We're coming down to it now. A lot of head-to-head playoffs may have either already begun or begin next week. One month from now, the NHL regular season -- and the fantasy season with it -- will be over. In theory, if you're reading this, you're still in the thick of things and worried about the minutia of league schedules.
In an effort to scatter some recommendations, I'm going quick hit with two forwards, a defenseman and a goaltender who should be free agents in each of shallow, average and deep fantasy pools. Obviously, the recommendations are tiered by the roster percentage to gauge their likely availability in different pool sizes, but that also comes with a sliding scale of the likelihood they will pay off. After all, the collective fantasy wit is usually a strong one, so if you are playing in a deep pool but see a shallow player available in yours, make that your first stop.
Shallow leagues (rostered in fewer than 50 percent of ESPN leagues)
I touched on him in the March 5 edition of my rest-of-rankings, and that was before he notched four goals in two games this week. The Panthers' top line is scorching. As goes Aleksander Barkov, so goes his linemates. Bjugstad can keep this up as long as he sticks with Barkov on the ice.
In a similar situation as Bjugstad, as the oft-overlooked third member of a top line for a team pushing the playoffs, Dubois has run hot and cold this season. But with Cam Atkinson and Artemi Panarin tearing up the ice, Dubois is more than doing his part to win offensive zone puck battles for them. What wasn't on the highlight reel on Tuesday -- when he scored a goal and two assists -- was another play in which Dubois single-handedly stole the puck from the Vegas Golden Knights, walked out front and roofed another tally. It was called back on an irrelevant offside challenge, but it was no less impressive to see his command of the puck.
Now the clear power-play quarterback for the Devils over rookie Will Butcher (more than double his man-advantage minutes over the last 11 games), Vatanen has been picking up the points one would expect with such a role. Only Nathan MacKinnon, Tyson Barrie and Blake Wheeler have more power-play points in the past three weeks.
It's hoped Raanta can return from another lower-body injury by Saturday, putting him back on the radar as a surprise fantasy goaltender option to run out the season. It didn't look like he'd be in the mix for the first half of the season, but since the All-Star break, Raanta has a 7-2-1 record, 2.12 goals-against average and .936 save percentage. Only John Gibson has a better save percentage with at least 10 starts in that span.
Average-sized leagues (rostered in fewer than 25 percent of ESPN leagues)
Spooner continues to prove he was under-utilized by the Boston Bruins, with another three points on Thursday to push his totals as a Ranger to two goals and eight assists in six games. The Rangers have nothing to lose and will continue to test some of their new assets as they play out the string. In fact, Spooner still has room for improvement, as the Rangers aren't using him on the top power-play unit yet, which was the one role he had going for him with the Bruins.
Interestingly, Patrick and Wayne Simmonds took turns on the top power-play unit on Thursday against the Bruins. In fact, Patrick just about doubled Simmonds for power-play ice time in the game. The opposite was true in Simmonds' first game back from injury on Wednesday. Maybe the team was giving Simmonds a break in the back-to-back set off the injury, but don't forget that Patrick was already becoming a fantasy asset before Simmonds was hurt, and the time on the power-play was really just a bonus. Patrick has nine points in his past 11 games and continues to see time with Jakub Voracek at even strength.
Winning some trust from his coaches, Zadorov's ice time is staying high, despite the return of Barrie from injury. Before Barrie was hurt in late December, Zadorov had topped 20 minutes only four times in 29 games. His spike was understandable while Barrie was hurt, but the continued usage shows he earned some additional trust during that span. He's topped 23 minutes per game in each of four March contests and has three points in his past five games.
After Braden Holtby melted down again on Tuesday, you can bet we're going to see a lot of Grubauer going forward. It takes more than a couple good starts to earn trust back after what Holtby has done since January. Grubauer's ratios stand up to those of any goaltender in the NHL during that span. In fact, his goals-against average is second to Gibson, and his save percentage is second only to Gibson and Raanta.
Deep leagues (rostered in fewer than 10 percent of ESPN leagues)
Leipsic had snuck onto the Canucks top line before the injury to Brock Boeser, but now that Boeser is done for the season, Leipsic is going to stay there. Playing with Bo Horvat and Jake Virtanen on Wednesday, Leipsic extended his totals as a Canuck to two goals and four assists in four games. As I've gone over before, he has a scorer's pedigree and is in a position to find the net with the Canucks.
