With most teams having now played nearly 10 percent of their schedules, there are interesting conclusions to be drawn with respect to early-season performances, especially when we layer in player usage data. Scattered throughout this piece are reference to player deployment statistics, all of which have been borrowed from the excellent resource www.extraskater.com.
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At the start of the season, it’s easy to predict which players will be assigned premium ice time on teams with a clear distinction between their scorers and their grinders, such as the Penguins and Ducks, to name just a couple. Other teams employ a more balanced roster and in these cases, the manner in which the coach divides playing time can make or break your fantasy season. Take the Colorado Avalanche, for example. New coach Patrick Roy has demonstrated a clear pattern for how he will deploy his soldiers. The line of P.A. Parenteau, Nathan MacKinnon and Jamie McGinn has been a pleasant surprise thus far and a closer look at their usage shows that Roy has used them in more favorable situations than any other line in hockey, as evidenced by their rate of Offensive Zone Starts (OZS). If this pattern holds, it makes the likelihood of continued success for this trio significantly more likely. MacKinnon obviously carries the greatest amount of potential within this group, but Parenteau is the player I would target in non-keeper leagues. By shielding this line from difficult defensive assignments, Roy has chosen to shift those responsibilities to Gabriel Landeskog, Paul Stastny and Alex Tanguay. While this isn’t a great development for the fantasy owners of these three, this is partially offset by the fact each of them has been given a decent amount of power-play time.
Another team whose balance would seem to lend itself to an equal-opportunity division of ice time is the St. Louis Blues, but coach Ken Hitchcock has segmented his team into defined roles, which has led to varying degrees of fantasy production. Consider Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo. On the surface, Pietrangelo and his team-leading amount of ice time per game would seem to be the more valuable asset, but a closer look at their usage rates shows that no St. Louis blueliner has started a greater percentage of his shifts in the defensive end of rink than he has, making him Hitchcock’s primary defensive stopper. Conversely, Shattenkirk has started more shifts in the attacking zone than any other blueliner and leads the team in power- play minutes per game. The forward-equivalent of Shattenkirk on this roster is Derek Roy, whose favorable deployment strategy is enough to make me a buyer.
I’m hoping that there isn’t a rush on Ranger pick-ups following the team’s shutout victory over the Capitals Wednesday, because I’m planning to acquire a few underachieving Rangers if the price is cheap enough. Sure, they have been clobbered a couple of times already during their season-opening road trip, but that damage has been done and some other fantasy squad paid the price. In addition, the team has yet to play a game at Madison Square Garden. In particular, I’d like to get my hands on Ryan Callahan, whose minus-5 rating might send some of my competitors running in the other direction.
[Clears throat, invokes best car salesman voice]. What is it going to take for me to sell you on Blake Wheeler today? How about the fact that he very quietly amassed 64 points two years ago, then followed it up by scoring at a 70-point pace over the shortened 2012-13 campaign? Maybe I can entice you by pointing out that no player on the Jets has started a greater percentage of his shifts in the offensive zone. What if I throw in, at no extra charge, the fact that only Bryan Little averages more power-play ice time than Wheeler among Winnipeg forwards? With three points in seven games and an abnormally low shooting percentage of 7.1, this price won’t last long!
In terms of in-season strategy, one of my favorites is to acquire “pilot fish” in cases where superstars aren’t available. The marine biologists in the crowd can tell you that in the animal kingdom, pilot fish are known to gather around larger creatures such as sharks and sea turtles in the hopes of feasting on their leftovers. We see similar relationships in the NHL, where players such as Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis have taken full advantage of their opportunities to skate with Sidney Crosby. Because the cost of acquiring the less-popular player is often more reasonable than the superstar, this can be an effective fantasy strategy. Jiri Tlusty provided a fantastic case study for this theory last season as he rode the coattails of Eric Staal and Alexander Semin to a career-best season with the Hurricanes. A few pilot fish you may be able to pick up right now are Tyler Bozak (Phil Kessel), Marcus Johansson (Alex Ovechkin) and Dustin Penner (Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry). The success of this strategy is obviously dependent on the secondary player’s ability to remain alongside the superstars, but given how cheaply they can be acquired, it’s definitely worth the gamble.
Bargain Bin Finds (Yahoo ownership rate below 20 percent)
I started this segment last week and while I’m not so naïve as to think my recommendation played any large part in the changes, it’s nice to see gamers pounce on some of the players I mentioned, such as Alex Chiasson whose ownership jumped from eight to 16 percent and Martin Hanzal (six to 12). Here are a couple more players I think are being unfairly overlooked by the masses:
Cam Atkinson (12 percent) – Playing on the top line with Brandon Dubinsky and Marian Gaborik, Atkinson is being used in a scoring role and receiving a lot of power-play time, to boot. He’s one of my personal favorites.
Ray Whitney – (12 percent) – How quickly we dismiss such an accomplished, consistent scorer. Sure, age will eventually catch up with him, but a five-game sample isn’t enough time to make that determination.
Colin Wilson (5 percent) – I touched on the anonymity that comes from playing in Nashville in last week’s discussion of Patric Hornqvist, but I’m equally amazed by the fact that Wilson is a free agent in 19 of 20 leagues out there. He’s a good bet to lead the Predators in scoring and that alone should make him viable in a lot of deeper formats.