Fantasy Hockey Draft Kit 2019: Six bounce-back candidates

William-Nylander

Toronto Maple Leafs centre William Nylander. (Frank Gunn/CP)

Last season, players like Jeff Skinner, Carey Price and Ryan McDonagh were among those able to rebound nicely from disappointing 2017–18 campaigns.

Their respective NHL teams were grateful they returned to statistical prominence in 2018-19 and any fantasy hockey GMs who added them to their roster reaped the rewards — and likely at decent value, too.

If your fantasy team underperformed when it counted most, or you missed the fantasy playoffs entirely one season ago, here’s a lineup of players (three forwards, two defencemen and a goalie) coming off down years due to injury or otherwise we think are in line for a big-time turnaround in fantasy and reality 2019-20.

WAYNE SIMMONDS, NEW JERSEY DEVILS

SN Rank: 193
Position eligibility: RW

There will be plenty of eyes on the New Jersey Devils this year after an off-season of roster retooling and the team has a handful of top bounce-back candidates. Chief among them is Simmonds after signing a one-year, prove-what-you-can-still-do type of contract in free agency.

When Simmonds was traded from the Kings to the Flyers in 2011 he quickly developed into a dangerous scoring threat. The 163 goals he scored between 2011-12 and 2016-17 were the 15th most in the NHL and his 75 power-play goals being second-most behind some guy in Washington who wears No. 8.

However, the Scarborough, Ont., native entered training camp prior to the 2017-18 campaign with a torn pelvis. Early in the regular season he pulled his groin then lost some teeth after taking a high stick and also sustained a fractured ankle when hit with a teammate’s shot. In the second half of the season he tore a ligament in his right thumb and wasn’t able to grip his stick for a spell.

Despite all these ailments he finished with 24 goals and 46 points and had his pelvis tear, plus a torn abdominal muscle, surgically repaired prior to last season. That didn’t result in an abundance of success though. Philly dealt the pending UFA to Nashville at the deadline where he only mustered one goal in 17 regular-season games before an injury in the playoffs ended his season.

Suffice it to say motivation won’t be an issue for the 30-year-old this season.

The 2019 recipient of the Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award also happens to be one of six active NHL forwards with more than 1,000 career PIMs to his name. He’s not afraid to drop the gloves to protect a teammate and lay the body either. That Simmonds is productive with the man advantage boosts his fantasy value since PP points is commonly an important category.

Hypothetically, Simmonds could skate on a line with 2019 first-overall pick Jack Hughes or 2018 Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall – or both. Hall had 37 points in the 33 games he played in 2018-19 before a knee injury cut his season short, so he’s another Devils player aiming to get back to form.

During his time on the Flyers, Simmonds happened to be on one of the best value contracts in the NHL. This year he could end up being among the better value picks in fantasy.

WILLIAM NYLANDER, TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

SN Rank: 65
Position eligibility: C/RW

New season? Check. New number? Check. New results? Undetermined.

Nylander needs a career year in 2019-20 to (a) get critics off his back and (b) start living up to the six-year, $41.77-million contract he signed late in 2018 after holding out during training camp and missing the first two months of the season.

Back-to-back 61-point seasons resulted in him getting the lucrative deal yet when he finally returned to the ice he didn’t perform at the same level he did the two years prior. Nylander’s points-per-game dropped from .74 to .50 even though his offensive zone starts increased nearly nine per cent. His ice-time was down 1:10 per game from the year prior, and his shooting percentage fell from 10.9 to 5.4.

Nylander is a terrific passer and it’s expected he’ll play on the right side of Auston Matthews, so at least 20 goals, 50 assists and upwards of 200 shots on goal are realistic expectations for the young Swede.

“I know what I’m capable of doing. I know that [Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas] knows what I’m capable of doing,” Nylander told reporters in April after Toronto’s season ended. “This year didn’t show nearly to where I can be at as a player. I have higher expectations for myself moving forward. I know I’m going to be way better.”

JAMES NEAL, EDMONTON OILERS

SN Rank: 168
Position eligibility: LW

A change of location within the province of Alberta could be exactly what Neal needs. The veteran winger was swapped for Milan Lucic in what aims to be a mutually beneficial move for the two players and teams involved.

While there are reasons to expect Lucic’s productivity to see an uptick with the Flames, Neal’s offensive upside with the Oilers is of the high-ceiling variety and perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the trade.

The 263 goals Neal buried from 2008-2018 was 15th-most in the NHL (third-most among left wingers behind Alex Ovechkin and Rick Nash) before his disastrous one-year stint in Calgary left many wondering how much the Whitby, Ont., native has left in the tank.

