THN’s 2015-16 NHL season preview: Stanley Cup, standings, and award predictions

The Hockey News
Alex Ovechkin (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Hockey is back. The 2015-16 season kicks off Wednesday night with four games, including an Original Six matchup between the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs. Also, the Chicago Blackhawks will raise another Stanley Cup banner when they host the New York Rangers.

With the new season about to begin, it’s time for some predictions. You probably won’t be surprised to hear The Hockey News staff thinks the Maple Leafs and Coyotes are last-place teams. Or that Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby will battle it out for the top individual awards. But you may be surprised by some of the other predictions, including our Stanley Cup final pick. Scroll down for all our picks, and individual team previews.

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THN’s top 200 fantasy players for 2015-16

Matt Larkin
Edmonton's Taylor Hall (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

OCT. 1 UPDATE: We enter the home stretch of fantasy hockey prep season, with the last league drafts happening this weekend or early next week. This edition of the rankings addresses some injury news, particularly the blow dealt to the Edmonton Oilers. Also, while I’ll make some tweaks based on the latest line combinations, be careful. Don’t get caught chasing coaches’ whiteboards. The minute Paul Stastny draws glowing reviews centering Vladimir Tarasenko, we get news Jori Lehtera’s recovery is ahead of schedule. Sure, you don’t want to reach for a young gun who winds up demoted next week. But, at this point, worry more about talent. Pick guys who are good at hockey, and they’ll find their way into opportunities.

This list blends goalies and skaters into a master breakdown tailored for anyone drafting in leagues with multiple stat categories. The rankings below are based on a standard Yahoo head-to-head format with the following categories: goals, assists, plus-minus, penalty minutes, power play points, wins, goals-against average, save percentage and shutouts.

Did last year’s list steer you right? It helped me win both my pools, so hopefully that buys your trust. Remember, these rankings are about fantasy, not real life, so a few stars will be listed lower than you might expect. Enjoy, and feel free to debate the rankings – and let me know about any glaring omissions – in the comment section below.

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Can Andersen help the Ducks put the championship pieces together?

Ken Campbell
Corey Crawford and Fredrik Andersen (Photo by Maxx Wolfson/Getty Images)

For the record, Fredrik Andersen has indeed stepped on a piece of Lego in bare feet. “Not fun,” he reports.

It seems Andersen is never far from the plastic interlocking bricks that have kept children occupied for years. He grew up about an hour from the original Legoland in Billund, Denmark, where the toy was invented and plays and lives in a place that is about an hour north of the California Legoland resort. Andersen still has his Lego from when he was a child stored away in the attic at his parents’ home and said the family where he stayed his first couple of years in Anaheim had kids who had Lego around all the time.

And following up on his mask design from last season that featured a goalie building a Lego wall, Andersen will brandish a mask this season that will feature the Batman character from The Lego Movie, adorned with the old-school Anaheim Ducks logo and going by the name Duckman. “Last year it blew up a little bit and it got pretty popular pretty quickly,” Andersen said. “So we (he and mask designer David Gunnarson) said, ‘Why not run with it and keep the theme going?’ and it’s cool how it turned out.”

So it’s only fitting that he plays for a team that is a lot like Lego. All the pieces are there and they seem to fit together most of the time, but it’s a matter of finding the right combination of pieces to build the perfect structure. Sometimes you get almost finished and decide to pull it apart a little and make some additions. Whether or not the Ducks have the winning combination this year remains to be seen, but we at THN have declared the Ducks our pick for the Stanley Cup. (Just so you know, for 2014-15 we picked the Chicago Blackhawks to win the final over the Tampa Bay Lightning.)

“That’s where we’ve picked ourselves,” said Andersen, who was part of the NHL pre-season media tour in Toronto on Tuesday. “We expect it ourselves.”

That the Ducks will start with one too many pieces at the foundation of their structure could either be a problematic distraction or a strength. Nobody is sure what it will be at this point. Andersen was terrific through the first two rounds of the playoffs, but looked worn down by the time the Ducks faced the Blackhawks and like his teammates, faltered as the series went on. But he was still very, very good and at 25, looks to be headed in the right direction.

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The 10 most overvalued fantasy players for 2015-16

Matt Larkin
Keith Yandle. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The fantasy hockey prep schedule continues. The top 200 is two editions deep, I’ve posted keeper league rankings by position, and I’ve hinted at my 10 favorite sleeper picks for 2015-16. Now it’s time for the overvalued list.

Last year, I dubbed this group the “players to avoid” list. That led to the misconception they were all bad players. I wasn’t trying to say they stank, however. I simply meant I’d avoid them because their average draft positions suggested I’d have to pick them way earlier than I wanted to.

Still, the readers have spoken. To avoid confusion, we’ll call this top 10 “overvalued” instead of players to avoid. I define overvalued fantasy picks as follows:

(a) Players whose production won’t match their average draft positions
(b) Players being drafted ahead of players who will outperform them

With that, let’s review which players I consider fantasy hockey landmines, sure to return less than what you invest to get them. And remember, this is fantasy hockey, so this list does not reflect the players’ real-life value.

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Top 10 fantasy sleeper picks for 2015-16

Matt Larkin
David Pastrnak.  (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)

They’re back. Everyone’s favorite players to draft in fantasy pools. The sleepers.

There’s a special high that comes with being “the genius who predicted _______’s breakout season.” That’s why it’s so intoxicating to research sleepers every year. If you’ve already studied my most recent update of the top 200 overall players, now it’s time to dig for undervalued guys.

