30 March 2006

Van Ryn, Higging, Preissing

Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition

By Rob Aquino


With only three weeks left in the regular season there are still a lot of points to be had in terms of your fantasy league. Perhaps your team is like the Dallas Stars - cruising along to an easy first place finish in your fantasy leagues. Or if you’re like me, you are the Calgary Flames – after seemingly being comfortably in first place much of the season all of a sudden you look at the calendar and the standings and realize – “Holy Mackinaw, I could actually lose this thing!”

Whatever the specifics, most of us are frantically scrambling to finish as strongly as possible and looking for a player or two who we hope will get hot for us over the season’s final ten or so games. Over the past two weeks we’ve looked at two of the deeper offensive teams for the season – Buffalo and Carolina – with the idea that you could grab nearly anyone from their top three lines who could help you over the final month. At this point of the season it is valuable to look at the hot teams for fantasy help – all of the stars and streaking players are already on rosters, so you need to really search for that diamond in the rough.

One team that has recently gotten hot is the Florida Panthers. We talked about them briefly three weeks ago, focusing on young defenseman Jay Bouwmeester and how we think he should be a breakout player within a year or two, and could help your team now. We’d like to think Jay took inspiration from the column as he scored his first goal of the season that week and has since added two more, scoring points in seven of his last ten games – we’re behind you all the way Jay! Another Treasure Hunting favorite is Nathan Horton who will be an all-star forward in this league soon, but right now Horton is stuck on 24 goals for the season and has been in a scoring slump. This kid is highly skilled and not afraid of anything – his slump likely has fantasy owners ignoring him, but I feel that he’s good enough that if you’re looking for a hot forward (and one who qualifies in many leagues at both center and wing) I would take a chance on him. Leading the charge offensively for Florida has been veteran center Jozef Stumpel – over the past month only San Jose’s Joe Thornton and Buffalo’s Daniel Briere have scored more than Stumpel’s 22 points. Center is such a deep position that in many leagues he is still on the waiver wire and available – with his hot streak extending into weeks rather than days, he remains a valuable pickup right now.

Let’s take a look at three more unheralded players – sticking with three NCAA products this week - who I think could put up some good numbers over the remainder of the season.

Mike Van Ryn, Defense, Florida Panthers

One other Panther defenseman you could take a chance on is Mike Van Ryn – he does have eight points (all assists) in the last month but his offensive play has been spotty, having scored those points in bunches, then going four or five games without getting anything. Van Ryn was highly touted coming out of London, Ontario, and was a first round selection by the Devils back in 1998. He spent two years at the University of Michigan and one with the Sarnia Sting of the OHL, then after some creative bypassing of the NHL draft rules (the term “Van Ryn rule” exists in the Ontario Hockey League) he found himself a free agent. He signed with the Blues then was dealt to Florida three years later. Van Ryn still hasn’t realized his potential, but I think this year in finally getting a fulltime opportunity in the NHL – and staying in the big leagues all season – he is making big strides towards becoming a steady NHL defenseman.

Here’s why I think he can still pleasantly surprise you over the next few weeks: he currently comfortably sits second on the team in ice time per game - for the season he’s averaging well over 22 minutes per game, and lately his time has increased - over the past five games he’s averaged 25 minutes per game with a high of 30 against Washington two weeks ago. It seems simplistic but you’re not going to get points if you’re not on the ice – also of importance is that Van Ryn’s power play time has increased to where he’s also second (behind Bouwmeester) in team defensive power play time, around three and a half minutes per game.

And this is all taking into account strict point leagues - in more complicated mixed leagues his +14 and 78 penalty minutes make his value jump up even more. With Florida’s margin of error at virtually zero in trying to desperately make the playoffs, I can see them relying on their top guns even more than usual. Look for Van Ryn and Bouwmeester to be their main point men over the last few weeks which should translate into beneficial counting stats for you if you pick them up.

Chris Higgins, Center, Montreal Canadiens

As of this writing the Montreal Canadiens are in a three-way tie for sixth place in the conference, but are only a few points away from ninth, so every game is crucial for the Habs. It goes without saying (yet I’ll say it anyways) that the emergence of goaltender Cristobal Huet – who we wrote about in early February - has been the main reason the Canadiens haven’t fallen completely out of the race, as he picked up his sixth shutout on Tuesday night. Their offence isn’t one of the better ones in the league - currently 19th in goal scoring - but there is some deep value in the lineup, and currently rookie forward Chris Higgins has been one of their biggest contributors.

Higgins was drafted 14th overall in the 2002 draft after an impressive freshman year at Yale University, scoring 31 points in 27 games. He improved on that during his sophomore year, potting 20 goals and 41 points, and added two strong performances for the United States at the World Junior Championships, notching seven goals in 14 games. Turning pro after his sophomore year he spent the last two years in the American League with Hamilton, averaging 25 goals per year and proving he was ready for a promotion to Montreal.

And so far he’s made the most of it – starting off slowly with only five points over the first two months - but since the start of the new year, he has been one of Montreal’s most reliable forwards. His reward has been a spot on a line with Saku Koivu and Michael Ryder. Currently he’s riding a four game scoring streak, with six points and registering a +3. Over the past month he has 10 goals and 14 points overall - he’s a high recommendation if available.

