29 December 2005

T.H. - 1st Half Review

Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition

By Rob Aquino


It’s almost the New Year, and in part due to the heavily compressed schedule we’re just about at the halfway point of the season. As is often said, ‘tis a good time of year to reflect so I’m about to come clean and reflect upon my recommendations thus far, both good and bad, and I’ll re-evaluate – are they still worthy of owning? Or have they turned into dogs? It’s time to revisit these selections one time only - I’ll list the players and their stats at the time of recommendation, and how they’ve done since. So let’s take a look back…back…back….

Ales Kotalik, winger, Buffalo Sabres.

Then: Eight games, three goals, two assists.

Now: 37 games, 17 goals, 28 points. Kotalik has since become the guy that Buffalo looks to on their power play – currently third in the league - and has ten power play goals, one behind the league leader. Recommended.

Dustin Brown, winger, Los Angeles Kings.

Then: Nine games, three goals, three assists, 15 penalty minutes.

Now: 38 games, seven goals, seven assists, 45 penalty minutes. Fantasy-wise Brown has been a bit of a disappointment – he went through an 11 game pointless streak. Even his penalty minute total is a bit deceptive as he had 15 in one game over a month ago. I still like Brown as a player and he has a great future but at this point he’s not worth much in any fantasy department. Not recommended.

Nathan Horton, center/winger, Florida Panthers.

Then: 13 games, seven goals, three assists.

Now: 28 games, 16 goals, 22points, +6. Horton missed a few games with an injured knee but he’s fast becoming the player the Panthers envisioned when drafting him third overall two years ago – he’s consistent (with a recent six game point streak) and I believe already the best player on the young Florida team – he might be a keeper within one season. Recommended.

Brian Gionta, winger, New Jersey Devils.

Then: 12 games, six goals, five assists.

Now: 36 games, 19 goals, 35 points. Gionta has been the brightest light for a flickering New Jersey squad this year, culminating in a US Olympic berth. He has become one of the most feared snipers in the league and also has ten power play goals to add to those bonus statistics. All around great fantasy player – recommended.

Martin Biron, goalie, Buffalo Sabres. T

hen: two games, one win.

Now: 15 wins, including a 13 game winning streak. I’d be lying if I said I knew he’d go on an absolute tear after Ryan Miller’s injury, but that’s exactly what he did in helping Buffalo shoot up the standings. He’s since again fallen behind Miller on the depth chart in Buffalo but he’s unquestionably drawing even more interest around the league. As I mentioned in my previous article, the Sabres aren’t going to keep three goalies (including Mika Noronen) all year - look for him to be dealt to a contender sometime in the next few months, and when this happens he’ll be that team’s number one goalie. Recommended.

Joffrey Lupul, center/wing, Anaheim Mighty Ducks.

Then: 16 games, eight goals, five assists.

Now: 35 games, 13 goals, 26 points. With four goals in his last four games, he’s showing his touch. While he hasn’t put up as many points as I would have hoped, he’s still on a decent pace – I would still recommend him for deeper leagues as a winger only.

Alexander Frolov, winger, Los Angeles Kings.

Then: 16 games, 14 points.

Now: 38 games, 13 goals, 36 points, +14. Frolov has since become one of the premier scorers in the league, residing in the top 25 for much of the past two months. Highly recommended (good luck getting him).

Dion Phaneuf, defense, Calgary Flames.

Then: 17 games, ten points, +1.

Now: 37 games, 21 points, +3. At this point a better real-life player than fantasy, which is saying a lot since he’s been in the top 25 for defense scoring most of the season. Phaneuf also has 17 power play points, which can be a huge addition if your league counts them. I did mention not to expect too many points from a rookie defenseman but Phaneuf is having a great rookie season and will become one of the top five defensemen in the entire league within two years. Recommended for deep and keeper leagues.

Jeff Carter, center, Philadelphia Flyers.

Then: 20 games, 12 points.

Now: 34 games, eight goals, 19 points. Clearly he hasn’t put up the points that he had in November, and he’s getting ice time usually in the 13 minute range. Carter is projecting to be a top power forward in the league within the next few years, and is an effective player this season, but he’s not there yet in terms of fantasy. Not recommended due to league depth at center.

Marek Svatos, winger, Colorado Avalanche.

Then: 19 games, ten goals, eight assists.

Now: 36 games, 20 goals, 34 points. Add in 14 power play points and Svatos has since become one of the premier rookies of this outstanding class, despite his -2 rating. Highly recommended as a premier player.

Chuck Kobasew, winger, Calgary Flames.

Then: 23 games, nine goals, three assists.

Now: 36 games, 11 goals, 16 points, -2. Only two points in his last eight games and he’s currently playing with Chris Simon and Matthew Lombardi. Whoa. Not recommended at this time.

Alex Steen, center/winger, Toronto Maple Leafs.

Then: 25 games, eight goals, eight assists, +4 (3rd best on team)

Now: 32 games, 10 goals, 20 points, +5. Steen is still quietly contributing to an inconsistent Leafs squad. However he is currently nursing a thumb injury. I like Steen’s play and still recommend him in deeper leagues at wing only.

Kyle Wellwood, center, Toronto Maple Leafs.

Then: 24 games, 13 points, +7 (best on Leafs).

Now: 35 games, six goals, 19 points. His +9 is still best on the team, but his point production is not great. With only two shots in his last three games it’s hard to say Wellwood would be good for your team this year. Not recommended.

Brent Seabrook, defense, Chicago Blackhawks.

Then: 23 games, 13 points, +7 (2nd on team), 18 penalty minutes.

Now: 33 games, 16 points, 30 penalty minutes, +8 which is tops on the team. Here’s another great rookie defenseman and this one on a pretty lame team. Seabrook is still a good pickup for combination leagues – recommended in deeper leagues.

Jonathan Cheehoo, winger, San Jose Sharks.

Then: 27 games, 19 points.

Now: 35 games, 18 goals, 28 points. Of late he seemingly hits it big or gets nothing - in his last seven games he’s scored multiple goals three times and five times this month has registered multi-point nights. I love Cheechoo’s play though, and highly recommend him in all leagues.

Brandon Bochenski, winger, Ottawa Senators.

Then: 13 games, 11 points.

Now: 18 games, six goals, 13 points, +7. Unfortunately, Bochenski separated his shoulder in a game against Toronto and will be out likely until February. Patrick Eaves has taken his place and is doing a great job on the second line. Not recommended.

Jason Pominville, winger, Buffalo Sabres.

Then: 6 games, 5 points.

Now: 14 games, three goals, eight points. Well, the good is that he has indeed stuck with the big club in Buffalo and is playing a solid role. The negative from a fantasy standpoint is that most of the time lately he’s been on the Sabres’ grinder line with Adam Mair and Paul Gaustad. He’s not going to get many points there but still keep a watch – if he’s promoted to one of their top lines due to more injuries (JP Dumont and Daniel Briere are out for extended periods) he has the skills to match anyone on the team and will increase his scoring. Recommended for deep leagues only.

Ah, okay - I can’t forget my bitter column – guys to completely avoid. Let’s see how they’re doing…

Nick Boynton, defense, Boston Bruins.

Then: 14 games, six points, 16 penalty minutes, -8.

Now: 23 games, seven points, 24 penalty minutes, -6. Boynton actually improved his play a bit since I gave him the business but he fractured his kneecap in early December and won’t be back for a few weeks. No reason to own him.

Sergei Fedorov, center, Columbus Blue Jackets.

Then: five games, one assist (all w/ Anaheim).

Now: 23 games, one goal, eight points. -3. The dream is over, Sergei. Enjoy your paycheck as it could be your last (ah, there’s always a renegade General Manager or two to hope to resurrect a once-great-career…maybe he’ll be on the Island in a few seasons…)

Corey Perry, winger, Anaheim Mighty Ducks.

Then: 13 games, one goal, five assists.

Now: 15 games, six points. I should include his Portland statistics as soon after I initially wrote about him he was sent down to the Pirates of the American Hockey League. This is where he belongs for a while – he’s obviously comfortable there, scoring 24 points in only 13 games. Perry should learn the finer aspects of pro hockey in the AHL and if he puts it together this highly regarded offensive talent could be a contributor in the NHL in a few years.

That’s my first half wrap-up. Next week we’re back to the normal recommendations. Happy New Year!

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

22 December 2005

Arron Asham, Steve Begin, Ethan Moreau

Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition

By Rob Aquino


Last week we took a unique look at combination stats – an attempt at answering the question of who might have the best combination of points and penalty minutes in the NHL this season. That seemed to go over well so I’d like to introduce another statistic to the formula that many leagues use – “plus-minus” (+/-). For the uninitiated, plus-minus is simple: if you’re on the ice when your team scores an even-strength or short-handed goal, you are awarded a “plus” – indicating that on some level you had the good hockey sense to contribute to your team’s goal - in theory. On the other hand, if you are on the ice when your team is scored against at even-strength or when your team is on the power-play, you’ll receive a “minus.” Meaning you stink.

OK, that’s obviously facetious and simplistic. The idea is to eventually paint an overall picture of a player’s contributions to the team’s success in a different way than mere goals and assists.

As has been noted by many, the plus-minus stat is decent when comparing between players on one team but since it is incredibly team-dependent, it’s a bit disingenuous to compare players on drastically different teams like, for example, Ottawa and Pittsburgh. Actually, Dany Heatley would be a good example: in each of his last two seasons he was a -8 for Atlanta, this year he’s already a fantastic +25. While I’m willing to accept that his game has improved, I’m much more willing to accept that dramatic and sudden difference as a function of his vastly improved teammates.

