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.

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