The New Year is a time to turn over a new leaf. There are plenty of fantasy hockey players in need of a fresh start, and plenty more whose leaves have arguably wilted and died. As we head into 2014, let's look at the fantasy hockey players in most desperate need of a fresh start.
Alex Burrows, F, Vancouver Canucks: Not to minimize how rough it is to have to eat through a straw, but Burrows' broken jaw is the least of his problems from the perspective of his fantasy investors this season. Burrows has played in 17 games, many of them on the same line and power-play unit with Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin, yet he has zero goals and only three assists. For a player that has been one of the most consistent point producers as a wingman to the Sedins for several seasons now, it is very disappointing. Perhaps even more disappointing is the minus-7 plus/minus rating for a player that is a perennial league leader in what is usually a fickle category. What changed? The coach, that's what. Given Burrows' spotless track record with the Sedins, we have to think that the drop in production has more to do with coach John Tortorella's system than such a massive change in fantasy value (more like non-value for this season). So the bad news is that Tortorella will still be guiding the team when Burrows returns from his broken jaw sometime in January. That means that hoping for a turnaround to this terrible season is a long shot at best. If you play in a deep league and you see Burrows just sitting there on the waiver wire as his return approaches, there are worse long shots to take. But don't hold your breath betting on a surprise recovery from Tortorella-itis. The only thing in Burrows' favor at this point is the fact that none of Jannik Hansen, Zack Kassian, David Booth or Brad Richardson have stepped up and staked a claim for ice time on the top line.
Michael Del Zotto, D, New York Rangers: For a defenseman that had become a strong candidate to net 10 goals, 40 points and more than a dozen power-play points, Del Zotto has certainly sunk to some disappointing lows this season. From being a healthy scratch to suffering through extended scoring droughts, Del Zotto only has seven points this season in 30 games. He is on pace for 17 points and a minus-20 this season. Not only are the points too low to be helpful, but the plus/minus is downright damaging. Rumors of a trade continue to swirl around the talented blueliner, which would bring him the kind of change of scenery that makes turning over a new leaf inevitable. He has talent, and there are plenty of teams lacking a quarterback on the power play, so a trade is not out of the realm of logical possibility. However, it would make a lot more sense for the Rangers to deal Del Zotto if they had a capable power-play quarterback to take over for him. Ryan McDonagh did an impression of an offensive defenseman for a while, but the production has dropped off. With no one to step in and fill Del Zotto's skates, it's hard to picture the team dealing him. Still, it is likely his best hope for a turnaround. Like Burrows, Del Zotto just doesn't seem to jibe with the systems of his new coach, Alain Vigneault.
Stephen Weiss, F, Detroit Red Wings: It was hard not to have high hopes for Weiss coming into this season. He was always a decent fantasy performer on some pretty troubled Florida Panthers teams. The thought was that Weiss getting an opportunity to play with some more talented linemates would only further his game. That has not been the case, to put it charitably. Weiss struggled en route to four points in 26 games, watching his ice time drop to 15 minutes per game before taking time off with a groin injury. That groin injury was re-diagnosed as a sports hernia, and Weiss underwent surgery. Mercifully, he will now be out until after the Olympic break in February. To be completely fair, a cascade of injuries to other Red Wings' forwards prevented Weiss from having an extended period of time to settle in on the proper second line with Daniel Alfredsson and Johan Franzen. However, he also didn't do anything to help his cause. The Red Wings still aren't completely healthy, but will have time to get all their forwards back before Weiss is ready to return after the break. He is a name to file away for the start of March, as he will likely have a spot waiting for him to try and earn a top-six role upon his return.