Historical stats for plus-minus are spotty at best, but the records are fun to examine: on the plus side, the great Bobby Orr logged an unbelievable +124 in 1970-71. Nobody will argue against Orr being one of the sport’s all time greats, but that total was obviously supplemented by his awesome team that year - the Bruins scored 399 goals in total, led by Phil Esposito and his then-record 76 goals. On the negative side of the ledger, in the 1974-75 season the Washington Capitals’ Bill Mikkelson grossed an unreal -82! In fairness, that team was historically awful – I still recall a 14-2 drubbing the Buffalo Sabres put on them around Christmas time that year – one of 67 losses for the Caps in their inaugural season.

In the end, we’re not here to debate the merits of the stat – it is what it is, and it’s used in a lot of expanded fantasy leagues. Finding who has the best +/- is easy, obviously – that would be everyone playing for Ottawa. Five of the top seven are Senators. But who are some of the unsung players that are contributing in the +/- realm and also putting up traditional points? Ah – once again we turn to the trusty spreadsheet (all stats as of Tuesday afternoon, December 20th) – many multiple-stat leagues simply use a player’s +/- total, so I’ve created a few queries that take that value. If we simply combine points and +/-, the top of the list isn’t surprising – Ottawa’s “Pizza Line” of Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson, and Jason Spezza take up the top three spots. But the true overall combination would be if we re-introduce penalty minutes to the mix…let’s take a close look just a little ways down the list to find some real sleepers that at first glance you may have ignored, but are putting up good combo numbers:

Arron Asham, Right Wing, New York Islanders

Islanders’ winger Arron Asham is probably flying under the radar of a lot of leagues. Asham came out of Red Deer in the Western Hockey League as a big-time scorer – in his last two seasons he averaged 44 goals and over 1.4 points per game. He also averaged 150 penalty minutes over his four seasons with the Rebels. After being drafted in the third round by Montreal in 1996 he spent parts of a few seasons with Montreal, mostly bouncing up and down between the Canadiens and the American Hockey League. Only after being dealt to the Islanders in 2002 was he given a bigger shot, finally playing a full season in the NHL. Yet his high point total for a season is only 34, so before this year he clearly has not capitalized on what talents he obviously has.

This season Asham has 20 points in 31 games, not a bad total but not enough to really stick out. In combination leagues, however, Asham should be considered an elite player. He is one of relatively few plus-players on the Islanders team, at a +5. Add in his 68 penalty minutes and the combination puts Asham at 21st in the league. Asham has been playing with Alexei Yashin and Miroslav Satan, two well-known names to be sure - good offensive talent there, yet also very notorious for disappearing in crucial situations. At any rate, that’s what passes for the Islanders’ top line these days so if they get any opportunities, Asham will likely cash in and he has of late, scoring five points in his last four games.

Steve Begin, Center, Montreal Canadiens

First of all, let’s not kid ourselves – if you’re in a straight points league, Steve Begin is never going to be your guy. As a junior in the always offensive-minded Quebec Junior League, his high in points was 46 – not terrible but Mario Lemieux wasn’t exactly worried about his record. Scoring goals isn’t Begin’s game; he’s an energy-player – a third line player who has a role of playing tight defense and occasionally chipping in on the offensive end. He has also become one of Montreal’s top face-off men.

Yet if you’re in a combination league there are some good numbers associated with Begin - thus far this season in 31 games he’s tallied 12 points and is a +3. His 79 penalty minutes are what boosts him to a strong 28th in the league on our combined list. He has recently lined up with Pierre Dagenais and Michael Ryder; lining up with Ryder might help Begin get a few extra points. Begin is a fan and coaching favorite and will continue to get ice time for the Habs.

Ethan Moreau, Left Wing, Edmonton Oilers

At 34th in the league comes another surprise - Oilers winger Ethan Moreau. Moreau was a high draft pick by Chicago in 1994 (14th overall) after a big season in junior with 44 goals – he scored 82 goals in his final 121 games in the Ontario Hockey League. He never retained the scoring touch once he turned pro; being mostly used in a defensive forward or checking role. He’s carved out a pretty decent if unspectacular career for himself, mostly with the Oilers over the past six or so years. This year he’s actually on pace to beat his career high in points (32) - in 34 games this year he’s scored 19 points, and is a +8 with 51 penalty minutes. He is also tied for the league lead in shorthanded goals with three.

The Oilers have a strong team this year, and are right in the mix of the most competitive division in the league – Moreau is a crucial element on Edmonton’s checking line and I expect him to continue to get quality ice time in all crucial situations. Don’t count on him for more than 40 points overall, but the combination of his occasional offensive contributions combined with his excellent defensive play (and time in the box) will make him a solid depth player in your combined league.

Here are a few defensive quick shots - non-household names to file away in the “quality depth” category:

-Chicago’s Jaroslav Spacek - currently with 19 points and 52 penalty minutes, and is a +6.

-Ruslan Salei of Anaheim is another all-around sleeper with 12 points, 54 penalty minutes, and a team-high +12 rating.

-Andrei Meszaros of Ottawa has a league-high +25 as of December 21st, and add 15 points with 22 penalty minutes and you’ve got one of the better defenseman in the league.

-I’d also like to make note of Philadelphia defenseman Joni Pitkanen – he was having a terrific season until he tore his abdominal muscle; with 23 points in 25 games, a +18 and 42 penalty minutes, he is still 16th in the entire league (third highest defenseman) in our combination formula. Pitkanen is expected to be out until at least mid-January. The second-year player has nearly bested his rookie point total (27) already and if you have him on IR don’t let him go – he’ll be one of the Flyers’ most valuable players for the second half of the season.

That’s it for this week – next week we’ll do a little midseason fantasy review, with some surprises and disappointments at the season halfway point. I’ll go over my recommendations thus far this year and I’ll let you know if I feel if they’re still worth picking up (or if you should have ignored me all along).

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

15 December 2005

Power Forwards

Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition

By Rob Aquino


This week we’re taking the gloves off – this column was on its way to qualifying for the Lady Byng so I’m bringing a little feistiness to the table – we’re talking about guys who combine the offensive production with the nastiness – presenting the power forward.

The concept of the power forward in hockey has always been around, if not necessarily named that way. Back in the six-team era (and let’s please refrain from calling it the “original six” since only after 25 years of the NHL were those the teams comprising the league) toughness was necessary as teams would play each other 14 times per season – nearly insuring personal battles every time players stepped on the ice. There wasn’t room for a lot of finesse in those days.

While there’s no definitive way to pinpoint it, many point to the 1972 Summit Series – a now-legendary exhibition of eight games between the Soviet Union and Canada - as a pivotal time in the development of hockey in North America. The Russians played a style of hockey rarely seen in Canada – rather than using aggression and brute strength to retain the puck or manhandle the opponent to get it back, the Russians rarely if ever relied on body contact – their advanced passing and skating techniques were years beyond what was being seen and taught in Canada and the United States – for the first four games the Russians simply blew away the talented Canadian squad; the Canadians had expected to win at least seven of the games – after falling behind with only one win and one tie in the first five games Canada came back to dramatically win the final three games in Russia, in part by finally adapting to the fast-paced Russian attack but also combining that with a ruthless physical style…(in particular see Bobby Clarke’s game six slash of Russian superstar Valeri Kharlamov…).

The modern era of hockey has since often seen opposing schools of thought when it comes to putting together a hockey club, and the tide has ebbed and flowed. Soon after the ’72 series in Canada and Russia, the Philadelphia Flyers became known as the Broad Street Bullies for their outrageous intimidation tactics on the ice as they won two straight Cups. Yet immediately following their run the Montreal Canadiens assembled possibly the most skilled NHL team in history en route to four straight Cups of their own. The New York Islanders then went to five straight finals utilizing a mix of the two styles.

For the fans, however, there has always been the appeal of the “Gordie Howe hat trick:” a goal, an assist, and a fight. Longtime fan favorites can often be lumped into one of two categories: the prolific scorer, along the lines of Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Guy Lafleur, Gil Perreault or the power forward – the guy who can drop the gloves just as easily as dropping a game-winner – Cam Neely, Brendan Shanahan, Wendel Clark…even Tiger Williams!

Especially since the widespread popularity of the internet and ease of setting up hockey pools, many pools have expanded beyond the traditional “goals plus assists” methodology and used stats like penalty minutes.

I’m going to do something a little different this week – rather than my usual spotlighting of two or three players who I think warrant immediate attention in the fantasy hockey world due to their offensive skills, I’m going to take a more general look at some unheralded players “contributing” at both points and penalty minutes. Since there are so many varieties of multiple-stat leagues – rotisserie style, points, head-to-head – there’s no great way to analyze for everyone so I’ve compiled some “made up” stats, if you will, to assist those of us in multiple-category leagues.

I’ve compiled a spreadsheet of every player who’s registered a point this year, statistics through Monday the 12th (that’s 644 players if you care). One league I’m in tallies up points and gives half a point for penalty minutes, so I ran a query on those players who have played at least 20 games this year, and I did the math (well, Excel did the math) – here’s your top 10:

Sean Avery



Marc Savard



Jaromir Jagr



Bryan McCabe



Dany Heatley



Brenden Morrow



Zdeno Chara



Ilya Kovalchuk



Ladislav Nagy



Brendan Shanahan



Some names aren’t too surprising due mostly to gaudy offensive numbers but holy cow - look who’s at number one: your Rene Levesque award winner, Sean Avery of the Los Angeles Kings. In 30 games he’s tallied a respectable 16 points but his 108 penalty minutes gives him a whopping 70 points in our system. Avery has made himself notorious with his mouth but he’s only hurt himself – Avery has skill. In his four years in the Ontario Hockey League he totaled 253 points in 221 games, including 84 his final year. Of course he “complimented” the 84 that year with 215 penalty minutes. He’s been typecast in more of the enforcer role since turning pro, racking up major penalty totals at every stop. Thus far he’s a great pick if you’re tallying those minutes, and playing on a good offensive team, he’ll get his points. I never thought I’d be putting Marc Savard on a list like this but he is really finding a home offensively in Atlanta with 42 points so far. With adding in the 46 penalty minutes and you should have him high on your list of potential acquisitions. I’d offer one caveat: Savard could be great trade bait this year, as Atlanta is struggling and I would actually think his point production would most likely drop on another squad, being away from offensive wizards Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa - tread warily, and if he’s on your team, you might be able to sell him high.

