Fantasy Hockey
Victoria Matiash, Fantasy Hockey 43d

Fantasy hockey - The 31 biggest takeaways from the 2020 season

Any other year, the fantasy hockey crew here at ESPN would conventionally wrap up regular-season coverage by summarizing and highlighting what went down in the previous few months, along with a look ahead to next season. This, of course, has been anything but any other year. Now, months after the NHL abruptly and appropriately shuttered regular-season play, we're cautiously starting to think about hockey again. In addition to the blueprint in place for a potential playoff run -- fully dependent on the health and safety of all involved -- there's also talk of a 2020-21 regular season starting, perhaps, before the next calendar year. That's when us fantasy folk allow ourselves a sniff of wary optimism. With a view to brighter days ahead, on all fronts, and whenever they unfold, here's some hockey fantasy fodder in the form of one key takeaway from each team from the Before Time.

Anaheim Ducks: Goaltender John Gibson deserves better. The Ducks aren't good enough defensively, full stop. Only the Jets faced more unblocked shot attempts in 2019-20, while a deeper dive into possession and quality-of-shot numbers reveals an even bigger mess. Injuries served as a significant factor, no question, but that doesn't excuse general manager Bob Murray from making the necessary changes once again. Gibson is a brilliant goalie who won't rightly shine until such improvements are made. Fantasy managers should steer clear of him in the meantime.

Arizona Coyotes: Darcy Kuemper is a genuine top-tier fantasy netminder. Kuemper, not Antti Raanta, is the go-to starting netminder for the Coyotes. Despite losing two months to a lower-body injury, the 30-year-old finished the year with 16 wins, a 2.22 GAA and .928 SV% -- a slight bump from the previous season when he boasted a 2.33 GAA and .925 SV% through 55 appearances. While Arizona's style of play deserves some credit, that only enhances the netminder's fantasy appeal. A healthy Kuemper is an elite goaltending asset in most ESPN conventional leagues.

Boston Bruins: Center David Krejci remains perennially underrated. Maybe we're all too preoccupied with the dominating play of the club's top line, but the Bruins' second-best center hasn't received his due fantasy respect for some time. Banged up a bit this past year, the 34-year-old veteran still managed to scrape 43 points out of 61 contests (he collected 73 the previous season). And Krejci remains Boston's go-to substitute between David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand whenever Patrice Bergeron falls hurt (which happens). I'm all over this veteran center in later rounds when other managers are weighing diverging priorities. Never more so than next season, the final of his current deal.

Buffalo Sabres: Buffalo's offense runs through Jack Eichel. After the captain's regular linemates -- Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson -- the Sabres' next most productive forward in 2019-20 was Marcus Johansson, with 30 points in 60 games. So, until those newly in charge acquire or promote some fresh talent, and/or/if Casey Mittelstadt figures it out at the big-league level, your Buffalo targets in any conventional fantasy league includes Eichel, Reinhart, Olofsson and defender Rasmus Dahlin. That's it. That's the list.

Carolina Hurricanes: Forward Andrei Svechnikov can score (occasionally in remarkable fashion). After racking up 20 in his 82-game rookie campaign, he recently erupted for 24 goals, plus another 37 assists, through 68 sophomore contests. Most successful alongside linemates Teuvo Teravainen and Sebastian Aho, the second overall pick in 2018 stands in little danger of losing that posting, particularly if Nino Niederreiter and Martin Necas figure it out alongside new Hurricane center Vincent Trocheck. I anticipate another bang-up year from Svechnikov whenever they get back to the business of a regular season.

Calgary Flames: Goalie David Rittich isn't the be-all/end-all in Calgary's net. Following a strong All-Star appearance-earning start to 2019-20, the Flames' perceived No. 1 tumbled down the stretch, making way for Cam Talbot, a pending unrestricted free agent, to swoop in and save the day. Winning all of nine games from Dec. 13 onward, Rittich often appeared less comfortable than his teammates and fantasy managers would like. For now, I don't trust him as a No. 1 or 2 netminder in most leagues, regardless of his stature in Calgary.