Tom Preissing, Defense, San Jose Sharks

The San Jose Sharks have put on a surge in the crazy Campbell conference playoff race, going 7-2-1 over the past ten games to fall within two points of the final playoff spot. The names you know are Joe Thornton, Jonathan Cheechoo, or Patrick Marleau, and with good reason as the team is fairly top-heavy in terms of offensive production. Let’s take a look at one of the other few players putting up decent numbers for the Sharks – second-year defenseman Tom Preissing. Preissing spent four years at Colorado College, with his breakout coming in his senior year when he erupted for 23 goals and 52 points in just 42 games, becoming one of the ten finalists for the Hobey Baker Award. Upon graduation he signed a free agent deal with San Jose and immediately stepped into the lineup the next year, notching 19 points in 2003-2004.

This season he’s been given a larger role – his ice time has been increased to where he’s averaging over 20 minutes per game, and up near four minutes per game on the power play. These increased chances have resulted in points - Preissing has had 11 points over the last month, putting him up to 34 on the year. Add to that an outstanding +20 rating – good for second on the team – and you have the best defenseman on this Sharks team determined to make up for a slow start this season.

See you back here next week where we’ll try to help you with a final push in the final days of the regular season.

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

29 March 2006

Wales Watching - SportsBlurb.com / FoxSports.com

We’re down to the final three weeks of the season and finally starting to see a playoff picture emerging. Over the past week we’ve seen teams going in opposite directions (Buffalo, New York Rangers) but the top seven teams are the same as they were a week ago. It looks like the top five teams are virtually assured of playoff spots (with Ottawa and Carolina officially clinching this week), while there will be a real battle for the last two or three spots. Most teams have only 10 or 11 games left in the season, and every game is taking on a magnified importance.

Ottawa did become the first team in the league to clinch a playoff spot this week. After a small mid-season "slump" (compounded by key injuries to such players as Jason Spezza and Martin Havlat) they seem to have regrouped once again into the team to beat, even as Ray Emery handles the goaltending duties while the enigmatic Dominik Hasek nurses the most talked-about groin in the league. He’s expected to return to the Senators crease “anytime now” (officially somewhere from one week to the 2008 draft).

The New York Rangers continue to battle neck and neck with the Philadelphia Flyers for first place (and a top-three playoff seed) in the Atlantic Division – a big home-ice comeback shootout win against Buffalo on Monday night, coming down from two goals in the third period, was spearheaded by the amazingly resurgent Jaromir Jagr and his team-record 52nd goal (tying Adam Graves). With all due respect to the Senators’ Daniel Alfredsson and the amazing rookie season of Alexander Ovechkin (47 goals for a team full of third-liners in
Washington), Jagr is my choice for this year’s Hart Trophy winner. He was the first (and currently only) player to hit the 50 goal mark, and is also leading the league in points with 109, second in shots, and is a +24 all while becoming a leader on this Ranger team set to clinch a playoff birth.

Montreal continues to fight to stay in the race, led by goaltender Christobal Huet. Huet continues to reward the faith that the Canadiens’ front office showed in him by dealing former MVP Jose Theodore last month. Over his last five games Huet has only allowed ten goals. The Habs essentially eliminated the Leafs with two wins this week helped by Radek Bonk – Radek Bonk!!! – scoring three goals in two key victories.

The Florida Panthers are currently scorching, having won nine of their last ten games and have closed to within six points of the final playoff spot. This is a team that should do everything in their power to re-sign goaltender Roberto Luongo as with the commitment to captain Oli Jokinen (Panthers fans can thank good ol’ Mike Milbury for those two – the outgoing Islanders’ GM was fleeced years ago as he dealt both of them together in one deal back in 2000 for Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha – ouch!) this is a team that – with a few smart moves – could become a contender very soon.

Meanwhile two old Adams Division rivals are struggling – one a surprise, one continuing a season-long malaise - the Buffalo Sabres and Boston Bruins. What in the name of Tom Draper has happened to the Buffalo Sabres? They are currently in the midst of an out-of-nowhere six game losing skid, this immediately on the heels of an eight game winning streak. Before a week and a half ago, they had only lost two straight games in regulation once since early November, and from mid-November until mid-March they were the best team in hockey – easily a long enough period to no longer be called a fluke success.

So what could explain the bizarre losing streak? On the surface you could point to the quality of their opponents: two games against Ottawa, and one each against Carolina and the Rangers; but they also suffered a 5-0 drubbing to the Thrashers and took their first loss this season to Boston. Aside from year-long problems with Ottawa, beating anyone hasn't been a problem for the Sabres this year. The emotional slant can't entirely be discounted, with popular coach Lindy Ruff's 11 year old daughter undergoing surgery for a brain tumor. However the most obvious reasons for changes in play by a team will always occur on the ice. The Sabres' success has laid in great special teams, excellent goaltending, and aggressive play in all three zones. What they've lost over the past ten days is quality play in all of those areas. Before Chris Drury scored the first goal against the Rangers on the power play Monday night, the second-ranked power play unit had been blanked over their previous 22 chances. The speedy Buffalo forwards have not been nearly as aggressive in backchecking as they have in the past, perhaps fatally exposing weakness in the Sabres’ defence, whose recent play could best be described in the manner of the review for Spinal Tap’s album “Shark Sandwich.” Their steady “no-name” defence had been unspectacular but solid all year long, but lately has been prone to awful lapses in coverage, often looking like a bunch of junior high kids playing floor hockey in gym class. Caught out of position, they’ve been left to rely on their goaltender too often…

However….said starting goaltender Ryan Miller has not been making the big saves that define top-flight goalies; he has been beaten much more often than he should be on unscreened and undeflected shots. His positioning has looked off as he’s been guilty of committing terribly early on shots, looking much like the rookie he is rather than the Olympian he was in the court of public opinion two months ago. Considering a few of Buffalo's losses have been by a goal, some of those softies could easily have translated into wins and we wouldn't be talking about a Sabres slump at all. In Monday night’s Rangers game he played his best overall game in 2 weeks – particularly in overtime on a powerplay dominated by Jagr - yet still succumbed to his recent tendency of letting in an easy goal.

