2015-16 Central Division fantasy preview

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To get you ready for your fantasy hockey drafts this season, we're going team by team with a look at what's changed, along with a sleeper and a bust. Our group here is the seven teams of the Central Division:

Chicago Blackhawks

What's new?

Up against the salary cap, the Blackhawks had to part with a couple of key pieces from their Stanley Cup-winning teams. But don't think for a second that the Hawks' high-octane offense will miss Brandon Saad or Patrick Sharp too sorely.

The combination of Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa on the top line and Patrick Kane as a superstar to anchor the second line make the complementary pieces both incidental and valuable. It doesn't matter who is plugged into the top six with the stars, they will provide fantasy goodness (technical term).

Those looking to sort out just who those players will be have four options to choose from for three roles -- so there will be an odd man out. Youngsters Teuvo Teravainen and Marko Dano will compete with veteran center Artem Anisimov and KHL import Artemi Panarin for the plum assignments. When it comes to boom or bust for fantasy owners, the best case would see Anisimov on the third line.

Trevor Daley is a solid addition to the blue-line group, but will have to overcome incumbent No. 2 defenseman Brent Seabrook to have value. Corey Crawford will feel Scott Darling's breath on his neck this season after the backup outshone him on several occasions last season -- including spurts in the playoffs.


Artemi Panarin, F: Last time we checked, Ilya Kovalchuk was about as good a barometer as you can find for NHL-to-KHL statistics. Well, Panarin outscored Kovalchuk 62 points to 55 to lead St. Petersburg SKA last season. That's not an insignificant feat. While not all KHL to NHL converts have found success, Panarin has skill and opportunity with two top-six forwards vacating from the Hawks lineup. If he can land on a scoring line, look out.


Corey Crawford, G: You might think a Stanley Cup ring would count as extra job security, but backup Scott Darling is coming up fast. Darling topped Crawford in both fantasy-relevant ratios (goals-against average and save percentage) in the regular season and playoffs -- though, admittedly, his volume was much lower. Still, it's an indication he has potential in the league and his season-saving heroics against the Predators in the playoffs surely gave coach Joel Quenneville the confidence to use him at anytime. All of this about Darling is to say that Crawford may see fewer starts than we might expect from a No. 1.

Colorado Avalanche

What's new?

There isn't a lot new with the lineup overall, but there are more than a few players here on the verge of big things.

Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene and Nathan Mackinnon make up a three-headed monster of potential fantasy greatness. Just know that Duchene and Mackinnon have some down seasons on their resumes. Alex Tanguay and Jarome Iginla may be a little older than the others, but are still fantasy regulars playing in the Avs' top six.

Carl Soderberg would bring a low ceiling as the team's second-line center, but he may win the role thanks to his defensive prowess. That said, Mikhail Grigorenko should be monitored for any chance he gets on a scoring line. He faltered as a prospect in Buffalo, but is by no means a bust yet.

Tyson Barrie officially took over as the club's top fantasy defenseman last season and even a healthy Erik Johnson can't change that. But Johnson and newcomer Francois Beauchemin could still find a deeper role on fantasy teams.

In goal, Semyon Varlamov is a an absolute workhorse and his fortunes will rise or fall with the team's overall performance.


Tyson Barrie, D: Everyone knows he's the Avs' top fantasy defenseman, so how could we consider Barrie a sleeper? Two stats: He scored 37 even-strength points last season and the Avalanche had the second-worst power play in the NHL. John Carlson and P.K. Subban were the only two defensemen with more even-strength points, with 38 apiece, and we know the Avalanche have the talent for a much better man advantage. The sky is the limit for Barrie's scoring total if the Avs can fix their power play.


Carl Soderberg, F: For the Avalanche to win NHL games, Soderberg is probably the best choice to open the season as the second-line center for the club. But he brings a ceiling only so high for scoring and is a target for demotion if Grigorenko can prove he isn't a bust at the NHL level.

Dallas Stars

What's new?

The Stars added a top-six forward and a new goaltender to the mix this offseason. Patrick Sharp will either draft off the superstar combination of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn or upgrade the second line with Jason Spezza. Antti Niemi will split time with Kari Lehtonen, if he doesn't take the starting gig outright.