Let’s move away from the forwards for a minute and talk defense– the Leafs’ Bryan McCabe has certainly stepped up to have a career year thus far, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better overall fantasy option on defense than Ottawa’s Zdeno Chara. The 12-foot tall Chara has put up decent numbers with the Senators over the past few seasons (…and for my cheap-shot of the week, hey, hey! another nice trade by Mike Milbury) and is continuing to impress this year with 16 points in 27 games. He’s got 78 penalty minutes and on top of all that he’s a +17. The next defenseman on our list comes in at number 16 with the Islanders’ Alex Zhitnik. He’s got 22 points in 29 games and 56 penalty minutes. OK, so his overall play has been getting mixed reviews on the Island, but he’ll definitely help your fantasy team (except for that -1).

A few other players way up on the list that may have been floating below the radar are Brendan Morrow of Dallas and Chris Neil of the Ottawa Senators. Morrow has taken the top left wing slot for the Stars playing alongside Jason Arnott and Bill Guerin. Morrow peaked last season with 49 points but is on pace to better that this year with 23 points in just 27 games and 65 penalty minutes. Chris Neil has been one of the year’s bigger overall surprises actually – his rookie year of 2001-2002 proved to be his biggest in terms of points with 17 (also logging 231 penalty minutes). He has already matched that this year in only 25 games. He hasn’t exactly shied away from his usual collection of penalty minutes either, with 63. His minutes have generally increased this year, peaking Monday night at over 17 against the Avalanche.

Finally, if we look at the numbers on a per-game basis, Sean Avery still comes out on top. Peter Forsberg is second, due to his 41 points in 22 games, but the next three spots are taken by Savard, Morrow, and Chara. It’s definitely more difficult to gauge players when you’re dealing with multiple categories, as opposed to merely points, so outside of the obvious superstars it may be possible for you to pry some of these less-heralded players loose from other teams.

That’s it for this week – let me know what you think - your comments and suggestions are always welcome.

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

08 December 2005

Jonathan Cheechoo, Brandon Bochenski, Jason Pominville

Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition

By Rob Aquino


Fully two months into the season, it gets more and more difficult to find those diamonds in the rough; players who you are eager to pick up that other owners haven’t noticed yet. At this point you have to look beyond the “top 20” points lists and analyze situations to look for breakout players.

What are some signs that a player might suddenly increase their production? Players “break out” for many different reasons. Some come into the league as baby-faced rookies, take their lumps for a while, then hopefully by their third or fourth year they harness their talent and “put it all together.” Chris Pronger would be one example; a second overall draft pick by Hartford in 1993, he struggled early in his career. After a trade to St. Louis (for Brendan Shanahan) he blossomed and became one of the premier players in the league for the rest of the decade.

A second reason for a breakout would be due to a teammate or organizational injury, giving a young player an otherwise unscheduled opportunity to make an impact. In the fall of 1993, Buffalo goalie Grant Fuhr went down with a knee injury which forced unproven Dominik Hasek to take over, in which all he did was begin an historic career which will lead him to the Hall of Fame (alongside Fuhr).

At any stage of their careers, players who are placed into new roles – either due to being dealt to a more talented team or simply finding chemistry with new linemates - can also find themselves suddenly thrust into the limelight. John LeClair was a serviceable winger for the Montreal Canadiens in the early 90s, even chipping in some crucial overtime goals in Montreal’s last Cup year of 1993, but it wasn’t until he was shipped to Philadelphia and united with Eric Lindros and the “Legion of Doom” line (along with Mikael Renberg) that he broke out – in his case, nearly immediately. He went from a total of 46 goals in three years in Montreal to three straight 50+ goal seasons and elite status.

Of course, you could always garner international attention entering the league as a cleanly-shorn rookie, only to develop a world-class mullet after a decade and attract the attention of Albertan centenarians. We’ll consider that category Ryan Smyth’s alone.

This week I’m looking at a few players in suddenly new situations for them – two players who have benefited from injuries within their organizations and were thus recalled from the American Hockey League, and one who should benefit from a major acquisition by his team…

Jonathan Cheechoo, Right Wing, San Jose Sharks

The obvious big news around the NHL this past week was the trade of Bruins’ captain Joe Thornton to the San Jose Sharks. I always try to reside in the “let’s see how this plays out” camp for major deals and despite the hue and cry from Bruins fans everywhere, I think this trade could benefit them in myriad ways. That’s for another column, however, as I think this will definitely benefit the Sharks, including a number of their players on a production basis. With San Jose’s top two centers now being Thornton and Patrick Marleau, both currently residing comfortably within the top 20 scorers in the league, they suddenly have a good amount of offense to go around, which makes it tougher for opponents to key on only one line.

I really like the opportunity this affords winger Jonathan Cheechoo, a gifted scorer who did have 28 goals last season but may have been under many owners’ radars since he only totaled 47 points. Since acquiring Joe Thornton as a teammate, Cheechoo has been fortunate enough to be wedded to Joe Thornton on every shift (along with cousin Scott Thornton on the far wing) – this bodes very well for Cheechoo’s future performance, and seeing as the Sharks have won each of the three games since Joe’s arrival the likelihood of them staying together – at least for the immediate future – I would claim is pretty strong.

Cheechoo was a great goal-scorer in juniors – averaging 37 goals per season over his three years with the Belleville Bulls, and leading them to the OHL championship in his second year – but he’s never been a flashy speed-burner. Reminds me a little of the description of Joe Thornton – one of the knocks on Thornton in Boston was that he too-often looked lackadaisical. I think he was unfairly slotted in some circles and he simply is what he is – a very good offensive forward yet not always suited for end-to-end rushes - and I think he and Cheechoo should complement each other well. Cheechoo has a great shot and offensive strength that could cause fits for opposing teams. Cheechoo already has decent numbers this year, with 19 points in 27 games but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him increase his production immediately and dramatically with his new all-star linemate. At worst I would figure Cheechoo would spend the rest of the year either on Thornton’s or Marleau’s wing, so expect to see Jonathan Cheechoo rising up the scoring leaders soon.

Brandon Bochenski, Right Wing, Ottawa Senators

Brandon Bochenski initially caught a lot of people’s attention in the preseason, playing on a line with Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley and scoring six goals. However, once the regular season rolled around Bochenski got cold, potting just one goal in the first ten games before being sent back down to Binghamton of the American Hockey League. Fantasy owners everywhere were discarding Bochenski, relegating him to the where-are-they-now file faster than Sean Avery makes ignorant comments.

Bochenski’s been a big goal scorer for some good clubs in his young career – for perennial NCAA powerhouse North Dakota he finished his last two seasons with 62 and 60 points, the last season in 2004 finishing second in the nation in scoring. Last year he scored 34 goals while spending the entire year in Binghamton and although he doubtless was not excited about being sent back down from Ottawa in late-October, he nevertheless regained his scoring touch with 17 points in 14 games while awaiting another chance.

That chance came relatively quickly – at the beginning of December. Martin Havlat - yet another (ho-hum) super-skilled forward for the Sens - dislocated his shoulder and Brandon got the recall from the AHL to replace Havlat temporarily. He’s done a great job thus far: in his three games back Bochenski has six points, including a hattrick last time out against Florida.

In what may have been bad luck for the Senators looks as though it has turned out to be good luck for Bochenski. As of mid-week, Havlat’s diagnosis has taken a turn for the worse as he will miss significant time and in a worst-case-scenario he’ll need surgery and could miss the entire season. If that happens, of course it isn’t a guarantee for Bochenski to remain in Ottawa but it certainly keeps the door open for someone, and Bochenski is there right now, and making (positive) noise.

Bochenski has been lined up with Bryan Smolinski and Vaclav Varada, not exactly names that should excite you offensively. So keep a cautious but steady eye on Bochenski – as I mentioned, he will likely get his chances to remain in Ottawa for a while with Havlat’s injury and if he puts more quality games together he will hopefully get more time on the power play (fairly negligible since his latest call-up). If that happens be sure to snap him up as even a doorstop playing on the Senators’ power play could put up points this year.

Jason Pominville, Winger, Buffalo Sabres

This is a deep recommendation – I’ll cut right to the chase and mention that as of this Wednesday Jason Pominville has only been up with the big club for six games this year, and has a grand total of seven games played in his entire NHL career. Yet I believe Pominville stands a good chance of sticking and scoring points with Buffalo.

For someone with such an impressive scoring resume it has taken a long time to make it to the show. In the past, size (listed at 186 pounds this year) has been the impediment between Pominville and a legitimate chance in the NHL. He averaged 117 points over his last two seasons in the Quebec Major Junior League, and then 32 goals over his first two full seasons in the AHL with Rochester. This season he had 19 goals in only 18 games with the Amerks – clearly this is a player who has been ready for the next step.

Much like Bochenski in Ottawa, injuries played a part in Pominville’s recent recall to the big club. Buffalo recently lost Daniel Briere and JP Dumont to injuries, and for what looks to be a significant amount of time (Dumont for at least three months). Pominville got the recall two weeks ago, and in his first game up against Washington he got a good amount of ice time, logging over 15 minutes and getting his first NHL goal on a beautiful setup from Maxim Afinogenov.

Against Colorado last Sunday night he played with Tim Connolly and Ales Kotalik, currently two of Buffalo’s top three scorers. Pominville played nearly 17 minutes and recorded a goal and assist in a big win over the Avalanche.

