The NHL season is just one month away. A lot has changed in the league landscape since the Pittsburgh Penguins hoisted the Stanley Cup in June, and to get you up to speed and ready for the fantasy season, we will preview all 31 NHL teams. Here is a look at need-to-know information for the Eastern Conference ahead of your fantasy hockey drafts, and be sure to check out the Western Conference preview, as well.
Blue-line hierarchy: You won’t find the Hurricanes complaining about their burgeoning young defense, but a few fantasy players may have a thing or two to say about too many cooks in the kitchen. Justin Faulk has finished with fewer than 40 points for two consecutive seasons, and he remains a liability in the plus/minus department, but he’s managed at least 15 goals for three consecutive campaigns (good for sixth among all defenders). Meanwhile, Jaccob Slavin had a breakout campaign. and most agree that Noah Hanifin is on the verge of one himself. If that wasn’t enough, Haydn Fleury could make the NHL this season, and he profiles as a strong puck mover, too. There is value to be found for fantasy players, but it may take some time to sort out where it lies.
Williams’ relevancy: Coming not quite full circle, but almost, Justin Williams returns to the second franchise he competed for in the NHL, the team he skated for from 2004 to 2009. It just so happens that Williams managed the two best seasons of his career for the Hurricanes, as he topped 30 goals in each of the two seasons after the 2004-05 lockout. He’ll be 36 when this season gets going, but he has remained adequately productive since his first Carolina stint. Williams won’t have a long leash to find chemistry on a scoring line, as Jeff Skinner and Lee Stempniak project to be waiting and ready for more ice time on the third line.
Darling ready to shine: With razor sharp numbers playing behind Corey Crawford in Chicago, it’s easy to get excited about Scott Darling getting his first real chance to be a No. 1 goaltender. Keep in mind that it’s his first gig and that he hasn’t started more than 27 games in a season, but also don’t forget about his .923 career save percentage in 75 appearances. So long as Darling gets drafted a little later and as your No. 2 goaltender, the potential rewards will well outpace the risk.
Panarin for Saad: We know for a fact that Artemi Panarin and Patrick Kane both make each other better, but we’ve never seen enough of Panarin in the NHL without Kane to know that he is still definitely a top-10 NHL scorer in any other spot. We’re about to find out. Panarin is seventh in the NHL over the past two seasons with 151 points, but a lot of that could have simply been a product of playing with the guy who is No. 1 on the list. Then again, maybe the egg came before the chicken? Panarin will swap in to the depth chart role for Brandon Saad, likely starting the season with Alexander Wennberg and Nick Foligno, as well as driving some power play traffic. Neither Foligno nor Wennberg are Kane, so naturally, we have to downgrade Panarin’s outlook. But the question is, by how much?
Dubois in NHL: Although he was arguably ready last season, Pierre-Luc Dubois marinated for one more junior campaign. He’ll surely get a chance to debut in the NHL this season and boasts significant potential for fantasy returns when he finds his footing in the pros. Dubois plays as a power forward and projects as the team’s future No. 1 center. He’s 19 years old and if you are playing in a re-draft league, he slots in behind Wennberg and Brandon Dubinsky down the middle to start the season. You could do a lot worse filling out your bench at the end of drafts, as Dubois could push his way up the depth chart sooner than later.
Hischier arrives: When drafted, Nico Hischier was slated to likely develop his game in the bottom six for the Devils this coming season. Since then, the team lost Travis Zajac for four to six months. With that, they lost any excuse not to skate Hischier in the top six, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Not all 18-year-olds can handle 18-plus minutes per night in the NHL right off the bat, but the Devils may not have any other options. Just remember that while Hischier was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, he’s not coming into the league with the same kind of excitement as we’ve experienced the past few seasons. Lower your expectations for him in re-draft leagues. Wait, no, not Nail Yakupov-low. Bring them up a little. Maybe a little closer to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins‘ rookie season.
Henrique and Hall try again: The much-hyped reunion between junior superstars Taylor Hall and Adam Henrique was a bust last season. While the Devils may not have experimented with the former Windsor Spitfires on a line together again if Zajac was healthy, that is not the case. As mentioned heading into last season, these two celebrated more goals together as kids than many players do with any one individual during a career. In the off chance that a season of prep work is all that was required for them to reconnect, don’t discount Henrique in your drafts.
Still no QB: For all the future potential the Devils may have up front, the defense is still a train wreck when it comes to moving the puck and contributing on offense. If it seems like it’s been a while since they have a power play quarterback, you’re not wrong. Outside of Marek Zidlicky‘s 42 points in 2013-14, you have to go back to Brian Rafalski in 2006-07 to find a Devils defenseman with more than 40 points in a season. We suppose it will be Damon Severson and Andy Greene leading the way once again this season, but leading is a relative term here.
