The Real Spiel: Neal benefiting from playmakers

By Sergei J. Feldman - Staff Writer

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The Real Spiel: Neal benefiting from playmakers fantasy insider Sergei Feldman reviews top stories from Week 1 of fantasy.
There's no denying the unpredictable and ever-changing nature of hockey, especially in the "new" NHL, where blistering speed and high-end skill reign supreme and not much remains status quo.

One second too late or one deke too many could mean the difference between a thrilling win or a devestating loss, while one week on top of the world could quickly turn into permanent residency in a slump.

A similar--if not exact--dynamic exists in fantasy hockey.

Just when you think it's safe to celebrate a win against an opponent, you find yourself scrambling to find a gem on waivers to remain in contention. Meanwhile, norms become aberrations and blips on the radar become stranglehold positions.

Given the complex, never-steady landscape, each week, fantasy insider Sergei Feldman gives you The Real Spiel on some of the quirks and trends that permeated your week of fantasy hockey by way of in-depth analysis.

The Goal Digger
James Neal
Left Wing - PIT
GOALS: 5 | ASST: 1 | PTS: 6
SOG: 24 | +/-: -2

When James Neal was dealt to Pittsburgh at the end of last season, many wondered if he left his 20-plus goals in three-straight seasons resume behind in Dallas. In 20 games with the Penguins since the trade, the 24-year-old left wing scored just once. An offseason and some time to adjust to new surroundings later and the resume has not only arrived, but has landed Neal a part-time job among the NHL goal-scoring leaders through one week of fantasy hockey. Neal's five goals has him in a tie for first place with Toronto's Phil Kessel and New York Islanders center John Tavares. Those are the facts, but do they represent a potential trend or are they temporary coincidences? Here's The Real Spiel:

The 6-foot-2, 204-pound power forward was brought in to the Pens for production from the wing position, a perennial Achilles heel of the club. He failed to deliver. But consider the circumstances: the Penguins were sans Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, two of the League's premier puck distributors. Now, Neal has Malkin dishing him the puck and creating space on the ice for him. Until Saturday night's game against Buffalo, each of Neal's goals were assisted by "Geno." Neal's rise to offensive excellence--albeit within a six-game sample -- can be explained simply: get him a guy who can get him the puck and you've got yourself a potentially elite left winger. Malkin has been that guy in the early goings, but remember that lurking closer to a return is Crosby, who can certainly help, too.

Super Mario Brother?
Claude Giroux
Right Wing - PHI
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 2 | PTS: 5
SOG: 13 | +/-: 1

Perhaps you've found yourself wondering why in the world the Philadelphia Flyers -- recently of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final parish -- would trade away franchise cornerstones Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. Giving up such talent and proven commodities at a time when the club was thought to be a perennial Cup contender in a competitive Eastern Conference seemed unthinkable. Think again. In return, the Flyers landed rugged winger Wayne Simmonds and potential young stud Brayden Schenn. And that's great. But what made management pull the trigger on the deal was the belief that center Claude Giroux could lead the offensive troops to battle and anchor the top scoring line. Pretty good so far, right? So good, in fact, that recent acquisition Jaromir Jagr called him "a little Mario," referencing hall-of-famer Mario Lemieux. Anytime you compare a player to someone like Lemieux, you ought to be careful. But who would know better than Jagr, Super Mario's former teammate? Could No. 68 be right about No. 28 that he's similar to No. 66? Here's The Real Spiel:

The 2006 first-round selection of the Flyers has a long way to go before being in a discussion with the seventh all-time point producer. But for now, through four games, Giroux ranks fifth in goals and has led his club to a 3-0-1 start. In the process, the 23-year-old has carried the team and has shown that he can shoulder the load for years to come. For this fantasy season, Giroux could be a game-changer.

Nevermind his sniper abilities or vision of the ice -- he's got at least an Emmy-winning cast surrounding him night in, night out. Keep your eyes open for his potential across-the-board production because this can be the year Giroux can start playing like Lemieux.

