Bye weeks continue to make the schedule itself the biggest story heading into next week. While last week featured 13 teams on their five-day break from action, this week has more games on tap with only five teams on a bye.
However, the schedule is thrown out of balance even more with some heavy scheduling for some of the teams that are in action. Nine teams are due for a four-game week, while the San Jose Sharks boast the elusive five-game week.
As discussed last week, this is an ideal opportunity to stack your counting stats in head-to-head leagues or make up some ground on your games played limit in rotisserie. Fringe or bench assets on your roster that can live for a week or two on the waiver wire should be sent there in exchange for some help from the busy teams.
Going back to our lead example, Gaudreau is on fire and having an incredible season, but even with his 1.18 points per game, the Calgary Flames only play once next week. A player like Meier, who only has 0.33 points per game this season, could be the better fantasy play for your team next week because he gets to play five times with the Sharks.
This doesn't mean you should ditch a quality fantasy asset for one week of glory, but if you have a closer look at your roster and really think about who needs to be on your team, you should find yourself with a few replacement-level options that can be streamed to push your counting stats.
Really, that's one of the main purposes of this Forecaster through the season, and if you don't already implement this strategy, these byes weeks are a perfect opportunity to try it out. The schedule is hyper-unbalanced, so it really crystallizes what are usually subtle differences in potential output.
San Jose Sharks
The Sharks are the big fish in the free-agent pond this week. Load up on them for a five-game schedule that will kill your competition with counting stats. Meier wasn't just a random example above. The sophomore, who only played 34 games last season, has the size and skill to be a top-line forward in the future and actually saw a recent promotion to the top line. Playing with Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton helped Meier net three points, including two goals, to kick off January. He's been held pointless in two games since, but has remained on the line with both Joes.
Second-line winger Tomas Hertl is also a solid option for the a five-game week. Currently on pace for career highs in goals and assists (25 apiece), Hertl is playing with Logan Couture and Kevin Labanc for the time being, but he's also the fourth forward on the top power-play unit that features Pavelski, Thornton, Couture and Brent Burns. Hertl is rostered in just 36.4 percent of ESPN leagues.
Although home hasn't been as kind to their overall record as the hotel life, the Kings get to stay in L.A. for three of four games on the docket next week. Tanner Pearson remains criminally underrostered in ESPN leagues. The recent addition to the Kings top line with Anze Kopitar has started January with two goals and five points in three games and is still available in 72.2 percent of ESPN leagues.
Deeper leagues can have a look at Marian Gaborik, who boasts a very respectable seven goals and 13 points, along with a plus-9 rating in just 20 games this season. Furthermore, that's all been accomplished while playing fewer than 15 minutes per game. Gaborik has been stationed with Tyler Toffoli and Adrian Kempe on the second line of late.
What is All-Star Rickard Rakell doing on the waiver wire in almost 20 percent of leagues? With Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf healthy again, Rakell should improve on what has already been a career-high pace for points. Though they didn't start the game together for Perry's return on Jan. 6, the trio finished it as the reunited top line from last season. The Ducks play three of four games at home next week.
The Bruins are a four-game team for next week and boast some of the best depth for fantasy teams, all the way down on the third line. Danton Heinen and David Backes have been on fire in recent weeks. Heinen has eight points in his past six games, while Backes has 10 in his past seven. Both players are rostered in fewer than half of ESPN leagues.
Shallower leagues can target David Krejci, who has quietly returned to action following his second prolonged injury absence of the season. All the time on the IR has dropped his roster presence in ESPN leagues to just 56.4 percent. Krejci has 17 points in just 22 games this season.
With only the five teams on the bye this week limited to one game, the advice here is a little different than last week (when there were 13 teams on a break). Given that the majority of other NHL clubs are playing something closer to a regular schedule, there is an argument (depending on circumstances) for benching just about anybody from the teams that play only one game. Yes, depending on your league's roster flexibility to allow you to pick up some help, that could mean sitting Connor McDavid or Patrick Kane for a week. Crazy, right?
As for the teams with two games, you shouldn't be benching your top players from these squads, but there is room to slide some of the more peripheral players to your bench to make room for a player with more games on the docket.
Fantasy Forecaster: Jan. 15-21
Note: For those new to the forecaster chart, here are some explanations: "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 season-to-date statistics, their performance in home/road games depending on where the game is to be played, as well as their opponents' numbers in those categories. The "Ratings" column lists the cumulative rating from 1-10 of that week's offensive ("O") and defensive ("D") matchups.
Extended scoring period
The scoring period for ESPN head-to-head leagues or rotisseries leagues with weekly rosters actually extends for an extra week due to the following week's All-Star break (Jan. 26 to Jan. 29). The two-week extended schedule means that the number of games for each team ranges from a low of three to a high of seven.
The Sharks are still alone atop the mountain top with a league-high seven games on tap. The added week includes home dates with the Jets and New York Rangers.
