Fantasy: 5 NHL bounce-back candidates

Fantasy: 5 NHL bounce-back candidates

The following five players are coming off down years, but for a variety of reasons, we believe they’re poised to bounce back in 2023-24 and provide value relative to their average draft position in fantasy hockey.

Auston Matthews, C, Maple Leafs

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You know a player is talented when a 40-goal, 85-point season is considered a down year, but Matthews is capable of so much more. And he’s shown it, too.

Matthews led the league in goals with 41 in 52 games in 2020-21 and 60 in 73 contests in his Hart Trophy-winning campaign in 2021-22. There are multiple factors that suggest Matthews could return to his prior form.

For starters, he played through a hand injury for most of the season, which he admitted in March bothered him. Matthews was still generating offense at a high clip, as he led the league with 1.34 individual expected goals per 60 minutes at five-on-five. It’s also the highest mark of his career.

But Matthews’ wrister wasn’t quite as lethal with his ailing hand, as he shot a career-low 12.2%. For comparison, he shot 17.7% in the two seasons prior and owned a career 16.4% mark entering the campaign.

It remains to be seen whether Toronto will be a better team in 2023-24, but the additions of Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi, and John Klingberg, plus a full season of rookie Matthew Knies, should result in a more dangerous offensive club.

While Connor McDavid deserves to be the No. 1 player off the board in fantasy leagues, a healthy Matthews could easily finish as the second-ranked player. A return to 60 goals is very possible, and if he plays a full 82 games, there’s a chance he could even flirt with 70.

Jonathan Huberdeau, LW, Flames

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It was evident early on that Huberdeau did not mesh with head coach Darryl Sutter during his first year with the Flames. A new voice behind the bench in Ryan Huska will be music to the ears of Huberdeau.

While Sutter’s teams have been highly successful in the past, his system has a certain amount of rigidness to it that can make it difficult for free-flowing offensive players like Huberdeau to adapt. In 2023-24, the Flames are expected to play much more loosely, which could help Huberdeau find his form from 2021-22, when he racked up 115 points and led the league with 85 assists.

Reaching those totals again may be unlikely, but a return to a near point-per-game season should very much be in the cards after he was only able to muster together 15 goals and 40 assists last season. He’s simply too talented to have another year like that. He’ll also likely play far more under Huska than the 16:52 (his lowest ATOI since 2014-15) he averaged under Sutter.

Alex DeBrincat, LW/RW, Red Wings

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DeBrincat’s lone season in Ottawa did not go as planned – both for the player and team. A two-time 40-goal scorer, he joined the Senators with monster expectations but managed just 27 goals and 66 points in 82 games.

Part of DeBrincat’s down year was poor puck luck. His individual expected goals for per 60 minutes was 1.09, which tied the highest mark in his career and was identical to the prior season when he potted 41 goals. However, DeBrincat only converted on 10.3% of his shots – the second-lowest single-season mark of his career. He shot 17.2% in the two seasons prior and entered the campaign with a career clip of 15.5%.

DeBrincat should also be extra motivated playing for his hometown Red Wings, where he’ll likely ride shotgun on the top line with Dylan Larkin. Detroit expects to make sizeable improvements in 2023-24 after a busy offseason which will only help DeBrincat’s fantasy outlook.

John Klingberg, D, Maple Leafs

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The Leafs’ signing of Klingberg was met with plenty of skepticism – and rightly so considering he’s arguably been the NHL’s worst defensive defenseman over the last couple of seasons. But strictly from a fantasy perspective, the offensive-minded Klingberg could thrive with the Leafs.

Klingberg spent last season between the Anaheim Ducks and the Minnesota Wild, and it was a disaster. By registering 33 points in 67 contests, he produced the worst points-per-game mark of his nine-year NHL career.

But by joining the Leafs, Klingberg will get to play with the best offensive team of his career. And he won’t be used in a depth role as he was in Minnesota considering he’s making $4.125 million in Toronto.

Klingberg will likely start the season on the team’s second power play, but if the top unit falters early, the first change would be Klingberg replacing Morgan Rielly. The Leafs showed a willingness to do this in past years with the much less proven Rasmus Sandin getting a crack with the first unit. If Klingberg is able to edge Rielly for PP1 duties, he could easily record 50-60 points – a robust output considering he’ll likely go in the second half of most fantasy drafts.

Cam Talbot, G, Kings

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Talbot will be overlooked in many fantasy drafts because he’s 36 years old and coming off a poor season with the Senators in which he posted an .898 save percentage in 36 games. But don’t be surprised if he has one more good year left in the tank.

The veteran proved in the previous two years with the Minnesota Wild that if he has a strong defensive team in front of him, he can still thrive, as he posted a .913 save percentage across those two campaigns. And Talbot couldn’t have winded up in a better spot than Los Angeles – an excellent defensive team that allowed the second-fewest expected goals against per 60 minutes at five-on-five last season.

He projects to share the crease with journeyman Pheonix Copley, but Talbot is the safer bet to be the more valuable fantasy goaltender of the two. It may be a near 50-50 split to start the season, but with his experience and pedigree, expect Talbot to get more starts as the season goes on. A .910 save percentage with 30 wins is very much in the cards.

Josh Wegman has been theScore’s resident fantasy hockey expert since 2015. Find him on X @JoshWegman_.

(Analytics source: Natural Stat Trick)

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