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Life and Fantasy Hockey Mailbag: ‘21-‘22 Keeper League Breakout & Regression Candidates

Welcome to the LFH mailbag, where all your burning fantasy questions are answered moderately well by Spencer Plamondon, co-host of the Life and Fantasy Hockey Podcast.

Alright, this week I’ve got something a little different for you. I got a great two-sided question that relates to keeper leagues and I thought it would be fun to bring on my Hot Sauce Sports colleague @eamonhamilton29 to answer it in tandem. Next season will actually be my introduction to Keeper leagues, whereas Eamon’s been in the finals of his for 5(!) years running. Don’t ask how many he’s won, it’s rude.

The question also refers to underlying metrics, which is a weak spot of mine and a strong spot his, so we’re each gonna give our answers and have a discussion on the players involved afterwards, instead of answering the usual four questions as I normally would.

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My league is supposed to be switching to a keeper league format next season. Aside from the obvious first round picks, who could be a sneaky good pick to make the jump to that elite group of first rounders? I’m looking at players that may not be obvious based on this season’s stats but whose metrics scream ‘breakout’.

Conversely, are there any players who have been steady first rounders who still look the part but whose underlying metrics are showing signs of slippage? (Nothing major but enough to knock them out of round 1). – Allan C.

Spencer Plamondon: Alright, my three choices for the first question are Jack Hughes, Brady Tkachuk and Kirill Kaprizov.

Hughes is having a much-improved sophomore season after struggling mightily as a rookie last year. He’s got 11G, 14A, 1PPG, 3PPA in 48GP, which at face value might seem disappointing for a guy who was drafted 1st overall a year ago, but it’s a big step up on his 7G, 14A in 61GP rookie season.

He doubled down on fitness in the offseason after struggling to keep up with the physical rigors of the league last year, and it’s really shown. The classic stat line might leave something to be desired, but both the underlying numbers and the eye test show a star in the making.

His Corsi and Fenwick have both improved by over 10% this season, to 58.6% & 56.8% respectively, and he’s creating tons of offence, but when you spend most of your time with rookies Janne Kuokkanen and Yegor Sharangovich on your wings and you play on the leagues third-worst power play (12.4%), that offence isn’t always going to translate to production. Not knocking those guys – they’re both having impressive rookie seasons – they just aren’t first liners, or even Top 6ers on a good team.

Jack Hughes (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Brady Tkachuk almost feels like cheating – this guy should be a no-brainer first round pick in 10-12 team keeper leagues that count hits and shots. Hell, if your league counts those and doesn’t count plus/minus, he’s a borderline-first round talent this year in standalone leagues. In the money league I commish, we count G, A, P, PPG, PPP, SOG and HIT, and he’s ranked 6th right now.

Here’s the thing though – he’s not viewed as a first round talent. Maybe it’s because he’s on the Senators. Or because he’s a third year player. Or because he’s a -18. Or because people think his value is equal to or lesser than older brother Matthew in fantasy hockey (neither are true). Whatever the reason, he’s not treated as an elite fantasy producer yet, but he already is one. And it’s obvious this year, so if he continues to get overlooked in drafts next season, I’ll be at a loss.

What sets Tkachuk apart isn’t his skill – which on its own is substantial and not yet fully formed – it’s the volume of his shots and hits. Last season, he finished eighth in the league in shots (259) and second in hits (303). This season to date? He’s first in shots (194) and second in hits (212).

His goal scoring and point production, at both even strength and power play, haven’t been anything to write home about on their own. In fact, his points per game numbers have stayed remarkably consistent in each of his three seasons since entering the league. That’s not always the best sign for a high draft pick, but at 0.63 points per game, it’s good production on a bad team from a 19-21 year old. It’s also not his ceiling, and when you combine that good-but-not-great point production with the elite SOG/HIT production, you’ve already got an elite player. Wait until he enters his prime, just as the Ottawa Senators around him do the same.

Brady Tkachuk (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Kirill Kaprizov.

I almost wanna leave it at that.

