As we head into the penultimate week of the fantasy hockey season, we dedicate this space to urge you to do your due diligence.
Whether you are fighting to keep the top spot or move up in the standings in a rotisserie league, you are doing yourself a great disservice if you aren't category-stalking at this point of the season. With so many games during the regular season, it is often pointless to figure out which categories you can target for an additional point in the standings. The more games remaining in the season, the more things can change, and the more your work can become meaningless. But the converse is true: The fewer games remaining, the fewer things can change and the more important your work can become.
Dig deeply into your standings. Look to see where you can gain a few points through slight improvement. With fewer than 10 games remaining in the NHL season, you should be able to calculate exactly what it would take to make a move against your opponents. Since you can't make that move through trade anymore, you are going to need to look at which categories you can afford to sacrifice in order to make the move.
This is an extreme example: Say you lead the assists category and are middle-of-the-pack for penalty minutes. But you lead assists by 15 helpers and the three teams ahead of you are only leading you by 10 to 20 PIMs. You don't get extra points for finishing way out ahead of the pack for assists -- you just need to have one more than the next guy. Do you bench Henrik Sedin next week and start George Parros instead? As mentioned, that's an extreme example. But it's an example that could end up netting you two or three extra rotisserie points at a low cost.
The same principles hold true for head-to-head leagues. You do not need to defeat your playoff opponent 9-1 or 8-2 to advance to the next round. You simply need to win 6-5. If you have constructed a fantasy team through the season that is balanced, now is the time to unbalance it. Look at your possible playoff opponents and look for category weaknesses to target, but also look for category strengths where you may not want to waste your efforts. While you don't want to throw a category, if your opponent has both Henrik Lundqvist and Antti Niemi, you probably don't want to scramble for extra goaltending help. Hope for the best with what you have against your opponent's strengths, and use your pickups to target the weaknesses.
But have a measure of common sense when it comes to doing category targeting. In the above example where your opponent has both Henrik Lundqvist and Antti Niemi for goaltenders, it may not be worth your effort to scramble with weaker goaltenders to boost your chances. But if you are in one of the 20 percent of ESPN leagues where Brian Elliot is available, maybe you add him to your goaltender rotation and take a shot. Elliot's three straight shutouts certainly offer encouragement for him outperforming almost any NHL goaltender during the remainder of the season. However, in the same example, if the available goaltenders are limited to players like Richard Bachman, who may or may not start more games while Kari Lehtonen is hurt, or Anton Khudobin, who is getting some infrequent work down the stretch, then maybe you want to focus your efforts elsewhere for your matchup. Your opponent with Lundqvist and Niemi should have weaknesses on offense.
Head-to-head leagues also need to pay close attention to the Forecaster when it comes to how many games are being played in a given week. The Detroit Red Wings and Nashville Predators only play two contests this week, and that may put some owners at a disadvantage that they need to make up somewhere else. The following week -- the final week of the fantasy hockey season -- is also one day shorter than most weeks as play concludes on a Saturday. The Detroit Red Wings, Edmonton Oilers, Phoenix Coyotes and Chicago Blackhawks are the only four teams with four games during the final "week" of the season. The Buffalo Sabres and Columbus Blue Jackets are at the other end during the final week, with only two games to play.
If you are looking at both weeks combined for the purpose of rotisserie leagues or points leagues, the Buffalo Sabres and Nashville Predators are at a slight disadvantage with only five games to play while all other teams with have six or seven. Luckily, the Sabres and Predators don't have a whole lot of fantasy-relevant players.
Looking for offense
Montreal Canadiens: The Habs boast an O:10 for a four-game week on the Forecaster and look solid for scoring in every game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals. With the return of offensive catalyst Rene Bourque, the team has several options for fantasy owners. Alex Galchenyuk, who is available in 94 percent of ESPN leagues, is looking to close out his rookie season on a high note and maybe sneak into the Calder Trophy discussion. He's now playing with Lars Eller and Michael Ryder at even strength, certainly a combination that can score. Eller had a pair of goals against the Capitals on Tuesday and Ryder helped set up Galchenyuk on Thursday. Bourque scored his first goal since returning from a concussion on Thursday in the win against the Buffalo Sabres. Bourque is available in 96 percent of ESPN leagues and is a top-100 forward when healthy. He is skating with Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta on a line that has to be a nightmare for opponents and a dream come true for Plekanec. The new line combinations with Bourque back leave Brandon Prust on the outside of a scoring line looking in, but that shouldn't matter for folks who want some penalty minutes. With 97 PIMs this season, Prust has been one of the best sources for pugilist points. He is available in 89 percent of ESPN leagues.