Where Sharp and Valeri Nichushkin end up on the scoring lines will be a major factor in fantasy leagues. The winner of the Seguin-Benn sweepstakes will have the chance to sail past 60 points while following the Art Ross Trophy threats onto the ice. The other will get a decent consolation prize, playing with Spezza on the second line.

John Klingberg took over the top blue-line role for fantasy purposes, but Alex Goligoski will retain some deep-league value.

The goaltending setup will be a point of frustration for fantasy owners out of the gate. Lehtonen didn't do anything to lose his job as the starter, but the organization paid a hefty price to bring in Niemi -- meaning he won't be sitting on the bench. They make a good target if you have a bookend pick in your draft after the top 20 goalies are gone, but you probably don't want to own one and not the other.


Patrick Sharp, F: While the Stars would surely like Nichushkin to come back from his season lost to hip surgery and start to make good on his pedigree, it's no guarantee. Sharp is a known commodity that could step right onto a top-line role and flourish. The Stars have one of the best wing spots in the league available on a line with Seguin and Benn. Between Nichushkin largely being unproven, inevitable power-play time and the potential for stints with Seguin-Benn to shake up the offense, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Sharp's potential for this season.


Antti Niemi, G: After Jake Allen, Niemi ranks in as the highest of the goaltenders looking at a major timeshare. To get him, you are passing on some goaltenders without competition for starts (and with similar upsides), and you are betting that he can take the job beyond a 60-40 split with Lehtonen. From a skill standpoint, we aren't so sure Niemi is a huge upgrade over Lehtonen, and it's hard to envision much beyond a hot-hand exchange resulting in close to 41 starts for each goaltender. That kind of deployment is especially dangerous for head-to-head players.

Minnesota Wild

What's new?

Nothing. Not a darn thing that is fantasy-relevant is new with the Wild.

But that's OK when you have a good core with which to work. The Wild's offense offers a healthy mix of stars and supplementary players. The defense features its one main fantasy source, plus some up-and-coming talent -- and the goaltender is among the top five.

Zach Parise is the bread and butter of the offense, while Jason Pominville, Mikael Granlund, Mikko Koivu and Thomas Vanek will be fantasy regulars. There is also some upside for Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter.

Ryan Suter might be the only fantasy defenseman worth owning, but there is potential for Matt Dumba to carve out a role.

Devan Dubnyk finally made good on his talent and ran with the starter's mantle for the Wild when given the chance last season. He is for real, and while his ratios may not be repeatable, he can give up quite a bit and still be a top-five fantasy goaltender.


Thomas Vanek, F: After Vanek dealt with a slew of lower-body injuries last season, we are hopeful that he can have a better showing for his second campaign with the Wild. Twenty-one goals in a full season is but a pittance of what Vanek has the ability to do. All indications are that he is coming into this season healthy, and a healthy Vanek has a floor of 30 goals.


Mikko Koivu, F: He still has a reputation as the playmaking center that used to score 20 goals on top of a pile of assists. The reality is that Koivu is now second fiddle to Granlund, and more in line for a dozen goals and a much smaller pile of assists. Another step forward for Granlund this season might even bump Koivu from the Wild's top power-play unit.

Nashville Predators

What's new?

When you finish second in the division with 104 points, it's just fine that the only fantasy-relevant changes during the offseason apply to some bottom-six forwards with upside.

Filip Forsberg, though no relation to Peter, has made good on his last name's pedigree in the NHL by having a breakout rookie season. A healthy James Neal as a linemate for a full campaign could quickly push Forsberg into his prime. The combination at the top of the depth chart also keeps Mike Ribeiro among the fantasy centers you want to own.

Craig Wilson and Mike Fisher will serve a deeper role on fantasy squads, while a mix of Calle Jarnkrok, Craig Smith, a rebounding Cody Hodgson and possibly even KHL sniper Steve Moses will offer upside, depending on chemistry on the second line.

But the defense is where the buck stops in Nashville. Shea Weber and Roman Josi are among the most potent fantasy pairings in the NHL. And if Weber and Josi weren't gobbling up all the key ice time, Ryan Ellis and Seth Jones would also be fantasy darlings. Despite that, Ellis and Jones are still worth monitoring.

Pekka Rinne is a top-five goaltender in the NHL. Full stop.


