Hutch's Hockey: Return of the Jack

Hutch's Hockey: Return of the Jack

Perhaps the most anticipated, yet unknown date, in the NHL this season is approaching. Jack Eichel, freed from the Sabres and repaired with a first-of-its-kind artificial disc replacement surgery, is nearing his Golden Knights debut. It could be as soon as Wednesday versus the Avalanche. 

It's been a while since we've seen Eichel on the ice, but it's important to remember he's a second-overall pick from 2015 -- the Connor McDavid draft. It's going to be a treat to see those two compete in the same division for the next five years, and they both go UFA after 2025-26. That doesn't matter much now though, as it's time to remember what Eichel can do. Over parts of six seasons, he racked up 139 goals and 216 assists in 375 games for an often rudderless Sabres team. His recovery, by all accounts, has gone well. He started taking contact in practice Monday. 

Unfortunately for the Golden Knights, and by extension fantasy managers, it seems unlikely we get to see all three of Vegas' brightest stars on the ice together this regular season. Mark Stone is dealing with a recurring back injury and could end up on long-term injured reserve when Eichel is activated. I'll spare you any hemming and hawing over another team using LTIR to bail them out of a cap crunch -- I'm sure 100 percent of teams would rather have a Stone or a Nikita Kucherov in their lineup rather than the press box. The only question that's left is where Eichel will fit into the lineup. 

I see two potential lineups to accommodate Eichel's debut, and neither really disrupts what works for the Golden Knights. Here's the first one: 

Option A
Max Pacioretty - Eichel - Chandler Stephenson
Jonathan Marchessault - William Karlsson - Reilly Smith
Mattias Janmark - Nicolas Roy - Evgenii Dadonov
William Carrier - Brett Howden - Keegan Kolesar/Nolan Patrick

In this lineup, Stephenson and Eichel could split faceoff duties, and it could be a fairly fluid line to defend. Eichel is the only right-shot among that trio, so it's not the best from a lineup-balance standpoint, but it provides the least disruption possible to the lineup. When Stone's been healthy, Dadonov has often featured on the third line, which gives the Golden Knights better scoring depth. 

Option B
Pacioretty - Eichel - Dadonov
Marchessault - Karlsson - Smith
Janmark - Stephenson - Roy
Carrier - Howden - Kolesar/Patrick

The change here is that Stephenson moves down to the third line instead of Dadonov. In terms of deployment, the Golden Knights would have a higher-powered top six and a strong checking line -- Stephenson's much better defensively, while Dadonov drives offense, and this would play to their strengths. I don't like the secondary impact on Nicolas Roy here, as I think he's better as a center, or at least more comfortable in that role. 

In both potential lineups, a couple of assumptions are made. One, the Golden Knights won't trade anyone until they have to, and two, Kolesar and Patrick are essentially competing for one place in the lineup. In the event of a trade, Reilly Smith seems most likely to be the one heading out, which would likely open up space for Stephenson, Roy or Kolesar to end up on the second line. These aren't the only possibilities, as head coach Pete DeBoer will likey mix and match until he finds the right combinations. In any case, Golden Knights fans should be getting very excited very soon -- a talent like Eichel should be an instant boost to the offense. 

Elsewhere around the league, the return of another Jack -- Mr. Hughes of the Devils -- has piqued my interest in his linemate. Yegor Sharangovich is starting to look good again, with a goal and five assists in five games in February. The 23-year-old needs to stay in the top six to be productive, as the Devils aren't deep enough to sustain offense down the lineup. Sharangovich has been good with Hughes over the last two years, and I'm willing to buy in if their chemistry sparks again. 

The Flames have gotten contributions all throughout their lineup during a six-game winning streak, but it's time to talk about Mikael Backlund again. Wes Gilbertson of the Calgary Sun shed some light on Backlund's nickname -- Second Half Backs. Few players in the league have had such noticeable turnarounds in the middle of the season, but it's a pretty consistent thing for Backlund. Consider the last five seasons:

SeasonFirst Half PPGSecond Half PPG

As you can see, outside of 2017-18, he's made notable gains after the calendar flipped to January (or the middle of March for last season). He was at a 0.31 point-per-game pace through the end of December this season, but he's already humming along at 0.75 points per game since we rang in 2022. 

