Commentary

NHL Forecaster: Shark week

Updated: September 30, 2009, 1:31 PM ET
By Sean Allen | ESPN.com

Continuing the theme of bringing you the best possible fantasy coverage here at ESPN.com, the hockey Fantasy Forecaster has undergone a huge overhaul to make it the ultimate source of weekly planning for your fantasy needs. The schedule grid now includes an offensive (O) and defensive (D) rating from 1 to 10 for each team's contest for the coming week. Now, at a glance, you will not only be able to glean the quantity of games for each of your players, but quality as well.

The offensive (O) rating is based on a formula that uses goals, shots and power-play percentage for the team, combined with goals allowed, shots allowed and penalty-kill percentage for its opponent, weighting year-to-date totals, past 21 days' numbers and home/road splits to come up with the final tally. One (O: 1) means the team sports a poor offense, its opponent plays shutdown hockey, or more likely both, meaning you should avoid its offensive players. Ten (O: 10) means you can expect an offensive outburst and might even find some third-line players worth using. Five (O: 5) means there is no particular advantage.

The defensive (D) rating is basically reversed, using goals allowed, shots against and penalty-kill percentage for the team, combined with its opponent's goals, shots and power-play percentage. This rating can be used to assess the matchup for the goaltender, as well as the possibility of a strong plus/minus for skaters. Again, a (D: 1) is a bad matchup and could spell trouble for the goalie, while a 10 (D: 10) means a shutout could be in the cards. Once again it will be a weighted calculation of those categories using year-to-date, past 21 days and home/road splits.

Each week I'll also put a human spin on some of the numbers, highlight the key matchups and pick out some potential sleepers from your free-agent list. My role as the human element will be particularly important for the first few weeks of the season as, obviously, we don't have 2009-10 year-to-date or past 21 days' stats available (yet -- we'll keep you posted when they're included), so the formula at least initially will be based on last season's numbers. Take the first few weeks with a grain of salt until we have a workable sample size, but there should still be some carryover as many teams are returning with the same personnel.

We're hitting you with a double-whammy for the first Forecaster, given the midweek start to the NHL season. The chart above simply covers the opening Thursday night matchups through the league's complete off day Sunday. No team has more than two games, and there aren't a heck of a lot of strong matchups.

"Short-week" highlights

Overseas opening: The Chicago Blackhawks and Florida Panthers play a pair of games in Finland, while the Detroit Red Wings and St. Louis Blues meet in Sweden. There wasn't a lot of offense between the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning, and Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators, last season in Europe, and both teams will be a little behind the eight ball after flying in over the weekend, touring and playing exhibition games against European clubs. Look for more scoring out of the Wings-Blues contests as both teams are able to ice three scoring lines; that's where you'll find some potential plug-and-play options. Look to Ville Leino, Patrik Berglund, Jason Williams or Brad Winchester for a boost. … The super-deep sleeper among the ocean-hopping clubs is Radek Smolenak, whom the Blackhawks picked up from the Lightning in recent days only to have him score a pair of goals in an exhibition game against HC Davos. Smolenak was a quality scoring winger in the OHL for Kingston, but has been mired in the Bolts' minor league system since being picked in the third round in 2005. … Interesting (but pointless) fact: All four teams who opened in Europe last season (Penguins, Senators, Rangers and Lightning) fired their head coach before the end of the season. Luckily, Joel Quenneville, Peter DeBoer, Mike Babcock and Andy Murray have quite a bit of job security this year.

Advantage Sharks: The Sharks get to show off the newly acquired Dany Heatley with a pair of strong offensive and defensive matchups against the Colorado Avalanche and Anaheim Ducks. While the Avs will be a bit improved on defense, the Ducks remain susceptible on the power play -- only the Thrashers and Lightning allowed more power-play goals last season. Defensively, the Sharks' first two contests average at a nine, so Evgeni Nabokov could open up with a shutout in the first week. Given the advantage on the power play and the strong defensive ratings, Marc-Edouard Vlasic stands out as a good opening play on defense.

Capitalize against Leafs: Every NHL team will play Saturday, so you shouldn't find yourself with any holes in your lineup, but if you like playing the matchups or suffer an early-season injury, look to the Washington Capitals' second line in a dominant projection against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Brendan Morrison and Brooks Laich jump to mind as options in this 10-rated offensive match.

