The NHL season begins Saturday with all but four teams in action to start this 48-game schedule. That means the NHL Fantasy Forecaster is back to guide you through the weekly schedules that can make or break your fantasy season.
What? You think that is an overstatement? It might be in rotisserie fantasy leagues with game limits. Roto owners can do only so much lineup tweaking to push their totals up if they have a healthy team. But when was the last time you had a healthy fantasy team? If you manage to draft a lineup that plays all 48 games at every position, that would be a feat in and of itself. So this applies to rotisserie owners as well. The schedule the Fantasy Forecaster gives you can be absolutely key to making sure you get the most out of your players in roto and head-to-head leagues.
The majority of you play in head-to-head formats, though. In fact, two-thirds of ESPN fantasy leagues are in the H2H format. The Fantasy Forecaster is absolute money in these leagues because each weekly matchup comes with the opportunity to maximize your games played from either your bench or the free-agent wire. Even if your H2H league uses weekly limits on games, the Fantasy Forecaster does wonders for allowing you to work within those confines.
The easy analogy is to look at an elite player versus a middle-of-the-road guy: Do you want Corey Perry or David Perron to start for your roster? Easy answer, right? You take the guy one year removed from scoring 50 goals and don't think twice about it. But what if Perry has only four games and Perron has six games in the upcoming scoring period? Is it as cut-and-dried an answer? Perry is still pretty elite so you probably go with him, even though Perron has two extra games to match his output. But what if Perry plays three of his four games against top-10 fantasy goaltenders and Perron plays only three of his six games against elite goaltenders? Now we have ourselves a real consideration for benching Perry and starting Perron.
This is not a made-up example. Perry and the Anaheim Ducks have a weak schedule for the opening scoring period in fantasy hockey, while Perron and the St. Louis Blues have one of the best schedules. There will be more extreme examples as the season progresses and the abbreviated NHL schedule allows us to take advantage of the fact it is not perfectly balanced.
Now, the Fantasy Forecaster uses a formula that incorporates a team's recent statistics -- including goals for and against, special-teams performance and shooting -- to rate each matchup for the upcoming week for its offensive and defensive potential in fantasy. The first Fantasy Forecaster column of the season has been dedicated to remind you that the formula is based on recent performance and, therefore, should be taken with a grain of salt until there is a decent sample size with which to work. With nine months between seasons, make that a tablespoon of salt. It is unlikely track records and momentum from last season can carry over to this shortened campaign. So the numbers in this week's Fantasy Forecaster (and probably next week's and the week after) will be based on statistics that have tenuous relevance to the current season. That said, some things don't change and the numbers can still be used as a guide. Are the Los Angeles Kings still hard to score on? Probably. Will the Philadelphia Flyers still have an above-average offense? For sure. Will the Washington Capitals still play stifling defense? Wait, no they won't. That last example is to show that while a lot of the Fantasy Forecaster's numbers can help you find good matchups in the early going, they shouldn't be blindly followed just yet.
But while we are making that point, they should never be blindly followed. You run your fantasy hockey team. Not an advice columnist, not a spreadsheet with complicated formulas, you. So when the rubber hits the road, you have to make the lineup decisions that will guide your team to fantasy glory. Use the Fantasy Forecaster to help guide your lineup decisions, not make them for you. Just because Perron has six games against weaker goaltending does not mean he will outscore Perry in four games against stiffer competition. But it does mean that a guy who is a borderline fantasy starter in shallow leagues has the chance to outperform a top-10 fantasy pick during the first scoring period of the season. Those kinds of nuances and finds can add up very quickly and become the difference between your finishing in the middle of your fantasy league standings or at the top.