Neal’s shooting percentage was 12.1 over the course of his first 10 years in the league and considering he averaged more than three shots on goal per game during that time it’s an impressive number. It fell to just five per cent over 63 games with the Flames.

Rather than think Neal’s skill simply vanished and the game passed him by, we’ll give him a mulligan, say his shooting percentage was an anomaly and wager he gets back on track in the fall.

Only eight skaters suited up for more playoff games than Neal did between 2015-16 and 2017-18 thanks to two lengthy runs with the Predators and one with the Golden Knights. That’s a lot of wear-and-tear on a body. Not to mention, Neal was banged up with the Flames. He only scored twice down the stretch after losing eight teeth on a high stick in early February and missing more than five weeks with a lower-body injury. He failed to register a single point in the playoffs and was benched in the game that eliminated his team.

Having more time this summer to recover is a plus. So is having a familiarity with his new captain, Connor McDavid.

Neal and McDavid both train with Gary Roberts in the summer.

“I see Connor every day, he’s the best, couldn’t ask for a better captain or guy,” Neal told reporters. “Every day he comes in and does his work. Being able to work out with him and skate with him is awesome. If I get a chance to play with him now that would be great. The way he dishes the puck fits my style.”

In a top-six role in Edmonton, possibly on McDavid’s line and likely on the top PP unit, Neal could once again be a 30-goal threat and provide great mid-to-late-round value.

P.K. SUBBAN, NEW JERSEY DEVILS

SN Rank: 53
Position eligibility: D

Last season was the first time since 2012 that Subban didn’t receive any All-Star or Norris Trophy votes and the 31 points he tallied was the lowest total of his career, which had to be a contributing factor in the Devils needing only to spend a pair of second-round picks plus a couple minor pieces to land the 2013 Norris winner.

Subban, 30, was surrounded by a slew of high-end defencemen in Nashville. Great for the team but at times it hurt his fantasy value. In the Garden State he’s 1A on the defensive depth chart, he’ll be the power-play quarterback and is likely to log more than the 22:40 of ice-time he averaged last year.

The flashy puck-mover knew this immediately upon being dealt.

“Playing in Nashville, there were a lot of great defencemen there, so it’s not always getting the opportunity to play 26-27 minutes a night or be on the power play, in all situations consistently,” he said. “That can sometimes affect you, as well, as a player. In New Jersey, it’ll be different situation, a different opportunity, and I look forward to that, taking on more of a role and more of a leadership role.”

All indications point towards Subban returning to elite fantasy form.

IVAN PROVOROV, PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

SN Rank: 146
Position eligibility: D

Only five players have logged more minutes than Ivan Provorov since he made his NHL debut in 2016-17. Those players happen to be Drew Doughty, Ryan Suter, Brent Burns, Rasmus Ristolainen and Duncan Keith, which speaks to just how critical the young defenceman is to the Philadelphia Flyers‘ back end.

The 22-year-old plays well beyond his years, however after a rookie year that saw him finish ninth in Calder voting and a sophomore season in which he had 41 points (the most among defenceman under the age of 23), he only managed 27 points one season ago and his plus/minus dropped from plus-17 to minus-16.

Provorov doesn’t typically see much power-play time with his team’s top unit, which hurts his fantasy value slightly, but the Flyers have depth down the middle and quality scoring wingers to whom Provorov can dish the puck. Plus, the additions of veterans Justin Braun and Matt Niskanen should take some pressure off Provorov, whose average ice-time has increased year-over-year.

SEMYON VARLAMOV, NEW YORK ISLANDERS

SN Rank: 124
Position eligibility: G

The New York Islanders roster will look more or less identical to the one that finished second in the Metropolitan Division and swept the Penguins in the opening round of the playoffs. One key change was in net, though, as the Isles replaced Robin Lehner with Varlamov who has spent the past eight years in Colorado.

Varlamov went 20-19-9 in 49 starts a year ago and his .909 save percentage and 2.87 goals-against average were the highest (in a healthy season) since 2012-13.

What better way for a goalie to have new life breathed into him than by joining Barry Trotz’s system built around strong team defence.

All you need to do is look at the improvements Lehner made one season ago.

Lehner went 14-26-9 with a .908 save percentage and 3.01 GAA on an incompetent defensive team in Buffalo before joining to a defence-first group on Long Island where he posted a 25-13-5 record, .930 save percentage and 2.13 GAA in a time-split with Thomas Greiss.

You may not hear Varlamov’s name in the Vezina conversation, but at the very least he should be a serviceable netminder for you to rely on. If you can manage it, drafting both Varlamov and Griess to use as a platoon (which is probably how the Isles will use them) is a strategy worth pursuing.

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