Finally, although it’s impossible for the loss of one player to cause such a streak, Jochen HechtBuffalo’s most unsung and best all around player – went down with a knee injury two weeks ago in a win over the Sabres’ personal rented mules from Toronto. They haven’t won a game since then.

And then there are the Boston Bruins. General Manager Mike O’Connell was not unexpectedly given the axe on Saturday evening. Many pundits missed badly on evaluating the Bruins before this year – some even picked them to win the conference. However, the team never caught a break, never gelled, and aside from a decent little run before the Olympics where they won six of eight games, they never put any sort of winning streak together – only twice all year have they won three straight.

An idea that picked up steam in the early 90s and became an unstoppable was the penurious ways of owner Jeremy Jacobs and former-GM and current president Harry Sinden were preventing the Bruins from having any chance at the Cup. Is this accurate? Now reported in the newspapers and on the web as a matter of fact, it has gotten to the point where it is beyond thinking - perception has become fact, and as a result the once-proud pro hockey town of
Boston treats the Bruins as a joke. And I think that perception isn’t entirely correct – let me point to a few examples in the recent past where the front office has been skewered for letting popular veterans go seemingly in the interest of saving a buck or two, yet were moves that needed to be made:

The Adam Oates deal – Boston dealt him to Washington in 1997 after spending parts of six seasons in Boston and helping to propel Cam Neely to a Hall of Fame scorer. This was widely panned as a simple salary dump, and maybe on some levels it was, but they got young talent in return, getting Jason Allison and Anson Carter (ok, and Jim Carey) as well as 2 draft picks. This was a case of acknowledgment that the team needed rebuilding with youth. And it nicely helped them to finish last in the league and get great drafting position!

The Ray Bourque fiasco - sure for the sake of the career he had put in for the Bruins it was hard to let him go, but let's be honest - he wasn't a great defenceman anymore and he himself wanted the trade. Even remotely criticizing anything regarding Ray Bourque in Boston is and would be considered on par with driving with your hazards on through the Big Dig with a “Big Papi Sucks” sticker on your bumper; but in my opinion he left management high and dry and yet managed to turn public opinion absolutely 100% in his favour to where all you heard was “Ray deserves a Cup.” The situation was comparable to Hasek demanding out of Buffalo in 2001, a Sabre legend who changed a lot of fans’ minds after he forced the Sabres to deal him to Detroit Lots of great Hall of Fame players don’t win a championship, and lots of crappy players win them – it just happens. The cold reality was that the team was lousy and was better off getting value for him while they could.

The Bill Guerin loss - wow, was there an outcry when they didn't re-sign him – and I always thought…why?? It was obvious at the time that the market was ridiculous (Guerin signed with
Dallas for USD$45 million over five years) and hockey is not a sport that lends itself to spending a large percentage of the payroll on one player who will play at most 20-22 minutes a game. See also Alexei Yashin (a.k.a. most ludicrous contract signing in history – hey our second Mad Mike Milbury reference in one article!). The Bruins have been vindicated in not spending the enormous sum it would have taken to keep him, yet never recovered from the public relations hit.

This finally leads us to this season’s dealing of Joe Thornton to San Jose. The deal was met with stunned silence, anger, and then sarcasm as the Bruin front office was mocked in the local and mostly hockey-ignorant press. Yet getting three cheap and (most importantly) quality bodies for one superstar is often a prudent, if not popular, move. The Bruins haven’t exactly fallen apart since the deal, even sporting a winning record since the trade and gaining more flexibility with their roster. Admittedly on paper it looks like San Jose dominated this trade as Thornton and his 100+ points are currently second in the league. But the fact is that he wasn't bringing A-game results in Boston. And don't discount Jonathan Cheechoo with helping Thornton find his potential - sometimes a player only reaches his peak with a new set of teammates – Phil Esposito was a mid-level center for Chicago in the 1960s before fortuitously being dealt to a sleeping giant in Boston, coinciding with the rise of the incomparable Bobby Orr, as well as other stars like Johnny Bucyk and Ken Hodge.

My point is this – too often (as in all aspects of life) fans look at their teams in black and white terms. The Bruins have without question been conservative over their recent history in terms of finances. Yet throwing money at a sports problem almost never solves said problem – the reason for the lack of success in Boston over the past decade has naught to do with “being cheap” but it’s an easy answer for fans and lazy media to fall back on. Mike O’Connell and Harry Sinden have failed to deliver a winner – not because of money – but simply, the Bruins have done a lousy job in virtually every other area, mostly in the draft and development of players. They’ve used a patchwork approach to building their team, and when they actually have gone out and spent money they’ve done it in a manner that shows surprisingly little understanding of the team they had and what areas needed addressing.

Thanks for reading – we’ll be back in seven days and report on the playoff race as well as other stories from our old Wales Conference. See you then!

23 March 2006

...so do the Canes: Cullen, Ladd

Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition

By Rob Aquino


Last week in Treasure Hunting we took a different path and took a broader look at the Buffalo Sabres – a team with a strong and diverse offense. This week I’d like to take a similar approach with the Carolina Hurricanes – another elite team that spreads their offence around so much that you could pick up a few bonus points over the remainder of the season from virtually anyone playing on their top 3 lines.