On the other end of the spectrum, despite a scoring period that extends for 14 days, the Blue Jackets, Oilers and Wild only play three games. The list of must-start skaters from these franchises for locked fantasy rosters would include McDavid, Eric Staal and Artemi Panarin, in addition to Seth Jones and Mikael Granlund (due to hot streaks). If you have the roster flexibility with fringe assets, almost any other skater can sit on your bench in favor of a skater from a team with six games (it won't lose you the week if you don't have the flexibility).
Back to the busy teams, there are 12 teams with six games on the docket. The Ducks, Bruins, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Kings, Montreal Canadiens, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Vegas Golden Knights will offer plenty of streamable players for fantasy managers to select from.
The teams with the highest combined offensive Forecaster rating for the two weeks are the Devils, Bruins and Avalanche. Backes and Heinen should be a top priority for fantasy teams that will be locked for the duration of the two weeks. Sami Vatanen could be a top option, as he appears to be settling in after a long acclimation process with the Devils. After going scoreless in his first eight games with the Devils, Vatanen has scored all six of his points with his new club in the past nine games. Deeper leagues can consider Jesper Bratt. Playing on the top line with Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier, an extra game or two in-hand is enough to make him palatable. From the Avs, Samuel Girard continues to pile up the power-play points while Tyson Barrie is on the shelf. Girard has an impressive five power-play points in the past five games.
Early look at Jan. 22 to Jan. 28
If your team uses separate weeks or allows daily transactions, the All-Star week is definitely a short one. The Sabres, Flames, Blackhawks, Avalanche, Detroit Red Wings, Devils, Senators, Lightning and Maple Leafs max out the Monday to Thursday schedule with three games. Obviously, with only four days of games, all of those teams have back-to-back sets. Of those teams, only the Maple Leafs have started their backup goaltender in every single back-to-back set so far this season. So outside of Curtis McElhinney, there are no locks for backup starts.
On the other end, fantasy managers with assets from the Washington Capitals have the short end of the stick. The Caps only have one game against the Panthers for the week. You're still starting the big five stars (Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, John Carlson and Braden Holtby), as a two-game disadvantage isn't enough to relegate them to the bench.
In the notes below, the focus every week will be mainly on players who are available for potential use. Being rostered in less than 50 percent of ESPN leagues is a good generalized cutoff, and I'll try to include players below 10 percent whenever possible to cater to deeper formats.
Jonathan Bernier, Colorado Avalanche (rostered in 12.7 percent of ESPN leagues)
This is largely dependant on Semyon Varlamov's health for next week, but with the Avalanche bringing up Andrew Hammond for this weekend, Bernier's stay in the crease could be extended. Here's to hoping it is, as the 29-year-old has been on a roll. Getting at least partial action in four straight games, Bernier has won all four of them with a .959 combined save percentage. If Varlamov is healthy, he could also be an option in many leagues. Rostered in 35.0 percent of leagues, Varlamov has been a No. 1 goaltender for the past month (12th on ESPN Player Rater over past 30 days).
Aaron Dell, San Jose Sharks (12.2 percent)
The Sharks have turned to their backup in six out of seven back-to-back sets this season, with the only exception coming because Martin Jones got the hook in the first game of a set at the end of November. Any week that you can count on at least two starts from Dell is a week where he should be in starting lineups, and the Sharks have a pair of back-to-back sets next week. Dell currently sits fourth in the league in goals-against average and fifth in save percentage.
Back for four games now, Ellis has been paired with Roman Josi. He has managed two points and eight shots on goal so far while skating an average of 18:53. While more ice time would be nice, Ellis has built his resume on scoring more points than his minutes would suggest. Given that he's just ramping up from an offseason knee injury, this is enough to warrant his inclusion on rosters in all league sizes.
Anthony Duclair, LW/RW, Chicago Blackhawks (9.0 percent)
This is not an awesome week to have to take action on Duclair because the Hawks only play one game, but for fantasy teams looking beyond just this week, Duclair should be a top priority from the waiver wire. With Artem Anisimov on the shelf and Ryan Hartman mostly underwhelming in a top-six role, Duclair could be skating with Patrick Kane for his Hawks debut on Friday. If that's not the case, it may not be long before he gets a shot on a scoring line. He was already on a 20-goal pace this season with the struggling Arizona Coyotes, so a change of scenery and a chance to play with bonafide superstars could be the charge his battery needs. Don't forget that you can look past Duclair's thoroughly disappointing sophomore campaign to a rookie season that featured a promising 20 goals and 44 points.
Alan Quine, C, New York Islanders (0.0 percent)
With Josh Bailey still out for this weekend, there has to be some speculative concern about whether he'll be in the lineup for the Isles' four games next week. The prime spot next to John Tavares and Anders Lee is tinder for a fantasy fire, and someone is going to get lit if Bailey is out for any substantial amount of time. Quine isn't exciting, but filled the role when Bailey missed the Islanders' last game. Michael Dal Colle hasn't lived up to his offensive billing in the AHL, but was called up to be a healthy scratch for the last contest. He's yet to make his NHL debut following a 41-point rookie AHL season last year. There's also Josh Ho-Sang still waiting in the wings in the AHL. Ho-Sang has 12 points in 22 NHL games this season and 12 points in 15 AHL games. When we find out what is wrong with Bailey, be ready to claim one of these guys.