- Sean Allen
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It's a short week in the NHL, with no team playing more than two games because of the All-Star break. If you crave only the info, jump down to the chart/advice below. But If you'd like some entertainment, as well, indulge me as I discuss the All-Star Game a little.
Maybe fantasy hockey is catching on because the NHL will select its All-Star teams with a fantasy draft. That's right, a draft. Selected captains Nicklas Lidstrom and Eric Staal will select the NHL All-Star teams on Jan. 28, live on Versus at 8 p.m. ET. Given that it has been my job to make fantasy hockey recommendations since Staal was a rookie, I figured I could weigh in on the situation and give the two "school-yard" captains some advice.
Now, the first rule of any fantasy draft is to know the rules and basics. This is an actual contest, so right off the bat we must change some strategies for Lidstrom and Staal compared to fantasy. It is an All-Star Game, no less, which means scoring will be in abundance. The average goals scored in the past three All-Star games is 20. There also will be few, if any, power plays, so "defensive" defensemen or point-shot snipers are not necessarily a must-have commodity.
It's also rare to see a goaltender steal the show. Evgeni Nabokov was the first goaltender to notch a scoreless period in an All-Star Game since 2002 when he stole the second period in 2008. This game is about the scoring, not the goaltending. While there is a chance a goalie might hold his own during the game, odds are that all the 'tenders are just there as a minor annoyance for our goal-scoring superstars. Drafting a goaltender early in this format will not be conducive to success.
Ranking the players for the purpose of Staal and Lidstrom's fantasy draft, there is one aspect of the available player pool that jumps off the page to me: There are only three elite playmakers available. There are a ton of goal-scorers, balanced skaters and power forwards, but Henrik Sedin, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis are the three elite players with the tell-tale 2:1 assist-to-goal ratio available. What kind of an impact does that playmaking skill have? Maybe you noticed that Daniel Sedin, Loui Eriksson and Steven Stamkos, the three players on the receiving end of the playmakers' passes, also made the All-Star Game.
That leads me to the next point: Staal and Lidstrom will want to build on pre-existing relationships on the ice. Selecting teammates and even linemates will go a long way to creating offense, given the lack of practice time for these squads. If someone can lock up both Sedins and Ryan Kesler, that will be money in the bank.
As a consolation prize after Richards, Henrik Sedin and St. Louis are gone, Anze Kopitar, Ales Hemsky and Patrick Kane would make nice selections for playmaking purposes and probably should go off the board before many goal-scorers who have more points than they do this season. After all, the "worst" goal-scorer available is still a superstar talent, but there are really only six setup men to draft.
When it comes to defensemen, Lidstrom is exactly the type of player to avoid picking (so it's a good thing he is a captain). While he does lead all NHL defensemen in points this season, might I point out that he is only 16 points away from the power play? Brent Burns and Shea Weber, who have only 28 points compared to Lidstrom's 42 this season, have more non-power-play points than captain Lidstrom. Power plays are very rare in the NHL All-Star Game, so quarterbacking skills are nonessential. Besides Lidstrom, Tobias Enstrom and Dan Boyle become much less attractive when you subtract their ability to generate offense on the man advantage. Dustin Byfuglien and Kris Letang, who have cracked the 40-point barrier, still have more than half their points away from the power play.
When it does come time to select a goaltender -- I would think that's only after all forwards and half of the defensemen are off the board -- Lidstrom and Staal need to look at the most recent statistics instead of the season as a whole to this point. While he is a distant second to Tim Thomas on the ESPN Player Rater for the season, Henrik Lundqvist has been a better goalie over the past month, including in the past week. Jonas Hiller also ranks before Thomas when you look at statistics going back just 30 days. And if they really want to catch a hot streak, Marc-Andre Fleury also has been better than Thomas for the past week. The point is, this isn't about picking the goaltender that has been best this season. Carey Price is 33rd on the ESPN Player Rater for the past month, even though he ranks fifth for the season.
Finally, a little flair is not a bad thing for a showcase event such as this. While Rick Nash might not be having his best season as a scorer, the All-Star Game is a different story. Nash doesn't have all-world playmakers next to him with the Columbus Blue Jackets, but place him on the ice with a Richards or St. Louis and you can bet his pure skills with the puck -- which rival any player in the NHL -- jump off the page. The same can be said for Phil Kessel, who by all accounts might even have it worse than Nash when it comes to linemates during the regular season.
I hope this has been helpful for at least Lidstrom and Staal, if not entertaining and food for thought for the rest of you. This is the most mainstream embrace the NHL has ever offered the fantasy-hockey realm, so I felt it an opportunity to do what we fantasy geeks like to do: analyze it to death.
"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, their performance in home/road games depending on where the game is to be played, as well as their 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 1-10 of that week's matchups.