Positives to Pominville would be that he would seem to be a good fit for the system the Buffalo Sabres play, which is a high-tempo emphasis on speed. Thus far he has fit in well; notching four shots in each of the past two games and logging more ice time each game. He has a big shot and has been used on the point on Buffalo’s power play, currently ranked fourth in the league. At his best, Pominville is a dynamic offensive talent and could pile up points in the NHL if given the chance.

One of the problems with owning a Buffalo forward isn’t that the team doesn’t score – it’s that they spread out their scoring. They’ve had a quite successful season to date and much of the credit goes to the fact that although they don’t have the one dominating line, they can roll out four lines that can score. Another fact to keep an eye on is that he’s already been sent down to the AHL once this year and according to the current collective bargaining agreement he’ll have to clear waivers if he plays in ten or more regular season games. What that basically means is that if Pominville reaches ten games played, the Sabres would have to risk putting him on waivers to send him back down to Rochester, in which case another team could claim him.

Watch Buffalo and Pominville in particular over the next week or two – Daniel Briere is expected to return within a few weeks and if Pominville stays with the club through his return, I would recommend Pominville in deep leagues as he could surprise you with some points through the winter.

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

01 December 2005

Alex Steen, Kyle Wellwood, Brent Seabrook

Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition

By Rob Aquino


We’ve reached the quarter pole of the season and teams are starting to find out their identities – teams like Los Angeles, New York, and Carolina are all realizing to their surprise that they are all in first place and serious playoff contenders, whereas teams with higher hopes like Boston and Columbus are wondering when it might be time to cut bait and take a completely new direction. Teams are changing or solidifying their lineups – Phoenix for example has shed a good deal of their initial lineup and are now more or less set for the time being as they’ve seen their fortunes increase greatly over the last month.

In a fantasy hockey sense, this is important in that we may be seeing some players getting more opportunities over the next few months that they may not have received through the first two months of the season. As I’ve been noting for the past few weeks, the raw fantasy numbers alone do not and can not tell the story as to whether a player is a worthy investment, or at least someone you should be looking at. Ice-time is obviously the most important supplemental stat but situational statistics such as power play time and linemates are also going to contribute (or not) to a player’s bottom line. Be on the lookout for players who are getting longer shifts, more power play opportunities.

After finishing last week’s column which focused (mostly) on rookies, I decided that one column wasn’t going to be nearly enough. As opposed to most of the past decade where the rookie “race” has usually boiled down to two or three at most, this season is seeing a nearly unprecedented number of rookies having an impact and I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at a few more this week; some who have been seeing quality ice time all season and some who are true long shots but through a bit of luck might be ready to contribute this year.

We’re sticking with three players from old Norris division teams - first we’ll look at a pair of Leafs and then a top Blackhawk prospect making an impact already.

Alex Steen, Center/Wing, Toronto Maple Leafs

The last few seasons have seen the Toronto Maple Leafs trying to succeed by taking on high-priced veterans; mostly so-called “name” players like Ed Belfour, Joe Nieuwendyk, Owen Nolan, Alexander Mogilny, etc. etc. This has obviously led to some measure of success – averaging a very good 98 points over the past six seasons. Yet Leafs fans – or more realistically Leafs-haters (read: the roughly 27 million Canadians not living in Metro Toronto…) – are more apt to cite the number 1967 instead, referring to the last season the Leafs won the Cup (also the last time they even made it as far as the finals). They’ve since jettisoned some of the vets and replaced them with others (e.g. Eric Lindros, Jason Allison).

Some have made the argument that the old guys helped them put together excellent regular seasons but didn’t have the energy to take them through the grueling playoffs. That seems a bit simplistic to me, but I do agree that the Leafs have needed an influx of youth and this season they are starting to display a bit of their farm talent.

Alex Steen was a first round selection in 2002 and the son of former NHL standout Thomas Steen. Steen the younger has increasingly seen more responsibility as this season has gone on to where he now plays regularly over 18 minutes per game, and occasionally more than 20.

The coaching staff has been showing a lot of confidence in Steen in both starting him the last few games as well as having him on the ice late in the game in close situations. Last Monday at Florida in a 2-1 victory, after the Leafs pulled ahead midway in the third period, Steen was awarded with five shifts the rest of the way, a sure sign that his two-way play is valued by the Leafs’ staff.

All the accolades in the world are wonderful but in and of themselves don’t win you fantasy leagues…so what are his numbers like? In 25 games this year he has 16 points, notching eight goals and assists each. He is a +4 which is good for third best on the team. He’s clearly getting his opportunities as he has 65 shots, good for third on the team.

On the other hand, Alex doesn’t really have the greatest offensive history; or maybe more accurately we really don’t know how we should project his offensive capabilities. He played the last four years professionally in the Swedish Elite League and peaked at 24 points in 48 games two years ago – last year he had 17 in 50 games. However, the Elite league was a veteran league – for instance, among his teammates last year were Peter Forsberg, Markus Naslund, Henrik and Daniel Sedin so he may have been down the list in terms of ice time.

The bottom line on Steen is this: he is now being treated not much differently than any of the more esteemed vets on the Leafs’ squad which is an honor. He’s on the power-play, killing penalties, and getting as many shifts as any other. Of late (most of the last week) he’s been on a line with Mats Sundin and Kyle Wellwood (see below). He’s not flashy but enjoyable to watch play as it seems that he has the skills to last in this league for years to come. Judging by all these facts I expect Steen to put up decent but not great numbers – in other words, someone to have on the bench to keep an eye on, and especially if your league takes +/- into account. Also note whether he qualifies as winger in your league – as center he’s less valuable.

Kyle Wellwood, Center, Toronto Maple Leafs

Kyle Wellwood is another of Toronto’s talented young rookies, and is of a different mold than Steen. Wellwood is flashier and has unquestionably more offensive pedigree, starring for four years in the Ontario Hockey League for Belleville and Windsor. Twice he tallied at least 100 points including leading the OHL in only his second year with Belleville with 118 points. He was actually traded in a very big OHL deal to Windsor for Jason Spezza and was an offensive force for the Spitfires, scoring 100 points and 41 goals in only 57 games in his last year there.

Wellwood has had the scoring touch at every level but if he has a knock against him, it is his tendency to be one-dimensional. Not selfish, per se, but he’s not great defensively and is almost anti-contact. Here’s a stat I find amazing: in 106 games with Windsor (including playoffs) he had zero penalty minutes. Zero. In one fantasy league I was in at the time it drove a friend of mine nuts as we gave points for penalty minutes – it was a running joke as to whether Wellwood would get in the box at all his final year, which he obviously didn’t.

If your league doesn’t count penalty minutes, why would you care? No penalties will keep him out of the box and on the ice, – theoretically. Often lack of penalty minutes will translate – rightly or wrongly – into lack of aggression to a coaching staff. As a result, this year Wellwood has been seeing action in every game, but hardly in every situation.

Wellwood had been playing mostly on the Leafs’ fourth line, but the tough part about analyzing the Leafs right now is the aforementioned line juggling by Quinn. Beginning last Saturday against Montreal, he has been getting a spot shift here and there on the first line with Mats Sundin and fellow rookie Alex Steen. The two games after that – in Florida and in Tampa – he has also gotten the start. These last few games have followed a pattern – starting each period on that top line, then getting only a few shifts per period afterwards. On the year he’s averaging around 11:20 per game, being used mostly in even-strength situations and not much in the later parts of the third period.

Don’t interpret this as signs that the team isn’t happy with him – indications that he’ll stay in the lineup are obvious: he keeps getting shots at playing with captain Sundin and two-way rookie Steen, plus most impressively his plus-minus is a +7, which is tops on the team in limited ice time. So how bad could his defense really be?

The outlook on Wellwood is this: Kyle is highly skilled offensively, in my opinion far more so than Steen. They just play a different game and right now in the season with the Leafs lineup they are more often in need of a two-way player than an offensive sparkplug in game situations. Wellwood probably isn’t valuable at this particular moment in a fantasy aspect for you but you have to watch the Leafs’ moves over the coming weeks – Jason Allison has been moaning about his ice time and role (he’s often on the fourth line). If Allison gets dealt to another team, I would expect Wellwood to step up and get solid time on the top three lines where he would be of definite fantasy value. Wellwood has 13 points in 24 games this year on very limited ice time. With more minutes and his skill, he would definitely put up points that would make him valuable.

Brent Seabrook, Defense, Chicago Blackhawks

Breaking into the NHL at defense is more difficult than offence for many reasons, among which would be the inability to get away with “floating” – if you play bad defense, you’ll be exposed immediately as opposed to a forward merely going through a game without taking a shot. This season, Calgary’s Dion Phaneuf (see the 11/10 hockey Treasure Hunting article for his profile) is thus far the clear front runner for rookie defensemen but Chicago’s Brent Seabrook is making a nice impression himself.

Seabrook has been a highly touted defensive prospect for a few years after having been selected 14th overall by Chicago in the 2003 draft out of Lethbridge in the Western Hockey League. He’s been projected to be both a talented two-way defenseman and a “leader” – to me always a comical (not to mention unnecessarily pressure-packed) label to throw at a 17 year old kid.

As for numbers, he put up solid ones in the WHL, topping off at 54 points and 107 penalty minutes in 63 games his final season which was only last year. It was a little surprising to me to see him make the jump this year to the big club in Chicago – Chicago’s rather obvious lack of success in recent years probably played a big part in him getting a chance this year. Why not spend the time developing one of your top prospects, right? The risk here is that by expecting him to develop while in the NHL they ran the risk of putting him in a situation over his head.

However, Chicago has clearly made the right decision, thus far at least. He’s already a +7 which is good for second on the entire team. He’s fifth in team scoring with 13 points in his first 23 games (while adding 18 minutes in penalties) – good totals for any defenseman and actually second in the league as far as rookie defensemen (to Phaneuf).

