Jakub Voracek. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)
Which underperforming stars make the best buy-low candidates? Here are our favorite names to target in fantasy hockey trade talks.
I told you which players to sell high in fantasy hockey leagues yesterday, but that's only half the battle. The best way to win a title is to replace your sell-highs with a bunch of buy-lows, underachieving players who should play their best hockey over the final three quarters of the season. You know the drill: if player X always gets 65 points and has just 10 points in his first 20 games, he's likely to get 55 in his next 60 to balance things out, assuming external factors like injury and age haven't caused the dip in his numbers. If player X scores on 10 percent of his shots for his career and hums along at one percent so far this year, he'll probably regress to the mean and shoot closer to his career average the rest of the way.
I present my five favorite buy-lows in fantasy pools at the moment, ranked in order of how big of a potential return they can net you. This was a fun exercise because, for whatever reason, many big-ticket fantasy producers have struggled early on. I like Anze Kopitar, Sean Monahan, Alex Pietrangelo, Jonathan Huberdeau, Nazem Kadri and Mark Giordano as buy-lows, and they couldn't even crack my top five.
5. Eric Staal, Carolina Hurricanes
Staal may seem like a strange entry for this list, as his value is so low, but that's the point. His star has faded so much over the past couple seasons that he shouldn't cost much. In some extremely shallow leagues, he may have even been dropped. Staal is the product of his environment, and that environment might change soon. He's a pending unrestricted free agent, and the Carolina Hurricanes have lost 14 of their first 22 games, sitting sixth in the Metropolitan Division. Staal is as strong a trade candidate as anyone this season, and he's likely to receive a nice upgrade in linemates should he get dealt to a contender. That should help him get his shots per game back up to snuff. His current mark of 2.18 is his lowest since 2003-04, his rookie year.
Staal is 31, which makes him past his prime but hardly ancient. He's a guy you could acquire to be your third or fourth fantasy center, but who could produce like a solid No. 2, especially if he plays on his new real-life team's second line. He could settle into a productive secondary role like Jason Spezza has in Dallas, where he doesn't face opponents' top shutdown units. The New York Rangers and Nashville have popped up as possible fits. Staal has expressed desire to stay in Carolina but could always leave as a rental and re-sign at a discount this summer.
4. Tyler Johnson, Tampa Bay Lightning
We apologize if we cursed the Triplet Line by putting them on the cover of THN. Within days of our magazine hitting newsstands, Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper broke up what was the league's top line last year, and Ondrej Palat got hurt a few days after that.
Johnson, who broke out for 72 points in his second full NHL season, has scuffled with just four goals and 11 points through 20 games for Tampa. Sure, there's a mild red flag when we're dealing with an undersized, undrafted player who discovered stardom out of nowhere. But Johnson remains closer to Martin St-Louis than Cory Conacher. He's a career 13.5-percent shooter who has scored on just 8.2 percent of his attempts this year. His 2.45 shots per game mark rests in between the 2.21 and 2.64 he posted in 2013-14 and 2014-15, respectively.
Johnson also missed a few games with an upper-body injury. He was reunited with Triplet right winger Nikita Kucherov upon returning and scored a goal. I have to think Palat gets another shot on the left side when he's back. The Triplets were so good all last season, including Tampa's run to the Stanley Cup final, that they've earned another crack together. They could return to their dominance in the second half. Don't punish them too much for a 20-game funk.
3. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins
Say you're a major Bruins skeptic, that you can't stand the moves GM Don Sweeney made in the off-season and that you believe goalie Tuukka Rask is exposed with a weaker defense in front of him. That still doesn't explain how bad Rask has been. Yes, opposing forwards no longer have to penetrate an impregnable fortress to get close to Rask with Dougie Hamilton gone and Zdeno Chara aging. But that would justify Rask posting, say, a 2.50 goals-against average and .915 save percentage. Those numbers would constitute a major down year. Yet here he sits after 15 starts with a 2.94 GAA and .900 SP. This in the era of low-scoring games and calls for smaller goalie gear.
No way Rask stays that bad. He sits at a stunning 2.21 GAA and .925 SP for his career. He's a perennial top-five fantasy goalie. He may regress to a top-10 guy on a weaker Boston team this year, but not top-30. Rask should rebound significantly unless he's hiding an injury. The turnaround has already begun, by the way. Rask's November GAA is 66 points better than his October mark, his November SP 20 points better. The buy-low window will close quickly if it hasn't already.
2. Ryan Johansen, Columbus Blue Jackets
Sometimes you just have to bet on talent. Johansen is a big, powerful Western Conference center with the ability to dominate games. He was the fourth overall pick in the 2010 draft for a reason. He broke out for 33 goals and 63 points two seasons ago and followed up that effort with 71 points last year. He's a star, and I touted him as a second-round pick in fantasy drafts this September.
Then the Columbus Blue Jackets' horrific start happened. And then John Tortorella happened. 'Torts' has Columbus 9-7-0 since he took over, but the marriage with Johansen has been shaky. He told Johansen he was out of shape and has played him as low as the fourth line. Trade rumors abound, as Johansen has just one year left on his bridge contract after this season.
Still, I'm betting on Johansen either way. He's a good enough player to figure things out if he stays in Columbus. And if he doesn't, which looks increasingly likely, he'll probably flourish in his new environment. His 16 points in 21 games aren't an embarrassment despite the high expectations for him, and his uncharacteristically low shooting percentage of 8.7 suggests he has 20 or more goals left on his stick for 2015-16.
1. Jakub Voracek, Philadelphia Flyers
No player screams for a buy-low more than Voracek. It's insane his bad luck has lasted this long. The man fresh off a 22-goal, 81-point season has one goal in 22 games. He's still a strong driver of puck possession compared to his Philadelphia Flyers teammates, as he ranks 15th in the NHL in Corsi For percentage relative to his team among skaters with 100 or more minutes played this season.
Even if you accept Voracek's 2014-15 as an anomaly and see him as a 65-point guy, that still means he has a ton of production left in him. There isn't a whole lot else that needs to be said here. Whether or not he stays on Claude Giroux's line, Voracek is a talented player. He's only 26. I'd trip over myself to buy low on him. I'm currently trying to do it in one of my leagues. What's that? Coach Dave Hakstol recently demoted Voracek to the fourth line? Good. Use that as leverage when trying to acquire him. He's too good to stay down. Bet on talent. Yep, I've already said that in this article. I'll say it again. Bet on talent. Bet on talent.
BONUS CATEGORY: Captain Obvious
Yes, you should buy low on Sidney Crosby, Claude Giroux, Phil Kessel and Ryan Getzlaf if you can find some poor sap dumb enough to sell them for 80 cents on the dollar. Moving on.
DON'T BUY LOW ON...
Marian Hossa – Age has to catch up with him sooner or later.
Chris Kunitz – Last season should've been warning enough.
Dougie Hamilton – Flames poised for a down year. Hold in keeper leagues, of course.
Ryan Miller – A "name brand" goalie posting average stats on an average team.
Brian Elliott – Platoon with Jake Allen finally appears over. Allen has emerged as the victor.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin