After an exciting finish to the NHL's regular season has led to another furiously fought postseason -- both figuratively and literally -- it's time for a review of our All-Pro Team for ESPN Fantasy Hockey.
As a reminder, these awards are not determined by the controversial method of a vote -- we wouldn't want anyone's personal opinion clouding the festivities. Instead, these players are the ones who finished tops at their position in the ESPN Player Rater. To review, that means that forwards and defensemen are ranked by their production in goals, assists, plus-minus, penalty minutes, average ice time, shots on goal and power-play points. For goalies, it's wins, goals-against average and save percentage. There was an extensive amount of turnover from the 2010-11 group to this one, as only Steven Stamkos and Zdeno Chara made the list for both seasons. This is actually the third straight season for Stamkos making this list … I suppose he's pretty good.
In addition to a review of what made each of the following players so great this past campaign, I've noted their average draft position in ESPN leagues to illustrate just how far their stock rose over the course of the season, as well as a brief look at what to expect next season.
Evgeni Malkin, C, Pittsburgh Penguins (Average Draft Position: 12.5) Injuries limited Malkin to 67 games in 2009-10 and 43 in 2010-11, and this was part of the reason why he was still on the board in the second round of some drafts this past fall. But when Malkin had been healthy the past two seasons, he'd delivered the goods: He had 114 points in those 110 games (42 on the power play), along with 118 PIM and 450 shots. Sure enough, in a relatively full campaign this past season, he racked up 50 goals and 59 assists -- his 109 points was 12 more than the second-place Stamkos -- a plus-18 in plus-minus, a league-leading 339 shots and 70 PIM for good measure. There's no reason to believe that he won't be among the first players off the board in next season's drafts, as it's likely we'll continue to see him paired with the dynamic James Neal based upon their success in this campaign. Speaking of whom …
James Neal, LW, Pittsburgh Penguins (ADP: 94.1) After two seasons (and a portion of a third) working his way up in the Dallas Stars' organization, Neal was shipped to Pittsburgh for the stretch run of the 2010-11 season; once in the Steel City, his six points in 20 games didn't do much to rouse hope for anything special out of the Oshawa, Ont., native, either, ergo the low draft position this preseason. But after being put on the Pens' top scoring line with Evgeni Malkin, Neal exploded for a 40-goal, 41-assist season, one that also included 329 shots (second only to Malkin) and 87 PIM. That performance earned him the third-highest score on the Player Rater among forwards, and No. 7 overall. Again, with no reason to believe that Malkin and Neal will be split up next season, Neal most likely will be taken within the first few rounds of fantasy drafts.
Claude Giroux, RW, Philadelphia Flyers (ADP: 39.4) A bit of a controversial choice for the First Team All-Pro at RW -- even though he had dual-eligibility this season, he spent most of his time at center -- Giroux's production over the past season swayed the committee to approve his being listed here. It's easy to forget considering that he managed the third-most points in the league, but there was a health concern with Giroux early on this season, as he was concussed when teammate Wayne Simmonds ran into him during a Dec. 10 game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. However, after a short absence, Giroux played like he hadn't missed any time, as he scored four points in his first game back. In the first round of the playoffs, Giroux also set a Flyers franchise record for points in one postseason series with 14. Though he may lose his RW eligibility for 2012-13 -- and won't add much in the PIM department -- the collection of young talent on the wings in Philly should continue to keep him among the fantasy elite.
Erik Karlsson, D, Ottawa Senators (ADP: 157.8) After boosting his point-per-game production from .433 to .600 from 2009-10 to 2010-11, Karlsson made another significant jump in 2011-12, scoring 78 points in 81 games, good for a .963 point-per-game pace. The 78 points were the most for a defenseman since Nicklas Lidstrom's 80 in 2005-06, and given that Karlsson is just 21 years old, the best may be yet to come. Karlsson also led the league's blueliners in shots (261), was top 10 in ATOI (25:19) and improved his plus-minus from a minus-30 in 2010-11 to a plus-16 in 2011-12. While there is a valid real-life argument that Karlsson is merely a forward lining up on defense, here in the fantasy realm, there's no complaints about that. He will not be slipping into the middle of the draft again next season.
Zdeno Chara, D, Boston Bruins (ADP: 17.4) Another high draft position in fantasy leagues, another season of steady, across-the-board production for one of the league's most recognizable players. He showed no signs of slowing down during the campaign in which he celebrated birthday No. 35 and NHL game No. 1,000: 52 points (18 on the PP), a plus-33, 86 PIM, 224 SOG and an even 25:00 of ATOI put him either atop the defenseman leaderboard, or within striking distance. The Bruins will have some questions to answer at other positions on the roster this offseason -- most notably, of course, in goal -- but their top defenseman will continue his reign as one of the league's elite, both in real life and fantasy.
Brian Elliott, G, St. Louis Blues (ADP: undrafted) It was not surprising that Elliott went largely undrafted this preseason in ESPN leagues: After three up-and-down seasons with the Ottawa Senators and Colorado Avalanche (posting a 2.91 GAA and .901 save percentage along the way), his signing with the Blues this past summer was met with a sigh of indifference by most. A hot start was received with skepticism, but Elliott maintained his torrid pace throughout the campaign. By season's end, he had the league's top GAA (1.56) and save percentage (.940) amongst qualified netminders, and had picked up 23 wins in 38 appearances. Though the fact that he was a member of a time-share was frustrating to his fantasy owners, when he was in action there was no one better to have active. Both Elliott and Jaroslav Halak (who finished No. 6 among goalies on the Player Rater) remain under contract through 2012-13, and given what the Blues were able to accomplish with that time-share this season, it'd be illogical to expect a change. The fact that Elliott will continue to split starting duties lowers his value somewhat, but another 35 to 45 starts out of him is generally better than 60 out of a lesser player.
