Penguins’ top line is doing all of the heavy lifting

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PITTSBURGH — Through four games the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals have provided most of what was expected from them in their second round series. It is an evenly matched series that looks like it might go the distance, there has been a lot of nastiness, there has been some controversy, and the two biggest superstars in the NHL  — Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin — have been taking turns delivering haymakers for their respective teams on the scoreboard.

In Game 3 on Tuesday it was Ovechkin helping to continue to carry the Capitals. In the Penguins’ 3-1 win in Game 4 on Thursday night, it was Crosby’s turn again as the duo of he and Jake Guentzel continued to dominate the postseason, scoring a pair of goals — both off the stick of Guentzel — to help the Penguins even the series at two games apiece.

With his two-goal effort on Thursday Guentzel is now up to 10 goals and is leading the league in playoff goal for the second year in a row. He scored a league-best 13 goals in 25 playoff games a year ago. Almost all of his damage this season has come alongside Crosby, and it is not a stretch to suggest that line has been helping to keep the Penguins afloat in these playoffs. They are quite literally the only line that is providing offense for them in this series.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Following Thursday’s win the Penguins have scored 10 goals in the series, while all of them have come with Crosby on the ice. He has had a hand in six of them, scoring two and assisting on four others. He did not factor into Evgeni Malkin‘s game-winning goal on Thursday, but he was on the ice as part of the Penguins’ power play.

There are a few ways to look at this.

This obviously is a big part of what makes Crosby the best player in the game (or at least 1A and 1B with Connor McDavid) and one of the best players of all-time. He can change a game and carry a team for an extended period of time. That is what he is trying to do right now for the Penguins.

“I just think he’s the best player in the game,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “He’s the best player in the game. He plays his best when the stakes are high. He plays at both end of the rink. We rely on him to defend as much as we rely on him to score goals and create offense, and he’s really good at both.

“So it doesn’t surprise me,” Sullivan continued. “He’s done it since I’ve been his coach, that has been my experience with him. I just have so much respect for the type of person he is, the type of player that he is, the care factor that he has for the team and winning, the way he always elevates his game for whatever our team needs. If we need a center to take a faceoff and defend a one-goal game when it’s a 6-on-5 situation, he’s the guy. If we need a goal and there’s a faceoff in the offensive zone, he’s the guy. That’s what separates him from every other player in the game. He is so multi-dimensional, there are so many layers to his game that no matter who he plays with he finds a way to have success and he does it night in and night out.”

With 19 points this postseason he already has as many points as he had in 24 postseason games in 2015-16 when he won the Conn Smythe Trophy, and is only seven points off of his total from a year ago (when he also won the Conn Smythe Trophy).

Crazy numbers.

[Related: Penguins, Capitals nastiness boils over again in Letang-Oshie fight]

Another crazy number: Of the 38 goals the Penguins have scored this postseason, Crosby has been on the ice for 28 of them. That is 74 percent!  If there is a concern from a Pittsburgh perspective it is the fact that percentage is probably a little too high and probably not a great recipe for sustained success. As great as Crosby and Guentzel have been together no one line can do that every single night for an entire postseason. Eventually they will have an off night. Eventually they get shut down for a game or two. Eventually the puck will not go in. The Penguins’ modus operandi the past two postseasons has been about depth and balanced scoring from all four lines. In 2015-16 Crosby was only on the ice for 41 percent of the Penguins’ playoff goals. A year ago it was 45 percent. They were getting production from everybody. This postseason, and especially in this series, they have not always been getting that.

Part of the Penguins’ depth problem this postseason has been the fact they simply have not been as healthy. Evgeni Malkin missed three games — including the first two games of this series — due to a lower body injury, and even though he scored on Thursday night still may not be 100 percent.

Carl Hagelin also missed three games after he was hit by Claude Giroux in Game 6 of the Philadelphia series.

Beyond those two, Phil Kessel has not looked himself (he could be fighting through an injury of his own) and has been a complete non-factor. That is a huge change from the past two postseasons when he was at times their biggest difference-maker.

