While the Fantasy Forecaster uses a stat range of three weeks to consider the recent trends of performance by teams in the NHL, there is something about the 15-day window (usually covering six or seven games) that often identifies individual players of merit. There are no empirical numbers to back up this conclusion, but the results on the ESPN Player Rater for the past 15 days seem to give a nicer mix of players who are trending up and worthy of attention. Seven days highlight the flash-in-the-pan players, while the 30-day range is a large enough sample for most of the cream to rise to the top. Here are some observations from the past 15 days on the Player Rater (through games of Thursday).
The top skater is Alex Ovechkin, which is a huge relief to his fantasy owners who held on through a very difficult start to the season. As mentioned here on Dec. 19, Ovechkin clearly had some shooting percentage and confidence issues and needed some time under new coach Dale Hunter to find his feet. Hunter put Ovechkin back with Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin and the results have been fantastic. Ovechkin has six goals and 10 points in the past six games (15 days). Enjoy the ride from here on out.
No. 2 overall on the 15-day Player Rater is Tuukka Rask. He has played just three games in that span but has allowed one goal on 76 shots. Those numbers are outstanding. In fact, stretch the data back a calendar month and Rask has allowed three goals in six appearances, posted three shutouts and stopped 158 of 161 shots fired against him. But consider this: On the season-long ESPN Player Rater, Tim Thomas is No. 2 overall while Tuukka Rask is No. 7. That's right: A backup goaltender is the seventh-best fantasy asset this season, with the lead man still ahead of him. As good as Thomas has been, Rask's third shutout in four attempts means we are going to start seeing more of him. The starting split so far has been 65:35 Thomas to Rask, but don't be surprised if we see that begin to trend toward 50:50.
Remember how there was a window of opportunity in November when you could have traded for Roberto Luongo at bargain-basement prices? Looking back on his lights-out performance since then, you probably wish you had just trusted in his track record and pulled the trigger, right? Well, that sound you just heard was the same window of opportunity closing on Tomas Vokoun. Taken as one of the top three goaltenders on draft day, Vokoun had been epically disappointing as the Washington Capitals swooned out of the gates. Things were iffy enough that by mid-December, it looked like Michal Neuvirth would be the No. 1 goalie. But once the Caps' offense started rolling and Vokoun was allowed to step back into net on Dec. 26, he hasn't looked back. In five straight starts, Vokoun has four wins and has allowed just six goals to put him No. 4 on the 15-day Player Rater. The Capitals are back to their winning ways, and Vokoun is going to be the goaltender we all thought he would be on draft day. You could still possibly swing a deal on the cheap; Vokoun is No. 126 on the season-long Player Rater.
While I mentioned that the cream of the crop tends to rise to the top over the 30-day Player Rater, the same is somewhat true of the 15-day one. But there are still some unowned assets who show up more prominently on the 15-day version. Case in point: Steve Downie of the Tampa Bay Lightning, available in 27 percent of ESPN leagues. While he still shows up as No. 32 on the 30-day Player Rater, his position as No. 15 on the 15-day Player Rater is more indicative of his upside. The line of Downie, Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis has been reunited from last season, and Downie is reveling in the opportunity. He recently strung together a three-game point streak with seven points, and while he doesn't have points in his past two games he tossed up 20 penalty minutes. Now with 100 PIMs and the potential to start collecting points at the pace he did last season (32 points in 57 games), there is no reason to be shy about adding Downie to the mix.
"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.
Montreal Canadiens: While the exact line combinations didn't stick, the theory from last week's Forecaster about coach Randy Cunneyworth taking the training wheels off his young players was very sound. Just because he can't speak French doesn't mean Cunneyworth can't speak the language of fantasy. We love to see young prospects finally get their chance to shine. Lars Eller has four goals and two assists in the three games since he was featured here last week. Cunneyworth's faith in the young star has allowed him to bust out with Andrei Kostitsyn as a linemate. Eller remains available in 99 percent of ESPN leagues and his ceiling is high. In a week in which the Canadiens have four games and a decent O:6 on the Forecaster, there are plenty of reasons to try him out.
Tampa Bay Lightning: As mentioned above, Downie is still available and rocking most statistical categories of late (save for plus/minus). The Bolts have a four-game week ahead, and while some of the matchups are tough, it's difficult to resist the extra game. Even Vincent Lecavalier, who is not on the top line and in the midst of one of his worst fantasy seasons, should be a consideration for your lineup. Lecavalier has two points in two games and five points in six games and is still featured on the top power-play unit.
Pittsburgh Penguins: As expected, Sidney Crosby's extended absence has meant a spike in production for Jordan Staal. There is a big difference in offensive expectations when Staal is the second-line center instead of the third-line. With a lower-body injury behind him, Staal has three goals in four games. On that second line with Staal is Tyler Kennedy, who has seven points in six games. The Pens have a four-game week with an O:7 on the Forecaster and are deserving of some extra attention this week.
Florida Panthers: The Panthers only have two games next week and rate a lowly O:1 on the Forecaster, but this is actually a time to be optimistic about the team's scoring. Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann and Stephen Weiss have fallen off their prolific scoring paces from earlier this season, but the trouble seemed to coincide with Weiss' upper-body injury. He is back skating 20 minutes a night again and looks ready to get the top line going once more. Even better, Mikael Samuelsson has returned to begin cobbling together a second line that is formidable enough to take some pressure off the top unit. Samuelsson had a pair of points in his return Thursday from an undisclosed injury. Maybe next week isn't the time to benefit from the Panthers' rejuvenated offense, but you can at least watch for positive change.
