Time for poolies to adapt – NHL is all about youth and speed now

Who knew that the league crackdown on stick infractions and obstruction would create so many young superstars and squeeze so many veterans out of the limelight?

There’ll be no excuses in fantasy hockey this season.

Slick playmakers and speedy snipers will continue to flourish in the new and improved NHL. The plumbers and goons will pay in penalty time for sluggish attempts to slow them down. And more penalties will mean more power plays, and more power plays will mean more goals.

There were 1,125 more goals scored last year than in the previous hockey season. For the first time in 10 years we had five 50-goal scorers and seven 100-point scorers.

It’s more of the same in 2006-2007.

NHL teams no longer spread their offence over three or four lines. Even third-line players are now just role players, rookies and log-in-the-tooth vets.

Target in your draft those skilled forwards on the first and second lines who play at least 15 minutes per game and who are on the power play.

You’ll have many of the obvious names in front of you, in a solid top 100 list of fantasy stars culled from magazines and online sources. Research and pre-season observations might see you shifting values as draft day approaches. Some players might get crossed right off the list.

Marc Savard, for example, will have a hard time repeating his 97-point season in Boston. And if you decide to avoid Rick Nash or Peter Forsberg because of injury risks, that’s not a bad decision. Let someone else chance it with a high pick.

It’s in the middle rounds where homework collides with hunches.

Several unheralded players broke out last year with outstanding production. Was it luck that netted astute poolies the top-20 services of Eric Staal, Jonathan Cheechoo, Olli Jokinen, Andy McDonald, Jason Spezza and Patrick Marleau?

We don’t think so.

You make your own luck by identifying players with upside and drafting those who could exceed expectations.

Let’s say you’re deciding between Pittsburgh’s Nils Ekman and Doug Weight of the Blues, both pegged at 50 points. If you consider the potential to break out the choice is easy. Ekman, playing with either Crosby or Malkin, could easily get 15 to 20 more points. Weight won’t.

The typical breakout candidate is a third or fourth-year player. His playing time and points totals have steadily increased, earning him a promotion to a top-line job.

Good examples are Mark Bell, skating with Joe Thornton in San Jose, and Raffi Torres, playing on Edmonton’s second line with Ales Hemsky.

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Find yourself a dozen or more of these sure-shot picks, put a little star by their names and select them when the opportunity arises in the middle and late rounds.

Here’s a cautionary note about drafting rookies. Yes, last year featured Dion Phaneuf in Calgary, stellar goaltending from Cam Ward and Henrik Lundqvist and, of course, the 100-point campaigns from both Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.

But in general, rookies fare rather poorly.

Evgeni Malkin is the new sensation and even hurt will warrant a high draft pick. Gilbert Brule in Columbus is also someone to watch, but it is unlikely Matthew Carle in San Jose, Phil Kessel in Boston and Wojtek Wolski in Colorado will score more than 50 points.

Unless you’re in a keeper league, steer clear of the rookies or pick them as sleepers in the last round.

Also exercise a little patience with defencemen. Unless you have to draft a certain number, there is no need to pick any until at least the fourth round. And other than the Niedermayers, Prongers and Lidstroms, most can wait even later than that.

Defencemen point totals went up substantially last year, due mainly to a 44 per cent increase in power-play goals. But if an exceptional blue-liner gets 70 points, about 50 forwards would still offer better production. And much more upside.

Goaltending is the real poolie conundrum this year.

With so many teams platooning and starters losing jobs overnight, there are only about a dozen quality No. 1 goalies who will make 60 starts.

That puts a premium on the top targets and means stars like Marty Brodeur, Miikka Kiprusoff and Tomas Vokoun are worth grabbing as high as the second or third round.

After that, it’s a dog’s breakfast.

In San Jose, for example, you might think Vesa Toskala is No. 1 because of his great play after former starter Evgeni Nabokov suffered from injuries and ineffectiveness late last year. But that doesn’t mean squat right now. While we wouldn’t be surprised to see Nabokov regain the position, it might take months to determine that.

Make your picks, cross your fingers and hope your guy keeps his job or steals it from his partner. And when the draft is done, immediately start scouring the waiver wire for better alternatives.

Your pool year has just begun.