Research is fine and good but nothing shakes off the fantasy hockey rust like the first impassioned and unrestrained mock draft of the season. That very attitude and enthusiasm brought together a collective of ESPN.com's extensive NHL family on Tuesday, Sept. 20, for 22 rounds of drafting fun. Participants included, in original order, Craig Custance, Tristan Cockcroft, Tim Kavanagh, John Buccigross, Pierre Becquey, Michael Hume, Victoria Matiash, Neil Greenberg, Sean Allen and Scott Cullen. Categories include goals, assists, power-play points, plus-minus, penalty minutes, shots on goal and average time on ice for skaters and wins, save percentage and goals-against average for goaltenders. Slots to fill include nine forwards, five defensemen, one "utility" skater, two goaltenders and a five-man bench.
Strategies were explored, steals were exploited, premature missteps were taken and, yes, blunders were made. This is how it all went down. You can also check out team-by-team results by clicking here.
Feeling slight pressure from holding the first pick overall -- as openly expressed via his Twitter account, @CraigCustance, throughout the preceding afternoon -- ESPN Insider's Custance ended up choosing Alex Ovechkin over his secondary choices, Steven Stamkos and Evgeni Malkin. "With so much on the line with the first overall pick, I opted for the player I thought was the safest selection in that spot," Custance said. "Since shots on goal are factored in our scoring, that pushed him over the top for me. I expect him to score at least 40 goals -- and for the sake of my team, he'd better."
But before the lot of us could wrap up discussions as to whether Ovechkin merited the No. 1 selection over Stamkos, Malkin or Daniel Sedin, "SportsCenter's" John Buccigross arguably made the most startling move of the draft. With the likes of Corey Perry and Henrik Sedin still available, Sidney Crosby was snagged with the fourth overall pick. Recovering from symptoms of a serious concussion, there's still no return date, estimated or concrete, for Crosby in sight. But that didn't seem to bother a very optimistic Buccigross. "Concussions are impossible to forecast but I sense hope in Pittsburgh," he said. "My hope is 75 games this year for Sid. He will be well-rested and should be incredibly hungry."
Hey, it's a gutsy gamble. Not one I would have been willing to take in the first round, but a risk that could pay out huge fantasy dividends should Crosby return to the ice before mid-November.
Only one goaltender was chosen in the inaugural round, with fantasy analyst Sean Allen adhering to his theory of taking care of business between the pipes first and foremost. "I firmly believe there's a big separation between the top few goaltenders and the rest of the pack," Allen said. "That means I'm taking one in either the first or second round of every draft I do this year. With Roberto Luongo still sitting on the board with the ninth pick, I had no qualms about adding him to my team so my goaltender was out of the way."
The only other (mildly) eyebrow-raising move of the first round came by way of TSN.ca's Scott Cullen's choice of Martin St. Louis. With the initial intention of choosing a goaltender and high-scoring forward with back-to-back selections, his strategy changed at the last moment. "As the first round progressed, St. Louis was still on the board, and (in my best draft-day GM voice) I really didn't expect him to still be there when I was picking, so it changed my plans," Cullen said. "Admittedly, St. Louis is additionally valuable in leagues that differentiate between center, left wing and right wing, and his low penalty-minute totals aren't an asset, but his health (he's missed two games in the last eight seasons), and production made him a must-pick for me at the end of the first round."
Personally, my seventh-overall selection of Pavel Datsyuk was my least favorite of the entire draft. With Anze Kopitar queued up, I chickened out at the last moment and took the ever-steady Datsyuk instead. Believing Kopitar could be in for a breakout campaign and flirt with the 100-point mark for the first time, it's a move I regretted immediately.
Predictably, goaltending proved to be a the mini-theme of Round 2, as Henrik Lundqvist, Tomas Vokoun and Pekka Rinne were chosen, in that order. I believed the calculated number of starts might give Rinne and edge over Lundqvist and Vokoun. Clearly ESPN Insider Neil Greenberg and Insider editor Mike Hume didn't see it that way.
"Lundqvist was a no-brainier, and I was surprised he was there," Greenberg insisted. "I had gone into the draft wanting Kopitar, Lundqvist and Duncan Keith with my first three picks. I feel Lundqvist will be the best fantasy netminder for 2011-12. Durable, he'll win games and carry a great save percentage. And he now has Brad Richards on his team."
Believing Vokoun is one good team away from an amazing season, Hume was just as satisfied with his No. 1 goalie: "With Washington he should see fewer shots and more wins. I usually don't like taking goalies early because they're unpredictable from year to year, so I targeted the most predictable guy (Lundqvist) for Round 2. When he was off the board, Vokoun was a tempting target, given his strong save percentages year over year. When you're over .920 for three seasons running, you're doing something right."
