It's go time! The puck drops on the 2011-12 NHL season Thursday, and the Fantasy Forecaster is making its triumphant return just in time to help guide you through the grid known as the NHL schedule. A quick refresher/introduction to the Forecaster: We take as much available data as possible to generate a matchup formula based on season-long and recent trends in goals, shots and special-teams production. The resulting calculations provide a rating for offense and defense for each team in each game in the week ahead. A 10 in offense means goals will abound. A 10 in defense means good plus/minus and goaltending is in store. An addition to the Forecaster this year is a helpful chart showing the hottest teams in the league for goals and shots on both sides of the puck.
Remember to swallow a grain of salt with the Forecaster, though. Even the best available data isn't going to give you a lock in any situation (we'd take this thing to Vegas if it did). What the Forecaster does is provide a handful of choice free agents during the short term, help you play it safe with goaltending starts, identify matchups to take advantage of in daily-roster leagues and a whole series of other fantasy inclinations. But it's still just a guide, and if the New York Rangers have a 10 on offense in a certain game, that's no guarantee they'll score six goals. It just means it's more likely to happen, given the team's recent production, than a shutout.
In the past, we used to suggest you take additional salt crystals before reading early-season editions of the Forecaster because part of the formula is weighed for season-long data and part is weighed for the past three weeks. Since neither of those factors include a large sample size at the start of the season, we used numbers from the previous season. Of course, you can imagine the trouble with using numbers from last season. Heck, more than half the Florida Panthers starting roster wasn't even there last season. But this season we are using preseason data to help bolster the Forecaster for the first few weeks of the campaign. Now, we know there can be just as many issues with preseason data, but the relevance of using games that were played just a couple of days ago feels a lot more useful than using numbers from last season. So rather than have to wait for the Forecaster to become a strong tool, we think it should be pointing out good matchups right from the get-go this season.
Also note a new section at the bottom for ESPN.com's newest fantasy game, the Hockey Challenge. This salary-cap style game plays perfectly into the data and recommendations that flow from the Forecaster already. It's a natural fit to add some tips at the bottom for weekly lineup changes in that game.
Without further ado, here's the double-decker Fantasy Forecaster for the extended first week of the 2011-12 season:
"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.
Chicago Blackhawks: The Hawks begin the season with a two-game series with the Dallas Stars, followed by games against the Winnipeg Jets and Boston Bruins. The Forecaster pegs the contests as a solid chance for the Hawks to come out of the gate strong on offense. The Patrick Kane-at-center experiment appears to be a success so far and should carry over into the regular season. That means Andrew Brunette and Marian Hossa should get a bump in value as this trio looks just as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than the line of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and "insert winger here" (it looks like a race between Michael Frolik, Viktor Stalberg and Bryan Bickell). Brunette is available in about 75 percent of ESPN leagues if you want to give him a tryout.
Vancouver Canucks: The defending Western Conference champs have five games in the first fantasy period of the season and rate as highly as a team can rate on the Forecaster. Both Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond are starting the season on the sidelines, which means rookie Cody Hodgson has a wide-open door to show what he can do in the NHL. Hodgson will start the season as the second-line center on a unit with Mikael Samuelsson and Marco Sturm, and he'll be in line for power-play time on the second unit. Hodgson has the talent, but will he seize the opportunity? With a good schedule for the first week, you may need to grab him now to stay ahead of the competition. Hodgson is available in 98 percent of ESPN leagues.
Detroit Red Wings: With three of four matchups to start the season against goaltenders ranked outside the top 15 in fantasy, it's little wonder the Wings have a positive opening Forecaster prediction. Valtteri Filppula looks like one of the best bets who might be available in your league (95 percent of ESPN leagues, anyway). Filppula has six preseason points in four games playing on a line with Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen that, on paper, might be the Red Wings' best scoring line. While that position on the depth chart is hardly set in stone, it was the team's best line in exhibition games. Filppula does have playmaking qualities and is a good fit for scoring linemates such as Zetterberg and Franzen. The other recommended pickup (and a player you might not drop again) is Ian White. It appears as though White is solidified as Nicklas Lidstrom's defense partner, and the combination has been together both on and off the power play. White is available in 55 percent of ESPN leagues, but as the Wings' No. 2 defenseman, he deserves to be universally owned.
Edmonton Oilers: Starting the season with games against Marc-Andre Fleury and Roberto Luongo isn't the best scenario, and there will be a lot on the line for some members of this club. The Oilers also have a game against the Minnesota Wild in a light three-game schedule during the extended first week of the fantasy season. Those three games represent one-third of the opportunity Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has to prove his worth. The No. 1 overall pick from the 2011 NHL draft will begin the season with the big club and has nine games before the Oilers can send him back to junior without burning a year of his entry-level contract. RNH led the Oilers in preseason scoring and clicked on a line with sophomores Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle. Even though the Oilers have a terrible rating on the Forecaster, you might want to consider stashing Nugent-Hopkins during his trial run. He is still available in 88 percent of ESPN leagues.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Tim Connolly is expected to be healthy for the Leafs' first game of the season. The Leafs have only three games during the first fantasy scoring period, but three games will go a long way toward showing how well the line of Connolly, Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul can produce. This unit looks perfect on paper, but paper is not ice. Though you might want to hold off on a move right away because of the schedule, keep an eye on the line's production during the first few games. While Kessel and Connolly are almost universally owned, Lupul is available in almost 90 percent of ESPN leagues. And if Kessel and Connolly do well, Lupul will be along for the ride.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Fleury and the Penguins have a solid defensive forecast to begin the season, with six games total, including contests against the Calgary Flames, Oilers and Panthers. With Sidney Crosby officially on the injured reserve to start the season, defensively adept Jordan Staal will likely begin the season as the second-line center. Combine Staal's two-way prowess with offense from wingers like Tyler Kennedy or Steve Sullivan, and you have a pretty potent combination for plus/minus. Toss in the strong Forecaster rating and you have some players worth plugging into your lineup. At least until Crosby is ready to play, Staal should be worth your time as the Pens' No. 2 behind Evgeni Malkin.
