Fantasy Nuggets Week 13

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Can you imagine being Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl? On the one hand you’re one of the greatest players of your generation and part of the best duos the NHL has ever seen and yet losing is what you have the most experience within the NHL. Answering questions during a slump, after a disappointing loss, after a quick playoff exit or no postseason berth at all are the type of interviews you have had to do the most.

On March 3, Draisaitl sarcastically said that the top players love going pointless following a rough stretch. It was a funny response to a pretty bland question about the team being frustrated, but how much of that was Draisaitl just being tired with that line of questioning after hearing it so often throughout his career? Ultimately though he’s having to field those kinds of questions again because really what else is there to talk about when it comes to the Oilers? They got off to an amazing 16-5-0 start, but the cushion they earned through that is almost all gone due to their 2-9-2 record since then. And yes, injuries have played a role and McDavid couldn’t play in yesterday’s loss because he was in the COVID-19 protocol, but then you look at teams like Tampa Bay, Vegas, or Pittsburgh, who have found ways to deal with major injuries this series and keep moving forward.

Edmonton isn’t a bad team. When everyone is clicking, they do have some scoring depth between their big two, their defense is capable of being fairly good, and their goaltending, while not impressive, can at least be serviceable. But they don’t look like a serious contender. McDavid and Draisaitl are in their seventh season together. They have three Hart Trophy wins and four scoring titles between them and they’ve been the two best players in the league again this season, but Edmonton still hasn’t been able to build a championship caliber team around them.

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And to be fair, maybe critics – myself included – are overreacting to a slump and the Oilers will start clicking again in the weeks to follow. They absolutely can still make the playoffs if they turn things around – even with their recently slump they have a tenuous hold on a postseason berth – and from there, who knows what’ll happen. Certainly, stranger things have happened than Edmonton turning things around and actually making an impact in the postseason. But given the team’s lengthy history of disappointment that predates McDavid and Draisaitl, you can understand the pessimism. That’s not their fault, so much of this isn’t their fault. Even with the amount they’re taking up in the cap, they’re not the problem in Edmonton. But as the faces of the team, they’re the ones who have to keep answering the questions regardless.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for a fantasy perspective regarding the team, I think Zach Hyman’s recent slump might make him a slight buy-low candidate. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins landing on the injured reserve with a lower-body injury is an obvious blow, but he should go right back to producing regularly when he returns, and if anything, Tyson Barrie should have a stronger second half of the season offensively compared to what he’s done thus far. I don’t like Edmonton’s goaltending and I would avoid them where possible in fantasy leagues – as frankly I think Oilers GM Ken Holland should have. One of my biggest criticisms of Holland is entering the season with Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen. I recognize that Smith had a great 2020-21 campaign, but Smith struggled in 2018-19 and 2019-20 and he’s 39-years-old (40 in March), so it’s not like his injury problems and on-ice struggles when he has been healthy this season can be painted as some unforeseeable bad luck and Koskinen just isn’t a good Plan B to begin with.

I briefly mentioned the Lightning as an example of a team that’s overcome significant injuries without having their season derailed, but now we’re close to getting a chance to see them play at close to 100%. Nikita Kucherov (lower body) is set to play tonight for the first time since Oct. 16. The news isn’t all good for the Lightning because Steven Stamkos missed Thursday’s morning skate and is consequently regarded as a game-time decision, but even if it doesn’t end up being tonight, we’re close to seeing Tampa Bay at full strength, which is a fairly rare sight. Kucherov has only played in three regular season games over the last two seasons and the Lightning also missed Brayden Point on top of that for a significant portion, but the big gap between a team like Tampa Bay and Edmonton is just how many offensive weapons they have.

The Oilers depth has gotten better, but Stamkos, Points, Kucherov, Alex Killorn, and Ondrej Palat are all forwards who wouldn’t look out of place as the headlining player of a competing team. Meanwhile Anthony Cirelli, Corey Perry, Ross Colton, and Pat Maroon make up a supporting cast that can chip in a fair amount. Victor Hedman is one of the best defensemen in the game and a serious Norris Trophy candidate. Perhaps the biggest gap of all between Edmonton and Tampa Bay though is Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. Vasilevskiy is an arguably underrated part of the Lightning’s success story. He’s not simply a good goaltender who has benefited from having a star cast playing in front of him, he’s an elite goaltender who has turned an otherwise great team into a perennial championship contender. In the defense of Edmonton, it’s not like goaltenders of Vasilevskiy’s caliber are easy to sign, trade for, or even draft, but its nevertheless an underlining issue for Edmonton that was masked in 2020-21 by Smith’s surprisingly strong campaign and has come back to the forefront this season.

As good as Tampa Bay is though, their division makes things extremely tough for them. Even with a 22-8-5 record, the Lightning only narrowly lead the Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs. All three of those squads are serious contenders and winning the Atlantic Division is critical for each of them because the two that fall short of that will have to face each other in the first round. Granted Tampa Bay had to play against Florida in the first round last year and the Lightning still went on to win a championship, but the Panthers are an even better team this time around and if the Lightning could avoid facing them so early in the playoffs this time around, I’m sure that would be their preference.

Tampa Bay, Florida, and Florida have a comfortable hold on the top-three spots in the division, so that leaves the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings to compete for Wild Card spots. Detroit has been a pleasant surprise this season, but the Bruins still have an edge and things are about to get a lot more interesting for them.

Tuukka Rask has spent the season to this point recovering from hip surgery and he’s progressed to the point where he signed a professional tryout agreement with AHL Providence. The plan is for him to start for them on Friday and if all goes well, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him sign with the Boston Bruins in a week or two. It will lead to a tricky situation given that Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman have both played well enough to keep their spots on the team, but there’s no question that a healthy Rask could be an asset. So, what happens next? Does the team try to balance the workload between three goaltenders? Typically speaking that doesn’t work out and it’d be prevent any of the three from having much fantasy value. It’s hard to say, but it’s worth keeping a close eye on. What the Bruins might do is move Swayman to the taxi squad or AHL. Swayman is an NHL caliber goaltender, but he’s also waiver exempt, so if the Bruins want to carry only two goaltenders, then he’s the most obvious one to move.

Of course, this assumes that Rask will play like the Rask of old. To that end, his AHL stint will offer some insight. Either way, I’d recommend picking him up in fantasy leagues if he’s available as a free agent in your league. He’s a gamble that might not work out, but even the added questions about how the Bruins will balance their goaltending workload, his potential upside makes him worth the gamble.