Winnipeg Jets: With games against the Boston Bruins, San Jose Sharks and New Jersey Devils, combined with the questionable availability of Blake Wheeler, there is a chance the Jets will struggle on offense next week. Wheeler played against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday after taking a puck off his foot Wednesday, but his six-game point streak ended. That may indicate he is less than 100 percent. Still, the dude is on fire and should not be left out of lineups if he is healthy, so check his status this weekend. The tough schedule likely means Wheeler would be the only select choice next week for the Jets.
Washington Capitals: Be aware that Backstrom and Semin are day to day heading into the weekend, but if healthy, this should be a good week for the Caps' plus/minus rating. The offense is rolling and the defense has a D:10 on the Forecaster to work with. Dennis Wideman and Roman Hamrlik are plus-6 during the past six games, with Hamrlik available in 73 percent of ESPN leagues.
Toronto Maple Leafs: There is something in the Forecaster that clearly doesn't like the indicators generated by the Leafs' statistics this season. The formulas are seemingly unwilling to budge on the Leafs as a D:1 on the Forecaster. The argument is not without merits, but there is always value to be found in the right situation. Jonas Gustavsson has won two straight contests as James Reimer continues to struggle. Gustavsson is available in 93 percent of ESPN leagues and, despite the weak Forecaster rating, the Leafs have a pair of games against the recently hapless Buffalo Sabres. Ryan Miller is at risk of having his save percentage join his goals-against average on the wrong side of the accepted thresholds of .900 and 3.00 (Miller has a .900 save percentage and a 3.05 GAA). While the Monster probably can't be counted on for more shutouts next week, notching a couple of wins with acceptable ratios against the Buffalo Sabres does seem a likely outcome.
The San Jose Sharks appear to have undertaken a new commitment to shooting on goal in recent weeks. They have outpaced every other team in the NHL during the past three weeks with 37.6 shots on goal per game. The results of the renewed focus have not been apparent just yet, but it will come.
Dan Boyle and Brent Burns, in particular, have begun shooting with aplomb in recent weeks. Among defensemen, only Erik Karlsson and Dion Phaneuf have fired more shots than Boyle's 27 and Burn's 25 in the past 15 days. Both players have been disappointing in the scoring department and may be on your short list of players to explore selling, but this uptick in attempted production is worth monitoring for at least a little while longer. After all, the talent is there for more scoring on this Sharks team and talent usually wins out in the end.
Best bets: I am personally having a very hard time letting go of Luongo ($15.3M) and Jonathan Quick ($14.2M) because of salary cap savings associated with them, but if you have not locked in savings in a goaltender, it is definitely time to get Tomas Vokoun ($14.9M) into the mix. The Washington Capitals netminder has been red hot lately, and the team has a solid defensive schedule during the next scoring period. In a week that is generally weak for offense in the NHL for the next scoring period, the Tampa Bay Lightning's four-game schedule may be better than it looks despite games against the Vancouver Canucks, Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins (plus a contest against the Carolina Hurricanes). Stamkos ($11.4M) and St. Louis ($10.1M) have immediately recaptured some magic from last season and should be some of the top contributors next week.
Weekly bargains: If you have been lagging a bit in your Hockey Challenge group and need to start making some bolder moves in hopes of climbing the standings, I offer you Rask ($11.6M). Rask, as a No. 2 goaltender in name only, has a significantly discounted price and has 21 points in the Hockey Challenge by playing in 14 games. As discussed in this week's Forecaster, Rask is due for an increase in his share of the workload and his propensity for shutouts could mean big points. I would advise against Rask if you are competing strongly in your group, but as a home run swing, he offers decent savings in the goaltender department with strong upside. His history the past two seasons makes you want to shy away, but what if Mike Green ($7.3M) is healthy again? You know that his ceiling is higher than that of any other defenseman in the NHL for fantasy production, so taking a shot at him now while the price is in the basement is the best time to take advantage. The Montreal Canadiens have a four-game week and Eller ($4.6M) just made a statement about his potential as a scorer. If he continues to show confidence, he could provide significant bang for the buck.
Rentals: If you don't have Daniel Sedin ($11.2M) and Henrik Sedin ($11.5M) locked in at a lower price, they are beginning to price themselves out of the market for weekly roster changes. The Vancouver Canucks remain the best place to look for talent, but consider going the cheap rental route. Christopher Higgins ($5.7M) has been cold lately, but is half the price of a Sedin. Cody Hodgson ($6.1M) is another option as he continues to make the most of his limited third-line minutes. The way the Bruins offense has been piling up the points, everyone is getting a part of the action. Add in the fact that the shutouts by the goaltenders have been giving bonus points to defensemen in the Hockey Challenge and you have a recipe for some cheap defensive success. Andrew Ference ($6.0M) has eight points in his past 10 games plus four points from shutouts in that time frame.
My roster for next week:
Roberto Luongo, G ($14.3M / $15.3M on market)
Jonathan Quick, G ($13.4M / $14.2M on market)
Kevin Bieksa, D ($7.0M / $8.2M on market)
Erik Karlsson, D ($6.4M / $9.0M on market)
Mike Green, D ($7.3M on market)
Alexander Edler, D ($7.9M / $9.5M on market)
Daniel Sedin, F ($9.0M / $11.2M on market)
Lars Eller, F ($4.6M)
Tyler Seguin, F ($7.6M)
Phil Kessel, F ($7.7M / $10.2M on market)
Henrik Sedin, F ($8.9M / $11.5M on market)
Jordan Staal, F ($5.9M)
Sean Allen is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is the 2008 and 2009 Fantasy Sports Writers Association, Hockey Writer of the Year. You can send him a note here or tweet him @seanard with the hashtag #FantasyHockey for a timelier response.