When a team finishes 26th in the NHL standings, 27th in goals scored and a significant part of the problem is underperformance by top players not scoring enough, the team’s players become afterthoughts for people drafting fantasy hockey teams. That is about where the Carolina Hurricanes players enter the 2015-16 season as far as fantasy prospects. But for those who do deeper research and play to win, this is exactly where you find diamonds in the rough and on the cheap – players who had a bad season and quickly revert back so some higher level of play. Especially in fantasy hockey drafts where people undervalue good players who had down years, I think there could be some strong low risk/high reward pickups on the Carolina Hurricanes 2015-16 roster.
2014-15 => 2015-16: The Hurricanes finished 27th in goals scored and an average 15th in terms of power play efficiency. While I would not expect the team to vault immediately to the top of the NHL in scoring, I think there is some upside here. The power play sees the loss of Alexander Semin (who struggled last year anyway), Jiri Tlusty and Andrej Sekera. The power play adds James Wisniewski, Kris Versteeg, possibly more minutes from Ryan Murphy and a possible showing from Noah Hanifin. Jeff Skinner and Eric Staal bring 2 proven NHL scorers, and players like Jordan Staal and Elias Lindholm offer more options.
When I net it out, I think it is reasonable to expect that the power play performs similarly with modest upside potential. I also think that the 2014-15 total scoring is a floor that sets a safe minimum but also offers decent upside. The forward core does not look that different which is ominous, but I think the upside could come from having a much better set of defensemen capable of moving the puck, generating more scoring chances off the rush and creating more inside the offensive zone. Out are Tim Gleason, Jay Harrison and Brett Bellemore of the stay-home variety (and also Andrej Sekera who was a pretty good all-around defenseman). In are James Wisniewski, possibly a bigger role for Ryan Murphy and likely Noah Hanifin. I think this transition on the blue line will provide a modest boost to team scoring across the board.
Player by player:
Eric Staal: In leagues where he falls precipitously, I think is a great safe pick if you can get him based on his disappointing 2014-15 scoring total. He is only 30 years old, and my impression is that his 2014-15 season was not at all a function of age. He just never found a groove though he was better in the second half of the season. Even if he struggles again in 2015-16, I think he at least matches his 2014-15 totals. I think he has upside from there. All it takes is for him to hit stride, and I think 70 points is within reach. The other thing you get in Eric Staal is a very high probability that he is in the lineup. He has played 70 games or more in each of his 11 seasons (except lockout-shortened season obviously) and has missed 0 or 1 games in 7 of those seasons.
Jeff Skinner: He is similar to Eric Staal except with a bit more injury risk from having a history with concussions. He is 23 years old and has elite scoring ability that far exceed the 18 goals that he notched in 2014-15. I would not draft him assuming a huge rebound and certainty of 70+ game health. That is paying full price even if things go well. But he is another player that I would rank based on 2014-15 production and then be willing take a little bit earlier than that and quickly pounce on if he falls to that level.
Kris Versteeg: He is an interesting case. On the one hand, he left a better Chicago offense obviously. On the other hand, he is a limited skill set (playmaking) with some decent options for line mates (Skinner and EStaal) and pretty much an assurance of top 6 minutes, line mates and power play time. He probably is not a lights out second line scorer, but I think his 34 points in 2014-15 are an easy target if he is healthy and that 50 is not at all out of range if he can find chemistry with 1 of the Canes scorers.
Elias Lindholm: He is a good young all-around hockey player who is trending up. He does not project to be an elite scorer, but entering only his third season in the NHL, there is a high probability that his scoring total rises from 39 points last year simply from Lindholm’s maturation.
Victor Rask: He burst onto the scene as a young, ahead of schedule center last season. His development was way ahead of schedule defensively which is what earned him a spot with the big club. His offensive development was much more modest with only 33 points in a full season with scoring-capable line mates and a decent helping of power play time. In projecting him based on 2014-15, he looks like a good checking line center which is not very exciting for fantasy hockey purposes. But he thinks the game well and scored at a decent clip at lower levels. Just maybe the next step in his development is the offense. Especially in shallow leagues, I am not sure I would chase him real early, but I would mark him as a player to watch.
The rest of the Canes forwards – Jordan Staal, Riley Nash, Chris Terry, Andrej Nestrasil, Nathan Gerbe. All of these players have the potential to get top 9 minutes and line mates and also some power play time. None are what one would consider elite scoring forwards and therein lies the reason for the Canes finishing 27th in goal scoring last season (in addition to top players underperforming too). Jordan Staal seems certain to put up 40-50 points and is all but assured a bunch of ice time and at least some power play time, so I think he easily tops this list especially in terms of safe bets. If I had to take a flyer from the group, it would be Chris Terry. He is a pretty heady and skilled player who was a top line/power play leader offensively at the AHL level. He has yet to fully convert that to the NHL level, but the potential is there. And on a Canes team light on skill and raw scoring, he could easily play his way into scoring line mates and power play ice time with a good start to the season offensively.
