It’s that time of year again! Camps are in swing, line combinations are being shuffled, and fantasy managers everywhere are watching with interest and planning for their drafts. Being something of a fantasy hockey nerd myself, I have compiled a preview of fantasy relevant players on the Pittsburgh Penguins for this upcoming season. Hopefully this preview will help some of us homers from picking our favorite players too soon, and I’ll also take a sneak preview at league wide happenings and give out a few sleepers and bounceback candidates to look for. Note: all rankings are based on Yahoo standard league settings.
Crosby needs no introduction as one of the most consistent fantasy players over the last 10 years. After a year where he played all 82 games and compiled 99 points, good enough for 19th overall, this upcoming year projects very similarly. Crosby should still be joined at the hip with Jake Guentzel and either Rickard Rakell or Brian Rust as productive linemates, ensuring that winger quality won’t be something holding his production back. The Erik Karlsson addition means that nearly all his shifts will be with one of EK or Letang on the ice, which should increase production vs last year as well. Age may be an incurable disease, but any age related declines should be offset by overall team strength and ensure that Crosby has another season of top 20 league-wide production, with a chance to break into the top 10 if all goes in his favor. Crosby is being selected around pick 18 in mock drafts; I’d draft him confidently starting around pick 15, and he may be the safest bet in the whole league in that range.
In years past, Malkin was one of the most productive fantasy players in the league except for questions around his health. But age is finally catching up from a fantasy perspective, and despite having his first fully healthy season in recent memory last year, Malkin "only" put up 83 points in 82 games and slid to around #50 league-wide, depending on whether your league factors +/- (Malkin was a -12). This year is interesting where Malkin is concerned. He’s still an elite player and should have quality wingers, including Reilly Smith who looks to have some early chemistry with Malkin in camp. The EK addition may benefit Malkin more than any other Penguin from a production standpoint both on the power play and at even strength. Malkin is basically an afterthought in mock drafts so far this year, being selected anywhere from #70 to 100. Assuming health and factors like an improved powerplay potentially increasing his production, Malkin has some real upside if you can draft him in that range, and a chance to end up in the top 30 league-wide, even if his top 10 days are behind him. But there’s also some risk there, as a 37 year old Malkin is both an injury and aging curve question mark. If you go into the draft looking for upside value and draft him as maybe your 3rd or distant 2nd center, he could be a very pleasant surprise.
No other centers project to be fantasy impactful on the team.
Jake the snake has been one of the more consistent fantasy hockey wingers over the last 5 years, good for 35-40 goals, 250 shots on goal, and consistent usage on the Penguins top line and power play. August ankle surgery was a bit of a concern this off-season, but he appears to be ahead of schedule and is already practicing with the team, meaning that barring a setback he may not miss any games at all to start the year. Guentzel should continue to feature on the top line alongside Crosby and on the top power play, so he’s a very safe bet around pick 50 with potential to end up in the top 30 overall. He’s been going a little later than that in mock drafts, around the 70-80 mark, mostly because of questions around his health. If you can find him in that range, he’s a downright bargain.
Rakell had his first full season with Pittsburgh last year and it was a very successful one, with 28 goals, 32 assists, 248 shots on goal, a spot on the #1 power play, and good health throughout the year. Rakell ended last year in 80th place overall, and if he can repeat that this year he is well worth a selection in the 100’s; currently he’s being drafted in the 110-120 range. The concern is that with the addition of Erik Karlsson, he may lose his spot on the power play to Kris Letang as the coaching staff has been playing both top defenseman on the #1 powerplay in camp so far. With only even strength minutes, Rakell would see his fantasy value drop significantly. I still think he is worth a selection in the early 100’s in drafts, as full health from Letang and Karlsson this year would be true best case scenario for the Penguins but probably not realistic from a history and age perspective, meaning that he should see #1 power play minutes at some point this season. There is also a good chance that Letang and Karlsson will play on separate units at some point this year.
Rust had his first real impactful year as a fantasy asset 2 years ago, but fresh off a new contract last year was a disappointment. Rust ended the year as a fantasy non-factor with only 46 points and very little powerplay time. However, Rust was one of the more snakebitten players in the league and should be a candidate for a bounceback in shooting percentage and therefore counting stats. He is a player to monitor to start the season, and someone I wouldn’t hesitate to grab off waivers if he starts one of his hot streaks, but I would probably hold off drafting him as he is currently not being drafted in mock drafts. His path to season-long fantasy relevance runs through getting #1 powerplay time, and that seems unlikely unless there are injuries.
Smith is a new addition to the Penguins, as he takes Jason Zucker’s spot as a top 6 forward likely playing with Evgeni Malkin. Smith has been a consistent 50-60 point producer, but he has never been a consistent power play presence and thus has a limited ceiling and is only a fringe fantasy asset. Barring an unforeseen increase in stats at age 33 on a new team, he does not project to be fantasy relevant this year. Similar to Brian Rust, #1 power play time is the only factor that may make him fantasy relevant, and like Rust the path to those minutes is only through multiple injuries.
No other wingers project to be fantasy relevant on the Penguins.
The flashy new addition for the Penguins this year, Karlsson had an absolutely monster season last year with 104 points from the back end and a Norris trophy. For leagues that count +/-, he was a slightly less attractive asset as he posted a -26 on a bad Sharks team, but he was still one of the top performing defenseman in the league.
