2017 Fantasy Hockey Draft Prep: Expansion Golden Knights provide plenty of potential value in position battles
Where should Fantasy owners look for value? Often times they come from the victors in these sorts of positional battles.
The new NHL turf of Las Vegas is just one of the locations for the best positional battles coming into the 2017-18 season. Here are some of the best:
Golden Opportunities in Vegas
The Golden Knights enter their inaugural season with plenty of depth and some interesting lineup decisions to make. Perhaps the biggest toss-up in the lineup comes at second-line center. Assuming Vadim Shipachyov can carry over his KHL success to North America, the free-agent acquisition looks destined for first-line duty. That leaves Cody Eakin and Oscar Lindberg to duke it out for the other top-six pivot spot. Eakin lit the lamp at least 16 times in three consecutive campaigns heading into 2016-17, but he had more games missed due to suspension (four) than goals (three) last season.
Meanwhile, Lindberg is an excellent two-way player who never got to showcase the extent of his offensive ability thanks to some combination of Derek Stepan, Derrick Brassard, Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller and Mika Zibanejad always blocking him in New York. The 25-year-old Swede can also play wing, but the team's depth there would almost certainly knock him down to the third line. In a league that's about "what have you done for me lately," the former Ranger holds a minuscule edge over the former Star.
New Jersey's Pivot Pecking Order
The Devils possess a glut of centers after signing Brian Boyle and drafting Nico Hischier with the first overall pick this offseason. They're still lacking talent throughout the rest of the lineup, so the difference between landing on the top line and settling for a lesser role is night and day. Ideally, New Jersey would like Hischier to slot into the coveted pivot spot between leading scorers Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri, but the talented 18-year-old may not be ready for that level of responsibility from the get-go. Travis Zajac would be a waste in that role, considering he hasn't reached 50 points since 2009-10 despite consistent top-six minutes.
Meanwhile, the team prefers to play Adam Henrique at wing due to its lack of depth there. The dark-horse candidate to win the job: 20-year-old Pavel Zacha, who displayed top-end skill with 13 power-play points but looked raw at even strength last season. While Hischier should ultimately end up in the top spot, one of the team's other options could see a nice early-season boost by beating him out.
Skill vs. Grit in Washington
The capped-out Capitals lost a lot of depth in free agency, but they should still sport two of the league's most dangerous scoring lines. Andre Burakovsky will occupy one of the second-line wing spots alongside Evgeny Kuznetsov, but the other one is still up for grabs between a pair of former first-round picks in Tom Wilson and Jakub Vrana, with Brett Connolly possibly in the mix as well. Used in a bottom-six role up to this point, Wilson would likely blow his old career high of 23 points out of the water with such a promotion while still contributing triple-digit penalty minutes. The 21-year-old Vrana had three goals and three assists in 21 games as a rookie last season, but he could be ready for a bigger role this time around.
While Wilson's experience gives him the early edge in this battle, Vrana possesses greater offensive upside.
Connor vs. Perreault
Mathieu Perreault thrived after being promoted to the second line in Winnipeg late last season, finishing with nine goals and 28 points in the final 23 games. Despite that offensive outburst, the veteran forward is far from guaranteed to reprise that role alongside Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler. His primary competition comes from 2015 first-rounder Kyle Connor, who notched only five points in 20 games for the Jets last season, but led the AHL's Manitoba Moose with 25 goals in 52 games.
The huge gap in skill level between the Jets' second and third lines makes winning this battle imperative for both contenders.
Montreal's center position shook out as unfavorably as possible for Fantasy owners last season. While Phillip Danault centered the first line, he barely saw any power-play time. Alex Galchenyuk produced 15 points with the extra man, but was relegated to the fourth line at even strength, and Tomas Plekanec was given second-unit duties in all situations. With the 34-year-old Plekanec declining and Danault not an explosive talent, the question really boils down to whether Galchenyuk is finally defensively responsible enough to slide into a permanent top-six role. While most coaches would undoubtedly promote a 23-year-old center with 67 goals over the past three seasons, Claude Julien puts more stock in grit and defense than just about any bench boss out there.
