Fantasy Hockey: Buying Low on Emerging Stars
Earlier this week, I took a look at some players who it might be wiser to avoid, given their pre-draft ranking. Today, I’ll analyze some players you should be targeting in your upcoming fantasy drafts.
So what exactly are we looking for in a “buy low” candidate heading into the season? First of all, you want to target players with reasonably high floors – in other words, players that don’t carry much risk in terms of achieving at least moderate fantasy production. I won’t be examining the rookies or fliers who might come completely out of left field to have a great fantasy season. That’s an important thing to prepare for, but not the goal of this article. Instead, we’re going to look at players who have already had somewhat of a breakout season, but whose arrow is still trending up. Using these criteria, you can draft players that you can be confident in, while still picking up value as their production potentially increases.
Marking Saad down as an “emerging star” might seem like a bit of reach. After all, he’s already won two Stanley Cups and been the main chip in a blockbuster offseason trade. That seems like the resume of a long time veteran, but Saad is still 23-years-old as he enters his fifth full season in the NHL. Much was made about the struggles of the Blue Jackets last season – they lost their first eight games of the season and brought in John Tortorella to replace head coach Todd Richards. Tortorella wasn’t really hired to salvage the season (a fairly difficult task after that kind of start) but instead to mold this young Columbus group for the future. And Saad is a key piece of that future.
Because of the Blue Jackets’ disastrous season, Saad had somewhat of a quiet 30+ goal campaign, but he was remarkably consistent – scoring four or more goals in six of the seven months of the season, which includes a season-ending hot streak that saw him score seven goals in the last six games. Tortorella isn’t always the most conducive coach to fantasy production, but it’s clear that Saad was more than comfortable in his system. He’s now had a full year to get acclimated to both Columbus and Tortorella, and he’s seen his goal and point totals increase every year of his NHL career. Saad ranks surprisingly low on some rankings given this set of circumstances – and he could easily be one of the better fantasy wingers of the 2016-17 season.
Domi had a great rookie season, scoring 52 points in 81 games. That would make him a Calder Trophy finalist most years, but he placed sixth in Calder voting in a season stacked with talented rookies. Domi chipped in 15 points on the power play and his role on the man advantage should only increase.
Heading into the 2016-17 season, he’ll likely see a lot of ice time with Anthony Duclair (who had a fine season of his own), and veteran center Martin Hanzal, two players who brought out the best in Domi last year. The Coyotes don’t project to be a very good team this year, and Domi might be a tad overlooked from a fantasy perspective because of this. But Domi’s elite skill set is undeniable and it would surprise no one to see him build on his rookie season and push 60+ points.
Larkin burst onto the NHL scene, notching 33 points in his first 48 games with a +24 rating. It was a much different story for Larkin after the All-Star break, however, as he tallied only 12 points in 32 games with a -13 rating. Despite this tale of two seasons for the Red Wings forward, his arrow is still trending up as he enters the 2016-17 season, and his lackluster end to the year might be hurting his pre-draft ranking more than it should.
At the age of 20, Larkin already possesses a great combination of NHL size and speed, and he’ll be a mainstay in Detroit’s top six and on the power play. It’s hard to imagine he will repeat the drastic drop off of last season, and fantasy owners should expect an increase in point production with relatively low risk. And don’t worry about the departure of Pavel Datsyuk, as Larkin spent the bulk of his even strength time with Henrik Zetterberg, and should continue to do so.
Yet another player entering his second season, Ehlers had a fine rookie campaign, but it barely registered in a season full of rookie star power. He totaled 38 points last year, but the trends were all in the right direction. He tallied 10 goals, 16 assists in his final 35 games and his ice time was steadily increasing throughout the season. By year’s end, he was on Winnipeg’s top line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler.
The offseason saw Winnipeg select Patrik Laine second overall in the NHL draft, and given the attention now shifted to him, I think there’s an opportunity to get Ehlers at somewhat of a bargain price. Make no mistake, Laine should be a future star and fantasy gem, but there’s still some uncertainty about how exactly he’ll fit in as an 18-year-old. Ehlers is two years older and has his spot on the top line all but assured. Many preseason fantasy rankings have slotted Laine ahead of Ehlers, and some by a pretty wide gap, but I think Ehlers provides just as much upside and is probably a safer bet to boot.
Rask had somewhat of a breakout season last year, tallying 48 points in his second NHL season. Carolina recently gave Rask a six-year contract extension, and with Eric Staal now out of the picture, Rask has cemented himself as a top six center for the Canes for years to come.
Even better for Rask, Carolina added both youth and experience at forward during the offseason with the additions of Teuvo Teravainen and Lee Stempniak. Teravainen is another great buy low candidate in his own right, and you can read more about my thoughts on him here. Carolina’s arrow is pointing up and Rask enters the season with a new contract and an excitement to be a focal point of their young group. Best of all, he makes for a fairly low-risk pick, and can be had in the late rounds of most fantasy drafts. He did require offseason surgery, but it’s not much of a concern.
There’s no shortage of emerging stars on the blue line, but I chose to focus on the Sabres’ Rasmus Ristolainen, It’s been somewhat steady progress for Ristolainen, a former eighth overall pick who’s entering his fourth NHL season. He’s increased his point totals each season, although his plus-minus rating leaves something to be desired. Most promising is the fact that he became a focal point of the Sabres’ power play unit this past season, notching 21 points on the main advantage.
He’s established himself as one of Buffalo’s top defenseman and is surrounded by a wealth of offensive talent. Ristolainen’s role and ice time are on the rise and if the Sabres are going to take the next step, he’ll be a big part of it. Deciding when to draft a defenseman like Ristolainen can be somewhat tricky, but in terms of comparisons, I think he offers just as much upside as players like Tyson Barrie and Sami Vatanen.
Finally, we come to an emerging young goalie in the Blues’ Jake Allen. Allen should rank somewhat high in most fantasy goalie rankings, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still value to be had as he continues to trend upward. Brian Elliot was traded to Calgary during the offseason and so the St. Louis goaltending job now belongs all to Allen.
Allen has all the ingredients to be a top-five fantasy goalie. His save percentage has improved each of his three years in the NHL, and he plays behind a winning Blues team that plays a tight checking, defensive minded game. He’s had some struggles in the postseason, but this isn’t much of a concern for fantasy owners. Allen heads into a season that should see him start 60+ games between the pipes, and at the age of 26, he’s more than ready to take the next step in his progress, both as an NHL goalie, and a fantasy performer.
Some Final Thoughts
As I mentioned in my buyer beware article, and I’ll echo again here – it’s important to use ‘buy low’ or ‘sell high’ lists as one tool of many as you prepare for your drafts. Decide how much you value these players when compared to similar players who appear ahead of them on fantasy rankings and cheat sheets. Is there an opportunity for a bargain? Will a certain player drop a round or two more than he should? Some rankings vary greatly, and this provides an opportunity to build your own board and draft players later than their value might dictate.
I’ll be posting my own Big Board (where I rank the top 200 overall) later this offseason, so keep an eye out for that. And be sure to keep checking THW’s fantasy homepage as the hockey season draws closer.
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