Derick Brassard has not quite made the offensive impact the Penguins were hoping for when they acquired him at the deadline and have put seemingly demoted him to fourth-line duty. Conor Sheary has two goals in his past 36 playoff games.

On Thursday the Penguins attempted to shuffle their lines a bit by dropping Patric Hornqvist from the Crosby-Gentuzel down to the second line alongside Malkin and Hagelin. Sullivan explained that was an effort to get other lines going, while also bringing some two-way balance to the Malkin line.

“We’re trying to find ways to get more production from other than one line,” said Sullivan.

“[Hornqvist] brings a certain dimension to any line particular line we put him on. When you look at the stretch Geno went through, probably a two or two-and-a-half month stretch in the regular season where he was filling the net, for the most part he was playing with [Hagelin] and [Hornqvist].

“Those two guys I think they force Geno to play a more straight ahead game and challenge him to shoot the puck more. [Hornqvist] is a guy that goes to the net, he wants the puck on the net, he’s constantly on him to shoot the puck. So we think that his presence on that line helps Geno play the type of game that he needs to play in the playoffs to have success. Do we tinker with that line or leave it as it is and try to move other people around. That is the direction we went with tonight, it is not etched in stone, we’l look at the game, see what we liked and make decisions accordingly.”

[Related: Guentzel helps Penguins tie series with Capitals]

Leaning on the Crosby-Guentzel line to this point has them in the second-round, now facing what is essentially a best-of-three series against the Metropolitan Division champion Capitals. They have done that will getting very little production from a line that does not have Crosby on it.

On one hand, that is a pretty good position to be in, and if they can get one or two of those other lines going again it could help propel them on another deep playoff run. On the other hand, if they do not get going they are only going to go as far as Crosby and Guentzel can carry them.  Relying on one line to do it all offensively is an awfully big ask. Even if it is a line centered by a player as great as Sidney Crosby.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

NHL Power Rankings: Fast starts most likely to continue

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In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we are taking a look at 10 fast starts around the league and which ones are most likely to continue, and which ones are most likely not to continue.

How are we defining a fast start? It’s pretty simple, actually — teams that as of Monday have a .640 points percentage or better so far this season. A .640 points percentage over an 82-game season would be a 105-point pace, so it is obviously pretty high level of play.

There are 10 teams that qualify, and not all of them will continue that level of play throughout the season. Just for comparisons sake, there were nine teams off to the same start through same date a year ago and three of them ended up missing the playoffs. In 2017-18, four of the nine teams off to a similar start also ended up missing. So it stands to reason that a handful of these teams are going to significantly cool off.

This isn’t necessarily a ranking of which of these teams has played the best so far, but a ranking of which ones are most likely to continue playing well.

Who is for real and who is not? To the rankings!

Fast starts that will continue

1. Colorado Avalanche. Entering play on Monday they are 7-0-1 on the season and have the best record in the league, earning 15 out of a possible 16 points in the standings. The scary thing about them? They may not be playing their best hockey just yet. 

2. Carolina Hurricanes. Speaking of not playing their best hockey yet, the Hurricanes have won six out of their first nine games and have just three goals from the trio of Sebastian Aho, Nino Niederreiter, and Andrei Svechnikov. It is a testament to the depth they have assembled that three of their top players can be off to such a slow start and the team can still win the way it has.

3. Washington Capitals. They are the highest scoring team in the league, have been one of the top possession teams, and still haven’t received great goaltending from Braden Holtby. The latter part should scare the rest of the Metropolitan Division because even if Holtby doesn’t return to his former Vezina Trophy form he can still be better than he has been.

4. Vegas Golden Knights. The top of their lineup is full of impact players (especially Mark Stone, who has been incredible to start the year) but one of the big wild cards on this team is the emergence of rookie Cody Glass. He already has six points in his first nine games.

Fast starts, but with some questions

5. Boston Bruins. The biggest question here is the same one they have had for the past two years — will they get enough secondary scoring after their top line? Right now if one of David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, or Patrice Bergeron does not score a goal, no one is scoring. They managed to find enough secondary scoring to reach Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final a year ago, so it may not be a huge concern in the long-run, but this is still a very top-heavy team so far this season.