Much like Buffalo, the Carolina Hurricanes were seen by many as a team with a core of players too young to have any impact on the playoff scene this year. Last season (2003-2004) - led by Josef Vasicek’s 45 points - Carolina was dead last in offence, scoring a putrid 2.1 goals per game, horrible even for the “old” NHL. As you know by now the Hurricanes have been running away with the Southeast division this year and are still in excellent position to finish first overall, led by young second year star Eric Staal and his 90 points. They also have shown nary a weakness but their third ranked offence of nearly 3.7 goals per game is their primary weapon and has made them one of the more exciting teams to watch. Ten players on the ‘Canes roster have at least 39 points (although to be fair Doug Weight and Mark Recchi accumulated most of those points elsewhere). Carolina suffered a terrible blow recently when talented sparkplug and US Olympian Erik Cole was injured and he’ll be out for the remainder of the season, but this is a deep franchise in terms of talent that can withstand Cole’s absence and can still go three lines deep in scoring.

So who are some of these players, and who might still be available for a late season pickup? Staal is obviously not available as he has taken a quick path to stardom, and will likely be a top fantasy pick for many years to come. Veterans like Cory Stillman (47 assists) and Rod Brind’Amour (26 goals) have contributed to the Hurricanes’ force-10 offence, while winger Justin Williams has exploded this year – his previous high in points was 44 in 2004, split between Philadelphia and Carolina. This year through Tuesday he has 24 goals and 63 points and has been at better than a point-per-game pace since mid-November.

Mark Recchi is a big name player who may still be on the waiver wire for a few reasons: he in fact has accumulated all of his points this year elsewhere (Pittsburgh) as despite playing on the top two lines he has inexplicably been unable to find the scoresheet at all in six games with Carolina. He’s also sporting an oh-so-sweet -29 +/- rating, good for 842nd in the league (yes, that’s dead last). Yet as creaking as the 17-year veteran may be…you’d have to hope his time isn’t up yet – he’s already put up decent numbers this year (57 points) with a bad Penguins team. It’s a gamble for sure (but if you’re behind at this point in the season, you’ve got to take risks) but I’d be surprised if he doesn’t start putting up a few points from here on out. Just don’t protect him for next year.

As for recommendations this week, I’d like to put a quick spotlight on two of the Canes less-heralded players, Matt Cullen and Andrew Ladd.

Matt Cullen, Center, Carolina Hurricanes

Matt Cullen has actually been around for awhile – drafted by Anaheim back in 1996, he went on to play seven seasons with the Ducks and Florida Panthers, with a high total of 48 points back in 2002, and never cracking the 20 goal barrier. He’s been one of those “character” players that you basically wouldn’t think about taking in your fantasy league. Yet this year, his first in Carolina, he started out the season with seven goals in October, serving notice that he’d be one of the Hurricanes’ primary reasons for their rapid ascent up the league standings. With 22 goals to date, he’s shattered his previous high of 18 (even in college at St. Cloud State his high was 15) and seems certain to break his previous point high.

The biggest reason I’m high on Cullen right now is who he’s playing with: last Tuesday night he was playing with Doug Weight and Andrew Ladd, but this week was bumped up to the Staal-Ray Whitney line. Over his last five games he has four points and is a +6. While you should never expect him to be an offensive star, he may be a great pickup for the final month. Playing on this team, and especially if he remains on the top line, Cullen is going to get his chances, and he will score.

Andrew Ladd, Winger, Carolina Hurricanes

OK, a confession: on the surface this may seem like cheating as I initially previewed Ladd back in January. I won’t repeat his bio and background but I really like this kid who I think has enormous offensive upside. He bounced down to the AHL (Lowell) in January and but with the season-ending injury to Erik Cole he is back up with the parent club. If you look at his overall stats, it may seem like the results aren’t there, but he also hasn’t been getting the prime opportunities necessary to put up noticeable numbers. With the Canes being in the hunt for first place in the East, Ladd has been mostly used in a fill-in role. Of late he has skated with the Adams Family (Kevyn and Greg) but has also paired up with Weight and Cullen. As previewed two months ago, Ladd is a great offensive talent who I believe – if and when given the right opportunity – will become a top scorer in Carolina’s lineup.

Other Hurricanes of note: keep an eye on rookie winger Chad Larose – he’s getting only limited ice time (although on Tuesday against the Leafs he was rewarded with 16 shifts totaling over 13 minutes) at this point but he’s a natural scorer – his final season in junior with the Plymouth Whalers he scored 61 goals in 67 games and was scoring at over a point per game clip this year with Lowell of the AHL before getting called up to the Canes. Larose gives them added depth going into the playoffs, and with Doug Weight out with a groin injury he is in a position to help them right now.

Thanks for reading and always feel free to drop me a line with your comments and suggestions –check back next week as we continue to dig up hidden talent to help you win your fantasy league.

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

16 March 2006

Sabres rock: Roy, Vanek (Hecht, Connolly)

Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition

By Rob Aquino


The return of the NHL has, among other things, brought a renewed emphasis on offence back to the league. Over much of the past decade, most teams had (at best) one “scoring line” and after that would hope for the best – often throwing out “muckers and grinders” on the second and third lines, trying to bruise their way to a goal or two. The new crackdown on interference has obviously led to much more wide open hockey and as a result – more goals. Another meta-result is that we are seeing many teams with a deeper attack than we’ve seen recently – many teams’ second and third lines are seeing smaller and faster (read: more skilled) players take over jobs from the grinders because they finally have the freedom to skate. Over the next few columns we’ll slightly change the focus at Treasure Hunting and look closely at a few of these “deep” teams who are taking full advantage of the new rules, and who might be able to give your fantasy team some help in these final weeks of the regular season.

