With the new NHL season just a day away, there's a certain buzz in the air. For me, it's always felt like the first day of school, a new beginning where we get to see old friends, make some new ones and try to enjoy the ride as best we can. In fantasy hockey, there's no shortage of reasons to be excited for the new year.
For those who are new, let me introduce myself briefly. I'm Shawn Hutchinson, and I've been watching hockey since before I could walk -- I think, my memory's a little spotty from those young days. I had a blast providing some insights last year, which was akin to a rookie season for the Hutch's Hockey column. There will be no sophomore slump in 2022-23, so you can count on a fresh article every Monday during the season. Most of the focus will be on waiver wire moves tailored to 8-to-12 team formats, but there will also be a bit of trade talk, general NHL trends and the occasional special focus around key points in the year. For this first edition, however, I want to dive into my draft strategy and highlight some players I focused on building around and others that I avoided.
My strategy is perhaps a bit unconventional among the higher level of the fantasy community. I'll typically begin the draft by taking the best player available, but by the fourth round, I want to be in on the goalie market. This year, my favorite goalie is the Stars' Jake Oettinger. Draft position largely kept me out of the equation on Andrei Vasilevskiy and Igor Shesterkin -- I wasn't at the end of the first round in most of my leagues, and the few times I did draft back there, I often found a solid forward was left on the vine, while goalies went earlier. Instead, I like Oettinger best after drafting him on nearly half of my teams. I was able to get him at a pretty good price, usually in the fifth or sixth round, which gave me enough time to build a solid top line first. Sometimes, Otter was my first goalie, while he was occasionally my second.
Other goalies I'm highly invested in this year include the Islanders' Ilya Sorokin, the Flames' Jacob Markstrom, the Golden Knights' Logan Thompson, the Canucks' Thatcher Demko and perhaps most oddly, the Bruins' Linus Ullmark. Sorokin and Markstrom were often my top goalie picks in about half of my leagues. They're steady, and they should play in good defensive systems while serving as workhorse options, so they fit the bill for stability that I like to establish on my teams. I think Demko also fits, but he was available a round or two after Oettinger in many cases. Demko was sometimes my third goalie, which I find absolutely remarkable. The Canucks' defense isn't as good as other teams, which allows him to get a higher shot volume, and consequently a higher save percentage if he performs at last year's level. I think he could be a top-25 overall fantasy option at a minimum -- if so, Demko will be a huge bargain for my teams.
Ullmark is the oddity from my highly-drafted list. If I whiff on top-tier goalies early, I usually like to grab both halves of a strong tandem instead. The Bruins duo of Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman is arguably my favorite tandem of the year, but I was in on Ullmark in twice as many leagues as his creasemate. These could be picks that take a while to pay off -- the Bruins' defense is going to look a little rough until Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk return from their offseason shoulder surgeries. I may sit both Ullmark and Swayman in favor of stronger goalies early in the year, but I like the outlook here. I'm also a fan of the Red Wings' Alex Nedeljkovic and Ville Husso duo, and I can get behind Alexandar Georgiev and Pavel Francouz with the Avalanche, though I don't have a lot of shares in those creases.
On the other side of things, I had little faith in drafting the Wild's Marc-Andre Fleury, the Oilers' Jack Campbell, the Jets' Connor Hellebuyck and the Maple Leafs' Ilya Samsonov. It's not that I dislike any of them in particular, but my aggressive targeting of goalies early and the presence of better options at similar ADPs kept me mostly away from these netminders. For the same reason, I ended up with no shares of Tristan Jarry, Sergei Bobrovsky, Jordan Binnington, Elvis Merzlikins, John Gibson, Jonathan Quick or Carter Hart. The bulk of these goalies will be starters, but either the ADP cost was too high or I was already set in net. With goalies, there's always a handful that pop up throughout the year unexpectedly, so I'll mostly hold pat with what I've got until I need to make a move.
A lot of drafting strategy on forwards revolves around top-line assignments and good linemates. There's not much you can do to screw up in the first few rounds, but finding the hidden gems and line stacks late in the draft could be a huge perk once the season starts.