6. Pittsburgh Penguins. Interesting team so far in the sense they have probably overachieved given the injury situation that has taken half of their forward lineup away. They are playing the way coach Mike Sullivan wants them to play, and they have played extremely well, but we still haven’t seen the Penguins as they were meant to look this season. Still not entirely sold on the defense, and I question how much of this early success is entirely sustainable.

Fast starts, but with some real concerns 

7. Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks won five of their first seven games last year — thanks mostly to John Gibson — before completely falling apart. The one thing that should give a little more optimism this time around is Dallas Eakins seems to have them playing a more sustainable style of hockey — one that does not rely entirely on goaltending — and they have actually carried the play in some of their wins. The concern is I am just not sure there is enough offense here and their two goalies have a combined save percentage of .940. What happens when that drops a bit?

8. Arizona Coyotes. They barely missed the playoffs a year ago and have probably been better than you realize at the start of the season. The concerns here are the same as in Anaheim, where they are still very dependent on incredible goaltending and there is not a ton of offense to work with.

9. Buffalo Sabres. For the second year in a row the Sabres are one of the big stories in the NHL with a fast start, entering play on Monday with a 7-1-1 record. There is reason to believe they can avoid the total meltdown they experienced a year ago thanks to an improved roster (offseason additions of Colin Miller, Henri Jokiharju, Marcus Johansson, while Rasmus Dahlin has a full season in the NHL under his belt) and what seems to be a better coach. But there are also still some real concerns. Carter Hutton won’t keep stopping 95 percent of the shots he faces. Victor Olofsson won’t keep scoring on 30 percent of his shots. They still play in an extremely tough division. There is reason to expect some regression here as the season goes on.

10. Edmonton Oilers. It’s been amazing start, but James Neal is not going to keep scoring on 30 percent of his shots and once that stops this team has the same problem it has had for years in that there is not enough depth after Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. They have feasted on a light schedule so far (and those points still count) but this is a team that needs to prove it over a full season before anyone fully buys into it.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Home owned by Tyler Seguin heavily damaged by Dallas tornado

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DALLAS (AP) — Dallas Stars player Tyler Seguin says his home was heavily damaged by severe storms that swept through Dallas, but no one was hurt.

The National Weather Service says at least one tornado struck the north Dallas area on Sunday night, and other possible tornadoes were reported as well.

Heavy damage is reported throughout much of the Dallas area, and tens of thousands of people are without power.

The hockey player said on Twitter that he had moved to another home and that the property damaged late Sunday was listed for sale. He wrote: ‘‘I just left the area and it is an extremely sad sight to see.’’

Tens of thousands of homes and businesses were without power, including the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport in Highfill, about 155 miles (250 kilometers) northwest of Little Rock. The airport says flights were still departing, though security screenings were being done manually.

Dallas Fire-Rescue says there have been no reports of fatalities or serious injuries in the aftermath of the tornado, but three people were hospitalized for evaluation of non-life-threatening injuries.

PHT Face-Off: Carlson racking up points; Tight finishes

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The first few weeks of the NHL regular season have been pretty exciting. Not every game has been tight, but it appears as though the schedule has been filled with one-goal games and teams trailing by a goal or two seem to be able to come back more than ever before. This is what the NHL wanted. It’s all about parity and excitement.

Here are the PHT Face-off storylines for this week:

• Tight finishes:

As we mentioned above, a lot of games seem to be coming down to the wire. This is clearly the dream scenario for the NHL. According to NHL Public Relations, 53.1 percent of games have been decided by one goal or a two-goal margin following an empty-netter from the team with the lead. If you look at the boxscore from each of Sunday’s five contests, you’ll notice that all of them fell into that category.

The fact that the losing team isn’t really out of the game until the end more than half the time is pretty impressive. We may not all be fans of the salary cap because it dismantles talented teams, but the parity level in the NHL is at an all-time high as we speak.

John Carlson is racking up points: 

If you check the list of scoring leaders in the NHL, you may be a little surprise to find a defenseman at the top of the list. The Capitals blue liner is currently ahead of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, David Pastrnak, Mark Stone and everybody else in the league when it comes to points scored.

