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Fantasy hockey: When can you trust surprise playoff breakouts?

Matt Larkin
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Fernando Pisani. (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images) Author: The Hockey News

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Fantasy hockey: When can you trust surprise playoff breakouts?

Matt Larkin
By:

How do you know when to trust a surprise playoff hero performance? Consider these questions from THN fantasy guru Matt Larkin.

Fernando Pisani. Chris Kontos. Ville Leino.

Those names elicited joy from their teams' fan bases for a few magical months. Now? More like shudders of horror. That trio, along with countless other players, came out of nowhere to dominate in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Now they belong on the Mount Rushmore of guys who created sky-high expectations with spring heroics only to flop over the rest of their careers.

In hindsight, though, it shouldn't have been a surprise to see Pisani, Kontos or Leino fail to translate playoff success into a successful regular season career. I feel for anyone who reached for them in fantasy drafts the following autumns, because we should've seen their struggles coming. The warning signs were there.

Not every surprise playoff stud comes back to Earth the next season, though. The key is to know what to look for – the green lights and red lights. When it's your turn to pick a few months from now, and the 2015 version of Bryan Bickell is in your queue, consider these questions.

WHAT IS HIS DRAFT PEDIGREE?

Corey Perry had a modest 17 goals and 44 points the 2006-07 regular season. He averaged just 12:28 of ice time. That post-season, Perry racked up 15 points in 21 games and averaged 16:30. In no way was that performance a fluke. We knew that because Perry was a highly regarded prospect. He was a scoring machine with the London Knights in junior. He was a first-round draft pick. He played an important role in a Stanley Cup run when he just turned 22. Poolies, then, felt confident taking Perry in 2007-08 fantasy drafts. He progressed as expected, with 29 goals and 54 points, then amassed 32 goals and 72 points the year after. Perry was scouted to be a prolific scorer, and he happened to take a big step in his progression during the 2007 playoffs.

Compare that to Pisani. Eighth round pick, 195th overall, went the college route, wasn't a big-time scorer at any level. Suddenly, boom, 14 goals during the 2006 playoffs. The biggest hint that Pisani would never repeat that performance was that, unlike Perry, Pisani was never supposed to do that in the first place. He followed up his incredible run with 14 goals in the entire 2006-07 regular season.

Some guys teeter on the brink and require a bit more research. Take Jakob Silfverberg, who has been a point-per-game player for the Ducks this post-season. Not a first-rounder, but don't be so quick to write him off. He was a high second-rounder, he's heralded for his great shot and the Ducks were willing to deal Bobby Ryan to acquire Silfverberg, among others. So for guys who break out in the playoffs and have good-but-not-great pedigree, do your homework. Silfverberg makes for a good 2015-16 late-round fantasy sleeper.

WHERE DOES HE SIT ON THE DEPTH CHART?

Bickell was a monster in Chicago's 2013 Stanley Cup crusade, dishing out punishment with his 6-foot-4, 223-pound frame, tallying nine goals and 17 points in 23 games and parlaying that performance into a four-year, $16-million contract that summer.

Note that Bickell only scored one power play goal during that run, though. He averaged less than a minute per game with the man advantage. Coach Joel Quenneville gave him even strength time with everyone from Jonathan Toews to Patrick Kane to Andrew Shaw, but Bickell still sat behind fellow wingers Kane, Marian Hossa, Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp on the depth chart heading into the next season. The opportunity simply wasn't in place for Bickell to duplicate his success. Quenneville leans on a physical guy like Bickell in the playoffs, playing him about 15 minutes per game for Bickell's career. During the regular season? Bickell averages about 12 minutes.

So the next time you're wondering about drafting a playoff hero, ask yourself: is this guy a third-line grinder who won our hearts? Or a locked-in, top-six scorer?

HOW OLD IS HE?

Sorry to pick on Pisani – but he was a walking red flag after 2006. Another knock against him: his breakout came at 29. It's usually a fluke when the light turns on at that age.

Age doesn't simply mean literal age, however. It can mean total experience. Take the complicated case of Dustin Brown. He dominated in the 2012 playoffs and passed the pedigree test as a first-round pick. But Brown was 27 and eight seasons into his career. He had seven points in 12 post-season games before busting out for 20 in 20 games during L.A.'s first title run. Brown was young-ish, yeah, but if he was going to be a point-per-game NHLer, it would've happened already in eight seasons. He burned plenty of fantasy GMs at the draft table in 2012-13, including yours truly.

HAS HE DONE THE PLAYOFF HERO THING BEFORE?

Some guys follow a pattern. Justin Williams and Claude Lemieux (during his prime with New Jersey and Colorado) seemed to save their best for the playoffs every year. It was their career pattern. Once it happened enough, we knew to expect a regular season dip and a playoff spike every year. Watch out for veterans with a constant yo-yo pattern. David Krejci is another guy who produces much better in the playoffs than the regular season most years.

WAS HIS 'PUCK LUCK' SUSTAINABLE?

I've saved Kontos for last because, seriously, he passed most of the tests during his insane nine-goals-in-11-games binge in 1988-89. First-round pick? Check. Scored a ton in junior? Check. Still only 25 at the time of his breakout, despite being labelled a draft bust? Check. Great spot on the depth chart with a guy named Wayne Gretzky? Check.

The stat that stands out for Kontos in hindsight, though: 29. That's his shooting percentage. Twenty-Nine. If Alex Ovechkin scored on 29 percent of his league-leading 395 shots this season he would've scored 115 goals. Kontos' puck luck was unsustainable. It didn't help that injuries and contract disputes derailed his career in the seasons to follow, either, but Kontos was always destined to disappoint after such amazing playoff production. He still makes for a useful case study.

Another unsung hero will be crowned when the 2015 post-season ends. Just make sure you ask the tough questions before picking him in your next pool.

Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blogFor more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazineFollow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin

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Fantasy hockey: When can you trust surprise playoff breakouts?