Chicago Blackhawks: Winger Dominik Kubalik is a natural (NHL) goal scorer. If it weren't for two head-turning young defensemen out further west, there would be plenty more Calder chatter about this 24-year-old Swiss-A league export. Thirty goals in 68 games? Not bad for one's first NHL tour, especially after a humdrum first couple of months. Presuming the Blackhawks re-sign the pending restricted free agent, another successful run seeing top-six minutes adjacent center Jonathan Toews should be in the cards.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Goalie Elvis Merzlikins is an enigma. Failing to secure his first NHL victory until New Year's Eve (to be fair, not entirely his own fault), the Swiss-A league export then won 12 of his next 14 contests. Following that impressive run was a seven-game losing streak, before the 26-year-old won his last two, culminating with a near-shutout of the Canucks on Mar. 8. And that was that. I have no idea what to do with this wild card, especially with a competent Joonas Korpisalo lurking about. But when he's hot, I'm tossing my fantasy seat cushion on the Merzlikins bandwagon.

Colorado Avalanche: Forward Andre Burakovsky looks at home in Colorado. Sometimes fit makes all the difference. Despite showing flashes of promise in Washington, it never fully came together for Burakovsky and the team that drafted him 23rd overall in 2013. One trade with the Avalanche later, and the 25-year-old swings a 45-point campaign, including 20 goals, through 58 contests. Whether skating on a scoring line with Joonas Donskoi and Nazem Kadri or serving as injury substitute on the Avs' imposing top unit, Burakovsky found a way to contribute at regular rhythm. Assuming the pending restricted free agent resigns in Denver, his numbers should only increase.

Dallas Stars: Forward Denis Gurianov is one to watch. In his first full NHL campaign, the 23-year-old potted 20 goals and nine assists in 64 contests. Not bad for averaging only 13 minutes of ice-time. More opportunities on a Stars' top power play, and on a forward line with fellow up-and-come Roope Hintz, and Gurianov's numbers will grow. Drafted 12th overall in 2015, the pending RFA deserves consideration in deeper ESPN fantasy leagues as soon as next season.

Detroit Red Wings: The Red Wings are a one-line show on offense. Of the too few 142 goals scored last season, 56 of them -- nearly 40% -- are attributed to one forward trio: Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi. And Mantha lost nearly two months to injury! A similar landscape to the fantasy wasteland in Buffalo, Detroit boasts three legitimate assets up front, one defenseman -- in this case youngster Filip Hronek -- and that's it. At least until Steve Yzerman gets down to some serious fiddling.

Edmonton Oilers: Forward Kailer Yamamoto is the real deal. Not only because he skates with Leon Draisaitl on the regular -- although that's huge -- but because he's a gifted talent in his own right. Splitting time between the minors and NHL, the 21-year-old averaged nearly a point per game with the Oilers, most often on Draisaitl's wing. As the team is currently made up, coach Dave Tippett has no reason to split that effective forward pairing. Yamamoto should serve as a fantasy steal if acquired in intermediate rounds of next season's draft.

Florida Panthers: Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky merits a Mulligan. Admittedly, his Florida debut did not go as anticipated. While not terrible to the degree of requiring oversized sunglasses in public, hardly worth the promise of gazillions (precisely $70 million) invested over seven years. But the worst is likely over. Bobrovsky has since admitted to struggling with the newness of everything -- coach, teammates, environment etc. That's no longer an excuse. Plus, it's not like the 31-year-old-is suddenly lousy at his job after excelling for several years. Roll all that in with Joel Quenneville figuring out how to strengthen team defense (third worst in the league) while still impressing on offense (sixth best), and Bob is likely in for a much better sophomore season as a Panther.

Los Angeles Kings: Veteran Anze Kopitar still has it. Recovering from a disheartening haul of 60 points in 2018-19, the Kings' captain rebounded with 62 through 70 contests this past season. While hardly a hefty revelation, it proves the 32-year-old still has the wherewithal to contribute, despite an entourage made up of mid-tier players. Kopitar largely competed with linemates Dustin Brown and Alex Iafallo -- neither one of them a star -- in 2019-20. My point is you can count on him.

Minnesota Wild: Forward Kevin Fiala is fantastic, finally. The guy the Predators were hoping to get by drafting him 11th overall in 2014 eventually showed up. We've enjoyed sparks of potential before, but nothing near the consistency of amassing 23 goals and 30 assists, including 18 power-play points, in the 56 games since Nov. 2 (admittedly, October was a rotten disaster). Notably, Fiala earned 16 of his total points in the season's final 11 contests, following the firing of coach Bruce Boudreau. The 23-year-old has one year left on his current contract before becoming a restricted free agent. With a big payday lurking, I expect a firecracker of a performance from Zach Parise's linemate in 2020-21.

