This season has been a rather different one for the New Jersey Devils, at least as compared to the last several. The team is offensively driven, with lots of attempts both for and against. This has many positive and negative repercussions, as we have continually showcased on this site and will continue to delve into as the season progresses.
One interesting side effect of this change in the way the Devils play has been the effect on fantasy hockey. Over the last four-five seasons, New Jersey has largely been a fantasy graveyard for skating talent. Last year aside, Cory Schneider has been a solid fantasy play, but there has been little in terms of fantasy talent amongst the forwards and defensemen. Michael Cammalleri held some value at times, as did Taylor Hall last year and maybe Adam Henrique was a spot start with good matchups, but really no one was taking Devils as significant, impactful fantasy starters.
This year, however, the script has completely changed on that, and to my detriment in my fantasy league. There are now multiple Devils who are really good fantasy plays on a weekly basis, and some that are near must-starts at this point in the season. Let’s look at some of these guys, and how their offensive prowess has not only fueled the Devils to more success on the ice, but has also fueled success for many fantasy owners across the world.
First, we obviously have to discuss the best talent on the team and the safest Devil to play on a fantasy roster week in and week out: Taylor Hall. Before last night’s game, Hall had 29 points in 27 games, good for over a point per game. That type of production makes him a must start without hesitation. He may only have 9 goals to his 20 assists, but that makes no difference. He may not provide much in terms of peripheral stats: he rarely blocks shots (18 before last night), hits anyone (36 before last night), and his PIMs are low (10 before last night), but he is pure gold for points and shots. To go along with those 29 points, he had 93 shots on 158 shot attempts according to Hockey Reference. That equates to basically 3.2 shots per game. For leagues that give points for shots on goal, he is an even better start. Considering that his value was pretty muted heading into the season due to everyone expecting New Jersey to be bad offensively, whoever drafted him got a steal.
Beyond Hall, however, who was probably drafted in most fantasy leagues anyway, others have become very good fantasy starts who most likely were not drafted in most fantasy leagues. One big question mark back in September who has really aided fantasy owners has been Nico Hischier. There was no doubt before last season that Auston Matthews would be fantasy relevant, and Connor McDavid was a third round fantasy pick in my league in his rookie season, but people were much less sure about Hischier. Would he be able to produce 0.5 points per game at the minimum like most first overall picks have been able to do as forwards, or would he need more time to transition to the NHL level given that everyone said he wasn’t on the same level as Matthews or McDavid?
Well, Hischier has really answered the call this year. In 27 games played, he produced 20 points and has produced over 2 shots on goal per game. He also consistently logs minutes, averaging just over 16 per game while playing mostly on the top line with Hall, so that alone makes him fantasy worthy. Top line centers playing alongside top tier talent will usually generate fantasy points (think Patrick Sharp and Artemi Panarin in Chicago), and Nico has not disappointed. He can be deployed at center for most fantasy teams without hindering those fantasy owners whatsoever.
Even more interesting is that the Devils blue line is no longer off limits to fantasy owners anymore either! Will Butcher has changed that. Heading into the slate of games last night, Butcher was tied for 13th among all defensemen with 18 points. And of the 6 d-men who had 18 points, he had done it by far with the least amount of minutes played. His 435 minutes were over 120 minutes behind the next defenseman with 18 points, Erik Karlsson, who was at 559 minutes played. Everyone else with 18 points was over 630 minutes played, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson was all the way up to 777 minutes already! So not only has Butcher been a relevant fantasy asset on the blue line, but he has done so despite playing much less than those who have scored a similar amount so far. Butcher’s scoring rate is very impressive, and should keep him in fantasy lineups as a decent defensive play each week.
And of course, while he had a down year last year, Cory Schneider is once again a top 10 fantasy goaltender worth a weekly start in every single fantasy league that plays at least 8 teams. Of all the goaltenders in the league with at least 10 starts before last night, Cory was ranked 4th in the NHL with a 93.62 save percentage at 5v5 action. That is really impressive and a great turnaround from last year when he was struggling. Despite the high volume he has seen most of the season due to the porous defense allowing many attempts against, he has been on point. Only Andrei Vasilevskiy, Brian Elliott, and Anton Khudobin had greater save percentages while playing at least 10 games, and only two of them are actually starters. Not only has Schneider seemingly been single-handedly been winning games for the New Jersey Devils, but he has probably been doing so for fantasy teams all over as well.
Now, there are other players I have not mentioned who have garnered some fantasy relevance. Jesper Bratt with his 19 points ranked in the top 100 in scoring among all forwards, and just as in years past, Adam Henrique was fringe fantasy worthy before heading out west. But it is clearly a different New Jersey Devils team this year that has been able to generate multiple fantasy relevant skaters, not just the goaltender. Having Hall, Hischier, and Butcher providing quality production in basically any fantasy setting is a great thing to see, and really showcases the team’s offensive improvement over the last half decade. If only I was smart enough to take Hall in my league, or pick up Butcher or Hischier before they were snatched up by others, I would be reaping the rewards myself. Alas, the one negative of playing in a fantasy league with friends is that most people in the league are also Devils fans, so the homer aspect looms large. At least they weren’t snatched up by those in the league who support New York.
For those of you who play fantasy hockey, do any of you own and start Devils on your fantasy teams? If so, who? Are there any other players on this team you have picked up and used this season? Do you think the Devils’ newfound relevance in fantasy circles could continue, or is it just a flash in the pan? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.