We are only halfway through the season and already management is beginning to look to the future. If you can’t pull a failing season together after Christmas, your expectations for a playoff appearance and Cup contention this season need to be adjusted to the 2017 season. Clouds tend to have silver linings, however, in that there a lot of unhappy players and unhappy teams out there. What I mean is that the league is going to look very different next year for two very big reasons: 1) There are a lot of high profile contracts running out, making a fine free agent list for 2017; and 2) The 2017 Expansion draft.
Number 2 is really the big factor here. There will be a whole new team on the block and in order to make that happen, a great deal of shaking up needs to cross the league. I sadly confess that I find myself among the early vanguard of Millennials. The last time an event like this has happened in my life was the NFL picking up the Panthers and the Jaguars in 1995 and I don’t remember the hype around back then. But from what I gather, the identity of the league has been irreversibly different ever since. This means big things for hockey. Ice in the desert? Winter is Coming… To Vegas.
15. Marian Gaborik, LA
Despite regular trips to the playoffs, Marian Gaborik has been terrible the past couple years. He is most known for his years on the Minnesota Wild, then with a follow up performance with the New York Rangers, but that is when his production broke off harshly in the early tens. This is probably because of the injuries that have plagued him in more recent years. The last time he played 82 games was in 2011/12 with the Rangers. The longest season he’s given since that was to his current team, the Los Angeles Kings, at 69 games and only 47 points. That’s no slouch, being 20 games shy of a respectable season, but his career is dotted with seasons of 12 games, 22 games, 35 games. Per time on the ice Gaborik may be among the greats, but it just doesn’t make it through in the stat lines. He’s a candidate to keep for the Kings, but if the Expansion changes the league, the Kings might do well to look to the future. As for Gaborik, it sounds difficult to keep recovering from these injuries. Maybe find a smaller role on a not Cup competitive team and ride out the end of a good but difficult career.
14. Joe Thornton, SJ
Joe Thornton has been a staple in the NHL since 1997. He had seven successful years with the Boston Bruins even before he had the bulk of his career on the San Jose Sharks. His wily beard completes his image of a wizened elder who has seen the top of the mountain. He’s not even a goal scorer, but he’s an assist ace with 63 just last year and already up to 24 this year. He doesn’t need to finish the big play to make it happen. The tragic thing about Joe Thornton though is that he is a perennial bridesmaid. The Sharks are in playoff contention every year, as were the Bruins when he was there. But sadly, the sagely center remains Cup-less. There is no doubt that San Jose will always be a home for Joe Thornton, but his guidance and steady assist could benefit another younger line elsewhere. The Sharks would probably be glad to keep him through the Expansion. Thornton just has to ask himself if they will take him to the promise land or he should seek other avenues.
13. Dennis Wideman, CGY
I don’t mean to insult Dennis Wideman by calling him a journeyman, but many of the other players on this list are moving around after having a long legacy elsewhere, though that’s been far from the case for the veteran d-man. The Calgary Flames are the closest thing he’s had to a home since joining the league in 2005. This is probably largely due to his inability to stay healthy, because when he did in 2014-15, he clocked in 56 points (mostly assists, but still pretty good). Some coach should be able to unlock the guy’s potential or at least some training staff should keep him healthy. Be it Calgary or Vegas.
12. Zdeno Chara, BOS
Basketball is typically the sport known for ‘The Big Man’, but the Boston Bruins took that international and brought the 6’9″ Slovak Zdeno Chara into his own. He bounced around to the Ottawa Senators and the New York Islanders, but he became a force, known for his hard slap shot in Boston. Chara is a literally larger than life figure in the sport of hockey, but the captain of the Bruins has been playing the game a long time. He has been playing hockey in the NHL since 1997 (20 years). He’s certainly still a force to reckon with on the ice, but how worth it could it be for the Bruins to keep their 39 year old captain in one of your three-ish defensemen spots allotted in the Expansion? Boston is very sentimental for the past, but they have to look for the future here. If Chara wants to keep playing hockey, maybe a newer franchise could use some experienced guidance for their younger kids coming up.