Buffalo is being called one of the biggest “surprise” teams of the league this year, likely because of where most national publications predicted them to finish – out of the playoffs. But the surprise factor is gone – this is one of the very elite teams in the entire league, having lost only seven times in regulation since mid-November. While they are a complete team in virtually every way, their offence is what has propelled them close to the top of the league standings. Much is made about Buffalo’s so-called lack of elite scorers – not listing anyone anywhere near the top 50 - but there are at least two reasons to dismiss that fact: first, the Sabres’ offensive production ranks fourth in the entire league – scoring almost three and a half goals per game – mostly due to their deep and talented roster, with no less than ten players with at least 30 points. Second, the Sabres played a healthy chunk of the season without arguably their three most talented offensive players – J.P. Dumont (seven goals in last ten games), Tim Connolly (six points in four games since his return), and Daniel Briere – three former first round picks who are now all back in the Buffalo lineup, giving them perhaps the most dangerous offence in the entire league. Briere is making a case for himself as one of the absolute elite forwards in the NHL – since his return from a serious abdominal injury he has totaled an amazing 16 points in just eight games. He’s the rare player that elevates the offensive game of everyone around him, and his linemates Dumont and Jochen Hecht have been reaping the benefits since his return, as has the entire team. In the eight games since the Olympic break, the Sabres have scored 40 goals. Healthy and ready for the playoffs, the Sabres’ diverse attack offers as many options as any team in the league.

Let’s look at a few players on Buffalo that may be available in your leagues and will definitely help your team.

Derek Roy, Center, Buffalo Sabres

Sabres center Derek Roy has been absolutely red hot lately. He has torched opposing goaltenders to the tune of eight goals in the last seven games, including two hat tricks within one week against the Leafs and Lightning (in that Tampa game alone he was a +5) and getting a big game-tying goal Tuesday night against Washington. More importantly for his career, he has also been gaining coach Lindy Ruff’s confidence – last week in that wild game against Tampa Bay both teams were exchanging goals at a rapid pace. It may have been a fun game for the fans but both teams were playing terrible defensively and there seemed to be no end to the goals – after the Sabres went up 6-5 late in the third, Ruff – wanting to shore up their defensive play – benched two of his better offensive players in Maxim Afinogenov and Thomas Vanek and double-shifted Derek Roy, putting him between power forwards Mike Grier and Paul Gaustad – he responded by breaking in alone on Sean Burke and scoring Buffalo’s seventh goal which effectively sealed the game (later getting the empty-netter to complete the hat trick).

Roy was a fantastic player in junior with the Kitchener Rangers, leading them to the Memorial Cup championship in 2003 and earning Most Valuable Player honors in the tournament. Overall in his four years with Kitchener he averaged nearly 37 goals per season and always playing with what I would describe as a barely-controlled aggressive passion. There was no questioning his talent at the junior level – it was obvious to anyone watching him for two minutes, but his size – generously listed at 5’9” – was always a potential barrier for him. He split the 2003-2004 season between Rochester of the AHL and Buffalo and didn’t fare too poorly with the Sabres, getting 19 points in 49 games, but he clearly needed to work more to be able to fight through the physical play at the NHL level. Last season at Rochester he scored at just under a point-per-game and chipped in 11 points in nine playoff games. After starting this season in Rochester (much to his chagrin) he made the most of it by notching 20 points in just eight games. Finally he got the call to return to Buffalo in early November and he hasn’t been back since. He was eased into the lineup, getting usually around 12 minutes of ice time for his first month but since late December has been a regular in the Buffalo lineup, and his point total has reflected that.

Roy’s play combines quickness, a deft touch, and the kind of feistiness that opponents loathe, but hometown fans love. As the Sabres have gotten healthy and solidified their lines, Roy has centered Vanek and Afinogenov to form another potent scoring line for Buffalo. Before this month began it’s likely not many casual fans or fantasy players would have heard of Roy, but the time is growing short to jump on his bandwagon now. Center is a deep position in the league but if you’re looking for depth, Roy is an excellent choice as he will be a good bet to continue scoring points down the stretch for Buffalo.

Thomas Vanek, Winger, Buffalo Sabres

Sabres rookie Thomas Vanek – another member of Buffalo’s “RAV” line (Roy, Afinogenov, Vanek) – came into this season with high expectations. Last year the former fifth-overall pick in 2003 finished second in the AHL in goals and was hoping to have a quick impact on the Sabres in his first year in the NHL. However, he suffered through a painful start, with no goals through his first 14 games, and only three up until the second week of December. Vanek looked out of place in the NHL.

Vanek’s career path is rather unique – born in Austria, he moved to the States as a teenager to improve his hockey prospects, and played for three years in the USHL before spending two fantastic years at NCAA powerhouse University of Minnesota. His freshman year at Minnesota was spectacular – breaking the school freshman scoring record with 31 goals and 62 points in just 45 games. More impressive were his playoff exploits, dazzling fans in the Frozen Four (played in Buffalo) en route to the national championship as he was named tournament Most Valuable Player. Sabres brass no doubt were no less impressed than anyone else and much to the local fans’ delight selected Vanek fifth overall two months later. The team felt it best that Vanek spend another year developing his game in college, where he had another great season with 28 more goals before deciding to turn pro.

