Fantasy hockey leagues can be won by finding values in the late rounds of drafts, and tirelessly working the waiver wire and trade market all season long. Whether you choose Nikita Kucherov or Connor McDavid or Sidney Crosby first overall won’t be the difference between winning a title and finishing last place — but you can really put yourself behind the eight-ball by overdrafting too many players who don’t return the required output.
So we’re going to try and help you avoid those mines in the field. The following five players all showed very well last season, and perhaps even contributed to your championship team. But you should be wary of leaning too much on what these guys did last season in projecting what they’ll accomplish in 2019-20.
Keep in mind, all of these guys should still be picked somewhere in your fantasy draft, just not at a level equivalent to last season’s output. They can still return value if you wait long enough to get them, but be careful not to jump the gun.
ERIK GUSTAFSSON, CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
SN Rank: 160
Position eligibility: D
If you’re leaning on last season’s stats at the draft table, you’ll see that Gustafsson finished as the sixth-highest-scoring defenceman in the NHL with 60 points in 79 games. But if you take him around the same time John Carlson, Kris Letang, Victor Hedman or even Tyson Barrie are going, know that there’s significant risk Gustafsson will disappoint. If you draft him with the expectation he’ll approach that point total again and finish as a top-10 scorer at the position, you may be underwhelmed.
First of all, Gustafsson is not a young player just breaking out. He’s 27-years-old and will turn 28 by the time 2019-20 ends. Secondly, before his 2018-19 breakout, Gustafsson had played in 76 NHL games across two seasons with Chicago, managing five goals and 30 points. In his first 26 games of last season, Gustafsson scored 11 points, which is only a slightly better pace than what he had achieved the previous two seasons.
From there, he became a near point-per-game player and there are a couple of reasons for this transformation. The Hawks were a terrible defensive team and kind of let it fly, playing loose and letting someone like Gustafsson be more or less a fourth forward with all freedom to pinch and roam. The Blackhawks made some upgrades in the summer to their blue line and, starting with a fresh slate and an eye on returning to the playoffs, they’ll want to be a better defensive team out of the gate. Forty-two of Gustafsson’s points came at even strength and while he will still have some freedom (you want to use a player to his strengths), it’s unlikely to be as loose as before. His ice time at evens is also at risk to diminish some.
He also saw considerably more power play time as the season went along, averaging 3:33 per game from Dec. 1 on, which was the fifth-highest mark in the league among blue liners. He’s still going to play a part on Chicago’s power play and that will help him maintain some value, but will his usage continue to be that high? He’s in the final year of a contract that walks him to UFA and since the Hawks have more offensive-minded defencemen in their system (notably Adam Boqvist) there’s also a chance Gustafsson gets traded at some point.
Don’t avoid Gustafsson completely — he still has upside playing for a team with decent bounce-back potential. But be wary of looking at him as a top 10 offensive option from the blue line.
CARTER HART, PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
SN Rank: 103
Position eligibility: G
It looks like the Flyers have finally found a long-term solution in net. Hart came to the NHL mid-season with sky-high expectations and he met them, finishing with a .917 save percentage and 2.83 GAA in 31 games. If you’re in a keeper league, Hart is absolutely worth having because he’s one of the few netminders on a solid track towards being elite. But if you’re drafting for a one-year league don’t overshoot on Hart’s potential and take him before some more established names just yet.
How you perceive his value can be tied to how you view the Flyers’ outlook in 2019-20. Washington and Pittsburgh are still great bets to land in the playoffs. Carolina may be here to stay as a playoff team. The Rangers and Devils both made significant upgrades to their non-playoff rosters to give new hope. Barry Trotz improved the Islanders so much in a season you have to imagine they’ll be a factor again. How many of these teams do you feel confidently Philadelphia will finish above to pad Hart’s win totals?
Looking at this historically, Hart had one of the best ever seasons by an under-21 goalie. By save percentage, only Carey Price finished with a better mark than Hart’s .917 in at least 31 games played, but that solid start at a young age does not guarantee an equally impressive follow-up.
Here’s a look at some of the best save percentage seasons by under-21 NHL goalies (minimum 24 games), and what they did the season after.
|GOALIE||UNDER 21 SV%||FOLLOW-UP SEASON|
|Carey Price (2007-08)||0.920||0.905|
|Carter Hart (2018-19)||0.917||TBD|
|Steve Mason (2008-09)||0.916||0.901|
|Jim Carey (1994-95)||0.913||0.906|
|Jocelyn Thibault (1995-96)||0.913||0.910|
|Roberto Luongo (1999-2000)||0.904||0.920|
|John Davidson (1973-74)||0.902||0.887|
|Grant Fuhr (1981-82)||0.898||0.868|
There are obviously some exceptions (Luongo) and we’ll go out on a limb and say Hart will have more staying power than Jim Carey (who actually won the Vezina Trophy in his second season). We’re not saying Hart can’t match or exceed his rookie performance, but we’re pointing out that more often than not these players experience some kind of regression, and that the team he plays on isn’t in a pushover division to make life easy. He’s definitely worth drafting, but be wary of over-drafting him.
