Using expected goals to identify five forwards to target in fantasy this year

Continued news of the NHL season potentially starting in January brings with it the fantasy hockey season as well. With training camps expected to open after Christmas, fantasy drafts and preparations will be fast approaching. This brings the annual tradition of scouring through rankings and lists to find the best sleepers to gain an advantage in your league.

Every season there are players who are drafted way too low in fantasy coming off of a down year. Using actual vs. expected goal totals from last season, we identified players who underperformed their expectations last year but are due for a bounce back or breakout season in 2020-21. We will highlight five players to target in your fantasy drafts that will outperform their pre-season fantasy rank.

Brady Tkachuk – LW, Ottawa Senators

The first name on this list may be a bit of surprise, but he could be the biggest steal of 2020-21. We all know Brady Tkachuk is a very solid player for his age, but his underlying numbers suggest he is borderline elite. The younger Tkachuk brother led the entire league in expected goals last year with 31.

Yes, the entire league. More than Alex Ovechkin, more than Auston Matthews, more than everyone. He ended up scoring 21 goals in 70 games, 10 under expected.

Add in the fact he played on a terrible Ottawa team and his numbers look even more impressive. The next closest teammate for xGF was Anthony Duclair with 19 expected goals. Tkachuk was also a little unlucky last year posting a SH% of just 8%. That total was a decrease from his rookie year when he had a SH% of 10.28%, while also posting 21 goals. The fact he had a 2% decrease in his SH% but still matched his goal total from the previous year is a great sign for Tkachuk’s outlook. Had he shot 10% again and found some more luck he would’ve potted around 27 goals last year.

Another reason Tkachuk looks to be set for a big year is because he will have the opportunity to play alongside newly signed Evgenii Dadonov. Last year he spent most of the season playing with J.G. Pageau and Connor Brown on the Senators’ top line. After signing Dadonov in the offseason, Tkachuk is expected to start the year opposite of Dadonov, with Colin White most likely at centre. Dadonov is a big upgrade over any forward the Senators had last year and immediately boosts Tkachuk’s value if they play together.

Tkachuk will continue to be fed big minutes at both even strength and on the powerplay next season and has every opportunity to put up big numbers. No matter how you look at it, Tkachuk looks bound for a breakout year. 30 goals and 60 points is a real possibility. He’s currently ranked as NHL.com’s 38th best fantasy forward. That places him in the fifth to sixth round range which could be a bargain for a player with such a high ceiling.

Brock Boeser – RW, Vancouver Canucks

Canucks RW Brock Boeser looked like he was on the fast path to being one of the top snipers in the league after his first two seasons. Unfortunately, he battled an injury last year and only put up 16 goals in 57 games. A major downgrade over his previous two seasons in which he had 26 goals in 69 games and 29 goals in 62 games.

If we look at his actual vs. expected goals over the previous three seasons, it’s clear that Boeser had a down year last season. In 2017-18 he scored 29 goals vs. an expected 15, and in 2018-19 he scored 26 vs. an expected 19. Last year he met his expected goal total exactly with 16.

After scoring 14 and seven goals above expected the previous two seasons respectively, Boeser just barely reached his expected last year. SH% was a major factor. Last year he shot just 9.47% compared to 12.44% and 16.20% the previous two seasons. He’s simply not a 9% shooter. If his shooting percentage jumps back up to his average from the previous two years of 14%, he should be a lock for 30 goals this season.

If he can stay healthy and stick on a line with J.T Miller and Elias Pettersson, he should rebound in a big way. Boeser should be in line for top powerplay minutes as well on a powerplay that ranked fourth in the league last year.

Boeser is currently ranked as NHL.com’s 57th best forward which seems very low considering his goal scoring ability and teammates. I’d say he has a very good chance at outperforming that rank and finishing as a top 40 fantasy forward next year.

Taylor Hall – LW, Buffalo Sabres

It feels weird putting the former MVP on a list like this, but after his rough season last year some people have started to conclude he’s no longer an elite winger. I don’t buy it. There were a lot of factors that played into Taylor Hall’s bad year last season and I think he is set for a big bounce back.

Firstly, he was coming off a major knee injury that kept him to just 33 games the year prior. Coming off an injury like that is always a major challenge for any player. Secondly, he played for some very bad teams last year. Both New Jersey and Arizona were in the bottom half of the league in GF and xGF.