Seabrook has been one of the Hawks starting defensemen of late, and getting special teams play as well. Chicago is still a pretty bad team but is hopefully trying to turn things around with a veteran netminder (Nik Khabibulin) and a core of young talent (Mark Bell, Tyler Arnason, Kyle Calder, fellow rookie standout Pavel Vorobiev). Based on his excellent start, Brent Seabrook will get his chances all year and although I expect his output to likely ebb and flow throughout his first NHL season, he has shown the poise necessary to succeed in this league. He would be a fine pickup for the back end of your defensive corps.

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

24 November 2005

Jeff Carter, Marek Svatos, Chuck Kobasew

Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition

By Rob Aquino


Do you remember the days when you could name more than one rookie in the NHL? Years where you’d look at the leader board and there would actually be a rookie or two in the top 20 in scoring for the league? No? Ah, the joys of living in an era of Mike Johnson and Tyler Arnason…

OK, that’s a cheap shot. I don’t think it’s necessarily a knock on the quality of rookies by any means; more so it is and has been the system they play in. My pointing out of Johnson (who tied for the rookie scoring lead in 1998 with a whopping 47 points) and Arnason (39 points in 2003, second behind Henrik Zetterberg) is that it just hasn’t been exciting to take a flyer on rookies in the past decade or so - drafting or acquiring rookies has been a risky proposition at best. While the league was seeing a nearly historic dearth of scoring, it also meant that it was difficult for rookies to make a strong offensive impact. Once upon a time it wasn’t so rare for rookies to be among the overall point leaders – players such as Peter Stastny, Dale Hawerchuk, and even Joe Juneau all scored over 100 points in their rookie seasons. By my count, the past seven seasons have only seen eight rookies even hit the 50 point mark.

This year is shaping up to be one of the better rookie classes in recent memory, bringing to mind such seasons as 1993 when Eric Lindros made his much anticipated debut with 41 goals, Joe Juneau had 102 points for Boston, and Teemu Selanne shocked the hockey world in Winnipeg by obliterating the rookie goal scoring record with an outrageous 76 goals. I won’t suggest that we’ll see totals that high but with the amazing starts this year of Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, we will once again see rookies among the best players in the entire league. Others like Thomas Vanek, Pavel Vorobiev, Alex Steen, and Calgary’s Dion Phaneuf (profiled here two weeks ago and in any other year the runaway Calder favorite at this point) are all making a significant impact already.

Why so many this year? Seemingly the most obvious reason for this is that those who would have been rookies last year had an extra year to develop their games in leagues such as the American Hockey League, Canadian Hockey League, or overseas due to the NHL lockout. Alexander Ovechkin would undoubtedly have been playing for the Capitals last year had there been a season. So as fans we get a gift of getting two years’ worth of rookies packed into this one season.

Another reason that rookies are succeeding this year more than in recent seasons would undoubtedly be due to the new emphasis on skill. I think it’s safe to say that guys like Ovechkin and Crosby would excel in any era but I also think it’s fair to say it’s likely they wouldn’t have the scoring success they do this year under the so-called “old” rules of the NHL. Players have more of a chance to establish themselves without, frankly, getting mugged on the ice. Creativity is more encouraged this year as opposed to it being stifled in years past where you were more likely to “make it” in the NHL by simply surviving.

This week I’m taking a look at two other rookies on the rise, as well as a young second-year player who is on a roll this month.

Jeff Carter, Center, Philadelphia Flyers

Jeff Carter was Philadelphia’s first of two first round picks in the 2003 draft, at number 11 overall. Carter played a full four years in the Soo (Sault St. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League) leading the team in scoring in each of the last three seasons. In his last three seasons Carter tallied 211 points in only 173 games, including 105 goals.

Carter seemed ready to turn pro last year. However, as with many rookies this year, last year’s lockout might have been beneficial to Carter’s development. He’s a big guy, and typically big centers have taken a few years before they develop their scoring touch at the NHL level. For a good example of this, see teammate Keith Primeau who was picked third overall in 1990 – it took him until his fourth season to find the touch when he potted 31 goals for Detroit.

Last year he returned to Sault St. Marie in the OHL and after the Hounds were bounced in the first round of the OHL playoffs in seven games (in which Carter potted five goals and five assists), he was signed by the Flyers and assigned to the AHL Phantoms. After only three regular season games, he helped them in 21 playoffs games by scoring 12 goals and 23 points. Remember last year this was arguably the highest league in the world overall.

Ironically Primeau might be a rather unwilling key to Carter’s further NHL development – the veteran center went down with a concussion at the end of October and has yet to return – his absence has given others a chance to play and step up, and Carter has filled that absence. In the 11 games since Primeau’s injury, Carter has registered ten points and has been getting a much more regular shift. Jeff Carter hasn’t averaged a lot of ice time yet this year, with just over ten minutes per game overall to this point. However, that number is a bit deceiving as over his past four games he’s increased his ice time to between 12 and 18 minutes.

Primeau’s concussion isn’t his first, and there have been rumors of his retirement. This is only important in that if Primeau comes back, Carter will possibly see his ice time revert to the lower numbers from earlier in the season. Frankly, if I’m Bobby Clarke I’d be engraving Keith Primeau’s gold watch, thanking him for the service, and then kicking him to the curb to make room for the youngsters like Carter. If Carter continues to play as well as he has in the past few weeks he will force his way onto a permanent spot on the top three lines.

With the Flyers thus far being the second-highest scoring team in the league, having a premier player on their squad will help any fantasy team. In sum, at this point Carter wouldn’t project as a starter in most fantasy leagues but I would definitely recommend a bench spot for him in the event that he does become one of the top Flyer centers by mid-season.

Marek Svatos, Right Wing, Colorado Avalanche

Colorado right winger Marek Svatos has the pedigree of a prolific scorer - in two years of junior with the Western Hockey League’s Kootenay Ice he had 118 points in 92 games – he’s not just a setup man – he’s a goal scorer, potting 38 in only 53 games in his Memorial Cup winning season of 2002, with an extra 12 goals in the playoffs.

Of all the “unheralded” rookie forwards, Svatos might be having the most impressive season. His raw numbers alone are quite good, with ten goals and 18 points in 19 games. He is third in rookie scoring behind the “big two” but with relatively very little ice time – while Ovechkin and Crosby have both played over 19 minutes per game, Svatos is only averaging 13 minutes per game which ranks 42nd among rookies. Compare this to teammate and future Hall of Famer Joe Sakic who also has 19 points this season while playing 20 minutes per game.

Svatos could be one of the true sleepers this year if his ice time increases and his present numbers project even a little bit. He’s been remarkably consistent, getting points in 13 games – only once has been held without a shot. He’s proving himself to be a clutch scorer as he is tops in the entire league in game-winning goals with five. Playing on a line with veterans Pierre Turgeon and Steve Konowalchuk is a great way to give him guidance as well as watching one of the all-time great scoring touches in Turgeon. I expect his ice time to increase, due to the results he’s already posted and the confidence the club shows in him by playing him with respected veterans Turgeon and Konowalchuk. Marek Svatos is a player who could start and contribute in your lineup right now.

Chuck Kobasew, Left/Right Wing, Calgary Flames

OK, OK, I cheated. Chuck Kobasew isn’t a rookie, but I wanted to talk about him this week as he and his team have both been making some big noise of late. Plus the other guy I was going to discuss was Philly center Mike Richards and frankly, one Flyer per week is enough. (…and it’s not like we’re talking about Sergei Makarov here, who won the Calder Trophy in 1990 at age 73; Kobasew is the same age as Svatos.)

The Calgary Flames were a hip pick to win the Cup this year after their surprising run to the finals in 2004. Yet the way they started off the year was more reminiscent of the Atlanta Flames, circa 1974 (Tom Lysiak was nowhere to be found) in losing nine of their first 14 games. Coach Darryl Sutter juggled the lines in November, trying to get all-world winger Jarome Iginla started after he was off to another slow start. The Flames started to win in November and after a few games Sutter put Iginla with Steve Reinprecht and Kobasew. Their first three games together were the team’s highest scoring games of the year and the team – as well as Kobasew – has been on fire ever since.

Kobasew came to prominence in the hockey world – and especially in New England – when as a freshman in 2001 with the Boston College Eagles he helped them end a 52 year drought as they won the NCAA title. On a stacked team he rose to prominence and ended up second on the team in goals with 27 (behind fellow NHL rising star Brian Gionta). After the season Kobasew was selected 14th overall in the NHL draft by Calgary and made a controversial move by leaving BC and joining the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets where he scored 41 goals in only 55 games. He progressed nicely the next season after signing with the Flames by playing in the AHL and scoring 21 times.

Kobasew probably wasn’t high on many poolies’ charts this season as in his first and only full NHL season he only scored 17 points in 70 games, and just one point in the long playoff march to the finals. Those 12 of us that paid attention to hockey during last year’s NHL freeze out may have noticed that there was some quality hockey being played in the American Hockey League and Kobasew was one of the league’s stars, ending up fourth in goals with 38.

Overall this year, Kobasew has nine goals and 12 points in 23 games. Decent but not overwhelming numbers, but the key here is his new opportunity – playing on a line with arguably the best player in the league in Iginla. In the six games since the Iginla/Kobasew/Reinprecht line has been together Kobasew has five points and as a result of being on the top line has played more often. Oh by the way, the Flames have won five of those six games moving to within two points of the Northwest division lead. I expect this line to stay together due to many reasons: Iginla’s resurgence, the team’s return to their aggressive play that was so successful in last season’s playoffs. Count on Kobasew to continue to put points on the board as long as he stays on this line, and with his otherwise overall average numbers you might be able to pick up Kobasew from an opponent rather cheaply.

Finally, congratulations to Danny Gare, who this week had his number 18 retired by the Buffalo Sabres. Ah, you’ve gotta love the old blue and gold jerseys…. Gare was the feisty captain of the high-flying 1970s Buffalo Sabres and played as an early version of Doug Gilmour. Furthermore, he was the last Detroit captain before Steve Yzerman. Win a bar bet or two with that fact.

