One of the most pleasant surprises of the NHL season’s first half has been the emergence of the Nashville Predators as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. Viewed by most preseason prognosticators as a fringe playoff team at best, the Predators currently find themselves only two points behind the Anaheim Ducks in the race for the leagues President’s Trophy for best regular season record. This is a remarkable turnaround for a team that finished next to last in the Central Division only a season ago. A lot of the credit has to go to new head coach Peter Laviolette, whose offensive mindset has seemingly liberated a club that had grown stagnant from over a decade of Barry Trotz, who had a more defensive approach.
In addition, general manager David Poile deserves recognition for making a series of key trades which helped retool the roster with the right pieces to fit Laviolette’s system. In retrospect, the 2013 trade of Martin Erat for prospect Filip Forsberg was the move that set the stage for the burgeoning hockey renaissance in Nashville, and was borderline grand larceny. With 37 points in 38 games of play, Forsberg is running away with the Calder Trophy, which is the NHL’s version of rookie of the year. If the Forsberg trade was the foundation, then this past offseason’s swap of Patric Hornqvist for James Neal was the exterior finish, a prolific scoring wing who perfectly complemented the team’s already established depth at center and on defense.
Heading into the season only Neal, D Shea Weber, and G Pekka Rinne were sure bets to be Fantasy contributors from Nashville’s roster. Now that the 2014-15 campaign is halfway in the books, the number of Predators worth owning in standard leagues has reached double digits, with several players still widely available. I labeled RW Craig Smith as a Fantasy sleeper during the preseason, and he has largely lived up to that billing. Establishing himself as the team’s top-line right wing alongside Forsberg and C Mike Ribeiro, Smith is third on the club in both goals and SOG, and is still only owned in 22 percent of leagues. Last week I highlighted Greenwich’s own Colin Wilson, who remains owned in just 28 percent of leagues despite not slowing down his torrid pace. The former seventh overall draft pick has three points in his last three games, which brings his season total to 23 along with a superb plus-17 rating.
This week I would like to feature two additional players who have been making noise in Music City of late. Both individuals are well below the 50 percent ownership threshold, which indicates a high likelihood of availability in most standard Yahoo! leagues. Whether in search of forward or defensive help, one of these recommendations will meet both your team’s immediate and long term needs.
Mike Fisher C (Ownership – 10 percent): After missing the first 21 games of the season with a torn Achilles tendon, Fisher has bolstered the Preds depth significantly since his return. Nashville has gone 12-4-2 since Fisher rejoined the club in late November, largely in part to a more even distribution of offensive talent across the top three lines. Scoring eight points in his last 10 games, Fisher’s game has quickly rounded into form after his lengthy absence following surgery. The peripheral production is there as well; Fisher is averaging exactly two shots on goal per game, as well as two hits per game. When you factor in his season total of six goals and six assists, that is remarkably even and consistent production, which are hallmarks of standout Fantasy assets. With Nashville in the Top 10 league wide in both goals per game and goals allowed per game, Fisher is in the ideal position to continue producing at a high level while simultaneously protecting his plus/minus rating. In addition, by centering the team’s second line Fisher will get to stay away from the oppositions toughest defensemen on a nightly basis, which should help him stay healthy for the remainder of the season. His 90 percent availability won’t last much longer, as more owners will become aware of his successful return from injury on a daily basis.
Ryan Ellis D (Ownership – 29 percent): Although Shea Weber is the undisputed king of the Nashville blue line, and one of the Top 5 Fantasy D by any metric, Ellis is making a strong push to overtake Roman Josi as the team’s second most valuable defenseman. With five goals on the season, including two in the last three games, Ellis is only one tally away from his career high with an additional 43 games left to play. The former eleventh overall draft pick in 2009, Ellis demonstrated tremendous offensive potential as a junior, illustrated by his incredible 101 points in 58 games during his last season in the OHL back in 2011. If he can realize even a fraction of that potential, Ellis would find himself as one of the 20 most valuable Fantasy defensemen. Seeing time on his team’s second power-play unit, Ellis has four PPP, a number which should continue to grow as he gains experience and confidence with the man advantage. This late in the season defensemen with Ellis’ combination of current results and future potential are few and far between, which makes him a great option in all leagues where he is available.