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!
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