What to expect from Karlsson this year? He’s no spring chicken at age 33 and he has an extensive injury history. But, he is still an elite skater and puck mover and should play 25 minutes a night and on the #1 power play in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is a much stronger team overall than the Sharks and that should help boost his numbers.
Karlsson is being drafted around #35 in mock drafts, and I think he’s a fairly good bet in that range Should managers bank on another 100+ point season? That seems unlikely, but 75-80 points from the back end seems perfectly reasonable assuming good health, and those numbers from the blueline would still place him in elite top 30 overall territory and a top 5 blueline asset. He’s been slipping in some drafts to #50ish, and if you can find him in that range I’d take him without a second thought.
Letang has been a strong top 75 fantasy asset for many years now even though there are always concerns surrounding his health. Last year was his first down year in a few as he dealt with the loss of his father, had a stroke, and only put up 41 points in 64 games, 21 of those on the power play. He was still a fantasy asset as blueline points are hard to come by, but he fell out of the top 100 overall.
This year, for the first time since the mid-2000’s, Letang is no longer the de facto #1 defenseman and powerplay quarterback. What Erik Karlsson’s addition will do to Letang’s counting stats is still a question mark, but it probably won’t be a positive thing for Letang as a fantasy asset. Given his down year last year and EK’s addition, Letang is being drafted way back in the 130-140 pick range in mock drafts. At that draft position, I think Letang is still worth a selection. He is healthy this year, is still featured on the #1 power play in camp, and should still play 23-25 minutes a night with ample exposure to the Penguins top forwards. As such, even if EK has a fully healthy season, Letang should still be good for 50-60 points and top 100 overall fantasy production, with a chance to end up in the top 75 if all breaks in his favor.
No other defenseman on the Penguins project to be fantasy relevant.
Jarry had a tough year last year with multiple injuries and uneven performance when healthy. He was drafted around #90 overall last year but finished 129th overall and was really only a fantasy asset over the first couple of months of the season. This year, Jarry is healthy and fresh off signing a new contract to be the #1 goalie for the Pens for the next 5 years. He’s looked strong in camp, and with a stronger team on paper in front of him particularly on the defensive side of the puck, Jarry could easily end up as a top 50 overall fantasy asset and top 6 or 7 overall goaltender in the league. However, health is his number 1 concern. He’s going around pick 100 in mock drafts this year, and I think he’s a worthy selection in that range given his upside. However, fantasy managers will want to be cognizant of the risks involved in selecting him, and relying on him to be a #1 fantasy goaltender would probably be a mistake.
Ndeljkovic took the world by surprise in Carolina 3 seasons ago, coming from out of nowhere to land the Hurricanes #1 goaltender position midway through the year and posting 15 wins and a .932 sv % en route to helping multiple fantasy managers win their leagues if they were fortunate enough to land him off the waiver wire. However, the 2 seasons since then involved a trade to the Red Wings that did not work out for the player or team. Going into this year as Pittsburgh’s backup goaltender, he will not be fantasy relevant except as a waiver wire spot starter. However, he has looked strong in camp, and I highlight his fantastic numbers 3 seasons ago as a reminder that this guy probably has more upside than any of Pittsburgh’s recent backups. If Jarry is injured again this year, Ndeljkovic will become a top 20 fantasy goaltender with potential to win a league if he catches lightning in a bottle like he did in Carolina.
NHL fantasy landscape
Looking around the league, a few things stand out to me. The extremely strong rookie class is something that could throw a big wrench in this fantasy season, as rookies are so hard to project. Connor Bedard has 100 point upside but with very poor team strength, could also easily lose you a league at his current ADP of #50. Leo Carlsson, Adam Fantilli, Luke Hughes, Devon Levi, and Logan Cooley are all rookies that could potentially be fantasy relevant. If I had to select a rookie though, it would be Devon Levi. A top college goaltender over the last couple of years, Levi looked very strong in his few NHL starts to end last season and projects to be the Sabres #1 goaltender. He also should get a ton of goal support. He’s going around #100 in drafts, but if you can find him in the 110-120 range I think he’s well worth a selection.
There are also some glaring bounceback candidates. Jacob Markstrom is only 1 year removed from a Vezina finalist campaign, but is being drafted around #150 overall. Jonathon Huberdeau is on the same Calgary team and is being drafted around #110 overall, despite being 1 year removed from a top 10 overall fantasy season. On the blueline, Evan Bouchard is not quite a sleeper as he’s been going #60-70 in drafts as fantasy managers pick up on his potential quarterbacking the lethal Oilers powerplay for a full season, but I think he’s still undervalued in that range. The guy put up 17 points in 12 playoff games and the Oilers are probably the best offensive team in the league, with quite literally the best powerplay the game has ever seen. I’m selecting that power play quarterback in the top 50 overall. And my final sleeper pick is John Klingberg. He’s been practicing on the Maple Leafs number 1 power play in camp, and while not as deadly as the Oilers PP the Leafs powerplay is no slouch. Klingberg is only 2 seasons removed from being a top 10 defensive fantasy asset built mostly on his powerplay accumen, and he’s barely being drafted in standard leagues right now. If all breaks in his favor, Klingberg could put up 50-60 points and significantly outplay his ADP.
And that’s a wrap on the 2023-2024 fantasy hockey breakdown. Here’s a final reminder to leave those homer glasses in their case come draft day!