After a three point NHL debut, he silenced doubters by continuing to show his skill and produce at a solid clip. Then, after a nice stretch of acclimatizing to the big, scary NHL, he kicked it into high gear. He found chemistry with Mats Zuccarello. The Wild power play started clicking. Dallas rookie Jason Robertson threw his hat into the Calder conversation, and Kaprizov seems hell bent on proving there’s no conversation to be had. He’s been playing like a man possessed.

His Corsi and Fenwick hover around 50% (average), but his elite goal scoring ability shines through when looking at his Expected Goals For of 14.2 on the year. Weigh that against his 22 goals (in 47GP) scored at a shooting percentage of 17.3, and you’ve got yourself a very impressive season. It’s a small sample size, but watching him play, there’s no denying his talent. He’s an elite NHL player right now as a 24 year old rookie. I look at those numbers relative to the eye test, and they make sense.

There might be a bit of regression coming to that shooting percentage, but I’d be surprised if it’s a big drop. I think Kaprizov becomes a player to build your fantasy team around in the coming years. It honestly wouldn’t outright shock me if he’s a top 12 fantasy player next season.

Kirill Kaprizov doing Kaprizov things (Photo by Harrison Barden/Getty Images)

Eamon Hamilton: First let me start by saying thank you to Spence for bringing me on for this article! Spence and I have had many convos behind closed doors about fantasy, and it should be noted that it is fitting that we face each other in semis of the the Hot Sauce Fantasy League this week.

I love this question and I think Spence nailed it with his three picks. When the question was first posed to me the first two names that came to mind were Adam Fox and Jack Hughes. Spence pretty much nailed it with his Hughes analysis, and if we are being honest, if you don’t know about Adam Fox yet do yourself a favour and get acquainted. Since Fox has cemented himself as an elite defender now, I will exclude him from my list of players and instead go with the following three players: Martin Necas, Kaapo Kakko and Neal Pionk.

Starting up a keeper league can be tricky because you need to allow the circumstances affect your picks. Team success, organizational standing and age all become significant factors which is why all the players I chose are young and on teams trending in the right direction. It is also important to try to think a year or two in advance, so once you get passed the no brainer picks, you want to start predicting who will be in the top rounds the following year. For example a couple years ago I hitched my wagon to Aho and Kyle Conner. I got a few snickers when I announced them as keepers considering who I let go at the time, but who’s laughing now?

Necas finds himself in one of the best situations you could ask for as a young, promising offensive threat. Six of their top seven forwards are signed through the next two years to go along with four defenseman. The team has $30M in cap space to re-sign Dougie, Mr. Svechnikov, Jake Bean and their goalies, not to mention add some reinforcements to the mix. Necas has been a permanent fixture in Carolina’s top six over the last two seasons and his playing time has increased in all three phases of the game. He has seen a 2:10 increase at 5v5, 10 secs up tick on the PP and he has gone from getting no Penalty Kill time at all to nearly a full minute this season (Source – Quanthockey.com)

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He is also making the most of his additional time on the ice, surpassing last season’s point totals in 20 less games. His underlying metrics have been even more impressive, as we can see his xGF and his ixG in all situations has improved this season. If your league counts SHP then you will definitely love Necas’ PK numbers. All of this fails to consider the fact that Necas has done all of this primarily playing along side Niederreiter and Trochek, can you imagine the damage he could do if given the opportunity to play with Aho and a healthy Teravainen for a full season?

Suffice to say that if you are looking for a guy to reach for outside the top couple of rounds absolutely go for Necas, provided he’s still there.

Martin Necas

Kaapo Kakko is in a similar situation, but neither his team (nor he) has reached the level of success seen in Carolina. They are not far behind which is why you will not want to take a chance on Kakko being in the draft two years from now. It’s a little more difficult to make a case for someone with only 16 points (3PPP) on the season but look at the cicrumstances. The Rangers top six is very explosive and regardless of which line he plays on, he will either get time alongside Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad or Alexis Lafrenière. Real tough break for the kid eh?

