I've said it before and I'll say it again: If any of us folks arguing the fantasy merits of one player over another were correct more than 50 percent of the time, we would be plying our trade in Las Vegas and not in online fantasy leagues. That said, there is nothing wrong with becoming particularly infatuated with certain calls one makes. We've all been there. The right call on a deep sleeper is a pretty good feeling.
I thought I had a no-brainer for my favorite prediction of the season, one that would not be surpassed no matter what else happened. Three days before he played his first NHL game, I sent out a tweet that said, "Of all the preseason performances Sergei Bobrovsky is my favorite surprise. Wide open race for the starting gig in Philly." Looking back on that now, that was a huge call on the rookie of the year candidate no one was talking about.
Well, I think last week's Forecaster might have topped it for top spot in my heart this season. And the worst part is, I can't even take full credit.
Which brings me to the point I would like to make here: The Forecaster is officially on its game. I make no secret about the fact that the Forecaster needs some time to come around each season. It's a tool built to become stronger as more statistics become available. That can mean the numbers generated are really more of a conversation starter than a strong guide near the beginning of the season. But then there is a turning point at which enough available data begins to point strongly to possible outcomes.
The great call I am talking about from last week and the evidence that the Forecaster has hit its stride is the Colorado Avalanche-Chicago Blackhawks two-game series. The numbers predicted a huge goal-scoring series between the teams and were dead on, as a total of 19 goals were scored in the two games. Further, it allowed me to recommend Tomas Fleischmann as the top pickup, and boy, oh boy, did he come through. With four goals and two assists in those two games, Fleischmann could have won you the whole week in head-to-head formats. Making the call even sweeter was pointing out the line of Bryan Bickell, David Bolland and Troy Brouwer for the Blackhawks. Bickell and Brouwer combined for seven points, even though Bolland was held off the score sheet and missed a game.
We've turned a corner on what kind of predictions the Forecaster can make. There are enough statistics at work in the background to lend some serious credence to the ratings it generates. It still will have its misses, but if you are among the crowd who has a tendency to merely glance over numbers, take an extra second or two to find the matchups for your fringe players on the Forecaster each week. If your goaltender has ones and twos across his defensive rating, you should approach with a little more caution. If your bench winger has nines and 10s for his offensive rating, you need to consider finding him a roster spot.
And most importantly, take a minute to brag yourself. What has been your favorite call you've made this season? I want to see the person who predicted, firmly, that Dustin Byfuglien would be permanently switched to defense and lead his position in points. That would have been a huge call.
O (offense) and D (defense) matchup ratings are based on 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, its performance in home/road games depending on where the game is to be played, as well as its 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 to 10 of that week's matchups.
'Tis the season: to take time off. The NHL collectively has Friday and Saturday off next week for the holidays, and several teams have some long breaks in the schedule. The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Philadelphia Flyers have games Monday, and then are off until the following week. (What!?) The New York Rangers have only one midweek contest. Leave all your Leafs, Flyers and Rangers at home next week. There will be better options. Some teams play four games despite the two-day break. The Atlanta Thrashers, Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues, Tampa Bay Lightning and Vancouver Canucks all have four contests, and there are plenty of free-agent options for each. I'll discuss the Bolts and Canucks separately, but for the other teams, look at Bryan Little (streaking), Alexander Steen (on fire with everyone else hurt), Carlo Colaiacovo (Blues' power play working again), Jordan Staal (iffy, but original timeline has him healthy this week) and Brent Johnson (Pens have three games in four nights that all rate solidly on defense).
Happy holidays, Vancouver Canucks: The perfect gift under the tree for any fantasy Canucks owner: a 10 rating on both offense and defense for the week. That means you load up on some fringe Canucks like they were reindeer at a flying sled party. On Keith Ballard, on Jeff Tambellini, on Raffi Torres in deeper leagues. On Cory Schneider, likely on Thursday against the Columbus Blue Jackets (looks like my reindeer jingle went off the rails there). The bottom line is that the Canucks are a good team to use next week. Ballard is up the depth chart thanks to Christian Ehrhoff's vertigo. Tambellini is still top six thanks to Mason Raymond's broken thumb. Torres is playing second power-play unit and getting shots on goal. Schneider might get the Jackets as the Canucks play their fourth game in six nights.