Montreal Canadiens: Center Nick Suzuki is Montreal's future down the middle. The 20-year-old rookie amassed 13 goals and 28 points in 71 games in his first pro campaign. With full respect to Phillip Danault, whose contract expires after next season, this kid offers promise of taking over the No. 1 center's job before long. While Max Domi is more of a versatile top-six skater, teen Jesperi Kotkaniemi isn't near yet where he needs to be. That leaves the ultra-talented Suzuki who sits high on my list of dynasty/keeper assets. He's a difference-maker.

New Jersey Devils: No more sleeping on Nikita Gusev. While there isn't altogether much to adore about the Devils from a fantasy stance -- at least until Jack Hughes cobbles it together and P.K. Subban rediscovers his magic -- the KHL-export merits little criticism. Through his first 66 NHL games (ever), the 27-year-old collected 13 goals and 31 assists (44 points is hardly jaw-dropping, and yet Kyle Palmieri led the club with 45) while filling a largely supporting role. I'd like to see what he can accomplish when averaging more than 14:42 per game. We'll find out in 2020-21, the second of Gusev's two-year deal.

Nashville Predators: Forward Viktor Arvidsson deserves a break. Post run-in with Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo, the Nashville winger never seemed himself after taking a month off to recover from a lower-body injury. Averaging 0.79 points per game over the previous three seasons -- heavy on the goals -- Arvidsson's drop to 28 points in 57 contests doesn't comfortably compute. Which suggests he never felt right, even after receiving the green light to return. This extended break should do the 27-year-old a world of good. I propose we see more of the Arvidsson of old once the Predators return to play -- someone once again worth rostering in fantasy competition.

New York Islanders: Senator Jean-Gabriel Pageau isn't the same as Islander Pageau. After big-fishing it in Ottawa's shallow pond, the former No. 1 center tumbled down New York's lineup following his deadline-day trade. The Isles have Mathew Barzal. And Brock Nelson. But while Pageau won't score at the same clip as he did with the Sens -- only two goals (zero assists) in seven Islanders games before the season skidded to a halt -- he'll win more and flirt with playoff competition. Plus, there's the $30-million, six-year extension already signed. Pageau will be fine. Only his fantasy fans might want to readjust expectations.

New York Rangers: Goalie Igor Shesterkin is the Rangers' future. Almost certainly. At least probably. How about more likely than not? Listen, Henrik Lundqvist has a year left on his contract (and a 40th birthday in the not-too-distant future), while Alexandar Georgiev was initially projected out the Big Apple's core ahead of the Feb. 24 trade deadline. That leaves Shesterkin, who was, minute for minute, easily the best of New York's netminding trio. His only true stinker all season was an incomplete 6-4 loss to the Devils less than two weeks after suffering a non-displaced rib fracture in a car accident (one day before the trade deadline). Right? He's got to be the guy. There's a lot of upside to this talented 24-year-old on an all-around undervalued Rangers team. He's worth a reach.

Ottawa Senators: Defenseman Thomas Chabot does the heavy on Ottawa's blue line. In his third campaign, the 23-year-old averaged 26 minutes, rifled 186 shots on net and accumulated 39 points through 71 contests (a decrease from 55 in 70 the previous season). Mark Borowiecki -- not my guess, had you asked -- ranked second in blue-line scoring with 18 points. If you can stomach the dismal plus/minus, Chabot, and Chabot alone, is worth investment as a fantasy defenseman in most conventional leagues.

Philadelphia Flyers: Forward Kevin Hayes is as streaky as they come. The 28-year-old former Ranger (and Jet, briefly) has always run hotter and colder than others, but no more so than last season, his first in Philly. He couldn't buy a point in the first two-thirds of November before putting up seven in eight games. Another too-chill stretch in February was bookended by bursts of scoring. The lesson is, ride Hayes when he's on and shelve him, if possible, when off. Also, the more minutes on a Flyers' line with Travis Konecny, the better.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Goalie Tristan Jarry has the potential to be the Penguins No. 1. Indeed, much will depend on how who fares this summer, assuming there is a postseason, beginning with a play-in series against the Canadiens. While Matt Murray probably holds the starting edge straight off, one wee wobble and coach Mike Sullivan won't hesitate in casting the hook, allowing Jarry -- the better netminder overall of 2019-20 -- an opportunity to flourish. That both are slated to be restricted free agents only increases the drama. Of all the internal goaltending battles on tap this weird, wacky summer, Pittsburgh's tops my watch list.

