Commentary

Fantasy Forecaster: Poor teams get gift of great matchups

Updated: December 19, 2008, 5:25 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Fantasy Forecaster: Week 12

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Week 12 schedule | Favorable matchups | Unfavorable matchups | Daily picks

On tap: (You know the tune, c'mon, sing along!)
Christmas time is here
Happiness and cheer
Fun for all of us who call
It the midpoint of our year

No trades in the air
Roster freeze is there
Sunday until Saturday
No players can be shared

Sundin's a Canuck
Wizard with the puck
Habs play one, boy, that's no fun
Their schedule's sure bad luck

Christmas time is here
Our title hopes are clear
Oh, that we could always see
A Cup to wrap our year
Oh, that we could always see
A Cup to wrap our year …

Happy holidays everyone! Hope your fantasy week is certainly not the "Charlie Brown-iest …"

The grid below details all 30 NHL teams' Week 12 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.

TeamMon. 12/22Tue. 12/23Wed. 12/24Thu. 12/25Fri. 12/26Sat. 12/27Sun. 12/28Total gamesHome games
ThrashersTOR@NYI  CAR BOS43
CanucksANA@SJ  EDM OTT43
Penguins@BUFTB  @NJMON 42
Coyotes@EDM@COL  @LALA 41
Maple Leafs@ATLDAL  @NYI @WAS41
Ducks@VAN@CGY   @DAL@STL40
SabresPIT   @WASNYI 32
OilersPHO   @VAN NSH32
Panthers NSH  TB@TB 32
Devils BOS  PIT@NYR 32
Islanders ATL  TOR@BUF 32
Blues @DET   SJANA32
Capitals @NYR  BUF TOR32
Hurricanes @MIN  @ATLBOS 31
Red Wings STL  @NSH@COL 31
Kings @CLS  PHO@PHO 31
Predators @FLA  DET @EDM31
Flyers OTT  @CHI@CLS 31
Lightning @PIT  @FLAFLA 31
Bruins @NJ   @CAR@ATL30
Senators @PHI   @CGY@VAN30
Flames ANA   OTT 22
Blue Jackets LA   PHI 22
Avalanche PHO   DET 22
Wild CAR    CHI22
Rangers WAS   NJ 22
Blackhawks    PHI @MIN21
Stars @TOR   ANA 21
Sharks VAN   @STL 21
Canadiens     @PIT 10

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 four teams as strong Week 12 stat sources:

Islanders (ATL, TOR, @BUF): This team is in the midst of a dismal slump, losers of nine of their past 10 games, and is in dire straits defensively with goalie Rick DiPietro not close to returning. But if you look at this schedule, there is some offense to be found in Scott Gordon's struggling squad, which is on the verge of getting Mike Comrie and Kyle Okposo back from injuries. The Thrashers, Maple Leafs and Sabres rank 29th, 27th and 16th in terms of goals allowed per game, and have combined to allow 3.33 per contest in December. Plus/minus has been a big problem for the Isles, but maybe not so this week, and Bill Guerin, Trent Hunter, Mark Streit and Doug Weight have a combined seven goals, 16 assists and 32 penalty minutes in the team's seven games this month. Plus, should either Comrie or Okposo play Dec. 19 or 20 and look good doing so, either might warrant a look.

Maple Leafs (@ATL, DAL, @NYI, @WAS): Another case of playing the offensive matchups, even if you aren't overly enamored with Vesa Toskala's performance in net thus far. The Stars, Islanders and Thrashers comprise the bottom three defensive teams for the season, in that order (though the Isles and Thrashers are actually tied for last), and the Capitals haven't exactly gotten consistent goaltending performance themselves, ranking 15th. Jason Blake (three goals, four assists in his past six games) and Alexei Ponikarovsky (three goals, two assists in his past six games) are in the midst of decent hot spells if you play in a deeper league, and it shouldn't be hard to figure out that Nik Antropov, Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina belong in your lineup, too.

Panthers (NSH, TB, @TB): Tampa Bay is a terrible team: It doesn't score, and it doesn't play especially good defense, either. And Florida gets to play its cross-state division rival twice this week, which is a good thing because the Panthers already won their first two games against the Lightning this season. Bryan McCabe had three goals in those contests, Nathan Horton has four goals and six assists against Tampa Bay in 10 games combined between this and last season and relative unknown Gregory Campbell had two goals, two assists and a plus-2 in these teams' two meetings in November, making him a deep sleeper. Goalie Craig Anderson tossed a shutout against the Lightning on Nov. 12 and warrants a look as well; it's merely a shame he probably won't face them twice, since the games are on back-to-back nights.