PHIL KESSEL, ARIZONA COYOTES
SN Rank: 38
Position eligibility: RW
Over the past three seasons combined, Kessel has accumulated 244 points, which places him in a tie with Johnny Gaudreau for 11th in the NHL. He’s one behind Alex Ovechkin and Claude Giroux, and one ahead of Artemi Panarin. He’s a great offensive player — possibly even underrated — but be careful of drafting him at the value he had in Pittsburgh the past three seasons now that he’s with the Arizona Coyotes.
Most people think of Kessel has a goal scorer, but he’s only reached 30 once in the past five seasons. His assists have really driven the great overall point performances we’ve seen from him recently. His three-highest assist totals all came in the past three seasons, and he finished with more than 50 in each of the last two seasons.
Now he won’t be playing with Evgeni Malkin anymore. Rather, Kessel is joining a team whose highest goal scorer in 2018-19 was Brad Richardson and Alex Galchenyuk at just 19 goals. Richardson is a checker Kessel likely won’t play with and Galchenyuk was sent to the Penguins in exchange for Kessel. Vinnie Hinostroza (16) and Derek Stepan (15) are the two leading candidates to centre Kessel’s line. There’s perhaps a chance he’ll play with Clayton Keller, but he is also primarily a setup man.
More simply: Kessel is moving from the sixth-best offence to the 28th so right away it’ll be hard for him to maintain the levels we’ve gotten used to. He’ll help improve the Coyotes, but Arizona’s leading scorer finished with just 47 points last season — the lowest of any team — so drafting Kessel with the idea he’ll be even a top-20 point-getter in 2019-20 is a risky proposition.
PIERRE-LUC DUBOIS, COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
SN Rank: 113
Position eligibility: C/LW
Formerly a surprise, controversial pick at third overall in his draft season, Dubois has taken great strides in his first two years as an NHL centre. He’s already gone from 48 points to 61, increasing both his goal and assist outputs. He has glowing puck possession numbers at 5-on-5: 52.27 CF%, 52.18 high danger chance percentage and 54.54 scoring chance percentage. By all indications he’s a young centre on the rise and in most situations he would be a candidate to take another little step up in a contract year.
But there’s one major factor that hangs as a dark cloud over Dubois’ fantasy outlook in 2019-20: Artemi Panarin is no longer a teammate. The Russian UFA signed with the New York Rangers so his 87 points have vanished from the depth chart. The two were regular linemates, but while Dubois is an impressive young player on his own, Panarin is the type who elevates those around him. There is no patching up his departure.
That alone will have a drag effect on Dubois’ season. The best case scenario is that he shares a line with Gustav Nyquist and Cam Atkinson — that’s a good enough trio to put Dubois’ season ceiling around the same 61 points he recorded in 2018-19. Just don’t pick him in a one-year league with the anticipation of further progression.
JEFF SKINNER, BUFFALO SABRES
SN Rank: 58
Position eligibility: LW
Nick Alberga (who came up with our top 250 fantasy rankings) has written about the value boost players in contract years often return to fantasy owners (LINK WHEN IT’S READY). One takeaway from that is after the player gets his new contract, their production sometimes fades even a little. Skinner is a great candidate for that regression.
First off, Skinner finished last season with the highest shooting percentage (14.9) of his career — nearly four points higher than his career average. Skinner scored 40 goals for the Sabres in 2018-19, but had he converted at his career average he would have finished with 10 fewer goals.
And actually, we saw some of this regression towards the end of the season. Skinner scored just four times in his last 25 games of the season (and nine times in his last 30 games) — yes, goal scorers are naturally streaky, but the ones who can be relied on to hit big numbers usually don’t go through those kinds of stretches.
Skinner has been a volatile scorer throughout his career. He’s scored at least 30 goals four different times, but has also scored at a 25-goal or less pace four times. His assist upside to perhaps help compensate is minimal. The 40 goals and 63 points Skinner recorded last season is probably his ceiling, so don’t draft at a spot that requires those numbers to return value. He’s also just signed an eight-year, $72 million extension with the Sabres and that’s not a factor you should ignore.