Craig Anderson, G, Ottawa Senators: It's hard to believe a goaltender that was a surefire top-five goalie pick in most leagues has watched his ownership rise back to 78 percent of ESPN leagues of late. This season, Anderson has played poorly, been injured and watched as his backup Robin Lehner has had bursts of near heroic goaltending. As of the holiday break, Anderson has played almost the same number of minutes he did all of last season (24 starts last season, 25 starts this season) but we have two very different goalies. Last season, he allowed 40 goals in 24 starts; this season, he has allowed 75 goals in 25 starts. Just terrible. His 1.69 goals-against average was near the top of the league last season, but his 3.27 GAA is near the bottom of the pack this season. His save percentage has gone from .941 to .901. Ugh.
Now, the good news. While Lehner has a bright future in the NHL, he isn't being given a huge opportunity by the team to seize the reins from Anderson and, when he has been given a chance, hasn't clearly separated himself as a clear-cut starter. Anderson also went into the break with a statement shutout of the Pittsburgh Penguins. As the New Year approaches, he has as much opportunity as any goaltender to rise from the ashes of his terrible start. Possibly the biggest encouraging factor is Anderson's even-strength save percentage. At five-on-five, Anderson sports a .922 save percentage, a rate that is higher than goaltenders such as Roberto Luongo, Marc-Andre Fleury and Antti Niemi this season. The problem has been the Senators' penalty kill, where Anderson has allowed 25 of his goals against this season and sports a terrible .792 save percentage. While eight of his 20 goals allowed so far in December have come against him on the power play, the problem remains one that can be fixed easier than most. If you see an opportunity to take a low-investment risk on Anderson, there is better than average chance it could pay dividends. After all, Lehner sports a .919 save percentage on the power play, which is second-best in the NHL among goaltenders that have faced 100 or more shots on the power play this season. So it isn't a team problem.
Looking for offense
Carolina Hurricanes: Although the week starts out with a formidable matchup against Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens, things get better quickly for the Hurricanes on a four-game schedule. The goaltending of the Washington Capitals, New York Islanders and Pekka Rinne-less Nashville Predators should allow for plenty of scoring for the Canes' offense. Heading into this week's break, the team was remaining dedicated to keeping Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner on the top line together, but had been making some personnel changes to get the second line going. Things worked out on Monday, when the line of Nathan Gerbe, Alexander Semin and Jordan Staal lit the lamp twice. But they are not who we are suggesting to target. Instead, Tuomo Ruutu is available in 99 percent of ESPN leagues, and will be rolling on the top line. Though Ruutu has underwhelmed for a couple of seasons now, he still possesses the skills to be a fantasy asset in spurts. This is the kind of week where he is set up to succeed. Of course, Staal and Gerbe are also options, but are not nearly as available as Ruutu.
Philadelphia Flyers: They are on the road, but it's a favorable four-game set for the Flyers as they visit the Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche and Phoenix Coyotes next week. Like the Hurricanes, the Flyers have some more obvious names to grab and deploy on a good week, especially Wayne Simmonds, who is on a four-game, five-goal streak. But we like the idea of swinging for the fences on a good week like this, and recommending someone available in virtually every league. Michael Raffl is available in 98 percent of ESPN leagues, and is currently playing on the top line with the red-hot Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek. The 25-year-old is showing translated skills from being a point-per-game player in the Swedish elite league last season. He may be a weekly pickup that stays on your roster.
Washington Capitals: The Capitals' second line finally looks how fantasy owners would prefer it does on paper. And coach Adam Oates seems to be willing to give the line some time to find its footing. Mikhail Grabovski, Eric Fehr and Troy Brouwer have been working together for a few games now, and the line connected on a goal in each of the past two games before the break this week. Brouwer has already been scooped up in most leagues because of his performance on the Capitals' top power-play unit, and Grabovski has been owned in many leagues thanks to his hot start to the season, but Fehr is prime for helping fantasy owners. Available in 99 percent of ESPN leagues, Fehr has five points in his past four games and 10 points in his past 13 games. The Caps score very well on the Forecaster for next week thanks to contests against the Ottawa Senators and Carolina Hurricanes. The Minnesota Wild aren't quite as ripe for the picking, as Josh Harding is expected back for next week, but it's still a favorable forecast on offense.
