Early in the season, fantasy owners can sometimes overreact to counting numbers. On the other hand, I am most interested in how coaches are using players. While it's nice to start the year with three goals in three games, that doesn't mean much to me unless the player's ice time, overall usage, and underlying numbers are all indicative of their success. When it comes to making early season fantasy decisions, focus on the process and not the results and you'll do better in the long run.
Here are some players who have caught my eye this week.
Daniel Winnik, F, ANA
Winnik is the prototypical example of the usage not matching the production (five points in two games). Despite his counting numbers, Winnik's offensive zone start rate is tied for last among all Ducks skaters at just 26.3%, and the line of Winnik-Koivu-Cogliano is receiving the toughest defensive assignments of any Ducks unit by far. While that zone start number should normalize a bit closer from the extreme, that and the quality of competition figure tells us how Bruce Boudreau is using Winnik. I don't see much chance for sustained offensive success.
Dougie Hamilton, D, BOS
Hamilton has been receiving an opportunity to play bigger minutes with Dennis Seidenberg out, and he is responding well. Even before Seidenberg's injury, Claude Julien seemed committed to getting him top power play time, while his low 35% offensive zone start rate shows that he is trusted defensively at even strength. That will help him accumulate hits and blocked shots, and possibly plus/minus on a very good Boston team, but it is the power play we are most interested in here, and Hamilton seems poised for a continually big role.
Curtis Glencross, F, CGY
Glencross is leading Flames forwards in ice time and is third among them in power play time. He is playing with Iginla and Tanguay in an offensive-oriented role, and his on-ice team shooting percentage of 5.88 indicates he might be considered unlucky as far as his overall counting numbers go, particularly his plus/minus and assists to the currently 0-for-16 shooting Jarome Iginla. His team-leading four points may not be a fluke. Still, there are a lot of mouths to feed here, as Mikael Backlund has looked like a breakout candidate, and Roman Cervenka should be healthy to play soon.
Brendan Smith, D, DET
Detroit might have to rush Smith with Ian White and Carlo Colaiacovo on the mend, and Kyle Quincey struggling. I'm intrigued to see what the former first rounder can do with an increased role, especially on the power play. He filled in for Colaiacovo on Tuesday against Dallas to the tune of second-most PP ice time among Wings defensemen, and that was before the White injury. While speculative, if you have the space, I would take a shot on Smith while other owners might be down on the Wings given their early season slump.
Cory Conacher, F, TBL
I pegged Conacher as my Calder winner, and he has not done anything to disappoint. Notable to me was how Tampa Bay used him during their game against the Islanders on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: when the Lightning needed goals, trailing in the third period, it was Conacher, not Purcell or Malone, who played alongside Stamkos and St. Louis. He responded by recording two assists as the Lightning nearly came back from a four-goal deficit. Tied for the team lead in points despite second line ice time, I would expect his role to increase moving forward, perhaps permanently.
Zack Kassian, F, VAN
Kassian is capable of recording hits and penalty minutes for your team without compromising skill. In fact, on Wednesday against Calgary, he received the glorious line slot alongside the Sedin twins, scored his second goal of the year, saw his ice time increase to almost 20 minutes, and notched a beautiful shootout winner to boot. The performance had Canucks fans comparing him to Todd Bertuzzi. If Kassian can stick on the top line, he is worth owning.
Justin Faulk, D, CAR, and Nick Leddy, D, CHI
I am grouping these two defensemen together because their situations are similar. Both quite young, and overshadowed by more familiar, veteran names on their rosters, these players have favorable roles on quality offensive teams. In particular, Faulk has been logging huge minutes against the toughest competition opponents have offered, and is arguably Carolina's best and most trusted defenseman at age 20. Leddy has been a bit more sheltered at even strength, but has a large power play role on an explosive team. These are two players who are not owned in most leagues.
Roman Josi, D, NSH
Josi is a difficult player to decipher at the moment. In his favor: has won the job alongside Shea Weber both at even strength and the power play. Not in his favor: he has not done much with that large chunk of favorable ice time. Then again, Weber has been struggling to begin the season as well. The underlying numbers suggest the Weber/Josi pairing has been unlucky offensively, so it might just be a matter of time before the two pick it up. Josi's on-ice team shooting percentage is actually 0.00% at even strength, which won't stay that way for long, given 21:29 per game at five-on-five.
Taylor Pyatt, F, NYR
Pyatt is the recent beneficiary of John Tortorella's line shifts, receiving a promotion alongside Derek Stepan and Ryan Callahan, while Carl Hagelin went down to the third line with Mike Rupp and Brian Boyle. Pyatt played a season-high 19:31 against the Flyers Thursday night, scoring his third goal of the season in four games. Still, his possession numbers lag far behind the seemingly demoted Hagelin, who I would bet on to reemerge before long. Tortorella is constantly shaking up his combinations, and there are no underlying numbers or apparent skills that suggest Pyatt is a better long-term option to play a top-six role on this club than Hagelin.
Steve Sullivan, F, PHX
This is a player whose situation is seemingly similar to Pyatt's, but the underlying numbers paint a far different story. To the naked eye, both players are off to great starts offensively, leading or tied for the lead on their clubs in goals, while each sporting a sure-to-regress 50% shooting percentage. However, Pyatt has the second-worst relative Corsi among Rangers forwards (only the maligned Chris Kreider has been worse), while Sullivan has the second best among his Coyotes forward counterparts. Zone start numbers also indicate a more offensive role for Sullivan. While that might help explain the Corsi difference, the gap is large enough to believe that it is meaningful. Sullivan is also receiving far more power play time. The Coyotes may have found themselves an apt Ray Whitney replacement here. He might not be a stylish free agent pickup, but Sullivan's goal scoring binge appears to have some sustainability.
Vladimir Tarasenko, STL
Perhaps the most added fantasy player of the first week, Tarasenko's breakout shows no signs of being a fluke. On a team that is the runaway possession leader in the NHL thus far, and was so last season, Tarasenko's breakout potential is tantalizing. He leads all Blues in Relative Corsi by a whopping six shots per game. The Blues' system is apt for fantasy success when you inject any young player with this amount of skill into it. His ice time figures might appear low until you consider that St. Louis' top three forward lines are so balanced. He is receiving enough power play time to make the investment more than worth it. There is a high probability he has already been added in your league, but if not, run to the waiver wire.
Nazem Kadri, F, TOR
Be cautious with Kadri. While it sometimes does take prospects time to break through, it could be argued that a player of Kadri's skill should produce three goals and two assists in four games, given the role he has been assigned. His minutes have been extremely sheltered, as he has an 84% offensive zone start rate on a team that is currently 28th in close-game Fenwick percentage. Compare his situation to that of Tarasenko's: yes, Tarasenko also has a very high offensive zone start percentage (85.2%), but the Blues are so good at controlling play that eight other regular St. Louis forwards are over 55%. In Kadri's case, only three other regular Leafs forwards can make the same claim. I am curious to see what happens once his zone starts normalize closer to where we might expect a season's final number to be for an offensive player on a poor possession team. Tarasenko has also faced much tougher competition in terms of Relative Corsi against. You can put up great numbers against easy competition playing offensive minutes, but long-term stars are not built in those trenches.