Thrashers (TOR, @NYI, CAR, BOS): Call this the week of not-so-great real-life teams drawing oh-so-great fantasy matchups because, like the Islanders, Maple Leafs and Panthers, the Thrashers draw a fairly favorable set of offensive matchups in the holiday week. Boston is a stiff challenge, yes, and is enough to make goalies Johan Hedberg, Kari Lehtonen and/or Ondrej Pavelec -- whoever it is manning the net that night -- shaky starts even in a four-game week. But that it's a home game should keep the offense safe, especially for hot hands Slava Kozlov (two goals, one assist in his past four games) and Todd White (two goals, four assists in his past four games). Keep tabs on Mathieu Schneider's health, too; he might be back by Monday.

If you're picking and choosing your matchups, I'd do my best to avoid players from the following four 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 (PHI, @MIN): Short schedule, and that trip to Minnesota is troubling, seeing as the 'Hawks already lost there on Oct. 27, and the Wild boast a stifling defense, ranked second in the league in goals allowed per game (2.30). Keep the kids in there as always, but in a short week with weak matchups, there's little reason to dip so far as a Cam Barker, Brent Seabrook or Kris Versteeg.

Blues (@DET, SJ, ANA): St. Louis is actually the worst team in the Western Conference, with 27 points in 31 games, and those three opponents are a combined 63-22-10. That means they've won nearly two-thirds of their games counting overtime and shootouts, and it's not like a team relying on Chris Mason and perhaps a fresh-off-the-injured-list Manny Legace in net stands much of a chance facing that schedule. Brad Boyes is almost impossible to sit, regardless of schedule, but expect red-hot David Backes, he of the goals in three consecutive games, to hit a wall, and note that Keith Tkachuk is in a funk (no goals, two assists in his past five games).

Canadiens (@PIT): One-game schedule. Period. Oh, and it's in Pittsburgh, against a team that has scored 18 goals in its past three games. With the exception of daily-league owners, who can use an Alexei Kovalev, Robert Lang or Andrei Markov, there isn't a Canadiens player I would use in the Christmas week. Especially not the goalie, Carey Price, whose goals-against average (2.74) and save percentage (.916) are noticeably worse in road games than in home games (2.02 and .925).

Senators (@PHI, @CGY, @VAN): This team is wretched on the road, arguably the worst in the league, and it's not like any of those venues is a particularly easy place in which to play. Ottawa averages 1.75 goals per game on the road, by far the worst in the league, with the aforementioned Heatley (seven goals, four assists in 12 road games), Daniel Alfredsson (two goals, eight assists in 12 games) and maybe Jason Spezza (three goals, three assists in 12 games) the only players on the roster who bring it in road contests. I'm a big Alex Auld fan, but the guy has started only one of the Senators' past four games, and he stands little chance of helping you in the win category this week.

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.

DateOffensive choice (opponent)Defensive choice (opponent)
Monday, Dec. 22Canucks (ANA)Thrashers (TOR)
Tuesday, Dec. 23Penguins (TB)Maple Leafs (DAL)
Friday, Dec. 26Hurricanes (@ATL)Panthers (TB)
Saturday, Dec. 27Sabres (NYI)Flames (OTT)
Sunday, Dec. 28Canucks (OTT)Ducks (@STL)

Ryan Kesler, C, Canucks: It's a hunch because he's typically a member of the checking line, but fact is Kesler has averaged almost 19 minutes per game for the season, and tallied goals in back-to-back home games. Mats Sundin's arrival won't threaten Kesler's ice time until the new year, and before that, Vancouver plays four games, three of them at home, and two of them are against the defensively challenged Oilers and road-game-challenged Senators.

Jordan Staal, C, Penguins: Extremely talented youngster, Staal is, and in case you haven't noticed, he has earned more than 20 minutes of ice time in each of his past nine games, and scored goals in each of his past two. He has eight points in eight games in December and, most importantly, three of those have come on the power play. The Penguins play four games this week, one of them against the lowly Lightning, which qualifies as a favorable enough schedule to take a chance on the kid.

Kyle Turris, C, Coyotes: If you're digging deep, or are in a league with 12 or more teams and extensive active roster spots, this rookie is one I'd take a look at this week. Turris managed his first career two-goal performance Thursday, and in Week 12 he draws the Oilers, Avalanche and Kings twice, teams that aren't necessarily elite on the defensive side. (Los Angeles ranks 10th for the season, yes, but the Kings have allowed 25 goals in nine December games, only a league-average rate.) Turris is a tremendous talent; perhaps he's entering his first true hot streak at this level?

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball, football and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.

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