As I outlined in last year’s sleeper list, I identify them as follows:

(a) Players who will outperform their average draft position
(b) Players who will outperform some players drafted before them
(c) Players you can steal cheap at the ends of drafts to reap major profits

After taking last year’s feedback into consideration, I want to stress (a) and (b) a lot more than (c). There’s a misconception every sleeper has to be “that guy no one else knows about who’s still on the board in the final round of a draft.” Anyone looking for only that type of sleeper on this list will end up posting something like “Gee, thanks for the shocking insight on Teuvo Teravainen, I had no idea who that guy was, jerk.” But that person misses the more important point. Teravainen goes on average 172nd overall in fantasy drafts, according to Yahoo’s ADP (average draft position) numbers. My rank for Teravainen in the top 200: 139th overall. Essentially, I’m saying he should outperform 32 guys currently being drafted ahead of him. Savvy GMs may think it’s no big revelation to talk up Teravainen, but the general drafting public evidently hasn’t caught on yet. Teravainen’s a legit sleeper.

Of course, I’m not going to tout Ryan Johansen as a sleeper when I rank him 18th and he’s going 33rd. There’s a line to draw here. I still want to help you find guys you can actually steal in the mid to late rounds. With that, let’s begin the 2015-16 list:

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Could Cody Franson make the Buffalo Sabres a playoff team?

Matt Larkin
Cody Franson.  (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

Cody Franson sure seemed destined to cash in a-la Scrooge McDuck this summer, diving into a pit of money. With each passing day, his situation increasingly resembles that of the exact opposite: a down-on-his-luck beggar.

OK, so that’s an exaggeration. Franson isn’t wandering the streets asking for a team to sign him. He is, however, running painfully low on suitors. He’s expressed how sick he is of one-year deals and, as a right-shot defenseman, he should command a hefty price tag. But there just aren’t many teams with the wiggle room for a multi-year deal at what should more than double, if not triple, the cap hit of Christian Ehrhoff’s new pact with L.A.

The Kings would’ve been a nice fit for Franson as long as suspended Slava Voynov’s cap hit remained off the books, but they opted for the far cheaper Ehrhoff. The Boston Bruins sure seem like a fit but, with $4.76 million in cap space, would press themselves up against the cap or over it with a Franson contract.

That voice you hear in the distance? “What about us? Excuse me! EXCUSE ME?” It’s that of deep-pocketed Terry Pegula and his Buffalo Sabres. They have more than $12 million to play with, and Pegula loves flexing his financial muscle. The Sabres also happen to have a weak defense corps. It’s no wonder, then, The Buffalo News cites two sources stating the Sabres have offered Franson a two-year contract.

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Let’s predict Phil Kessel’s goal total as Sidney Crosby’s linemate

Matt Larkin
Phil Kessel in his new Penguins jersey. (via Pittsburgh Penguins/Twitter)

Phil Kessel has escaped the media madness of Toronto. He’ll soon settle in the considerable shade cast by Sidney Crosby’s shadow. The Toronto effect won’t wear off instantly, however. Kessel’s performance this season will be scrutinized like crazy as he joins the sport’s highest-profile player on a line.

That’s right. It’s confirmed Kessel will open the Pittsburgh Penguins’ camp on Crosby’s wing. Coach Mike Johnston told the team website to expect Kessel “on the right side with Sid to begin with.” Could Kessel end up with a different center? Sure, but it would only be Evgeni Malkin, an equally plum partner. And it’s highly unlikely the Pens break camp with news “Kessel and Crosby just couldn’t get on the same page.”

It’s thus time to ask a fun question. Assuming Crosby is his center, how many goals will Kessel score in his first season with Pittsburgh?

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Fantasy hockey: the top 30 keeper league players by position

Matt Larkin
John Tavares (Getty Images)

It’s nowhere near time to panic. You aren’t behind on your cramming for fantasy hockey draft day. You can print out my latest top 200 player list and leaf through it at the cottage.

Keeper and dynasty league GMs, though, have to be a bit more on the ball. These folks are running long-term franchises. They technically never stop playing, as they’re free to make trades all off-season. They can also host their drafts earlier, as their leagues depend less on immediate health and up-to-date depth charts.

It’s thus an ideal juncture to explore some keeper league rankings. Doing so means dispelling the hell out of some myths. For one, keeper league rankings are not merely prospect rankings. Sorry, but Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel and Aaron Ekblad do not automatically top these lists. Elite prospects like Sam Reinhart, Leon Draisaitl and William Nylander don’t make the cut at all here, as I think they’re still multiple seasons away from being impact NHLers.

And here’s the thing too many people forget about keeper leagues: they still have standings and championships this year, and the next, and the next. So as long as an established star player projects to stay dominant for the next few seasons, he warrants strong keeper league consideration over the youngsters. McDavid tops the ranks if we’re projecting for five or 10 years down the road. But will he outscore John Tavares in the next two or three years? Doubtful. That’s not a knock on Connor. That’s a compliment to Johnny T.

Some veterans, however, are punished in these rankings. The likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have reached their mid-30s and dealt with nagging injuries in recent seasons. They will outscore many of the players on these lists this season, but they could decline sharply within two years. Give me Mark Scheifele in 2016-17 over Datsyuk if I’m starting a keeper league team from scratch. That’s why you won’t see Detroit’s dynamic veterans make the list.

Here are my top 30 keeper league picks by position. Age as of opening night, Oct. 7, 2015, listed in brackets.

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