With only a handful of games remaining for each player on your fantasy team, there is no shame in beginning to look for any slight advantage you can get. That usually means getting more category-specific than most fantasy hockey owners like to be.
Specialists in fantasy hockey don't help as much as compared to other fantasy sports because they tend to do too much damage in other categories. It's difficult to roll Edmonton Oilers enforcer Luke Gazdic to help your penalty minutes when he played 2:41 the way he did Thursday against the Buffalo Sabres, thus giving your average time on ice a pretty damaging blow.
But specialists can play a pretty big role as we get into the stretch run. Targeting those specific categories where you can make a move is probably your best bet for trying to improve your projected finish in the standings one -- or maybe even two -- places.
In rotisserie leagues, this means having a quick stroll through your standings. It should be pretty easy to identify which specific categories would be easiest for you to tackle for additional points. In head-to-head leagues, this process will involve a little more; you'll need to look at your strengths and weaknesses versus your opponents' strengths and weaknesses. It will then be a matter of determining which categories give you that slight edge to beat them 6-4 and looking for help to shore that up. Remember, you don't need to win 10-0 in head-to-head leagues, you just need to win.
Different ESPN standard categories have different difficulty levels to target. It should be obvious that your average ice time is pretty set in stone at this point. With so much of your average already compiled and so little difference likely available on the waiver wire, it will be hard to have any noticeable impact. Goals and assists are also difficult to target, as fantasy owners always look at them first and pick up any player with any success in those categories. The same can be said of power-play minutes, because it is a big indicator of overall success. Goaltenders tend to sink or swim in all three of their categories, making it difficult to identify any specialist among them.
We aren't saying you can't target these categories specifically, it's just a lot more difficult. Some players, like Anders Lee, Patrick Berglund or Artem Anisimov, could help in goals. David Desharnais, Nick Bjugstad or Sam Gagner might be available in your league to target assists, while Viktor Fasth, Joni Ortio or Eddie Lack could be available to target goaltending. But leagues that are even a little bit deeper than a standard league may not have such players available.
That leaves penalty minutes, plus/minus and shots on goal as the most ripe ESPN standard categories for attacking in the standings.
Penalty minutes: Penalty minutes are the easiest place to make a quick gain, but also the easiest place to hurt your roster in the process. As pointed out, some enforcers who can help you make quick strides in the PIM department are also a liability to your average time on ice. Yes, it's hard to damage your ATOI significantly at this point, but the best way to do it, would be to roll three goons who play five minutes per night. Look for the PIM contributors who play at least mild minutes on the ice and won't do quite as much damage to your ATOI or be a complete void in other categories. Antoine Roussel is the best candidate; the Dallas Stars forward is available in 88 percent of ESPN leagues despite sitting in second place this season for PIM with 178. He has some offensive skill too, with 24 points while playing more than 13 minutes per game. Ottawa Senators pugilist Chris Neil is another great standby for this category, at third in PIM this season with 153. He doesn't have as many points (12) or as strong an ATOI (11:46) as Roussel, but he's close. Neil is also available in 88 percent of ESPN leagues. A final recommendation would be Patrick Maroon, whose ice time has spiked in recent games as a top-six forward for the Anaheim Ducks. He has collected 89 PIM this season and isn't afraid to drop the gloves. The only concern here is that his PIM might drop off the table now that he's in a scoring role.
Plus/Minus: Picking up some extra plus/minus points is as simple as looking at recent trends and aggressively pursuing them. Over the last 15 days, Boston Bruins defenseman Kevan Miller has been a plus-10 and is available in 99 percent of ESPN leagues. San Jose Sharks defenseman Jason Demers is available in only 40 percent, but has the same strong plus-10 during the past 15 days. In fact, the plus/minus leaders for the past 15 days are peppered with Bruins and Sharks, so that's where you target. Chris Kelly (plus-7), Carl Soderberg (plus-7), Andrej Meszaros (plus-6) or Tommy Wingels (plus-5) are all good targets that can help your team in other categories.
Shots on goal: Saving best for last here, because shots on goal are not only a good category to target for improvement, but also a category that breeds success overall when a player is doing well here. Take a shot on goal and you have a chance to score, which gives a player a plus-1 or possibly a power-play point. Find some available targets that have been firing a lot of rubber and you will find some solid fantasy value down the stretch. Start with Buffalo Sabres forward Drew Stafford, whose 43 shots on goal since the Olympic break are top 10 in the NHL and have provided him with five goals in that time. He is available in 88 percent of ESPN leagues and clicking on a line with Cory Conacher and Tyler Ennis. Not as many of them are going in, but Nashville Predators teammates Craig Smith and Patric Hornqvist are both top-30 in shots since the Olympics. Also take a look here at New York Islanders new top-line player Anders Lee, if you haven't already.