With my eye initially on Malkin (chosen by Cullen), I was content to settle for defenseman Dustin Byfuglien instead. Arguably a top 10 overall fantasy selection, Byfuglien leads a miniscule pack of D-men (five players ... six, maybe) in a different league altogether. So what if he gained a little bit of weight? As a multi-categorical star, Big Buff is a fantasy dreamboat.
Our collective attention turned, for the most part, back to forwards in the third round, while goaltenders Tim Thomas and Carey Price were chosen 21st and 22nd overall, respectively. Clearly a member of another school of thought when it comes to fantasy netminders (see: Round 2), I was somewhat confounded that fantasy analyst Cockcroft would go for Price when Ryan Miller was still ripe for the plucking.
"I'm a little surprised that Price over Miller is at all a surprise, being that Price finished substantially higher on the last season's Player Rater, by 91 spots in fact," Cockcroft said, inferring he thought I was out to lunch. "I'm as much of a 'don't pay for last year's stats' proponent as anyone, but it's not like Price's 2010-11 was anymore the career outlier than Miller's 2009-10, the only career season in which his goals-against average was beneath 2.50 or save percentage above .920"
Hmm. We'll see. Miller has always been steady, and the offseason acquisitions of Ville Leino, Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr might help pave the way for his best season ever. In light of the new ownership, promising things are happening in Buffalo. The starting netminder should benefit.
My choice of Rick Nash was the consolation prize to the already-spoken-for Jeff Carter (by fantasy sports editor Pierre Becquey). The Columbus Blue Jackets' top scoring line should be crazy explosive this season. I wanted a piece of that action.
Vilified this offseason by former teammates -- and certain members of the media -- for his alleged lackadaisical attitude, Alexander Semin may have been the most intriguing selection of Round 4. But Semin is entering a contract year, which usually carries that extra magical bit of incentive.
"Some guys just have a nose for the goal, and Semin is as consistent a goal scorer as there is," Becquey suggested. "The upside, if he plays an 80-game season, is 45 goals with 300 shots on goal, elite power-play totals and 80 minutes in the sin bin to boot. If he simply plays his usual 65-70, he puts up fourth-round numbers anyway."
Also noteworthy was Greenberg's choice of Jeff Skinner ahead of Eric Staal. Ranked higher in ESPN.com's projections, the captain of the Carolina Hurricanes is expected to put up superior numbers across the board. But obviously, Greenberg preferred to put his fantasy faith in the reigning Calder Trophy winner.
Buccigross, quickly morphing into the go-big-or-go-home manager in this league, opted to roll the dice with Corey Crawford as his No. 2 netminder behind Marc-Andre Fleury after one -- and only one -- successful season as a starter in the NHL. The move could backfire in grand fashion or bring about exceptionally handsome returns. We'll see if Crawford ends up becoming another one-season wonder.
Harkening back to the golden yesteryear of 2009-10, fantasy analyst and Rumor Central contributor Tim Kavanagh claimed he was looking ahead to great things once again from former fantasy heavyweight Mike Green, a suitable candidate for a bounce-back season.
"Green was as dominant as they come during the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons, notching 70-plus points and over 200 shots in each campaign, and registering a plus-24 and plus-39, respectively," Kavanagh explained. "The injuries give me a little trepidation, but he's only 25 years old, and all reports indicate he's healthy."
There wasn't much thought behind my fifth-round selection of Henrik Zetterberg; the Red Wings' forward was chosen as complement to linemate Datsyuk. No more complicated than that. But at this point, it hit me that I needed a goaltender.
Jaroslav Halak. My procrastination in the netminding department landed me Jaroslav Halak. I had no one but myself to blame for delaying the move, but took some comfort in the offseason reports out of St. Louis. Apparently Halak feels grand and is in the best shape of his career. Plus, the Blues are expected to enjoy a fair amount of success in 2011-12, and a playoff berth should be in the cards. It could all work out. Fingers crossed.
Otherwise, murmurings of approval filled the chat box when Allen selected Mikko Koivu with the 52nd pick. The choice was based on the strategy of matching elite centers with their respective goal scorers as a strategy to double the return on lines that should excel. "Koivu, like my other top six offensive picks, was part of my playmaker/scorer pairings that I specifically targeted," Allen said. "With my second-seventh picks I managed to secure the Richards-Marian Gaborik, Joe Thornton-Patrick Marleau and Koivu-Dany Heatley connections." Makes good sense.
The choice of Ryan Kesler and his wonky hip also stirred up some chatter, but Becquey felt confident in the long-term math. "Hip injuries are scary, but Kesler is a durable guy in the prime of his youth, and he's played 326 of the last 328 regular-season NHL games," he said. "I was tempted to take him in the fifth, but I thought it was more important to land one of the last good offensive defensemen. I'll take the hit early, substitute a reserve for games missed then gladly ride Kesler the rest of the season."
