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New Year in fantasy hockey: East edition

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This column is a beefy fellow, so let’s keep the intro brief.

Last week, we pondered various tidbits and storylines for the Western Conference with 2018 brand new. The year might already have lost its new-car smell, but let’s finish this off with the East anyway.

[The West edition.]

Boston Bruins: Remember when people were worried about Tuukka Rask?

Before you scoff too much, note that it wasn’t that crazy. Between October and November, Rask really struggled. He was absolutely ridiculous in December: 9-0-1 with a .955 save percentage and two shutouts in 11 games. His start to 2018’s been dicey, but it’s only been two games. It’s easy to forget just how dominant up to this point; Rask carries a wonderful .923 career save percentage.

I’ll be curious to see if Rask continues to play at a near-Vezina-level this season. If so, I wonder how many people exploited the panic boiling within others to profit in a fantasy trade.

Buffalo Sabres: Two Sabres I’m especially interested down the stretch are: Robin Lehner and Kyle Okposo. Both are building some steam lately.

With Lehner, he’s a poor man’s Rask, as his December stats dwarf his other months, but he’s not quite getting the wins at the same rate as Rask.

The more inspiring story is Okposo, who really shouldn’t be dinged too much for a slow start. He suffered exactly that, only generating two points in 10 October games. Since then, Okposo has 22 points in his last 32 games, with seven coming in six 2018 contests. You don’t often see extenuating circumstances like Okposo’s, yet he’s a beacon in favor of keeping an eye on streaks, not just full-season stats.

Carolina Hurricanes: The Hurricanes are getting it together, and Sebastian Aho (not the Islanders version) continues his ascent among the ranks. He had a strong rookie season with 24 goals and 49 points, and he already has 15 goals and 35 points in just 43 games in 2017-18.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Don’t be alarmed by the Blue Jackets’ mild stumbles, as I’d wager being without Alexander Wennberg and Brandon Dubinsky really gummed up the works (keen on you, Pierre-Luc Dubois, but you’re not a top center just yet). Wennberg played his first game since Dec. 21 last night, while Dubinsky could return soon with a tinted visor, which will hopefully look like the one Ricky Williams used to wear.*

* – It won’t.

Detroit Red Wings: Unless they’re even more out of touch with the reality of their situation than they already seem, the Red Wings will eventually trade All-Star (in 2018!) Mike Green at some point.

I question if such a move would benefit Green owners.

While he’d conceivably get to play with better scorers, the upgrade might not be that steep, and his role could be quite different. Green leads Red Wings skaters in ice time by a bit more than two minutes per night at 22:39, with 2:26 coming on the power play. He’d likely be used as specialist on another team, which might actually bump that power-play time, but could easily be used minimally otherwise. The best-case scenario would be a Kevin Shattenkirk in Washington situation (good fantasy numbers, dicey reality situation), but Green isn’t quite at that level any longer.

Florida Panthers: A lot of times I like to target high-usage, young defensemen with offensive upside with my later D picks in drafts. Sometimes that means getting John Klingberg (a guy I seemingly reached for consistently) and sometimes that means settling for Aaron Ekblad.

Ekblad’s averaging just under 24 minutes per night, yet he only has 13 points in 42 games. I did a little NHL.com search to see defensemen who’ve played at least 20 games and averaged at least 20+ minutes per night, and I must say, Ekblad doesn’t exactly wow you scoring-efficiency wise. The seven goals ease some of the disappointment.

Montreal Canadiens: Alex Galchenyuk‘s been one of Montreal’s leading scorers even without the ice time you’d usually need to do so. Is Claude Julien finally letting him free? He’s been averaging more than 18 minutes of ice time per night in 2018, which is a tiny sample size, but … hey, we can dream.

New Jersey Devils: Sami Vatanen‘s numbers are pretty comparable in NJ vs. with Anaheim (though close to an extra minute of ice time per game is nice), but he’s shooting a bit more often, which is basically always welcome in fantasy hockey.

(Unless you’re in some horrific league with shooting percentage as a stat. Gross.)

New York Islanders: Goaltending continues to be a problem, which has to sting extra for their GM Garth Snow, a former backup. Bad side even if you don’t own Jaroslav Halak or Thomas Greiss: higher chances of racking up minuses. Bright side: little reason for scorers to ever relent.

New York Rangers: If you want to anger a Rangers fan, you probably only need to utter the name “Pavel Buchnevich.” To be fair, his fantasy owners likely nod their heads when those same fans gripe about Alain Vigneault.

Ottawa Senators: Matt Duchene might be getting it together. The speedy forward has six points in his last four games, split evenly with three goals and three assists.

That represents half of his production with the Senators (12 points in 28 games).

