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Fantasy bounce-back candidates for 2011-12 season

By Pete Jensen - NHL.com Staff Writer

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Fantasy bounce-back candidates for 2011-12 season
Ilya Kovalchuk and Jimmy Howard are among the players NHL.com fantasy insider Pete Jensen expects to have bigger and better fantasy years.
Whenever the production of a proven NHL player drops from one season to the next, there’s always a cause for concern among fantasy owners who put their stock in this individual.

While seeing a top-tier member of your squad experience a bump in the road is not an enjoyable experience, it is important to refrain from abandoning the ship prematurely.

Here’s an example: San Jose Sharks' star forward Patrick Marleau saw his 78-point output (32 G, 46 A in 77 games) in the 2006-07 season drop to 48 points (19 G, 29 A in 78 games) in 2007-08. But just as Marleau’s fantasy value dipped entering the ensuing season, the potent goal-scorer re-discovered his rhythm, notching 38 goals and 33 assists in 2008-09. Marleau also improved on his minus-19 rating and low shot total (185) from '07-08 with an impressive plus-16 rating and 251-shot showing in '08-09.

Simply put, Marleau capitalized on the clean slate that came with the new season and was able to regain his form in leading San Jose to the President's Trophy.

Bounce-back seasons are far from rare, but the toughest part is detecting them in time to see your fantasy team reap the benefits. So, just in time for your fantasy draft, NHL.com takes a look at 10 players from around the league who are likely to bounce back and improve their numbers from a year ago in the 2011-12 season.




ILYA KOVALCHUK (LW, New Jersey Devils)

Despite playing 81 games last season, Kovalchuk’s fantasy production simply left something to be desired -- especially after he signed a 15-year, $100 million contract with the Devils in September 2010. Kovalchuk's goal total dropped from 41 in '09-10 to 31 in '10-11, while his point output saw an even more significant decline -- from 85 in '09-10 to 60 in '10-11. Also, Kovy’s plus-10 rating two seasons ago did not carry over to last season, where he registered a minus-26 showing.

Ilya Kovalchuk
Left Wing - NJD
GOALS: 31 | ASST: 29 | PTS: 60
SOG: 245 | +/-: -26
To make matters worse, the Devils struggled mightily over the first three months of the season and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1996. However, fantasy owners caught a glimpse of Kovalchuk's bona-fide scoring ability as he thrived with 30 points (16 G, 14 A) during an impressive 23-3-2 stretch under Jacques Lemaire to make things interesting for New Jersey in the second half.

So, as disappointing as last season was for Kovy, the 28-year-old has six seasons of 41-plus goals in his career, including 52-goal outputs in '05-06 and '07-08 with the Atlanta Thrashers. As Kovalchuk enters his 10th season in the league, the Devils finally have forward Zach Parise and goaltender Martin Brodeur healthy -- both of whom were hindered by injuries last season. With new coach Peter DeBoer in the fold, expect Kovy to get a fresh start and regain his form as one of the league's most potent scoring threats.



JIMMY HOWARD
(G, Detroit Red Wings)

You might ask how a goaltender who finished last season with a 37-17-5 record -- only one win behind the League-leader -- could be on a “Bounce-Back Player” list.

Howard is an exception, because had it not been for his sub-par goals-against average (2.79) and save percentage (.908), he would have likely been the most recognized netminder in the League. Instead, the 27-year-old’s supporting cast in Detroit proved its worth last season, enabling Howard to win 37 games for the second straight season -- despite a “sophomore slump” in production.

But looking back at his season year in ’09-10 where he was nominated for the Calder Trophy, Howard’s 2.26 GAA and .924 save percentage blows his ’10-11 numbers out of the water. With his mentor Chris Osgood now retired, Howard will be relied upon heavily to shoulder the load for Detroit in 2011-12. Lucky for him, Nicklas Lidstrom is back for another season on the defensive front, meaning the stage is set for Howard to have a brilliant season in net.



ALEX OVECHKIN
(LW, Washington Capitals)

A 32-goal, 85-point NHL campaign is not normally categorized as an underachieving season. But when Ovechkin registered those numbers last season for the Capitals, it came as a shock to fantasy owners who sacrificed a top selection in their draft on the superstar forward.

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Ovechkin, who has put together 50-plus goal, 100-plus point campaigns in four of his six NHL seasons, struggled to adjust when Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau shifted to a more defensive-minded style at the start of last season. The Russian-born left wing compiled 24 power-play points in 2010-11 -- well behind the League-leader in that category, Daniel Sedin, who finished with 42. This is especially a concern, considering Ovi racked up 36 PPP in '09-10 -- good enough for sixth in the League in that category. Another issue last season was Ovi's PIM output, which fell from 89 in '09-10 to only 41 in '10-11.

