Fantasy hockey: Twelve bold predictions for the new year

Get used to seeing more Max Pacioretty goals in 2020. Photo by David Becker/NHLI via Getty Images

In ringing this fresh decade, here's my round up of a dozen NHL fantasy predictions for 2020 - some more bold than others. Wishing you a happy new year and the best fantasy fortune through the next months and beyond.

Nikita Gusev soars What a difference a few weeks and a key lineup move makes. Finding his NHL footing and flourishing on a second line with Travis Zajac and Blake Coleman, the former KHLer has 12 points in 14 December matches, and two goals and seven assists in his past seven games (plus an astounding improvement in Corsi). Rostered in only 16.4 of ESPN.com leagues, Gusev could prove to be a top fantasy steal in this campaign's latter half.

Tampa goes on a tear That's more like it. Winners of four-straight - averaging 4.5 goals per game not including Tuesday's empty-netter - Tampa's talented skaters are finally resembling what we thought they were. Look to potentially available top-six forwards in your own league such as Ondrej Palat, Anthony Cirelli, and if you're really lucky, Alex Killorn. This club feels poised to break out in challenging their Atlantic Division rivals in Boston and Toronto.

Dylan Larkin gets his act together While Detroit's perennially top player won't finish with 70-plus points like last year, he also won't wrap up with the 50 for which he's on pace. Recently speaking about a boost in confidence experienced by the team as a whole, Larkin appears resolved to make the most of what portends to be another disappointing season in Detroit. He's also due to enjoy a pronounced bump in his 7.0 shooting%. This might be a fine occasion to volley a trade for Larkin with a potentially frustrated fantasy manager.

Max Pacioretty scores 25 (more) goals Only two skaters - Alex Ovechkin and Nathan MacKinnon - are averaging more shots per game than the Knights' sniper (4.00), yet Pacioretty has just 16 goals to date, compared to the 24 earned by each of the aforementioned scoring heavyweights. That he potted only two on 57 shots in October partially explains the discrepancy. Skating on a dynamic line and power play with the ever-dangerous Mark Stone, Pacioretty is in position to erupt this second half.

Nino Niederreiter averages near a point per game (from now on) Carolina's patience with playing Niederreiter on the Hurricanes' top line and secondary power play is paying off. Alongside Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen, the former Wild winger has 10 points in 11 games, including six with the extra skater. And remember, different team in Minnesota, sure, but he got off to a slow start last year before wrapping up with a bang in Raleigh. Give Niederreiter a look if you need a fantasy lift up front.

David Rittich burns out He's been great for the Flames to date - really good. He's also appeared in 32 games already, trailing only Winnipeg's Connor Hellebuyck (33). For someone who has a contemporary history of struggling in the season's second half, it's concerning. Particularly since Rittich has yet to exceed 45 contests in his limited NHL career. Tell you what, I'm wary if Calgary's starter is on my own fantasy roster. We could see a lot more of Cam Talbot - who's been excellent this December - soon.

Stars go on a tear following their Winter Classic win Did you catch post-game coverage at the Cotton Bowl? These guys are jazzed, from goalie Ben Bishop on out. Beyond the fantasy favorites (Tyler Seguin etc), look to other less conventional assets on Dallas' roster - such as re-invigorated rookie Roope Hintz - as this inspired club charges up the Central Division standings.

Alex DeBrincat re-discovers his scoring touch His current 8.5 shooting% is, fortunately, unsustainable, considering the way this young guy plays. A natural goal-scorer on a top-six line and No. 1 power play, DeBrincat won't match last season's sum of 41, but I wouldn't be the least surprised if he does double the damage in the second half, at minimum, in collecting another 20. Even in re-draft leagues, his fantasy managers should coolly reject any and all seemingly reasonable trade offers.

Marcus Johansson stays healthy and logs (another) 30 points A sudden fixture in the Sabres' top six and on the No. 1 power play - due in large part to Jeff Skinner's injury and Casey Mittelstadt's demotion to the minors - the 29-year-old versatile forward is seeing heavy minutes and ample scoring opportunities. Barring injury, and he seems fit at present, Johansson will contribute to Buffalo's scoresheet more games than not. He's overwhelmingly available in ESPN.com leagues.

Kevin Hayes enjoys a career year in Philly Serving as the Flyers' current second line center, Hayes' chemistry with winger James van Riemsdyk is palpable, as supported by his four goals and four assists in eight recent games. Alongside JVR and Travis Konecny, the 27-year-old could conceivably reach the 60-point mark for the first time. Which adds up to 37 (minimum) more points between now and early April. And Hayes is available in two-thirds of ESPN.com leagues.

Elvis Merzlikins struggles as the Blue Jackets' starter Perhaps not the brashest of predictions, but Tuesday's admittedly impressive 36-save victory over the Panthers could suffice in charming some goalie-needing fantasy managers. Not me. Merzlikins hasn't been near good enough altogether in his first NHL season, and that Jackets' lineup is significantly banged-up otherwise. It could get ugly in Columbus before the much-better Joonas Korpisalo returns from a knee injury in early February.

Neil Pionk leads the Jets' blue line in points Meaning the ex-Ranger betters Josh Morrissey in the production department, which few, including yours truly, would've predicted to start the season. Playing the point on the Jets' top power play, Pionk has 12 assists in December, including eight with the extra skater. Morrissey has eight points that same 13-game stretch, with only two counting on the power play. And guess which of the two might be available for the low fantasy cost of a mouse click in your own ESPN.com league?