Heading into this week, the 29-year-old has picked up three goals and 18 points in just 10 games. He’s registered at least one point in nine of his team’s 10 contests. The only team that has managed to keep him off the board is the Carolina Hurricanes.

It’s no coincidence that the Capitals have won three games in a row. Their success isn’t just because of Carlson, but he’s certainly a bit part of it.

“I’m just getting lucky,” Carlson said when asked how he’s leading the league in points and assists. “Guys are making some good plays to me. The guys I’m passing to are scoring right now. Especially as a D, it’s pretty streaky. You take it when you can. A lot of guys making a lot of plays out there.”

J.T. Miller trade paying off for Canucks

Eyebrows were raised when the Canucks traded a future first-round draft pick to the Lightning for forward J.T. Miller. After all, Miller was coming off a 47-point season, which is good, but that first-rounder had the potential to be a lottery pick down the road. To be clear, if the Canucks 2020 pick falls into the lottery, they will send their 2021 pick to Tampa, but that’s still a risky proposition for a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs in a while.

How has Miller fit in? Well, he’s been doing just fine on the Canucks’ top line with Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.

Through eight games, the 26-year-old has racked up four goals and four assists. He leads the team in goals and is tied with Pettersson for first in points.

“Our games are different, but I’ve played with some elite players before,” said Miller, per CBC.ca. “There are some things that I try to instill on them and help them out.

“I can retrieve pucks for them. I think I have enough skill to make plays at their level. They are two really elite players. I just try to get the puck to them when they are open and get to the net.”

So far so good.

Sidney Crosby is still good at hockey

After being swept by the New York Islanders in last year’s playoffs, many wondered whether or not the Pittsburgh Penguins would still be able to compete in the Metropolitan Division. To make matters worse, they’ve been hit by the injury bug pretty badly since the start of the year, as Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk and Nick Bjugstad have all been out.

But somehow, some way, Sidney Crosby has found a way to keep the Penguins afloat. Sure, he’s had plenty of help, but the captain has also racked up four goals and 12 points in nine games, which puts him tied for fifth in NHL scoring.

Included in those four goals is this beauty which happened during last week’s nationally televised game against the Colorado Avalanche:

That’s just not fair.

It’s still WAY too early to be talking about Hart Trophy candidates, but if there was an MVP award for the first month of the season, Crosby would definitely be in the mix.

• Are the Bolts dull?

Speaking of the Penguins, they’ll be on NBCSN again this week, as they’ll take on the Lightning on Wednesday night (8 p.m. ET).

Many (including myself) expected the Bolts to finish at the top of the Atlantic Division standings this season, and even though that still might happen, they haven’t looked like themselves just yet.

According to Sean Tierney’s awesome shot rate charts, the Lightning are right on the border of bad and dull. Who would’ve thought?

Nobody’s pushing the panic button. It’s still very early and they’re still an incredibly talented team, but it looks like they’re going to go through more adversity than they did last year. In the end, that might not be such a bad thing.

Tampa Bay currently owns a 4-3-1 record. After losing to Ottawa two weeks ago, they managed to beat Montreal and Boston before dropping a 6-2 home decision the Avs.

“Sometimes it turns into a game of mistakes, and the team that makes the most usually pays the price,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after the blowout loss to Colorado, per NHL.com. “I can’t sit here and say we made the most mistakes, but the ones we did make, it seemed like they put in the back of the net.”

What’s coming up this week?
• Bruins look to avenge Saturday’s loss to the Maple Leafs, Tue. Oct. 22, 7 p.m. ET.

Alex Ovechkin vs. Connor McDavid, Thu. Oct. 24, 9 p.m. ET.