Ryan Ellis, D: In fewer than 19 minutes of ice time per game through only 58 games last season, Ellis put up an impressive 27 points. Pace out his numbers to 82 games and he sits among the likes of Torey Krug, Aaron Ekblad and Ryan Suter. A little more ice time and a full season could easily land Ellis among the No. 3 fantasy defensemen in the league -- despite being the third-best fantasy defenseman on his own team.


Craig Smith, F: Smith likes to shoot the puck, and he's done an admirable job keeping up with scoring lines during the past few seasons. But the Predators have several options with much higher ceilings for production. It would only take one of Jarnkrok, Hodgson or Moses to catch fire for Smith to end up buried on the third line.

St. Louis Blues

What's new?

Swap out T.J. Oshie for Troy Brouwer and you have the extent of the Blues' changes this offseason. But when you tied with the Anaheim Ducks for the most points in the Western Conference, minimal changes are acceptable.

Breakout star Vladimir Tarasenko joined the likes of David Backes, Alex Steen, Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo as top-100 fantasy assets, and he brought Jaden Schwartz along with him into that category.

The question marks on offense come down to the center position, with both Jori Lehtera and Paul Stastny on the bubble between a scoring line and a third-line role. Lehtera had great chemistry with Tarasenko and Schwartz at the start of last season, scoring 21 of his 44 points in the season's first 23 games. But he faded quickly. Stastny had the least productive relatively healthy season of his career, notching fewer than 20 goals for the first time as an NHLer (when he played more than 50 games). His fantasy relevance, like Lehtera's, will hinge on the line assignments.

Putting up nearly identical numbers last season, Brian Elliott and Jake Allen created no separation on the other for the starting gig. Allen only gets viewed as the preferred fantasy option going into this season because he is five years younger. They will, once again, split time and frustrate fantasy owners who don't own both of them.


Paul Stastny, F: A 46-point campaign was a big disappointment from Stastny, who has twice flirted with the 80-point threshold in his nine-year NHL career. He has the talent to be a scoring-line anchor, but needs the chance to play there to make good on it. The departure of Oshie could be the opening Stastny needs. After all, Backes is more than able to shift to the wing on the top line, and Lehtera was almost invisible after November last season. A permanent scoring-line role moves Stastny's baseline for points closer to 60, with a higher ceiling if there is some chemistry.


Troy Brouwer, F: Though Brouwer and Oshie play a similar style of game -- big hits and hard on the puck -- Brouwer's skill pales in comparison to Oshie's around the net. While Brouwer collected modest fantasy value by occasionally lining up with Alex Ovechkin in Washington over the years, he won't likely get such a plum deployment with the Blues. In addition to the regular top-six forwards all back from last season, prospect Robby Fabbri will also be in the mix.

Winnipeg Jets

What's new?

The Jets are growing up quickly, and will be an established threat this season. Unlike recent seasons, fantasy owners will have to pay attention to more than just the top line and Dustin Byfuglien.

In addition to Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler, the Jets boast fantasy-relevant forwards going seven men deep on the offense. Mark Scheifele will build on his 50-point sophomore campaign. Drew Stafford will try to prove he still has a scoring touch now that he's out of Buffalo. Mathieu Perreault will find a way to have bursts of scoring. And Nikolaj Ehlers could explode on the scene a year ahead of schedule.

Byfuglien is the beast on defense, but Tyler Myers is a great bounce-back candidate, Jacob Trouba should take another step forward, and Tobias Enstrom could hang on as a deep-league asset for one more season depending on the pairings.

In goal, Michael Hutchinson's stellar play as backup helped push Ondrej Pavelec to a career year. While Pavelec will open the campaign as the starter, Hutchinson could easily steal away the job at some point. If you are forced to rely on Pavelec for starts, this may be a situation to handcuff.


Nikolaj Ehlers, F: One day soon, Ehlers will be the Jets' leading scorer. If he breaks camp with the team, he requires fantasy monitoring immediately. He required no time to transition to North American play when he came to the QMJHL two years ago, which speaks to his ability to adjust to new leagues. If Ehlers is ready for the NHL, it won't be in a checking-line role.


Mathieu Perreault, F: Even if Ehlers is tucked away for more seasoning and Perreault plays on a scoring line all season, realize that 23 of the latter's 41 points came in a 20-game stretch last season. On the whole, his fantasy line isn't that attractive, and he can probably be scooped up when he gets hot, rather than suffer through six points in 24 games, which is how he opened last season.