The playoffs have this weird, indescribable way of taking lesser-known support players and temporarily turning them into guys worthy of Conn Smythe consideration. It’s like in Mario Kart when you drive over a mushroom and suddenly have this burst of speed that propels you past everyone while you laugh maniacally.
It’s a phenomenon we witness almost every year. A guy that almost no one has ever heard of (sorry Bryan Bickell) comes along and produces career-best numbers.
I don’t know if there is a way to accurately pinpoint these guys beforehand. Who saw Fernando Pisani coming in 2006 for Edmonton? Or J.S. Giguère emerging in Anaheim? (Okay, in hindsight we knew his pads were a wee bit TOO BIG).
But we can try to determine guys that are in a position to succeed and will provide value on draft day. Here are seven players I’ll be bumping up my draft board this post-season:
Cam Atkinson – Columbus Blue Jackets
It’s hard to get more under the radar than a guy who has never been in the post season and has a career high of 39 points. Nevertheless there are reasons (or I should say one main reason) to be optimistic about the 24 year old winger. The Blue Jackets confirmed that Nathan Horton will miss six weeks with abdominal surgery. This should mean an opportunity for Atkinson to skate at even strength with Brandon Dubinsky and possibly see an uptick in his power play time.
The idea of facing Pittsburgh in the first round doesn’t bode well for playoff longevity, but you never know. Columbus will have an advantage in net with Sergei Bobrovsky and the Penguins have dealt with injuries at key positions. Atkinson will almost certainly be available in the very late rounds of your draft.
Valeri Nichushkin – Dallas Stars
He’s big, he’s mean, he’s green…(ok, I don’t know if he’s “mean” per se, but I was trying to add some dramatic effect). Part of me feels for Nichushkin, he just turned 19 years old, it’s his first professional season in North America, a grinding 82-game campaign, then an unexpected trip back to Russia for Sochi, and now into the post season. By my count that could be around 100 games. I get tired playing that many contests on XBOX’s NHL 14 (blister on my left thumb always results in an LTIR stint).
The thing with Nichushkin is that he’s improving every day, becoming more comfortable in his role on the team and in the NHL. Of course the most significant aspect of his fantasy value today is that he’s skating on Dallas’ first line – flanked by burgeoning stars Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Watching them this season has been an absolute joy and if number 43 can stick with that group through a couple rounds of playoffs he’ll be a nice late round option.
Dan Boyle? Isn’t he like 45? No, kids, he’s only 37. Which don’t get me wrong, is old (?). But for a puck-moving defensemen with a history of fantastic post-season numbers it isn’t THAT old. Take a look at some of these totals:
2009-10: 2 goals, 12 assists, 14 games
2010-11: 4 goals, 12 assists, 18 games
2012-13: 3 goals, 5 assists, 11 games
Age is starting to catch up to him (as it tends to with everyone) but he has a playoff pedigree that’s difficult to ignore. San Jose will be in a tough position against Los Angeles and they might be off golfing after four or five games. However, if they can somehow survive a round or two there’s a chance Boyle sits among the leaders for defencemen. After the big names are off the board I’d be targeting him in that second tier.
Bryan Bickell – Chicago Blackhawks
I couldn’t make a “sleeper” list without including Chicago’s 2013 playoff hero. It was a fairy tale playoffs for Mr. Bickell – 9 goals and 17 points in 23 games, a physical force throughout every series, and eventually seeing his name engraved on Lord Stanley. Of course things didn’t quite work out as an encore this regular season. It feels like if Disney released a Cinderella 2, where she has to come back home and work twice as a hard as a maid after Prince Charming had an affair with her older step sister – just brutal (man, I watched too many Disney movies as a kid).
Bickell followed up last year’s heroics with only 14 points in 53 games and was even a healthy scratch at times. A good chunk of his four year 16 million dollar contract last summer was predicated on him performing in the post season – so who knows, maybe the slipper will fit one more and we’ll see some numbers out of the Blackhawks winger.
Normally when it comes to goalies I recommend selecting safe, predictable veterans, but as with every rule there are exceptions – enter Anaheim’s John Gibson. Since being drafted 39th overall in 2011 Gibson has been considered one of the absolute blue chip tenders in hockey. Few expected him to make an impact this year (especially considering the traffic jam of tenders in California) but here we are. With Jonas Hiller struggling Bruce Boudreau has turned to Gibson the past two games and he has delivered. The 20 year old has stopped 54 of 56 shots and picked up two wins.
Will the Ducks ride him throughout the entire playoffs? I doubt it. Hiller should still see some time in their crease, but they won’t hesitate to use the kid either. If you can focus on forwards and defencemen in the early rounds and target a goalie like Gibson late it may pay dividends.
Martin St. Louis – New York Rangers
How quickly things can change. 12 months ago St. Louis was being heralded as an absolute fantasy stud – winning his second Art Ross while defying all of the rules father time has so neatly set out in professional athletics. Unfortunately this whole requesting a trade out of Tampa Bay thing hasn’t really worked out and his totals have suffered. So why include him as a “sleeper”? Even though he is 38 I have a difficult time believing St. Louis’ abilities declined that rapidly simply because he switched teams. It would appear there has been an adjustment period and he’s also been a victim of some horrible shooting percentages.
With 4 assists in his past 2 games there is at least a glimmer of hope for this post season. In his last trip to play for Lord Stanley in 2010-11 he posted 20 points in 18 games. That isn’t quite so long ago – someone to watch this time around.
Sticking with my old guy theme let’s talk Teemu Selanne. This year he reminds me a lot of Clint Eastwood in the classic Western film Unforgiven. That aging, once upon a time hero forced to come back out of retirement to take care of business (ok that could be pretty much any action movie made between 1970 and today, but bear with me). This season has been the inevitable drop off we knew would have to arrive someday. Selanne is averaging under 0.5 points per game and hasn’t looked like the player we once knew (he is 43 after all).
That said, there is reason for optimism. Watching Finland’s national team in Sochi this year I was struck by how good he still appeared. At times he might as well have been wearing a Winnipeg jets jersey – flying up and down the ice, great foot speed, dangerous in the offensive zone. Maybe it was just the big ice affording him more space, or that nationalistic motivation that comes from playing for one’s country (oh narratives, here you come again). Whatever it was, he appeared to have something left to give. If this is in fact his farewell voyage in the National Hockey League, something tells me he’ll find a way to produce.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go waste the rest of my day with an Eastwood marathon.
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Darren Kennedy is a writer for Dobber Hockey and purveyor of Nichushkin propaganda. You can follow him on twitter @fantasyhockeydk.