While his production level may not scream keeper, there is a clear improvement in his game and the Rangers are creating nearly 50% more offense with Kakko on the ice this season compared to his rookie year. While this may not have translated into production in the box score just yet, it’s coming. I am of the opinion that Finnish players take a bit longer to develop the offensive side of their game because the entire country’s play is predicated on being a sound defensive player first and foremost. With this in mind, I would not want to miss the blow up season for Kakko by waiting an extra season due to recency bias.

Similar to the Hurricanes, the Rangers have ample cap space but more importantly they have a deeeeeep prospect pool. Of course they have a number of said prospect already playing meaningful minutes. They are well built from the crease out and there is no lack of fire power up front. In a keeper league I will be using 3/4 of my keeper spots on Zibanejad, Fox and Shesterkin, so I may be a tiny bit biased. Take it for what you will!

Kaapo Kakko

Finally Neal Pionk is one of the most underrated players in the NHL as far as I am concerned. Some people may feel shafted by Pionk because he was drafted relatively high, and with the benefit of hindsight, he may not have lived up to expectations, but the potential to breakout next season is still there. Pionk checks off all the boxes you want from an offensive defenseman. He has a stay-at-home partner at 5v5 in Derek Forbort which has translated into better underlying metrics across the boards for Pionk. He is also the Quarterback on the team’s first PP unit which should inevitably translate into increase PP production over time.

When Pionk joined the team the entire defensive core was in shambles and very few gave Winnipeg any chance of making it work. Pionk has dramatically changed that narrative, shouldering a lot of the load that was lost a few years back. He has done so while consistently putting up points and taking on a larger role as things progressed.

Pionk will be 26 next season which for the most part puts him in the middle, possibly back half of his prime. That being said there is a lot of young offensive talent around him and he will likely be the team’s top puck moving defenseman until Ville Heinola gets his feet under him in the NHL.

Neil Pionk

As a bonus the last name I would like to bring up, in a deeper keeper format is Jordan Greenway. Anyone who knows me knows that I am the self appointed President of the Jordan Greenway Fan Club, but my bias aside, Greenway provides value that very few forwards can provide in a full categories league.

Stats provided by Quanthockey.com

Greenway is very quietly putting together an incredible season. Kaprizov has deservingly taken the majority of the limelight in Minnesota. If we look at the chart above, I have extracted all the players in the NHL with an 82-game pace of 50+ points, 100+ shots and hits, which there are only 32 players who meet this criteria in the league (Anderson and Greenway may have been forced in but we are literally arguing over a half point and two points respectively. I then took this a step further and upped the shots and hits to 125 which cuts this list down further to just 21 players.

In Greenway’s case, he has achieved this level of production with 0 PP time and with Joel Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno as his linemates (32.4%). Both great players in their own right, however when you consider that the Wild have players like Marco Rossi and Matt Boldy who both figure to be prominent top 6 forwards, there is reason to believe that Greenway will only continue to be more productive while still delivering in the forget categories of Shots and Hits. If he is on pace for roughly 50pts, 125 Shots & Hits, just imagine what he can put up with a few more years under his belt.

Do be weary of the Expansion Draft and it’s implications, but at the end of the day he is rostered in less than 20% of leagues right now and was drafted in less than 1% of leagues. Keep an eye on for this late round sleeper with lots of upside.

Jordan Greenway (Photo by Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images)

I could have probably made a better argument for Eeli Tolvinen but Spence is the President of his fan club so talk to him!


Spence: Let me just pop in and say how much I love that you went out of your way to include Greenway here. Readers, Eamon was not kidding when he said he’s the self-appointed prez of the Greenway fan club. I love the passion you’ve got for him. We’ve had conversations where I was like, “I like him” and you’re like “No, no. You’re gonna LOVE him.” You’ve definitely got me taking him even more seriously than I had been. Great talent.

Also, I’m off the Tolvanen fan club, but only because I had to drop him when he got hurt and Kaveh scooped him up. I’m now playing Kaveh in the semis. Boo Tolvanen, boo. And Good luck in our Hot Sauce matchup!

