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Eleven questions for the remainder of fantasy season

by Matt Cubeta
With the All-Star festivities behind us, it's time to start planning for the stretch run in fantasy hockey leagues. Whether you're in a standard rotisserie league, the ever-growing head-to-head league or a straight up points league, all fantasy owners have to gear up for the final 30 NHL games. If you're at the top of your league, you have to figure out a way to hold on for dear life; if you're at the bottom, don't give up, there's still a little bit of time to make a run -- and if not, we all know no one likes to finish in dead last, so you've got to try to get out of the basement.

We've seen plenty of fantasy surprises and disappointments throughout this wildly, entertaining 2010-11 NHL season, and now it's time to answer some questions regarding the players that have amused us. Here are 11 intriguing fantasy-related questions as we approach the final stretch:

1. Will Steven Stamkos score 60 goals this season?

The Tampa Bay sniper has 39 goals in 52 games this season, which puts him on pace for 61 goals in a full 82-game season. The Lightning play 18 of their remaining 30 games on home ice, which bodes well for Stammer considering he's scored 17 goals in 23 games so far at St. Pete Times Forum.

Answer: Yes, Stamkos ends up with exactly 60 goals this season.

2. At the age of 36, can Tim Thomas continue his dominance for the remainder of the season?

Tim Thomas. Ahh, what can we say about him. He has dominated the leader board and is No. 1 in the NHL in goals-against average and save percentage, and is tied for the NHL lead in shutouts and wins. What's even more amazing is the margin between him and Pekka Rinne (who ranks second in GAA and save percentage) -- Thomas has a .945 save percentage, Rinne is at .929; Thomas has a 1.82 GAA, Rinne is at 2.10. Thomas is making his Vezina Trophy-winning season from two years ago look mediocre.

Now, on to the question -- can he do it all season long despite his age? The Bruins have done a tremendous job in keeping Thomas rested -- he's started 36 games this season, while backup Tuukka Rask has started 15. This puts Thomas on pace to start 66 games, which is nothing a No. 1 goalie isn't used to.

Answer: Yes, we believe Thomas can dominate for the rest of the way and that he'll go on to receive his second Vezina Trophy along the way.

3. Will Ryan Kesler score more goals than Daniel Sedin?  

Through 52 games of action Kesler has 30 goals to Daniel's 27. Kesler ranks third in the NHL in the category, while Sedin ranks fourth. Kesler has already set a career-high in goals (26 was his previous high), but what's to slow him down? He is a great two-way player that is used in all situations of the game -- he's averaging 3:45 of power-play ice time per game and 20:29 of total ice time per game. While Kesler should easily eclipse 40 goals this season, we wouldn't bank on him being a perennial 40-goal scorer in his career (30 seems more realistic). On the other hand, Daniel Sedin is a natural scorer. While he's never topped more than 36 goals in a single season, he would have likely hit 40 goals last year had he not missed 19 games due to injury.

Answer: No, Daniel Sedin will score 45 goals, Kesler will finish with 42.

4. Can Keith Yandle finish the season as the top-ranked fantasy defenseman?

Yandle is currently ranked third among all defensemen (26th among all players) in standard Yahoo! Leagues behind Kris Letang and Dustin Byfuglien. Yandle leads all blueliners with 36 assists this season and ranks in the top six in goals, power-play points and shots on goal among d-men, while chipping in a very respectable 50 PIMs. The only category Yandle falls behind in is plus/minus, where he has a minus-2 rating, which isn't horrendous. After posting 12 goals and 41 points in a breakout season for the ‘Yotes last season, Yandle appears to be putting together the monster season we all hoped for at age 24, and there's no reason to think he'll slow down.

Answer: No, but he does stay among the top-five ranked fantasy defensemen.

5. When Sidney Crosby returns from his injury, will he be able to play at his usual elite level?

While we're still not sure when Sid the Kid will return from a concussion, we do know just how talented he is when healthy. Crosby has missed the last 11 games, but prior to getting hurt he had 32 goals and 66 points in just 41 contests. Despite missing a significant portion of the season, Crosby is still currently on pace for the most points in the NHL with 114 -- the next closest being Stamkos at 107.

Answer: Not quite. While he'll still be a dominant player, you shouldn't expect the kind of points he was putting up before the injury. Crosby was playing at a level that no one could even compare to before getting injured. Not only that, but the track record for players returning from concussions isn't always smooth, so some rust should definitely be expected when Sid returns.

6. Will Ilya Kovalchuk's streak of six consecutive 40-goal seasons finally come to an end?

While the answer to this question is an obvious yes, we wanted to point out just how hard it might be for Kovalchuk to reach the 30-goal plateau. Kovy has 14 goals in 49 games for the Devils, putting him on pace for a meager 23 goals, which would easily beat his career-low (29 in 65 games his rookie year in 2001-02). Not only has his goal-scoring taken a significant drop this campaign, but his plus/minus is even more alarming at minus-28. It's pretty unbelievable that a player that has been such a consistent goal scorer might not even reach 30 goals this season, especially considering he's averaging nearly 4:30 minutes of power-play ice time per game.