Although Ovi’s production was not up to the high standards expected of him, the 26-year-old's point total was still seventh best in the NHL, while his assist total ranked sixth. His strong plus-24 rating is another positive. Ovi’s numbers from last season would still be coveted by most players around the League, but the bottom line is that fantasy owners simply expected more from the man who set the single-season record for goals by a left wing (65) in '07-08.

Ovechkin's youth, history of high performance in every category and presence on a healthy top line in Washington still makes him the most explosive fantasy player in the game. If he bounces back in 2011-12, his all-around prowess could be the foundation of your fantasy team’s run to the championship.



MIKAEL SAMUELSSON
(RW, Vancouver Canucks)

The Canucks fell only one game short of NHL glory last season. Had it not been for an unfortunate hernia injury to Samuelsson in the second round of the playoffs, the Stanley Cup Final script could have been entirely different.

Sometimes forgotten amongst the talented core of offensive options in Vancouver, the 34-year-old Samuelsson has scoring potential in his arsenal -- as evidenced by his 30-goal season for Vancouver in 2009-10. His goal total dropped to 18 last season, but the Swedish-born Samuelsson played in one more game (75) than in his first season as a Canuck, and improved his assist mark (32) as well.

As Samuelsson, now healthy, strives to re-discover his productive '09-10 totals, the plethora of talent around him in Vancouver should ease the transition. While the Canucks’ second line will take a step back if Ryan Kesler is not ready for the start of the regular season due to injury, Samuelsson’s veteran savvy will likely keep the line’s production strong in his absence. Look for the veteran forward to re-acclimate himself quickly and be a difference-maker for one of the league’s top offensive units. While he is not quite a top-tier option at this stage in his career, Samuelsson’s good health and talented teammates will likely rejuvenate him. Snatching this winger with a mid-to-late round selection could certainly pay dividends for your squad.



DREW DOUGHTY
(D, Los Angeles Kings)

Doughty marveled in 2009-10, when he finished third in the League among defensemen in both goals (16) and points (59). But last season, despite the Kings once again qualifying for the playoffs, Doughty’s production slipped by 19 points, as he accumulated 11 goals and 29 assists in 76 games played. He did turn in a positive rating for the second season in a row (plus-13), and racked up a career-high 68 PIM, but his offensive struggles were well-documented -- and a glaring issue.

Now, let’s give Doughty some credit, being that he has established himself as one of the premier blueliners in the NHL by age 21. But after a season where his power-play production downgraded from 31 PPP in ’09-10 to 15 in ’10-11, Doughty will likely make a concerted effort to seize those opportunities more often once the new season gets started for him.

While his future in Los Angeles remains uncertain due to ongoing contract negotiations, one thing is certain. Once a deal is done and Doughty is back on the ice, there is just too much potential to pass him up in the first few rounds of your fantasy draft. The London, Ontario, native will look to turn the page -- especially on the man advantage -- after a somewhat disappointing campaign last year. With a healthy Anze Kopitar and newly-acquired offensive assets, Mike Richards and Simon Gagne, the Kings will be a factor in the West. Thus, Doughty should have a strong plus-minus rating again, improve on his shot total of 139 in ’10-11 and show more purpose on the power play.



RYAN MILLER
(G, Buffalo Sabres)

When you think of workhorse goaltenders that put up solid numbers, year-in and year-out, Miller always comes to mind. His ability to carry the Sabres with his spectacular play in net has been his calling card since he burst onto the scene in 2005-06.

But last season, while he registered a solid mark of 34-22-8 in leading Buffalo to the postseason, his goals-against average (2.59) and save percentage (.916) were not quite Miller-esque. After a magnificent 2009-10 season saw him post career-highs in wins (41), save percentage (.929) and GAA (2.22), his '10-11 totals were clearly a step back.

Having played 63-plus games in four of his last five seasons, Miller has proved his durability in the past. But after the Sabres bolstered their defensive front by adding blueliners Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr this offseason, the time is now for this 31-year-old netminder. If Miller bounces back this season and utilizes the strong defensive assets in front of him, he could put together his finest fantasy season yet.



ALEXANDRE BURROWS (LW, Vancouver Canucks)

Burrows flew under the radar during last year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs -- tying for the team lead in goals (9) and igniting the Canucks on a nightly basis during its run to the Cup Final. Now, with a clean slate in front of him entering the new season, Burrows hopes to keep the momentum rolling to compensate for a dip in production during the 2010-11 regular season.

