Here in San Jose, part of hockey's new frontier, we get a firsthand look at Eastern Conference teams once per year. For most of us, that's plenty.
Out West, we like our hockey WWE style. We've got star power in the tag-team of Kariya and Selanne. We've got absurdly over-the-top plotlines like the alleged marriage between Anna Kournikova and Sergei Fedorov. Who could forget Theo Fleury's recent gentleman's club escapades?
We're also not above fixing the results if it suits us. Remember Dallas' 1999 No Goal? Hockey purists we're not; we demand action. Thankfully, teams deliver. Four of the league's top five scoring teams in 2002 called the West their home.
What we don't like all that much is grappling. That's why, when Eastern Conference teams roll into town Greco-Roman style, we tend to lose interest. Sure there is athleticism and technical merit in defensive hockey. But after two periods of a 1-1 tie, we find ourselves thirsty for some top-turnbuckle action.
Fantasy owners take a similar view. The Stanley Cup may be floating in Paulie Walnuts' swimming pool as we speak, but a solid fantasy roster is built on scoring, a commodity in short supply out East. The top of your draft is likely to be loaded with Western Conference gunslingers.
Today, as we preview the Eastern Conference fantasy hockey prospects, we look deeper down your draft list in hopes of uncovering the mid-to-late-round picks that can make the difference for your team.
As was the case last week when we analyzed the Western Conference, the focus is on quick adjustments you can make to your pre-rankings prior to your draft.
Five Quick Upgrades (Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Hockey default ranking in parenthesis)
Sergei Samsonov, Left Wing, Boston Bruins (352): Left wing is the hockey equivalent of the catcher position in fantasy baseball. There are a few point-per-game producers, and then a logjam of grinders capable of scoring 10-15 goals. You'll roll out a potent lineup if you can grab this guy in the middle rounds and still take advantage of the surplus of talent at center at right wing.
Samsonov entered last season with back-to-back 70-point seasons under his belt and promptly tallied nine points in his club's first seven games. Then a wrist injury intervened, limiting him to only one more regular-season game. Now entering his prime and likely skating on a line centered by Joe Thornton, Samsonov could be the steal of your draft.
Marc Savard, Center, Atlanta Thrashers (140): You'll find 40 centers ranked ahead of Savard in the default rankings. Few players buried this deep in the player pool come with his upside. Savard fit in nicely with Atlanta last season, notching 47 points in 57 games after he was acquired from Calgary. As a bonus, he logged 85 penalty minutes.
Much of Savard's upside can be found by looking to his left and right. He'll spend much of his ice time centering Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk, two rising stars who bring 40-goal potential to Atlanta's top line. Expect 50 assists and 80-plus points from Savard.
Martin Straka, Left Wing, Pittsburgh Penguins (313): When you are healthy and playing on a line with Mario Lemieux, you pile up points. It's as simple as that. Mario's line is the Coors Field of hockey. Injuries have limited Straka to 73 games over the past two seasons, but his power-play production alone merits a substantial upgrade here.
Andy Sutton, Defenseman, Atlanta Thrashers (405): Sutton barely cracks the top-100 ranked defensemen, so he should come at a bargain rate late in your draft. In five partial NHL seasons entering the 2002 campaign, Sutton tallied 22 career points. Last year he exploded for 21 points in 53 games and added a fantasy-friendly 114 penalty minutes.
By season's end he was skating regular power-play shifts and he enters the 2003 season as one of his club's top two defensemen.
The Philadelphia Flyers: Take your pick here from a list of 2002-03 underachievers. Tony Amonte (78), John LeClair (188), Keith Primeau (105), Mark Recchi (100) and Jeremy Roenick (32) each under-produced for one reason or another a year ago. There's just too much firepower on this team for a repeat performance.
For the best late-round value, take a look at a pair of left wings who missed significant time to injury last year. Simon Gagne (176) and Sami Kapanen (242) are each hoping for rebound seasons. Gagne, seven years younger and just one year removed from a 30-goal season, is my pick for a breakthrough season for the Flyers.
Five Quick Downgrades
Marian Hossa, Right Wing, Ottawa Senators: Only two players in the league netted more game-winning goals a year ago than Hossa. Since the Yahoo! rankings are based on a player's performance across all default scoring categories, Hossa finds himself in lofty company. Game-winning goals are fluky by nature. Hossa is a nice player – but he's not a first rounder.
Alexei Kovalev, Right Wing, New York Rangers: Kovalev saw his production drop considerably after he was acquired from Pittsburgh in February. In 54 games with the Pens, he contributed 64 points, 29 on the power play. In 24 games with the Blueshirts he saw his production fall to 13 points and three power-play goals.
Alexander Mogilny, RW, Toronto Maple Leafs: Since joining Toronto in 2001, the gentlemanly Mogilny has spent just 20 minutes in the penalty box. He's a good pickup in the fourth or fifth round, but in the top three rounds I'll take a Keith Tkachuk-type who might get 20 PIM in one shift.
