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2023-24 Plant My Flag list: Greg Wyshynski’s fantasy hockey cheat sheet

In a fantasy hockey draft, there are different kinds of satisfaction.

It is absolutely gratifying to land the first overall pick to select Connor McDavid, because you know the Edmonton Oilers star is capable of proving all the offense you’d need for a head-to-head win all by his lonesome. It is very satisfying when you’re transfixed on one player inside your draft board and you see the picks ahead of you fall predictably like dominoes so that you land him.

My most satisfying hockey draft moments? When I select that player before the wave crests on him. It’s like hitting a restaurant before a great review drops and the lines start forming. That player lingering in the middle-to-later rounds that goes from “breakout candidate” to all-star consideration in the span of a few months.

There are a few of those players in the list below, as a chronicle 10 players on whom I plant my rhetorical flag for the 2022-23 season. They join foundation top-tier stars, some big names due for a bounce back and one fascinating rookie. Some you’ll have high on your draft board already, while I make the case for others to join them. Happy drafting, fantasy fans!

Mikko Rantanen, RW, Colorado Avalanche

Pop quiz, hot shot: Who was third in the NHL in goals last season? We all remember Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid won the Rocket Richard and that Boston Bruins star David Pastrnak was the best goal scorer on the best regular-season team of all time. (The less said about the playoffs, the better.) Behind them, as he’ll likely be on most draft boards, was Mikko Rantanen with 55 goals in 82 games for the Avalanche. He also tallied 50 assists.

The vast majority of those goals (42) came at even strength, where Rantanen kept the Avalanche in contention during a janky injury-riddled defense of their Stanley Cup championship. He was 10th in the NHL with 306 shots, the highest total of his career. He leveled up his game in a season in which Colorado desperately needed it. But he’s still peaking personally. The best might still be left to come.

Jack Hughes, C, New Jersey Devils

That the Devils had their best offensive season in 22 years (3.52 goals per game) in the same campaign that Jack Hughes set career bests in goals (43) and points (99) was not at all coincidental.

But the most important stat for Hughes was 78 games played. His previous high was just 61 appearances. Hughes had a points per game average of 3.5 in 2021-22, not far off from his 3.8 PPG last season. His ability to stay in the lineup was the key to his dominant offensive year. So was his ability to shoot the puck, particularly on the power play, where his shots per 60 jumped by nearly seven shots.

One hopes the departure of associate coach Andrew Brunette doesn’t undercut Hughes’s special teams production.

One additional note: Many fantasy leagues have Hughes with dual position eligibility as a center and a left wing. Which, obviously, makes an attractive player all the more worthy of a draft selection.

Evan Bouchard, D, Edmonton Oilers

Evan Bouchard’s season was a tricky one if you’re just looking at the final stat line. What appears like a slight step sideways after his breakout 2021-22 season (43 points in 81 games) was actually a rough few months followed by a torrid last 21 games in which he scored 19 points. He followed that with 17 points in 12 playoff games.

All of that happened after the Oilers traded Tyson Barrie to the Nashville Predators, making the 23-year-old Bouchard their de facto offensive dynamo on the backend. We’re looking at that pace at the end of the season rather than his sum total of 40 points. We’re hoping for more shot production, as his shot attempts fell by 20 year over year. But we’re also confident that a puck-moving defenseman playing with two of the best offensive players in world is going to get his points if given the opportunity.

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Thatcher Demko, G, Vancouver Canucks

Demko followed two strong seasons with an injury-plagued dud in 2022-23. But there are a few reasons to believe he’ll rebound, and if he does, Demko’s very much worth a look as a fantasy goalie option.

Coach Rick Tocchet, hired 46 games into last season, gets his first full season behind the bench which is only going to benefit the overall cohesion in front of Demko. The Canucks also made some additions to their back end with players like veteran Ian Cole and Seattle Kraken blueliner Carson Soucy. Vancouver should be better than last season and a playoff spot’s not out of the question. Getting there will require copious amounts of Demko, who was third in the NHL in games played in 2021-22. He can be the workhorse again.

Connor Bedard, C, Chicago Blackhawks

Connor McDavid produced 48 points in 45 games during his rookie season, which was cut short by injury. Auston Matthews scored 40 goals in his rookie season. Sidney Crosby had 102 points in 81 games as a rookie. Alex Ovechkin had 52 goals in his first season, famously beating Crosby for the Calder.

Bedard is the latest generational talent to hit the ice in the NHL, the first overall pick by the Blackhawks last June. They had to strip their roster down to the foundations in order to be bad enough to win the Bedard lottery. With due respect to Taylor Hall and Nick Foligno, the roster Bedard steps into isn’t exactly stacked with offensive talent.

But if you listen to scouts talk about Bedard – after they wipe the drool from their maws – they’ll explain why that might not be a problem for the phenom. His shot, which has been described as “otherworldly,” and his ability to get that shot off in a variety of ways means he’s going to score. Given the wide-open nature of the current NHL, it could be with frequency.

