NHL Forecaster: Hawks on the hunt

Although the Forecaster's new rating system continues to fine-tune as we wait for enough statistics from this season, it's still looking pretty good so far. We pointed to good starts for the San Jose Sharks and Washington Capitals last week and, sure enough, the top five scorers through Oct. 8 are Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley.

For Week 2, I'm still including last year's data in the calculation because using just this year's data would be far too small a sample size. Still, the games we do have in the databank are factored into this week's formula. It will still be a couple of weeks until the Forecaster ratings shift to this season's statistics alone, using year to date, past 21 days and home/road splits to come up with the offensive and defensive ratings. That means that, while a useful indicator, you still need your proverbial grain of salt as we consider this week's numbers.

It's a fairly median week with no week's-average rating better than an eight and none worse than a three. Let's look at the chart and I'll identify the highlights:

"O" (offense) and "D" (defense) matchup ratings are based upon a scale from 1 (poor matchup) to 10 (excellent matchup), and are calculated using a formula that evaluates the team's year-to-date and past 21 days' statistics, their performance in home/road games depending on where the game is to be played, as well as their opponents' numbers in those categories. The Games T / H column lists the team's total number of games played as well as home games (T / H), and lists the cumulative rating from 1-10 of that week's matchups.

Offensive highlights

Blackhawks have a soft schedule: The Chicago Blackhawks should be leaned on heavily by fantasy owners as they have four games, all against pliable defenses, three of the contests at home. Expect a multitude of goals on and off the power play against the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Dallas Stars in Chicago and on the road at the Nashville Predators. The best non-obvious play of the group has to be Dustin Byfuglien, who, despite opening the season down the depth chart, has quickly worked his way up to a line with Patrick Kane and Dave Bolland and is also a member of the first power-play unit with those same two. Kris Versteeg could also be a good start for the week.

A couple of pitfalls for weekly leagues: Now that we are well under way into the season, those of you playing in leagues where you can set your lineup only once a week need to pay extra attention to the Forecaster. The Philadelphia Flyers, Carolina Hurricanes and Anaheim Ducks in particular are facing a tough schedule that makes some of their players less desirable. The Flyers play a single contest against the tough Florida Panthers defense, making anyone besides Chris Pronger, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter a questionable play. The Hurricanes and Ducks each have a pair of games, but the Canes have to face Marc-Andre Fleury and Martin Brodeur, while the Ducks are up against Niklas Backstrom and Chris Mason. Players like Tuomo Ruutu, Joni Pitkanen, Saku Koivu and Ryan Whitney should be replaced by using free agents from teams with more games.

Don't buy the low rating for the Avalanche or Kings: Given that my Forecaster chart formula still includes 2008-09 statistics, there are bound to be a handful of misleading ratings in the first few weeks. Both the Colorado Avalanche and Los Angeles Kings have a four-game week with a low offensive rating of three. I don't buy that for a minute. For one thing, this season the Kings lead the league with five goals per game, and the Avalanche offense isn't doing too poorly either, with 10 goals in three games. The top line for both teams is flying high, so Ryan Smyth, Justin Williams, Anze Kopitar, Wojtek Wolski, Paul Stastny and Milan Hejduk are all strong starts. With the four-game schedule factored in, you might also want to go as deep as Matt Duchene, Teddy Purcell, Dustin Brown, Kyle Quincey and Drew Doughty.

Sharks, again, have the best matchup: The strongest-rated game of the week is the Sharks' Saturday matchup on Long Island. Look to play all your Sharks, who are rated a nine for both offense and defense. Sleepers include rookie Jamie McGinn, who has replaced the injured Joe Pavelski on the second line, and Thomas Greiss, who might get the start should Evgeni Nabokov not get into a rhythm.

Defensive highlights

Watch the Predators' goalie fight: Four games for the Predators means we should see signs of whether Dan Ellis or Pekka Rinne will emerge as the starter. Things start off easier with games against the Oilers on Monday and Stars on Wednesday, but then things get interesting. The second of back-to-back midweek games is against the offensively adept Blackhawks, and on Saturday the Predators face the powerhouse Capitals. I'd use only one of the goaltenders for the first two games, and only if the starter was announced ahead of time, but this will be an important week for Rinne to regain some of the ground he has lost on Ellis for the starter's job. Remember that the winner of the battle gets to tend goal for a very sound defensive team, and will be a strong fantasy asset. Pay close attention.

Get plus/minus help from the Rangers: The New York Rangers have three games, with two against the hapless Toronto Maple Leafs and one against the Kings. The Rangers are already tied for third in the NHL with a team plus/minus of 18, and these upcoming games will only help the cause. Brandon Dubinsky, Marian Gaborik, Vaclav Prospal and Ryan Callahan will have great weeks, while those in search of plus/minus help should consider Daniel Girardi, Marc Staal, Matt Gilroy and Wade Redden.

Possible backup goalies with value: If you play in a deeper league, or even a shallow league and just want an advantage, backup goaltenders are some of the best players on your waiver wire if you can decide when they are going to start. A few schedules point to the early possibility of some backups getting some work in. I've already mentioned Thomas Greiss for the Sharks' Saturday contest, but there are a few back-to-back Friday-Saturday schedules that suggest the possible use and strong performance of a backup. The Boston Bruins might give Tuukka Rask his first start of the season against the Phoenix Coyotes Saturday after a Friday tilt with the Stars. The Buffalo Sabres might also lean on Patrick Lalime for the easier Friday matchup with the New York Islanders and save Ryan Miller for Saturday's contest with the Atlanta Thrashers. If you can confirm closer to the date, both matchups would offer a chance for a free quality start off the waiver wire.

Sean Allen is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com and the 2008 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Hockey Writer of the Year. You can e-mail him here.