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Fantasy Hockey need-to-know before the NHL trade deadline

·9-min read
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By Jason Chen, RotoWire

Special to Yahoo Sports

Here's a look around the league at the latest trends after another week of hockey. Some food for thought, some leftover stats, and, of course, some fantasy advice. Let's dig in.

One of the myths that have been peddled in the cap era is that expensive contracts can't be moved. That's hogwash. It simply takes a little creativity. Despite the prospect of a flat cap for the next few seasons and COVID affecting many teams' bottom line and ability to spend, trade activity has ramped up the last few days. What was expected to be a relatively quiet deadline is now filled with intrigue; injuries have opened cap space for teams such as the Canadiens and Maple Leafs, and the teams with cap space such as the Red Wings have made it clear that they're willing to take on cap hits to buy draft picks. Here's the rundown on what's happened and, of course, the fantasy impact as the season enters the final month.

All fancy stats courtesy Natural Stat Trick.

Injury Cases

Let's start with three key injuries on Canadian teams with big playoff aspirations: Jets captain Blake Wheeler, who is sidelined indefinitely with a concussion; the Habs' heart-and-soul, Brendan Gallagher, who has broken his hands so many times they must resemble claws by now; and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, perhaps the Oilers' lone legitimate top-six forward not named Connor or Leon.

It's rather strange that Wheeler has maintained a pretty good 65-point pace even though his possession numbers (45.54 5v5 CF%) are at a career-low. Part of it is because he has a poor on-ice save percentage of .880 at 5v5, which has led to a team-low minus-15 rating (no one else is less than minus-5) even though the Jets have a plus-10 goal differential at 5v5 and a plus-25 goal differential overall, and it's brought into question the impact of his two-way play. On the other hand, we have Andrew Copp, who profiles quite similarly to Wheeler in 5v5 CF% (47.43 percent vs. 45.54 percent), 5v5 CF/60 (51.46 vs. 49.65) and 5v5 CA/60 (57.05 vs. 59.37), yet Copp has a huge edge allowing 4.97 fewer goals against than expected while Wheeler has allowed 6.14 more goals against than expected, and therefore a much better xGF% (56.10 percent vs. 35.09 percent). Tack on Copp's uncharacteristic 15.9 S% (both for him and a player of his caliber), and there's little doubt Copp is getting lucky on offense and Wheeler is getting unlucky on defense.

Winnipeg Jets center Andrew Copp (9)
Andrew Copp has been piling on the points, but how much of it has been puck-luck? (AP Photo/Peter Power)

Still, hot streaks can last for entire seasons, and that makes Copp (61 percent rostered on Yahoo) a very desirable pickup, especially if he stays on the top line with Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor; in just 16:13 of 5v5 TOI together, they're generating nearly 75 shots attempts per 60 minutes and a 66.67 CF%, proving Copp to be a better fit on this line than with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Paul Stastny. A regression for Copp may come — as it did in February when he went 12 games without a goal — but he's clearly on an upward trend with four goals in four games and there are only 15 games remaining, including two games against the Senators this week.

In Montreal, Gallagher's spot was taken by Jesperi Kotkaniemi (11 percent rostered), and so far, the results have been good. We shouldn't be surprised since the only players Kotkaniemi trails in 5v5 CF% are Gallagher, Phillip Danault, and Tomas Tatar, who have formed one of the best puck possession lines in the league the last couple of seasons. Since Kotkaniemi joined that line, their 5v5 CF% has actually improved to 67.92 percent, and the last few games have also been their most consistent. However, even when their offense is working, it is too balanced for fantasy managers to focus on just one line. They have a ton of flexibility and a lot of options (including Cole Caufield, who had a spectacular debut in the AHL) in their lineup, but if the Tatar-Danault-Kotkaniemi line stays intact, there's a chance Kotkaniemi's strong underlying numbers will pay off. The potential downside is that he doesn't shoot the puck nearly as much as Gallagher.