Looking for offense
Chicago Blackhawks: While the overall average of the Hawks' Fantasy Forecaster rating for the week is elevated by the matchup with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the six-game schedule is what we are really watching. As explained above, the Fantasy Forecaster's numbers are leaning on statistics that were accumulated nine months ago. So ignore the O:6 rating for the Hawks and look at the six games. The team starts with a tough matchup against the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, but they also catch the Dallas Stars, Blue Jackets and the life-without-our-Norris-Trophy-hoarder Detroit Red Wings. The Hawks' schedule is easy to take advantage of, too. While you may not be keen on parting with any of the players you just drafted, Dave Bolland and Daniel Carcillo may be strong opening week additions to your roster. Bolland has been spending much of training camp as the No. 2 center for Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp, as the center man Kane experiment seems to be off the table for now. While Bolland has become known to most fantasy hockey players as a low-scoring No. 3 center who can occasionally get hot, he does have a scorer's pedigree and could react well to a chance on a scoring line. Once upon a time (2005-06), Bolland had 130 points for the OHL's London Knights. For comparison, the Knights' leader the following season (after Bolland's departure) had 145 points. His name was Patrick Kane, by the way. Coach Joel Quenneville changes lines as often as most cars change lanes, so who knows if Bolland can keep his assignment for long. But, if he does stay put, it means Kane and Sharp's center man is available in 97.3 percent of ESPN leagues and has six games in the first week. The same recommendation is true for Carcillo, as the pugilist has been putting in time on a line with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. While not the most adept scoring option on the Hawks' wings, Carcillo will certainly make other players think twice about laying down massive hits on his linemates. He should pick up better peripheral stats than most other penalty-minute producers.
Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers have the best first-week schedule of any team, according to the Fantasy Forecaster. Not only do they have six games, but the Forecaster is suggesting that many of them will be conducive to scoring. Certainly, closing the scoring period with a two-game road trip to Florida will be a good place to collect some offense. The Flyers also have traditionally high-scoring affairs with the Pittsburgh Penguins (remember last year's playoffs?). That said, Danny Briere will miss at least the first two games of the season, so keep him on the bench. Brayden Schenn, Claude Giroux and Scott Hartnell have been playing on a line together in training camp, but all three are universally owned in fantasy leagues. The possible additions to your roster are down on the third line. Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier have been skating on a line with Maxime Talbot, suggesting that Briere will slide into Talbot's role when he is ready to return to the second line. The third line has consisted of sophomore Matt Read, power forward Wayne Simmonds and potential training camp roster addition Scott Laughton. Laughton has impressed enough in training camp to likely get at least a five-game trial with the club. Laughton has 33 points in 32 games with the OHL's Oshawa Generals this season. He is probably not worth picking up this week, but is worth watching because the Flyers can run three lines deep and still expect scoring. Read is a potential pickup for the week ahead, though. He started very fast last season and cooled off in the middle of the campaign before finishing strong. Deeper leagues might consider him for this week ahead of some weaker roster additions who have only four games.
St. Louis Blues: If you definitely have some holes on offense and don't want to fill them with stopgap players, look no further. The St. Louis Blues have a six-game schedule to open the fantasy season and two-thirds of their "second" line are likely available to you. "Second" line is surrounded by quotes because if Andy McDonald, Alexander Steen and Vladimir Tarasenko have chemistry, they could quickly become the first line. Coach Ken Hitchcock is committed to starting the season with the trio in place. McDonald is the veteran playmaker, Steen the all-around workhorse and Tarasenko the rookie sniper. The potential for this line is enough that it very well could supplant David Backes, T.J. Oshie and David Perron as the team's top line. Steen is available in 57.3 percent of ESPN leagues as of Thursday and Tarasenko is available in 85.6 percent. Grab them now and enjoy the spoils beyond the first week of the season.
Looking for goaltending
Washington Capitals: Braden Holtby has the starter's mantle for now, but coach Adam Oates was discussing a strong workload for Michal Neuvirth as well. Oates even went as far as saying he would go with the hot hand. While fantasy owners clearly favor Holtby, Neuvirth has a strong resume. The Caps have a five-game schedule this week, full of softer offensive opponents. The team will undoubtedly have a slimmer focus on defense with Oates at the helm compared to Dale Hunter last season, but the impact of that is still unknown. If you are truly desperate for some help this week, Neuvirth (available in 97.9 percent of ESPN leagues) might be worth a gamble for a couple starts.
