Mathew Barzal's breakout campaign is getting all the credit it deserves, as the rookie has been a lock for fantasy rosters since his first five-point game in early November. Barzal is among the top 15 in the league for points and solidly in the top 10 for assists, but where he really stands out is when all things are even.
At 5-on-5 play this season, Barzal ranks fourth in the entire NHL for points per 60 minutes (3.0). Only Nathan MacKinnon (3.4), Brad Marchand (3.2) and Jaden Schwartz (3.0) have more points per minute when playing hockey in its purest form (minimum 100 minutes).
Because Barzal's totals are so great, he's easily snagged the attention of fantasy hockey managers and is being deployed with regularity. But a few other players who are scoring at an accelerated rate at 5-on-5 are slipping a bit under the radar in terms of fantasy usage.
For fun, let's list the next top players in points per 60 at 5-on-5 following Barzal: Nikita Kucherov (3.0), Auston Matthews (3.0) and Connor McDavid (2.9). This all seems par for the course, right? Which NHL superstar and fantasy first-rounder is next? Well, Kase is actually eighth on the list with 2.9 points per 60 at 5-on-5. This 22-year-old Czech winger is more than building off the strides he took in his rookie campaign last season, and despite getting less than prime ice time with the Ducks, he has potted 30 points in 43 games. His plus-17 is indicative of success at even strength, and he's been especially hot of late with eight points in the past six games. Kase, Nick Ritchie and Adam Henrique look like a happy trio for the Ducks second line, and even if the team brings in a winger at the trade deadline, we're betting Kase isn't the one getting demoted.
Following another run of who's who among NHL stars, we come to Ryan Spooner at 16th overall this season (2.6). His overall totals are muted due to prolonged injury absence, but Spooner is rolling at even strength this season. He's on a line with playmaker David Krejci and rookie Jake DeBrusk most of the time, collecting an impressive 24 points in 35 games. What's more, Spooner plays a prominent role as the fourth forward on the top power-play unit. If you're looking for an underappreciated asset who's primed for a big finish, look no further.
How high is the ceiling for Hischier next season if the Devils are willing to promote him to the first power play? While barely sniffing the top unit this season, Hischier has 37 points in 57 games and ranks 22nd in the NHL for points per 60 at 5-on-5. The gap for the Calder Trophy between Hischier and Barzal is massive, but a role on the top power-play unit could at least get Hischier in the mix for runner-up with Brock Boeser.
Fantasy Forecaster: Feb. 19-25
Similar to last week, there are 13 teams playing a four-game schedule and only two suffering from a two-game slate. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes are the squads with a relaxed seven-day stretch. Both teams play their only two games next week as part of a back-to-back set (which includes a game against each other). You don't want to sit your studs from the Penguins, but you can make an argument for finding a better player to start over any Cane on your team. Managers with Matt Murray may want to find an alternative for the crease, as he's likely to start just one of the two games.
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.
In the notes -- team, goalie and player -- 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 include players below 10 percent whenever possible to cater to deeper formats.
Note: The default trade deadline in standard ESPN fantasy hockey leagues is Friday, Feb. 23 at noon ET. Check your league's settings to see when your deadline falls.
Why can't Marian Gaborik succeed with the Senators? Well, there are a bunch of reasons. His knees aren't what they used to be, he showed very little potential of late with the Kings and the Senators are playing for the future. But since the calendar flipped to 2018, Matt Duchene is shining as the top-line center we knew he could be. And Gaborik landed a great role at his side. With 19 points in his past 19 games, Duchene can help carry whomever his linemates are going forward. Gaborik scored a goal and assist in his Senators debut on Thursday and could be a nice pickup for the four-game week on tap.
In theory, Kyle Turris' illness will have subsided by next week, putting the Predators' second line back on track for a solid showing over four games. The schedule makers have lined up dates with the Sens, Detroit Red Wings, San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues. More than a couple of those teams have been getting inconsistent goaltending of late, and the Preds remain a top-10 team for offense. The top-line players are no-brainers for fantasy lineups, but Turris, Kevin Fiala and Craig Smith could also have another good week.
The Kings have the top-rated week on the Forecaster for the next scoring period, and it could be the final week without Jeff Carter in the mix. As such, Adrian Kempe will be looking to make a big impression before a likely demotion to the bottom six. With a strong schedule and a clear path to a scoring line for the week, Kempe could be a deep-league consideration. The same can be said of Dion Phaneuf, who potted a goal in his Kings debut on Thursday. His minutes will be reduced with the Kings, but he's in a much better position to use them effectively on a better team. Don't forget that Phaneuf finished 20th among defensemen for fantasy value on the ESPN Player Rater last season.
Brian Elliott should be gone for a month or more following surgery. Although Neuvirth has carried a starter's load with success in the past, his days of dripping with potential are behind him. Last season, he stood in for Steve Mason in the month of February with nine starts, and his ratios were underwhelming. Alex Lyon doesn't offer a lot of fantasy upside behind him. Still, you can pick your spots with Neuvirth and possibly come out ahead. Next week's schedule has the Montreal Canadiens, Columbus Blue Jackets and Senators on deck. Skip the middle matchup, and the bookends might work for fantasy purposes.
Other goalie notes: If Mike Smith's injury lingers or gets worse, the latter half of the next week's Calgary Flames schedule looks OK for David Rittich with the Arizona Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche. However, the week on the whole is not pretty, as it starts with the Bruins and Vegas Golden Knights. ... Roberto Luongo should be back in the starter's chair by next week, especially with James Reimer looking just average in his past two games. That said, the schedule features the red-hot Toronto Maple Leafs, Washington Capitals and Penguins. Maybe avoid Luongo for another week. ... Those looking ahead to the playoffs and with room to stash a player should pick up Cory Schneider. He's been dropped in about 35 percent of ESPN leagues as his injury has stretched out, but he will be back sooner rather than later and still offers some of the best potential ratios around.
Patrick Marleau, LW, Toronto Maple Leafs (58.6 percent)
While you likely can't capitalize on the Nazem Kadri-Mitch Marner connection directly unless either is already on your roster, you can do the next best thing and draft off it. Marleau has two three-point games among his last three contests as Kadri and Marner tear up the opposition.
I know I said on Monday that he'd be in for hard times without Jack Eichel around, but a lot has changed since then. The Sabres made another line shuffle and placed Reinhart on the new top line with Ryan O'Reilly -- and they are playing a lot. O'Reilly has three straight games with more than 22 minutes, while Reinhart is riding near 19 minutes per game. If this combination sticks while Eichel is out, it changes the outlook for Reinhart going forward.