The situation in Edmonton is even direr because they don't have the same kind of depth as the Jets or Habs. Playing alongside Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl should be like winning the golden ticket, but instead, Tyler Ennis and Dominik Kahun ended up in the chocolate river, combining for just one shot on goal with a minus-3 rating in a 5-0 loss. Both wingers are rostered in less than one percent of Yahoo leagues, and it probably should stay that way. At no point during the season did either show they were really capable of playing a top-six role, and while the Oilers haven't made much noise in the rumor mill this season, a reunion with Taylor Hall does make some sense. They're the ones in most dire need of offensive depth; the Habs picked up Eric Staal and the Jets' big need is on the blue line.

Trading Places

There was a flurry of trades following the deal that sent long-time Devils Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri to the Islanders, but two deals caught my eye that could be fantasy-relevant.

First, the Sabres sent puck-moving defenseman Brandon Montour to the Panthers, the second defenseman they acquired in two days after trading with the Blackhawks for Lucas Carlsson, who's known for having some offensive pop. There are two things Montour does very well: moving the puck up the ice — and playing defense poorly. The Panthers will have to live with the second part, but ever since Aaron Ekblad was hurt, they've been missing another player on the right side who can create some offense. Montour (4 percent rostered) will fill part of that void, making him an intriguing addition in deep fantasy leagues, and he may even get playing time on the power play. Keep in mind he was scoring at a 30-point pace over 82 games on the Sabres and will surely get a boost playing on one of the best teams in the league.

The other move was the Avalanche shoring up their goaltending by trading for Devan Dubnyk (12 percent rostered), who has continued to struggle since last season. There's a potential battle brewing for the backup spot with Jonas Johansson recording a shutout in his last start, but Dubnyk should win out by seniority alone, and also because carrying a $2-million goalie on the taxi squad makes no sense when Johansson doesn't require waivers. Dubnyk should be the No. 2, and that gives him a big boost in fantasy value because the Avs offense should provide enough goal support for Dubnyk to at least pick up a win or two. The Avs have three upcoming back-to-backs, none of which include an opponent with a positive goal differential. They're also four points clear of Vegas for top spot in the West, giving them more opportunities to rest Philipp Grubauer, who is four appearances away from tying a career-high 37 and has never had a workload like this before.

New Faces

Bruins rookie Jeremy Swayman (15 percent rostered) was a hot commodity for a hot second in Beantown, but his winning streak lasted just two games after losing to the Flyers on Saturday. It was a nice story while it lasted, and the road is getting tougher in short order with four games against the Caps and Isles coming up. Word is Tuukka Rask might be back in net soon, making Swayman just a temporary hold rather than a long-term play.

David Farrance (0 percent rostered) played 13:46 in his NHL debut and held his own, and the scouting report on him is that he's a mobile defenseman with a lot of offensive upside, perhaps second only to Roman Josi. Ryan Ellis' return pushed him back onto the taxi squad, but I find it unlikely that Ben Harpur and Jeremy Davies will remain on the third pair considering how their 38.67 5v5 CF% is the worst among all the pairings the Preds have used this season (min. 20 TOI). Farrance's role will be marginal, but it could expand if Mattias Ekholm gets traded, especially on the power play since Farrance scored 59 points in 45 games in his final two years at Boston U.

Vitali Kravtsov (2 percent rostered) just joined the Rangers after his KHL team was eliminated from the playoffs, and he's a skilled winger with size playing on the fourth line. Just as how Pavel Buchnevich had to climb his way up the depth chart, Kravtsov will have to do the same, and even though he's yet to register a point through four games, it's very encouraging he has a 53.52 5v5 CF% and already behind his xGF. That suggests he's legitimately a good player and his first point should come sooner than later, and with each day the Rangers look increasingly like they'll miss the playoffs, the more likely they'll want to give a lot of ice time to their young core of players.

Of all the rookies to have made their debuts the last two weeks or so, Radim Zohorna (0 percent rostered) is the least heralded but ironically the most intriguing. Signed as a free agent during the offseason, the 6-foot-6 Czech forward has plenty of touch around the net, scoring 15 points in 17 games in his first season in North America (NHL and AHL combined) after scoring 22 points in 21 games in the Czech league before the NHL season began. Playing on the fourth line but on PP2, Zohorna has already scored three points in his last three games, providing some much-needed depth with Evgeni Malkin and Brandon Tanev out of the lineup, and like Kravtsov, he has really shown well on the advanced analytics right off the bat despite the small sample size.

Both players are worthy of shortlisting because their roles could continue to expand.