The NHL continues to be extra busy ahead of the Olympic break that is fast approaching. In an attempt to get in as many games as possible before the league takes a two-week hiatus for the final two weeks of February, most teams are playing a very cramped schedule. For example, where you might find two or three teams with a four-game schedule in a typical week, Week 16 features 15 teams playing four games and only the Calgary Flames with fewer than three.
How does this change the way you use the Forecaster and put together your fantasy lineup? To be honest, it takes some of the legwork out of it. One of the big advantages the Forecaster provides is to quickly point out some players who might have a quiet week and where you can find free agents to replace them who have a strong schedule. If everyone except the Flames plays an average schedule, it really becomes splitting hairs over slight number advantages.
That's where you have to make some slight changes in how you use the Forecaster to your advantage:
Backup goalies becoming busy: I discussed how to exploit them as best you can back in an October Open Ice, but a tight schedule is where you can really use them to make up some ground in the goaltending categories. Next week there are 18 instances where a team plays on back-to-back nights and in all but one of those cases the team is doing some traveling between games. Now a backup goalie won't start a game in all 18 of those instances, as some teams have a Martin Brodeur or Roberto Luongo to just keep playing until the end of time, but there will be more than a few backups who do get the nod. So, pick a back-to-back series with a high defensive rating and watch for news on which goalie is starting (local newspaper Web sites are usually the authority). Tuukka Rask, Ty Conklin and Thomas Greiss look like the goalies to monitor for the coming week as their team's back-to-back sets have a high defensive rating.
Start your studs: Whether you are in a daily or weekly league, this rule normally reserved for fantasy baseball comes into play. When each team is playing either three or four games, it becomes pointless to haggle over whether three starts from Tomas Plekanec are better than four from Matt Cullen. You simply start Plekanec and call it a day. You can start using the Forecaster to break ties for your multiple four-game skaters. For example, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators each have three games next week so if you are looking at Bill Guerin or Patric Hornqvist, you can take the Pens' higher offensive rating for the week and start Guerin. Or, in a daily league, start Hornqvist for the 10-rated game against the Toronto Maple Leafs Monday, and then slide in Guerin for the rest of the week.
Check out your games played limits: For those of you in rotisserie leagues with a games played maximum, you need to start being prudent with your starts. Check your numbers and don't overdo the starts from now until the Olympics. It's tempting to keep starting players if you have the opportunity and the roster opening, but you don't want to run out of games for Henrik Sedin in late March because you have used too many starts from Steve Reinprecht. So try to keep yourself in check in the coming weeks, and remember that just because the Ottawa Senators have four games doesn't mean you have to start Nick Foligno four times.
"O" (offense) and "D" (defense) matchup ratings are based upon a scale from 1 (poor matchup) to 10 (excellent matchup), and are calculated using a formula that evaluates the team's year-to-date and past 21 days' statistics, its performance in home/road games depending on where the game is to be played, as well as its opponents' numbers in those categories. The Games T / H column lists the team's total number of games played as well as home games (T / H), and lists the cumulative rating from 1 to 10 of that week's matchups.
Maple Leafs on Southern road trip: With a swing through the south, the Toronto Maple Leafs have an exceptional offensive rating for the coming week. Games against the Predators, Atlanta Thrashers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers bode well for the Buds' offense thanks to the weakness of the opponents' defense and the fact that the Leafs are solid on the road. Phil Kessel has started to wake up out of a slump, and this road trip might kick him back into high gear. That would help his linemates continue recent success. Playing with Kessel, Nikolai Kulemin has somehow managed a plus-5 in the past seven games while rookie Tyler Bozak has three points in two games.
Oilers to have strong week: It does sound a little counterintuitive given how rough the Edmonton Oilers have been this season, but they have a solid three-game week on tap. The bonus here is that because they have been so rough on fantasy owners, many of the Oil are available on free-agent wires. With games against the Colorado Avalanche, Vancouver Canucks and Dallas Stars, the Oilers rate on the high end offensively for the week. Even though Shawn Horcoff and Robert Nilsson are sinking to new depths with their plus/minus, they can help you over the next week if you have an injury to cover. Paired with Dustin Penner on the Oilers' new top line, the trio has shown some bounce in its stride. Patrick O'Sullivan, who is also a bottomless abyss of minus, has also been solid on the power play lately and can help in that regard.
Be wary of Ward: Has Cam Ward turned a corner on what was shaping up to be a disappointing season, or do you still need to be careful with the Hurricanes netminder? Looking at the Forecaster and his overall stats on the season, there is no way I'd blindly run him out for the coming week. The offenses of the Lightning, Thrashers, Flyers and Bruins all have the ability to do some serious damage, and Ward is up against all four next week. His stats have been phenomenal over the past couple of weeks, but Ward has been streaky in the past and the Canes are still dead last in the NHL at this point.
Halak or Price?: Will it be Carey Price or Jaroslav Halak? Whoever does get the starts for the Montreal Canadiens, you want to have him in your lineup. It still appears to be two steps backward and one step forward for Price, who is slowly losing his grip on the job as Halak continues to be relatively unbeatable. The coming week has the Habs up against the St. Louis Blues, New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers in three games that rate above average on the defensive side. Keep an eye on the news about who is starting and look to take advantage of the matchup.
Mason continues New Year trend: When the calendar flipped to 2009, Chris Mason dialed in and became the best fantasy goaltender in the NHL for the rest of the 2008-09 season. As we begin 2010, one can't help but wonder whether he is repeating his performance. With five starts in 2010, Mason has a 1.79 goals-against average and .937 save percentage for a 3-1-1 record with a shutout. The Blues have a mixed week defensively on the Forecaster with a solid rating for games against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Canadiens and Ottawa Senators, but a tough matchup is called for on Saturday against the Anaheim Ducks. Use Mason sparingly for another week, but if he continues to do an impression of a stone wall, be ready to consider him a No. 1 goaltender.
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