We're back, but it's going to be a nice saunter to begin the season for the Forecaster. As you probably know, the Forecaster is a stats-based tool that compares the production of NHL teams during the season and during the previous 21 days in order to predict the strength of schedule for the week ahead in the NHL. That may be a mouthful, but the Forecaster has become the ultimate resource for those who play their fantasy sports like every day is the last one of the season.
The problem is, stats accumulated thus far into the season and stats over the past 21 days are all equal. Zero. Of course we could have pulled numbers from last season to put something in the Forecaster to make it look pretty. But it would have been pretty meaningless. Is the Chicago Blackhawks' performance over the final 21 days of the regular season remotely relevant to the first week of this season? I guess maybe if you own enough Atlanta Thrashers in your league. Kidding aside, the answer is: No, it's not particularly relevant.
Besides, so many other important details need to be sorted out over the first couple weeks of the season: Who made the team? Who is the first line? Who quarterbacks the power play? Who is the starting goaltender? Who got better over the summer?
Don't fret too much on the day-to-day lineup changes and make sure you are looking at the big picture during this first, extended week of the season. But you know what can still have an impact? The schedule. So here is the traditional Forecaster grid, only lacking the matchup ratings. Below we will discuss some schedule's to take advantage of, some position battles to watch and injuries to keep an eye on.
The Forecaster ratings will be here when there is enough raw data from the season for it to chew on and give you something meaningful.
Watch the extremes: The vast majority of NHL teams play four or five games during the 11-day opening fantasy week, but there are a handful of outliers. The Boston Bruins, New York Rangers and San Jose Sharks have only three contests during the opening session. Not that you want to bench Joe Thornton, Marian Gaborik or Tuukka Rask, but certainly trying out your brand new Tyler Seguin or experimenting with Derek Stepan could wait until the second fantasy week.
On the other side of the coin, the Anaheim Ducks, Buffalo Sabres, Chicago Blackhawks, New Jersey Devils and Pittsburgh Penguins have six games. That means giving Mike Comrie, Cam Fowler or Eric Tangradi are worth taking out for a spin. The way Comrie and Tangradi are clicking with Evgeni Malkin and the skills Fowler brings as a rookie offensive defenseman, not only could these pickups help you over the busy first week but they could stick around all season on your roster.
The Euro start: Two things could play against using too many of the players that are starting the season over in Europe; the Minnesota Wild, Carolina Hurricanes, Phoenix Coyotes, Boston Bruins, Columbus Blue Jackets and San Jose Sharks.
The first concern is that the rosters may provide a false sense of security for picking up a potential prospect. The teams are allowed to carry 25 players on their roster for the trip to Europe. So while either Jeff Skinner or Zac Dalpe would be an interesting pickup if they made the Hurricanes' roster, when the team returns from Finland only one of them might stay with the club.
The other concern is the travel schedule. By the end of the 11 days on the Forecaster, the Hurricanes will end up playing in Vancouver. Finland, to Ottawa, to Vancouver in 11 days and playing hockey all the while. It's exhausting just to think about.
Take some chances: The first name that comes to mind for me here is Sergei Bobrovsky. The goaltender for the Philadelphia Flyers dominated the preseason. He joined the team after spending a couple seasons in Russia's KHL. The Flyers have an injured Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher expected to man the net this season, so there is no reason Bobrovsky can't steal the starter's gig with a hot start.
No, you haven't heard much about him. That's because he wasn't on anybody's radar until he posted a 3-0-1 record with a 1.76 goals-against average in the preseason. But it's the perfect formula for fantasy success: He has shown us skill and now he has an opportunity. Bobrovsky has been announced as the starter against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the season opener on Thursday. Take a chance.
For that matter, how about another hot goaltender in the preseason. Henrik Karlsson may have Miikka Kiprusoff blocking his path to significant playing time, but he certainly showed off some skills in the preseason. If the Calgary Flames finally have a viable goaltender behind Kipper, doesn't it only make sense that they play him in 25 games this season to keep their starter fresh? If Karlsson gets 25 games he could win 15 and bolster your ratios off the bench.
What about some rookies who surprised onto their respective teams? Alexander Burmistov with the Atlanta Thrashers or Adam Henrique with the New Jersey Devils.
Disappointing players from the past? Drew Stafford is playing on a line with Calder Trophy hopeful Tyler Ennis and established setup man Derek Roy. That's a pretty enviable role. Roy finished the preseason tied with Phil Kessel for the most points at 10. Stafford finished the preseason with seven points in five games.
The point is to take some chances early in the season if you get a gut feeling about someone. There will be dozens of emerging fantasy stars in your league that are not on someone's roster and the only way you can get them is to take a chance before everybody's on to them.
Vaclav Prospal is on the injured reserve and might not be back for some time. Brandon Dubinsky becomes a good pickup and keep rookie Derek Stepan on the radar. Shawn Horcoff isn't owned in too many leagues (2.8 percent) and normally without Ales Hemsky on his wing you would be concerned. Instead of Hemsky, Horcoff has been rolling with a pair of Calder Trophy hopefuls in Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall. This is the type of combination that could push Horcoff over 60 points. For the record, the Sam Gagner, Hemsky and Magnus Paajarvi line looks pretty good, too. The Predators really only have the offense to string together one strong line. Cal O'Reilly is a lucky guy because, so far, he is centering the team's top two scorers; Patric Hornqvist and Steve Sullivan. The points by osmosis will be impressive for O'Reilly off the start, but don't be surprised to see Colin Wilson in the role before too long. With Kyle Okposo and Rob Schremp on injured reserve for the New York Islanders, all bets are off on the top line with John Tavares. Michael Grabner is a nice speculation and Blake Comeau spent a lot of time there in the preseason. Whoever wins the role will be good for nearly a point per game simly by association with Tavares. David Perron's magic hands were working in the preseason. On a line with Brad Boyes and David Backes he managed fives goals in four games. Perron is available in more than half of ESPN leagues.
Sean Allen is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is the 2008 and 2009 Fantasy Sports Writers Association, Hockey Writer of the Year. You can e-mail him here.