New Year in fantasy hockey: East edition

James O'Brien
NBC Sports

This column is a beefy fellow, so let’s keep the intro brief.

Last week, we pondered various tidbits and storylines for the Western Conference with 2018 brand new. The year might already have lost its new-car smell, but let’s finish this off with the East anyway.

[The West edition.]

Boston Bruins: Remember when people were worried about Tuukka Rask?

Before you scoff too much, note that it wasn’t that crazy. Between October and November, Rask really struggled. He was absolutely ridiculous in December: 9-0-1 with a .955 save percentage and two shutouts in 11 games. His start to 2018’s been dicey, but it’s only been two games. It’s easy to forget just how dominant up to this point; Rask carries a wonderful .923 career save percentage.

I’ll be curious to see if Rask continues to play at a near-Vezina-level this season. If so, I wonder how many people exploited the panic boiling within others to profit in a fantasy trade.

Buffalo Sabres: Two Sabres I’m especially interested down the stretch are: Robin Lehner and Kyle Okposo. Both are building some steam lately.

With Lehner, he’s a poor man’s Rask, as his December stats dwarf his other months, but he’s not quite getting the wins at the same rate as Rask.

The more inspiring story is Okposo, who really shouldn’t be dinged too much for a slow start. He suffered exactly that, only generating two points in 10 October games. Since then, Okposo has 22 points in his last 32 games, with seven coming in six 2018 contests. You don’t often see extenuating circumstances like Okposo’s, yet he’s a beacon in favor of keeping an eye on streaks, not just full-season stats.

Carolina Hurricanes: The Hurricanes are getting it together, and Sebastian Aho (not the Islanders version) continues his ascent among the ranks. He had a strong rookie season with 24 goals and 49 points, and he already has 15 goals and 35 points in just 43 games in 2017-18.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Don’t be alarmed by the Blue Jackets’ mild stumbles, as I’d wager being without Alexander Wennberg and Brandon Dubinsky really gummed up the works (keen on you, Pierre-Luc Dubois, but you’re not a top center just yet). Wennberg played his first game since Dec. 21 last night, while Dubinsky could return soon with a tinted visor, which will hopefully look like the one Ricky Williams used to wear.*

* – It won’t.

Detroit Red Wings: Unless they’re even more out of touch with the reality of their situation than they already seem, the Red Wings will eventually trade All-Star (in 2018!) Mike Green at some point.

I question if such a move would benefit Green owners.

While he’d conceivably get to play with better scorers, the upgrade might not be that steep, and his role could be quite different. Green leads Red Wings skaters in ice time by a bit more than two minutes per night at 22:39, with 2:26 coming on the power play. He’d likely be used as specialist on another team, which might actually bump that power-play time, but could easily be used minimally otherwise. The best-case scenario would be a Kevin Shattenkirk in Washington situation (good fantasy numbers, dicey reality situation), but Green isn’t quite at that level any longer.

Florida Panthers: A lot of times I like to target high-usage, young defensemen with offensive upside with my later D picks in drafts. Sometimes that means getting John Klingberg (a guy I seemingly reached for consistently) and sometimes that means settling for Aaron Ekblad.

Ekblad’s averaging just under 24 minutes per night, yet he only has 13 points in 42 games. I did a little NHL.com search to see defensemen who’ve played at least 20 games and averaged at least 20+ minutes per night, and I must say, Ekblad doesn’t exactly wow you scoring-efficiency wise. The seven goals ease some of the disappointment.

Montreal Canadiens: Alex Galchenyuk‘s been one of Montreal’s leading scorers even without the ice time you’d usually need to do so. Is Claude Julien finally letting him free? He’s been averaging more than 18 minutes of ice time per night in 2018, which is a tiny sample size, but … hey, we can dream.

New Jersey DevilsSami Vatanen‘s numbers are pretty comparable in NJ vs. with Anaheim (though close to an extra minute of ice time per game is nice), but he’s shooting a bit more often, which is basically always welcome in fantasy hockey.

(Unless you’re in some horrific league with shooting percentage as a stat. Gross.)

New York Islanders: Goaltending continues to be a problem, which has to sting extra for their GM Garth Snow, a former backup. Bad side even if you don’t own Jaroslav Halak or Thomas Greiss: higher chances of racking up minuses. Bright side: little reason for scorers to ever relent.

New York Rangers: If you want to anger a Rangers fan, you probably only need to utter the name “Pavel Buchnevich.” To be fair, his fantasy owners likely nod their heads when those same fans gripe about Alain Vigneault.

Ottawa Senators: Matt Duchene might be getting it together. The speedy forward has six points in his last four games, split evenly with three goals and three assists.

That represents half of his production with the Senators (12 points in 28 games).

Philadelphia Flyers: With five points in his last three games, Ivan Provorov is on fire, pushing himself to a solid 20 points already in 2017-18. Provorov managed 30 in 2016-17; while he may never be as explosive as Shayne Gostisbehere, his all-around game might make him a guy who gets enough ice time to make it close in the future.

Provorov is somehow still just 20. The young talent in the NHL is just bonkers right now.

Pittsburgh Penguins: All of Daniel Sprong’s three points came in one game: a two-goal, one-assist contest against the Islanders on Jan. 5. His ice time has been a little sporadic, too.

The lure of him being the next Jake Guentzel is honestly quite understandable, though you would be wise to pay attention if you have them. There might be cases where you’d want to add and drop him more than once as the season goes along, if you’re the tinkering type.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Let’s hope Victor Hedman is OK. If not, Anton Stralman, Mikhail Sergachev, Jake Dotchin, and Braydon Coburn may all shoulder heavier burdens. The biggest loser would be Andrei Vasilevskiy, who’s been off the charts for most of this season.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Mitch Marner left Mike Babcock’s doghouse in a big way, generating 13 points in as many games in December. Or, if he’s still in the doghouse, it’s a really nice one with air conditioning and cable TV.

Washington Capitals: During the last two seasons, John Carlson finished with 37 and 39 points, with injuries limiting his production to varying degrees. He’s generally been in that high-30 range during his prime years, aside from a red-hot 2014-15 when he scored 12 goals and 55 points.

Carlson’s really nailing his contract year so far, collecting five goals and 29 assists for 34 points. It’s not really a matter of insane luck, and might be as much to do with Washington needing more from him thanks to free agent departures than any sort of “greed is good” fun.

Either way, he’s on track to set plenty of career-highs if he can stay reasonably healthy.

Contract years are the best … for fantasy, at least.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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