Answer: Yes, but we think he could still heat up to reach 30.

7. Will Alex Ovechkin go on a major hot streak?

It's hard to call 51 points in 52 games a disappointment, but after seeing what Ovi has been able to do in the previous five seasons, it's hard not to hope for more. Ovechkin will always be a major fantasy contributor because of his solid plus/minus rating (currently plus-14) and his ability to fire tons of shots on goal (he leads the NHL with 237), but going into the season, we were clearly hoping for his fourth consecutive 50-goal season. Right now The Great 8 is on pace for just 29 goals, and with the new style of play the Caps are displaying it seems very likely that Ovi will not reach 40 goals. However, he is still considered one of the best players in the NHL, and certainly has the ability to rattle off 10 goals in a 5-game span.

Answer: Yes, at some point Ovi's going to put the Caps on his back and go on a scoring rampage.

8. Can rookie netminders Corey Crawford and Sergei Bobrovsky keep it up for the rest of the way?

Crawford's season is becoming more and more like Antti Niemi's from last season. Just like Niemi stole the starting gig from Cristobal Huet, Crawford has taken the job from offseason acquisition Marty Turco. The Hawks' goalie is just 26 years of age and has been mentioned as a top prospect for the last few years, so we tend to think he can continue to carry the Hawks into the playoffs. Will he produce the same result as Niemi did last year? Maybe, maybe not. But either way, Crawford is a guy you want on your team for the remainder of the fantasy season. After all, he's between the pipes for a Hawks team that will get hungry to defend their title, and that can't be a bad thing, right?

Bobrovsky's season also looks a bit familiar. Last season Ray Emery was considered the No. 1 goalie for the Flyers heading into opening night, but then he went down with injury and Michael Leighton stepped in smoothly. While Emery never returned, Leighton and teammate Brian Boucher filled in beautifully to help the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Final. This season Leighton was expected to be the No. 1 guy, but the injury bug caught him early on and Philadelphia turned to Bobrovsky, a rookie, instead of their veteran backup Boucher. Bobrovsky ran with the job and currently sports an outstanding 21-7-3 record to go along with a solid 2.49 GAA and .917 save percentage. While Bobrovsky still gives away some playing time to Boucher, the Flyers are clearly one of the best teams in the League, and that will definitely help the young Russian netminder out.

Answer: Yes, mainly because of the teams each goalie plays for.

9. Can defenseman Dustin Byfuglien lead the NHL in shots on goal by season's end?

One of the most intriguing stories in the NHL has been the emergence of Byfuglien along the blue line. Not only is he putting up outstanding points totals, but he is second in the League in shots on goal, trailing Ovechkin by only 16 (237 to 221). What's even more amazing about his shots total is that he leads Zdeno Chara by 47 shots for second-most by a d-man at 174. While it may take an Ovechkin injury to give Byfuglien a chance at the League lead, there's no taking away how impressive Buff's shots total has been. To put things in perspective, shots on goal has been tracked since 1967. Only five times has a defenseman led the NHL, and it was done by only two players. Ray Bourque was the last defenseman to lead the NHL in shots on goal with 210 back in the lockout season of 1994-95. Bourque also led the League in shots in the 1983-84 and 1986-87 seasons. Bobby Orr was the only other blueliner to lead the League in shots, doing it in 1969-70 and 1974-75.

Answer: No. It would be nice to put him in the same sentence as Bourque and Orr, but it seems doubtful considering Ovi has had the most shots on goal in each of the last five seasons.

10. Will Logan Couture finish the season with the most goals for the Sharks?

Couture, a rookie forward, currently leads the Sharks with 22 goals in 49 games. He has been a God-send for a San Jose team that's battling for a playoff spot in the tightly-wound Western Conference. To lead a team that consists of Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, and even Joe Pavelski and Ryane Clowe, in goals at this point of the season is enough of an accomplishment. But to be able to achieve that feat over a full season is a tough task for anyone, let alone a 21-year-old rookie. We like Couture, a lot, but we expect the veterans to heat up and carry the team during their most crucial time.

Answer: No, but 30-35 goals should still be expected from Couture.

11. Will Corey Perry finish the season as the top-ranked fantasy right wing?

Perry is currently the highest ranked right wing in standard Yahoo! leagues and is sixth among all players. Martin St. Louis, who poses the biggest threat to dethrone Perry from the top spot, is ranked 10th overall. While St. Louis has nine more points than Perry on the season, Perry possesses a skill that not every talented forward has: the ability to spend time in the sin bin. Perry has 82 penalty minutes to go along with his outstanding offensive numbers: 25 goals, 28 assists, a plus-1, 19 power play points and 172 shots on goal. Among the top-30 overall fantasy players, only Scott Hartnell (ranked 27th) has more PIMs than Perry with 103.

Answer: Yes, simply because of his ability to produce in all fantasy categories.

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