The Canes line combinations have been changed regularly throughout training camp, and I expect that could continue at least early in the season, so I would NOT draft too much based on who is playing with who for the Hurricanes. That said, the lines entering Friday’s last preseason game are:
Versteeg / EStaal / Lindholm
Gerbe / JStaal / Nash
Skinner / Rask / Terry
Nestrasil / McClement / Nordstrom
Power play time (also shifting units) is going mostly to EStaal, Versteeg, Lindholm, Skinner, JStaal, Gerbe with Terry, Nestrasil and Rask not completely out of play either.
Especially for deep leagues, the Canes could offer some decent depth options on defense. The defensemen have racked up a good number of goals in preseason and that could continue into the regular season. The interesting thing will be sorting out who gets what for power play time because the Canes actually have more than 4 options right now.
Justin Faulk: He burst out with 49 points last season. While I do think he is the real deal and that this was not a fluke, I am not sure I would pounce on Faulk in a draft hoping for 60 points. He has quickly grown to be a great all-around talent on the blue line, but he is not cut from the same cloth as a Karlsson who is a pure playmaker from the back end. I would be fine drafting him to match 2014-15 and hoping for a little bit of upside.
James Wisniewski: After being traded from Columbus, then healthy-scratched for the playoffs in Anaheim and then being jettisoned to a team that was not very good in 2014-15, he could fall into the fantasy abyss. If that happens, he could be a good buy-low candidate. Again, the Canes were averageish on the power play last season, and expecting the same this season is reasonable. Wisniewski should be a trigger man on 1 of the 2 units. He scored 51 points only 2 seasons ago. If he is rated in your league as a spare parts, run of the mill 25-point defenseman, I think he represents a great buy low player with upside.
The wild cards – John-Michal Liles, Ryan Murphy, Noah Hanifin (if he stays which I think he will). The only Hurricanes defenseman who is probably not worth even considering is Ron Hainsey. He is a solid top 4 NHL defenseman but not of likely value for fantasy purposes. He is doubtful to receive any power play time and is a 15-20ish point player. The others are all interesting flyers especially in deep leagues. John-Michael Liles figures to see power play time, fairly heavy minutes as a top 4 and will probably play next to James Wisniewski which makes for a scoring-oriented pair. Ryan Murphy and Noah Hanifin are interest young players with upside. Both actually have the potential to see time in Charlotte if things do not go well, so they are far from sure point producers at the NHL level. But they are both skating/skilled defensemen who have also both picked up a decent number of points in the preseason. Maybe even more interesting is that they could start the season together on a third pair that is surely prone to some youthful mistakes but might also be above average offensively despite the inexperience. In addition, there seems to be potential for 1 of them to draw into some power play minutes.
Current line combinations (which unlike the forwards might have some run time):
Hainsey / Faulk
Liles / Wisniewski
Hanifin/ Murphy or Jordan
The goalie position is still wide open. Cam Ward had a better 2014-15 season but is not playing at such an elite level that he gets the number 1 position handed to him. Eddie Lack started as a backup last season but ultimately stole Ryan Miller’s job when he played well as an injury fill in. I think the starting job is very much up in the air and that ice time after that will be handed out based on merit. So it is a murky 1A/1B scenario. If you are in a league where you need 2 goalies and are seeking a backup who has a good chance to quickly become a starter Eddie Lack is clearly in that boat. The key question is what to expect for win totals from a team that finished 25 points out of the playoffs last season.
If I was drafting the Canes, I would do the following:
1) Put Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner in your rankings based on their 2014-15 production and then draw an arrow upwards through the names right above them. If you get either player based on 2014-15 play, he is very good low risk/high reward.
2) Expect Elias Lindholm to continue his improvement both in general and in terms of scoring production and draft with confidence accordingly.
3) Consider Kris Versteeg as bargain if ranked based on 2014-15’s production
4) Probably not draft, but keep an eye on the rest of the Hurricanes top 9 forwards. There is power play time and good line mates to be had if any of these players can take a step up.
5) Value Justin Faulk’s 2014-15 offensive surge as real but be cautious in terms of hoping for another step up that big.
6) Consider the Hurricanes other defensemen as value (James Wisniewski) and young flyer (Ryan Murphy, Noah Hanifin) in deep leagues or leagues where you can stash a couple players with upside on your bench to see what happens.
7) Be cautious on Cam Ward who is not certain to be a starter and on a related note consider Eddie Lack amongst the backups (if he does not win the starter job before the season which is still possible) who could become starters.