Patrick Marleau and the San Jose Sharks return to Toronto, Fri. Oct. 25, 7 p.m. ET

WEDNESDAY NIGHT HOCKEY ON NBCSN
Penguins vs. Lightning, Wed. Oct. 23, 8 p.m. ET

NHL on NBCSN
Stanley Cup rematch alert: Blues vs. Bruins, Sat. Oct. 26, 7 p.m. ET.
Heritage Classic: Jets vs. Flames, Sat. Oct. 26, 10 p.m. ET.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

NHL Fantasy Hockey: Henrique, Nelson highlight this week’s top adds

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Welcome to our weekly Adds/Drops column, where I focus on highlighting players you should consider grabbing or be concerned about in fantasy leagues. As always, the goal here isn’t to recommend 10 players you must add and five players that need to be dropped. Context is everything and the context of each league is different. What this is instead is a guideline so that if you’re looking to make a change, you have potential players to target and if you see players I’ve suggested to drop, you can evaluate your potential alternates.

Players Worth Adding

Neal Pionk, Jets – D: The shift from the New York Rangers in 2018-19 to the Jets this season has been to Pionk’s benefit so far. In terms of average ice time, he’s only jumped from 21:10 minutes to 22:58 minutes, but most of that increase has come from gaining additional power-play time. He’s gotten off to a strong start in 2019-20 with two goals and six points in 10 games and should continue to put up solid numbers this season.

Jakob Silfverberg, Ducks – RW: Silfverberg couldn’t have asked for a better start with five goals and eight points in nine games. At the least he’s a nice gamble in the short-term, but he might be worth hanging on throughout the season. Silfverberg has never gotten more than 49 points in a single season, but new Ducks coach Dallas Eakins seems comfortable with giving him a sizeable role. As a result he’s averaging 18:13 minutes, up from 17:06 minutes in 2018-19, which is more than any other Anaheim forward.

Brock Nelson, Islanders – C/LW: Nelson has been in kind of an odd pattern in the early portion of the campaign. He’s scored in exactly every other game and for the last six games he’s alternated between recording 0 and 2 points. The end result is that he has four goals and seven points through eight contests this season. He saw his ice time jump to 17:58 minutes in 2018-19 and set a new career-high with 53 points as a result. This season his playing time has inched up further to 18:20 minutes and he might be able to flirt with new career-highs. One key benefit to him is his left wing eligibility despite his primary role being up the middle.

Marcus Pettersson, Penguins – D: Pettersson is might just be more of a short-term pickup to gamble on while he’s hot. He has registered four assists over his last four games. That being said, he is averaging 18:34 minutes this season, including 1:33 minutes per game with the man advantage, so there is a chance that this will end up being a breakout campaign for him. Even if you decide not to grab him at this time, he’s worth checking back in on later to see how the 23-year-old has been developing with the Penguins.

Andre Burakovsky, Avalanche – LW/RW: Burakovsky is something of a roll of the dice at this stage. Burakovsky never recorded more than 38 points in a single season with Colorado, but he already has four goals and eight points in eight games with Colorado. Perhaps this is a case of the change of scenery agreeing with him, but he’s also just averaging 13:49 minutes. Unless his role with the Avalanche expands, it’s hard to see him being a significant offensive contributor in the long run. Still, given how well he’s already done and the potential that the 24-year-old is taking a step up this season, it’s worth taking a chance on him.

Adam Henrique, Ducks – C: This is mostly a case of riding the hot hand. Henrique has four goals and five points in his last four games, so he’s worthy of some short-term consideration. In the long run, he has fringe value in standard leagues. The limiting factor with him is his center-only eligibility given the glut of options up the middle.

Paul Stastny, Golden Knights – C: At this point, Max Pacioretty is owned in 84% of Yahoo leagues while Mark Stone is claimed in 97%, but Stastny is owned in just 38%. Stastny is skating on a line with that duo this season and has done his part. Stastny has four goals and seven points in nine games. If he continues to skate with Stone and Pacioretty, he should have a very good year.

[For more fantasy sports analysis, check out Rotoworld]

Marcus Johansson, Sabres – C/LW: Johansson is coming off two rough campaigns, but 2019-20 is shaping up to be different. After signing a two-year, $9 million contract with the Buffalo Sabres over the summer, he’s scored four goals and seven points in nine games. Johansson has typically been put on the ice with Jeff Skinner, who had 40 goals in his first season with Buffalo and has added another five goals in nine contests in 2019-20. All three of Johansson’s assists so far have been on Skinner goals.