Thanks for reading – comments and suggestions are always welcome.

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

17 November 2005

Sergei Fedorov, Nick Boynton, Corey Perry

Treasure Dumping, the Hockey Edition

By Rob Aquino


Hype. Webster’s dictionary gives one definition as “publicity, especially promotional publicity of an extravagant or contrived kind.” Sports hype can subconsciously affect your decisions and conclusions as a fan and as a fantasy player. If you “buy into” a prevailing opinion or trend and end up mistaken, it can cost you dearly in the standings.

Confession: I was a fan of the mid-80s Toronto Maple Leafs. I suppose I must have had a perverse affinity for really bad clubs as my Sabres were beginning a two-year playoff-less stretch as well, but there was something about the Leafs that made me watch and follow the club. 1985 gave the long-suffering Leaf fans new hope – they had the #1 overall draft pick Wendel Clark in their lineup, scoring and bruising his way through the league – the team ended up with only 57 points but infused the region with spirited play and somehow ended up in the playoffs where they blasted the first place and heavily-favored Blackhawks, sweeping them in three games, then bowed to St. Louis in a memorable seven games.

For the first time in a few years, it was potentially exciting to watch the Leafs but accompanying that excitement came a bit of starry-eyed optimism. Their third line center Peter Ihnacak had a younger brother who was playing back in Czechoslovakia behind the Iron Curtain and by all public accounts was a superstar-in-waiting. There were rumors all fall about a possible defection (look it up, kids) to Canada. Miroslav Ihnacak finally did defect in late 1985 and arrived in Toronto to enormous fanfare. In the fantasy league I was in, there was a mad scramble to claim Miro Ihnacak and I felt lucky enough to have grabbed him with my waiver claim, much to the chagrin of the other owners. I fell victim to the hype and immediately put him in my lineup. Sadly, it became rapidly apparent that the hype was way out of hand as Ihnacak the younger proved nowhere near worthy of NHL duty and totaled 17 points in 55 games with Toronto. Looking back, of course, those “public accounts” couldn’t have been too reliable considering that Miro Ihnacak wasn’t allowed to play outside Czechoslovakia by his government and I don’t recall the sports cable networks simulcasting many European games that year.

We are now obviously living in an age of unprecedented availability of information and news. The benefits are obvious; those of us who are sports fans can, in a few seconds, get statistics and information on any player anywhere in the world. The negatives are enormous but not as obvious – you can’t always vouch for the voracity of said information. As a harbinger to my first featured player, I bring up the trade of Sergei Fedorov. I read one article on a national website this week saying “this transaction was the most lopsided in the history of the game.” Wow. Among other problems, this guy obviously has never heard of Mike Milbury.

As in any exchange of information, you shouldn’t take anything at face value by default – gather unassailable facts and make your own conclusions.

This week I’m drawing some conclusions on a few players who I believe are valued higher than they should be, including a few young former first rounders, plus a former Hart trophy winner.

Sergei Fedorov, Center, Columbus Blue Jackets

Sergei Fedorov is a late and timely addition to the list. The (former) superstar was dealt Wednesday evening to the Columbus Blue Jackets for a copy of Sega NHL ’94 and a player to be named later. Seriously, Fedorov is still one of the bigger “names” in the NHL but in fact hasn’t been a truly elite scorer for years. Here’s a fact that surprised me: even though he put up 30 or more goals in each of the past four seasons, his point total has been over 70 only once since the 1996-97 season. Sure, the NHL has seen a dearth of scoring over the past decade or so but averaging approximately 67 points per season for the past seven years in my mind doesn’t make you a premier offensive player. Defenders can claim with some degree of authority that Fedorov’s skills aren’t limited to scoring, as he also plays a quality defensive forward. My response as a fantasy owner would be: I never drafted Bob Gainey back in the 80s, either.

You have to be able to properly evaluate players – both pro and con – to be successful in fantasy sports. Aside from gauging which players are on the upswing of their careers, it’s also crucial to determine which players are cruising by on their names only. Fedorov, to me, is still perceived to be a top player – in one of my long-time keeper leagues he was protected every year up until this one, where he was selected (after nine teams protected five players each) with the 3rd pick.

Obviously Columbus felt they needed to make some sort of big move after having started the season with five wins in their first 18 games. With their one superstar - Rick Nash - still out until at least mid-December, their season was, and is, slipping away. Doubtless the Blue Jackets believe – or hope – that Fedorov can recapture some of his old magic as well as feed Nash for a plethora of goals later in the season. But look at it the other way: why was Anaheim seemingly so willing to part with Fedorov for very little? They can claim salary dump, which is true, but the fact is – if he was valuable to the team they wouldn’t have gotten rid of him.

Making a trade for the 1994 Hart Trophy winner might bring people to the gate, but I would be very surprised if he made anything near a major contribution this year. He’s been nursing a groin injury and did not play last year during the lockout. He has one assist in five games this year. Avoid the temptation on Sergei Fedorov and go with youth instead. If you have him on your team, now is the time to deal him as you might be able to get good value for him.

Nick Boynton, Defense, Boston Bruins

Nick Boynton became notorious to many people for the fact that he’s a two-time first round pick in the NHL. In 1997 he was selected ninth overall by the Washington Capitals, but he never came to a contract agreement with the Caps. He then re-entered the draft in 1999 where he was selected by the Boston Bruins at #21 overall.

Boynton had a stellar junior career in Ottawa with the 67s, culminating with a Memorial Cup victory in 1999 in which he won MVP honors. In his final three years in Ottawa he registered just over a point per game, and brought a mean streak to the ice. His arrival in Boston was highly anticipated after spending two seasons with Providence in the American Hockey League; the hope was that he’d ascend the Bruins’ depth chart to become one of their top defensemen.

Thus far in three full NHL seasons he has increased his point total each year, reaching a high of 30 last season (2003-2004). You could make the case that he is progressing nicely, albeit slowly. I’m making the case that he’s not progressing enough and is in fact struggling in today’s faster NHL.

Nick Boynton held out this preseason, and finally came to terms five games into the regular season. In 14 games he has six points and 16 penalty minutes. Not bad totals, but there are more numbers that would concern me from a fantasy perspective. Boynton is not getting a lot of time on the power play where a defenseman can rack up points; last weekend against the Islanders he logged an impressive 25 minutes yet spent only 1:27 on the power play. He did register over six minutes while the team was shorthanded – possibly a sign that coach Mike Sullivan has faith in him down a man but that’s certainly not going to be a big boost point-wise for your fantasy squad. In his previous game against Ottawa he only spent 25 seconds on the power play in over 21 minutes overall.

He’s not likely to get any point production help from his defensive partners – the past two games he has been paired with Hal Gill (19 games, one point) and rookie Andrew Alberts (18 games, zero points).

Most troublesome of all, to me Boynton has looked hulking and slow on the ice this year, like a player painfully lost in the clutch-and-grab era of the NHL. More than once I’ve seen speedy forwards blow by him, and he has been unable to adjust – he can’t use the body in the same manner as in years past. That poor defensive play also has resulted in his currently team-worst -8 which will kill your team if your league uses that statistic.

Although Nick Boynton isn’t considered a superstar by any means, he’s a player who has some name recognition which may have translated into a fantasy pickup. Boynton is a defenseman who has relied on positioning and strength which helped him offensively – his defense has been sub-par this year which has prevented him from participating in many offensive situations. Find the Bruins fan in your league, talk Boynton up, and deal him.

Corey Perry, Right Wing, Anaheim Mighty Ducks

Finally, I’d like to look at rookie Corey Perry of the Mighty Ducks, a former first round pick in the 2003 draft. Perry is a skilled offensive winger who has seen numerous accolades thrown his way over the past few years while playing for the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights. His credentials seem impeccable. Perry led the team in scoring in each of his final three seasons of junior hockey and last year he was the league’s leading scorer with 130 points despite missing time at the World Junior Championships. In the postseason he led the Knights in scoring as they steamrolled their way to the Memorial Cup title, and Perry earned MVP honours.

Thus far this season – his first in the NHL - he has tallied six points (one goal) and added six penalty minutes in 13 games. He did suffer a concussion on October 28th but has been back in the lineup for a few games with no (reported) ill-effects. Then on Tuesday afternoon the Ducks announced the trade of Sergei Fedorov to the Columbus Blue Jackets. So in theory this could present a great opportunity for a guy like Corey Perry to establish himself in the NHL.

My use of “in theory” likely telegraphs where this review is heading. This is admittedly a tough call for me. I’ve seen Perry play for the Knights seven or eight times over the past four years, where the Knights went from a sub-.500 team to an all-time powerhouse. Each time I’ve seen him the league (and local) hype was high and without fail each time I came away unimpressed. There are a few ways I’ve tried to look at Perry’s numbers over the past few years - he played with incredible offensive talent over his tenure with the Knights, from Rick Nash to Dan Fritsche (both presently with Columbus) to Robbie Schremp (have you checked out his OHL totals this year? With a ridiculous 52 points in 14 games, I’m betting the Edmonton Oilers wish they hadn’t cut him in pre-season…) so one could argue that he benefited from his surrounding talent. Yet the talent kept changing and his point totals kept rising, so credit must be given to him for generating those numbers - even though I’d seen him play on multiple occasions, that sample size of games was still so relatively small as to his overall career to this point that it rendered it possibly meaningless.

Still, to my eyes Perry came across as a player lacking in maturity at times – he was often a target by opposing teams and he would let it affect him. Whereas someone like Nash would also be targeted, and would simply and obviously play harder and dig in the corners, take hits, and keep to his game, Perry too often would circle back, avoiding hits, and waiting for his grittier teammates to retrieve the puck for him…not to mention chirp unnecessarily at his opponents.