San Jose Sharks: Netminder Martin Jones isn't good enough anymore. This isn't to absolve the Sharks of their loose defensive play, or negate the effect of key injuries, only to point out Jones hasn't helped his own cause often enough. Matter of fact, backup Aaron Dell was better last season. While Jones was superb five years ago (2.27 GAA) and still impressive two seasons later (2.55 GAA), his recent body of work isn't up to fantasy par. Until redemption strikes for the 30-year-old, I'm investing in netminding help elsewhere.

St. Louis Blues: Forward Robert Thomas has a bright future. Thomas' play showed marked improvement in his second NHL season. In addition to the 10 goals and 32 assists through 66 contests, he rocked an impressive 61.9 on-ice goals-for%, 5v5. No small wonder the 20-year-old saw an increase in ice time as the campaign progressed. It won't be long before 2017's 20th overall draft selection will serve as a scoring staple within the Blues' top-six. I like Thomas a lot as a keeper asset moving forward.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Forward Anthony Cirelli can score. Already recognized for his two-way play (future Selke winner, mark it), Cirelli upped his offensive contributions through 2019-20 with 16 goals and 28 assists in 68 games. As an NHL sophomore, he's already averaging 18:28 per game. Coaches love this type of player; it won't be long before Cirelli sees regular minutes in the Lightning's top-six. But draft him before then.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Defenseman Rasmus Sandin merits monitoring. Offered a 28-game audition in the bigs, along with some obvious growing pains, the 20-year-old displayed the talent and skill with which AHL Marlies fans have become familiar. A gifted puck-mover, he's agile and smart. Sandin can and will contribute to the scoresheet as soon as next season when pending UFA Tyson Barrie is gone for elsewhere. Wily managers in deeper leagues shouldn't sleep on this youngster.

Vancouver Canucks: Forward Tyler Toffoli gets a reboot in Vancouver. It was the trade his fantasy mangers only wish had been consummated sooner. Ten contests into his tenure in Vancouver, the former King averaged a point per game, including six goals. I've (incorrectly, as it were) forecast Toffoli would exceed 60-65 points for years now. Finally, out of L.A. and on Elias Pettersson's wing, it will happen. If the Canucks re-sign the pending UFA, of course.

Vegas Golden Knights: Netminder Robin Lehner is the real deal. After working through mental health and addiction issues (an ongoing challenge), Lehner proved his post-Buffalo worth by backstopping the Islanders to a 25-13-5 record (2.13 GAA, .930 SV%) on a one-year contract in 2018-19. Following that successful stint was a turn with the Blackhawks this past season, where the former Sabre/Senator held his own despite a weaker supporting cast. A pre-deadline trade then landed the 28-year-old in Vegas, where he won three straight (including a shutout) as Marc-Andre Fleury's backup before the coronavirus pandemic halted play. This guy deserves a shot at serving as a club's No. 1, which he might get when his current contract expires in the next few weeks. Depending on his landing spot, keep Lehner in mind as a viable fantasy option next regular season.

Winnipeg Jets: Defenseman Neal Pionk over Josh Morrissey. The latter had us quickly smitten by bursting out of the 2019-20 gates with 23 points in 34 games for the Dustin Byfuglien-less Jets. Fantasy hockey love at first blush. Then matters took a turn, when Pionk -- acquired in the summer's Jacob Trouba deal with New York -- took over a greater share of overall minutes and Morrissey's spot on the club's top power play. With many distracted by the Byfuglien drama, the former Ranger wrapped up his 71-game season with six goals and 39 assists, including 25 points with the extra skater. While there's little doubt Winnipeg will make a move to bolster their blue line ahead of 2020-21, leaving Pionk alone in his current prominent position makes most sense for now. There aren't too many fantasy blueliners I'm selecting ahead of the 24-year-old at present.

Washington Capitals: Winger Jakub Vrana is legit. Four years into his NHL career, the 24-year-old is clearly demonstrating why the Capitals picked him 13th overall in 2014. On a steady productive upswing since entering the league, Vrana banged out 25 goals and 27 helpers in this campaign's 69 games. Skating on a forward unit with T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov (sometimes Nicklas Backstrom), plus earning more opportunities with the power play, he'll near 70 points next year. Serving out the final year of his current deal won't hurt, incentive wise.

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