NHL Fantasy Hockey: Preseason standouts who could keep it up

2 Comments

Welcome to the second fantasy hockey preview column before we start doing proper Add/Drop columns next week. This week we’re going to focus on some of the standout performers in the preseason who could carry that success into the 2019-20 campaign.

Before we do that, it’s worth conceding that preseason statistics can’t be taken at face value. For a quick and easy example of that, we need look no further than Boston’s 8-2 victory over Chicago on Saturday. In that game Jake DeBrusk and David Pastrnak each had a hat trick and registered an assist, but Chicago put forth a team of largely AHLers against them. In net for Chicago was 25-year-old Matt Tomkins, who spent last season in the ECHL, and 24-year-old Kevin Lankinen, who split 2018-19 between the AHL and ECHL. Now we already know that DeBrusk and Pastrnak are talented players anyways, but can we really read anything into them excelling against that level of competition?

That doesn’t mean the preseason can’t help provide insight though when coupled with some context. With that in mind, let’s dig a little deeper into some interesting cases.

[Ready for the season? Get the Rotoworld Draft Guide]

Max Pacioretty, Vegas Golden Knights – Pacioretty has been one of the most dominating players of the 2019 preseason with four goals and 10 points in four games. He used to be one of the league’s most consistent scoring threats, but his last two seasons have left something to be desired, so the question now is if there is reason to believe 2019-20 might be a bit of a comeback campaign for him. The addition of Mark Stone at the trade deadline should help here because Vegas seems set to roll out a line of Stone, Pacioretty, and Paul Stastny (who was limited to 50 games last season due to injury). That combination has a ton of potential and puts Pacioretty in a position to succeed. That along with Pacioretty’s preseason success and the hope that he’s fully adjusted to Vegas now that he has a year there under his belt, gives plenty of cause for hope.

Brady Tkachuk, Ottawa Senators – Tkachuk had a solid rookie campaign with 22 goals and 45 points in 71 games and he should be able to take a step up this season. If nothing else, he’s going to get significantly more than the 16:01 minutes he averaged in 2018-19. After all, the Senators no longer have Stone, Matt Duchene, or Ryan Dzingel on the roster, so this is a team that pretty much needs to revolve around Tkachuk offensively. We saw a preview of that at the end of last season with him scoring eight goals and 13 points in his final 16 games while averaging 17:59 minutes. The preseason has offered further evidence of that. Tkachuk has scored three goals and six points in four exhibition contests while averaging 19:35 minutes.

Connor Brown, Ottawa Senators – Sticking with Ottawa for the moment, Brown is another player who is in a position to benefit from playing for the offensively depleted Senators. Brown had 20 goals as a rookie back in 2016-17, but his role with the Toronto Maple Leafs quickly declined as their offense got deeper. Brown had eight goals and 29 points in 82 games last season while averaging just 13:48 minutes. By contrast, he could end up playing regularly with Tkachuk on the Senators. Brown had two goals and four points in four games while averaging 20:58 minutes in the preseason.

Adam Gaudette, Vancouver Canucks – If you’re looking for players who made a big impression during training camp, Gaudette would have to be high on the list. His work in the preseason has even been singled out by NHL’s Twitter account on a few occasions.

In the end, he finished the preseason with four goals and six points in six games. At the time of writing Vancouver’s roster hadn’t been finalized so it is possible that the Canucks will send him down because he wouldn’t have to clear waivers, but given how well he’s done, it’s more likely that he will start the season on the third line. That would allow him to take a significant step up from his rookie campaign. He had just five goals and 12 points in 56 games last season, but was averaging a modest 10:57 minutes. He showed he has a lot of offensive potential when he scored 30 goals and 60 points in 38 games with Northeastern University in 2017-18 as well as his 11 points in 14 games stint in the AHL last season. With him seemingly climbing up the depth charts, he’ll be someone to keep an eye on.

[For more fantasy sports analysis, check out Rotoworld.]