Steven Stamkos, C, Tampa Bay Lightning (ADP: 2.9) Through the first 51 games of the 2010-11 season, Stamkos had 38 goals and 67 points, on pace for 61 and 108, respectively, before a late-season swoon meant that he finished with "only" 45 goals and 91 points. Of course, that was still good enough to be the top fantasy pivot in last year's rankings. Though he improved in most categories this season -- considerably so, in some cases -- his 60 goals, 97 points (25 on the PP), plus-7 rating, 66 PIM and 303 shots was only good enough for second place (a testament to how big of a season Malkin had). Nevertheless, Stamkos certainly delivered a return on those who invested in him at the top of fantasy drafts, and the 22-year-old should continue to be an elite option in the foreseeable future. A surefire top-five pick again this fall, no matter who is tapped to take over the goaltending duties.
Scott Hartnell, LW, Philadelphia Flyers (ADP: 88.1) A perennial favorite of fantasy owners thanks to his contributions both in scoring categories and PIM, Hartnell saw his profile rise a bit during the 2011-12 campaign thanks to his role on HBO's "24/7" series, as well as his genuinely entertaining Twitter feed. Of course, neither his fame nor his famous ginger locks are the reason why he makes this list; it's the fact that he posted 37 goals, 67 points (23 on the power play) and 232 shots (all career highs), along with a plus-19 and 136 PIM. Sure, his ATOI is not among the league's workhorse forwards, but that's a small price to pay for someone who's going to fill up the rest of the categories on a consistent basis. Unfortunately, it wouldn't appear to be the case that sneaky fantasy owners will be able to land Claude Giroux's wingman in the middle rounds anymore. But, as long as he stays in that role, he's a safe pick to continue being one of the league's elite power forwards in fantasy.
Patrick Sharp, RW, Chicago Blackhawks (ADP: 66.3) Quick illustration on how poor production in just one of the seven standard ESPN fantasy categories can wreck a player's value when it comes to our Player Rater system. In 2010-11, Patrick Sharp had 34 goals, 37 assists (26 total points on the PP), 38 PIM and 268 shots, but a minus-1; this stat line put him in the No. 38 position overall and 24th among forwards on the Rater. This past season, he had 33 goals, 36 assists (17 on the PP), 38 PIM, 282 shots and a plus-28 rating. Bingo: He's the No. 16 overall ESPN fantasy hockey commodity and earns a spot on the illustrious All-Pro team. Does that one category make him all that much better as a fantasy asset? Not really, but it was a great bonus for those who grabbed him this season. As far as the future is concerned, Sharp signed a five-year extension prior to the 2011-12 campaign, so he's not going anywhere. There is some question as to whom Sharp will line up with next season, though he did find some chemistry next to Marcus Kruger and Viktor Stalberg when Jonathan Toews was out. No matter what, expect lots of shots -- and likely another 30-goal season -- out of the Ontario native again in 2012-13. But beware of over-spending to land him early; plus-minus is famously difficult to project from season to season, and his value was inflated by that category in 2011-12, as seen above.
Shea Weber, D, Nashville Predators (ADP: 53.6) Before Weber delivered a pro wrestling-style slam on Henrik Zetterberg in the opening round of the playoffs, he delivered his finest fantasy regular season to date. The ninth rearguard taken, on average, in ESPN fantasy league drafts this season, Weber filled every category on our list, and finished among the league leaders in every category aside from PIM -- his 46 were a downgrade from last season's 56. Weber is a restricted free agent this offseason, so his landing elsewhere is less likely than Ryan Suter, with whom he has been paired in recent seasons and who is hitting unrestricted free agency. The loss of either will have damaging effects on the value of Preds goalie Pekka Rinne, though it's likely that the two D-men will be amongst the top 10 blueliners off the board in fantasy drafts no matter what sweater they happen to be wearing next fall.
Alex Pietrangelo, D, St. Louis Blues (ADP: 147.5) After we got the appetizer-sized portion of the No. 4 overall pick from 2008 during the 2010-11 season, this past campaign was entrée time: Pietrangelo took over as the Blues' top talent on the defensive depth chart, logging big minutes in all three phases of the game (even strength, power play and short-handed) and improving in every notable fantasy category. As with Karlsson, his availability in the middle rounds of fantasy drafts this past season will not be a trend that continues into 2012-13.
Henrik Lundqvist, G, New York Rangers (ADP: 15.7) The man who may end up winning the Vezina Trophy as the league's top netminder in real life takes the second All-Pro spot within our fantasy realm, so sayeth the Player Rater. Lundqvist was labeled as one of the elite fantasy goalies prior to the season, he was drafted as such and he went out and delivered on that potential. Though there was a bit of a swoon down the stretch -- he had a 2.60/.895 ratios for March and April combined, those figures were 1.75/.940 for the remainder of the campaign -- he still finished tied for fourth in GAA, tied for third in save percentage and third in wins. We've always known that he was talented -- and durable -- and this season, the Rangers provided him with the production up front to win a considerable number of games. A similar cast of characters will return to Broadway in 2012-13, so for the fantasy owner that wants Lundqvist, a first-round investment will probably be required.
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