This isn’t necessarily a terrible approach (well, except for the chirping bit…) – you could apply much of that last sentence to Wayne Gretzky’s career and still be paying him a compliment. What I’d like to see from Perry is the ability to carry a team and step up when his teammates aren’t producing or aren’t close to his skill level. He’s been playing on a line with Todd Fedoruk (who has never been a scorer, even in the junior ranks) and a variety of centers. At this point in his career Anaheim might be taking the developmental approach with Perry and by putting him in defensive situations they’re emphasizing that his game needs to be more well-rounded before they count on him to be a go-to offensive threat. Back in the early 1980s the St. Louis Blues used this tact with Doug Gilmour, putting him on the 3rd line for three years before turning him loose as their #1 center (to which he responded by exploding for over 100 points).

There are some fantasy positives to Perry; he is getting power play time, with nearly three minutes last week against Dallas. A corresponding negative would be that he registered only two 3rd period shifts in that game. Does this indicate that the coaching staff is not yet convinced to use him in critical situations? Draw your own conclusions, but mine is to take Corey Perry off my sleeper radar for the time being until he develops a more complete game for himself.

Next week we’ll return the primary focus to players on the rise. Thanks for reading this week’s Treasure Hunting – your comments and questions are always appreciated – see you next Thursday.

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

10 November 2005

Joffrey Lupul, Alexander Frolov, Dion Phaneuf

Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition

By Rob Aquino


Assembling your fantasy team isn’t as simple as it appears on the surface. Sure, we’ve all been in leagues where an owner or two will just take last year’s stats and go down the list, using every pick to draft whoever is left from last year’s top 100 scorers list. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – an owner’s personal fantasy hockey preferences are nobody’s business but their own. But you’ve got to love those owners - they should be your automatic ticket to your league’s upper division. I believe the key to a winning team is a good blend of reliable point-producing stars and finding those diamonds-in-the-rough; either rookies or veterans finally getting a chance on a top line or getting extra ice time.

Balance is hard, but you’ve got to shoot for that “balanced portfolio.” There’s little doubt that drafting an “unknown” and then seeing him take his game to the next level is more fun, though. Finding those players is not easy and of course that’s what this column is all about…

One point I’ve tried to emphasize is that you have to pay attention to the individual game situations your players (or potential pickups) are playing in. It’s still early in the season where actual point totals might be a bit skewed due to the relatively small sample size of games – you can use this to your advantage by looking at some of the peripheral numbers to project who might be likely to put up more points in the future. One number I like to look at is actual power play time per game.

We’re going to stay out west for this week’s featured players – a trio of former first-round picks that are starting to make a big impact this year, all of which are getting that ever-valuable power play time…

Joffrey Lupul, Center/Right Wing, Anaheim Mighty Ducks

Joffrey Lupul’s game is all about scoring. After leading the Western Hockey League (WHL) in goals with 56 in 2001-2002, he was picked seventh overall in the 2002 NHL draft by Anaheim in a very top-heavy drafting class (Rick Nash, Kari Lehtonen, and Jay Bouwmeester were the much-heralded top three that year).

Following a prolific three-year stint with Medicine Hat of the WHL where he scored 127 goals in only 191 games, Lupul finally made the jump to the NHL in the fall of 2003 (after being a late cut from Anaheim the previous year). He put together a solid rookie campaign with 13 goals and 34 points. Last year in the AHL he put up very good numbers, scoring 30 goals and leading the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks in scoring despite missing 15 games.

So now that he’s with the big club, can we expect more of the same? I wouldn’t expect such lofty heights this year, but he has shown that he is already able to score at the top level. In 16 games this year Lupul has 13 points and eight goals. He has also scored six points on the power play.

Last game against Minnesota, he was lined up on the wing with the rejuvenated Teemu Selanne and Ryan Getzlaf as the Ducks’ top line. He began the season listed as a center in most leagues, but his eligibility has changed to reflect his status as a winger. This obviously increases his value in leagues that distinguish wingers from centers as generally the center slots are occupied by many of the league’s superstars.

The risk on Lupul is that he’s very young (22) and, as most young players are, he’s inconsistent and at times still finding his way in the NHL. Despite his respectable offensive numbers thus far, he has only two points in his last five games, with both of them coming in the same game.

Weighing all these facts, with him now qualifying as a winger, if he’s on waivers in your league I would recommend a pickup of Lupul. To me his numbers can only improve provided he stays healthy. Lupul logged eight minutes on the power play against Minnesota on Sunday and overall has been averaging over 19 minutes per game this season. As of Tuesday, Lupul was tied for sixth in the league in shots taken, which indicates he’s extremely active in the offensive zone. Put Lupul on your roster and be prepared to move him into a starting role later in the year.

Alexander Frolov, Left Wing, Los Angeles Kings of Los Angeles

Getting right to the point: you have to have this guy before everyone knows who he is…which might be as soon as next week. Alexander Frolov was another high draft pick, taken 20th overall by Los Angeles in 2000. As of 2002 he was considered by many to be the best player in Russia – at the World Junior Championships that year in the Czech Republic, Frolov led the Russians to gold with six goals in seven games. In the fall of 2002 he began his NHL career and by his second year he led the Kings with a decent total of 24 goals.

Yet this year, even after a slow start, he has looked nothing short of fantastic. He generates multiple scoring chances every game by using his great speed, and this year he has not been afraid to dig in the corners for the puck. The last few weeks have seen Frolov move up to the top line with the Kings’ big off-season acquisition, Pavol Demitra. Thus far Frolov has notched 14 points in 16 games, but this after only two in his first five games. Another very promising number to focus on from last Saturday’s game was that Frolov logged over ten minutes of power play time.

Last night against Detroit, Frolov was all over the ice, playing with Demitra and Craig Conroy, assisting on an early goal and getting three shots in each of the first and third periods, including netting an unassisted goal late in the third which tied the game (they later lost in overtime).

With the very nice start by Los Angeles this season, Frolov is likely no longer as much of an unknown as he may have been two months ago. The Kings’ winning ways are putting them in the limelight and if they keep winning Frolov’s value will only grow.

Frolov wasn’t drafted very high this preseason in most leagues (in one five-man keeper league I’m in with eight other teams, I took him in the fourth round; essentially the 73rd pick), but by the end of this season he could be a superstar and someone to consider holding onto in keeper leagues. If you’re in a keeper league and an opponent has Frolov, you may be able to pry him loose with an offer to your advantage – dangle a “name” veteran in a package deal and by March you may have made a killer move.

Dion Phaneuf, Defense, Calgary Flames

This column is overdue to profile a defenseman, and the Calgary Flames’ Dion Phaneuf I’m sure somewhere is thrilled to be the one. Phaneuf has been the recipient of a lot of press coverage in his native Canada since he was taken ninth overall by Calgary in 2003. Tabbed as the top overall Canadian junior prospect two years in a row, he was most notably a first-team all-star on the dominant 2005 Canadian World Junior team that steamrolled their way to the gold medal.

Phaneuf’s boyhood idol was Bryan Marchment (In fact, earlier this year the Flames signed the often controversial veteran to be an influence on the young Phaneuf). This should give you an idea of the kind of player Dion wants to become – he has not been afraid to mix it up - notching 185 penalty minutes in his second year in the WHL with Red Deer. However, his offensive skills are far beyond Marchment’s already, notching 24 goals in 55 games last year with the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League (WHL).

This year has been Dion’s first experience in the NHL. Breaking into the big leagues as a defensive player is often a humbling experience at times, but he has more than proven he belongs. In his first 17 games he has tallied 10 points and has been a +1. Calgary hasn’t exactly handled him with kid gloves, throwing him into every game situation thus far. Phaneuf has been pairing up defensively with Roman Hamrlik who was expected to be the top PP guy but last game against Vancouver it was Phaneuf getting the most PP time amongst Calgary defenseman with just under six minutes. He ended up scoring the game-winner late in the third period on the power play using his hard and quick shot. Phaneuf also led the team in hits during the game. Overall the 20 year old is 3rd on the Flames in ice time, logging over 22 minutes per game.

So should you go out of your way to get Dion Phaneuf on your roster? If he is available on waivers, get him immediately - he could be a contributing force to your team all season. As far as a trade, you may be able to pry him loose for a veteran. I look at the defensemen currently ahead of him in scoring and see him overtaking many of those within weeks. With six points in his last five games, he’s clearly playing with some confidence on a team expected to make noise deep into the spring.

However, just don’t get too hyped for huge numbers - after all this is a rookie defenseman in the NHL where the all-time record for points is 76 (Larry Murphy, 1981) and only five rookie defensemen have ever reached as many as 65 points in a season. Phaneuf, however, has made a relatively huge impact in only his first month in the NHL. He has earned the confidence of his teammates and peers – late last month he was pegged by Hockey Canada as one of the official preliminary candidates for the 2006 Olympic Team - the only freshman defenseman to receive the honor.

Let’s take a quick review of the players we’ve featured previously at Treasure Hunting and how they’ve done since:

Ales Kotalik, Buffalo – six games, six points with two last night against Carolina. Now on the second line in Buffalo.

Dustin Brown, Los Angeles – five games, three points while apparently trying to channel the great Tim Kerr by parking himself in front of the net on the power play.

Marty Biron, Buffalo – well, I was right about him being a No. 1…I just didn’t know it would be this soon and in Buffalo. With Ryan Miller out for at least another month, Biron will get the bulk of the starts which will likely make last week’s pasting at the hands of the Sens a distant memory. He played very well last week despite two losses to Montreal, but was not good in last night’s loss to Carolina.

Brian Gionta, New Jersey – three games, three goals.

Nathan Horton, Florida – two games, one sprained knee. He’ll miss at least three games.

Next week, we’ll take a slightly different approach and take a look at some young players whose name value and hype might be much higher than their actual fantasy potential for this season. Please feel free to drop a line with any comments or suggestions. Have a great week and thanks for reading!

