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
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.
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