Tuesday, December 2, 2003 Updated: December 9, 11:40 AM ET
Hard Hits: Change is inevitable
By Chris Nichols
Change: Whether you like it or not, it's inevitable in all aspects of life.
The last two weekends have really been a trip down memory lane for hockey fans, capped off Saturday by ESPN Classic's presentation of Hockey Heritage Day. Montreal's 1986 Cup win against a talented Calgary team was one of several vintage replays on the docket, as the recently-retired Patrick Roy won the Conn Smythe Trophy as a rookie. An hour-long special on Wayne Gretzky was followed by a replay of the nostalgic festivities that took place in outdoors in Edmonton the previous week.
While it's been great to reflect upon the great heritage of the game, it's equally as important to remember that there is a deep crop of young stars ready to write their own chapters in the pages of hockey history. Since several of them are relatively new to many fans of the sport, you can get a leg up on your fantasy competition if you familiarize yourself with them and realize that their next hot streak could be the start of a storied NHL career. Add a couple of these guys when the time is right and it could provide a huge boost to your chances of taking home fantasy gold.
OFFENSE FROM ALL POSITIONS
The big news Monday was that highly-regarded Columbus prospect Nick Zherdev (4th overall, 2003) could be in the lineup for the Blue Jackets as early as Tuesday night against Anaheim, assuming visa and other issues can be worked out in time. Zherdev is regarded by most scouts as a high-end talent. He's fast, competitive and supremely skilled, although he apparently has a tendency to hog the puck. He may not make an instant impact in the NHL, but he's absolutely one to watch. Consider Zherdev and young Rick Nash on the wings of any center and there is a great line in the making. Nash himself has 15 goals in 23 games and has the outline of a great fantasy power forward. He may or may not continue scoring goals at a rapid pace this season, but he's certainly got a bright future ahead of him.
In Philadelphia, Joni Pitkanen has Flyers fans drooling with his raw potential. Pitkanen was drafted in 2002 (4th overall), but is playing his first season in the NHL this year. With 12 points and a +8 rating after 21 games, Pitkanen has already rocketed up to near-100 percent ownership. He not only has skills, but the physical dimension to his game also makes him that much more valuable to his real life teammates. Pitkanen is a cornerstone defenseman that, within three years, will be drafted where we now take guys like Blake and Jovanovski.
24-year old Czech sniper Ladislav Nagy has been around for five years, but this season will mark only the third time he's played a full season in his young career. Finding the twine 45 times over the past two seasons, Nagy is likely to top 30 goals this year and has the potential to be a 40-goal scorer in his career. He's already shooting the puck enough to break last year's mark of 209 shots, a sure sign that more goals are on the way. He currently has 13 goals, compared with 22 last year. He was a key part of the Keith Tkachuk trade several years ago and is finally blossoming into the sharpshooter scouts thought he could become.
Stephen Weiss is in his third NHL season, although he's played less than 100 games in his career. Weiss is projected to be a No. 1 centerman and his play over the past few weeks has given fans a good idea why. After playing 77 games for Florida last season, he began this year in the minors. Since being called up and playing his first game on Nov. 7, Weiss has recorded five two-point games; four of those coming in his last six games. Weiss drew comparisons with Steve Yzerman in his draft year and is certainly worth adding right now, as I've mentioned for two straight weeks. He may not spend the full season on your roster this year, but he's got the potential to keep up a decent scoring pace.
In only his third NHL season, Ilya Kovalchuk is already among the best goal scorers in the NHL. Kovalchuk was the first overall pick in the 2001 draft. He scored 29 goals in only 65 games in his first season (Cut short by a shoulder injury); 38 goals in his sophomore year. This season he already has 18 and has a real shot at challenging the 50-goal mark and winning the Rocket Richard Trophy. A combined -43 over his first two seasons, Bob Hartley deserves credit for helping the overall defensive play of both Kovalchuk and the Thrashers themselves. Need proof? Kovalchuk is only -3 after 26 games. The Russian sniper is on track to be a Hall of Famer and will be will a top 20 pick in FHL next season and a top 10 pick the following year.
Eric Staal made fantasy news late in October when he started an eight-game scoring streak that would see him net 10 points. Staal was the second overall pick in the June draft and it's become clear why he was so highly regarded. His vision on the ice is spectacular and he's going to make whoever he plays with a better goal-scorer with his passing ability. Staal may be added and dropped from your roster several times this year, but it won't be more than a year before he'll be 100 percent owned from the start of the season through the finish and within a couple of seasons he'll be collecting between 75 and 90 points.
The young mattress line in Vancouver has been mentioned several times in the past month, so I won't belabor their success. Daniel and Henrik Sedin, picked second and third overall respectively in 1999, are playing some pretty solid hockey and are finally making a fantasy impact. Although only separated by six points, Daniel is near-100 percent owned, while Henrik is barely owned by anyone. Jason King's 11 goals have made him a valuable fantasy commodity.
Several guys have exploded onto the scene in the crease this season: Andrew Raycroft (1.92 GAA & .932 SA %) and Felix Potvin (2.64 GAA & 903 SA%) continue to split starts, but the young Raycroft has mostly outperformed his veteran counterpart and merits more starts; Although the Isles have struggled lately, Rick DiPietro has been solid in his first full NHL season (2.26 GAA and .908 SA%) and the first overall pick from the 2000 draft has finally meshed maturity with his raw skill to develop into a reliable NHL goaltender; Robert Esche has never played more than 30 games in one season, but his play under Ken Hitchcock (2.20 GAA and .907 SA% last year, 1.77 GAA and .926 SA% this year, headed into Monday night's loss to Ottawa) suggests that the Flyers may be on the right track by grooming him to be their No. 1 goaltender; Marc-Andre Fleury followed in Rick DiPietro's footsteps by being selected first overall in the last draft and while he may not have a great GAA or win total over the next year or two, his SA% is at least one redeeming value of what should be an illustrious career. Last, but not least: Vesa Toskala (1.94 GAA & .936 SA%) and Ty Conklin (2.59 GAA & .915 SA%) clashed Sunday night in Edmonton and each is a young keeper who could take over as the No. 1 guy if their veteran counterparts (Evgeni Nabokov, 2.71 GAA & .906 SA% and Tommy Salo, 3.45 GAA & .866 SA%) don't find their form after coming back from injury.
COMING ON STRONG, REGARDLESS OF AGE Marty Turco (Four wins in his past six starts and only eight goals against in that stretch) and the Dallas Stars have been coming on strong with Jere Lehtinen back in the lineup; Martin Straka was acquired by Los Angeles Sunday and he's available in 50 percent of the leagues out there (Has a real chance at solid fantasy value, especially if he plays with Ziggy Palffy); Josef Stumpel is available in 75 percent of leagues and is healthy and back in action (Has good assist potential and the addition of Straka boosts Stumpel's value even more); In Mika Noronen's last six starts, he has two shutouts for the Sabres and allowed only two goals each in the remaining four games; Patrick Marleau has shaken off his bad start to collect five goals, six assists and a +3 rating in his last 11 games; Montreal defenseman Sheldon Souray had eight points and 44 SOG in 13 November games. Last but certainly not least, don't forget about Manny Legace. He may get a few more starts this week while Dominik Hasek continues to rest his injured groin. Legace has won three of his last four starts (all consecutive) and allowed only three goals in that stretch. He's available in a vast majority of leagues.
In addition to writing a column for us each week, Chris also pens a fantasy piece for Slam! Hockey every Friday and a daily advice column that runs during the week. His other job is with McKeenshockey.com, where he writes the daily NHL News & Notes section for the subscription-based service.