Some encouraging news for the statistic junkies out there: We are getting there.
Just where are we getting to? A stage where we have a large enough sample size to start basing the broad assertions about teams on this season's data. But we are not there yet. Removing last season's stats from the intricate Fantasy Forecaster formula still gives us several "divide by zero" errors that are the result of teams not having compiled any stats in a key category. The inability of the Detroit Red Wings, Colorado Avalanche, Los Angeles Kings and Buffalo Sabres to notch a power-play goal on the road is just one example of the small sample size preventing us from unleashing the full power of the Fantasy Forecaster.
But the data set is growing day by day. We started with a tablespoon of salt to take these numbers with in Week 1 of the season and suggested reducing that to a metaphorical teaspoon last week. This week we will go with a half teaspoon as the recommended dosage of this tired idiom. The numbers are becoming more meaningful, but we still can't remove the 2011-12 season statistics from the calculation.
What we can do, though, is look at some of the surprising team statistics to begin this abbreviated NHL season.
Power plays have been dominating: Is it a product of the lockout layoff? Is it simply that not enough time has passed for meaningful statistics to trend toward the mean? Whatever the explanation, NHL power plays are scoring at a torrid pace to begin the campaign. Last season, the St. Louis Blues had the highest ratio in the NHL with 25.8 percent of the total goals scored against them coming on their opponents' power play. This season, all but seven NHL franchises are above that percentage, with several teams way above it. These ratios will surely come out in the wash after a few more weeks and return to a sane level, but it is still surprising to learn that 52.6 percent of the goals against the Colorado Avalanche this season have come on the power play. What does that say about Semyon Varlamov's potential if the team can get its penalty kill and propensity for penalties under control? To their credit, the Avs' penalty kill is clicking along at a 74.4 percent rate, but the team has given up a league-leading 39 power plays in seven games. Watching the San Jose Sharks play, if you haven't been distracted by the top offensive line, you may have picked up on Antti Niemi's stellar goaltending so far this season. How good would it be if the Sharks were a little stronger on the PK? Well, five of the 12 goals he has allowed this season have been during a power play. Maybe we should cut Ilya Bryzgalov a little slack, too. The Philadelphia Flyers are second to last in penalty killing this season and 10 of the 20 goals against the team have been on the power play.
Penalty kill key for goaltenders: One of the reasons why Corey Crawford has started the season among the best fantasy goaltenders is the penalty kill in front of him. The Chicago Blackhawks lead the league with a penalty-kill rate at better than 96 percent. In fact, the Hawks have allowed just one power-play goal this season. It isn't shocking to see Crawford on the list of valuable goaltenders, but this same statistic suggests Evgeni Nabokov could see his numbers improve. The New York Islanders are just a shade behind the Hawks for penalty killing this season, allowing just one power-play goal against in 25 chances. If the Isles' special teams continue to choke off the opposing man-advantage, that could go a long way to keep Nabokov among the respectable No. 2 fantasy goaltenders. Who else has been killing penalties well and could show surprise goaltending value? The Columbus Blue Jackets have only allowed five power-play goals this season.
Power play to blame for Kings' woes?: The Kings have just two power-play goals to show for 33 chances entering play on Thursday. A 6.1 percent conversion rate isn't going to help them get many wins. If the Kings were scoring at the 17 percent rate they were last season, it would represent an additional four goals this season. That's a pretty big deal when four of their five losses came by a combined total of five goals. Give Jonathan Quick a couple additional wins, and his pedestrian ratios become a little more palatable. Dustin Brown and Justin Williams sure could use an additional couple power-play points to make their owners back a little farther away from the ledge. Of course, scoring more power-play goals isn't going to fix the minus-5 rating Brown is sporting. But it would help.
Oilers too power-play reliant?: We knew the Edmonton Oilers would be very good on the power play this season. The team is stacked with young, dynamic talent that is near impossible to stop when there aren't enough bodies on the ice to put in front of them and shadow their every step. But collecting 57.9 percent of all their goals this season on the man-advantage is a little more than we might have expected. The Oilers sport a 31.4 percent power-play conversion, second only to the Sharks and St. Louis Blues. But there is a serious danger to needing the power play to score goals. It doesn't take a huge leap from an opposing coach to put extra pressure on his team to stay out of the box. The Oilers have only eight goals in seven games when you exclude the power play. This fact doesn't hurt any of the forwards value deeply, but note that rookie Nail Yakupov is ninth on the team in power-play time so far.