So yes, take a chance on Bedard. There’s a chance that he’s not ready, or that the Blackhawks hold him back, and it’s a whiff. Or there’s a chance he matches Matthews’s output as a goal-scoring center as a rookie.

Matty Beniers, C, Seattle Kraken

I don’t foresee a sophomore slump for the Kraken center provide his line keeps outkicking its coverage. Beniers, Jordan Eberle and Jared McCann had an expected goals per 60 minutes last season of just 2.72. Their actual output in goals-per-60-minutes was 4.69. Beniers had 24 goals last season, shooting 16.2% on 148 shots. I think there’s room to grow in his shot volume. There’s certainly more production he can mine from special teams, where he only tallied 10 points.

The Kraken were fourth in the NHL last season at 3.52 goals per game. Again, their expected goals in all strengths was way below that (2.98). While that should caution us that their offensive numbers could come back down to earth a bit, it also means the Kraken have room for improvement in their offensive efficiency. That goes for Beniers as well, who should see more production and bit more ice time now that the rookie training wheels are completely off.

Tim Stutzle, C, Ottawa Senators

At draft time last year, Tim Stutzle was frequently mentioned as a fantasy sleeper after his promising 2021-22 produced 22 goals and 36 assists. There will be no sleeping on the 21-year-old German winger this time after Stutzle broke out with 90 points in 78 games last season, including 39 goals – the highest total for a Senators player since the goal-frenzy of Dany Heatley (41) and Daniel Alfredsson (40) in 2007-08.

Two reasons to expect more of the same from Stutzle. He had 59 points in his last 46 games of the season with Ottawa. While a strong second half doesn’t always lead to a strong following season, it’s indicative of a young player really finding his offensive groove. Speaking of offense: His line with Brady Tkachuk and Claude Giroux is one of the best in the NHL, producing 3.5 goals per 60 minutes and with a 59.8% expected goals percentage. Stutzle also produced 28 points in the power play (10 goals and 18 assists). There’s a lot to love here, including his team’s chances as a playoff contender.

Cole Caufield, LW/RW, Montreal Canadiens

Every draft there are two or three immensely talented players whose numbers are dampened by a season cut short by injury. Hence, a player that should go rather high on the draft board lingers a bit longer. I’ve seen Caufield going around 140th overall in some drafts. So you can be a bit strategic here, but I’m absolutely finding room on my roster for the diminutive Hab – especially since he has dual position eligibility as a left and right wing in some leagues.

Caufield had shoulder surgery which dragged down his fantasy value. But he put up 26 goals in 46 games, giving him the third highest goals-per-60-average at 5-on-5 in the NHL last season (1.61, min. 40 games). He had 23 goals in 67 games during his rookie season.

As mentioned earlier with Jack Hughes, sometimes it’s simply about staying in the lineup. If Caufield can play 70+ games, he might have a breakout season. That’ll be especially true if he clicks with Kirby Dach and Nick Suzuki like he did last season, as their line produced 3.84 goals per 60 minutes.

Tyler Bertuzzi, LW, Toronto Maple Leafs

What if told you there was a left wing who was one of the better passers in the league, who showed he could hang with elite goal-scorers like David Pastrnak last season? What if I told you he was likely going to play on a line with Auston Matthews and William Nylander, two players that scored 40 goals last season?

What if I told you player who toiled in that role – Michael Bunting – had 23 goals, and that his replacement once hit 30 goals in a season? What if I told you that this player bet on himself with a one-year contract before heading back to unrestricted free agency, and will be looking to pad his stats by any means necessary?

I hope, after hearing all of that, you’d tell me: I just drafted Tyler Bertuzzi.

Sean Durzi, D, Arizona Coyotes

“Mullett Magic” is real, people. The Coyotes are a better offensive team at 5-on-5 and on the power play in the cozy confines of their NCAA-sized arena than on the road last season. But their offense might be better wherever they play thanks to an influx of talent in the offseason like rookie Logan Cooley, forward Jason Zucker and Durzi, a defenseman they acquired from the Los Angeles Kings.

Durzi did an admirable job on the Kings’ power play for the last two seasons, including 16 points in 72 games last season. The Coyotes are going to have some pop on the power play and Durzi should be their primary quarterback. Shayne Gostisbehere played that role last season and had 10 points in 52 games before they moved him at the deadline.

The question for Durzi is whether he has a bit more to offer at evens with an increase in ice time. He was the highest scoring defenseman for the Kings in points-per-60 minutes but was fourth in ice time, minimum 70 games. Bottom line: He’s a defenseman that isn’t going to be at the top of many draft boards and could end up a late-rounds steal in your pool. (Provided, you know, your opposing general managers aren’t reading this …)

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