Looking for defensemen
Justin Faulk, Carolina Hurricanes: While Andrej Sekera is getting all the love in fantasy leagues lately (with ownership now up to 100 percent), it's Faulk who owns the better upside on offense. Equal with Sekera at 13 assists, Faulk admittedly trails Sekera six goals to two. But would you believe they are deadlocked in assists and both getting time on the first power-play unit together? Faulk's ownership has been slipping, and he is available in seven percent of leagues.
Kimmo Timonen and Mark Streit, Philadelphia Flyers: Sticking with the theme of going team-for-team from the offensive recommendations, the Flyers' top blueliners have two things in common: They are available in some leagues, and have been slowly catching momentum. Both Streit and Timonen were very easily droppable about a month ago, but have built up their resumes since then as the Flyers' offense has heated up. No, they still aren't performing where we thought they would be before the season, or as well as they should be, given just how hot Giroux has been, but they have both been worth starting. Sometimes that is enough. Besides, both possess the ability the get hot enough to be worth keeping at any point in time.
Looking for goaltending
Eddie Lack, Vancouver Canucks: There has been little word on the extent of Luongo's injury that forced him out of the Canucks' final game before the holidays, but it won't hurt to grab Lack just in case. Luongo may be ready to come back strong on Sunday, but he may also miss some time with what is reported to be a lower-body injury. If he misses time, Lack has been absolutely solid as the understudy this season, and will be in a position to shine like so many other backups have this season. At this point, it probably wouldn't hurt to make a speculative pickup.
Al Montoya, Winnipeg Jets: It will be unpredictable when he might start, but Ondrej Pavelec had a rough ride into the holiday break, and Montoya has been steady in recent appearances. The Jets are in pretty deep with Pavelec as their starter, and Montoya has proven unreliable when leaned on for a larger workload, but there is an opportunity to spot-start him for success in the current situation. The Jets' first two games on a four-game schedule next week are very winnable against the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators. If you snatch up Montoya and watch for word of his start, you could reap some rewards. This is not a recommended strategy for weekly leagues, as the Jets finish the week against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins.
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 reign 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.
Schedule: It's a balanced NHL schedule, with nine NHL teams benefiting from a four-game set. Leading the way offensively are the Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, Philadelphia Flyers (of late), San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks. The Carolina Hurricanes, Edmonton Oilers, Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets round out the squads with an extra game. Defensively, there are issues surrounding some of the teams' starters and their possible return from health. That means you should look at Antti Niemi ($12.3M) and Steve Mason ($11.3M) as the strongest, healthiest goaltending options. Avoid the Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers and Calgary Flames, who all sport only two games on the schedule next week.
Hot streaks: It's harder to know who is hot heading into the week since the NHL just took three days off. Leaning toward the teams who are both strong on offense and have four-game schedules is probably the way to go. Stacking your lineup with Flyers (who have been hot) and Blackhawks (who have been super hot) is probably a good strategy.
My roster for next week:
As of Friday, I'm in the 85.1 percentile for the ESPN Hockey Challenge, with 423 points. My personal salary cap is at $112.3M.
Antti Niemi, G, SJ - $12.3M
Steve Mason, G, PHI - $11.3M
Erik Karlsson, D, OTT - $9.2M ($9.4 on market)
Kevin Shattenkirk, D, STL - $8.0M ($8.2M on market)
Shea Weber, D, NSH - $8.3M
Duncan Keith, D, CHI - $8.5M
Claude Giroux, F, PHI - $9.5M
Jakub Voracek, F, PHI - $7.9M
Logan Couture, F, SJ - $8.3M
Brent Burns, F, SJ - $6.1M
Jonathan Toews, F, CHI - $9.1M
Jannik Hansen, F, VAN - $4.5M