Jordan Eberle, New York Islanders – Like Pacioretty, Eberle has usually been a consistent scorer, but he struggled last season with 19 goals and 37 points in 78 games. Part of that was Eberle needing time to adjust to coach Barry Trotz’s system and slowly earning the trust of his new bench boss. Once Eberle did that and developed chemistry with Mathew Barzal, he really started to shine. Eberle had five goals in his final seven regular season games and followed that up with four goals and nine points in eight playoff contests. He’s looking to build off that success and has gotten off on the right foot with four goals and seven points in five exhibition games.

Ethan Bear, Edmonton Oilers – Bear has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2019 preseason. The 22-year-old defenseman had two goals and five points in four exhibition games and he impressed Oilers coach Dave Tippett with the work he put in to get stronger over the summer.

“You like to see it,” Tippett said, per Sportsnet. “He put the work in. He’s changed a lot of his diet, he’s changed his mind set on how he wants to live, and how he wants to play. You love to see guys who do that have success, because it’s a model of how it works. He’s a good ‘today’s style’ NHL defenseman.”

Bear has always had offensive potential and we might start to see a bit of it show up in the NHL this season. That said, he’s one I’d rather keep an eye on for now than pick up in standard fantasy leagues.

Carter Verhaeghe, Toronto Maple Leafs – Verhaeghe certainly didn’t seem destined for big things early in his career. The Maple Leafs drafted him in the third round back in 2013 and two years later he was thrown in as part of a five-player deal to acquire Michael Grabner from the Islanders. Two years after that the Islanders shipped him to Tampa Bay in exchange for depth goaltender (and current KHLer) Kristers Gudlevskis. Verhaeghe took a huge stride forward last season though with 34 goals and 82 points in 76 AHL contests and he continued that strong player with two goals and five points in six preseason games. All that work has put the 24-year-old forward on the cusp of playing in the NHL for the first time.

“You look at the stats, he led the team in scoring in the preseason but that really wasn’t it,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper told The Athletic. “It’s how his game has evolved and he has been a pretty pleasant surprise from watching him in camp two years ago until now. You look at guys who have inched their way forward and really shown growth and improvement and he’s definitely one of them. He’s made a good case for himself.”

Of course, even assuming he’s on the Lightning’s opening game roster, he’s not guaranteed to stick with them. Part of the reason he’s in this position is due to injuries, so Verhaeghe is very much in a position where he’ll have to keep competing for his spot. It is worth noting though that he would be waiver eligible, so even if the deep Lightning ultimately don’t have room for him, it wouldn’t be shocking to see another team give him a shot.

[MORE: Under-drafted players who could help your team]

William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs – For Nylander, the fact that he had a training camp at all is a huge step up from last year. He didn’t even make his season debut in 2018-19 until Dec. 6 because he was a contract holdout and went on to record just a goal and three points over his first 19 games last season.

“I felt I was ready, but what I discovered was that other players were a step ahead of me,” Nylander said, per The Globe and Mail. “I fell behind. The transition was harder than I expected.”

This season he won’t have to deal with that and he’s poised for a major bounce back campaign as a result. He was solid in the preseason with a goal and four points in four games.

Jack Hughes, New Jersey Devils – Not that you needed a solid preseason from Hughes to know he had potential going into 2019-20, but it doesn’t hurt. He had three goals and four points in four exhibition contests. The bigger point of interest with him going into training camp is who he’s likely to open the season alongside. Right now it appears he’s likely to play alongside Nikita Gusev on the second line. That’s a pretty interesting combination given Gusev is also a mix of high potential with an unknown factor. He’s attempting to make the transition from KHL star with 82 points in 62 games last season to NHLer. Both Hughes and Gusev could be significant factors in fantasy leagues this season.

Sammy Blais, St. Louis Blues – Blais went into training camp with a shot of making the roster and managed to secure his spot in part thanks to his strong play in the preseason. He had a goal and six points in five exhibition contests. He has just three goals and seven points in 43 career NHL games, but his lack of offensive production was at least partially due to the role he had. He averaged just 10:05 minutes per game whereas this time around he’s got a shot at serving in a top-nine capacity. It’s also worth noting from a fantasy perspective that even if Blais doesn’t do that much offensively this season, he would probably be one of the league’s top players in terms of hits if he plays regularly. Given that Yahoo leagues now use hits as a default category over penalty minutes that alone gives him some notability.

