The St. Louis Blues aren't even close to the same offense fantasy owners relied on last year. Here's hoping a coaching change can turn things around.
With Andy Murray out and Davis Payne in, the Blues are clearly hoping for two things to happen: for Payne to have success comparable to other AHL coaches moving up to the NHL, and for the 39-year-old Payne to elicit some strong play from the younger players on the team. The Blues have one of the best crops of prospects in the NHL right now, and a big part of their underachieving this season can be attributed to the young guys not building on the previous season's success. David Perron, Patrik Berglund and T.J. Oshie were a huge part of the team's success, but are all on pace for significant drops in production this season. All three players are under 23 and may relate better to Payne than the 58-year-old Murray.
As far as other coaches using their knowledge in the AHL to become instant hits as NHL coaches, you need look no further than last season's Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Dan Bylsma turned an also-ran season for the Pens into a championship after taking over last February (though Payne won't inherit a team already stocked with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury). There are more recent examples with Joe Sacco's early success with the Colorado Avalanche, John Anderson's strong offense for the Atlanta Thrashers, or even the success Bruce Boudreau is having with the Washington Capitals.
It may also be worth pointing out that the Blues actually had a worse record at this point last year, and went on to post a 25-9-7 record over the last 41 games to make the playoffs. After 43 games this season the Blues are 17-18-6 following Payne's first loss as an NHL head coach, Saturday against the Chicago Blackhawks. Last season, after 43 games, they were 16-22-3. Consider that for a few moments. The Blues were in a worse position at this point last season and turned things around to make the playoffs. We cannot write this team off.
At this point last season, Chris Mason was waiver-wire fodder. He would finish the season as the NHL's best goaltender in the second half.
At this point last season, Oshie was having a very subpar rookie season with five points in just 13 games. He would finish the season with 34 points in the final 44 games.
At this point last season, Carlo Colaiacovo still didn't have much of a role on his new team. He would finish the season as the power-play quarterback and add 14 power-play assists in the final few months.
At this point last season, David Backes hadn't drawn too much fantasy interest with 18 points in 37 games. He would finish the season with 36 points in 45 games, including 20 goals at a critical time of the year for fantasy owners.
So what needs to happen under Payne? Hopefully not too much, as the Blues just have to recognize that they were even further behind the eight ball last season when they turned things around. Payne simply needs to turn around the Blues' 16 percent conversion rate on the power play and restore some confidence. With ownership in ESPN leagues between 70 and 80 percent for many of the Blues' key players, there should be at least one free agent for you to speculate on.
"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 year-to-date and past 21 days' 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 Games T / H column lists the team's total number of games played as well as home games (T / H), and lists the cumulative rating from 1-10 of that week's matchups.
Thrashers to buck trend: With eight straight losses, the Atlanta Thrashers might not be the first place you look for some help on offense, but scoring has never been this team's problem. Despite having more goals than any Eastern Conference team except the Capitals, the Thrashers would still be out of the playoff picture if the season had ended Saturday night. The Forecaster reflects this situation next week by expecting the Thrashers to have one of the best offensive weeks and the worst defensive week. The 6-5 loss to the New York Islanders on Saturday night may just be the first of several games with double-digit goals scored. A road game against the Penguins doesn't rate in the extreme, but the Thrashers finish with home games against the New York Rangers and Capitals that are almost off the charts. Stay far away from the Thrashers' goaltenders, though that likely goes without saying. As for the offense, players you have been forced to take out of your lineup in recent weeks could be due to go back in. Rich Peverley has dropped from plus-5 to minus-5 over the past two weeks, but he should be started for the coming week. Slava Kozlov is also a good start given his role on the first power-play unit with Peverley, Ilya Kovalchuk and Nik Antropov.
Isles have hot hand: There is almost constant line juggling occurring amongst the Isles lately, but the team seems to finally have the forwards they need to put the pieces together. Frans Nielsen, Rob Schremp, Josh Bailey and Jon Sim have all been chipping in lately, while rotating on lines that also include Matt Moulson, Kyle Okposo and Trent Hunter. Not to mention the duo of John Tavares and Blake Comeau, which hasn't been split up lately, nor the line of Doug Weight, Jeff Tambellini and Richard Park. The Islanders really do look like they are close to having a combination or two that proves to be really dangerous and supplies the fantasy world with a couple of key performers down the stretch. The problem is deciding exactly which combination will be the one to finally click. Potential sleepers are Bailey, Schremp and Nielsen. With Bailey and Schremp working together, Bailey's two-way skills mask the defensive shortcomings of Schremp. Nielsen just needs to be on a line with a goal scorer to pass to consistently, so hopefully he lands with Tavares. Watch this team over the coming weeks to see if you can pick out any sleepers to nab. The Forecaster actually gives them a decent offensive week ahead, with a particularly strong rating for their game against the Dallas Stars.
Nabokov loves home: The San Jose Sharks on a homestand means Evgeni Nabokov owners only need one goaltender this week. Nabokov has a ridiculous 1.93 goals-against average and a stellar .936 save percentage on home ice this season. With the Los Angeles Kings, Blues and Detroit Red Wings entering the Shark Tank next week, make sure you have Nabokov ready to go. For that matter, such a strong defensive rating on the Forecaster also tells you to look for plus/minus value. Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Rob Blake come to mind as the best options in the plus department.
No Monster this week: My colleague Tim Kavanagh points to the upcoming schedule as a test for whether or not Jonas Gustavsson is ready to be a fantasy hockey regular. I agree with all his points, but I simply want to suggest you watch the test from the sidelines. The Forecaster gives the Toronto Maple Leafs a horrific four-game defensive rating next week. If you want to put "the Monster" on your bench to see what he does, go ahead, but leave him out of your starting lineup for games against the Florida Panthers, Philadelphia Flyers, Buffalo Sabres and Penguins. The Leafs don't rate better than a three on any of those games and average a two for the week on defense.
Sean Allen is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com and the 2008 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Hockey Writer of the Year. You can e-mail him here.