Yes, most of you will likely be treating these "two" weeks as one in your fantasy hockey leagues, and I'll have some notes on the big picture soon. But first, here's a look at the first full week (Monday, Oct. 5, to Sunday, Oct. 11) of the NHL season. Every team has at least two contests, and only the Ducks have as many as four.

"Full-week" matchup highlights

B's offense swarming: The Boston Bruins have two great matchups on paper in the full week, and neither should be strongly changed by offseason personnel shifts. With an offensive rating of eight versus the Ducks and a big 10 against the New York Islanders, the B's offense should take flight. I don't trust the average defensive rating of eight for the week, though, as both the Ducks and Isles have improved offensively. Still, Mark Recchi, Patrice Bergeron and Chuck Kobasew, who normally wouldn't be fantasy starts, might be due some attention. Especially Bergeron if David Krejci still isn't ready to lace 'em up.

[+] EnlargeNabokov
Kyle Terada/US PresswireLast season, Evgeni Nabokov won all four games with two shutouts versus the Avalanche, his opening-night opponent.
Sharks to open season 5-0? After the strong offensive and defensive matchups in the short week, the Sharks pull three more strong defensive matches in the full week with an average rating of eight. While that should stay true in matches with the Los Angeles Kings and Columbus Blue Jackets, the Saturday game against the Minnesota Wild could be the devil in disguise. Todd Richards, the new head coach for the Wild, was the Sharks' assistant coach last season and surely knows how to exploit the team with the revamped up-tempo offense.

Highlights for the full period (Oct. 1-11)

Punchless Avalanche: Retiring Joe Sakic's No. 19 will likely be the highlight of the Avs' opening sequence. With four games against tough goaltenders (Nabokov, Roberto Luongo, Pekka Rinne and Cristobal Huet), there aren't many must-starts among Avalanche players. In fact, you can probably draw the line after Paul Stastny and Milan Hejduk. Though, this will offer a good test to see whether Matt Duchene can catch up to game speed in the NHL. If he manages a notable first two weeks, the chances will improve for him to stick past the nine-game tryout before his entry-level contract kicks in.

Quantity over quality: For those owners who prefer to throw man-games at their opponent and overwhelm them in counting stats, the Ducks, Calgary Flames, Carolina Hurricanes, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Sharks, Vancouver Canucks and Capitals all play a total of five games. The Flames, Flyers, Sharks and Capitals have above-average offensive ratings. Some suggestions for those who favor quantity: David Moss, who was last spotted on a line with Jarome Iginla and Olli Jokinen; James vanRiemsdyk, who appears to have made the Flyers' third line; Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who as mentioned already will be a key member of a strong power play; and Tom Poti, who will anchor the Capitals' second power-play unit. … With a short schedule of only three games, you might want to lean away from borderline players for the Atlanta Thrashers, Buffalo Sabres, Nashville Predators and Islanders.

Goaltender duels on tough battleground: There aren't too many goalies on the hot seat to begin the season, but battles fantasy owners will be watching on the Ducks, Islanders, Maple Leafs and Capitals will have to wage their war while facing difficult opponents to open the season. All four teams face an average defensive rating of five or worse, meaning the advantage is with the opposing offense. … Jonas Hiller and Jean-Sebastien Giguere have the Sharks, Wild, Bruins, Flyers and Rangers on tap. With the competition wide open to begin the season, pay attention to which goaltender draws which opponent, as you can bet that if coach Randy Carlyle has a favorite, that favorite will match up against the Sharks, Bruins and Flyers. … For the Capitals, tough games against the Bruins, Flyers and Red Wings -- as well as the Maple Leafs and Rangers -- will provide a good indication of how strong a hold Jose Theodore has on the starting gig. Fantasy owners would much rather see the more ratio-friendly Semyon Varlamov win the job sooner than later. The over/under on Theodore having job security would probably be a 3.00 goals-against average during the first two weeks. If he does better than that, Varlamov owners will have to cool off for a bit, but if his numbers eclipse that mark coach Bruce Boudreau will have to give the Russian rookie a long look. … The battles of Vesa Toskala-Jonas Gustavsson for the Leafs and Dwayne Roloson-Martin Biron for the Isles are less relevant for fantasy owners, but still bear watching as both teams also have tough schedules.

Sean Allen is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com and the 2008 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Hockey Writer of the Year. You can e-mail him here.

Sean Allen is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He was the 2008 and 2009 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Hockey Writer of the Year. You can tweet him @seanard.