Toronto Maple Leafs: James Reimer is not someone you want to be relying on as a regular fantasy starter (as indicated by his ownership in only 13.6 percent of ESPN leagues). But any goaltender can be worth a spot start on occasion. The Leafs have games against both the Montreal Canadiens and New York Islanders in the opening scoring period. Each contest could be a useful fantasy start for Reimer. Keep in mind that Reimer is not assured of getting the call, as Ben Scrivens is waiting in the wings for his chance.
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 $100 million fantasy budget. For more on the game and to sign up, click here.
The best advice for the very first week of the Hockey Challenge is to consider locking up some of your personal favorite sleepers for the season. Their salary will never be lower than it is right now. Pick out a couple of players who you personally believe will have the biggest breakout campaigns during this abbreviated NHL season and get them on your team. Remember that the salaries in the Hockey Challenge will rise with a player's performance. It won't be long before you could potentially be saving millions of fantasy dollars in your lineup because you have a rising superstar on the cheap.
The schedules: The St. Louis Blues, Philadelphia Flyers and Chicago Blackhawks are the only teams with a six-game schedule for the opening scoring period. The Anaheim Ducks, Boston Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes, Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche, Los Angeles Kings, Montreal Canadiens, New Jersey Devils and Edmonton Oilers have only four games. Every other team has five. The Flyers, Blues and Blackhawks have some clear candidates to consider since they all have an extra game to play. Marian Hossa ($7.8M) and Patrick Kane ($7.7M) are a little bit cheaper than some of the elite options, but have just as much upside. Andy McDonald ($6.7M), Brayden Schenn ($7.3M) and Dave Bolland ($5.1M) are good options to save some money on offense. Not only does Alex Pietrangelo ($6.8M) have a great schedule for the opening week, but you could lock him on your roster for the entire season and likely be pleased with the results. Nick Leddy ($5.7M) is a sleeper on defense after having a breakout campaign last season; he was second in the AHL in points during the lockout.
Goaltending: Remember: The wins don't have to be pretty for the Hockey Challenge, they just have to be wins. Jonathan Quick ($11.7M) may have only four games in this scoring period, but he should start all four and the Kings should win all four. While Cory Schneider ($11.5M) may get some rest during a five-game "week," the Vancouver Canucks have a favorable starting schedule and could conceivably begin the campaign 5-0 with games against the Anaheim Ducks (twice), Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks. Try to avoid Henrik Lundqvist ($11.7M) and Tuukka Rask ($11.4M) to begin the season. Though both are elite, they battle each other twice in this opening scoring period. If you are buying into the Carolina Hurricanes' improvements this season, Cam Ward ($11.3M) should be favored in games against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and a pair of contests against the Buffalo Sabres. If you need to save some dough in goaltending (though it's not advised early in the season), Ray Emery ($10.2M) could pick up a couple of starts with the Chicago Blackhawks having six games and James Reimer ($9.9M) could pick up a couple wins for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
My roster for next week:
Jonathan Quick, G ($11.7M)
Cory Schneider, G ($11.5M)
Alex Pietrangelo, D ($6.8M)
Mike Green, D ($6.2M)
Kimmo Timonen, D ($6.5M)
Kris Letang, D ($7.1M)
Sidney Crosby, F ($8.8M)
Evgeni Malkin, F ($8.7M)
Steven Stamkos, F ($8.7)
John Tavares, F ($8.4M)
Drew Stafford, F ($7.3M)
Tyler Ennis, F ($7.4M)
I have high hopes for my franchise after finishing among the top players last season in the Hockey Challenge. What's the secret? Constant management and not missing a week of lineup changes. It's easy when you have to write about it like I do, but you can also set up email alerts to make sure you don't forget to change out your squad.
My strategy for the opening week? Goaltenders who I think will collect at least eight wins between them and then a mix of sleepers and superstars. It may seem easy to put together a lineup in the first week because the salaries are so low, but they will go up quickly and start to limit your options. Of my defense, I hope to keep everyone except Timonen for an extended period of time. Timonen and the Flyers have a six-game week, though, so it's hard to resist. Up front, I used two sleeper picks on Stafford and Ennis because I believe their line for the Buffalo Sabres can be just as hot as it was at the end of last season. That allowed me to stack my other forward spots with superstars.