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

03 November 2005

Nathan Horton, Brian Gionta, Martin Biron

Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition

By Rob Aquino


I’ll say it: I love the “new-look” NHL. LOVE it. I was highly skeptical going into the season, adopting more of a “show me, don’t tell me” attitude but thus far I have been swayed. There are a number of critics out there (coughPatQuinncough), mostly focusing on the huge amount of power-plays and the fact that the referees are learning on-the-job. I can’t necessarily debate that – one result has been a high number of questionable calls that have decided games. Case-in-point: Tuesday’s game between Florida and Montreal was arguably decided on a terrible call and a non-call against the Panthers. Chris Gratton was whistled for tripping in OT and the Habs proceeded to win it on Michael Ryder’s subsequent goal, helped in part by a Panther defenseman being hauled down in the slot. My thinking is that these will even out over time – it’s a long regular season and the only way the league will shake it out is to play a few months under the new rules. Better this than the old method – I’ve seen more skating and more offensive chances from more teams this season than at any time in the past 10 years. In today’s NHL, if you can’t skate, you won’t have a job. And if you have a slow team, you will lose.

The action is back, and with it comes something called “scoring” – which John Ziegler’s Heritage Dictionary defines as “the ultimate object of the NHL before teal was introduced.” Those of us weaned on hockey in the 70s and 80s are nostalgic for a return to the fast-paced action of those days – in 1987 Montreal’s Brian Hayward had the league’s best goals against average (GAA) of 2.81! That number would be good for 42nd in 2003-2004 when Marty Turco of Dallas posted an absurd 1.72 GAA. I won’t go so far as to say that won’t ever be matched again, but scoring is way up this year – an average of 6.4 goals per game as opposed to a figure of 5.0 per game last season.

As far as skaters go, this means more point-per-game players which is a joy from a fan perspective. However, fantasy-wise this means you’ll have to adjust your expectations – 50 points from your second wingers the past few years has been more than acceptable, but that hopefully won’t be the case any more. Remember: your team will have much better looking stats, but so will every other team. You’ll still have to find those gems as you have every year.

This week I’m focusing on a few different types of players – from the very young to a long-time veteran – I think each of them are appealing in a fantasy sense this year…

Nathan Horton, Right Wing, Florida Panthers

Ceiling Unlimited

The Florida Panthers are an interesting team from a “future watch” standpoint. This is a team with a number of exciting young players and a few aging veterans sprinkled in - but they have no superstar or true team leader – yet. They have a number of former high draft picks whose time to produce should be soon. Nathan Horton may be that star to lead the Cats into the next decade.

Horton has been a scorer at each level of play – he made a quick name for himself in the OHL during his rookie season for the Oshawa Generals in 2001-02, netting 31 goals in 64 games. Horton became a marked man in the ‘O’ the next season which resulted in a serious injury stemming from an early-season fight…with his future NHL teammate Anthony Stewart (then of the Kingston Frontenacs). He ended up missing a month but came back just as strong as he started, ending up with 33 goals and 68 points in only 54 games, while not shying away from the aggressive game in tallying 111 penalty minutes. Horton notched another 15 points in 13 playoff games including the biggest of his career to that point: OT goal in Game Seven of the opening round vs. Oshawa’s chief playoff rival, the Peterborough Petes (starring Eric Staal, the player chosen one slot ahead of Horton that spring in the NHL draft).

Numbers…words…numbers….would Horton be able to make the jump to the NHL? Certainly as a rookie in 2003-04 he was making the case - the 18 year old was playing so well he was garnering Calder trophy consideration halfway through the year. He was just getting comfortable in the league (potting five goals in six games) until he suffered a serious shoulder injury in early January, which affected his motion until this past summer, when he finally felt 100% for the first time in nearly two years.

Can Nathan Horton deliver on this promise in 2005? Serious injuries can obviously derail promising careers, but Horton lost nothing returning from the broken jaw in juniors – and this year’s return to the NHL has been no different. He has been playing on a line with Steven Weiss and Gary Roberts, and getting solid power play time, including over 8 minutes on the power-play Tuesday night in Montreal. In that game against the Canadiens he was fantastic – scoring a goal and assist, then getting robbed twice in OT after making a beautiful rush to the net.

His numbers this year are good: seven goals and 10 points in 13 games while playing over 15 minutes per game. After his recent play (three goals in the past four games) I can’t see how those numbers won’t increase. Horton is the future leader of this Florida team and with a young team that future may be this year. It’s likely in many leagues teams have been slow to pick up on his ascent – grab him if you can.

Brian Gionta, Right Wing, New Jersey Devils

New World Man

If the “new” NHL was made for any type of player, it would be Brian Gionta. The knock on Gionta – as well as his defining characteristic - has always been his size. Listed at 5’ 7”, 175lbs he was small even in the college game. This obviously didn’t affect him as he put up astonishing numbers in his stellar career at Boston College, which culminated in a thrilling national championship victory against North Dakota in 2001. He made the first or second All-American team in each of his four years at BC, scoring 123 goals.

Gionta has been an elite scorer at every level he has competed, setting many records along the way. Playing for the Rochester American junior B squad in 1995 he scored a record 89 points. The following season he moved up to the Metro Toronto Hockey League’s Niagara Scenics and in his second year he was the MTHL’s player of the year, leading the Central Division in scoring with 144 points in only 56 games (including 17 pts in six playoff games).

When Brian finally made the jump to the NHL in 2001-2002 most people focused on his size and wondered how long he would last in a league full of 230 lb. defensemen. His scoring numbers didn’t end up at nearly what he was used to but he used his speed, quickness, and great awareness to avoid the hits and contribute in other ways. He stuck with the big club and in 2003-2004 hit a career high of 21 goals on a team not exactly known for scoring prowess.

I’m expecting this year to be his big offensive breakout. Last Friday night against Buffalo while playing on a line with Scott Gomez and Sergei Brylin, Gionta was all over the ice. He didn’t figure into the scoring but used his speed to move the puck and as usual was not shy about getting into the corners and battling with larger players (read: virtually everyone else in the NHL).

With six goals and 11 points in 12 games, he’s on pace to easily break his career highs, and in this more offensive-friendly environment (and barring injury) I see him doing that. Gionta is owned in most leagues but is likely to be undervalued both for his size reputation as well as that of the Devils being a defensive-minded club. He might be a player you can make a trade for relatively cheaply.

Martin Biron, Goaltender, Buffalo Sabres (…for now)


Sweet fancy Moses…what can I say about Marty Biron? If you checked the scores this morning – the scene was not pretty in Buffalo last night. Ryan Miller was the scheduled starter against the Ottawa Senators but was injured in the morning skate. Buffalo had to quickly call Mika Noronen from the AHL to backup Biron who then proceeded to give up three goals on six shots before being pulled. Buffalo actually made a game of this, closing the gap to 5-3 fairly quickly before Ottawa made this the biggest mismatch since Homer Simpson fought Drederick Tatum. Biron shored up the role of punching bag by coming back in the third period to give up three more goals. Ouch.

Marty Biron has seemingly been in the NHL forever. He was drafted by Buffalo in the first round back in 1995 and was supposed to be the next in a long line of quality Buffalo goaltenders, having been the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s (QMJHL) First Team All-Star that season. His much anticipated NHL debut came earlier than expected - back in the Sabres’ blue-and-gold era - on national TV as an emergency call-up from juniors against the powerhouse Penguins. It was a tough start for the 18 year old as he was lit up in the first period and was soon thereafter sent back to Beauport of QMJHL. He slowly re-worked his way back up the ranks in the Buffalo organization and became the No. 1 goalie in Buffalo in 2001. However, he’s never quite captivated the fans nor the NHL – no doubt partially because of who he had to replace in Buffalo (future Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek) but also due to the fact that he’s never put together a streak of consistency that would give him the accolades other No. 1 goalies routinely receive.

This season promised to be a pivotal one for Biron in Buffalo, one way or another, due to the much publicized three-way goaltending battle between him, Ryan Miller, and Mika Noronen. Noronen was sent down to Rochester but the former Michigan State all-world Miller was tabbed as No. 1 by coach Lindy Ruff and proceeded to start the Sabres’ first 10 games. Biron has declared his first intent is to win back the starting job in Buffalo but it appears to one and all that Ryan Miller is the latest “future” for Buffalo in net. Buffalo has nothing to gain by another year of holding onto three goalies who all desire a shot at a No. 1 job – this will be the year one of them is dealt, and most likely it will be Biron.

Biron finally got the starting nod last Saturday on the Island. In front of a host of NHL team scouts (most notably from the Edmonton Oilers) Biron won his first start, beating the New York Islanders 6-4. However, last night’s game against the Senators had to be a setback, both for Biron personally and the team’s. This year thus far we’ve seen a large number of young and rookie goaltenders in the NHL – which can either mean out with the old guard…or a lot of teams will be looking for veteran netminders in the coming months. Atlanta’s GM Don Waddell may be in the market for another veteran, having signed veteran Steve Shields as a stopgap measure while waiting for Kari Lehtonen to recover from a groin injury.

In the end, despite Biron’s sieve-like performance on Wednesday night in Buffalo, it was only one game. NHL GMs tend to view things a bit differently than most fantasy GMs (who are frantically logging on this morning to hit the “Drop” button beside Biron’s name) and realize that one game isn’t necessarily going to cloud their opinions on a player. Many times a scouting trip is merely to make sure the player they’re interested in isn’t injured.

At this point I wouldn’t come close to recommending Biron for anything near a top spot on your roster. Yet if you have room on your taxi squad, I would still consider keeping a close watch on Biron – think about taking a shot and picking him up. If a trade comes, you’ll likely have a #1 goalie who’ll get some playing time with another team.

That’s all for this week – thanks for reading and be sure to check back here in a week for some more potential hidden gems in the NHL.

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.