I love the Necas pick. It’s been encouraging to see his metrics improve as the year has worn on. Early on, he had a pretty ugly xGF, which was surprising to me. He’s got star talent and that’s clear when you watch him.

Kakko is not a pick I expected but I’m really happy you’re bullish on him, and you’ve got strong reasons for why. Not being great with advanced stats and not having watched him play a ton this year, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of him myself. I’ll make sure to keep him on the “sleeper” list and do a deep dive on him going into next season.

Pionk is just a beast. His production offensively has been a bit of a let down this year after he put up surprisingly lofty totals last year (including on the power play), but the Jets also had Josh Morrissey running the point on the PP1 for quite awhile this season. So far he’s averaged 3:00 mins on the PP to Pionk’s 1:57, putting up 1 PPG and 8PPA in 48GP (.19 PPP/G), whereas last year Pionk had 2:55 to Morrissey’s 1:44, with 3PPG and 22PPA in 71GP (.35 PPP/G) to show for it. Pionk just seems much better suited for the role. I’m glad they’ve got him back there now.


Conversely, are there any players who have been steady first rounders who still look the part but whose underlying metrics are showing signs of slippage? (Nothing major but enough to knock them out of round 1). – Allan C.

Spence: The second half of the question is a bit trickier. Let me give you a list of my top players in fantasy hockey, in no particular order:

McDavid, Draisaitl, MacKinnon, Rantanen, Matthews, Ovechkin, Marchand, Pastrnak, Panarin, Crosby, Kucherov, Eichel, P. Kane, Vasilevskiy

That’s a list of 14 players who I consider to be the “obvious” first round selections. I’m not willing to bet on a single one of them regressing. Don’t get me wrong – it might happen. But if I’m betting on guys from this group to regress, I’m doing it strictly because of age with players like Ovechkin & Crosby, and maybe Marchand & Kane as well. I’m just not comfortable picking regression candidates strictly because my gut tells me “this is the year they tail off”. I haven’t seen anything resembling a major warning sign with any player on this list, so until it happens, they’re getting the benefit of the doubt from me.

That said, what we’ll do instead is offer up some high-end regression candidates that are likely to go a lot higher than they should in next year’s drafts. Fair warning – age is factor for two of my guys.

What?! They’re not Crosby or Ovechkin! It’s different, probably.

My choices are Marc-Andre Fleury, Joe Pavelski and Tyler Toffoli.

Marc-Andre Fleury has been phenomenal this year, let me get that out of the way. He was an afterthought in drafts. I watched someone take him 198th this year. This after taking Grubauer at 98th. We hate this person. This person is Kaveh.

Thing is, going back to ‘16-‘17, Fleury’s last in Pittsburgh, his save percentages read like this: .909, .927, .913, .905, and .926 (this year). Yes, he’s splitting the crease with Robin Lehner. This will surely help him stay rested moving forward, but he’ll be 37 years old next season as one of the last true butterfly goalies left in the game. That’s difficult to do at replacement level. It’s not that I’m sitting here certain he’ll sh*t the bed next year – I’m not, I’m just not willing to draft him anywhere near as high as he’s likely to go. I’m not taking him any higher than I would a 1B goalie who I expect to put up about a .910-.915 SV%, a good chunk of wins and a few shutouts.

Marc-Andre Fleury

Joe Pavelski, say it ain’t so. Pavelski is my crown jewel this year. I drafted him 185th, held him through the Stars’ early COVID outbreak (when he wasn’t IR+ eligible) and have ridden him to glory ever since. He’s currently ranked 10th in that league.

But, as much as it pains me to say, I won’t be drafting him next season. Or, I can’t imagine I will be, anyway. He’s turning 37 in July, he’s shooting 5% more efficiently this season than he has over his career, he’s playing on a team that’s been missing its top forward all season (Tyler Seguin), and while he thinks the game at an elite pace, he’s not a very good skater. He never has been – I know – but at a certain point (say, at 37 years old), the impact that has starts to compound.

