Fantasy Forecaster: Devils should stay hot
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On tap: The calendar flips to 2009 on Thursday, and with it arrives the Winter Classic, now presumably an annual event for the NHL. This year's game should be captivating; it features division rivals the Blackhawks and Red Wings squaring off at Chicago's Wrigley Field. Do yourself a favor, if you're a sports fan, and even though I know the Capital One Bowl and Gator Bowl are on TV head-to-head with it, tune in for the Winter Classic, or at least part of it. It was a real treat to watch a year ago and will be every bit as appealing an event as those bowl games.
The grid below details all 30 NHL teams' Week 13 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.
Team Mon. 12/29 Tue. 12/30 Wed. 12/31 Thu. 1/1 Fri. 1/2 Sat. 1/3 Sun. 1/4 Total games Home games Avalanche NSH @PHO CLS MIN 4 3 Canucks PHI @NSH @ATL DAL 4 2 Devils @STL @DAL MON OTT 4 2 Flames MIN EDM @NSH @CHI 4 2 Lightning MON @WAS CAR @ATL 4 2 Stars SJ NJ @EDM @VAN 4 2 Thrashers @TOR @CAR VAN TB 4 2 Wild @CGY SJ DET @COL 4 2 Canadiens @FLA @TB @NJ FLA 4 1 Islanders @NYR FLA @PHO @SJ 4 1 Panthers MON @NYI @PIT @MON 4 1 Blue Jackets @LA @ANA @COL @STL 4 0 Ducks CLS PHI PHO 3 3 Maple Leafs ATL BUF OTT 3 3 Blackhawks @DET DET CGY 3 2 Blues NJ @CAR CLS 3 2 Bruins @PIT PIT BUF 3 2 Capitals @BUF TB NYR 3 2 Coyotes COL NYI @ANA 3 2 Hurricanes ATL STL @TB 3 2 Oilers OTT @CGY DAL 3 2 Penguins BOS @BOS FLA 3 2 Predators @COL VAN CGY 3 2 Red Wings CHI @CHI @MIN 3 1 Sabres WAS @TOR @BOS 3 1 Sharks @DAL @MIN NYI 3 1 Flyers @VAN @ANA @LA 3 0 Senators @EDM @TOR @NJ 3 0 Kings CLS PHI 2 2 Rangers NYI @WAS 2 1
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 13 stat sources:
Avalanche (NSH, @PHO, CLS, MIN): With both Joe Sakic and Paul Stastny on the injured list, Colorado might not seem an obvious team to look to for fantasy value right now. But don't be fooled; this team always tends to pick up its play at home, so a three-home-game, four-overall week is a good enough one to pick and choose your matchups. Goalie Peter Budaj is the ultimate matchups play in weeks like this; he's 17-8-1 with a 2.37 goals-against average and .910 save percentage in 30 home games between this and last season, compared to 10-17-4 with a 2.94 GAA and .894 save percentage in 33 road contests during the same time span. Wojtek Wolski, the first-line center in Stastny's place between Milan Hejduk and Ryan Smyth, also bears watching now that he'll experience increased scoring potential.
Devils (@STL, @DAL, MON, OTT): The Devils' improbable hot streak sans Martin Brodeur continues, as this team is an incredible 12-3-1 since Nov. 15, and now it gets a four-game week in which the only two road contests come against teams that are performing horribly. Speaking to the home matchups, the Canadiens are a .500 team on the road (7-5-2), while the Devils routed the Senators 5-1 as recently as Dec. 19. Stand-in goalie Scott Clemmensen is 11-2-1 with a 2.22 goals-against average and .921 save percentage in his past 14 games, earning must-start status, while I'd go so far as to say red-hot Jamie Langenbrunner (2 goals, 7 assists in his past 10 games) and Travis Zajac (5 G, 2 A in his past eight) need be activated too.
Hurricanes (ATL, STL, @TB): Though their 5-5-0 record this year doesn't show it, the Hurricanes have always been successful in games played within the division, at 61-38-7 since the lockout. They're 2-0 against the Lightning this season, and while the Thrashers have tended to give the Canes' defense trouble, Carolina has averaged four goals per game in head-to-head contests since the beginning of last season. As such, this is an extremely offense-friendly schedule, and Carolina does tend to lean toward being a matchups-based team. Time to get Rod Brind'Amour, Joni Pitkanen and Tuomo Ruutu into your starting lineup, and don't overlook Sergei Samsonov's recent performance, either; he has four goals and nine points in his past 12 games.
Maple Leafs (ATL, BUF, OTT): The Leafs won five of seven games heading into the Christmas break, and they'll get a fairly easy schedule heading into the new year, with three home games against so-so defensive teams. As such, look to this red-hot offense to extend its strong fantasy performance deep into the winter, including such players as Alexei Ponikarovsky (5 goals, 5 assists, plus-5 in his past nine games), Matt Stajan (2 G, 6 A in his past eight) and Jeremy Williams (5 G, 2 A, plus-4 in his past seven). Just don't expect big things from streaky goalie Vesa Toskala.