Last year’s lockout was probably beneficial to Vanek as there was no doubt he’d play in the AHL rather than have the big club be tempted to call him up to the Sabres. With 42 goals in 74 games he appeared ready to make the big jump this year. Yet with only four goals in his first 27 games he was on the verge of being demoted back to Rochester (AHL). Coach Lindy Ruff kept Vanek in the lineup, showing confidence in the slick winger and it began to pay off with seven goals in the next eleven games. In any other year the Vanek would have started to become quite noticeable, but in this historic “year of the rookie” he was a bit overshadowed. That’s not so much the case anymore as suddenly Vanek has an impressive 23 goals with five of those coming in the last seven games. My only knock on Vanek is that in many games you’ll never even hear his name called – he tends to look lost at times and not get into the flow of the game. I’d resist being too negative and calling him lazy as other games he’ll be found hustling at both ends; I think he still has a lot to learn about the NHL game and anticipation, especially in his defensive end. In the end though, he has the skills to be a premier offensive talent in the league and has already scored some brilliant highlight-reel goals. Vanek has been sitting on my bench for much of the season before the past week – he’ll be starting from here on out and if you can get him he may even be worth protecting in deep keeper leagues.

Other Sabres to Note: Jochen Hecht and Tim Connelly.

We took a quick look at Hecht last month on the eve of the Olympics – he’s a player who has never put up huge numbers but his skills unveil themselves the more you watch him. He’s a great two-way player with good offensive talent. The Sabres seem to have found magic in the Briere-Hecht-Dumont line and with those two talents on his line he’ll easily back into a few points at worst. He has snuck up to 42 points on the season and with eight in his past five games, he seems destined to best his career high of 52. Hecht – especially if he qualifies at wing in your league – is another great depth acquisition.

If you had mentioned Tim Connolly’s name to a Sabres fan before this season you’d get a response somewhere between eyes rolling and disgust. Connolly was one of two players (Taylor Pyatt being the other) coming from the Islanders in the Mike Peca deal a few years back, and as such carried high expectations in Buffalo, to which he never really delivered. After suffering a terrible concussion two years ago and not playing since then, expectations had dwindled to barely above nothing this season, even from the coaching staff, but something finally clicked and his play has skyrocketed this year. He was unlucky enough to have an unscheduled and never-welcomed meeting with a Kasparaitus hip and missed about six weeks, but since returning he hasn’t missed a beat, using his dazzling puck control to give Buffalo more depth and becoming a mainstay on the power play. Note of warning – in the Washington game he did injure his knee and as of Wednesday it’s uncertain if he’ll miss time as a result.

Thanks for reading - next week we’ll have part two of this series and take a look at another deep and successful team containing a number of deep fantasy options.

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

09 March 2006

Bouwmeester, McClement, Armstrong

Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition

By Rob Aquino


This year’s NHL trading deadline (also known in previous seasons as “the day I get no work done”) is just about upon us – and very possibly by the time you read this, the deadline will have already passed (official deadline being Thursday at 3:00 PM, EST). Everyone sees how the deadline is a chance for contenders (or wannabe contenders) to get that extra body to help them in their playoff push, but it's also - or more so - a big opportunity for the lesser teams, or the "sellers" as much of the media will portray them. Yet it's often these lesser teams that get the better deal in the long-run; dealing the big-name (read: expensive) veteran for a mostly-unknown prospect for the plans of rebuilding the club over the next few years. The deadline could also have an impact on departed teammates, or have the effect of creating new lines. For a recent example, check out the St. Louis Blues since dealing Mike Sillinger and Doug Weight - guys like Lee Stempniak and Dennis Wideman have become less fringe players and more integral to the rebuilding of the Blues franchise.

While it's hard at this late juncture to find anyone who will shock you with offensive production over the final few weeks, let’s try to dig deep for some players who have either taken on a greater role in recent weeks or are likely to do so over the final month of the regular season.

Jay Bouwmeester, Defense, Florida Panthers

The Florida Panthers are truly enigmatic: 15-8-4 at home, 9-21-5 on the road. I really like the potential for this team’s future, especially if they today somehow have managed to hang on to Olli Jokinen or Roberto Luongo. They have some potentially great young players like Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss but most importantly a franchise defenseman in Jay Bouwmeester. Fans may not remember but in late 2001 it was a fait accompli that Bouwmeester was going to be the number one pick in the upcoming 2002 draft. He was in the middle of his fourth year on the Western Hockey League’s Medicine Hat Tigers and had already compiled an impressive résumé, representing Canada at the World Juniors three times, becoming one of the youngest players in tournament history.

However, as is often said: “a funny thing happened on the way” to the draft in Toronto. Forward Rick Nash put together a fantastic year in London and became the number one pick that year, taken by Columbus. At number two, the Atlanta Thrashers surprisingly took Finnish goaltender Kari Lehtonen, leaving Bouwmeester a bit in shock by the time the Panthers took him with the number three pick. Although it was more a case of the other two players having fantastic seasons and those two teams having specific needs for scoring and goaltending, it was nevertheless a bit of a surprise to those who had followed the draft class over the previous year. The point is this: by not being the number one pick as expected, Bouwmeester didn’t immediately become the household name (you know, like Patrick Stefan…) many expected. Over the next two seasons on a mostly lousy Panthers team he slowly and quietly developed his game, scoring just 36 points over those years while working on the finer aspects of defensive and physical play.