11. Rick Nash, NYR
Hometown pick here and it hurts something fierce. Rick Nash came to the New York Rangers in one of the big trades that redefined the team and set the stage for their playoff appearances since 2012. Nashty brings a lot to the game. He may not ever lead the team in points or hits or any of these tangible stats that fantasy nerds gush about. But he does have clutch. He’s an x factor. You rely on him. That is when he’s healthy. I understand how difficult it is, but he has not played eighty games since coming to the Rangers. Where the Blue Shirts are getting younger around him, they are reaching the point of Cup or bust with some of the long time players on the team. The Expansion is a tricky question. The Rangers got lucky with some kids. Will there be room for Nash next year on the Expansion roster? Maybe. But his trade value just may be too tempting for the Rangers to pass up.
10. Andrei Markov, MTL
One of the best problems to have is ‘too much talent’. The Montreal Canadiens, one of the flagship franchises of the NHL, is overrun with defensive talent. Shea Weber is a stud and has already made himself a home in cold Montreal rather than the southern heat of Nashville. Meanwhile, Jeff Petry and Alexei Emelin are having break out years. A lower body injury is already hurting Andrei Markov’s stats for the 2016-2017 season and will probably impact his future on the Canadiens. At 38, he still has something to give the game, but with this new generation coming up and his recent injury history, he’s going to need a reduced role. I don’t think this is what the Habs have in mind going forward and I can’t see room for him on the Expansion roster or with another team.
9. Patrick Sharp, DAL
It’s been a tough year for Patrick Sharp already. In a contract year where he’s already 35 years old, he’s already had to miss time due to a concussion. A three-time Stanley Cup winner, Sharp still has a lot to offer the Dallas Stars this year and he will surely finish the season strong. However, beyond that lies another contract signing and the Stars likely will focus on their defensive core and their goaltending this summer. The injury may hurt his value, but being a part of that long strong Blackhawks run carries enough weight. The Stars are a dead horse right now and Sharp may not want to be tied to that. If the Stars find themselves out of playoff contention by trade deadline, we can see Sharp being moved. If they’re making a push for the playoffs, we can see Sharp leaving in the summer when the Stars don’t offer him a number that strikes his fancy.
8. Steve Mason, PHI
Living in the New York Metropolitan area, I spend a lot of time around Philadelphia Flyers fans. The tone they have talking about Steve Mason is not a very kind one. Starting his career with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2008, Mason has been very much a .500 goalie. He had a strong start in Columbus, taking them to the playoffs in his first year, then never made it back with them. His first year starting full time for the Flyers, he took them to the second round of the playoffs. Again, he seems to have had a single strong year and is now outstaying his welcome. Mason appears to love being the new guy. If the Flyers can’t take the wildcard this year, I bet he’ll get that chance again.
7. Patrice Bergeron, BOS
As someone reasonably new to fantasy hockey, I worked a great deal off of name value last season. I rode the back of Patrice Bergeron and company to a third place win in my freshman year. One of the Original Six, the Boston Bruins are one of the most iconic teams in the league and Patrice Bergeron has made himself an iconic Bruin. Therein lies the surprise of how bad his season is going. Bergeron put up some of his best numbers last year, raking in 68 points. If he were to finish this year under 50 points, it would be the first time since 2008-09. We’re pretty much halfway through the season now and he has an astounding 15. I’m not suggesting that this is the end of Bergeron as we know it. All I’m saying is that he has been a Bruin his entire NHL career (since 2003). Sometimes you just need a change of scenery.
6. Ben Bishop, TB
Ben Bishop has been lying beneath the surface for many years now. He spent a lot of time paying his dues in the AHL. He first wet his feet in the big leagues in 2008 with the St. Louis Blues, but only over the recent couple years is getting the net to himself. Already he’s taken two trips to the playoffs, but the Tampa Bay Lightning can’t seem to get him a Cup. Many believe another team will give the guy his due. With the Expansion draft looming, Bishop knows he can call for a hefty price tag on himself and that the Lightning don’t really have the cap space to pay him. If suddenly struggling Lightning won’t flip the bill, surely another team will. For his stellar play over the last four years, he surely deserves it.