My most common draft positions were second, fourth and eighth this year. In second, the choice is simply Leon Draisaitl, though he also slipped to me at third and fourth. The decision is a little harder at fourth, but I often favored Nathan MacKinnon in that spot. By eighth, it's a total mess -- I ended up with a lot of Kirill Kaprizov, which surprised me since I had him as No. 5 on my board. In the early rounds, a lot of my strategy revolves around balance, so I tried to get a solid right wing like Matthew Tkachuk or Mitch Marner when available. I also like Steven Stamkos, Jonathan Huberdeau, Sebastian Aho, J.T. Miller and Evander Kane as fantasy first-liners.
By the middle rounds, I still often needed to round out at right wing, with options like Joe Pavelski, Bryan Rust and Mats Zuccarello being preferred. I've loved the Stars' top line for a while, so I also have some shares of Roope Hintz as center depth. Zuccarello was a particularly attractive stack on my Kaprizov shares -- they're magical on the ice together, to a point that Zuccarello should be able to fend off the aging curve a bit as long as he stays healthy. With center being such a deep position, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Evgeni Malkin appeared to be forgotten men in drafts. I like Kuznetsov better, and I had no problem grabbing him as a bench player or a utility forward, especially if the options for a third goalie or middle-round defensemen didn't leap off the page at me.
Looking back at the offseason, my choices for most improved teams were mainly the Senators and the Devils. I think they'll make some noise this year, even if they're not quite ready to be playoff competitive. I don't like either team's goaltending much, but they've got hugely enticing top-six forward groups. I targeted Josh Norris, Drake Batherson and Tim Stutzle from the Senators as well as Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt and Yegor Sharangovich from the Devils to fill out a lot of my depth forward spots. Sharangovich is a particularly deep sleeper, while the rest were often available in the 10th to 12th rounds.
For my sleeper forwards, I turned to my hometown of Seattle. That's right, I also think the Kraken's offense is one to buy into, if you can stomach the hit to plus-minus. Andre Burakovsky is a favorite of mine for wing depth, while Matty Beniers was an attractive flier as a late-round pick. From what I've seen, Beniers is legit. I have him conservatively estimated to top the 50-point mark, but I could see him getting 60. I didn't get a lot of Oliver Bjorkstrand, but a hot start out of him could drive me to the waiver wire.
Some other depth forwards, in no particular order: Lucas Raymond, Mathew Barzal, Nick Suzuki, Alexis Lafreniere, Chandler Stephenson, Dylan Strome, Victor Olofsson, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Alex Tuch, Travis Konecny, Valeri Nichushkin, Michael Bunting. I believe in all of these players, but I'd mix and match based on what each of my teams needed -- I don't want to just draft the same team over and over, after all.
There's also some forwards I mostly or completely avoided this year. I've never been big on Johnny Gaudreau in fantasy -- I love his game on the ice, but it doesn't always translate well. The dropoff from Calgary's offense to Columbus, even if he clicks with Patrik Laine, isn't appealing to me, especially since he's been a streaky scorer year-to-year. I'm not enamored with Patrick Kane this year, especially in plus-minus leagues. I actively avoided the Predators' offense as much as possible given the generally unsustainable shooting percentages from Filip Forsberg, Matt Duchene, Mikael Granlund and Ryan Johansen last year. The risk of regression wasn't worth the asking price on draft day. Same thing for guys like Nikolaj Ehlers, Ryan O'Reilly, Nazem Kadri and Tage Thompson.
I ended up with no shares of John Tavares (oblique), Malkin, Gabriel Landeskog (lower body), Trevor Zegras, Ryan Hartman, Mark Scheifele and Patrice Bergeron. I missed my timing on drafting some of them, Zegras and Scheifele in particular, but most of them have too many injury-related question marks and I still don't trust Hartman to avoid regression after shooting 14.2 percent last year. If they do well, all the more to the managers who were willing to take the risks -- I prefer to save my riskier picks for a few rounds later.
The unheralded part of the fantasy game, defensemen can make or break a team. My mantra entering the year was to draft blueliners that score like forwards. In practice, that wasn't an option most of the time. I only ended up with limited shares of the Big Four -- Cale Makar, Adam Fox, Victor Hedman and Roman Josi. I found myself playing from behind a lot on defense, but I found some safe harbors down the draft list.
