- Sean Allen
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Things are just getting started in the NHL season. That isn't just a pointless statement to start the column. There are four NHL teams that haven't taken to the ice as this Fantasy Forecaster is being created for next week's games. Luckily, the Forecaster can make do with a sampling of preseason statistics and some stats from last season. We still have numbers that can be used to forecast and rate the matchups in the week ahead -- just keep in mind that they aren't quite as meaningful as they will be in a few weeks.
The Fantasy Forecaster gets stronger every day as it builds a database of each NHL team's performance in shooting, scoring and special teams both on the road and at home.
But we'll get to the grid in a few moments. Given the small sample size of NHL games from this season, we don't want to overanalyze anything that has happened. But we don't want to ignore what we've seen, either. One performance that jumps off the page is Mikhail Grabovski's opening-night hat trick and five points in two games for the Washington Capitals. Why was he able to start the season that way? Isn't he playing on the second line for the Capitals?
Yes, he is on the second line. But he is also on the first power-play unit with Alex Ovechkin. It should come as no surprise when you notice that four of his five points have come with the man advantage. Grabovski's ownership skyrocketed from less than 20 percent of ESPN leagues to more than 80 percent in a day. He'll be almost universally owned in no time.
This isn't a case of owners wrongly reacting to an anomaly. No, Grabovski has a legitimate shot to be among the top 100 forwards this season, therefore making him worthy of universal ownership. But the question we can ask now to try and help ourselves going forward is -- why was he owned in fewer than one-fifth of fantasy leagues two days ago?
The answer is somewhat simple. Standard ESPN leagues comprise 10 teams that require nine forwards to a roster. That's 90 starting forwards. There are 30 NHL teams, so on average that is three forwards per team to make up the starting roster in an ESPN standard league -- iIn other words, each team's top line.
Obviously that is not true in practice, and some teams, like the Penguins, have more obvious players worth owning than others, such as the Flames. But the average would suggest that you should be able to fill your roster with nothing but top-liners in a standard league. That is probably why Grabovski got overlooked in the majority of leagues this season. He is just another second-line player with potential who only got on our radars now because of a big first game. But we could have seen this coming.
The top line for the Capitals consists of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson. But Grabovski jumps up when the Caps go on the man advantage and plays on the top unit with Ovechkin, Johansson, Troy Brouwer and Mike Green. Playing on a good power play means points and playing on the second line means a few more points. Who else fits this description? Let's see what other teams have been doing to start the season and what other players might be worth adding before they have a breakout game.
Alex Tanguay, LW, Colorado Avalanche: Tanguay has three assists, and as with Grabovski, it should be no surprise to learn that two of them came on the power play. Tanguay was coach Patrick Roy's choice to join Matt Duchene, Steve Downie and Ryan O'Reilly on the top power-play unit. At even strength, Tanguay played with Gabriel Landeskog and Paul Stastny. Available in more than 90 percent of ESPN leagues, Tanguay should not be overlooked.
Bryan Bickell, LW, Chicago Blackhawks: Playing on the top line with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and then on the top power-play unit with Toews, Kane and Patrick Sharp, Bickell is a great pickup for his potential. He clearly earned his way into this role thanks to his 17 points and plus-11 during the Blackhawks' run to the Stanley Cup last season (23 games). The even-strength role is the same one he played during the postseason, but the power-play role is new. If you missed out on Grabovski, Bickell actually has better upside and is still available in 85 percent of ESPN leagues.
Alex Chiasson, RW, Dallas Stars: His run of six goals and seven points in just seven games to finish last season obviously was not lost on coach Lindy Ruff; Chiasson beat out rookie Valeri Nichushkin to start the season on the Stars' second line. Playing with Cody Eakin and Ray Whitney at even strength, Chiasson teams up with the entire top line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Erik Cole on the power play. The Stars had a pretty rough go on the man advantage last season, but Ruff has some success with special teams, and Sergei Gonchar is a better quarterback than Alex Goligoski, so the unit should be improved.