Dallas Stars to shine: The Stars are 7-7-1 on the road this season. The Stars also are 11-3-2 at home. They are at home for three games next week. Owners likely haven't been happy with the output from their Stars of late, but this week ahead looks like a different story. After an average-rated game against the Montreal Canadiens, the Stars close out in heavily favored fashion against the Calgary Flames and Phoenix Coyotes. I wish there were more players to recommend off the roster, but Jamie Benn is the only good fallback. Benn did score a goal in the first of two games against the Sharks this week and managed three shots in the second. With Brenden Morrow and Mike Ribeiro at even strength, Benn is as good as it gets for free agents, as everyone else is either a shot in the dark or owned in 100 percent of ESPN leagues. If you do feel like taking a shot in the dark, go with Steve Ott for the bonus penalty minutes. Oh, and feel free to roll with Kari Lehtonen again.
Tampa Bay Lightning to bolt: Except for the Canucks, the Lightning have the best offensive schedule for the week ahead. Two key names to know off the free-agent pile who could go in your lineup, and one guy you had on your bench who is back on active duty. First, Vincent Lecavalier has returned from a broken hand. Right now he is lined up with Simon Gagne and Sean Bergenheim. Not a great trio, but it's different and Lecavalier needs different when you look at his stats for the season. As for free agents, look to either Teddy Purcell or Gagne. Purcell is widely available, and is currently on the top line with Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis while Steve Downie is injured. Gagne, although still risky and streaky, has had only one game to work with Lecavalier since Oct. 21. It might be worth a gamble that the pair can hit it off this second time around.
It might be too late, but I'll ask you one more time to shake off all preconceived notions about Daniel Cleary and add him to your roster. The goals just keep going in. He always runs hot and cold, but this hot streak seems to be sustaining itself. Who is to say it won't last all season as he anchors the Detroit Red Wings' secondary scoring? Could we finally be seeing the emergence of Marc Staal's offensive game? With 10 of his 13 points this season coming in the past 12 games, the answer might be yes. Anyone else notice that the NHL's plus/minus leader is available in more than 80 percent of ESPN leagues? Do I really have to give you his name, or do you want to figure that one out for yourself? OK, fine. It's Andrej Meszaros. Patrick Kane could return to the Blackhawks' lineup as early as next week, which is much sooner than first predicted. It might be your last chance to get some of these kids on the Edmonton Oilers onto your roster. With Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky out, it seems the young players have more freedom to take the reins. Sam Gagner, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle are quickly being snatched up in most ESPN leagues, but Linus Omark and Magnus Paajarvi are still available in most. Sorry, Nathan Gerbe. Drew Stafford returned from injury and promptly netted a hat trick skating with Thomas Vanek and Derek Roy. Stafford is back, baby! Get him in the 85 percent of leagues in which he is available. Now. I looked at the pint-sized Gerbe a week ago; now a look at the enormous Brian Boyle. He is playing consistent defensive hockey, and his line is finding ways to chip in offensively. Boyle has 12 goals and is a plus-10 this season. He fires a lot of shots on goal. I feel bad for overlooking him for so long, but he has achieved his numbers at such a slow and steady pace that it doesn't so much go unnoticed as it is just so subtle it's hard to really highlight (much like Wayne Simmonds last season). The 6-foot-6 forward is available in more than 80 percent of leagues. Linemate Brandon Prust has been just as valuable thanks to the added penalty minutes he offers. Speaking of Rangers, Ryan Callahan is out six to eight weeks. Ditch him in all but the deepest of leagues. Things are not going well for Jarret Stoll since catalyst Justin Williams was moved to the top line. Stoll has gone five games without a point and has just one goal in 10 games. Sergei Kostitsyn, Marcel Goc and Martin Erat are clicking as the Nashville Predators' second line. Kostitsyn is the one to watch for fantasy purposes. The Rob Schremp elevator is about to go to the top floor. You can get on now, while it's on the ground floor, or wait and have to use the stairs for part of the journey. Braydon Coburn moves up to the Philadelphia Flyers' second pairing with Chris Pronger undergoing knee surgery. Offensive D-man Danny Syvret has 12 points in 18 games in the AHL and recently was reacquired by the Flyers. Maybe he gets a shot. How many former London Knights have I mentioned in the "Quick Hits" section of this column? What about the whole column?
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.