While clairvoyance is probably No. 1 on the list of supernatural abilities that would be helpful in fantasy leagues, mind reading is up there too. Negotiating a trade sure would be a lot easier if you knew how your trading partner felt about their assets. You cannot know what each individual is thinking, but you can give yourself a slight edge in trade negotiations by targeting players who are being collectively frowned upon. Conversely, you can judge when a bad time to go after a player might be by the whims of the crowd.
We are talking about the handy little tool that the game makers at ESPN.com have provided you in your fantasy league manager under the research tab: change in percent owned. Do you use this tab much? It's on the left-hand side as you view the players in the pool and remains there if you switch over to research view. This tells you whether a player is being collectively loved or loathed by the masses playing ESPN.com fantasy hockey. This isn't a direct connection into the mind of your trading partners, but it can certainly give you a better gauge on what they might be thinking about bubble players you like.
We all use the percentage owned statistic a lot in fantasy hockey analysis. It's very relevant, because if a player is not available to help you, there isn't much use in talking about him. But we don't tend to highlight the change in percent number as often as we should. It's a great tool that is available to you for perusal at any time. You won't just use it for insight into how a trading partner might view a player, you can get a sense of when to pick up an injured player before your league mates by watching as his percent owned number goes from a red (being dropped) to green (being added). Marian Gaborik and Nathan Horton are two examples that have had their ownership go up by 17 and 16 percent, respectively. Gaborik is on the verge of returning from a knee injury, and Horton is still eyeing a late-December or early-January return.
Another great use for the metric is to check on who is being dropped across leagues and potentially target them in trade. We've been preaching patience with Jakub Voracek, especially since Claude Giroux picked up his pace following a slow start to the season. It seems Voracek owners are jumping en masse this week, with his percent owned plummeting almost 15 percent (leaving him available in 27 percent of ESPN leagues). That's too soon. He has a three-game point streak with four points and, frankly, almost never leaves Giroux's side. Voracek will get his this season, and it was a mistake to drop him, but feel free to go correct that owner's mistake by scooping him up from the wire.
Another example would be Paul Stastny. Yes, the Colorado Avalanche are slumping hard at the moment, but the team we saw have a blistering start to the season isn't gone. At the very least, we know the offense will return at some point. Stastny has been dropped in 27 percent of ESPN leagues as owners look at his pointless streak of eight games with a minus-7 rating in plus/minus. That is certainly bad, but it makes the math pretty easy: Stastny had 17 points in 20 games, with a plus-11 rating before the slump kicked in. The Avs have been dealing with injuries across the top lines but will figure out the offense soon enough. Maybe you can swing a super cheap trade for Stastny if you aren't in one of the 27 percent of ESPN leagues where he is available off the wire.
Sorting the change in percent owned tab is also a good way to go trolling for injured players you might want to pick up. For whatever reason, owners will hear that the 19th-best defenseman in fantasy hockey this season will miss a week with injury and decide that the best course of action is to drop him for a scrub. We are talking about James Wisniewski and the fact that his percent owned has dropped by almost 6 percent to leave him available in -- you guessed it -- 6 percent of ESPN leagues. Unless those 6 percent of leagues are playing with only two spots for defense, then Wisniewski should not be available.
Looking for offense
Toronto Maple Leafs: The immediate reaction is to dismiss the fact that Jake Gardiner is showing some value by looking at the fact that Dion Phaneuf just missed two games with a suspension. But that would be glossing over the fact that Gardiner's relevance to fantasy stretches back a few weeks now. Since being a healthy scratch against the Penguins on Nov. 27, Gardiner has five points in eight games and has watched his ice time creep up incrementally (even before Phaneuf's suspension). The Leafs have a four-game schedule that sports a Florida Panthers and Phoenix Coyotes creamy filling, so now might be a good time to try Garinder on your defense and see if he can live up to his billing.
Up front, the Leafs recently returned Joffrey Lupul from a groin injury but still don't seem to have their scoring lines decided upon properly. Lupul skated on a line that was probably supposed to be the third line with Nikolai Kulemin and Peter Holland; however one could argue it had more offensive punch than the "second" line of Mason Raymond, David Clarkson and Trevor Smith. For now, coach Randy Carlyle seems content to roll his three top offensive catalysts on a line together, but he will have to split up Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri eventually. Betting on Lupul's being paired with at least one of them by next week isn't a terrible gamble. Lupul's availability has almost disappeared, but have a quick look just in case. In fact, check on the lines following the weekend, because there are some plum spots that will come available when Carlyle decides to balance two lines properly, and there will be fantasy value for one of Kulemin, Raymond or even Clarkson.