This year Bouwmeester has a career high 30 points (and all on assists! Look out Teppo Numminen…) and has lowered his efficiency rating to a -5, which looks bad except when you look at his progression: he has gone from -29 in his rookie year to -15 to this year’s rating. He has already set a personal best with 135 shots to date. He recently had a six-game point scoring streak, which points towards him putting together his offensive game. Every aspect of his play is improving, and he is only 22 years old. Within the next three or four years at most, I expect Jay Bouwmeester to be one of the top five overall defensemen in the entire league. For the sake of Florida fans, I hope the youthful core of the team remains intact so Bouwmeester can help lead them to the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference.

Jay McClement, Center, St. Louis Blues

You’re looking at the name, you’re looking at the numbers, you’re looking at the team…you’re thinking: why would I even consider him for a fantasy pickup? And ordinarily I’d agree, as 17 points in 45 games is not only nothing to shout about, it’s usually something to avoid in a center if you’re talking about fantasy leagues. In the opening of this column, I alluded to how trades can re-sculpt a team not just by adding players but by subtracting them. That may sound patronizingly obvious but recently Jay McClement of the St. Louis Blues has been putting up numbers to bolster that theory. Over the last few games the Blues have been juggling their lines but McClement has often found himself lined up with Keith Tkachuk and Lee Stempniak, which has no doubt helped with McClement’s productivity, to say nothing of his confidence.

After scoring 30 goals in his second year of junior with the Ontario League’s Brampton Battalion, Jay McClement was drafted in the second round of the NHL draft by St. Louis. He advanced his game the next season, scoring 55 points in 61 games while becoming the team’s most reliable two-way player, and earning a spot on Canada’s World Junior team that winter (earning a silver medal).

He spent the last two seasons in Worcester, Massachusetts with the Blues’ AHL farm team refining his game before getting called up to the parent club this season. As we’ve mentioned numerous times this season, a player’s raw point totals are rarely an accurate measure on their own as to the skill or potential skill of that player – having said that, let’s throw some numbers at you: in a span of 19 games in the middle of this season with St. Louis McClement played over ten minutes only five times; most of those games getting no more than six minutes. Over his past five games his ice time has steadily increased each game, from 14 minutes to nearly 23 last Tuesday against Colorado. In those five games McClement has nine points and has been a +5. Small sample size to be sure, but is some evidence that when given the opportunity, this is a player who can and will deliver. Watch for Jay McClement to use this last month to establish himself on a St Louis team searching for a new identity moving into the 2006-2007 season.

Colby Armstrong, Winger, Pittsburgh Penguins

For the very forgettable season the Penguins are going through, on and off the ice, if they play their cards right they can actually look forward to on-ice success in the not too distant future. Everyone knows Sidney Crosby and with the arrival of Evgeni Malkin next season, complimented by young players like Tomas Surovy, Michael Ouellet, and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury they should have an exciting and talented core of players to build upon. Another such player who has been breaking out of late is right wing Colby Armstrong. He is currently riding a six game point-scoring streak in which he’s scored nine points and even more remarkably been a +6 (while the team has lost four of those games).

Armstrong was selected in the first round of the 2001 draft by the Penguins after scoring 36 goals for the powerhouse Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League, with whom he won the Memorial Cup that season. He put together a quality junior resume which combined point-per-game scoring with an edge, as evidenced by his more than 270 penalty minutes earned over his final two seasons. He spent the last three-plus seasons with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre of the AHL, improving on his numbers each year until last season’s 55 points, earning him “most improved player” on the team.

Armstrong is a smaller player who likely benefits from the crackdown on obstruction this year. Of late he has been getting shifts with Crosby and Recchi, which will nearly guarantee him points. Averaging well over 20 minutes per game in the past month, Armstrong looks to have found a good fit on this Penguins team and – much like Jay McClement of St. Louis – will be showcasing his skills for a leading spot on next year’s team.

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

02 March 2006

McDonald, Emery, Bouchard

Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition

By Rob Aquino


The NHL is finally back after a long Olympic break, and with it brings many questions about how teams will respond. For one, the Olympic schedule was incredibly demanding: the two finalists, Sweden and Finland, played eight games in 12 nights. That alone would be exhausting but compound that with the fact that these games were all at the highest level possible as well as played halfway around the world, and you have a lot of tired athletes….who are set to come back to a grueling final six weeks of the regular season.

So we are left with an unprecedented and rather mysterious end stretch to the season – for each team there are a crazy amount of games in a short amount of time. Nobody knows how this will play out – the conventional wisdom is that players will be exhausted – will those teams with players who played in the Olympics be more affected than those without Olympians? What of the players from Sweden and Finland, some of whom have only returned to North America within the last day? As reported on Canada’s TSN, the five Detroit Red Wings on the gold-medal-winning Swedish team will end up playing 13 games in 25 days, while traveling virtually around the world.

While nobody can predict how this will play out, we can assume that the Olympics could very well have an effect on some teams making or missing the playoffs this year. There is a lot of parity in the NHL in 2006, with both conferences being more compressed than ever - just ten points separates the third from eleventh seeds in the West. Most teams are actually still in playoff contention (flashback to the 21-team era when “playoff contention” meant that you could be somewhere within 20 game of .500 and still carry that label…maybe things really weren’t better back then…) which if we relate it to the Olympic break means that any slight edge might be the difference between the eighth and final spot and missing the playoffs by a point or two.

This week I’m taking a look at a few different players who are/were affected by the Olympic break either due to injury or simply play on young teams who may be able to convert the two-week break into a playoff sprint.