While Strome hasn't panned out the way the Oilers or fantasy managers hoped back in September, it's not too late for him to chip in a little. He's got a connection with Anton Slepshyev as a linemate, potting nine points in his past 10 games, and is also playing on the top power play with Connor McDavid.
In limited minutes with the Minnesota Wild, there were flashes of offense from Reilly. Now with the Shea Weber-less Habs, he is averaging almost double his ice time of his time with the Wild (21:44 per game). He has four points in five games to show for it.
Antti Niemi, G, Montreal Canadiens (5.9 percent)
If you just ignore his tenure with two other teams this season, Niemi looks like he's in a Renaissance year. His totals with the Canadiens are a 4-2-3 record (not bad for a losing team), 2.38 goals-against average and sterling .931 save percentage. He was healthy enough to backup Charlie Lindgren on Thursday and should start to get the bulk of action going forward with Carey Price sidelined and Lindgren's magic now completely worn off.
Fantasy Forecaster: Mar. 12-18
Everyone stays busy as the NHL season winds down, with the exception of two squads. The Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins only have two games on the docket next week. That's probably OK for most fantasy managers, as you aren't benching the elite Pens just because they have one fewer game on hand, and you probably aren't starting many Sabres to begin with. It's also good for the goaltender ranks, as Matt Murray's fantasy managers are already into another game plan with his continued absence, while Robin Lehner is probably not on many competitive fantasy teams at this point.
Fifteen NHL teams have the four-game schedule on tap, but with so many playing the extended weekly schedule, it waters down the impact of focusing on the extra games in your lineup. Still, use the extra game when breaking a tie in your mind over two players to start. The Anaheim Ducks, Carolina Hurricanes, San Jose Sharks and Capitals have the juiciest potential schedules at a glance, but the Winnipeg Jets, Golden Knights and Avalanche should also be in for a decent offensive showing.
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 and goalie -- 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.
The Ducks stay at home to welcome four teams that have been less than stable in the crease of late. While the top line has been consistent, none of its members are widely available in fantasy leagues. That leaves us with hope that either the second or third line can take advantage of the home cooking on tap. Ondrej Kase, Adam Henrique and Nick Ritchie are due for a little explosion after going ice cold for the better part of three weeks. Before not hitting the score sheet in the past eight games, Kase was among the league leaders for points per minute. It wouldn't hurt to have him handy in case that line can show signs of heating up in Friday's game.
San Jose Sharks
The Sharks host the Detroit Red Wings and then visit Alberta and B.C. for three games. The four-game schedule features plenty of exploitable goaltenders, including Jimmy Howard and Cam Talbot. We've been over the fact that Joonas Donskoi is a great option now that he's rolling with Evander Kane and Joe Pavelski, but have a look at defenseman Dylan DeMelo's last three games (five assists and a plus-5 rating), too. DeMelo is getting secondary power-play time heading into what should be a good week for the Sharks' special teams.
Hopefully we're not still waiting for Alex Ovechkin's 600th at this time next week, but it's doubtful we will be with a back-to-back set against the New York Islanders on deck first. The Capitals start with a tough matchup against Connor Hellebuyck and the Jets, but also finish against the currently struggling Flyers and Petr Mrazek. Overall, that's a good looking week for offense. Jakub Vrana seems to be slowly earning his way back into the good graces of coach Barry Trotz. He has three points in his past four games and is getting consistent minutes with Evgeny Kuznetsov on the second line. It's good to see the goals flowing after the rookie didn't score in January or February.
While Raanta, Grubauer and Niemi got some love above, I'm reversing the order I like them in for next week only. Niemi has the slightly better schedule on the Forecaster, followed by Grubauer and then Raanta (assuming he's healthy).
Roberto Luongo, G, Florida Panthers (rostered in 54.1 percent of ESPN leagues)
Bouncing back from allowing five goals with a shutout is more evidence that Luongo is on point for the streaking Panthers. He leads all goaltenders not named Pekka Rinne in fantasy value for the past 15 days and has a busy schedule ahead as the Panthers play more than 29 other teams between now and April 8. If you have the ability to skip the Bruins game mid-week, take it, but with matchups against the Ottawa Senators and Oilers also on tap, Luongo will contribute positively on the whole.