Washington Capitals: Tomas Vokoun's tenure as the Caps' goaltender should begin on a positive note. Games against the Carolina Hurricanes, Tampa Bay Lightning, Penguins and Ottawa Senators give the Capitals a good defensive forecast for the first scoring period. That also means solid plus/minus ratings for a team that is expected to score a lot of goals this season. Troy Brouwer, Troy Brouwer, Troy Brouwer. Maybe saying his name three times, a la "Beetlejuice," will get him noticed in more leagues. Brouwer has been the only constant (beside Alex Ovechkin) through the preseason linemate combinations employed by coach Bruce Boudreau. And Brouwer is a good bet to get in on the plus/minus action as much as anybody and is still available in 98 percent of ESPN leagues.
Colorado Avalanche: Five games, including four on the road and one against the defending Stanley Cup champion, equals a low defensive rating for the Avalanche. If you drafted Semyon Varlamov and have a good feeling about him as your No. 2 fantasy goalie, consider this a Forecaster warning to take the relationship slowly. The first two games are against the Red Wings and Bruins. Maybe sit Varlamov this week and see how he handles those two contests before deciding if he's safe to leave in your lineup most of the time.
Winnipeg Jets: The Jets kick-start their new franchise with only three games in the first fantasy scoring period, including poorly rated contests at home against the Montreal Canadiens and on the road against the Blackhawks. Ondrej Pavelec and the offense both have a lot to prove before they can be considered regular fantasy starters, and this slow start won't help them get there. One thing to consider is that first-round pick Mark Scheifele was signed to an entry-level deal Monday and will start the season with the Jets. Scheifele is second in the NHL for preseason scoring and is worth keeping an eye on during his nine-game tryout.
This chart will stay up-to-date during the season to show you the hottest and coldest teams in the NHL for scoring and shots on goal during the past three weeks. It is one more Forecaster-generated tool we can use to spot good matchups. In this case, the statistics used to draw up the table are from the preseason. Still, we can point out facts like this one: The Anaheim Ducks have allowed the third-most goals per game in the preseason and have a matchup with the San Jose Sharks, who have scored the second-most goals per game in exhibition play. That likely will be a good game to test out someone like Benn Ferriero, who hasn't left the side of Logan Couture and Ryane Clowe all preseason and has 11 shots on goal in four games.
This section will also be a chance to point out some hot lines, such as the rejuvenated combination of Mike Ribeiro and Michael Ryder. Separated since they were both Habs in 2005-06, Ribeiro and Ryder have been lighting up the preseason. Ribeiro leads the league with 10 points while Ryder has six, and the two have played only four preseason games. Ryder is available in more than 90 percent of ESPN leagues.
Or we can use this section to point out goaltenders who may be getting thrown to the wolves of late. Niklas Backstrom faced 108 shots in the preseason and managed a save percentage of .898. That is the kind of low rating, to go with a high shot count, that can devastate your average. Based on the numbers, and the idea that the Wild will play a more offensive game, it's looking like Backstrom isn't even a No. 2 goalie anymore.
And here we have a look at some good Hockey Challenge bargains -- players to sell and some one-week rental options for the new salary-cap game here at ESPN.com.
Weekly bargain: Here we are with a fresh slate to work with, making picking that best bargain a wide-open decision. Remember that salaries in this game will be influenced by the market (actual production and demand for a player's services), so now is the best time to lock in your personal favorite sleeper before he starts producing in the NHL and the demand for his services starts to rise (therefore making his salary rise). One bargain-basement price that is hard to ignore is Peter Mueller at $5.7 million. Mueller was a point-per-game producer with the Avalanche before a concussion in late 2009-10 knocked him out for the entire 2010-11 season. He is back and healthy, and is working on the same line as Matt Duchene and Milan Hejduk. That's the same line Mueller netted 20 points with in 15 games in that 2010 stint with the Avs.
Rentals: The Penguins are the best early-season rentals for the Hockey Challenge lineup. While some teams have only three games in the first scoring period, and most have four or five contests, the Penguins are the only team with six games. Evgeni Malkin ($8.7M), Marc-Andre Fleury ($12.2M) and Kris Letang ($7.5M) should be staples of your lineup this week. Suggested sleepers from the Pens would be Steve Sullivan ($6M), Jordan Staal ($5.2M) and Paul Martin ($5.6M).