5. John Tavares, NYI
This is another one of those unlikely moves that really should happen. John Tavares is easily the best player on the New York Islanders. They’re just getting over a goalie conundrum and the team is hurting in the rankings badly. They now sit at the bottom of the Metropolitan division. It’s a tough division, but the talent is there. Bogged down by two years of a No Movement Clause in his contract, Tavares will be an unrestricted free agent in 2018. The Islanders will surely drop a mint to keep him there, especially with their lack of talent at the moment. Tavares just needs to ask himself the old Miltonian addage: “Tis it better to serve in heaven or rule in hell?” He can make the big bucks in Brooklyn or he can go to a better team and reach a more realized potential.
4. Jaromir Jagr, FLA
The Native Americans screwed the colonists by telling them the Fountain of Youth was down near the equator, when in reality it’s in the Czech Republic. Jaromir Jagr knows where it is and it’s selfish that he’s not telling anyone. Seriously though, we are getting ready to celebrate 30 years of Jagr. It’s hard enough to find players who have been around since before I started watching hockey, but so far Jagr is the only one I’ve found playing since before I was alive. The crazy thing is that he’s still doing it! He scored 66 points and played 79 games last year, at the age of 43! And he’s already scored 25 points this year!
Ladies and gentlemen, it is unreal. He’s not at peak performance anymore, but the Pittsburg Penguin turned journeyman’s average is better than most people’s best. The Florida Panthers are bringing a young, skilled team up into contention (once they sort the whole coaching fiasco out). Jagr may get cut for the shortened roster. I’m not about putting old men out there because I remember when they were good. Jagr is not that guy. When he falls off, he should retire. But next year is just simply not that year. He still has more to give another team, ideally one with true Stanley Cup aspirations.
3. T.J. Oshie, WAS
T.J. Oshie has done what Hitler and Napoleon both failed to do. He defeated Russia at home in the winter. The Native American born forward was selected upwards of five times in a shootout against the Russian team in the 2014 Sochi Olympics to win the game almost single handedly. I don’t know who writes the lore that litters the strange and esoteric sport of hockey, but they are missing something with this. This kid is super talented. He will also be a free agent at the end of the year. The Washington Capitals would have a lot to gain by keeping the kid on the roster, but I’m not sure how far Oshie can spread his wings under the one man show that is Alexander Ovechkin. It would behoove him to seek opportunities elsewhere.
2. Marc-Andre Fleury, PIT
The job of any goalie with an unparalleled championship offense is simply to keep his head above water. What really brings Cups home is having both that offense and an actual talent in goal. I have no love for them, but the Pittsburgh Penguins have not only been blessed with one good goalie who can fill this role, but now they have two. Marc-Andre Fleury knows what it’s like to be in the big game. He’s not top of the pile, but he has seen some of the best shots the league has to offer. The only problem with The Snowman is that there is a young buck on the rise. Matt Murray has been doing stunningly between the Pittsburgh posts and at 22 years old seems very comfortable there. There is only room for one starter on the Expansion roster for the Penguins. Fleury has brought them many good years, but there is a changing of the guard happening here. He certainly has the expertise (and the Cups) to bring another team back on the map.
1. Ilya Kovalchuk, SKA
A strange pick to see here, but hear me out. The KHL, or the Kontinental Hockey League, is the professional league headed in Russia, but it includes the Eastern Bloc countries and China. It is no bush league. Many argue that the KHL is more technical and skills driven, where the NHL becomes about pure speed and physicality. You can make a living playing out East (and you have to live, you know, in Russia), but the ultimate goal is always to get to the NHL. You may recognize Ilya Kovalchuk as a star from the Atlanta Thrashers (now the Winnipeg Jets) in the late aughts. He came closet o 100 points several times on the Thrashers. In his last full season before going out to SKA St. Petersburg, he scored 83 points with the New Jersey Devils. Well, Kovalchuk’s contract is coming up in the frozen north. Should he come down from the mountain, it is well within his ability to put numbers up on the big stage. The NHL could find a spot for him to score 80 points in 2017.
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