Andy McDonald, Center, Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks have quietly put together a good few months and are now within striking distance of the playoffs. The deal that sent Sergei Fedorov east to the Blue Jackets was good for them in myriad ways, not the least of which was allowing their younger players to step up and establish themselves as vital members of the Ducks present and future. Andy McDonald is one of those players; he’s been flying under the radar of national attention thus far but his play has warranted so much more – prior to this season McDonald’s high in points was 30, in 79 games two years ago. His best efficiency rating was a +2 in his first extended campaign back in 2001-2002. This year, with 53 points to date, he will soon double that previous high and perhaps just as significant is his impressive (and team high) +20.

McDonald is a smallish center, listed at 5’11” and 186 pounds. He spent four years at Colgate University where he scored 136 points over his final three years - in his senior year he finished seventh in the nation in scoring with 58 points in just 34 games, so he has the scoring pedigree. Or *did* - he had a fine time in two AHL stints, scoring over a point per game, but over his first three-plus years with Anaheim was not statistically too successful - his best run was 2003 with 21 points in 46 games.

That has all changed this year, and especially of late. Currently McDonald is riding a league-high 11-game point scoring streak, helping the Ducks close to within a few points of the playoff picture in the West. Anaheim could be a very interesting team down the stretch, and with McDonald on a fairly constant pairing with Teemu Selanne, expect the confidence and points to continue at a career high.

Ray Emery, Goaltender, Ottawa Senators

Let’s just say that Ottawa backup goalie Ray Emery has had an “interesting” year. He started off the year winning his first six games in a row, which enabled him to set an NHL record for most wins at the beginning of a career (nine) – in many people’s minds this put him as the Senators’ goalie of the future. Emery certainly does nothing to dispel the “crazy goalie” stereotype, but rather than being the moody or odd introvert (ala Hasek), Emery is brash and outgoing. Those who paid attention to him in juniors knew, but finally this year he attracted attention with the story about Emery eating a live cockroach in the dressing room (on a dare from teammate Daniel Alfredsson). This would have been brushed off as harmless and amusing…but soon to follow came the inevitable Ottawa slump, and as Emery took a few of those losses (some of them bad including giving up eight goals to Atlanta in early January) critics were a bit more vocal about Emery and his potential shortcomings. Erratic or non-traditional behaviour…the Mike Tyson mask “controversy.” So what now for Ray Emery? Due to Dominik Hasek’s groin injury at the Olympics in Italy, now he finds himself – at least for a little while – the number one goalie for the Senators. The spotlight is on.

Emery started his pro career with the Sault St. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League, and became notorious for his aggressive (and admittedly entertaining) play – both inside and outside of the crease (I was fortunate enough to be in attendance one night against the Knights in London, Ontario while he engaged in one of his many fights). His often on-the-edge behavior didn’t obscure his considerable talent, as in his final year in the Soo he was named OHL goaltender of the year and was runner up to Brad Boyes for league most valuable player.

He spent most of the last three seasons in the AHL with Binghamton, putting up good to great numbers each year. He had a few tastes of life with the big club, but was third on the Senators’ depth chart behind Patrick Lalime and Martin Prusek and was better served getting playing time in the minors. It seemed that Emery’s time had come…until Dominik Hasek was signed, and Emery was going to be at best the number two guy.

Fast forward to today – conflicting reports have Hasek out for anywhere from a week to the end of the regular season, so barring a disastrous performance before next week’s trading deadline, the Ottawa crease belongs to Ray Emery. The time is now for Ray Emery to show the league – and more importantly his teammates – what he’s made of, talent-wise. The Senators – once runaway leaders in the East – are only a few points in front of Buffalo for the division lead. Even if Dominik Hasek returns to take the top spot soon, Emery is using this time to showcase himself as an imminent goaltending star in this league.

Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Winger, Minnesota Wild

Since entering the NHL in 2000, the Minnesota Wild have been known as a team focused mainly on the defensive side of play. This year they’re once again only in the middle of the pack in terms of goals per game, but they do feature some premier offensive talent. Remember the name Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Bouchard was a high first round pick, going eighth overall to Minnesota in the loaded 2002 draft. Bouchard had come off a spectacular two years in the Quebec Major Junior League; with the Chicoutimi Sagueneens, he had seasons of 95 and 140 points, the latter season (2001-2002) leading the league and earning Canadian Hockey League player of the year honors.

He immediately graduated to the NHL where he obviously found the competition just a little more difficult, yet he was only 18 years old as a rookie, so expectations were not unrealistic. He has been brought along slowly, notching 20 and 22 points in his first two years in the NHL, but last year with Houston of the AHL seemed to help elevate his game – he increased his production to 54 points, a pro high for him. This year with Minnesota he has already totaled 45 points (exceeding his NHL career totals) in just 58 games. Coach Jacques Lemaire last month challenged Bouchard to be more aggressive and he has responded with nine points in his last six games - he seems to be getting better as the season progresses. Again, this is a kid who is only 21 years of age and has the talent to be a premier sniper in the league for years to come.

As of Wednesday night, Minnesota was 11th in the West, but at the same time only ten points out of first place in the incredibly competitive Northwest division. The pressures of a playoff race could be great experience for the young team and it will be interesting to see if Bouchard can keep his outstanding play up for the remainder of the season. Bouchard has occasionally been lining up with Marian Gaborik and Brian Rolston, putting the Wild’s top three snipers all on one line, so if he remains there he could be one of the better point producers in the conference for the last six weeks and a true sleeper.

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.