Boston Bruins: First it was Patrice Bergeron, and now Brad Marchand is out with a concussion. The injuries have forced coach Claude Julien to completely rethink his offense heading into the final few games of the season. One solution that has worked quite well has been the combination of Jaromir Jagr, Milan Lucic and Gregory Campbell. Both Lucic and Campbell play a punishing game on offense and it appears that tenacity is giving a 41-year-old Jagr the room he needs to maneuver the puck like he's 31 again. Marchand was playing the role that Lucic now occupies on the line before he was hurt, but Campbell and Jagr have been a consistent combination for three games now. The result has been five points each in three games. Campbell is available in 99 percent of ESPN leagues and is a sneaky addition for goals, assists and even power-play points given the concussion issues in the Bruins lineup. The B's have tough games against the Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins next week, but the offense should shine against the Buffalo Sabres and Florida Panthers.
• Joffrey Lupul's status is being updated daily, which does suggest a return from his sore neck sooner than later. If you see him on Saturday against the Montreal Canadiens, then Lupul, Nazem Kadri and Nikolai Kulemin are decent starts for next week. The Toronto Maple Leafs have four games with at least two of them rating quite well on offense.
• Marcus Kruger won the "Patrick" lottery as Patrick Sharp returned to the Chicago Blackhawks roster on Tuesday. Kruger skated on a line with Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane. Obviously, that is a role that could be quite conducive to offense if Kruger can stick there. The 22-year-old Swede has more skill than we've seen in the NHL to date.
• Credit to the Calgary Flames for giving the appropriate amount of ice time to Sven Baertschi, Mikael Backlund and Roman Horak as the team tries to figure out where to go next season. Jiri Hudler might return to the lineup this weekend, making it possible that a scoring line can be cobbled together before the Flames play four games next week, all that rate well for offense.
• Lost in the scoring outburst by the Winnipeg Jets lately might be the fact that Kyle Wellwood has been generating fantasy value. Wellwood and Olli Jokinen have clicked as the second line with Evander Kane. For his part, Wellwood has a five-game point streak with a plus-7 rating.
• Two names from two different lines on the Dallas Stars to mention: Alex Chiasson and Vernon Fiddler. Chiasson, a rookie, has four points in his first four NHL games skating with Jamie Benn and Ray Whitney. Fiddler, a streaky veteran, has seven points in the past four games playing on a line with Erik Cole and Eric Nystrom.
• Keeper leagues will want to note that Nick Bjugstad made his Florida Panthers debut. He is the future No. 2 center on the team behind Jonathan Huberdeau. A hulking forward from the University of Minnesota, Bjugstad is now up to 6-foot-5 following his junior year.
• Ryan Kesler has three points in two games back as the Vancouver Canucks' No. 2 center. Playing with Zack Kassian and Mason Raymond at even strength, Kesler is also back to his old role as the fourth forward on the power play with the Sedin twins and Alex Burrows.
• Ilya Kovalchuk was dropped in 28 percent of ESPN leagues, but it looks as though he may return for the final two weeks of the season. Check your league.
• No kidding here: Simon Gagne is playing on the top line for the Philadelphia Flyers and probably deserves a look in your league. He has five points in five games.
Looking for goaltenders
The options are getting pretty thin for those in search of goaltending help in the final few weeks. Brian Elliott is quickly being scooped up in every league where he was (rightly) left for dead back in February, Ray Emery and James Reimer have slowly lost most of their availability, Ben Bishop is showing that the Tampa Bay Lightning defense isn't quite as solid as the Ottawa Senators', and even Robin Lehner has had some disappointing outings. No, it seems all our favorite sleeper goaltenders this season aren't quite as in the mix as we wish they were during this most important stretch of the season. This is a way of letting you know that we are digging a little deeper than usual for this goaltending advice and if you have viable options for your team, you should be skipping this section. This is for the truly desperate.