Ian Cole, Avalanche – D: Cole missed the start of the season with a hip injury, but he made his return on Oct. 14th and has made up for lost time with four assists in his last three games. He’s not a particularly exciting defenseman from an offensive perspective, but you could gamble on him while he’s hot. It’s worth adding that he’s also one of the better sources of blocked shots out there, so if your league cares about that category then that’s a great secondary reason to consider grabbing him while he’s hot.

Mikko Koskinen, Oilers – G: Koskinen’s first season with the Edmonton Oilers left plenty to be desired, but he’s been a big part of their early season success. He’s 4-0-0 with a 2.21 GAA and .934 save percentage in four starts. He was a top-tier goaltender in the KHL and now that he’s had a full season to adjust to North America, he might prove to be a solid goaltender in 2019-20.

Players You May Want To Drop

Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers – G: Lundqvist has been on the decline for several seasons now and that descent will likely continue at the age of 37. Through four starts, he’s 1-3-0 with a 3.57 GAA and .906 save percentage. It doesn’t help that while the Rangers did get some very encouraging additions over the summer, they are still not quite a full force contender.

Boone Jenner, Blue Jackets – C/LW: Jenner didn’t exactly wow people last season with his 16 goals and 38 points in 77 games, but the 2019-20 campaign might prove to be worse. Despite the Blue Jackets losing some key forwards over the summer, his ice time has tanked from an average of 17:04 minutes in 2018-19 to 14:27 minutes this season. That’s his lowest minutes per game since 2013-14 when he was a rookie. He has just a goal and no assists through eight games.

Sammy Blais, Blues – LW/RW: Blais enjoyed a strong start to the season with three goals and five points in five games, but he hasn’t recorded a point in three contests. If you picked him up during that hot streak, you should re-evaluate his role now. He’s averaging a modest 14:03 minutes per game, so it’s hard to see him being a major offensive force this season. On the plus side, he is an excellent source of hits, so if you need help in that category, then maybe it’s worth your while to keep him even if he’s not contributing much in other areas.

Nino Niederreiter, Hurricanes – LW/RW: After Carolina acquired Niederreiter from Minnesota during the 2018-19 campaign, he went on a terrific run of 14 goals and 30 points in 36 games. However, a big part of that run was due to his increased role with the Hurricanes. He had averaged 14:37 minutes with Minnesota prior to the trade and 18:17 minutes for the rest of the season. In his first full campaign with the Hurricanes, Niederreiter has fallen back to a level of responsibility he’s more accustomed to. He’s averaging 15:39 minutes and has recorded no goals and three assists in nine games. With his playing time down, he’s also taking fewer shots, from 2.86 shots per game in 2018-19 with Carolina to 2.22 this season. His complete lack of goals can still be partially attributed to bad luck, but unless his role increases, he’s not going to return to the levels of production we saw during his post-trade time with Carolina last season.

Cory Schneider, Devils – G: Schneider has had some highs and some extreme lows over the last few years, but on the whole he’s certainly left plenty to be desired. That trend has continued this season. He has a 0-3-0 record, 4.08 GAA, and .876 save percentage in four games. To make things worse, at least for Schneider owners, Mackenzie Blackwood has rebounded from his own rough start to the campaign. It’s entirely possible that Blackwood will end up getting more starts than Schneider this season. There’s just not a lot to like about Schneider’s outlook right now. 

If you’re looking for fantasy hockey information, Rotoworld is a great resource. You can check the player news for the latest information on any player and insight into their fantasy outlook.

Every week Michael Finewax looks ahead at the schedule and offers team-by-team notes in The Week Ahead. I have a weekly Fantasy Nuggets column where I basically talk about whatever’s captured my attention that week. Gus Katsaros does an Analytics columns if you want to get into detailed statistical analysis. If you’re interested in rookies and prospects, there’s a weekly column on that written by McKeen’s Hockey.

For everything fantasy hockey, check out Rotoworld’s Player News, and follow @Rotoworld_ HK and @RyanDadoun on Twitter.