a tepid 2017-18 season.

Surrounding that promising core with a better supporting cast is the key, and this summer can be huge in that regard. It’s just clear that the Flames aren’t likely to make those important additions via picks in the 2018 NHL Draft.

Now, a bold trade involving NHL-ready players during draft weekend? Pulling that off seems like a distinct possibility.

(Hey, they’ll need something to do.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Galchenyuk trade just one reason Coyotes are excited

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Here’s a confession: last summer, I got a little too excited about the Arizona Coyotes’ progress.

It turns out that 2017-18 was a little too early to take the Coyotes seriously, but there are still reasons for optimism. The Alex GalchenyukMax Domi trade stands as the exclamation point at the end of a Coyotes fan’s sentence.

Sometimes teams improve by leaps and bounds. Other times, it’s more about baby steps.

After seeing Arizona stumble a bit this past season, it’s difficult to tell how far they’ve come. Either way, there are reasons to be increasingly positive about what GM John Chayka is doing, so let’s lay them out.

  • The Galchenyuk trade looks like a win.

Time will tell if it’s a big win (or even a win at all?). At the moment, it seems significant. Sure, one can discuss some of the ways that things might work out better than expected for Montreal, but much of that optimism hinges on better luck for Domi.

If you had to make a safe bet, you’d wager on Arizona’s side. Most GMs would take that.

  • Last summer’s trades quietly worked nicely.

There’s a solid chance that tuned-in hockey fans noted that Antti Raanta pulled off a solid first season as a starting goalie, at least after shaking off injury issues early on. He was rewarded with a three-year extension that carries a $4.25 million cap hit, a deal that finds a pretty nifty compromise between mitigating risks for the Coyotes with rewarding Raanta’s patience and hard work.

(Considering his fantastic .930 save percentage in 2017-18 and strong .922 career average, it could end up being a steal.)

The quieter development is that Derek Stepan played quite well, too.

Despite poor shooting luck (14 goals on 209 SOG for just a 6.7 shooting percentage), Stepan still scored his typical 56 points. That’s not a world-beating output, but it’s the type of production that the Coyotes more or less expected from the 27-year-old center.

Stepan can be part of the solution in Arizona.

  • A team that once looked weak down the middle seems formidable.

Landing Galchenyuk and Stepan eases the pressure on certain players. If the Coyotes believe that Dylan Strome would be a more comfortable fit on the wing, that isn’t quite as disappointing now.

  • They can add more talent this summer.

On one hand, it’s tough to gauge how much the Coyotes can really be a factor in free agency, considering their money challenges. Especially since they’re likely to pay up to extend Oliver Ekman-Larsson once they’re permitted by the CBA.

Still, there’s a chance they can add a small piece or two, and they also face interesting opportunities with the fifth pick of the 2018 NHL Draft.

They could add to their very modern-styled group of defensemen (OEL, Alex Goligoski, and Jason Demers all appeal to “fancy stats” types) by landing a prospect like Quinn Hughes. On the other hand, perhaps they’d add a forward who could make a near-future impact such as Brady Tkachuk?

Sure, it would have been great if they happened upon the top pick and were gifted Rasmus Dahlin, but they can still add a blue chip next weekend.

  • Their young players could improve.

It’s easy to forget that Dylan Strome is still just 21. Coyotes fans may always cringe at Mitch Marner‘s superior development (picked fourth after Strome went third overall in 2015), but that doesn’t mean that the ship has sailed on Strome as an NHL-caliber player.

The 2016 NHL Draft presents interesting questions as well.

“Beast” defenseman Jakob Chychrun‘s value is still unclear after his sophomore season was hindered by injury issues. Clayton Keller, meanwhile, looks like a fantastic find; the tantalizing question is: “How high is his ceiling?”

  • Enviable flexibility

In recent years, the Coyotes served as an Island of Misfit Contracts, absorbing dead cap space in Pavel Datsyuk’s and Chris Pronger’s deals in exchange for futures. They’ll see Dave Bolland‘s contract expire after 2018-19.

The nice thing for Chayka and the Coyotes is that they can continue in that potentially fruitful direction, but only if they choose to.

Simply put, this team isn’t anchored to too many problem contracts of their own doing. As of this writing, their longest contracts run for three seasons. OEL will change that, and few would really complain. The point is, the Coyotes enjoy the luxury of room to maneuver.

No doubt, the in-house budget stands as a concern, yet the Coyotes don’t need to fret about dollars going to waste.

***

No doubt about it, the Coyotes have plenty of work to do. The good news is that, so far, this group is getting the job done.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.