As coaching changes continue to be the theme of the 2011-12 NHL season, it's time for a quick recap of how things have played out under the new bench bosses since they assumed their respective helms.
St. Louis Blues (Ken Hitchcock, Nov. 6): The Blues have moved into the playoff picture under Hitchcock, racking up a 13-3-4 mark with the new coach. The improvement has mostly come from playing stronger defensive hockey, which doesn't always translate well to fantasy, where offense reigns. Hitchcock puts his best players at the top of the depth chart as long as they are sound on both ends of the ice, which has benefited T.J. Oshie. Lining up on the top line with Alexander Steen and David Backes has transformed Oshie from a fringe fantasy contributor to an everyday fantasy lock. His shots on goal are up, and he has tied his linemates for the team lead in goals with 11.
Hitchcock has implemented a full-on platoon in goal with Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak, but with both playing exceptionally well, this arrangement has not been as damaging for fantasy value as it could be. They are both still worth starting every week, although each is likely to get one or two starts instead of the two or three starts a true No. 1 goaltender gives.
Another player flourishing under Hitchcock has been David Perron, who has been a staple on the second line since returning from a concussion. He has eight points in eight games. However, Hitchcock does not appear to have the answer for the Blues' power-play woes. The team remains dead last in the NHL with a 10.6 percent conversion rate and a lowly 12 power-play goals. For players like Patrik Berglund and Chris Stewart to resurrect their fantasy value, the Blues are going to have to find an answer on the man advantage.
Washington Capitals (Dale Hunter, Nov. 28): Hunter hasn't had as successful a run since taking over for the Caps. With a 5-5 record behind the bench, he is still trying to find his groove after jumping straight from the OHL. To be fair, he had a bit more work to do to get some seriously slumping fantasy assets in gear.
The lines for the Capitals are still being tinkered with as the team looks to find a combination that can get both Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin scoring, not to mention get Alexander Semin out of hibernation. Even in Tuesday's contest against the Nashville Predators, Hunter tried out new combinations. The team looked solid in the win, which marked Semin's second straight game with a goal -- the first time that has happened this season. Eventually, Hunter is going to get it right. There is too much talent among Ovechkin, Backstrom and Semin for them to continue to wallow in the fantasy mire.
One thing is clear with Hunter: He definitely remembers coaching Dennis Wideman and John Carlson during their days with the London Knights. Wideman has eight points in 10 games under Hunter, including five on the power play, while Carlson has nine points since Hunter took over. Mike Green may be almost ready to come back from his long-term groin injury, but his role will be questionable with Wideman and Carlson leading the charge under their old coach.
Hunter's goaltender management is a bit suspect at this point, as the theory appears to be "Play one goalie until he has a bad game then switch and repeat." That hasn't worked well for the Capitals in the past, but we need more than a three "switch" sample size to see if this will continue to hurt Tomas Vokoun's value significantly (giving Michal Neuvirth some appeal at the same time).
Carolina Hurricanes (Kirk Muller, Nov. 28): The Hurricanes have run a dismal 2-6-2 under Muller. Considering the team lost its best player, Jeff Skinner, five games into Muller's tenure, things could have been worse. The good news is that Eric Staal has played his best hockey this season since Muller came to town. Staal has nine points in 10 games and had been running just a minus-1 rating through nine games until Wednesday's minus-3 plunged him down to a minus-21 for the season. Still, there is hope that Staal can resurrect some of his fantasy value under Muller's guidance.
Before Skinner was hurt, Muller had amassed his best players on a top line together and the success was evident, as the combination of Skinner, Staal and Tuomo Ruutu had amassed 13 points in five games. Muller has brought no favors for the defensive side of things for the Canes, though. Cam Ward has been atrocious since Muller took over, allowing 32 goals in nine games (3.56 goals-against average). Ward's save percentage in December is .871. It is clear for now that while things may be improving for the Hurricanes' forward ranks, the goaltending and defense are in trouble of retaining any fantasy value this season.