Jets not great on kill: Sitting dead last in penalty killing this season are the Winnipeg Jets. Passing judgment solely on observation, Ondrej Pavelec has looked as sharp as ever this season, but his numbers aren't exceptional for fantasy purposes. Pavelec and the team have a lot to gain by getting out of the basement for penalty killing. Maybe the reason the Jets aren't that great at killing penalties is due to a lack of opportunities. The team is best in the NHL by allowing 3.1 power plays against per game. That is barely half the power plays that the Colorado Avalanche are giving their opponents every game (5.57 power plays per game) at the other end of the spectrum. If the team can tighten up on the penalty kill (looking at you, Kyle Wellwood), then Pavelec has one more factor going his way as he attempts to climb into the No. 1 tier of fantasy goaltenders.
Sharks not going to slow down:You know what creates a lot of power plays? When your forwards are driving the net and forechecking so diligently that the defense has little choice but to commit an infraction to stop them from scoring. This is what makes the Sharks doubly dangerous. Not only are they leading the NHL in power-play percentage, but they are among the leaders in power plays per game. The Sharks are collecting 5.3 power plays in every contest. When the best power play in the league gets the most chances to score in the league, magic happens. Magic also goes by the name "Patrick Marleau." The Ducks, by contrast, have earned just 3.0 power plays per game this season (that might be an excuse for Bobby Ryan and Teemu Selanne, by the way).
Hopefully the preceding tidbits can tide you over until we have enough game data to banish last season's statistics from the Fantasy Forecaster formula. But until then, they will play a role in these numbers.
Looking for offense
Tampa Bay Lightning: While the Bolts seem like one of the first places to gather up some scorers for next week, there is the road aspect to consider. All four of their games for the upcoming week are away from home, as the Lightning swing through the Northeast. It is a small sample size, but the Lightning have managed 5.5 goals per game in four games at home, while scoring 3.5 goals per game in two road contests. Still, Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier are pacing this offense as the best in the league so far this season. With fantasy owners sweeping up Cory Conacher, Sami Salo and Victor Hedman in recent days, there aren't too many options left to supplement your offense. Ryan Malone is the only member of the team's top two lines available in a decent number of ESPN leagues (87 percent), but you'd just be guessing he will have one of his hot weeks. Perhaps the best player to consider for your team for this coming week from the Bolts is B.J. Crombeen. The Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, Boston Bruins and New York Rangers represent a run of tough opponents on the road. Crombeen likely will be dropping the gloves a couple of times during the week to add to your penalty minutes.
Toronto Maple Leafs: They start with a home game against the Carolina Hurricanes, then hit the road to battle the Washington Capitals, Winnipeg Jets and Montreal Canadiens. For starters, the Hurricanes have allowed the most shots on goal per game so far this season, and the Canes and Caps have the second- and third-worst goals-against averages in the league. With those two games only representing half of the games for the week, it's definitely a good time to have a look at some Leafs. As discussed this past week in Front Line, Matt Frattin and Nazem Kadri are producing more and more offense as they get additional ice time together. Frattin has six points in four games and is available in 98 percent of ESPN leagues, while Kadri has seven points in seven games and is available in 40 percent. Both players have enjoyed increasing ice time and responsibility as they continue to respond to the opportunities coach Randy Carlyle is providing. And Carlyle is providing more and more opportunities as the Leafs' other lines struggle to produce with any consistency.
Detroit Red Wings: The Wings catch the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings at home next week, with a road game against the St. Louis Blues sandwiched between the Alberta teams. While the line of Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen and Damien Brunner is almost universally owned in fantasy leagues, it's arguable that the line of Pavel Datsyuk, Valtteri Filppula and Todd Bertuzzi is the one you want. The trio has only been together for three games, because Bertuzzi started the season injured. In three games together, Bertuzzi has three points, while Filppula and Datsyuk each have five. Filppula is available in only 20 percent of ESPN leagues, but Bertuzzi can be scooped up in 95 percent of leagues.