It's hard to see Plekanec's corpse holding off Galchenyuk for the second-line spot, but Danault will likely remain Max Pacioretty's even-strength setup man despite the talent gap.
The Sedin twins aren't the same offensive forces they used to be, but they're still the best bets for production on a talent-starved Canucks team. Their excellent vision and passing ability helps elevate teammates, which is why winning the last spot on their line is so important. There's no shortage of candidates for the role, but the top three are Loui Eriksson, Brock Boeser and Markus Granlund.
Eriksson's coming off a disastrous first season in Vancouver in which the six-time 20-goal scorer potted only 11 goals in 65 games. Boeser lit the lamp four times in nine games as a rookie last year, but moving up to the first line is a lot to ask of a 20-year-old. Granlund could be used as a bottom-six center instead, but he just ranked second on the team with 19 goals and has the flexibility to move to wing. While Eriksson remains the favorite, his leash will be short even if he wins the job.
Brent Burns' Partner
Playing on the same pairing as a defenseman with 151 points over the past two seasons has massive Fantasy implications because Burns' ability to rush up the ice routinely turns simple defensive-zone passes into assists for his partners. Paul Martin occupied that role for most of last season, so it's no surprise the 36-year-old veteran managed his highest assist total (22) since 2011-12.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic is a better player than Martin at this stage of their careers, and the Sharks won't hesitate to dump their balanced blue-line approach if Martin proves too slow to keep up with the reigning Norris Trophy winner anymore. Vlasic's value would skyrocket if he were to end up playing with Burns.
Who's With Hedman
Victor Hedman will undoubtedly serve on the first pairing and top power-play unit in Tampa Bay. Anton Stralman also has a relatively clear-cut role as a first- or second-pairing guy and the point man on the second man-advantage unit. After that, things get very hazy. Jake Dotchin impressed with 11 points and a plus-10 rating in 35 games last season, and he could realistically find himself on any of the three pairings. Fellow 23-year-old Slater Koekkoek is also in the mix, while free-agent acquisition Dan Girardi brings plenty of top-pairing experience (if little upside).
The most likely scenario seems to have Dotchin pairing up with Hedman at even strength and Stralman on the second extra-man unit. Whoever plays alongside the All-Star blueliner instantly gets a substantial increase in value, making this a fluid situation worth monitoring.
Battle for the Doughty Rating Boost
There's no Dought about one half of the Kings' top pairing, but the spot alongside the 2016 Norris Trophy winner is up for grabs. Considering Doughty has a plus-52 rating over the past four years, playing with him instantly raises a teammate's Fantasy stock.
Veteran Jake Muzzin would like nothing more after finishing with a minus-21 rating alongside Alec Martinez last season, but he'll have to get past Derek Forbort. The 25-year-old Forbort is ready to take a step forward after putting up 18 points in his first full season, and playing with Doughty again would make doing so much easier. Muzzin's greater offensive ability gives him the higher ceiling in such a role, but it looks like a toss-up between the two right now.
Halak vs. Greiss
These two should start at a fairly even split, but either could pull away as the clear-cut starter, if last season is any indication. While Halak opened as the top option, the Slovakian veteran was demoted to the AHL after a horrid start. Greiss clawed New York back into the playoff picture with a terrific stretch as the unquestioned starter, but he fell apart down the stretch. Halak then got called back up in late March, going 6-0-1 while Greiss failed to hold any of his last 11 opponents under two goals. Youngster Jean-Francois Berube's departure in the expansion draft added some clarity, but this is still one of league's most muddled goaltending situations. The slight early edge goes to Halak due to his longer track record of NHL success.
The Panther Platoon
This battle has the potential to play out for years to come, with Reimer carrying a $3.4 million cap hit for the next four seasons and Luongo on the books at $5.3 million for another five. In what ended up being a near-even playing-time split last season, Reimer compared favorably to his 38-year-old counterpart in both GAA (2.53 to 2.68) and save percentage (.920 to .915). However, Luongo got the majority of work before suffering a lower-body injury, and the Panthers still believe he gives them the best chance to win when healthy. Reimer figures to unseat Luongo at some point due to injury or age-related attrition, but he'll open the season as an oft-used second option.
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