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Fantasy mailbag: Neal can bounce back with Oilers

Wing could bring exposure to elite forwards McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins; timeshare goalie tandems to target; early Calder Trophy favorites

by Pete Jensen @NHLJensen / NHL.com Senior Fantasy Editor

All offseason long, NHL.com will be answering your fantasy hockey questions leading up to preseason drafts. For more fantasy coverage, visit NHL.com/Fantasy and subscribe for free to the NHL Fantasy on Ice podcast.

 

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Can Milan Lucic be fantasy-relevant [with the Calgary Flames]? -- @fuzzychris91; With the trade, do you think James Neal will be fantasy-relevant [with the Edmonton Oilers] for points, or are his best days behind him? -- @CroWarrior1978; Any extra value to Flames players now that Neal is not on the team? -- @76swanson

Anything can happen in fantasy, especially for a player like Lucic who has chipped in scoring with strong coverage of hits in his NHL career, but it's likely he'll be stuck in the bottom six with the Flames already having two elite left wings (Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk). There's not much of an impact from Neal's departure on Calgary either. The only fantasy-relevant takeaway from the Lucic-Neal trade is Neal having renewed upside in a potential top-six and/or power-play role with the Oilers.

Neal, a usual 20-plus goal scorer who played mostly outside the top six, did not play a full season and shot 5.0 percent. He needed a change of scenery and could bring exposure to high-scoring forwards Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and/or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Neal also is entering a situation in Edmonton where the roster has flaws and everyone has a clean slate under new coach Dave Tippett. Neal never got an extended chance in Calgary with Gaudreau and valuable center Sean Monahan last season because right wing Elias Lindholm broke out and ran away with the top-line opportunity.

Neal, whose best fantasy season (40 goals, 41 assists) came with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2011-12 on a line with mostly center Evgeni Malkin, will likely crack NHL.com's top 250 rankings in the next update based on his track record and potential linemates as a sneaky bounce-back candidate. That said, he's worth a late-round flier at best and more likely a waiver-wire pickup depending on preseason lineup placement. Neal isn't likely to be much of an asset in points-only leagues because 45-50 is far from a guarantee but could become relevant in leagues that emphasize goals and also count shots on goal, power-play points and/or hits, which he has covered well in the past.

 

Do you see load management changing the landscape for fantasy goalies? Backups might become more valuable. -- @JerrodEdson; How likely is Mackenzie Blackwood to land the starting job for [the New Jersey Devils]? -- @Johnny_Hinds

Splitting goalie starts has become a popular and viable strategy for teams to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Where (and how far) each qualifying team goes from there is always a mystery, but that doesn't matter for fantasy purposes.

Last season saw numerous teams make the postseason with two fantasy-relevant goalies sharing the workload at different points in the regular season. The New York Islanders tandem was the most superb of the bunch, while the Carolina Hurricanes, Colorado Avalanche and Flames had plenty of ups and downs. The Dallas Stars got stellar play from elite starter Ben Bishop but leaned on backup Anton Khudobin (.923 save percentage in 41 games), especially when Bishop was injured. A huge reason the Boston Bruins were equipped for a run to the Stanley Cup Final was how well backup Jaroslav Halak (.922 SV% in 40 games) fared in his regular-season competition with eventual playoff standout Tuukka Rask.

Here are some potential timeshare situations to target in fantasy drafts this season from teams that should be in the running for the playoffs: Arizona Coyotes (Antti Raanta, Darcy Kuemper), New Jersey Devils (Cory Schneider, Blackwood), Islanders (Semyon Varlamov, Thomas Greiss) and Flames (David Rittich, Cam Talbot). Two other teams have concerns on defense but intriguing forward groups and multiple goalie options worth considering for fantasy depth: New York Rangers (Henrik Lundqvist, Alexandar Georgiev) and Chicago Blackhawks (Corey Crawford, Robin Lehner). The Nashville Predators, who have an improved offensive and power-play outlook after signing elite center Matt Duchene, have a clear starter in Pekka Rinne, but protege Juuse Saros has been knocking at the door for a few seasons and is worth handcuffing.

Some of these teams could be fickle and their goalie situations unpredictable, but fantasy owners should definitely consider drafting two goalies from the Coyotes, Devils or Islanders for obvious reasons. Schneider may be the bigger name in the likely timeshare, but Blackwood could easily finish as the most valuable rookie goalie (other rookie-eligible goalies: Thatcher Demko, Vancouver Canucks; Elvis Merzlikins, Columbus Blue Jackets) and even run away with the starting job after his encouraging performance last season and the Devils' offseason upgrades.

Video: NJD@FLA: Blackwood stops a flurry of shots

 

Which Nova Scotia native should be targeted as a higher priority to build around, Nathan MacKinnon or Brad Marchand? -- @FaubertShane

MacKinnon, assuming his elite linemate Mikko Rantanen (restricted free agent) re-signs with the Colorado Avalanche, is the safer pick here. Marchand, who was one of six players with at least 100 points last season, played a lot of hockey in the regular season and playoffs and played through injuries in the postseason. He and linemates Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak form the best fantasy line in the NHL when healthy, but that unit carries some collective risk.

MacKinnon is the only fantasy center in the same breath as McDavid and Sidney Crosby and is a lock to finally reach 100 points (he's had 99 and 97 the past two seasons). Marchand plays the scarcer position (left wing) but doesn't cover hits as much as you might think for such a physical player (46 in 79 games last season). Also don't forget about Colorado's addition of center Nazem Kadri and its positive impact on MacKinnon, not only from them likely playing together on the first power play but also the support Kadri will bring in terms of secondary scoring and a heavy workload in all situations.

It's worth noting MacKinnon (fourth) and Marchand (fifth) are ranked right next to each other in NHL.com's top 250.

Video: SJS@COL, Gm4: MacKinnon bats in opening goal

 

What's the ceiling and floor of [Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson] this season? -- @Altraz12

With the Coyotes acquiring elite right wing Phil Kessel, Ekman-Larsson's ceiling is very high again; he could score an NHL career high in points with at least 60. His floor over the past six seasons has been 39 points, scoring at least 42 in each of the other five seasons and maxing out at 55 in 2015-16. The Coyotes have not had nearly as much talent at each position in any of those seasons as they do now, so it's safe to expect a return to the 50-point and 25-PPP ranges for Ekman-Larsson with a ceiling of being a top 10 fantasy defenseman and a floor of 45 points.

 

Is Jack Hughes a lock for rookie of the year? -- @___tmontgomery

Hughes, the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft by the Devils, is nowhere near a lock at this point. There are at least three other rookie-eligible skaters expected to be big-time fantasy producers this season. Two of them are defensemen: Cale Makar, who should take over the first power play in Colorado after Tyson Barrie was traded, and Quinn Hughes, Jack's brother, who could quarterback a potent first unit in Vancouver with valuable forwards Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat and new acquisition J.T. Miller.

Then there's Rangers rookie wing Kaapo Kakko, the No. 2 pick in the 2019 draft, who has arguably a clearer path than Hughes to a top-line role, where he would bring exposure to explosive left wing Artemi Panarin and center Mika Zibanejad. Devils center Nico Hischier is more seasoned than Hughes and has just as good a chance as the rookie to play with elite left wing Taylor Hall at even strength. Hughes will almost certainly bring first power-play exposure to Hall, valuable defenseman P.K. Subban and right wing Kyle Palmieri, giving him a high fantasy ceiling, but there is plenty of competition for the Calder Trophy with numerous dark-horse rookies in the mix.

 

READ: Fantasy Mailbag: July 6

 

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