Anaheim Ducks (Bruce Boudreau, Nov. 30): The Ducks are 3-6-2 since Boudreau stepped behind the bench two days after he was fired by the Washington Capitals. The goaltenders' numbers have been poor. Jonas Hiller has had three starts in nine attempts that could be considered damaging in fantasy leagues and only four that have been quality starts. Boudreau was never known for producing strong fantasy goaltenders, though.
On offense, Niklas Hagman appears to have earned the role that Mike Knuble served for Boudreau with the Capitals. While Knuble served on a line with Ovechkin and Backstrom, Hagman and his heavy shot are on a line with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Hagman's fantasy value will increase as the weeks continue. In the meantime, Bobby Ryan remains in the power-play doghouse even with the change in coaches. Ryan is on the second line at even strength and on the second power-play unit.
Montreal Canadiens (Randy Cunneyworth, Dec. 17): Although we have a very small sample size for Cunneyworth, the Habs are 0-4 with a 17-6 goal differential since firing coach Jacques Martin. Not exactly the bump you want to see from a coaching change. Cunneyworth has left the lines alone since assuming control, but with such a dismal start to his coaching career, we can expect a change soon. It's possible we could see Erik Cole and Max Pacioretty paired up with Tomas Plekanec, providing all three players with a boost in value. Andrei Kostitsyn is also due for a promotion up the depth chart. Kostitsyn was permanently in Martin's doghouse, but he has more talent than should be on a third line. In the short term, try to stay away from the Habs until they can sort out the current deficiencies. Yes, that includes benching Carey Price until he can prove his worth again.
Los Angeles Kings (Darryl Sutter, Dec. 20): We only have one game in which to judge Sutter's return to coaching, but he got a huge present in his first game with the Kings. Mike Richards returned from an eight-game absence to score a goal Thursday, which should help Sutter piece the puzzle together. The bad news after one game is that Sutter's defensive tendencies quickly showed through, as he divided up what used to be the Kings' top six into three lines. Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar played with Brad Richardson; Dustin Penner and Justin Williams winged Jarret Stoll; and Richards skated on a line with Simon Gagne and Trevor Lewis. Splitting up the offense probably won't be the key to increasing the goals scored (which is what fantasy owners would like), though it does appear to do the trick for defensive hockey (if the 22 shots on goal through the end of overtime Thursday are to be believed). If one game is an indicator, the defense and goaltending of the Kings should be given a boost while the offense gets a downgrade. Obviously, give this a few more games before doing anything rash.
"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, and 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.
Colorado Avalanche: The Avalanche have a four-game week with two contests in Denver. The result is an O:7 on the Forecaster, good for a week with weak offensive ratings overall. After missing a few games with a groin injury, Erik Johnson is coming alive offensively. With five points in his past six games, Johnson is available in 47 percent of ESPN leagues. On offense, Daniel Winnik is available in 97 percent of ESPN leagues and is skating with Matt Duchene and Paul Stastny. He has four points in six games.
Nashville Predators: It's time to get Martin Erat into your lineup. Available in 51 percent of ESPN leagues, Erat has 11 points in his past 10 games, and he has settled into his role on the top line with David Legwand and Craig Smith. The Preds have a four-game week on tap, and Mike Fisher (available in 94 percent of ESPN leagues) might be an option for deeper leagues. Fisher is playing on the top power-play unit for the time being.
New Jersey Devils: The Devils have a poor week on offense according to the Forecaster, but it might be hard to shy away from an offense that is beginning to heat up. Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise have combined for 18 points in the past seven games. Once the Devils are back into a good offensive week, it is time to take a look at Petr Sykora. The veteran winger has been clipping along decently this season and has stepped his game up of late on his line with Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus. Seven of Sykora's 19 points this season have come in the past six games.
Florida Panthers: The Panthers have a lowly O:1 on the Forecaster next week and may not be the best place to look to for fantasy help. Kris Versteeg remains a must-start, but few other players should be on your radar. The poor week comes at a time when you can lean away from the second line that had just started to come together. Mikael Samuelsson and Sean Bergenheim have suffered injuries during the past two games.
