Hutch's Hockey: Early Surprises

Hutch's Hockey: Early Surprises

From the time the Stanley Cup is lifted until the start of the next regular season, it seems like it's prime time to ponder how the next season will go. When there are no games being played, it's very easy to get comfortable with things that feel like fact. 

For example: the Oilers' offense is elite, and you don't want to play your fantasy goalie against them. Yet, five games into the season, they've scored a total of 13 goals. Their talent level is still menacing, but they're a paper tiger until the rubber starts meeting the twine. 

Or, the curious case of the Hurricanes. On paper, this is my favorite defense corps of the season. The top four is probably the best in the league, and while I didn't think the signings of Dmitry Orlov and Tony DeAngelo were great, I could see how they'd fit with the team. Instead, they've got the second-most goals scored in the league, and the most allowed. Great for fantasy, but a mess to watch. 

Then there's the Bruins. There's no way they could be anywhere near as good as last year, right? Patrice Bergeron's retirement would be too much to overcome. Except that their defense is still elite, and Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman have made a very early case for the best goalie tandem in the league, not that they needed to prove anything after last year. This team might have to settle for a lot of 3-2 and 2-1 wins, but they're still winning. 

The point here is that what we think we know means absolutely nothing compared to the data at hand. Anything that we take as fact comes from last year's numbers. The Oilers will likely be fine, the Hurricanes' defense and goaltending should be able to stabilize and the Bruins may very well fall off later, but right now, expectations have been defied in a glaring manner early in the year. 

In fantasy, challenging our beliefs can be as simple as giving up on the sleeper that didn't pan out. Connor Brown and Jonathan Drouin reuniting with their junior superstar teammates hasn't led to instant success, as much as many people were willing to count on it being true. I'm all for giving a fair sample for most players, but the later you drafted them, the faster you should be willing to move on. 

If you're looking to do that, it's time to talk about the players that have started hot after going under the radar in drafts. At the top of the list is Jaccob Slavin. His top-pairing role in Carolina has never been in doubt, but it's always been one with a ton of defensive responsibility. Amid the Hurricanes' sloppy defensive start, he has 13 blocked shots and a plus-5 rating, and he's chipped in with three goals and four assists. Not bad for a guy with a career high of 42 points. Slavin won't pot goals at that stunning rate, but the Hurricanes' offense is still strong enough to keep him involved throughout the year. 

While the Panthers' offense has underwhelmed slightly to start 2023-24, Evan Rodrigues has been a great fit in his first year with the team. He has two goals and five assists, adding 21 shots on goal and a plus-6 rating. Playing alongside Aleksander Barkov is a dream gig, and even a drop to the second line with Matthew Tkachuk is a fine consolation prize. Rodrigues had 39 points in 69 outings last season, so his continued success as a secondary scorer shouldn't be a surprise. 

For those disappointed by Drouin's slow start, go look for the guy that replaced him on the Avalanche's top line: Artturi Lehkonen. He should already be on the fantasy radar after a career year of 51 points in 64 outings last season. The Finn has started this season with six points (four on the power play), 22 shots on goal and five hits over five contests. Proximity to superstars is a key part of finding hidden gems in fantasy, and Lehkonen is shining brightly even with head coach Jared Bednar being quick to adjust his lines from game to game. 

In the same vein, Paul Cotter is making the most of his occasional forays onto the second line. With four points and 23 hits through six contests, the 23-year-old is becoming a bit of a power forward for Vegas. He'll be battling with Brett Howden for the second-line job alongside Chandler Stephenson and Mark Stone all season. Cotter's grit is a plus in banger leagues, but his offense can also help in deeper standard formats. 

Making waves in Nashville is usually reserved for country music stars, but Gustav Nyquist has impressed to begins his Predators career. The winger has a goal, three helpers, 14 shots on goal and nine hits through six contests. His second-line role in a fairly shallow offense isn't encouraging, but playing with Ryan O'Reilly, Filip Forsberg and Roman Josi on the top power-play unit will have its share of benefits. All three of Nyquist's assists have come on the power play. 

Frank Vatrano has long been an effective middle-six forward, but it's completely fair for fantasy managers to have forgotten about him after he spent last season in Anaheim. He's still with the Ducks, but their rebuild is on the upswing, and the 29-year-old is playing a key role as a veteran among the youngsters. With four goals, one assist, 20 shots and 11 hits through five contests, he's playing in the top six and making the most of it. Mason McTavish and Ryan Strome have been his most common linemates, and all three could carve out some fantasy value. 

It's a little early for a last call, but I wouldn't expect Sean Durzi to be hanging around in most fantasy formats much longer. The 25-year-old blueliner still has his defensive deficiencies, but the Coyotes are more willing than the Kings were to tolerate the lapses while reaping the rewards of his offense. Durzi has four points, including a pair of power-play goals, and he's added 14 shots on goal and seven blocked shots through five contests. Clayton Keller and Nick Schmaltz run the show in Arizona, but Durzi's getting a lift from those two forwards on the top power-play unit. 

For those looking a little deeper defensively, consider the Canucks' Filip Hronek. He never really settled in with his new team following a trade from the Red Wings last year, appearing in just four games for Vancouver in 2022-23. This season, he's claimed a top-four role with three assists and a plus-5 rating, as well as four hits and nine blocked shots over five contests. Hronek is a player I generally like -- he won't win any category for fantasy managers, but he's one of those steady players who can chip in across the board. Just don't expect much power-play production with superstar teammate and occasional defensive partner Quinn Hughes in the fold. 

In goal, keep an eye on Joseph Woll. Ilya Samsonov's early outings have been wobbly this year, while Woll has at least held his own. He bailed Toronto out Saturday versus the Lightning, stopping 29 of 29 shots in relief of Samsonov en route to an overtime win. Woll is still in the backup role, but goaltending is Toronto's weak spot this season -- if he emerges as the best option, he'll get the starts. 

In the past, going to Arizona for goaltending help would be a last-ditch move. Over the last couple of years, Karel Vejmelka has emerged as an effective starter despite a poor record. He's had some bad luck so far, but he's also splitting the crease with Connor Ingram, who has allowed four goals on 54 shots while going 1-1-0 over his two outings. Ingram showed some promise with a .907 save percentage over 27 games last season, and an increase in workload doesn't appear to be having a negative impact yet. He can be had for minimal investment right now, but his stock is on the rise. 

The best thing fantasy managers can do is leave their assumptions at the end of the draft. Once the puck is down, anything can happen. Sometimes, you have to ignore the fact that a guy is vastly outplaying his skill level and ride the hot hand for a couple of weeks. Banking some wins early in the season will make things easier on you at the end of the year. Good luck this week, and I'll have some more free-agent finds for you next Monday. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shawn Hutchinson
Shawn has covered sports independently since 2010, and joined RotoWire in 2019. In 2023, he was named FSWA Hockey Writer of the Year. Shawn serves as a contributor for hockey and baseball, and pens the "Hutch's Hockey" column. He also enjoys soccer, rooting for his hometown teams: Sounders FC and Reign FC.
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