My most common defenseman was Rasmus Andersson. The Flames' blue line is stacked this year, but Andersson is the clear scoring threat from that group. The addition of MacKenzie Weegar shouldn't impact Andersson's power-play time much, so I'm not worried about his offense dropping.
I'm also fully invested in the Miro Heiskanen breakout year. I drafted him on about a quarter of my teams, and I think he's going to end up around 50 points. He's a joy to watch on the ice, but this is the year the scoring numbers match that.
My last pick in many drafts ended up being a defenseman. It's not the most popular strategy, but I like to have a reserve at the position to rotate my lineup rather than stacking up forwards I won't be able to always fit in the lineup. Some of my favorite choices on the blue line were guys like Neal Pionk, Mikhail Sergachev and Noah Dobson. Occasionally, I had to reach on some of them, but the big picture is that they'll have at least some power-play time while chipping in with hits and blocked shots. Getting category coverage from depth guys is the path to winning fantasy championships.
Damon Severson was another common name on my draft board. Dougie Hamilton is the defenseman to have from the Devils, but Severson is a steady floor guy. Jared Spurgeon fills a similar role with the Wild, though perhaps with a bit more upside.
My middle-of-the-pack defensive fixtures included Kris Letang, Morgan Rielly, Zach Werenski, Tony DeAngelo, Thomas Chabot, Quinn Hughes and Alex Pietrangelo. I also had limited shares of Drew Doughty, Weegar, Jacob Trouba, McAvoy, Brent Burns, Justin Faulk, Shea Theodore, Rasmus Dahlin, Torey Krug, Darnell Nurse, Noah Hanifin and Hampus Lindholm.
In terms of sleepers, Vince Dunn and Jamie Drysdale were my preferred options, though I often prefer a higher floor on defense so as not to have an anchor on my roster. I mostly avoided drafting Seth Jones, who I consider a unique case in fantasy. He's perfectly fine in leagues that count hits and blocks, but he could be headed for one of the ugliest plus-minus efforts in recent memory. I took him once in a league that plays to his strengths. I ended up with no shares of Gustav Forsling, Shayne Gostisbehere, Dmitry Orlov, Brady Skjei, Cam Fowler, Brandon Montour, Ivan Provorov, Sean Durzi and Matt Dumba, to name a few of the more notable blueliners. Often, the concern with these players is the ceiling isn't high enough, especially given team situations or playing style. Many of them have probably already had their best year, with Durzi and Provorov the exceptions to that logic.
I'll end this week's column with a handful of predictions. Some of these might be considered bold, though that's not the intent.
- We'll have a first-time Norris Trophy winner in 2022-23. Moritz Seider, Heiskanen, John Carlson, Aaron Ekblad -- take your pick. Somebody's stepping up this year, and they'll be a huge boost for fantasy managers.
- Shane Wright will have enough success to torpedo Beniers' Calder chances. We saw something similar almost happen last year in Detroit, as the presence of Lucas Raymond made it a question for Seider to win Rookie of the Year. I'd prefer to see how this year's rookies adjust to the NHL before proclaiming any early favorites.
- A Western Conference wild-card team makes the Stanley Cup Finals. There are teams in the west built for the playoffs -- strong defenses and star goalies that can perhaps steal a couple games in a best-of-seven against the Avalanche or the Oilers. I'd envision this prediction coming true with the likes of the Canucks, Stars or Golden Knights stepping up.
- The Capitals and Penguins both miss the playoffs. This one might hurt my parents, who have each supported one of these two teams for 30-plus years. My top-three in the Metropolitan consists of the Rangers, Hurricanes, and Devils, and I think the Atlantic is deep enough to command five playoff teams.
- The Coyotes pick first overall next year. Central Division teams should be happy to get to play the Coyotes and Blackhawks more than anyone, but I think it's Arizona who bottoms out faster despite Chicago's best tear-down efforts. I don't know what the official name of this year's tank campaigns are called, but it'll be the Coyotes who Fall Hard For Bedard.
I hope everyone is as excited to get this hockey season underway as I am. I'll be back next Monday with more of my standard fantasy advice and some takeaways from the first week of play. Happy hockey season!