Fantasy Hockey need-to-know: Eric Staal joins Montreal

·7 min read

By Jason Chen, RotoWire

Special to Yahoo Sports

Here's a look around the league at the latest trends after another week of hockey. Some food for thought, some leftover stats, and, of course, some fantasy advice. Let's dig in.

All fancy stats courtesy Natural Stat Trick.

Eric Staal joins Montreal; Cole Caufield called up by Canadiens

The Canadiens have not played since March 20 due to COVID, but that didn't stop them from making headlines. On Friday, Eric Staal was acquired from the Sabres for third- and fifth-round picks, and Saturday, they signed 2019 first-round pick Cole Caufield to an entry-level contract.

Like everyone in Buffalo, Staal struggled with just three goals and 10 points in 32 games after a productive four seasons with the Wild, including a 42-goal season in 2017-18. Despite his mediocre production, Staal was actually one of the Sabres' most effective players with a 51.87 5v5 CF%; he was just one of five forwards to generate more shots than he allowed and suffered on a team that couldn't generate many scoring chances because it was stuck in its own zone all the time.

Poor shooting luck has been a recurring theme as well; entering Sunday, the Sabres' 5.62 5v5 S% is the lowest since Natural Stat Trick started recording the stat in the 2007-08 season. Staal's 5.1 S% is a career-low; it's a step below his rookie season (11 goals in 81 games, 6.7 S%), his last season in Carolina (13 goals in 83 games, 6.5 S%) and well below his career average (11.2 S%). Staal's 8.8 differential between xGF and GF is the highest among Sabres forwards, ahead of even much-maligned wingers Jeff Skinner and Taylor Hall.

Staal will have to go through a seven-day quarantine before he can play, and after arriving in Montreal on Saturday, that means his Habs debut will be either April 3 against the Senators or April 5 against the Oilers, barring any setbacks or changes to COVID protocols and the game schedule. That will give coach Dominique Ducharme a lot of time to think about where he wants to slot Staal in the lineup with the top-three center spots already accounted for.

Eric Staal #12 of the Buffalo Sabres
Will Eric Staal save his season now that he's a member of the Montreal Canadiens? (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

It'll be interesting to see how the Habs deploy him; playing Staal on the fourth line seems disrespectful to his abilities, though it does give the Habs the ability to roll four lines with a deep forward group that's only rivaled by the Jets in the North Division. Staal's initial usage will also depend on the status of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who's under COVID protocol at the moment. With a full lineup, either Nick Suzuki (53 percent rostered in Yahoo leagues) or Kotkaniemi (7 percent) may get bumped to the wing, with a potential double whammy for Kotkaniemi if he loses his spot on the power play.

If the Sabres were rock bottom, going to the Habs can only give Staal's fantasy value (10 percent rostered in Yahoo leagues) a boost. It's a funny coincidence that Staal's strong possession numbers and poor shooting luck have been exactly the Habs' problem over the recent years, but it has been much improved with the addition of Tyler Toffoli (18 goals, 18.8 S%) and Josh Anderson (11 goals, 15.1 S%), one of whom may end up playing with Staal. Hopefully, the lack of finish and poor puck luck can resolve itself, but poor shooting percentages can persist for entire seasons.

If that's the case, the Habs have an excellent Plan B in Caufield.

Caufield was brilliant for the Wisconsin Badgers this season, scoring 30 goals in 31 games as the front-runner for the Hobey Baker Award. However, the top-ranked Badgers were upset by Bemidji State on Friday, ending Caufield's season and allowing him to sign with the Habs. Caufield will be subject to the same quarantine rules as Staal, though his NHL debut might not come right away since he's expected to report to AHL Laval first.

We all know better than to trust Bergevin's public proclamations, but it's a logical place for Caufield to start as he joins the pros midway through the season, and the Habs aren't in panic mode yet as they try to hold onto the last playoff spot. However, note that when Caufield's quarantine is complete following the first weekend of April, Laval has just six games scheduled over the following three weeks, and if Caufield's AHL debut goes well, he could get called up during Laval's 12-day break on April 18-30.

His NHL debut will be hotly anticipated, so fantasy managers should keep an eye on him once he appears in Yahoo’s player pools.

No Barkov, No Bite

Barring some kind of monumental collapse, the Panthers will make the playoffs. Entering Sunday, they hold a nine-point lead over the fourth-place Blackhawks, but with more than 20 games still to go, the absence of captain and Selke Trophy candidate Aleksander Barkov is a little worrisome.

He is just one of nine forwards in the league to have a 5v5 CF% of 60 percent or better (min. 300 TOI), and the other two Panthers who rank in the top 25, Carter Verhaeghe (58.70 percent) and Anthony Duclair (57.40 percent) — Barkov's most common linemates this season — have poorer possession numbers without Barkov (52.94 percent and 43.48 percent, respectively). Aaron Ekblad scored the game-winner with just 10 seconds remaining in overtime Saturday to snap their three-game losing streak, but in the three games that Barkov has missed, the Panthers mustered just six goals. Barkov's presence was sorely missed in their two-game sweep by the Blackhawks, who outscored the Panthers, 6-2, thanks to two goals from top center Pius Suter, who had just one assist in his previous four games with Barkov hounding him.

Barkov's absence has paved the way for Noel Acciari, who is averaging 15 minutes per game this season, to move up the depth chart, and he played 19:48, 19:22, and 22:35 in three games. The early returns are good — four primary assists, including two on the power play — but Acciari (4 percent rostered on Yahoo) is still largely unproven in that role. The Panthers will play the lowly Red Wings and the offensively challenged Blue Jackets in four of their next five games, which bodes well for Acciari in the short-term.

Side note: Dylan Larkin, who has played 45:13 5v5 TOI against Barkov, the most of any opposition forward, has a 46.07 5v5 CF% when Barkov is on the ice but a 63.77 CF% when Barkov is off, making him a particularly good matchup play.

Verhaeghe seems to be doing fine by himself, scoring a hat trick against the Stars on Saturday, but not so much Jonathan Huberdeau, who has just two assists in his last five games. Huberdeau's recent struggles predate Barkov's injury and he's played most of the season on a separate line, but seven of his 16 power-play points have involved Barkov, and the Panthers' seventh-ranked power play has gone just 2-for-11 without him. Long-term, Huberdeau's an elite playmaker and a valuable fantasy asset, but without Barkov his fantasy value has and will definitely take a hit.

Fantasy managers who have leaned on Barkov as the anchor for their teams would be hard-pressed to find a replacement of equal value, and the hope is that he doesn't miss an extended period given how well things have gone for the Panthers all season.