Garth Snow, Goalie, New York Islanders: Snow's goals-against average (2.31) and save percentage (.918) were excellent a year ago, but the job in New York is Rick DiPietro's to lose. Located near the bottom of the default rankings for goalies (282 overall), DiPiertro is a logical upgrade to fill your third goalie slot.
Saku Koivu, Center, Montreal Canadiens: This is more a defensive move than anything. Koivu injured his knee last week and will miss the entire preseason. Knee problems forced him to miss parts of two seasons from 1999-2001 and may keep him on the shelf this year beyond the season opener.
Five Breakthrough Players
Jason Spezza, Center, Ottawa Senators: Fantasy owners have been buzzing about this guy for years, and now it's time to see what he can do over a full season. Spezza was selected second overall in the 2001 draft shortly after joining Eric Lindros and Wayne Gretzky as one of four Canadians to appear in the World Junior Championships at the age of 16.
In his final 13 regular-season games a year ago, Spezza tallied 11 points. In his first career playoff game, he contributed a goal and an assist in a loss to the eventual Stanley Cup champs. Don't overbid here, but jump at the chance if Spezza is still hanging around late in your draft.
Ales Kotalik, Right Wing, Buffalo Sabres: Impressed as a rookie with 21 goals in 68 games. Should see those numbers improve while playing on the top line with Chris Drury and Miroslav Satan. If he goes undrafted in your league, keep an eye on his position eligibility, as a shift to left wing would increase his value.
Radim Vrbata, Right Wing, Carolina Hurricanes: Never got the ice team needed to excel in Colorado, so should benefit from his change in address. In 10 games with the Canes following his March trade, he netted five goals.
Karel Rachunek, Defenseman, Ottawa Senators: Just 24, Rachunek is already entering his fifth season in the NHL. Last season in 59 games, he tallied 29 points and a plus-23 rating. If Ottawa is to deliver on its promise as Eastern Conference favorites, Rachunek will have to bring his game to the next level.
Nik Antropov, Left Wing, Toronto Maple Leafs: Not yet a household name, he may well be after this season. At 6'6" and now pushing 220 pounds, he's perfectly suited to center a tough line featuring Owen Nolan and Darcy Tucker at the wings. Having recorded 124 penalty minutes in 2002, he may be considered the gentleman of Toronto's No. 2 line
Five Goalies to Get
Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils: Here's your no-brainer No. 1 overall fantasy draft choice. Led the league in wins and shutouts a year ago, and with a defense that could show the Sopranos a thing or two about the protection business, there's no reason to think he'll be toppled as boss of the goalie family.
Patrick Lalime, Ottawa Senators: If you draft a forward in the first round, consider yourself lucky if Lalime is still available on the comeback. Only Brodeur won more games a year ago and Ottawa is poised to challenge New Jersey's reign as Eastern Conference champs.
Ed Belfour, Toronto Maple Leafs: With seven shutouts and a lofty .922 save percentage, last year was a rebound campaign for Eddie. If Toronto can improve on its miserable shots against total from 2002-03, Belfour could be a top-five fantasy goalie.
Mike Dunham, New York Rangers: Dunham actually managed to record a winning record in 43 games with the Rangers after his acquisition from Nashville. If this is the year that production begins to match payroll in the Big Apple, Dunham could be a mid-round steal.
Roberto Luongo, Florida Panthers: Like Belfour, Luongo was peppered with an absurd number of shots a year ago. Still, he's reaching a breakthrough age and his goals-against average went down every month last season beginning in January.
Five Rookies to Watch
Konstantin Koltsov, Right Wing, Pittsburgh Penguins: Pittsburgh loves this kid's speed. He netted a hat trick vs. Columbus Friday, the third goal coming in the second period when he separated himself from a pack of defensemen with a Secretariat-like burst.
Eric Staal, Center, Carolina Panthers: As of Friday, Staal led the NHL with five preseason goals. Selected with the second overall pick in the June draft, it looks likely that he'll debut in the NHL before his 19th birthday.
Lukas Krajicek, Defenseman, Florida Panthers: Drafted by Florida in the first round of the 2001 entry draft, this offensively gifted blueliner is expected to crack the club's top four at the position.
Michael Ryder, Right Wing, Montreal Canadiens: As a rookie who has yet to make his NHL debut, this player is not eligible to be drafted in the fantasy game. However, he's displayed the anticipated offensive skills in the preseason, so his arrival to the player pool may not be far off.
Marc-Andre Fleury, Goalie, Pittsburgh Penguins: Fleury stopped 34 shots in Saturday's 2-1 win over Washington. Whether the top pick from June's entry draft makes the club remains to be seen. If he does, keep a close eye on the waiver wire in your fantasy league.
It figures to be a long season for the good guys here in San Jose. If you sit close enough to us at the Shark Tank, you may hear my brother and I say things like, "I sure hope Thornton got a piece of that one before it went by Nabby."
But that's one of the beauties of fantasy sports – giving us a reason to show up or tune in when things are otherwise unwatchable for the home team. Playoffs we won't see. But fantasy championships are never out of reach. Good luck with your drafts.