On tap: The NHL regular season sure crept up on us quickly this year, didn't it? A pair of "home-and-home" series in Europe kicks off the 2008-09 campaign, with the Lightning and Rangers due to battle in Prague, Czech Republic, and the Penguins and Senators in Stockholm, Sweden, on Saturday and Sunday. If you own players from either team in an ESPN standard league, naturally, load up.
From there the NHL takes a short three-day breather before the "traditional" opener Thursday. In spite of games being played on only six days in what's technically "Week 1," it's a busy week; only four teams will take the ice one time. Everyone else plays at least twice, and five teams are scheduled for three games or more.
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Fantasy hockey has so many different formats: ESPN standard leagues allow transactions on a daily basis; custom leagues allow you to set them weekly. Some permit you to squeeze as many games out of your lineup as possible in a given season; others have caps on the number of games you're allowed for the season at a position.
Depending on your scoring system, quantity, not quality, of games can sometimes be the better way to go. That's especially true in leagues with weekly lineups, and no games caps. A good rule of thumb: Never use the team playing once in a week, and always load up from the team playing four or more times.
The schedule grid below details all 30 NHL teams' Week 1 schedules. In order to help those of you targeting quantity of games, teams with the most games this week are listed first. Ties are first broken by greater number of home games -- a home game is almost always better than a road one -- and then alphabetically by team.
Quantity might be all well and good for some fantasy owners, but not for all. Quality matters, too, so if you're picking and choosing from individual matchups -- most important in daily leagues or those with caps on games per position -- I'd take a look at the following five teams as strong Week 1 stat sources:
Blues (NSH, @NYI): A couple of things here; one, that I can't really defend either the Predators or Islanders offensively means this is quite the schedule for St. Louis, defensively speaking. Two, the Blues have endured a pretty productive preseason, with Brad Boyes (5 goals, 4 assists in 4 games), Paul Kariya (2 G, 1 A in 3) and Andy McDonald (3 G, 8 A in 4) being remarkably successful. Add the two together and I'd call this a sleeper opening week for St. Louis.
Coyotes (CLS, @ANA): A weekend matchup in Anaheim might seem troubling, but I put a lot of faith in goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, a former Duck himself. After the Coyotes plucked him off waivers last November, Bryzgalov went 3-1-1 with a 2.07 goals-against average and .928 save percentage in five games against his former team, showing them what they let loose. He'll keep this team respectful on the defensive front, and with less plus/minus worry, guys like Shane Doan, Ed Jovanovski and Peter Mueller become much stronger fantasy options.
Rangers (@TB, TB, CHI, @PHI): The league's only four-game Week 1 schedule is a no-brainer, and remember, of the four teams playing overseas in the season-opening weekend, Tampa Bay was the only one to finish with fewer than 94 points. (And that's being kind detailing their finish; the Lightning had an Eastern Conference-worst 71.) New York might have looked sluggish in the preseason, but understand that they had been working two offseason acquisitions -- Markus Naslund and Nikolai Zherdev -- into the lineup, while getting Chris Drury acclimated to life as a first-line right wing (he's formerly a center). When the first puck drops that counts, this team should be fine. Ride the top two lines, including red-hot sophomore Brandon Dubinsky, the second-line center pacing the team in preseason points (4).
Red Wings (TOR, @OTT): It's an obvious pick, sure, but that's two porous defenses the Red Wings will be battling in the season's opening week, meaning an explosive start should be in order. Detroit is such a balanced team, these could both be routs, especially if you account for the fact that the Senators might be a tad tired after their European trip the previous weekend. Even the third line of Daniel Cleary, Valtteri Filppula and Mikael Samuelsson will get involved on most nights. I'd call these matchups strong enough to dip even that deep on the roster.
Again, if you're picking and choosing your matchups, I'd do my best to avoid players from the following five teams. Keep in mind stud players -- like Dany Heatley -- on teams with poor matchups shouldn't normally be benched, but it's worth keeping their schedules in mind if you're deep in high-quality alternatives.
Blackhawks (@NYR, @WAS): Cristobal Huet might be Chicago's new goaltender, and the offense might be loaded with up-and-coming young talent, but I see it taking time for this team to jell, with all its offseason additions in key spots (Huet, Brian Campbell, to name two). Huet has endured a miserable preseason, was routed by the Rangers in four meetings last year (4.26 GAA, .851 save percentage) and faces a tough, two-game road schedule to kick things off. The kids -- Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews -- and Campbell are worth your time, but that's it.
Maple Leafs (@DET, MON): This team is destined for such a poor season, even defensive leader Tomas Kaberle couldn't help but sound defeated detailing the Leafs' chances in 2008-09. Unfortunately, even if Toronto is to shock the world with a great season, it's not going to start with a strong opening week. The Red Wings could dominate a top-5 team, let alone a consensus bottom-5 team, while the Canadiens are a balanced squad with a sneaky-strong power play. Kaberle is the only Leaf I can even make a case for, and there's a ton of plus/minus risk in him.
Sabres (MON): A one-game week is about all the reason you need to steer clear of Sabres players. But since we're on the topic, Buffalo has endured a pretty forgettable preseason; it started 2007-08 with a terrible 6-10-1 record; and, again, Montreal's power play will give this team fits. There will be better weeks to use Sabres players, so get more quantity elsewhere.
Senators (PIT, @PIT, DET): If you watched last year's postseason, surely you saw that opening-series manhandling the Penguins gave the Senators: they totaled 16 goals and allowed only five. Ottawa goalie Martin Gerber was the victim of 14 of those, and 10 more in his final three regular-season starts against these Penguins. The Senators' current goalie: Gerber, back for more carnage. The Senators aren't the Eastern Conference powerhouse they once were, so while it's impossible to sit Daniel Alfredsson -- a Swede -- Heatley or Jason Spezza in a three-game week, that should be about it for you among Ottawa players.
For those of you in leagues with daily transactions, I've picked a strong matchup on each side of the puck for each day of the upcoming week. My "defensive choice" doesn't always mean simply "play the goalie"; it means the goalie is a strong pick, but indicates every bit as much that the team will be safe and potentially productive in plus/minus. When possible -- and remember, some days boast fewer games than others -- obvious teams have been avoided in favor of sleeper-type selections.
• Kris Letang, D, Penguins: I was high on this guy in the preseason, and I remain high on him for Week 1, knowing he'll man the point of Pittsburgh's first power-play unit to kick off the regular season. The Penguins will give Ottawa goalie Martin Gerber fits, so at the very least, I see a healthy assist total coming from Letang.
• David Perron, LW, Blues: He endured a decent -- albeit not especially fantasy-worthy -- rookie season, and followed it up with a five-goal preseason, three of those on the power play. I know, I know, preseason stats might not matter, but with this team still more future- than 2008-09-minded, Perron is bound to see an increase in minutes and power-play time. I've already said I like the schedule; I'd give him a whirl in deep leagues.
• Mikael Samuelsson, RW, Red Wings: He might be a third-liner, but he's one of the point men on the second power-play unit, which isn't bad on an offense this deep. As is, Samuelsson potted all three of his preseason goals with the man advantage, so there's little doubt he can help keep Detroit's power play elite two units deep.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball, football and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.