Philadelphia Flyers: With five points in his last three games, Ivan Provorov is on fire, pushing himself to a solid 20 points already in 2017-18. Provorov managed 30 in 2016-17; while he may never be as explosive as Shayne Gostisbehere, his all-around game might make him a guy who gets enough ice time to make it close in the future.

Provorov is somehow still just 20. The young talent in the NHL is just bonkers right now.

Pittsburgh Penguins: All of Daniel Sprong’s three points came in one game: a two-goal, one-assist contest against the Islanders on Jan. 5. His ice time has been a little sporadic, too.

The lure of him being the next Jake Guentzel is honestly quite understandable, though you would be wise to pay attention if you have them. There might be cases where you’d want to add and drop him more than once as the season goes along, if you’re the tinkering type.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Let’s hope Victor Hedman is OK. If not, Anton Stralman, Mikhail Sergachev, Jake Dotchin, and Braydon Coburn may all shoulder heavier burdens. The biggest loser would be Andrei Vasilevskiy, who’s been off the charts for most of this season.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Mitch Marner left Mike Babcock’s doghouse in a big way, generating 13 points in as many games in December. Or, if he’s still in the doghouse, it’s a really nice one with air conditioning and cable TV.

Washington Capitals: During the last two seasons, John Carlson finished with 37 and 39 points, with injuries limiting his production to varying degrees. He’s generally been in that high-30 range during his prime years, aside from a red-hot 2014-15 when he scored 12 goals and 55 points.

Carlson’s really nailing his contract year so far, collecting five goals and 29 assists for 34 points. It’s not really a matter of insane luck, and might be as much to do with Washington needing more from him thanks to free agent departures than any sort of “greed is good” fun.

Either way, he’s on track to set plenty of career-highs if he can stay reasonably healthy.

Contract years are the best … for fantasy, at least.

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.

Day 1 of NHL training camps: Uncertainty about Blackhawks’ Crawford, and more

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Monday, July 13 represented a big day in the NHL return-to-play plan, as formal training camps began — naturally there was plenty of news.

To little surprise, such training camp news also brought uncertainty. This post won’t hit on all 24 NHL teams involved in the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers, but let’s take a look at some of the rumblings from around the league:

Blackhawks’ Crawford, other absences lead to speculation

At the moment, the NHL elects not to name players or teams while announcing positive COVID-19 tests.

The bright side of that is that players gain at least a modicum of privacy. The downside is that fans and others are left to speculate about the nature of absences. To some extent, this follows the NHL’s clear-as-mud transparency when it comes to injury updates already, only turned up to 11.

Rank Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford as one of the players people are speculating about during this first day of NHL training camps. If you’re looking for more from the Blackhawks on Crawford, you were largely out of luck.

“For now, he’s just unfit to play,” Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton said. “I think the NHL has been pretty clear that’s going to be the policy going forward as far as how we’ll announce all injuries. So, that’s all I have for you.”

Blackhawks fans are probably used to uncertainty regarding Crawford, being that his career was threatened by concussion issues. Such issues, and Chicago’s mediocre overall play, might have pushed Crawford’s strong work under the radar. During the last three months of the truncated season, Crawford’s save percentage didn’t sink below a splendid .927. For a team as porous defensively as the Blackhawks, they must hope that Crawford will eventually be fit to play — particularly after trading Robin Lehner.

It would be a sad way for Crawford to end his Blackhawks career, too, as he’s a pending UFA.

Now, other goalies sat out day one of NHL training camps, too. Marc-Andre Fleury joined Crawford with that distinction. But while the Blackhawks shared few Crawford details, the Golden Knights deemed MAF’s absence a maintenance day.

Though not a comprehensive list, here are a few other notable absences from day one of NHL training camps:

Noteworthy names attending NHL training camps on day one

Going over every single player who participated would be a fool’s errand. Consider a few names that stood out, though.

Assorted bits, including Gritty

Now, for some quick random bits.

Matt Niskanen said it right:

“The world is pretty bonkers right now,” Niskanen said, via Sam Carchidi of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Nothing is normal … But as hockey players, we just want that (Cup) chance.”

Actually, (Niskanen’s … Flyers’ colleague?) Gritty also got it right:

The first one to the rink? Well, the name Gritty makes sense then, I guess.

If you’re looking for the best gesture of them all, it’s probably the Oilers’ tribute to Colby Cave.

Although, the Maple Leafs also made quite a statement by wearing “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts as a group:

If news and other bits from day one of NHL training camps are any indication, there will be a lot of stories to sort through. At least some of them will involve Gritty, too, so that’s nice.

More on NHL return to play, CBA extension, COVID-19:

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.

NHL: 43 players tested positive for COVID-19 since Phase 2 (June 8)

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The NHL announced that 43 players tested positive for COVID-19 during Phase 2, which began on June 8. Phase 3 (formal training camps) began on Monday (July 13).