Minnesota Wild: It's time to put Josh Harding back on the radar. In his first start since injuring his neck in early December, Harding stopped 28 of 30 shots against the Calgary Flames. Niklas Backstrom has been rock solid in net, but Harding has been superb when given a chance this season. The Wild have four games next week and a D:8 on the Forecaster. Harding might get a few starts.
Detroit Red Wings: You can't take advantage of the Red Wings' strong defensive rating on the waiver wire because Jimmy Howard is a workhorse and owned in every league. To do something about the D:7 on the Forecaster, you should look to the plus/minus ratings. Daniel Cleary (available in 46 percent of ESPN leagues) has a plus-7 in December. Jonathan Ericsson and Jakub Kindl are both available in 99 percent of ESPN leagues and are a combined plus-13 as a defensive pairing in the same span.
San Jose Sharks: The Sharks have a D:1 on the Forecaster next week. Staying away from Antti Niemi may be advisable. Though Niemi is on a three-game win streak, the Sharks face only the Ducks and Vancouver Canucks next week. If you can find alternative goaltending, you should consider it for a one-week period.
The Ottawa Senators have crept up on offense in recent weeks after a period of slow going. The Sens are third in the past 21 days for shots on goal per game. Much of the improvement has been thanks to Daniel Alfredsson pairing back up with Jason Spezza on the top line. Spezza and Alfie have combined for 20 points in the past seven games. But with Spezza already owned in 100 percent of ESPN leagues and Alfredsson quickly approaching that threshold (93.4 percent and counting), it is probably too late to get on board with the top line.
But what about the second line? The acquisition of Kyle Turris to be the second-line center has looked mighty solid after just two games. Playing with Erik Condra and Nick Foligno, Turris has an assist in each of his first two games and a plus-3. We have been waiting for Turris to show up offensively for years now with the Phoenix Coyotes and have been witness to glimpses of his potential. This change of scenery could be the catalyst for this top-three pick from 2007. His ice time has been sky high in two games in a Sens jersey. He has talent and now he has opportunity. If you don't have room to simply add him as a speculative bench player, make sure you keep a close eye on him.
Best bets: This is getting tired to keep repeating, but the Vancouver Canucks have the best schedule next week again. Keep both Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin in your lineup and consider adding Alex Burrows ($7.9M) to your roster now that the trio is clicking again. The Detroit Red Wings aren't too far behind the Canucks for next week's schedule, making Pavel Datsyuk ($10.8M) and Nicklas Lidstrom ($9.1M) solid selections. In net, rolling with Roberto Luongo ($14.7M) and Jonathan Quick ($13.4M) appears to be the best bet since both the Canucks and Los Angeles Kings have some of the better schedules for defense.
Weekly bargains: Once again, Christopher Higgins ($5.6M) looks like one of the cheaper acquisitions from the Canucks roster and could be worthwhile to keep around for a while. His value is going up though, making him more costly as the weeks go on. Erik Johnson ($6.6M) and the Avalanche have a good schedule next week, and he has been coming alive offensively in recent weeks.
Rentals: As a cheap option to fill in your forward ranks, Todd Bertuzzi ($5.8M) has been awfully consistent lately. The four-game week can only help maximize the potential from Big Bert. The Colorado Avalanche have a four-game week as well and Gabriel Landeskog ($5.9M) remains very affordable in the Hockey Challenge. The rookie has two points in the past three games on a line with Milan Hejduk and Ryan O'Reilly.
My roster for next week:
Roberto Luongo, G ($14.3M / $14.7M on market)
Jonathan Quick, G ($13.4M)
Kevin Bieksa, D ($7.0M / $7.4M on market)
Erik Karlsson, D ($6.4M / $8.5M on market)
Matt Niskanen, D ($4.9M / $5.3M on market)
Alexander Edler, D ($7.9M / $8.7M on market)
Daniel Sedin, F ($9.0M / $10.5M on market)
Alex Burrows, F ($7.9M)
David Perron, F ($6.6M)
Phil Kessel, F ($7.7M / $9.8M on market)
Henrik Sedin, F ($8.9M / $10.8M on market)
Todd Bertuzzi, F ($5.8M)
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 send him a note here or tweet him @seanard with the hashtag #FantasyHockey for a timelier response.