Looking for goaltending
Columbus Blue Jackets:Staying home and taking on the mostly anemic offenses of the Los Angeles Kings, Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers should be a recipe for Sergei Bobrovsky's success next week. Key word is should, because the Jackets have been unreliable at best. Their hard-nosed play has kept goals to a respectable level in about half of their eight games. If they can stay out of the penalty box, Bobrovsky has a real chance to walk away with three wins. Of course, he is only a good option if you need to swing for the fences in a head-to-head matchup where you are outclassed in net. It's not worth the risk otherwise.
Nashville Predators: The Preds have four-game schedule next week and it can be noted that Chris Mason's one start this season was better than any of Pekka Rinne's six starts so far. And it's not like Mason pulled an easy assignment against the Minnesota Wild. The formula, based on a minimal sample size, is that Mason gets a start in the second of back-to-back nights. If that is the case, Mason would catch the Chicago Blackhawks next Sunday in a very tough matchup. But noting that Saturday night's game is against the Wild, here's betting that Mason gets his second call against the team this season. If you need to squeeze out one decent start off the waiver wire for next week, Mason is your man.
Carolina Hurricanes: Just who is firing all these shots on goal for the Hurricanes, as they lead the league in shots on goal per game this season? Well, Jeff Skinner is on pace to take more shots in this 48-game season than he has in his two previous full seasons in the NHL. The reward for his efforts has been five goals in five games and what looks like redemption following a sophomore slump.
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: The four-game schedules this coming week belong to the Anaheim Ducks, Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings, Edmonton Oilers, Nashville Predators, New Jersey Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs. The Colorado Avalanche are the only team to avoid for the Hockey Challenge, as they only have a pair of games next week. All other teams have three contests. & Looking at the teams with four-game schedules, continue to roll with the Buffalo Sabres. Thomas Vanek ($7.7M) is playing his best hockey in several seasons and he is bringing Jason Pominville ($7.4M) and Cody Hodgson ($6.2M) both along for the ride. If you decide to ice this entire line in the Hockey Challenge, you should have enough money to stack your lineup everywhere else. & Cory Conacher ($6.2M) remains a cheap option in the Hockey Challenge, but look for his stock to rise quickly. It might be a good time to buy and hold him. & Adam Henrique ($6.8M) returned to the Devils' lineup this week, recovered from an injured thumb. He scored one of his signature clutch goals to tie the game and get the Devils a point, despite not even getting a chance to practice with the team. His stock should rise, as he was skating on the top line with Ilya Kovalchuk ($8.1M) and Travis Zajac ($5.1M) by the end of the game. & You should still be able to afford to buy almost all the players you want, with salaries only starting to rise slowly. But if you need a sleeper defenseman, it might be safe to ride Raphael Diaz ($4.0M) for one more week. P.K. Subban ($6.6M) will slowly begin to erode Diaz's value, but it hasn't started yet. Speaking of the Habs, Andrei Markov ($6.5M) looks like he is back to his old ways so far this season. He still carries a cheaper price tag than most elite defensemen.
Goaltending: In a week where the Tampa Bay Lightning have four games, Anders Lindback ($11.1M) is a great option for the Hockey Challenge. Remember, it doesn't matter that he is giving up almost three goals per game in this fantasy game. Just the wins matter. & Ryan Miller ($11.6M) continues to be a good option this week as the Sabres get their second four-game week in a row. If you bought into him last week, you are saving $0.2M in salary. & Again, it is not recommended to find cheap options among the goaltenders, but if you insist: James Reimer ($10.0M) has established some separation on Ben Scrivens ($9.4M) to be the starter for the Leafs and the team is providing some offensive support. With four games in the week ahead, Reimer could pick up some wins.
My roster for next week:
Ryan Miller, G ($11.4M / $11.6M on market)
Anders Lindback, G ($11.1M)
Zdeno Chara, D ($7.1M)
Erik Karlsson, D ($7.5M / $7.8M on market)
Alex Pietrangelo, D ($7.1M)
Kris Letang, D ($7.1M / $7.3M on market)
Sidney Crosby, F ($8.8M / $9.0M on market)
Evgeni Malkin, F ($8.7M / $8.9M on market)
Steven Stamkos, F ($8.7M / $9.0M on market)
Thomas Vanek, F ($7.4M / $7.7M on market)
Jason Pominville, F ($7.4M)
Cody Hodgson, F ($6.2M)