Every year you have players coming off of down years who slip in the draft. Usually there are other factors at play too, like a team change, or their age. Those players are my bread and butter in the later rounds, but unfortunately when you hit the mark and they bounce back, it’s usually best to let someone else take the chance on them at full value the following season. Joe Pavelski is the ultimate example of that this year. Even with his age suppressing his value, he’ll likely be going far too high for my liking.

Joe Pavelski (Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Tyler Toffoli. Another tough one. I hope I’m wrong here, being a Habs fan. My concerns about Toffoli definitely start with his shooting percentage. He’s been phenomenal this year, currently scoring at a 45 goal pace over an 82 game season, but he’s shooting 17.5% when his career average is 11.0.

He’s also doing it without a ton of help around him. After his 0.81 points per game, the next best forward on the Habs is Tomas Tatar at 0.64. The only other forward at or above .60 is Nick Suzuki at .60, so Toffoli’s success this year is made all the more impressive.

And unlikely to be repeated.

Tyler Toffoli

Eamon Hamilton: Seeing Toffoli on this list breaks my heart, but I completely get it. I will take every last ounce of production from him this year but it is hard to imagine he can keep up a 40-goal pace year after year. I also had Fleury on my radar, I don’t like that I do because there is no player with his level of success who has been more disrespected in their career, but Spence holds the same reservations about Fleury being a 1B in fantasy as I do with my goalie that I am fading.

Speaking of which, my three will likely have a few people swearing at me through their screens but in a brand new Keeper League I am fading Tuukka Rask, Anze Kopitar and John Carlson.

Let’s make one thing clear, I do believe all three still have gas left in the tank. This again has more to do with circumstances, age and a new generation of players coming into the league.

Let’s start with Tuukka whom you may be surprised to see here considering he was a Vezina candidate last season. However it is a very crowded crease in Boston despite the fact that Rask remains the defacto number 1. Rask’s numbers have remained strong this season but father time is starting to catch up.

Since Halak has joined the team, Rask’s GP have steadily dropped and I don’t see that changing with Jeremy Swayman entering the mix as well. This has been to the Bruins benefit but a nightmare for fantasy owners. How many Rask owners out there roster three goalies? If you are looking to use a Keeper spot on a goalie, you need one that will provide sufficient value to roster only two goalies on your fantasy team. 

Tuukka will be 35 next year and will be a UFA next season. He could re-sign in Boston and remain part of an elite tandem, or he could go chasing his own crease elsewhere. Regardless he is a guy I am fading to hopefully get as a value pick later in the draft.

Tuukka Rask

It pains me deeply to include Kopitar on this list, however in the words of Bob Dylan, the times they are a-changin’. Kopitar has been a force this season, averaging a point per game and getting himself back into the Selke conversation. It is ironically, for this reason (his defensive prowess) that I am fading Kopitar.

The Kings are about to go through a changing of the guard to make way for a massive youthful infusion. This has been a long time coming for the Kings and guys like Kopitar and Doughty will be relied upon to bring these guys into the NHL and get them through their bumps and bruises. The Kings will need to spread the guys on their top line throughout the line up to help rookies like Byfield, Turcotte, Fagemo, Kaliyev, and Madden up front.

Of course Kopitar will carry some offensive upside for the remainder of his career. But how many points will be sacrificed for the greater good of the team?

Anze Kopitar (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

John Carlson is probably the biggest surprise for many to see on this list, but he was the first name that immediately came to mind. Let’s just address the elephant in the room, yes I know that Carlson has finished 1st, 4th, 1st and is currently 3rd in defensive scoring over the last four seasons. For a second remember the question, and realize that this is more of a warning to not “reach” for Carlson.

The concerns with Carlson have more to do with the circumstances around him. For starters the Caps are not a team on the come up, closer to the opposite end of the spectrum in fact. They do and will continue to squeeze as much success out of their current core as they can. The main reason being they don’t have an alternative.

The team has an average age of 30 this season and it only goes next year and the year after. They do have the majority of their roster under contract for the next couple of seasons but they only have $9.5M in cap space for next season with 5 players left to sign. Normally a reasonable position to be in however they need to resign Ovechkin.