Eberle rides shotgun: Still possessing plenty of skill and in need of a change of scenery, Jordan Eberle should consider himself lucky to be in Long Island. The Connor McDavid show left Eberle as an afterthought in Edmonton, but he’s primed to wing John Tavares on the top line for the Islanders. Considering some of the players that Tavares has made into legitimate scoring stars during his career, we have to approach this situation as one of immense potential for the 27-year-old Eberle. Even if the chemistry isn’t perfect, he could end up with 30 goals just by putting in time on Tavares’ wing this season.
Youth movement: Josh Ho-Sang and Ryan Pulock should be locks for the NHL this season, while Mathew Barzal and Michael Dal Colle are knocking on the door. All four players project as top-of-the-depth-chart NHL players one day. Ho-Sang and Pulock should be on benches after your draft, while Barzal and Dal Colle could be argued as keeper league assets already. How much we see of them will largely depend on how competitive the Islanders are this season.
Who’s in net?: After Thomas Greiss and Jaroslav Halak made for an entirely uninspiring tandem for the Isles last season, the team came out of the offseason with a tandem for 2017-18 of…Greiss and Halak. This looks to be a goals against average tire fire to be avoided in drafts.
Shattenkirk on Broadway: Coming into his defensive prime and coming off a career-high 56 points, Kevin Shattenkirk takes over the helm of the Rangers blue line. He should help push up a power play that was already top-10 in the NHL last season and is in a position to set new career marks this season. His arrival does push Ryan McDonagh to the brink of fantasy relevance, while also muting any improvements that might have been hoped for from Brady Skjei. That said, you won’t find the forwards complaining about all the new opportunities being created.
Too deep for own good: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts when it comes to the Rangers. With 15 players earning at least 20 points and none topping 60, the Rangers boast impressive depth that is to the detriment of their individual fantasy value. Case in point would be the fact that Michael Grabner, the team’s penciled-in fourth line winger, was second on the Rangers with 27 goals last year. The forwards have plenty to offer fantasy players as pieces, just not featured pieces.
The King’s reign: Henrik Lundqvist is at the age when most NHL goaltenders start a steeper decline. However, he’s not most NHL goaltenders. Lundqvist has been a rock between the pipes for more than a decade now and has earned more fantasy respect that others in his situation would command. Helping the situation along is that Ondrej Pavelec doesn’t offer as much of a threat from the backup chair as Antti Raanta would have. The bottom line is that Lundqvist is coming off his second consecutive season of hitting a new low and shouldn’t be counted on as a No. 1 goaltender for the first time in a long time. That said, he’s more than adequate as a No. 2.
Elliott takes over: It took a while, but Brian Elliott did eventually settle in and perform up to standards in Calgary last season. Nonetheless, the Flames decided to move on. Elliott will get to stand in behind a similarly-built Flyers squad with an emerging defense and dependable top half of the lineup, so he is in position to make gains on his fantasy relevance. On the other side of the coin, he took a long time — too long for most fantasy players — to settle into new surroundings last season. While there is some potential here, he shouldn’t be counted on out of the gates.
Roles for rooks and sophs: Between Travis Konecny, Nolan Patrick, Ivan Provorov, Oskar Lindblom and even Samuel Morin, the Flyers are loaded with young players who could oscillate between productivity and failure for fantasy owners this season. Provorov and Konecny, both with a season under their belt, are the most exciting, as one or both could emerge atop the depth chart. But Patrick, Lindblom and Morin will need to be monitored in the early going. Brayden Schenn‘s departure leaves the Flyers with only four players locked into the top six (Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek).
Murray stands alone: It’s strange to think that a 23-year-old goaltender in the NHL has played fewer than twice as many minutes in the regular season than he has in the playoffs. It speaks plenty to Matt Murray‘s poise and potential as an unchecked No. 1 in the post-Marc-Andre Fleury era. On paper, he’s a top-five fantasy goaltender. That said, he hasn’t played like a workhorse before, and there will be some question as to whether he starts 65-plus games. Workload could limit his value compared to his top-tier counterparts.
Wingers to the stars: It’s been largely settled now that it doesn’t particularly matter who plays wing on the Penguins, as they will need to be monitored for fantasy potential simply due to their proximity to either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. There aren’t wholesale changes from last season, but it’s good to remember than Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel are penciled in for a full season of top-line work, with Guentzel possible for extended power play duty in his sophomore campaign. Patric Hornqvist may also be on the outside looking in for the important roles, his unbroken streak of healthy 20-goal seasons dating back to the previous decade notwithstanding.