Alexandre Burrows
Left Wing - VAN
GOALS: 26 | ASST: 22 | PTS: 48
SOG: 152 | +/-: 26
Burrows missed the first 10 games of ‘10-11 due to injury, and his point total slipped from 67 in 2009-10 to 48 in 2010-11 as a result. The crafty winger needed time to re-adjust to playing on the Canucks’ top line with the Sedin brothers, and while he was an offensive factor with 26 goals and a plus-26 rating, he was hindered as he recovered from his early-season shoulder injury. Also, after registering three 120-plus PIM seasons, Burrows only accumulated 77 last season, dissatisfying fantasy owners who counted on that type of production from one of the toughest forwards in the League.

But that’s the beauty of the fresh start, which Burrows will have entering the new season. Now 30, Burrows should eclipse 30 goals and 100 PIM in 2011-12, and will likely muster well more than 1 power-play point -- his total a season ago. Having a full season to play his game with so much talent around him in Vancouver will make it easier for him to flourish again.



DUNCAN KEITH (D, Chicago Blackhawks)

After capturing the Norris Trophy and a Stanley Cup title with the Blackhawks in 2009-10, Keith saw his fantasy stock take a hit after his goal output fell from his career-high 14 tallies in '09-10 to 7 goals in '10-11. His point total dropped as well, from 69 in '09-10 to 45 in '10-11. Keith has not missed a regular-season game in the past two seasons, but his rating staggered from plus-21 two seasons ago to minus-1 last season. To make matters worse for the young blueliner, his PIM showing (22) was simply a non-factor.

Keith slipped into the underachieving spell that hovered over most of the Blackhawks’ young roster in 2010-11. The bottom line is that Keith is still in his prime at 28, and while the Hawks' Cup run likely taught him how hard work pays off, looking back at last season's bump in the road will likely motivate him to rebound in 2011-12.

It's no secret that Keith displayed tremendous poise and potential during the 2010 playoffs, where he compiled 17 points in 22 games. Now, it’s up to him to arrange the pieces to the puzzle. Keith’s vicious slap shot and array of point-generating abilities should enable him to bounce back in 2011-12.



NICKLAS BACKSTROM (C, Washington Capitals)

After registering a 101-point showing in only his third NHL season, Backstrom scored 36 fewer points in 2010-11. With teammate Alex Ovechkin also struggling for most of last season, Backstrom just could not find the scoring touch that enabled him to become one of four players to reach the century mark in points in ’09-10.

Now, with Ovechkin expected to see a leap in production this season and a healthy Alexander Semin on the other wing, expect Backstrom to be invigorated by the star power around him and eager to prove his doubters wrong. As a reminder of how lethal that top line can be, Ovi-Backstrom-Semin combined for 294 points in ’09-10.

While the Capitals’ postseason mishap at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning sheds a negative light on Backstrom -- who did not score a goal in nine playoff games, he still remains the orchestrator of the Capitals’ offensive initiative. He has only missed five games in his NHL career -- all of which came last season -- and is one of the best at his position when Washington’s potent offense is full throttle. Expect Backstrom, who is still only 23, to rebound with a 25-goal, 85-point, plus-30 and 200-plus shot season in 2011-12.



MARIAN GABORIK (RW, New York Rangers)

The Rangers added the crown jewel of this offseason’s free-agent class in Richards, a former Conn Smythe winner. Having an asset of Richards’ caliber could be just what the doctor ordered for struggling forward Marian Gaborik.

Marian Gaborik
Right Wing - NYR
GOALS: 22 | ASST: 26 | PTS: 48
SOG: 192 | +/-: 8
Gaborik's second season in New York saw him experience a staggering 38-point drop -- as he compiled only 22 goals and 26 assists in 62 games following his exceptional 42-goal season in 2009-10. His output in the Rangers' short-lived first round playoff series with the Capitals was even more disappointing. Gaborik recorded a goal and an assist in five playoff games to cap off a year that changed fantasy owners’ perception of this once-potent goal scorer.

But with two 40-plus-goal, 80-plus-point seasons under his belt, Gaborik will likely benefit from playing on the Rangers’ top line with Richards -- who has dished out 50-plus assists four times in his career. Gaborik has handled the New York spotlight well before, but with Richards now taking some pressure off his shoulders, the 29-year-old scorer could fly under the radar and bounce back in a big way for John Tortorella’s squad in 2011-12.



Other bounce-back candidates:

- Jaroslav Halak, G, St. Louis Blues
- Paul Stastny, C, Colorado Avalanche
- Dany Heatley, RW, Minnesota Wild
- Jose Theodore, G, Florida Panthers
- Mason Raymond, LW, Vancouver Canucks



On a weekly basis during the regular season, NHL.com will answer the most compelling fantasy hockey questions from you, the fans.

To submit a question for NHL.com's Fantasy Mailbag, contact fantasy insider Pete Jensen at PJensen@NHL.com.



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