Not much to say: Honestly, what can I say about this week? There are three days of games, so no team plays more than two games, and every team plays at least one. Check your league for what the rules say about the week -- it may run into next week, as well -- if you play in a weekly league. If your league takes the week for what it is, goaltender minimums are likely out the window, so if you get a shutout bench it from there. Try to maximize on teams that have two games if you can, but really that shouldn't be a huge factor. If you want to break it down, the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs offer uncharacteristically good offensive ratings, and the same can be said for the Florida Panthers, Dallas Stars and Washington Capitals on defense. I'll make the "Quick Hits" section a bit longer this week to make up for the lack of other discussion.
• The biggest fantasy news in the week is the loss of Tomas Fleischmann (blood clots) for the remainder of the season. This is a major hit for owners who were reaping the benefits of one of the best midseason free agents for fantasy teams. Fleischmann basically became a point-per-game player once he was traded to the Colorado Avalanche (21 points in 22 games), and someone will benefit from his spot on the depth chart between Matt Duchene and Chris Stewart (or other stars in the top six). Kevin Porter and T.J. Galiardi are the best candidates. Galiardi has a lower ceiling but has shown flashes of having caught the NHL pace, so he may be the safer bet. Porter has loads of potential but hasn't shown much of it; he represents the long shot.
• Maybe the best free agent to replace Fleischmann right now is T.J. Oshie. Back with the St. Louis Blues after missing 31 games because of a broken ankle, Oshie cracked 20 minutes and scored a goal in his second game. A potential point-per-game player himself, Oshie is available in just less than 50 percent of ESPN leagues.
• Fleischmann eclipsed Brandon Dubinsky as the lead tidbit, only because of news that the New York Rangers might not be without their leading scorer for long. Originally thought to be out for a month, Dubinsky claims that the time frame could be much shorter than anticipated. Oddly enough, it was only without Dubinsky that Marian Gaborik busted out of his slump with a five-point night. Both players are still buy-low candidates at this point, as this Rangers' offense is bound to have more to show us this season. As soon as everyone starts firing on all cylinders at the same time, this group could be dangerous.
• Consider this your final warning for the availability of Tuomo Ruutu. He just won't stop scoring and is still out there in more than 30 percent of leagues. I discussed him in this week's Front Line, but the bottom line is that his pace should continue, making him well worth a fantasy roster spot. You want him on your team no matter how shallow your league.
• Could it actually be time to consider Mark Recchi as a viable option? It has been awhile since the veteran deserved a regular gig in fantasy lineups, but he is clicking so well with Patrice Bergeron that the points are flowing for Recchi right now. He has six points with a plus-6 rating in eight games since being put on a line with Bergeron and Brad Marchand.
• Marco Sturm is on the injured reserve again with knee tendinitis. Alexei Ponikarovsky is getting one more shot at working out some chemistry with Kopitar and Dustin Brown. Keep an eye on him, as Poni has shown an ability to thrive with strong linemates before. Don't hold your breath, though, as he hasn't proven to be a good fit with the Los Angeles Kings overall.
• Why no love for Jamie Benn as a solid fantasy winger? Despite being pushed out of the top six with the arrival of Jamie Langenbrunner, Benn is a staple on the power play for the Stars. He has almost identical statistics this season to Brenden Morrow. The difference is that Morrow is owned in 100 percent of ESPN leagues and Benn only in 15 percent.
• Dan Hamhuis might not be collecting as many points as you would like for a fantasy defenseman, but there is something to be said for his five points and plus-13 rating during the past month. Consider him a low-tier defense option if you have been experimenting with risky projects in a roster spot. Hamhuis represents steady production.
• A great trade target at defense is Keith Yandle. He has very little name value in fantasy circles, but no defenseman in the NHL has more points than Yandle during the past month. His plus-10 rating with 16 points in 15 games during that span could put him in an argument for the best fantasy defenseman since late December. I'll bet he wouldn't be treated with such respect in a trade by many fantasy owners.
• Don't get too bent out of shape if Nabokov returns to the NHL and joins the Detroit Red Wings. Jimmy Howard has been playing inconsistently lately, but Howard was also a top-five goaltender for much of the season. Even if Nabokov steals half the starts, it might not be enough to make him a big difference-maker in fantasy leagues. Sure, pick him up if you are having goalie troubles, but don't break the bank on him if you don't need to gamble. His stats in the KHL this season were not good (.888 save percentage, 3.02 goals-against average).
• It should be a low priority on your radar, but I do want to note that if Lars Eller is going to make an impact in his rookie season, now is his chance. With Mike Cammalleri expected to miss about a month, Eller is needed in the Montreal Canadiens' top six. In four games with expanded ice time, Eller has a goal and eight shots. Not great but he has the talent to ramp that up with the right linemates.
Sean Allen is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is the 2008 and 2009 Fantasy Sports Writers Association, Hockey Writer of the Year. You can e-mail him here.
Sean Allen previews the (shortened) fantasy week ahead and also discusses the upcoming All-Star selections.