They are also playing with two goalies on rookie contracts that are up this year (Samsonov) and next (Vanecek). All of this and we have yet to address the biggest concern, this team barely has a prospect pool. Connor McMichael and Hendrix Lapierre, that’s it. Check it out if you don’t believe me. 

Ovechkin is 35, Backstrom 33, Oshie 34, Orlov 29, Kuznetsov 28 and Carlson 31, do you really want to invest such high stock in a Keeper? Especially when you consider some of the younger players making a name for themselves in the league?

Just off the top of my head I take Makar, Hedman, Fox, Hamilton, Hughes, Josi, Theodore, Chychrun and maybe even Girard, Pionk or dare I say Owen Power over Carlson. Again I still think he will be a top guy for a couple of years, but something’s gotta give in Washington and do you want Carlson when that happens?

John Carlson

Spence: Those all make sense to me, I’m saving my rotten tomatoes for the next goon who comes along with a bad take.

Tuukka is scary right now, it’s been like two years of “Sooo, he wants to play, he doesn’t want to play? He’s retiring shortly, he’s not retiring shortly…?” I’d stay away from him, too. Especially in a keeper league.

Kopitar I love, and he’s a GREAT late-draft target in standard leagues, but the changing of the tide definitely is coming. It’s funny, in standard drafts he gets the respect of a guy who’s ranked like 150th, despite the fact that 3 out of the last 5 seasons have seen him put either good or straight up elite production. Always worth a flier in the late rounds. That said, in a keeper league you absolutely need to be careful. He’s not a guy you choose as one of your keepers. You draft him late as you would in a regular league, hoping for strong single season production.

John Carlson. You went bold, but like you said, this was the first guy to come to mind for you. When you first brought him up to me, I questioned it. But you’re absolutely right. The clock is ticking on John Carlson as we know him, and if you aren’t mindful of that in a keeper, you’re likely gonna get burned.

Even this season, I have regrets over drafting him in my cash league. I got him 25th overall, 3 picks after Hedman, hoping his over-a-point-per-game play would continue (Note: Never draft D this high for this reason). It hasn’t, though he hasn’t been far off. He’s the 3rd ranked D in the league (50), after Hedman (32) and Dougie Hamilton (46), it was just too early to pull the trigger. Four picks later, Brady Tkachuk came off the board. He’s currently ranked 6th, as I previously mentioned.

Before wrapping, I just noticed how badly D have underperformed this year after going through that draft. Here’s the top D who went in this league, in order, with their draft position and current rank (remember, PPG & Points are counted, +/- is not). I’ll keep going until I reach a steal.

Hedman (DP: 22, CR: 32)

Carlson (DP: 25th; CR: 50)

Josi (DP: 30, CR: 121)

Makar (DP: 32, CR: 98)

Pietrangelo (DP: 40, CR: 401)

D. Hamilton (DP: 42, CR: 46)

Burns (DP: 53, CR: 175)

Krug (DP: 57, CR: 176)

Werenski (DP: 61, CR: 322)

Rielly (DP: 63, CR: 152)

Pionk (DP: 67, CR: 103)

Q. Hughes (DP: 69, CR: 165)

R. Dahlin (DP: 70, CR: 163)

Letang (DP: 84, CR: 67)

That’s how long it took to get bang for your buck on D in our league. That’s eye opening. I feel like there’s the germ of an idea for another team-up here, E.

Eamon: This makes me feel so much better for cementing Hedman as my Keeper D! Aside from that, it is very hard to find value amongst defenseman when comparing their Draft Position but you need to play your opponent more than the ADP. Just for comparative sake, there were 12 defenseman kept in my primary keeper league and these two list are not far off from each other. The only names that differ are Thomas Chabot, Charlie McAvoy, Seth Jones and a guy I heavily considered for my breakout candidate, Ivan Provorov.

I will also say that I will not hold a down year this season against guys too much, but if you go chasing defenseman, don’t miss.

Got a question? Send it in to us on Twitter @LFHPod. Seriously. We need questions.

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