Hockey is at hand: Western conference preview

Matt Romig
Yahoo! Sports

Five is a popular number in hockey.

You have five skaters per side. Each of them, at any given time, may take a shot at the goalie's five hole. If you're watching an Eastern Conference game, you'll be lucky to see five goals scored. Of course, fighting can always spice up a low scoring game, in which case the combatants get five minutes each to think about things.

Overtime? Five minutes. A beer at the concession stands? Five bucks. OK, plus half of the other five in your wallet. I'm quickly running out of ammo here but hopefully I've laid the groundwork for a theme that I will now beat to death.

In part one of my fantasy hockey season preview, I present to you five quick steps to preparing for your fantasy hockey draft. Each step should take no more than five minutes.

The focus today is on pre-ranking Western Conference players. Pre-ranking is the key to success in fantasy hockey because so few people do it. Baseball still is winding down and our football draft hangovers haven't quite subsided yet, so hockey preparation tends to suffer.

For the novice, you should know that the default rankings are based primarily on last year's statistics. For players who missed time due to injury or who have a new home in 2003-04, the default ranking may not be an accurate determinant of their fantasy value. Let's get started by making a few simple adjustments to the default rankings.

Five Quick Upgrades (Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Hockey default ranking in parentheses)

David Aebischer, Goalie, Colorado Avalanche (144) : Aebischer instantly became a top 10 fantasy goalie the day Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne were spotted outside the Pepsi Center holding "Will Skate for Food" signs. The signings must have been a relief for the fourth-year goalie, who was facing an offseason full of questions about his worthiness as Patrick Roy's successor.

Instead the focus is up front, where the Avs will roll out a pair of insanely talented lines backed by a solid defensive corps. There are 31 goalies ranked ahead of Aebischer in the default rankings and I'd be hard pressed to name 10 I'd rather have. If you do one thing prior to your draft, move this guy into your top 50.

Chris Pronger, Defensman, St. Louis Blues (346) : Pronger won't blow you away with Rob Blake or Sergei Gonchar-type offensive numbers, but he's easily a top 10 fantasy defenseman when you consider his contributions across all categories. Pronger has averaged 125 penalty minutes in his seven injury-free seasons and his plus/minus rating is always solid, reaching a high of plus-52 in 1999.

Jason Allison, Center, Los Angeles Kings (176) Healthy and once again centering the Kings top line, Allison will be good for 80 points, 60 PIM and 35 power-play points – maybe more considering he's in the last year of his contract. In his final season with Boston in 2000, Allison cracked the NHL's top 10 in scoring, assists and power-play points.

Rob Blake, Defenseman, Colorado Avalanche (81) : Statistically, Blake was off last year. For the first time since 1998 he failed to reach the 50-point plateau. His 21 power-play points also represented a five-year low.

That downward trend doesn't have a snowball's chance in Phoenix of surviving. The Avs power play will be fun to watch this season, and two of the premier views will belong to Blake and teammate Derek Morris as they set up chances from the blue line.

Steve Yzerman, Center, Detroit Red Wings (419) : As a guy who likes to blur the line between fantasy and reality, I'm a believer that every fantasy team needs a character guy. Who better to fill this role than Yzerman as he begins his 21st and potentially last season in Detroit? If healthy and skating regularly on Detroit's top two lines he can still add value as a late-round pick.

Five Quick Downgrades

Marian Gaborik, Right Wing, Minnesota Wild (27) : Last year, Gaborik scored 30 goals. This year, he wants more money. If you want to know how well prolonged contract holdouts usually turn out for up-and-coming Stanley Cup contenders, just ask the San Jose Sharks. This one could get ugly. Don't let it muck up your fantasy roster.

Theo Fleury, Right Wing, Chicago Blackhawks (159) : Fleury is eligible to petition the league for reinstatement on October 11. Should he do so, he'll be about as welcome around the league as a return visit from Isabel. I could sell a game-used mouse pad on Yahoo! Auctions upon completion of this column and garner more bidding interest.

Darryl Sydor, Defenseman, Columbus Blue Jackets (180) : Sydor's default ranking places him among the top 25 fantasy defenseman, which was fine when he played alongside gifted blue-liner Sergei Zubov in Dallas. Look for his power-play assist numbers to drop in his new home.

Vincent Damphousse, Center, San Jose Sharks (44) : Another perfect example of how the Ron Popeil draft strategy can kill you. If you just set your draft status to ready and forget about modifying your pre-rankings, you'll value Vinny roughly 60 picks higher than Colorado's Joe Sakic. With 34 power-play points, Damphousse had a nice year in 2002-03. I think Sakic has a slightly better supporting cast though.

Curtis Joseph, Goalie, Detroit Red Wings (29) : Joseph had offseason ankle surgery, and was cut out of the goalie picture in Detroit when Dominik Hasek returned. Until his future becomes less cloudy, bump CuJo down the rankings and take your chances with the likes of Martin Biron or Evgeni Nabokov.

