Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition
By Rob Aquino
The 2006 World Junior Championships are over and a hearty congratulations to Canada for an underdog gold medal winning performance, their second title in a row. Last year Canada assembled a roster that experts put outrageous pressure on to win gold - which they did - bringing such accolades as “best junior team of all time.” En route to a perfect 6-0 record, they outscored their opposition 41-7. This year the team was relatively unheralded and at best even money to even earn a medal. USA got the lion’s share of publicity, but as it turned out the team never gelled (no doubt due to their horrible uniforms – I digress: how hard would it be to dress the USA in vintage 1980 Olympic sweaters? Aside from being visually superior, I’d have to think it might actually attract a little media attention in the States) they were a bust and finished fourth.
Canada had a lack of “star” power in this year’s tournament but used a punishing team-oriented attack spearheaded by tournament all-star and general agitator (as well as Philadelphia Flyers’ first round pick in 2005) Steve Downie to dominate from start to finish, culminating in a 5-0 whitewashing of the dynamic Russian team (led by Evgeni Malkin, whom I would expect to be seen profiled in this column next year playing alongside Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh).
As I mentioned in last week’s column, this tournament needs to be fully televised in the United States. With the specialty programming now offered through cable, there aren’t many good excuses why at least the medal round couldn’t be shown somewhere. While fully understanding that hockey is viewed in dramatically different terms in Canada as opposed to the States, last year’s final game between Canada and Russia attracted over three million Canadian viewers. With a little marketing (…ahem…1980 Olympic uniforms) I would think some fledgling US cable broadcaster wouldn’t mind taking a chance.
For the second week in a row, we’re spotlighting recent World Junior participants now playing in the NHL, and ones to keep an eye on in the coming weeks. One in particular has “arrived” and if he’s flying under your league’s radar, snap him up – the other two are projected future stars for you to monitor in the coming weeks…
Jarret Stoll, Center, Edmonton Oilers
Center is often a hard position to “break in” in fantasy terms – by this I mean that many fantasy leagues are set up so rosters have half the centers as wings, therefore the centers you usually have are the “stars” of the league – i.e. it’s easier to take chances on wingers since you have to fill more slots. Sometimes a “new” or hot/upcoming center is harder to spot.
Melville, Saskatchewan’s Jarret Stoll is rapidly stepping up into that category for the Oilers. Stoll has the classic scorer’s pedigree: in his final three years in the Western Hockey League for the Kootenay Ice, Stoll scored 109 goals in 180 games, culminating in two Memorial Cup championships, in 2000 and 2002 – he also starred in the World Juniors his final two seasons, winning bronze and silver medals for Canada. He was selected by Edmonton in the 2002 draft (after having been originally drafted by Calgary two years earlier, but failing to come to terms) and assigned to Hamilton in the American Hockey League where he put up decent but not overwhelming totals in his first professional season, notching 21 goals and 54 points. Finally he “graduated” to the big club in 2003-2004 where he put up modest totals of 10 goals and 21 points.
Expectations this season – his second in the NHL – were high but not overwhelming. Edmonton made no less than two high profile acquisitions last summer in defenseman Chris Pronger and center Michael Peca – perhaps this took the heat off of the other young Oiler centers as both Stoll and Shawn Horcoff have flourished. Stoll started off the season slowly, with only two goals in his first 14 games, but began to put up points on a regular basis starting in early November. He had 18 points in a terrific December which helped propel Edmonton up near the top of the most competitive division in the league. Overall his numbers suddenly look quite strong: in 42 games he has 14 goals and 26 assists for 40 points. His 143 shots are in the league top 20 and overwhelmingly tops on his club, showing aptitude to get into scoring situations. He’s getting time on the power play, netting 22 of his points in extra-strength situations.
Jarret Stoll is Edmonton’s leader in ice time for forwards this year and will be counted on to lead them into the playoffs. Stoll has only approached point-per-game status for the season in recent weeks and thus may still be available on the wire for a pickup – grab him if he is.
Ryan Getzlaf, Center, Anaheim Mighty Ducks
Another Saskatchewan native, Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf was a two-time World Junior participant and member of the soon-to-be-historic 2005 Canadian gold medal junior team, lining up with Jeff Carter (making noise with the Philadelphia Flyers this year) and Andrew Ladd (selected fourth overall by Carolina in 2004 - currently injured but has four goals in seven NHL games). He was drafted in the first round by Anaheim in 2003 as a potential team building-block center – a good mix of offence and grit. For example, last year, in his final junior season with the Calgary Hitmen, he scored 29 goals and logged 102 penalty minutes in only 51 regular season games, then added 17 more points in 12 playoff games.
He set up perhaps unfair expectations this preseason after scoring seven points in as many games – after scoring seven points in 16 regular season games he was sent down to Portland (Maine) of the American Hockey League to work on his game. Making the direct step from major junior to the National Hockey League is not an easy one and perhaps Anaheim thought Getzlaf would benefit from some relatively lesser competition and working his confidence back up. Seems there are some smart Ducks in Anaheim’s front office as Ryan simply tore up the AHL while he was there – in a mere 17 games he vaulted to fifth in league scoring with a fantastic 33 points, averaging a shade under two per game. Anaheim needs help in the goal scoring department (currently hovering around the bottom 10 in terms of goals per game) and recalled Getzlaf this past week – he responded by scoring a goal in his first game back against the Kings.
For the same reason that Stoll might be overlooked, Ryan Getzlaf is likely not ready to step into your fantasy lineup today – the overall center position is too deep. However, he has made it clear this year that the American Hockey League is beneath him – he’s ready for the NHL. If he can ride the confidence he undoubtedly gained in Portland into his latest foray back into the NHL, he could energize the Ducks into an exciting young squad. I wouldn’t currently recommend for shallow leagues but keep a close eye on him – for keeper leagues or deep leagues with bench room, with Getzlaf you could end up with a pleasant surprise over the final half of the season.
Andrej Meszaros, Defense, Ottawa Senators
As my SportsBlurb.com colleague John Franco notes this week, Slovakian native Andrej Meszaros has flown under the radar this year, both in the league overall and on a team otherwise chock full of megastars. I’d noted Meszaros three weeks ago as someone to keep an eye on but I feel he warrants a longer look. In a seemingly historic year for rookies, his is a name you don’t often hear but he stacks up against any of the bigger name rookies in terms of talent. He was the youngest player to play in the 2002 World Juniors in the Czech Republic, and created a buzz in Slovakia as their top NHL prospect which culminated in him being selected by Ottawa in the first round of the 2004 draft.
Thus far in his first pro season Meszaros hasn’t exactly lit up the scoresheet, but for a defenseman – and especially a rookie blueliner – his point totals are very respectable. To date he’s totaled 17 points, but has come on strong as the season has progressed – in December he scored nine points in 14 games. The good news is that he has long been projected by scouts to be an offensive defenseman, and I would expect the points to come in time for him. He recently went through a streak of 13 games in which he scored a point in 11 of those – I see this consistency as a great sign of his overall game.
Meszaros projects to be a top defenseman for years to come and has wisely worked on the defensive aspects of his game first, most notably reflected in his fantastic +26 rating thus far, which as of January 11th is second in the league and tops among all defensemen. While I wouldn’t expect him to end up in the top 20 for defense scoring, I do expect him to improve on his point total in the second half as he becomes more confident in his abilities on the highest stage. Andrei Meszaros is absolutely recommended for all keeper leagues (and especially all combination stat leagues) as he could develop into one of the top 10 overall defensemen in the entire league by next season.
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