And don't forget, if you are down to the fine-tuning with your roster where you are seeking to gain in specific categories, you might as well take the final step and align those targets with the Fantasy Forecaster to gain an advantage from week to week in games played and matchups. Just keep an eye on those games-played limits in your rotisserie league.
Looking for offense
Ottawa Senators: The Sens have two games in Florida against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers, plus home contests against the Chicago Blackhawks and Calgary Flames. The Forecaster is expecting a lot out of the Sens offense, even though the matchups may not seem to be the best at first glance. If Ales Hemsky is still available in your league, he's the obvious first choice to pick up (and may we suggest finding a more competitive league). If Hemsky is not available, he has reinvigorated the Sens top line enough that even Milan Michalek has become somewhat of a useful commodity again, with six points in his past six games.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson have been continuing to put up great numbers, even since being split apart on the depth chart. But they are almost universally owned in ESPN leagues. Instead, as the Bolts embark on a four-game week, look at Teddy Purcell. His ownership has dropped to just 60 percent in ESPN leagues, but he scored two goals in his debut on a line with Steven Stamkos and Johnson on Thursday.
San Jose Sharks: The Sharks have a four-game week, starting with games in Alberta against the Flames and Oilers, before heading home to battle the Winnipeg Jets and Colorado Avalanche, two teams struggling with goaltending at the moment. While the offense is largely spoken for in fantasy leagues, Matt Nieto continues to pile up points while riding shotgun with Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture.
Looking for defensemen
Nick Holden, D, Colorado Avalanche: As pointed out in yesterday's Line Shifts, Holden's production is becoming hard to ignore. With an impressive eight goals on the season, he could add to that total as the Avs catch a slumping Pekka Rinne and mercurial Eddie Lack next week.
Looking for goaltending
Viktor Fasth, G, Edmonton Oilers: If the Oilers stick to their rotation with Fasth and Ben Scrivens, Fasth is going to start only one game next week. But it will come against his old team. Fasth should be good for a spot start next Friday against the Ducks.
Matt Hackett, G, Buffalo Sabres: It's the desperate days of goaltending as we head down the stretch run. That's why even Hackett, who had a 3.07 goals-against average in the AHL this season, could have some value. While Nathan Lieuwen had better AHL numbers, Hackett has some NHL experience. The two are battling because Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth are sidelined with injury. Neuvirth could be back soon, but we don't know for sure. Hackett, meantime, had decent numbers during an extended stretch with the Minnesota Wild back in 2011-12 and stopped 35 shots from the offensively hot Edmonton Oilers on Thursday. Desperate days, indeed.
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, click here.
Schedule: Plenty of four-game teams to choose from, but the Montreal Canadiens, San Jose Sharks and Tampa Bay Lightning have the better defensive schedules of the teams to choose from. Carey Price ($11.6M), Antti Niemi ($12.2M) and Ben Bishop ($12.1M) should be a big part of your goaltending plans. It will be even easier to avoid the New Jersey Devils, as they not only have a rotation in net, but only two games next week.
Hot streaks: Steven Stamkos ($5.4M) still tops the list of choices. Finally finding his scoring touch, he still comes at a super discounted price in the game because of his injury in the first half. Joe Thornton ($8.7M) and Brent Burns ($6.1M) have been hot lately and have a four-game week ahead. Swedish defensemen Erik Karlsson ($7.7M) and Victor Hedman ($7.2M) should be at the top of your list due to schedule and current streaks.
My roster for next week:
Making some slow gains after the terrible start to Segment 2. In the 31.7 percentile with 92 points as of Friday. My salary cap is $102.0 million.
Carey Price, G, MTL - $11.6M
Ben Bishop, G, TBL - $12.1M
Victor Hedman, D, TBL - $7.2M
Zdeno Chara, D, BOS - $6.8M ($6.9M on market)
Erik Karlsson, D, OTT - $7.7
Shea Weber, D, NSH - $7.2M ($7.4M on market)
Steven Stamkos, F, TBL - $5.5M ($5.4M on market)
Sidney Crosby, F, PIT - $8.9M ($9.2M on market)
Brent Burns, F, SJS - $6.1M
Joe Thornton, F, SJS - $8.7M
Evgeni Malkin, F, PIT - $8.6M ($8.8M on market)
Jason Spezza, F, OTT - $8.2M