Ryan Malone, LW, Tampa Bay Lightning: When the Lightning sent Jonathan Drouin back to to juniors, there were still a lot of options to choose from for the top line with Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos. Malone won the job and is playing with them on the first power-play unit as well. Note that Malone likely will have the job only until he gets hurt. If he can stay healthy, though, there will be plenty of fantasy value flowing from Malone's stick. Pick him up wherever he is available.
Looking for offense
Florida Panthers: The Forecaster doesn't give the Panthers' four-game schedule much love with only an O:6 rating, but we like it more because the only elite goaltender on the Oct. 13 docket is Jonathan Quick, and the Panthers will have home ice. There were a couple of surprises during the Panthers' opening win against the Dallas Stars Thursday. First and foremost is that Shawn Matthias, who was expected to open the season as Stephen Weiss' replacement on the top line, was buried on the third line. Meanwhile, Marcel Goc, who is better known for his defense than his offense, scored a pair of goals (one an empty-netter) while playing the game on the top line with Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg. Is this the line combination that gives the Panthers the most potential for offense? No. But will this be the line combination going forward for the Panthers? It just might be.
If you gambled on Matthias in deeper leagues, it's OK to cut bait and look for help elsewhere (no one will scoop him up on you). In deeper leagues, you can consider adding Goc because offense is going to flow from the top line and if he is on the ice, he'll get points. What better week to try him out than one where the Panthers have four games and get to face the Philadelphia Flyers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins?
The other surprise in the Panthers' win was the first power-play unit. Was it Goc or Matthias between Versteeg and Fleischmann? Nope. OK, was it rookie Aleksander Barkov? Reigning Calder winner Jonathan Huberdeau? Veteran and former 40-goal scorer Brad Boyes? Nope.
It was Scott Gomez, who has a total of 64 points in 157 games and a minus-34 the past three seasons. Gomez, who almost didn't have a job in the NHL last season. Gomez, who hasn't been fantasy-relevant since 2007-08. He scored a goal at even strength and spent time on the top power-play unit the whole game. Don't add him yet, but be aware of the depth chart for the Panthers. Both Goc and Gomez could surprise this season while fantasy owners are too busy speculating on Matthias, Barkov or Drew Shore for help.
Montreal Canadiens: They have only three games on the schedule, but the Forecaster is a big fan of the team's road trip against the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks, yielding an O:9 rating. The Canadiens' offense is tricky this season and with three lines capable of scoring, there will inevitably be several potential fantasy assets that disappoint. There just isn't enough scoring to go around to make all of the Canadiens worth owning. Oddly enough, it's the youngest line that is probably the safest bet. Lars Eller, Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher found a way to contribute enough to be on fantasy rosters last season despite limited ice time. They will find a way to do it again.
The tough decision is whether the line of Tomas Plekanec, Rene Bourque and Brian Gionta or the line of David Desharnais, Daniel Briere and Max Pacioretty is the bigger letdown. Both lines have potential and have different strengths. The Desharnais line has the early advantage as the favorite on the power play, but this battle will continue. The good news is that, on weeks when the Canadiens have a positive offensive outlook (such as this week), it's probably safe to use members of either line.
Looking for goaltending
Martin Brodeur, G, New Jersey Devils: Available in 74 percent of ESPN leagues, the pendulum may have swung too far the other way on fantasy owners backing Cory Schneider. The Devils have four games next week and Schneider wasn't exactly stellar in the season opener against the Penguins. We will get a look at Brodeur Friday night against the New York Islanders, but expect a solid performance from the veteran. Yes, Schneider has the potential to earn a bigger workload this season, but he has to earn it first. Brodeur could easily end up starting two or more games next week depending on how the Devils perform this weekend. Coach Peter DeBoer has the advantage of riding whichever goaltender is hot this season, and Brodeur has the chance to be the hotter one off the top. Did we mention the Devils scored a D:10 on the Forecaster for next week?
