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.

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

“They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

“I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

“We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

MORE POWER

The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

“It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

“Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

UP FRONT

With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

ON THE SLATE

This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.