[Editors's note: Since this column was published on December 17, the NHL has since announced that all games will be paused until December 27, with Tuesday's remaining games being the last to be played before the break. As always, stay tuned to ESPN for any updates involving game postponements, player status, and more.]
Not gonna lie - it feels a little strange to be putting out the forecaster for fantasy hockey games that I think is going to be wrong shortly after it hits the web. The way the Omicron COVID-19 variant is sweeping through the league, I don't have much hope for next week's already-shortened schedule to remain intact. Yet another game was punted on Friday morning, with the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens matchup on Saturday wiped out.
As of Friday morning, there are 74 NHL players from 17 different NHL teams listed in COVID-19 protocol. That's a little more than 10 percent of the league based on a 23-man roster. This isn't a fantasy epidemiology column, so I'm not going to speculate on what's to come, or whether this is the peak or not, but it doesn't hurt to consider that we might be waiting for the other shoe to drop.
As the ESPN NHL writing staff reports, the league is currently not considering a pause of any kind, but, as we've seen from this week's COVID snowball, "currently" is a very relative term.
As we learned last season, COVID management is a part of fantasy hockey now, so it doesn't hurt to do a little speculating on how we could anticipate of some of the worst-case scenarios on the horizon, and look at trade opportunities.
Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, F, Tampa Bay Lightning: The pair of Lightning forwards aren't in a rush to get back into the lineup, with the team remaining dominant without them. But both have been practising again and a return to health in January is a distinct possibility. Neither have been dropped in very many leagues, as fantasy managers know what is on offer here, but trade offers are a distinct possibility. Best guesses at Kucherov's current recovery have him missing maybe another eight games with the current schedule intact, which means, value-wise, you are looking at players like John Tavares, Anze Kopitar or Chris Kreider as comparables for remaining fantasy points. But if a pause or change in schedule saves some of those eight games for when Kucherov is healthy, he quickly rises to ranks to the same tier as Brad Marchand, Nathan MacKinnon or Jake Guentzel.
The same logic applies to Point, but knock the fantasy points per game down from Kucherov's 2.9 to Point's 1.9. Any games saved for when he would be healthy again push up his current value.
Jack Eichel, C, Vegas Golden Knights: His current timetable has Eichel returning to game readiness at the front end of the three-week break in the schedule in February currently reserved for the Olympics. But the Knights don't return to action until late February, as the schedule stands. It means that, at the moment and based on conservative estimates for his fantasy production, Eichel is not worth an active roster spot. Thirty-two games just isn't enough to get his remaining potential high enough to compete with a lesser asset currently accruing points.
But as soon as you start moving more games into his potentially healthy window, you can start to make an argument for Eichel being worthy of an active roster spot now. If we give him a conservative 2.1 fantasy points per game (FPPG) on the current schedule of 32 games after the break, Eichel sits around 300th among skaters for remaining fantasy points. But what if he does well and gets more games? At 2.5 FPPG and 36 games remaining, Eichel suddenly moves to around 150th in remaining points. And, of course, that value only ticks up with each NHL slate that passes. A COVID pause of any kind would make Eichel, available in 60 percent of ESPN leagues, an immediate target.
Carey Price, G, Montreal Canadiens: We can extend the pause logic to a player like Price, too. Out of commission since the start of the season both for personal recovery and surgery recovery, Price has been making baby steps toward a return. The Canadiens are, generally speaking, a hot mess this season. But that hasn't stopped Price from putting this entire team on his back in the past. Like Eichel, any games that get shuffled from Price missing to Price potentially being available for only bolster what potential he has a a savior to the club this season.
Evgeni Malkin, C, Pittsburgh Penguins: He's been on the ice with his fellow Penguins for some time now in practice, but we still don't have a timetable for his return. Malkin likely doesn't have the same zip that's associated with his name as one of the greats of the past decade or so, but 1.7 FPPG (last season) with the potential for more if he's in a groove is nothing to sneeze at. Once again, like the aforementioned players on the sidelines, any kind of a pause or game shuffle that moves games to where Malkin is healthy increases his value. His availability is down to 20 percent of ESPN leagues as the game of "Pickup Malkin Chicken" is already played out in many leagues. It's worth checking in yours though.
Alec Martinez, D, Vegas Golden Knights: The effects of a skate to the face have lingered much longer than initially anticipated for Martinez. He's been out since Nov. 11. I don't need to rehash the schedule arrangement argument here, but do want to note what Martinez represents: He was the No. 1 fantasy defenseman last season when it comes to total fantasy points and fantasy points per 60 minutes (FPP60). No other defenseman earned as much fantasy value or as much fantasy value relative to ice time in the entire league. Yet he's available in 15 percent of ESPN leagues at the moment.
Fantasy Forecaster: Dec. 20 to Dec. 26
Just do your best to set a lineup. Mercifully, the COVID uncertainty in the schedule comes when the league is already taking a three-day break that falls entirely within next week's scoring period. That should minimize any consequences of locking players into your roster that end up having games postponed.
With the Flames, Avs and Panthers on pause next week, it takes seven games off the docket in what was already a limited week.
In addition to zero games out of the paused clubs, the Bruins, Red Wings, Blackhawks, Predators, Maple Leafs and Kraken join the Rangers with only one game (the Rangers already had just one scheduled). It's going to be a tough week to eek out those goaltender appearance minimums in head-to-head leagues, so get ready to micromanage where you have to (Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, anyone?).
Dallas Stars: If I'm trying to win this week in a head-to-head league, the Stars will be my first stop for fringe additions. They are the best three-game option that has no games scheduled against a team that features a growing COVID-19 list. The Stars are poised to host the Wild and Jets, then visit the Blackhawks. In shallower leagues, where they are available, I'm adding and starting Jamie Benn and Esa Lindell. Both have been spot-start worthy all season. This is also a week to grab John Klingberg where available. Yes, the results have been awful, but it's a three-game week and Miro Heiskanen is under the weather with his status unclear.
Nathan Walker, C, St. Louis Blues: A 27-year-old that's been toiling in the AHL for the last eight years doesn't leap off the page as a must-grab - especially when he's not playing on a scoring line or getting power-play time. But it's hard to argue with four goals and a helper in four games. At the very least, it's worth noting that the only Australian to ever play in the NHL is popping off at the moment, but we'll have to see what happens when the Blues start getting healthy again (six regular forwards currently out).
Alex Tuch, W, Buffalo Sabres: He's been a fantasy asset when given the right role in his career, and opportunities about with the Sabres. But I don't think the team breaks up the top-line chemistry between Jeff Skinner, Tage Thompson and Victor Olofsson. While Tuch could join them on the advantage, I don't think there's enough opportunity there to warrant fantasy consideration upon his looming return to health. That said, Tuch has been the consummate injury replacement in his career, so keep him on your watch list.
Warren Foegele, W, Edmonton Oilers: With Zach Hyman hovering somewhere between day-to-day and week-to-week, Foegele steps in as his replacement on a line with Connor McDavid. It's worth using him while Hyman is sidelined.