Michal Neuvirth, G, Washington Capitals: Going back to when they were both still prospects, Neuvirth always had the better pedigree as a potential NHL starter, but Braden Holtby certainly earned his place as the presumptive No. 1 entering this season with his regular-season and playoff performances. That said, when there is a talented guy like Neuvirth waiting in the wings, you can't afford any stumbles. Holtby didn't stumble -- he has fallen flat on his face to start the season. After a five-goal special served up by the Blackhawks on Tuesday, Holtby allowed three goals to the Calgary Flames in Thursday's first period before he was lifted. Neuvirth held the Flames to one goal the remainder of the game as the Capitals came back to tie it, and Neuvirth was perfect in the shootout to earn the win.
Is it too soon to call it a goaltending controversy for the Capitals? When both goaltenders are younger than 26 and neither has started a full NHL season, it's never too early to call it a controversy. The Caps have only two games next week, but now is the time to strike on Neuvirth.
• Other names considered for the column's opening about forwards not on their team's top line, but playing on the top power-play unit included: Jesse Joensuu, LW, Edmonton Oilers; Dany Heatley, RW/LW, Minnesota Wild; Nick Bonino, C, Anaheim Ducks; and J.T. Miller, C, New York Rangers.
• Andre Benoit, D, Colorado Avalanche: He led all Avs defensemen in ice time and was the power-play quarterback for the first unit. Because he is available in 99 percent of ESPN leagues, this has to be considered a surprise. He has always looked like a defensive defenseman, but coach Patrick Roy must see something. Go get him.
• Dougie Hamilton, D, Boston Bruins; Sami Vatanen, D, Anaheim Ducks; Kris Russell, D, Calgary Flames; and Anton Belov, D, Edmonton Oilers are other defensemen who played more power-play time than might have been expected this week.
Each week, the Fantasy Forecaster also will include some advice for the ESPN Hockey Challenge. This is the salary-cap game that allows you free rein over your fantasy hockey decisions within a $100 million fantasy budget. For more on the game and to sign up, click here.
When evaluating your lineup for the Hockey Challenge, one thing that still should be easy for this week is dropping a player with only two games to pick one up with three or four games on the schedule. At this point, you don't have much invested in the player and they haven't gained much value to make keeping them worth your while. But that decision will begin to become difficult. A player on the rise can help you grow your cap to make holding on to inflating assets more manageable. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are sure to see a spike in their value this week, but they have only two games next week. And it's early in the season so it's easy to slide them out of your lineup right now. But if this were later in the campaign and both players were already trending higher, it might not be so easy to switch them out.
One way to make evaluating the situation easier is to keep an eye on the points-per-game statistic. The numbers will mean nothing with only one game this season, but the Hockey Challenge shows you how many fantasy points a player is averaging. Right now, the column shows you their average from last season but that will change once we have enough meaningful numbers from this season. Multiplying the number by the number of games played can give you a better sense of that players expected value for the week ahead. Ovechkin's average value of 1.2 per game multiplied by two games next week gives us a value of 2.4. But Derek Stepan's 0.9 points per game last season multiplied by four games next week gives us a value of 3.6.
Of course, you have to make your own decisions. The rising cap in the Hockey Challenge is a new wrinkle this season compared to previous years. I'm making the decision to keep Ovechkin and Backstrom this week in hopes that the impact to my salary cap can be maximized in the coming weeks with what I think will be a prolonged hot start to the season.
My roster for next week:
Jonathan Quick, G, LA - $11.4M
Jimmy Howard, G, DET - $11.3M
Mike Green, D, WSH - $7.0M
Alex Pietrangelo, D, STL - $6.9M
Sergei Gonchar, D, DAL - $6.8M
Lubomir Visnovsky, D, NYI - $6.3M
Alex Ovechkin, F, WSH - $8.7M
Nicklas Backstrom, F, WSH - $8.1M
Brad Richards, F, NYR - $6.9M
Sidney Crosby, F, PIT - $8.8M
Eric Staal, F, CAR - $8.3M
Claude Giroux, F, PHI - $8.6M
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