2019-20 Fantasy Hockey: Key position battles
Sasha Yodashkin previews some of the NHL's most intriguing positional battles heading into the 2019-20 season.
Here are some of the most interesting position battles we'll be following when players report for the new season:
Jersey's No. 1 picks battle for No. 1 center
Nico Hischier was supposed to be the franchise's next big star when the Devils drafted him first overall in 2017, but just two years later, New Jersey found itself drafting another center with the top selection in Jack Hughes. These two talented pivots will battle it out for a first-line role, and by extension, the right to share the ice with star winger Taylor Hall. Despite holding that position for much of the past two seasons, Hischier only has a pedestrian 99 points in 151 games to show for it. Hughes needs to bulk up at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, but his ceiling is much higher coming off a 112-point season in 50 games with the United States National Development Program. If Hughes looks even close to ready for it, expect the Devils to chase his upside and hand him the job.
McDavid, Draisaitl and who?
This hole in Edmonton's lineup is becoming an annual staple of this article, as the organization's incompetence has left it unable to plug the important opening on the first line right wing. Leon Draisaitl -- who's coming off a 50-goal season -- should continue to flank Connor McDavid on one side, creating an amazing opportunity for the lucky forward who gets to join them on the other. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is an option, and while he's the clear-cut third-best forward on the Oilers' roster, removing RNH from the second-line center role will cut out any semblance of balance.
Other candidates to fill this spot include Zack Kassian, the newly acquired James Neal, Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto. Puljujarvi was selected fourth overall in 2016, but he has just 37 points in 139 NHL games and has threatened to return to Europe rather than keep playing for Edmonton -- did I mention that the Oilers' management is incompetent?
Yamamoto was picked 22nd overall one year later, but the 5-foot-8, 153-pound winger has just one goal and five points in 26 NHL appearances, so he may not even make the team out of camp. Kassian scored a career-high 15 goals while spending some time in this role last season, and given his 716 PIM in 466 career games, playing alongside McDavid again would certainly put the 28-year-old winger on the Fantasy radar in leagues that reward the rough stuff. Neal is perhaps the most intriguing of these options, as he scored at least 20 goals in each of his first 10 NHL campaigns before posting a seven-goal dud in Calgary last season. He potted 40 goals on Sidney Crosby's wing once upon a time, so perhaps Neal will rediscover his scoring touch with the help of another phenomenal passer.
Larkin's wing men
There's a major drop in center quality from first-liner Dylan Larkin to second-liner Frans Nielsen, so getting on Larkin's wing will be imperative to finding Fantasy success in Detroit. Four candidates are in the mix for the two spots around Larkin: Anthony Mantha, Tyler Bertuzzi, Andreas Athanasiou and Filip Zadina.
Athanasiou has the highest upside of the group coming off a 30-goal campaign, but his struggles defensively and the desire to infuse the second line with more scoring will likely keep him away from Larkin. Bertuzzi looks like the safest candidate to lock down a top-line role after posting 47 points in his first full NHL season. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound Mantha has plateaued with 48 points in each of the past two seasons, so the rebuilding Red Wings would love to give Zadina the right-wing role on the top line over him. But is the sixth overall pick from the 2018 draft ready for that responsibility?
Who runs point on Broadway?
Even after buying out Kevin Shattenkirk and trading Neal Pionk, the Rangers still have a plethora of power-play candidates among their right-handed blueliners. Ten of Anthony DeAngelo's 30 points in 61 games last season came with the extra man, and his excellent passing ability is perfect for the man advantage. But the team paid Jacob Trouba like a No. 1 defenseman (seven years, $8 million AAV), and power-play time is part of a No. 1 D-man's responsibilities. Then there's intriguing rookie Adam Fox, who scored 48 points in 33 games at Harvard last season and is quite a gifted passer himself. Seniority will likely reign supreme, so expect Trouba -- who scored 18 points on Winnipeg's loaded power play last season -- to get the first crack at the top unit, with DeAngelo likely to beat out Fox for a role on the second unit.
Winning the Weber boost
Shea Weber has long been one of the most reliable two-way blueliners in the NHL -- his plus-15 rating last season raised his career plus-minus to plus-75. Playing alongside Weber is a great way to build your rating while riding his coattails to some cheap points, so winning the first-pairing job opposite him will be a key goal for the rest of Montreal's blue line. Jeff Petry is almost certainly the Canadiens' second-best defenseman, but he's a right-handed shot just like Weber, so the two will likely be separated. The competition thus comes down to a pair of left-handed shots in Brett Kulak and Victor Mete, both of whom saw some time by Weber's side last season.
The 25-year-old Kulak had a breakout of sorts last season with 17 points and a plus-12 rating after never previously cracking double-digit points or posting a positive rating. Mete is just 21 years of age, and while he's still searching for his first NHL goal, he added a nice plus-17 rating to 13 assists last season. Montreal will likely give Mete the first crack at the top-line role in hopes of spurring further growth from the youngster, but don't be surprised to see Kulak supplant him if the team gets off to a slow start after missing the playoffs by a hair last season.
Calgary's hot goalie battle
This is probably the most enticing goaltending competition in terms of Fantasy upside considering the Flames led the Western Conference with 50 wins and 107 points in 2018-19. Rittich split time with Mike Smith last season and went 27-9-5 with a 2.61 GAA and .911 save percentage, while Smith posted an .898 save mark but still got the call come playoff time. That lack of trust in Rittich could open the door for newcomer Cam Talbot to grab the reins. Talbot will be looking to bounce back after posting a 3.40 GAA between the Oilers and Flyers last season, and his career 2.60 GAA and .915 save percentage suggest he's capable of doing just that. Expect these two goalies to split time early on, with Talbot having a better chance of grabbing the reins than he's getting credit for.
Who puts the G in Chicago?
Both of these goalies have been among the league's best at times but come with plenty of question marks. Robin Lehner was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy with the Islanders last season, posting a 2.13 GAA and .930 save percentage in 46 appearances (43 starts). The team opted not to bring the 28-year-old back in free agency, suggesting Islanders brass credits Lehner's success mostly to coach Barry Trotz's defensive system. Meanwhile, Corey Crawford has battled concussions in recent years and posted a sub-par 2.93 GAA and .908 save percentage in 39 games last season. Have the injuries taken their toll for good, or can Crawford get back closer to his career 2.42 GAA and .918 save percentage in 2019-20? While Chicago's sentimental side will be rooting for Crawford, Lehner has recent history on his side and should get the bulk of the starts early on. Whether either can succeed behind a porous Blackhawks defense corps is another question.
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