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.