The NHL explained how those positive COVID-19 test results broke down since June 3.

  • 30 NHL players participating in Phase 2 (limited skating at team facilities with small groups of teammates) tested positive for COVID-19. The league noted that more than 600 NHL players participated in Phase 2 activities.
  • The NHL noted that they’re aware of 13 positive COVID-19 cases among players who stayed outside of Phase 2 protocol. (It’s unclear if that number could climb if more players still need to be tested.)

In sharing this announcement, the NHL allowed a look into its daunting process. The league conducted almost 5,000 COVID-19 tests, with the 600-plus players involved. (That’s certainly thorough. On the other hand, one can only speculate about the vast quantity of COVID-19 tests required for the entire NHL playoff process. Some will argue that it’s simply not worth it.)

Check out the full NHL release about 43 players testing positive for COVID-19 here:

Travis Hamonic, Mike Green, and Roman Polak rank among the players who’ve opted out of an NHL return to play for various reasons. Other NHL players face a Monday 5 p.m. ET deadline to opt out. (Although there could be special circumstances, such as the Canadiens and Max Domi waiting to make a decision.)

More on positive COVID-19 results, and the process the NHL is undergoing

The NHL states that players who tested positive are following CDC and Health Canada protocols, such as self-isolating. It also noted that the league will not identify players or teams involving positive COVID-19 tests.

Of course, that won’t stop speculation, whether players or teams are named officially or not.

Earlier on Monday, word surfaced that the Penguins “voluntarily sidelined” nine players who may have had “secondary exposure” to a person who tested positive for COVID-19. As of this writing, players haven’t been named, leaving people to speculate.

Meanwhile, Auston Matthews confirmed that he contracted COVID-19, backing up a June report by the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons. Matthews noted that he was still able to train despite the positive COVID-19 test.

“Obviously wasn’t able to leave or anything,” Matthews said. “I think that’s really the only thing that kind of took a hit for me. I was skating beforehand and having to take two and a half, three weeks off obviously kind of catches up to you.”

Most importantly, Matthews said he’s feeling good and healthy after self-isolating.

Either way, Matthews’ name surfacing caused controversy. It remains to be seen if reporters and others unearth other names as the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers approach, and you can bet people will try to guess if the league and its teams decide not to be particularly forthcoming.

Plenty of challenges ahead for the NHL

Read the full list of critical dates here, but consider these points of interest as the NHL aims to award the 2020 Stanley Cup amid the COVID-19 pandemic:

July 13: Training camps open (Phase 3) and 5 p.m. ET deadline for players to opt out.
July 26: Teams report to their hub city. Eastern Conference teams go to Toronto, while West teams head to Edmonton.
July 28-30: Exhibition games.
Aug 1: 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers begin (Phase 4).
Aug 11: First Round begins.
Aug 25: Second Round begins.
Sept. 8: Conference Finals begin.
Sept. 22: Stanley Cup Final begins.
Oct 4: Last possible date for Stanley Cup to be awarded.

The NHL set expectations for regular updates regarding positive COVID-19 tests. Can the league navigate all of those bumps in the road to October, mid-November training camps, and a 2020-21 season that may start as early as Dec. 1?

We’ll have to wait and see.

More on NHL return to play, CBA extension, COVID-19:

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.

Wild sign Kaprizov, Canadiens ink Romanov; Both can’t play in NHL until 2020-21

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The NHL opened a window for teams to sign certain prospects from Monday to Wednesday (at 5 p.m. ET), and some teams wasted little time in making signings official. The Wild finally signing Kirill Kaprizov ranks as the biggest headliner, while the  Canadiens also finalizing terms with defenseman Alexander Romanov is big, too. Those aren’t the only signings, though, and other news should trickle in early in the week.

It’s crucial to note that Kaprizov and Romanov won’t be able to appear in games for the Wild or Canadiens respectively in 2019-20. The same goes for other prospects signing in similar situations.

It does, however, appear that Kaprizov can participate in Wild training camp, and the Canadiens confirmed that Romanov will be doing the same.

Via the Habs, here is the process for Romanov:

  • Romanov is not eligible to participate in the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
  • He can, however, get acquainted with teammates. Not only can Romanov take part in training camp, but he’ll also be permitted to travel with the team to Toronto (the Eastern Conference hub city).
  • Of course, this assumes that all is clear. The Canadiens announced that Romanov will undergo a seven-day quarantine before he can participate in training camp.

Again, expect more news to trickle in between Monday and Wednesday (at 5 p.m. ET).

For instance, the Blues signed Alex Perunovich to a two-year contract as well on Monday.

Update: The Islanders signed goalie Ilya Sorokin. Interestingly, it’s really just a formality, as it would only cover 2019-20 (which he can’t compete in).

