27 October 2005

Ales Kotalik and Dustin Brown

Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition

By Rob Aquino

Playing fantasy hockey can be a frustrating experience. On the surface, it should seem simple: most hockey leagues or pools rely on the basic stats for forwards/defensemen – goals and assists, with the occasional penalty minutes or +/- thrown in. So the strategy would seem to be easy – who have been the top scorers in the past few seasons, or who is obviously trending in that direction, right?

While I would characterize myself as a “stat guy” (Joe Morgan would hate me – a Moneyball reader twice over) I’ve always felt that statistics in hockey are way behind other team sports in telling the true story of a player. Factors such as linemates, ice time (power play time in particular), and even coaching philosophies can “make” an all-star. Conversely, a less-than optimal offensive situation for a player - for whatever reason - can keep an otherwise budding superstar out of the limelight that he otherwise may warrant.

Back in 1984, the comically (not to mention suspiciously) horrible Pittsburgh Penguins managed to hit the jackpot by finishing last and drafting Mario Lemieux. Journeyman winger Warren Young drew the right straw and had the fortune of playing alongside the future Super Mario in his rookie year. Young had kicked around the pros for 5+ years, having success in the minors but never sticking in the big league. In 1984-85, Young tallied 40 goals, parlaying that into a free agent deal with the Red Wings the following season. He then saw his goal total drop to 22, and was out of the NHL two years later. Not meaning to pick on Young, but it proves that in many cases opportunity is just as important as skill in registering quality numbers.

10 years earlier, in Montreal, former #1 pick (1971) Guy Lafleur was coming off his third season, his most disappointing yet. The Thurso, Quebec former junior superstar had essentially been heisted in the draft by longtime Canadiens’ GM Sam Pollock (engineering a trade with the pitiful California Golden Seals the year before for their #1 pick), and had been expected to carry the torch for the Habs into the 1970s. Lafleur scored 21 goals in 1973-74 and late in the season was referred to in the press by Pollock as an “ordinary player” – Pollock knowing full well that Lafleur was personally suffering under the extreme spotlight. By taking the pressure off him and installing the jovial Steve Shutt as his left winger, Pollack hoped to create an entirely new atmosphere for Lafleur in the following season.

Pollack’s genius read of the situation (or perhaps it was simply the fact that Guy began playing without a helmet…) spurred Lafleur on to the first of his six straight 50 goal, 100 point seasons.

So the point is this: in hockey, past statistics such as goals and assists don’t always have an accurate bearing on a player’s future performance. Often times you have to take a closer look at a player and his environment to unearth a sleeper or future star.

So enough of my old-time hockey yakkin’ – in this column I’m not going to spotlight superstars or players with a huge buzz; you already know those players. Instead let’s look at a few present-day NHLers who you may not be as familiar with, yet should keep tabs on. These guys are players who haven’t yet put up the eye-popping numbers all fantasy players crave, but you still may want to keep them on your radar for a potentially sneaky wire pickup.

Dustin Brown, Right Wing, Los Angeles Kings

Dustin Brown was a three year stud with the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League, and was rewarded with his play by being a first round pick of the Kings in 2003. He didn’t exactly set the NHL on fire, with five points in 31 games his rookie year. A year of seasoning in the AHL may have helped Dustin regain his game and confidence, as well as of course playing a regular shift – he registered 74 points as well as demonstrating an ability to play the physical game, notching 96 PIM.

This year, in nine games with the Kings, he has three goals and three assists for six points. He’s now averaging nearly 15 minutes per game, and in his last game against Calgary, he spent over nine minutes on the power play. He’s been getting some time on the third line with Pavol Demitra on the other wing (and Mike Cammalleri centering) which should help his point totals.

Brown is not quite there yet, but this is a player who appears to have made a jump in confidence and now needs only the opportunities. Earlier this month against the Oilers he scored the game winner, as well as delivering a big hit on former league MVP Chris Pronger. That type of play – if it continues – will help Brown stick out from the multitude of other former junior stars, win him the confidence of his teammates and coaching staff…and as a fantasy owner that’s what you’re looking for. If anyone on LA’s top two lines goes down with an injury, look for Brown to make a bigger contribution this year.

Ales Kotalik, Right Wing, Buffalo Sabres

Ales Kotalik of the Buffalo Sabres had an excellent rookie campaign in 2002-2003, playing right wing and finishing second in rookie goal scoring with 21, despite playing in only 68 games. However, he slipped to 15 the following year, and seemed to be an odd-man out on a pretty decent offensive team (Buffalo finished 10th in goals scored in ’03-’04). This year (as of Tuesday), in eight games he has tallied three goals and two assists. Decent numbers, but hardly earth-shattering.

So what to make of his skills – and why are we even mentioning him? Here’s a player early in his career who has mostly played on the third line, which traditionally and obviously won’t get you as many points as players on the top two lines. Kotalik is a fast skilled player on a team that’s not short on skilled forwards this year. But here are a few points that make him stand out over your prototypical third line grinder/roster filler: his opportunity to stand out may lie in his shot, which may be the hardest on the squad. His size is also a plus on a team of waterbugs, weighing in around 220 pounds. He recently made it known to the press that he’s looking for an opportunity to play more special teams…and then on Saturday night against the Rangers he got that opportunity he was looking for – with nearly three minutes of power play time - and tallied a power play goal with a cannon shot from the point.

Kotalik got his wish on Saturday night, and rewarded the coaching staff with a goal. With three points in his last two games – including two game-winning goals – Kotalik is a player to keep an eye on. The Sabres’ marquee offensive players are Daniel Briere and JP Dumont, and they also rely on an abundance of youth. For example, rookie Thomas Vanek has been getting rave reviews (despite not having scored his first NHL goal yet), and also playing upwards of 18 minutes per game. However, young players are often inconsistent and Lindy Ruff has historically been quick to favor veterans and drastically change his lineups from game to game, attempting to create a spark. On this young team, Kotalik qualifies as a veteran.

If Ales Kotalik continues to play well, he may find himself rewarded with more power play time and a spot on one of the top two lines in Buffalo, which may mean a big increase in points. On a team that is likely to score a good amount of goals this year (so far Buffalo is first in shots per game), watch him over the next week. If he remains hot, be the first to grab him in your league.

Thanks for reading and see you next week!

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

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