Pittsburgh Penguins: In lieu of anyone else to answer the bell, Jayson Megna continues to get time on the Penguins' second line. His stay should last into early next week as James Neal serves out his five-game suspension for kneeing Brad Marchand in the head. Meanwhile, Megna will play with Evgeni Malkin and Jussi Jokinen for games against the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers next week. Deep leagues should take note of the opportunity to roll him, especially if you have daily lineup changes. The other takeaway here is that Jokinen is still widely available. His 19 points in 32 games isn't what one would hope for from a player with such phenomenal linemates, but remember that the true breakout for Jokinen is still to come. Between Neal's injury, missed time for Malkin, the Beau Bennett experiment and now Neal's suspension, the second line hasn't had time to jell. That should change when Neal returns from suspension next week. If you play in a shallower league, the move should be to nab Jokinen ahead of the rush.
Ottawa Senators: Coach Paul MacLean is playing a game of line shuffle during the past few weeks to try to find a combination to spark his offense. It has worked in some ways, and we have some new fantasy players to consider. First off, Milan Michalek is done. All of the different first- and second-line combinations used by MacLean in the past week have not included Michalek among them. If you are among the 40 percent of ESPN league owners still clinging to him, it's time to let go. Clarke MacArthur may have earned himself a permanent promotion next to Jason Spezza and Mika Zibanejad, following Spezza's best week of the season with MacArthur at his side most of the time. There was a game with Bobby Ryan and MacArthur flanking Spezza, but Ryan found a groove with Kyle Turris and Cory Conacher on Thursday. That is a trio that could be the new second line while MacArthur plays up with Spezza. The Senators have a favorable schedule ahead, and it is worth rolling Conacher next week to see the results. Cody Ceci is also up from the AHL to play on the back end. He was a plus-2 in his NHL debut, sharing the ice with Chris Phillips and getting a bit of power-play time. If he sticks around and gets a decent amount of ice time, Ceci will collect a fair number of points. Marc Methot is sick, and Jared Cowan has one more game to serve in a suspension, so watch to see if Ceci makes enough noise to stay after they return.
Looking for defense
Andrej Sekera, D, Carolina Hurricanes: A consummate defensive defenseman, Sekera is the type of player who can earn fantasy value when there isn't another defenseman around to take it. Is he the ideal candidate to play on the power play? No. Is he the best defenseman to be feeding pucks out of the Hurricanes' zone to the top line? Probably not. But is there anyone else around to handle it? No, there is not. Sekera and Justin Faulk are the default top pairing for the team. Now that goals are coming with some frequency for the Canes, Sekera and Faulk are starting to pick up some points. In his past 10 games, Sekera has 10 points and a plus-9 rating, numbers against which you can't argue. Faulk hasn't been as lucky with the points but is sharing the ice with Sekera on and off the power play.
Looking for goaltending
Ondrej Pavelec, G, Winnipeg Jets: With inconsistency proving too much for many fantasy owners to hold on to him, Pavelec should be available in some leagues for a favorable schedule in the coming week. The Jets take on the struggling offenses of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Buffalo Sabres and Florida Panthers next week (before catching the Vancouver Canucks to close out a four-game schedule). Pavelec has been prone to a couple of blowups this season, but taking on these weaker squads should allow for a couple wins and some solid numbers. If he is available in your league, scoop him up for a spot start.
Each week the Fantasy Forecaster will also include some advice for the ESPN Hockey Challenge. This is the salary-cap game that allows you free rein over your fantasy hockey decisions within a starting budget of $100 million in fantasy money. For more on the game and to sign up, click here.
Four-game teams: The Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Ottawa Senators, Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets all have four games on the schedule this week. Given the struggles of some of the goalies on these squads, Marc-Andre Fleury ($12.5M) and Roberto Luongo ($12.4M) have to be considered the safe plays for the coming week. But Ondrej Pavelec ($10.4M), as mentioned above, could be a nice surprise with a weak schedule of opponents.
Streaking players with four games: Kris Letang ($7.5M) still feels underpriced and the Penguins have four games on tap. He could earn some points and some additional salary-cap space for you. Erik Karlsson ($9.2M) is a no-brainer if you can afford him, while the Blues' pair of Alex Pietrangelo ($7.5M) and Kevin Shattenkirk ($8.0M) have some appeal with an extra game in hand. Filling your offense with the Penguins' stars could be a smart move if you have built up your salary cap enough to afford them. Sidney Crosby ($10.3M) and Evgeni Malkin ($9.8M) are starting to get a bit expensive, though.
My roster for next week:
As of Friday, I'm in the 84.3 percentile for the ESPN Hockey Challenge, with 356 points. My personal salary cap is at $110.1M.
Marc-Andre Fleury, G, PIT - $12.5M
Ondrej Pavelec, G, WPG - $10.4M
Erik Karlsson, D, OTT - $9.2M
Kevin Shattenkirk, D, STL - $8.0M
P.K. Subban, D, MTL - $7.8M ($8.5M on market)
Kris Letang, D, PIT - $7.5M
Evgeni Malkin, F, PIT - $9.8M
Sidney Crosby, F, PIT - $10.3M
Chris Kunitz, F, PIT - $9.2M
Phil Kessel, F, TOR - $9.1M
James van Riemsdyk, F, TOR - $7.4M
Cory Conacher, F, OTT - $3.7M