Five Breakthrough Players

Upgrades and downgrades help avoid early-round disasters. Our next goal is to find late-round value from players who may be overlooked by your league mates. I'm expecting breakout years from the following five players:

Ales Hemsky, Right Wing, Edmonton Oilers: Edmonton reached the playoffs behind the strength of a 10-3-3 March. A central figure in their resurgence was Hemsky, who tallied 16 points in 16 games that month. He'll get plenty of ice time for this young, quick team.

Henrik Zetterberg, Left Wing, Detroit Red Wings: As any fantasy veteran will tell you, production from left wingers can be hard to come by. Zetterberg will retain his left wing eligibility, but will play center for Detroit, likely on the top line with Brett Hull and Brendan Shanahan.

Petr Cajanek, Center, St. Louis Blues: After nine seasons in the Czech Republic league, Cajanek made his NHL debut last season and tallied 38 points in 51 games. Broken bones and facial lacerations robbed him of 30 games. Expect 65 points and a plus-20 rating from him this season.

Marco Sturm, Left Wing, San Jose Sharks: You can count on two things from the San Jose Sharks – their female fans will remain inexplicably attracted to Mike Ricci, and Marco Sturm will play hard every night. Only one of these certainties can boost your fantasy fortunes. Look for 35 goals and a shift to right wing from Sturm.

Alexander Frolov, Left Wing, Los Angeles Kings: The 20th pick in the 2000 entry draft recorded 31 points as a rookie in 2002-03. The Kings are looking for big things from this 21-year-old and will give him every opportunity to produce with the team's top two lines.

Five Goalies to Get

How important is the goalie position in fantasy hockey? Well, how would you like to own Barry Bonds in a league that featured only home runs, on-base percentage and intentional walks as scoring categories? Better yet, how high would you draft a pitcher who is capable of winning 20 games, with 40 saves thrown in as a bonus?

Goalies have one purpose – to stop pucks. When they do that well, it stands to reason, they excel across all categories. Most fantasy teams will draft three goalies. It's critical to draft two full-time starters, preferably one from a 40-win team. Your third goalie can be a backup – again ideally from a winning team.

Here's a quick look at the class of the Western Conference goalie ranks:

Marty Turco, Dallas Stars: Led the league in goals-against average and save percentage last season, and would have won 35 games if not for injury. While it will be interesting to see how the Dallas defense adjusts to the loss of team captain Derian Hatcher, don't look for a big slip in production here.

Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Anaheim Mighty Ducks: A good fantasy goalie is the product of talent and a good system. Everyone from head coach Mike Babcock to newly appointed team captain Steve Rucchin to Anaheim's blue-collar corps of defensemen are committed to allowing Giguere's talent to continue to shine.

Dominik Hasek, Detroit Red Wings: There is rust to knock off. The Dominator allowed three goals on 14 shots in his preseason debut on Saturday. There is age. Hasek will turn 39 before the season is over. Those concerns aside, conditions are perfect for a comeback. Detroit has a capable backup in Manny Legace, and the addition of Derian Hatcher affords Hasek some of the best protection in the business. Expect Hasek-like numbers minus a few more days off.

Jocelyn Thibault, Chicago Blackhawks: Here's where you'll have to take a hit in one category to boost your totals elsewhere. Only Martin Brodeur had more shutouts than Thibault last year. His save percentage and goals-against average were solid, too, but wins were hard to come by in Chicago, as they will be this season.

Roman Cechmanek, Los Angeles Kings: Acquired from Philadelphia for draft picks after he allowed at least four goals in five playoff losses, Chechmanek brings a solid regular-season record out west. In three full years as a starter, he has a sub-2.00 GAA and an outstanding .923 save percentage.

Five Rookies to Watch

By rule, Yahoo! cannot add rookies who have never played an NHL game to the player pool until after their debut. Look for some of these players in the later rounds of your draft and others on the waiver wire shortly after the regular season begins.

Tuomo Ruutu, Center, Chicago Blackhawks: Named the No. 1 prospect in all of hockey by "The Hockey News" in 2001, Ruutu is poised to step right in as Chicago's No. 2 center.

Igor Radulov, Left Wing, Chicago Blackhawks: Scored five goals in seven late-season games with the Blackhawks in 2002-03.

Peter Sejna, Left Wing, St. Louis Blues: Sejna led the NCAA in scoring and won the Hobey Baker Award a year ago before becoming the answer to a trivia question by scoring the last regular season goal allowed by Patrick Roy.

Philippe Sauve, Goalie, Colorado Avalanche: Coming off two solid campaigns in the AHL. Backup goalie for the best team in hockey is always a valuable addition to a fantasy roster.

Brad Boyes, Center, San Jose Sharks: Acquired from Toronto in the Owen Nolan trade, Boyes will have a chance to earn significant ice time for this goal-hungry team.

Next week we'll look at the Eastern Conference talent pool with an eye toward fine-tuning your pre-rankings before you draft.

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