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.