The chat box came to life with renewed animation once Ilya Bryzgalov was settled on by Custance. The troops seemed split over whether Bryzgalov would flourish with his new club or be "eaten alive in Philly," as one manager put it. His new owner remained dauntless ... for the most part. "Bryzgalov will get a ton of starts on a team that should be one of the best in the East, and that's why I felt comfortable taking him in the seventh round," Custance said. "But there are concerns, including how he'll play outside of Dave Tippett's system as well as how he'll handle the pressure in Philadelphia. I wasn't willing to take him higher, but remain pretty satisfied to have him as my No. 2 [goaltender]."
Admittedly, I was pleased as punch to acquire Vincent Lecavalier with the 74th pick. Fun fact: For the first time in five years, Lecavalier wasn't obligated to spend the offseason rehabilitating a physical issue of some sort. He's healthy and rested and resolved to revisit production standards from 2006-07 (52 goals, 56 assists). That would be lovely.
On a personal sour note, Custance ruined my follow-up plan by choosing forward Chris Stewart with the final choice of Round 8. Stewart should be a power-play monster with the Blues this season. A prognosis not lost on Custance, apparently.
There appeared to be a pronounced absence of "sexy" picks through Rounds nine and 10: Solid fantasy performers who would neither break your heart nor single-handedly take your squad to the next level. Of this hum-drum gaggle, only Tyler Myers, Jamie Benn, Alex Pietrangelo and Tomas Fleischmann stood out a little.
Buccigross: "The Sabres should be a very strong team and that should help the plus-minus. With less pressure as the go-to offensive guy, my hope is Myers continues to improve with experience."
Cullen: "I've been touting Jamie Benn going back to the second half of last year, when his ice time went up dramatically; he's been my preferred pick as a breakthrough/sleeper forward since. So, by the ninth round, when I had already addressed all my positions to some degree, it felt right to take a young player that has a chance at 70 points. "
Greenberg: "Pietrangelo was a consolation prize after I misjudged the "sleepiness" of Benn. The D corps looked to be thinning after Dion Phaneuf and James Wisniewski were taken off the board, so I grabbed Pietrangelo. Good for 45 points, I think he's a solid fantasy pick."
Custance: "I've been assured Fleischmann's blood clot issues are completely under control and he should have a regular NHL career from now on. His production when healthy last year was outstanding in Colorado with 21 points in 22 games after the trade from Washington. Florida paid a big price to land him in free agency and he'll get every opportunity to produce at that level with the Panthers."
On my pick, I wasn't all that thrilled with landing Kari Lehtonen, but didn't want to be left with worse. Truth be told, my goaltending crew wasn't in fabulous shape, but I hoped to land a sleeper with ultra-potential in a later round.
Rounds 11 and 12 felt a bit wild and random. Considered one of the rookies to watch in 2011-12, Gabriel Landeskog was chosen 103rd overall. Willing to forego ice time in light of Landeskog's other attributes and lineup position, Kavanagh said he believed the potential reward was well worth any downside. "There's always a risk involved in drafting a rookie because they don't always perform right out of the gate, but I feel that as late as the 11th round, and as my seventh forward, a little of that risk is mitigated," Kavanagh revealed. "He'll be skating with a great young center in either Matt Duchene or Paul Stastny, and his style of play will be a boost across the offensive categories and in penalty minutes as well."
Allen may have elicited the most buzz by selecting Jaromir Jagr and Andrei Markov (knee), respectively, in Rounds 11 and 12. The sky is the limit if age, fitness and health prove to be non-factors. Particularly with Markov.
"I am a big believer in having two elite scoring defensemen on my fantasy teams, but this year in particular, I believe it's possible to achieve that by gambling on some late picks," Allen said. "Markov falls into that category. I am betting that between Markov, Chris Pronger and Marek Zidlicky I end up with two top pairing fantasy defensemen.
But the wildest and most random move of this stage fell to Hume with the from-left-field selection of Michael Frolik. A pick Hume wasn't too enraptured with, in the aftermath.
"I fully admit this was a big reach and I'm angry at myself for grabbing him as early as I did," Hume said. "However, I love him as a sleeper. He's on a strong team and at the very worst he's going to put 250-plus shots on goal. A little regression to the mean and he's a diamond in the rough. But he'd shine a lot brighter if I hadn't jumped the gun."
A solid run on D-men took place through these rounds, a trend perpetrated by Kavanagh grabbing new Panthers player Brian Campbell as his fourth defenseman.
"Expectations placed upon Campbell because of his massive contract seemed to weigh him down in Chicago," Kavanagh said. "In Florida, he looks like he'll be in the mix for massive minutes, since he's the most accomplished power-play quarterback amongst that group. As long as he can stay healthy, I like his chances for a rebound season on a suddenly relevant Panthers squad."