Another Flame that's turned up the heat is Chris Tanev. His season stats don't stand out much -- 17 points in 45 games isn't that special even from the blue line, though his 74 blocked shots and plus-23 rating could help in formats that reward defense. Lately, he's been chipping in more with seven of his points coming in the last four contests, including a four-point explosion against the Coyotes. The 32-year-old is on pace for a career year, which is good enough to roster in deeper formats. 

Need a hand? Ask for Jakub Voracek. The 32-year-old winger was unstoppable early in the season, but he faded a bit in December. He's found his game again in February with a goal and four assists in his last four games. This winger is a playmaker through and through, but even he can't possibly stay at a tiny 2.4 shooting percentage the rest of the way. The Blue Jackets' offense lacks reliable depth, but Voracek has picked up 14 of his 32 points this season on the power play, where he's logging 2:58 per game. 

Denis Gurianov is also handing out apples with regularity lately. He's got five assists in his last five games, though none have come with the man advantage. The 24-year-old has yet to be a consistent contributor on offense, though the same can be said for many of the Stars' non-top-line forwards. For now, Gurianov's clicking with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin on the second line while adding some time on the second power-play unit. As long as the Stars' offense doesn't go Casper on us, Gurianov should be a solid secondary scorer. 

I've done it before, and I'll do it again -- recommend a Coyote, that is. Alex Galchenyuk is the cup of hot chocolate perfect for a midwinter evening lately. He's got four goals and an assist in his last five games, corresponding with a move to the top six. The well-traveled 28-year-old has picked up half of his 10 points this season lately, but doing so alongside at least one of Clayton Keller or Phil Kessel makes this run look a bit more sustainable by my eye. He's still not seeing a lot of power-play time, but one step at a time. 

For a little risk/reward on the blue line, consider Timothy Liljegren. The smooth-skating Swede has a lot going in his favor lately, most importantly three assists in his last five games. For the season, he has eight points, 36 shots on net, 30 hits and 29 blocked shots in 30 contests while playing in a third-pairing role for the Maple Leafs. This team is fully healthy right now, and there's where the risk comes in for Liljegren -- he'll need to keep playing well to fend off Travis Dermott now that Jake Muzzin's back from a concussion. Liljegren has played in 11 straight, and I'm hoping he keeps it going. 

The leading headline from Monday's news is Tyler Toffoli to the Flames, which more or less kicks off the trade deadline part of the season. The savvy fantasy manager would look at 26 points in 36 contests with the Canadiens and consider that enough for a winger with a proven middle-six profile. I think Toffoli will start on the third line for the Flames -- ideally with former junior teammate Sean Monahan and former Kings teammate Milan Lucic as his linemates. Should the offense need a jolt, Toffoli and one of Blake Coleman or Andrew Mangiapane could swap places. Toffoli's presence on fantasy waiver wires won't last long, especially if his career in the Flaming C gets off to a fast start. 

When I'm looking to add in the crease, Petr Mrazek's my target lately. The Maple Leafs are seemingly committed to lessening Jack Campbell's workload, and those extra starts are Mrazek's for the taking. The 29-year-old has been good lately, going 4-2-0 with a 2.41 GAA and a .910 save percentage in his last six outings. Especially with some good goalies being sidelined by week-long gaps in the schedule, Mrazek's a very attractive add -- the Leafs play seven times in the next two fantasy weeks, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Mrazek start three or four of those contests, especially with Campbell struggling. 

In fantasy, outside of a blockbuster trade, you won't be able to make a big add at this point in the season. For those of you who were patient while waiting for Eichel to return, the payoff awaits. For those who held on early and traded him, I can only hope you got top-30 talent in return. I'll always err on the side of patience when it comes to talent, and that may mean tempering expectations for a couple of weeks while he gets settled in game action with his new mates. One thing's for sure -- the next few Golden Knights games should be appointment viewing. Let's see where they stand next week. 

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Shawn Hutchinson
Shawn has covered sports independently since 2010, and joined RotoWire in 2019. He serves as a beat writer for the Calgary Flames and contributes in hockey and baseball. Shawn also enjoys soccer, rooting on his hometown teams: Sounders FC and Reign FC.
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