Kuznetsov left hanging: The Capitals definitely had more loses than gains this offseason, and the biggest loser on paper appears to be Evgeny Kuznetsov. Both of his main linemates from last season are gone, with Justin Williams in Carolina and Marcus Johansson in New Jersey. Not all is lost, however, as both Jakub Vrana and Andre Burakovsky are heaping with potential as replacements. Potential, however, is a keyword in the situation. Burakovsky hasn’t lived up to his so far, and Vrana’s potential is still very much on paper only.
Pastrnak limbo: When stories about a player’s contract status in newspapers mention that “David Pastrnak would be ineligible to play after Dec. 1,” we can be forgiven for having alarm bells go off. There’s no indication he won’t sign in the near future and be in training camp, but it’s definitely worth building some worry into his draft position when you are approaching him. Pastrnak exploded into a top-tier fantasy winger last season, and it would be a shame for him not to be around when the puck drops in October.
Spooner vs. Vatrano: Assuming Pastrnak is back in business, the Bruins have a decision to make in the top six. Does quality two-way center Ryan Spooner need to shift to the wing to join the second line or does Frank Vatrano get to continue his goal scoring evolution there? Certainly there is some offensive upside being wasted if Spooner is the third line center for the club, but from an overall perspective, they are probably better served with Vatrano sniping from the side of David Krejci.
Next step for McAvoy: Showing plenty of poise in the postseason, Charlie McAvoy is a near lock for a decent role with the Bruins this season. In fact, we can reasonably say that Father Time has caught up with 40-year-old Zdeno Chara and should anticipate McAvoy growing into a secondary power play role sooner than later.
Eichel on parade: Following his recovery from an ankle injury, Jack Eichel was 12th in the NHL last season in points per game. After the All-Star break, he was eighth in points per game among players with at least 20 games played. He’s just as much a superstar in the making as Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews (OK, maybe a tiny bit less), but just hasn’t shown it yet.
New veteran wingmen: While having both of them adds a lot of depth, only one of newcomers Benoit Pouliot or Jason Pominville will conceivably land on a scoring line. Both would offer significant opportunity for fantasy owners in such a role, especially if the top-six role happens to be with Eichel. Pouliot was buried on the Oilers depth chart last season and finished with terrible numbers, while Pominville had a decent-to-good campaign with 47 points in Minnesota. However, Pouliot is three years Pominville’s junior, so we’ll call this a wash and a situation to watch heading into October.
Next step for Lehner: Now 26 years old and no longer with a rebuilding team in front of him (we have to consider the Sabres rebuilt now), this will be a make or break season for Robin Lehner as a No. 1 goaltender. His pedigree has always been that of a workhorse, but the stats haven’t been there to date. Much of the result will hinge on whether the Sabres really are ready to compete or are still a season away from prime time. Given the steps taken last season and the depth added in the offseason (Pouliot, Pominville, Marco Scandella, Nathan Beaulieu), the better bet is that the time is now.
Bounce-back for Mrazek and Larkin: With the exception of the defense, the Red Wings should have been a better team of individuals last season. Petr Mrazek and Dylan Larkin, and to a lesser extent, Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar, left fantasy owners disappointed last season. Much of the same group will return for this season, so is it crazy to expect a different result? Larkin is a sneaky stash after his sophomore slump, and Mrazek has to be better after a truly disastrous campaign. However, it’s been a couple consecutive years of the same output from Nyquist and Tatar, so perhaps it’s time to start looking at the next wave of potential Red Wings scorers, including Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou.
Weak defense: When your collective team defensive scoring (113) manages only four points more than the collective team defense of the New Jersey Devils (109), you know you have a problem. Unfortunately, the only “upgrade” the Red Wings made on the blue line was adding the mercurial and oft-injured Trevor Daley. Don’t be surprised if the Red Wings have another season without a fantasy relevant blueliner.
Top six turn over: No matter how the chips fall for the depth chart, the Panthers will be going into this season with only half the top six they had last season. Such a turnover wasn’t necessarily predicted for a team with a significant youth movement, but here we are with KHL import Evgeni Dadonov penciled in on the top line, while Radim Vrbata looks for a reboot on the second line. The sixth spot is probably Henrik Haapala’s to lose, yet another European import. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau are going to have to show they can get along just fine without Jaromir Jagr, something that may or may not be true, as they first jumped into fantasy relevance when Jagr joined their ranks.
Success of imports: How will Dadonov and Haapala fair in their respective NHL returns/debuts? It’s been five years since Dadonov last suited up for the Panthers, and in that time, he’s become one of the premier speedy snipers in the KHL. Like many KHL imports, his success will largely be based on chemistry. Will he find his own personal muse like Artemi Panarin did with Patrick Kane? Or will he fizzle out and find his way back to Russia a la Roman Cervenka? We’ll have to wait and see the early returns. As for Haapala, he led the Finnish league in scoring last season and will try to translate that skill to the NHL. His ace in the hole is some familiarity with Barkov, as the two were linemates in Finland in 2012-13. Still only 23, Haapala has been hampered from some injuries during his development, so he could truly be a quality find by the Panthers.