If you’re looking for more fantasy hockey information, Rotoworld has got you covered. Recently Michael Finewax released his first “The Week Ahead” of the season where he previews all 31 teams.

If you’re on the hunt for rankings, projections, strategy and advice on how to dominate your drafts, check out the all-new Rotoworld NHL Draft Guide. Now mobile-optimized with a new look and feel, it’s never been easier to take our award-winning advice with you to your drafts for that extra competitive edge! Click here to learn more!

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

Former Bruins coach Cassidy wins; Boston’s home streak ends

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
1 Comment

BOSTON — The Vegas Golden Knights made former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s return a success on Reilly Smith‘s score in the fifth round of the shootout, beating the Bruins 4-3 to end their NHL-record for home victories to open a season at 14 games.

The 57-year-old Cassidy was fired by Boston following 5 1/2 seasons in June after the Bruins were eliminated by Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

Eight days after he was let go, he was hired by Vegas.

In a matchup of two of the league’s top three teams, Western conference-leading Vegas opened a 3-0 lead early in the second period on two goals by Paul Cotter and the other by Jonathan Marchessault before the Bruins started their comeback when Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak scored just over six minutes apart late in the period.

They tied it on Taylor Hall‘s power-play goal 3:08 into the third when he spun in front and slipped a shot from the slot past goalie Logan Thompson.

Smith had the only score in the shootout, slipping a forehand shot past goalie Jeremy Swayman.

Cassidy took over as Boston’s interim coach on Feb. 7, 2016, before getting the head job that April. His teams made the playoffs all six seasons, including a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when they lost the seventh game at home against St. Louis.

Cassidy knows what it sounds like in TD Garden with The Standells’ song “Dirty Water” blaring after Bruins’ wins.

“Now that you brought it up, I’m used to hearing “Dirty Water” at the end of the game,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad I didn’t hear it tonight. The streak is irrelevant to me. It’s nice to come in and play well.”

Boston lost for just the second time in 12 games.

“This locker room sticks together, and we knew we were going to do something special tonight,” Swayman said. “It (stinks) losing, but we’re going to make sure we fix the problems.”

The Bruins’ home-opening streak broke the record of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

Before the shootout, Thompson made 40 saves. Boston’s backup Swayman had 21.

“This city meant a lot to him, and he was fired up ready to go,” Thompson said of Cassidy. “We went out there and tried to get him two points tonight.”

Cotter collected William Karlsson‘s pass inside the left circle and unloaded a wrister under the crossbar 1:36 into the game.

Marchessault stole Pastrnak’s attempted clearing pass, broke in alone and tucked in his own rebound to make it 2-0.

Cotter’s second came 51 seconds into the second period when he slipped a wrister past Swayman’s glove.

“We couldn’t get it done early, before the shootout. We had chances,” Pastrnak said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

Vegas star forward Jack Eichel missed the game with a lower-body injury.

TRIBUTE

The Bruins played a video montage of Cassidy on the Jumbotron late in the opening period that ended with a picture of him and said: “Welcome back, Bruce.”

The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he waved thanking them.

“It’s a really nice gesture by the Bruins’ organization,” he said. “I appreciate it. I said all along that I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m thankful they did it.”

FOR THE RECORD

Cassidy finished tied for third on the Bruins’ coaching list with Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt (1955-66) at 245 victories, behind Claude Julien’s (2008-17) 419 and Art Ross (1925-45) with 387.

EXTRA SPECIAL TEAMS

The Bruins entered the game ranked second in the league both with their power play (29.6%) and penalty killing (84.1%).

UP NEXT

Golden Knights: Host the New York Rangers.

Bruins: At the Colorado Avalanche.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

kris letang
Kyle Ross/USA TODAY Sports
1 Comment

PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
3 Comments

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

Kris Letang Penguins
Getty Images
1 Comment

PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”