06 April 2006

Kelly, Aubin, Bernier

Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition

By Rob Aquino


We now have two weeks to go in this regular season, and with every passing day the playoff picture crystallizes a bit more. In terms of fantasy hockey, if you’re in a head-to-head league this is a week where many leagues are playing their championship rounds, and it could be time to get creative with some quick add/drops.

You might be looking for individual category help – if we look at who has been hot over the past month, +/- is a category where you can pick up a relative unknown and capitalize – sure you’ll have your offensive studs from Ottawa dominating the list but did you know that defencemen Steve Montador (Florida) and Shaone Morrisonn (Washington) are both a +9 this month? They’re probably available in your league and even though you might not get much point production out of them, a solid +/- acquisition can help you win that category. Beware of deceptive players like Buffalo’s Brian Campbell – a thrilling player (both positively and negatively) who will do damage on the Sabre power play but will also give coach Lindy Ruff nightmares if he’s on the ice trying to help protect a one-goal lead (a brutal -9 over the last four weeks). Red Wing defenceman Niklas Kronwall has managed to forge a +12 rating after just 20 games, while Anaheim defenceman Francois Beauchemin has put up a +8 with nine points this past month.

Looking to rough it up over the final few games? Nashville’s Brendan Witt has a nice 44 minutes in the box in the 12 games since being acquired by the Predators, establishing himself as their enforcer on the blue line, and he’s likely to help you on +/- as well, being on a quality team (he is +4 with Nashville thus far). Carolina’s Mike Commodore is another good bet, with 35 minutes on the month, while being a responsible +4 (with 13 points on the season, you might get lucky with a point or two). Up at forward, Capitals’ center Jeff Halpern has been mixing it up of late, with 31 minutes and nine points in his last 15 games.

And now for something completely different, let’s move on from some niche categories to our more traditional recommendations - three other players who are peaking at the end of the season that you should take a gamble on….

Chris Kelly, Center, Ottawa Senators

Ottawa started the season on such a roll that they were inviting (premature) comparisons to such great teams as the late-70s Flying Frenchmen Montreal Canadiens and freewheeling 1980s Edmonton Oilers. In retrospect – and even at the time – it was foolish, seeing as they hadn’t even reached the end of the season; this is also a franchise yet (in its modern-day incarnation) to even reach the Cup finals. The Senators hit a slide in mid-season, due in part to a series of injuries. Yet as often is the case, the injuries may have been a blessing in disguise, as it enabled the franchise to take a look at some youngsters who wouldn’t have had a chance otherwise – Patrick Eaves and Ray Emery are two players who we’ve looked at earlier in the year, and are making strong contributions to the squad and now rookie center Chris Kelly is taking center stage for the Sens.

Kelly had a great junior career spent mostly with the London Knights of the Ontario League, helping to lead a formerly moribund franchise from the depths of the league to the brink of a title in just two years. He peaked at 36 goals and 77 points in 68 games (adding 26 more points in a 25 game playoff run) in his best year in 1999 which culminated in him being drafted by Ottawa in the third round that June.

Kelly has since never been placed in a scoring role; instead he has developed his defensive skills and used his all-around play to help him earn a job with the parent club this year. For most of the first three months Kelly was a role player, earning a few fourth-line minutes each night, but around the new year his ice time began to dramatically increase into the teens. And since then he has started to find himself on the scoresheet – he has 11 points since the Olympic break and within the past few weeks has struck fantasy gold – a home on a line with superstars Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley.

His emphasis is still on playing defensive hockey – against the Rangers last week he was given the task of shadowing Jaromir Jagr and helped to hold Jagr to one assist in over 24 minutes of play. Chris Kelly is playing great hockey right now – although he only has 27 points on the season, his scoring rate is increasing and if you need a spot center over the last few games you could do far worse than him.

Jean-Sebastien Aubin, Goalie, Toronto Maple Leafs

The Leafs’ season has pretty much been a disaster – no need to recount it here. Eddie “Billion-Dollar” Belfour was counted on to lead the club between the pipes this year but he calcified before Toronto fans’ eyes and is out for the year with a back injury, not likely to wear the Maple Leaf on his sweater again. But when Belfour hit the disabled list last month it was expected that Mikael Tellqvist would take the reins as Toronto’s goalie-of-the future. Yet here we are in early April, the Leafs pitifully hanging on to hopes of gaining the last playoff spot and they’ve given four straight starts to veteran Jean-Sebastian Aubin instead. Puzzling on the surface. Yet…hard to argue with the results thus far…

When Aubin was recalled from the Leafs’ local AHL affiliate (Toronto Marlies) in mid-March he was expected to ride the bench behind the younger Tellqvist; Aubin’s AHL stats this year were nothing remarkable. Tellqvist did start eight straight in March, winning four of them. Yet after getting blasted in a two game series in Montreal, the Leafs were desperate and turned to Aubin. In the four games since, Aubin has won three, and was spectacular in a tough shootout-loss to the rival Sabres.

Aubin is not a long-term answer for the Leafs (who never seem to see a long-term picture – do they have any sort of development plan whatsoever?). Young Leaf draft picks Justin Pogge and Tuukka Rask will be with the team within three years and battling for the goaltending position. Regardless, it seems that Pat Quinn, John Ferguson and whoever else are making personnel decisions for Toronto have little faith in Tellqvist, and enough in Aubin to ride him out. Aubin has undoubtedly been spectacular over the four games, with a gaudy .945 save percentage and only seven goals allowed. If you’re looking for a goalie, he would be a good band-aid for the rest of the season.

Steve Bernier, Winger, San Jose Sharks

Last week I wrote that the Sharks have been fairly top-heavy in terms of their offensive production this year, getting most of their scoring out of a select few premier players like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Jonathan Cheechoo. I may have spoken too soon, as yet another rookie has begun to establish himself this year as a producer in the NHL – young winger Steve Bernier of the San Jose Sharks. As San Jose desperately tries to make the playoffs, Bernier has notched six points in his last five games; more impressive is that in his last 11 games he has points in nine of them.

Bernier has always been a high-profile scorer, having been the first overall pick in the Quebec League draft in 2001, taken by the Moncton Wildcats. He had a successful career as a scorer in junior, playing four years for Moncton, topping off at 49 goals and 101 points in his second year which caused his stock to soar even more – the Sharks traded up in the draft in 2003 to take him 16th overall. Bernier then developed a physical style of play, giving the Sharks hope that he would eventually become a productive power forward for them. Last year in his final season with Moncton he scored at a point-per-game pace while notching 114 penalty minutes in just 68 games.

This season he had been up and down between San Jose and the Cleveland Barons (their AHL affiliate), but appears to be here to stay after his latest post-Olympic run. While in Cleveland he led the team in points with 43 in 49 games, including 20 goals, and he has carried that over to the big leagues – in his 31 games with the Sharks he now has 23 points and 31 penalty minutes (although 19 of them came in a one-game freak-out against Nashville last month), seeing time on a line with Marleau. Steve Bernier is worth a pickup in nearly every fantasy situation.

Thanks for reading – next week will wrap up our regular season Treasure Hunting – see you then!

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

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