Luongo done?: In every measurable fantasy statistic, James Reimer was better than Roberto Luongo last season. Fantasy stats don’t decide starters, but they certainly can tip scales when a coach is deciding. Luongo will turn 39 before the season is over, and most signs point to a changing of the guard at some point during this campaign. Reimer has certainly done enough statistically to get a shot at carrying more of the load. This looks like another timeshare at first glance, but don’t be surprised if Reimer works his way up the ranks during the season.
Fresh start for Drouin: With a revolving door of linemates last season, Jonathan Drouin had a relative breakout with 53 points. We can be sure the Habs didn’t trade a blue chip defense prospect for him to have him plug holes in their depth chart, so expect a significant role for him. Just what that role will be is debatable. Even this past week, Drouin said he wasn’t sure what position he would be playing. Expect to see him on the top line and top power play, regardless of whether he’s a center or a wing. Draft with caution, however, as his overall tenure with the Tampa Bay Lightning left plenty of question marks about his ultimate potential.
Karlsson’s recovery: At the very least, we know Erik Karlsson hasn’t completely morphed into some sort of superhuman entity because he is still recovering from offseason foot surgery. In fact, he may not be ready for the puck to drop on this season. Don’t let it scare you from jumping all over him as the No. 1 defenseman in fantasy hockey and a first-round selection. He may need some time to round into form, but he’ll more than make up for it by season’s end.
Line stability: Depending on your source, you’re sure to see a variety of versions of the Ottawa Senators depth chart heading into the season. With so many moving parts, the Senators suffer a bit from the same syndrome as the New York Rangers: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Which forwards will play on the top line this season? That’s probably an answer that will change a few times, with perhaps as many as seven different players getting a look at different times. Invest in Karlsson, count on Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone, but don’t sink too many eggs into any of the other baskets early in drafts.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Vasilevskiy’s inheritance: The next wave of young NHL goaltenders are taking the stage, led by a cast of John Gibson, Matt Murray and Andrei Vasilevskiy. If all goes as planned, this should be the first season these three future stars all turn in a workhorse campaign. While Gibson and Murray get ranked as top-10 goaltending options, Vasilevskiy tends to trend a little lower than his counterparts. Don’t mistake that for his ultimate potential, as he is perhaps the best of all three of them. He had some growing pains getting out from behind Ben Bishop‘s shadow last season, but settled in with better splits after the All-Star break.
Stamkos returns: Of course you won’t feel perfect about Steven Stamkos as your team’s anchor when two of his past four seasons have been largely erased due to injuries, but both ailments have been from more dramatic incidents on the ice, so it’s somewhat unfair to consider him injury prone. On the plus side, the Lightning team around Stamkos has been improving by leaps and bounds during the past four years, even as his missed almost half of that time. Nikita Kucherov is a legitimate star sniper, Tyler Johnson is a quality No. 2 center, Victor Hedman is emerging as one of the stars of the blue line and Vasilevskiy looks to be fulfilling his prophecy as a No. 1. As memories of last season swirl, there may be a moment when you hesitate about Stamkos and his 40-plus goals in the early rounds. Try to push those thoughts aside.
Matthews unleashed?: There is still oodles (technical term) of untapped potential with Auston Matthews. It’s notable that his 40-goal rookie campaign came while he was 90th among NHL forwards for average ice time per game. That’s a ton of scoring left on the table due to the balanced attack of the Maple Leafs. But the question remains: Does the soon-to-be-20-year-old Matthews truly get let loose this season? It may be difficult for some coaches to hold him back, but Mike Babcock has the patience of a saint. There is a chance we could still see a measured helping of Matthews this season, with the best yet to come in the future. Look in the early going for those games with 20-plus minutes of ice time. If he is hitting that threshold regularly, Connor McDavid better start checking his rear-view mirror.
Which D takes lead?: Jake Gardiner was the only Toronto D-man to finish with some fantasy value last season, while Nikita Zaitsev was next on the ESPN Player Rater and Morgan Rielly was a distant fourth (behind Roman Polak). Anecdotally speaking, they were projected to emerge in reverse order of that finish last season. Does that mean Rielly still gets a crack at first chair on the power play at some point? Does Gardiner inherit and run with the role? Gardiner is in his prime at 27, Zaitsev is on the verge at 25 and Rielly is still somehow just 23. This Maple Leafs team has some bright years ahead, and it’s still possible that any or all of these young defensemen could emerge as contributors next year, if not sooner.