Roo-keys to Success
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
Center - EDM
GOALS: 4 | ASST: 0 | PTS: 4
SOG: 9 | +/-: 2

Speaking of Lemieux, how about Ryan Nugent-Hopkins? The Edmonton Oilers' first-overall selection at the 2011 Entry Draft channeled his inner Mario and netted his first goal in his first game. The Oilers went on to win that contest -- interestingly enough -- against Pittsburgh. But for the youngster many people believe can be "The Next One" in Oil Country, magical moments didn't stop with Game 1. On Saturday night, Nugent-Hopkins showed he's somewhat of a one-trick pony. Fortunately, that trick was one of the hat variety, as he recorded his first three-goal night of his young NHL career. But while Nugent-Hopkins has shown why he was the talk of the town that was the Entry Draft, the question is obvious: can he do be impactful consistently throughout an 82-game season? Here's The Real Spiel:

The Oilers are riddled with young talent. Everywhere you look, it seems, you find a star-in-the-making who was a first-round selection. From Sam Gagner to Jordan Eberle to Magnus Paajarvi to Taylor Hall -- remember him? -- to now Nugent-Hopkins, the Oilers are poised to follow in the footsteps of the Chicagos, the Washingtons and the Pittsburghs of the NHL -- build a young nucleus and unleash them. If you've got Nugent-Hopkins on your fantasy team, keep him. He's given a green-light to exhibit his talents and is driving with more than capable passengers alongside him. Today's NHL allows for younger talent to thrive and thriving is not a word your fantasy roster dislikes. If you don't want to rely on recent history -- Alex Ovechkin, Crosby, Malkin, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews -- look at the other big name in this year's draft -- Gabriel Landeskog. He has seemingly fit in with great ease in Colorado and contributed solid outings through the early goings of the season. Keep an eye on the young studs to complement your veteran and more proven lineups.

Pipe Dreamers
Al Montoya
Goalie - NYI
RECORD: 2-1-0
GAA: 1.35 | SVP: 0.953

It's a common expression in hockey and it's true: you can't win without goaltending. And as difficult as it is to win without goaltending, it's perhaps more difficult to do so with a so-called No.-1 netminder. The fact is, "franchise" cage protectors are few and far between. While some clubs sleep under the blanket of knowledge that their crease will remain protected, others are left to scramble. Meanwhile, goalies who are thought to be merely backups aim to disprove the stigma. Through one week of action, you as fantasy owners have had to play musical chairs with your netminding tandems. Can you sit pretty for a season with "backups" as your options? Here's The Real Spiel:

Just hours prior to the season-opening drop of the puck for the Islanders, it was announced that goalie Al Montoya will get the start between the pipes over Evgeni Nabokov and Rick DiPietro. Since then, the more established names have sat and watched, as the thus far journeyman netminder has played to a 2-1-0 record and posted a 1.35 GAA and .953 save percentage. Meanwhile, in Edmonton, the younger Devan Dubnyk is battling with the veteran Nikolai Khabibulin. Even the legendary Martin Brodeur is feeling the heat from backup Johan Hedberg. Fact is, regardless of career numbers, backups can be productive for your fantasy clubs. Whenever the chance to play presents itself, it's more than just a game these backups play for -- it's an opportunity to steal the spotlight in the cage. Assemble your rosters, accordingly.

De-fencing Lessons
Erik Karlsson
Defense - OTT
GOALS: 0 | ASST: 6 | PTS: 6
SOG: 9 | +/-: -4

While you can't win without goaltending, defense wins championships. Go figure. For the team on the ice, that means a healthy balance of stay-at-home blueliners who can dish and take physicality with the best of them and those who can play the role of the fourth and, sometimes, fifth forward on the ice -- defenseman who are offensively-minded. For your fantasy teams, you'll more so rely on the latter batch. But don't forget about those who may help you in other categories like shots, perhaps hit and PIMs. Surely, Boston's Zdero Chara comes to mind. As do Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom and Nashville's Shea Weber. But what about the surprise Norris Trophy hopefuls like Erik Karlsson? Aside from the obvious difference of more established versus not yet entirely proven, the other difference is that Karlsson plays on a rebuilding Ottawa team. Do you trust the talent of Karlsson and the reliance on him to perform on a team most believed won't be playoff bound? Here's The Real Spiel:

The Senators are not the second best team in the NHL after one week of fantasy play, but Karlsson is the second-best point-producing defenseman in the same stretch. It's likely that the Sens will continue to chase such a high ranking and it's just as likely that Karlsson can hold on to his. In fantasy hockey, the numbers just don't lie. Karlsson plays with talents like Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Sergei Gonchar. His opportunities to produce are more reality than fantasy. Fortunately, that means good things for your fantasy team if you've got him. But don't necessarily rely on a year's worth of production. Sometimes, you have to strike while the iron's hot. So far, Karlsson is that iron.
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