2023-24 Fantasy Hockey: NHL team situations most likely to improve this season

With new faces in new places, plus some teams looking primed for positive regression, there'll be plenty of teams you'll want to target this fantasy season.

Every year, fantasy hockey managers spend the lead-up to their drafts trying to uncover the breakout players who will be the key cogs to their championship rosters.

While individual players obviously hold a great deal of agency over their performance, it’s worth remembering that the context of their teammates greatly affects their final stat line as well. Even Wayne Gretzky was unable to replicate the extreme point totals he managed in Edmonton after being traded to the Los Angeles Kings in the prime of his career at age 27.

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With that in mind, we'll attempt to uncover some teams that could improve their scoring output this season and provide some additional fantasy juice for their stars as a result.

5. Carolina Hurricanes

You can be excused for wondering if the Hurricanes should be on this list; after all, they are widely regarded as one of the better offensive teams in the league over the last few years — and for good reason.

The Hurricanes led the league in all strengths shot attempts per 60 minutes last season and were fifth in scoring chances per 60, according to Natural Stat Trick. But while shooting percentages were up league-wide last season, the Hurricanes went from shooting 9.90% in 2021-22 to 9.19% last year.

Aho and the Hurricanes should expect a significant bounce back based purely on some positive offensive regression, not to mention some other key additions. (Photo by Josh Lavallee/NHLI via Getty Images)
Aho and the Hurricanes should expect a significant bounce back based purely on some positive offensive regression, not to mention some other key additions. (Photo by Josh Lavallee/NHLI via Getty Images)

That might seem like a relatively insignificant number, but the Hurricanes would have scored 20 additional goals had their conversion rate stayed put from the year prior. Factor in the league-wide increase and you can see how the Hurricanes could be in line for a pretty significant bump in goal production in 2023-24.

At the very least, I’m projecting better point paces this season for All-Stars Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov, while considering that there are pretty strong ceiling cases for both Seth Jarvis and newcomer Michael Bunting if either can cement a role on the top power-play unit.

4. Calgary Flames

This is a team that simply feels like it can’t be worse than the 2022-23 iteration of itself, despite losing sniper Tyler Toffoli and only adding Yegor Sharangovich to the forward group.

It’s quite clear that last season was Jonathan Huberdeau's worst-case scenario, and there's reason to feel very comfortable projecting him to return to a point-per-game pace this season after pacing for 90+ points in each of the previous four. Coach Darryl Sutter is also out, with former assistant Ryan Huska taking over alongside former NHL star Marc Savard to revamp last year's dormant power play.

The Flames also have a couple of interesting young players in Jakob Pelletier and Matt Coronato expected to join the fold, and if either can contribute meaningfully this season offensively it will greatly solidify the top-six.

Regardless, this is a team that quietly ranked second in the league in all strengths shot attempts per 60 minutes and eighth in scoring chances for per 60. Their league-worst all strengths shooting percentage of 8.75% seems impossibly low for a team capable of generating a lot of chances, making it a smart bet to be in on a potential rebound for this group with a fresh start under new leadership.

3. Columbus Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets were annihilated by injuries last season, losing the second most cap hit per game of any team in the league.

Zach Werenski headlined the injury list, but Patrik Laine also missed 27 games, while one stretch saw Marcus Bjork quarterbacking the top power-play unit. To make matters worse, Elvis Merzlikins posted arguably the worst season of any NHL goaltender last season and the Jackets had the fourth-worst team save percentage in the league.

Succinctly, the 2022-23 season did not go according to plan for Columbus, and they’ll be looking to press the reset button this year.

The good news is that both Werenski and Laine should be healthy, while last year’s big acquisition Johnny Gaudreau should only be further acclimated to his role as the lead offensive threat on a team that desperately needs his offense.

On top of that, the Blue Jackets got flashes from youngsters Kent Johnson and Kirill Marchenko last year and added the much-ballyhooed Adam Fantilli in the draft this year. Fantilli figures to fill in immediately as the second-line center and instantly raises the offensive ceiling for the rest of the Blue Jackets’ top-six. A breakout season or two from the group of youngsters and some good health for a change would instantly raise the fantasy ceiling for this entire team.

2. New York Islanders

The Islanders went largely under the radar in fantasy circles last year and, as a result, I think they’re a little underrated this season.

I’m projecting both Mathew Barzal and Brock Nelson to eclipse 75 points this season and have each of Nelson, Anders Lee and trade deadline acquisition Bo Horvat scoring 30+ goals. The Isles also have the luxury of having one of the best young power-play quarterbacks in the league in Noah Dobson, who could be in line for a full-fledged breakout of his own this year.

Because of the Islanders’ lack of success in the win column last season, the dramatic change in play style under new coach Lane Lambert has flown under the radar, launching from 26th in the league in even strength shot attempts per 60 in 2021-22 to 10th last season. Clearly, Lambert has a focus on creating more scoring, and with the team a full year into his tenure, there's hope for even more consistent results in 2023-24.

The addition of Horvat lends even more credence to the offense and the power play, meaning there’s potential for a new fantasy ceiling on Long Island this year.

1. New Jersey Devils

This one feels a little bit like a slam dunk. The Devils ranked fourth in the league in all strengths shot attempts per 60 minutes and first in scoring chances for per 60 last season, then went out and added Timo Meier and Toffoli.

Meier joined the team at the trade deadline and didn’t find the scoresheet nearly as much as anticipated through the end of the season and the playoffs, but he was still generating elite-level scoring chance and shot attempt numbers. I have very few qualms about his ability to positively influence the Devils’ overall scoring numbers, even if his box score contributions lagged upon arrival.

It should be noted that the incumbents here are no slouches, either. Jack Hughes looks like a perennial threat to score 100+ points for the next decade, while both Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt are ideal complementary players in that top six. Combined with an elite-level offensive defenseman in Dougie Hamilton and the massive hype for rookie Luke Hughes, you can see how the Devils boast the kind of offensive depth up and down the lineup that would make almost any other team jealous.

You’re going to want pieces of this offense this year, and it wouldn’t be a surprise in the slightest if the Devils lead the league in goals for.

Nate Groot Nibbelink is the creator of Apples & Ginos Fantasy Hockey and the originator of the #ZeroG draft strategy. You can find him pontificating about obscure fantasy hockey strategy topics in the Apples & Ginos Discord Server or on Twitter/X @applesginos.