Carolina Hurricanes: Cam Ward anybody? Sunday marks the six-week anniversary of Ward's knee injury that has seen the team go 4-14-1 with Dan Ellis and Justin Peters manning the twine. The original prognosis for Ward was six-to-eight weeks to recover. Given than we haven't heard anything more than Ward was skating without goalie equipment on this week, it's hard to believe the very earliest end of the original timetable will be met. But if Ward is available in your league and you are in desperate need of goaltending down the stretch, why not stash him on your bench.
Florida Panthers: Grabbing Scott Clemmensen is an enormous risk. But the veteran backup has had a couple of good starts while rookie Jacob Markstrom has looked terrible in recent outings. Maybe Clemmensen gets a couple more starts during the final weeks and maybe he does well. Maybe. This is definitely a need-a-warm-body-anybody-will-do addition, but Clemmensen is available in almost every league.
Ottawa Senators: Finally, even though he is mentioned above as having some disappointing outings, his four-goal performance against the Buffalo Sabres last week was really the only "bad" game Robin Lehner has had lately. Craig Anderson, however, did not look all that sharp against the Florida Panthers or Tampa Bay Lightning since returning from injury. Anderson's .878 save percentage is not what it should be for the Sens limiting the shots on goal to just 39 total in the two games. Lehner looked good in getting the win on Thursday against the Flyers and may steal more time than originally expected from Anderson.
This chart shows you the top and bottom teams in the NHL in goals and shots, for and against, during the past 21 days.
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 skeds: There is a healthy mix of three- and four-game schedules this week, so no team necessarily deserves to be targeted for the Hockey Challenge. But the Detroit Red Wings and Nashville Predators should be avoided, as both teams only have two games next week.
The hottest line in hockey lately has been Bryan Little ($6.8M), Andrew Ladd ($8.3M) and Blake Wheeler ($8.4M) with Little being the best bargain among the three. But the Winnipeg Jets second line' with Kyle Wellwood ($4.8M), Olli Jokinen ($7.3M) and Evander Kane ($8.3M) has been only a step behind the top line and would come quite a bit cheaper if you want to go all-in.
Other affordable options include Gregory Campbell ($5.0M) and his connection with Jaromir Jagr ($7.9M), Jussi Jokinen ($5.3M) who is clicking with Pascal Dupuis ($6.9M) and Brenden Morrow ($4.7M) on the Pittsburgh Penguins' top line or Alex Galchenyuk ($4.6M) who is looking good for the Montreal Canadiens of late.
If you want to break the bank on some forwards, Phil Kessel ($9.1M) has been as hot as any player in the league and has a four-game week conducive to scoring. It's not a bad idea to pair him with James van Riemsdyk ($7.9M) as well. With Ryan Kesler ($7.2M) back for the Vancouver Canucks, it opens the door for more scoring for both Henrik Sedin ($9.8M) and Daniel Sedin ($9.8M) in the final weeks of the season.
Kris Letang ($8.9M) is back healthy for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ryan Suter ($8.7M) left Thursday's game with an injury. It might be time to swap them in and out of your lineup – at least until we know more about Suter's ailment. P.K. Subban ($9.0M) has also come to life again and boasts one of the best schedules for next week. It's never a bad idea to partner him with Andrei Markov ($8.1M) in the Hockey Challenge as their success tends to be linked.
Goaltending: With 20 wins and three shutouts this season, would you believe that Evgeni Nabokov ($12.5M) is the top goaltender in the ESPN Hockey Challenge right now with 43 points? He is tied with Antti Niemi ($12.0M). Nabokov has had a brilliant start to April and is as hot as any goaltender at the moment. Niemi, for that matter, also makes a good start.
Brian Elliot ($11.1M) is currently rocking a shutout streak of three games. Though that streak might not make it into next week, his starting and winning streak might just continue. Tuukka Rask ($12.3M) faces four pretty winnable games.
My roster for next week:
Brian Elliot, G ($11.1M)
Antti Niemi, G ($12.0M)
Kris Letang, D ($8.9M)
P.K. Subban, D ($9.0M)
Andrei Markov, D ($8.1M)
Brent Burns, D ($5.9M / $6.5M on market)
Alex Galchenyuk, F ($4.6M)
Ryan Kesler, F ($7.2M)
Andrew Ladd, F ($8.3M)
Nicklas Backstrom, F ($9.9M)
Pascal Dupuis, F ($6.9M)
James van Riemsdyk, F ($7.9M)