Some details on contracts for Kaprizov (Wild) and Romanov (Canadiens)

As a reminder, these signings burn the 2019-20 season off of these prospects’ contracts, even though they aren’t suiting up during actual 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers.

In the case of Perunovich and Kaprizov, two-year contracts are really one-year auditions before second, presumably much richer contracts. Romanov’s is a three-year deal, thus covering him through 2021-22 (instead of just 2020-21 for Kaprizov).

The Athletic’s Michael Russo went into quite a bit of detail on the structure of Kaprizov’s contract (sub required). CBA quirks limit Kaprizov’s ability to earn typical signing bonuses; ultimately, Kaprizov’s cap hit is expected to be $925K. Russo reports that Kaprizov would not be able to receive offer sheets during the 2021 NHL Free Agency summer, either.

For Kaprizov, the upside is clear. He can race through one season at a low rate, then cash in on his second contract. Even with less leverage than other potential RFAs, the 23-year-old could still rake it in if he lives up to the hype. Russo notes that Kaprizov is eligible to become a UFA as early as the summer of 2024, so while the Wild earn short-term gains, Kaprizov could set himself up for a lucrative stretch in the not-too-distant future.

(Maybe most importantly for the Wild, they lock down Kaprizov, rather than risking him staying in the KHL for 2020-21, and possibly even beyond that.)

The Canadiens spelled out the contract for Romanov, 20, in their release. His cap hit will be just under $900K through 2021-22, with an AAV of $1.17M. You can bet he won’t want to fall to the AHL, as his salary plummets to $70K at that level.

A quick look at what Kaprizov, Romanov may bring to their teams

Kaprizov signing with the Wild ranks as the biggest news. It might be a bigger deal that the team removing the “interim” tag for head coach Dean Evason.

The glowing reports on Kaprizov can flirt with hyperbole — or maybe he’s just that good. Scouts raved to The Hockey News’ Ryan Kennedy that Kaprizov has Artemi Panarin‘s “mind” and the sturdy body of a Vladimir Tarasenko.

Patrick Kane says this all the time: ‘Yes, the game is faster, but you still have to be able to slow it down,’” TSN’s Craig Button told Kennedy. “The only way you can slow it down is by having a fast brain. It sounds counterintuitive, but that’s what Kaprizov does. He’s got a magnificent, magnificent hockey mind.”

While Romanov produces more mixed reviews about his true potential — some see him as top pairing, others in more of a supporting role — teams like the Wild and Canadiens would love to have these prospects in the lineup now, not later. It made sense for the NHL to worry about a bumpy process regarding getting these players overseas (or north of the border), but with Kaprizov allowed to practice with the Wild and Romanov the same with the Canadiens, it seems a bit baffling that they can’t take that extra step. But oh well.

To reiterate, there are likely to be other signings, both on Monday and through Wednesday. Sorokin could very well have a big impact on the Islanders once he’s actually allowed to play, for example.

Even so, these are already big steps. The Wild and their fans have been waiting for this moment for years. Sure, it would be better if Kaprizov could jump right in — as he would during normal years — but it’s better than wondering if things would fall apart.

More on NHL return to play, CBA extension:

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.

Auston Matthews confirms he had COVID-19

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Auston Matthews confirmed Monday that he had previously tested positive for COVID-19 during the NHL pause, but now feels healthy. As the Maple Leafs opened training camp, the forward said that he was asymptomatic and felt good during his two weeks of quarantine.

“I think everybody’s experience will probably be different than my own as far as COVID goes, with [various] symptoms and stuff like that,” Matthews said on a Zoom call with reporters. “And sometimes it’s hard to kind of pinpoint a norm because it’s different for everybody.”

A Toronto Sun report in June said that Matthews contracted the virus, but his representatives and the team did not comment. The NHL announced Monday that 43 players had tested positive for COVID-19 during Phase 2 (beginning June 8) of the Return to Play plan.

Matthews, who spent most of the pause at home in Arizona, said he was still able to train at home without issue. The positive test forced him to delay returning to Canada and miss the Phase 2 voluntary workouts.

“Obviously wasn’t able to leave or anything,” he said. “I think that’s really the only thing that kind of took a hit for me. I was skating beforehand and having to take two and a half, three weeks off obviously kind of catches up to you.”

Having gone through the experience, Matthews got a first-hand look at how the league is trying to make the Return to Play as safe as possible for all involved.

“To be honest, I don’t know where I got it,” he said. “I think the NHL and everyone has tried their best with the information they have to make it as safe of an environment as possible.”

The Maple Leafs take on the Blue Jackets in their best-of-five Stanley Cup Qualifier beginning Aug. 2.

MORE:
Full schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers

Hockey is back: NHL, NHLPA ratify CBA, return to play agreement
Salary cap to stay flat at $81.5 million

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.