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 Sidney Crosby -- 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.
Flyers (@VAN, @ANA, @LA): The Flyers have dropped eight of 15 road games, and these three contests reside in the middle of a six-game road swing, their longest all season, that takes the team through the Great Lakes region, to western Canada and then to the West Coast before finishing in Washington on Jan. 6. Not that this team will be devoid of fantasy talent this week, but you need to keep in mind the extreme road splits of players like Scott Hartnell (3 goals, 3 assists, even rating in 15 road games; 10 G, 11 A, plus-4 in 19 home games), Mike Knuble (3 G, 3 A, minus-2 in 15 road; 10 G, 7 A, plus-3 in 19 home) and Joffrey Lupul (5 G, 2 A, minus-4 in 15 road; 8 G, 9 A, plus-1 in 19 home). I'd avoid all three.
Penguins (BOS, @BOS, FLA): The Bruins are the class of the league, with a 20-2-1 record since Nov. 1, an almost unheard-of hot streak. Sure, the Penguins did win these teams' only meeting, a 2-1 shootout victory on Oct. 20, but it's not as if they're playing consistent hockey of late; Pittsburgh is 7-8-2 in its past 17 games. This is about as predictable a team for mining fantasy talent as you can find. The aforementioned Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Petr Sykora are racking up points in bunches, while the rest of the team is responsible for its level of inconsistency. Yes, even up-and-coming star Jordan Staal (2 goals, 4 assists, minus-4 in his past eight games) is struggling enough that you should sit him this week.
Rangers (NYI, @WAS): Here's the bottom line: two-game week, one of them a road contest. Plus, the Rangers have played surprisingly poorly against the Islanders between this and last season, with a 4-4-2 record in head-to-head contests. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist is a tough sit because he's 10-6-4 with a 2.03 goals-against average and .923 save percentage in 21 career games against the Islanders, but if you're well stocked at the position, that he has dropped both games to the Capitals this season and has a road GAA near 3.00 makes him a candidate to take a seat. Also sit the cold-as-ice Daniel Girardi (1 assist, minus-4 in his past 13 games).
Sabres (WAS, @TOR, @BOS): This team stinks. OK, to be fair, recently, this team stinks; Buffalo is 8-11-3 since Nov. 7. Initially in the Sabres' cold spell, it was goalie Ryan Miller's mediocre play that was responsible; today it's the team's offense, which isn't providing him enough support to win. Consider that of those eight victories, only three of them were by two or more goals. By comparison, eight of those losses were by that margin or more. Players like Maxim Afinogenov (0 points in his past six games), Jochen Hecht (1 goal, 4 assists, minus-1 in his past 12) and Jaroslav Spacek (5 A in his past 11) are in tremendous funks.
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.
Date Offensive choice (opponent) Defensive choice (opponent) Monday, Dec. 29 Avalanche (NSH) Rangers (NYI) Tuesday, Dec. 30 Oilers (OTT) Maple Leafs (ATL) Wednesday, Dec. 31 Hurricanes (ATL) Panthers (@NYI) Thursday, Jan. 1 Capitals (TB) Capitals (TB) Friday, Jan. 2 Coyotes (NYI) Hurricanes (STL) Saturday, Jan. 3 Blue Jackets (@STL) Capitals (NYR) Sunday, Jan. 4 Lightning (@ATL) Canadiens (FLA)
• Ryan Kesler, C, Canucks: He's getting back-to-back nods by me, because that's how hot he is, yet no one seems to be adding him; Kesler remains available in 84 percent of ESPN leagues! It's a real shame no one has picked up on his three goals, three assists and plus-2 rating in his past eight games, and it's not as if Mats Sundin is quite ready to suit up for the team yet. For one more week at least, Kesler is a definite go.
• Andrew Ladd, LW, Blackhawks: He's in the midst of a torrid hot spell, with three goals, 11 assists and a plus-11 rating in his past nine games, and be aware that the Blackhawks know that winning the home-and-home series against the Red Wings this week will put them within striking distance in the Central Division. They're the home team in the Winter Classic, and as such should come out playing with intensity in Week 13.
• Todd White, C, Thrashers: Only one of Atlanta's opponents this week ranks in the upper half of the league in goals allowed per game -- the Canucks -- and that one is a home game for the Thrashers at least. White might suffer from his team's defensive woes in the plus/minus department, with a minus-6 rating in his past seven games, but he has sure shown a scoring touch during that span, with four goals and five assists, most of them on the power play. Get him into your lineup, and if you're in a deeper league, take a look at red-hot Colby Armstrong (5 goals in his past five games), too.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball, football and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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