These two factors contributed to Hall putting up the worst shooting performance in his career. His SH% of just 6.8% sat well below his career average of 10.7%. Although he had an xGF of 20, he ended up scoring just 16 goals in 65 games. He also put up the lowest goals/60 of his career.

In his injury shortened 2018-19 season he met his xGF after starting the year off on a tear before getting injured. In his MVP season in 2017-18 he surpassed his xGF by 12. Considering how unlucky he was last year shooting wise, it’s a very good bet he bounces back.

Another factor is his new team. Hall signed a one year $8 million contract with the Sabres back in October. The Sabres weren’t a great team last year, but they had a solid offseason and should be improved this year.

The big reason this move gives Hall a major boost is his exposure to Jack Eichel. It’s a guarantee Hall will play on the franchise centreman’s wing which is a massive boost over his previous line mates. Eichel is a top 10 centre in the league and will be Hall’s best centre since Connor McDavid. Getting the bulk of his minutes with Eichel at 5v5 and on the powerplay is great news for Halls fantasy outlook. He’s currently ranked as NHL.com’s 37th best forward, but he has the tools and opportunity to be a top 20 forward this year playing alongside Eichel.

Injury concerns will always be present with Hall, but if he can stay healthy through this shortened season, Hall could be the MVP of your team.

Craig Smith – RW, Boston Bruins

Perhaps the most underrated signing of the offseason has been the Bruins picking up Craig Smith to a modest three year $3.3 million AAV contract. Smith is one of the best play driving forwards in the entire league, a perfect fit with the Bruins. Smith finished last season 21st for CF% among forwards at even strength, and second for GF%. He also finished tied for 10th for xGF with 21.

Despite these numbers Smith scored just 18 goals last season, three under his expected total. This was only the second time in the last five seasons that he failed to surpass his expected goals. It was also just the second season in the last seven years that he failed to reach 20 goals. Moving to a Boston team who routinely has a dominate forward group means Smith will have a great chance to bounce back next season. Reaching 20 goals again should be pretty easy if he stays healthy.

He will also be given big minutes to start the season with both Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak out until at least February. If he can take either of their spots on the top line alongside Patrice Bergeron, he will gain a ton of added value to start the year. Once the Bruins’ top two wingers are back though, Smith will likely be moved down the lineup. However, he’d likely end up alongside David Krejci and Jake Debrusk which still presents a great opportunity. He should also get regular powerplay time on the league’s second ranked powerplay last season.

Smith currently isn’t ranked on NHL.com’s top 100 forward rankings meaning he could be snagged in the much later rounds of a draft. Getting him late in your draft is solid value considering his upside playing on one of the best teams in the league. Add in the fact he could start the year getting top line minutes and Smith presents big time sleeper value.

Sean Monahan – C, Calgary Flames

Sean Monahan had one of the most disappointing seasons last year league wide. Coming off a career best 82-point season with 34 goals, Monahan put up just 22 goals and 48 points in 70 games last year. The Flames as a team took a huge step back as well which certainly played a big part in Monahan’s disappointing season.

Monahan’s line mate and setup man Johnny Gaudreau went from 99 points to just 58, while Elias Lindholm put up 54 points after getting 78 the year before. The trio put up just 20 goals together last year at even strength compared to the previous season where they put up 50. It’s unlikely they will struggle that much two years in a row.

The Flames were very unlucky last season, posting the ninth worst SH% and PDO in the league. Those numbers are bound to bounce back and the Flames stars including Monahan should benefit. Monahan himself had the worst SH% of his career last season of 13.25. For comparison his career average is 15.11%.

Monahan bested his xGF by one goal last season which isn’t bad, but when compared to the rest of his career it was a down year for him. Here is the difference between his actual vs expected goals each season of his career; +5, +1, +2, +3, +10, +9. His one goal over expected this year was well below his average of five over. His xGF of 21 was also the lowest of his career since his rookie year when it was 13.

Monahan has typically been a lock for 27+ goals since his rookie year and I think he will get back to that total next season. It would be very unlikely to see Monahan and his line struggle as much as they did last year, and the percentages should bounce back meaning the points will too.

Monahan currently sits as NHL.com’s 83rd ranked forward placing him in the 13th-14th round range. If he can bounce back to his career average, he will be a steal at that point in the draft. Fantasy centre depth is massive, so if you miss out on a top centre in the early rounds, snagging Monahan late will be a very nice complement to your roster. The Flames will likely be fighting for top spot in the Canadian division, and Monahan could end up being among the most productive centres in the North.


Photo Credits: NHL.com

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