As for the few forwards selected, there were a few curious mutterings in regard to the choice of Jason Spezza. Some worried about the abuse his plus-minus would take, but Becquey was adamant in defending the move. "With ATOI [average time on ice] a consideration, no matter how bad the Senators get, you can count on Spezza to play about a period every game," Becquey said. "He was top 20 in the category last season, and only two such players were available in the 14th round. Maybe Spezza plays only 60 games again this year, but he's the perfect guy to plug in while, say, Ryan Kesler or Alexander Semin misses time."
Personally, I enjoyed a little happy dance after managing to snag Teemu Selanne at this stage of the draft. Received a few virtual pats on the back from other managers via the chat box as well. After all the humming and hawing over whether to return for a final season, Selanne (and his knee) appears to be fit as a fiddle. Or near enough.
The choice of young Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic, as the 150th pick overall, elicited the greatest reaction in Round 15. Several managers politely challenged the move, and Cullen admitted the selection fell a bit under the radar. "Hamonic has been my equivalent of Benn on defense -- a young guy that had a strong finish to last season (18 points, plus-11, 78 PIM in his last 33 games), doesn't have mass name recognition yet could be very valuable," Cullen said. "Even if Hamonic puts up 30 points and 100 penalty minutes, which seems an entirely reasonable expectation, there were only two defensemen in the league that hit both of those thresholds last season, Kris Letang and P.K. Subban."
"I admit it, I hated this pick," Cockcroft conceded, calling Corvo a safe if not extraordinary option. "I desperately wanted Cam Fowler, but he got swiped three spots before my Round 16 selection [my sleeper, Tuukka Rask], and the last thing I wanted to do was wait to pick my No. 5 defenseman from the scraps in the final rounds. I don't see there being any way Corvo matches last year's 40 points in Boston, but the move does bolster his plus-minus -- something I decidedly punted in the early rounds -- and his scoring shouldn't go into the tank."
Greenberg, on the other hand, was reasonably satisfied with his choice of power-play specialist Kurtis Foster. As a value pick in later rounds, the new member of the Anaheim Ducks' blue line could prove to be a pleasant surprise. "With Keith, Pietrangelo, Erik Karlsson and Dennis Wideman as my defensemen at that point, I felt Foster was a decent, low-risk pick: 30 points, 40 PIM, 17min/game and some power-play goals with the 168th pick is not terrible," Greenberg said.
Furthering the defensemen trend, I decided to invest in a plausible rebound season from Sergei Gonchar, while Hume opted to take a modest leap with Jay Bouwmeester, contending, however, that the Calgary Flames D-man was on a very short leash. "I apparently have a thing for former Panthers," he said. "He's going to get No. 1 defenseman minutes in Calgary and anything else is a bonus. I think he still has something left in the tank and could be a decent value this late in the draft. If not, it's bye-bye for Bouwmeester."
The draft rounded itself out with the requisite collection of bench players/sleeper picks. Buccigross led the way by taking a mild risk with Red Wings defenseman Ian White, who may or may not live up to billing as a suitable replacement for the retired Brian Rafalski. "I think White will be very good or a complete disaster," Buccigross confessed. "People just assume he will be since he is little and shoots right-handed. If he doesn't work out, I have guys on the bench toward which to turn."
Allen decided to gamble with a healthy Peter Mueller, hoping the healthy winger would return to his productive ways as potential linemate to Matt Duchene and Milan Hejduk with the Avalanche: "With Mueller I am betting on a return of the player that deposited a point per game in his short time with the Colorado Avalanche after the trade deadline in the 2009-10 campaign. Mueller has elite skills and is recovered from a concussion that kept him off the ice through the entire 2010-11 campaign."
Becquey opted to put his eggs in talented, if unproven, sophomore Nazem Kadri's basket. "It's a full-on sleeper pick, as you can read about in our staff sleepers and busts piece, and I wanted to secure him before any potential training camp buzz raises his stock," Becquey admitted. "You probably don't need to draft Kadri with this pick, but remember that this is what your last two bench spots are for: potential. Take a shot, and if you miss, well, there's still plenty of Mike Ribeiros in the sea." (Ahem, touché.)
For my part, playmaker Ribeiro was irresistible (Becquey be darned) as a late-round selection. With Brad Richards out of the picture, the onus will be on Ribeiro to center the top line -- effectively -- for the Dallas Stars. Meanwhile, I was downright chuffed to pick up Ray Emery with my final choice. After last season's stellar performance with the Anaheim Ducks, Emery is in favorable position to steal the No. 2 job from Alexander Salak as a potential member of the Chicago Blackhawks. And if Crawford should flounder ...
And with that, the ESPN Mock Draft 1.0 of 2011 was in the books.
Victoria Matiash is a fantasy hockey analyst and Rumor Central contributor for ESPN.com.