This is the best time of year to glean important information from hockey statistics. Breakdowns are often offered for pre- and post-All Star game numbers and there is a significant sample size available for the current season, yet there also remains enough games to be played that making changes can have an impact.
It's that perfect window of opportunity when there is enough data to learn from and still enough time to do something with it.
In that spirit, we begin this week's Forecaster with some team statistics that may surprise you based on your preconceived or "at-a-glimpse" notions.
The Nashville Predators have the second-best power play. That's right, the same Predators that are more known for their defensive ability to win games are more dangerous on the man advantage this season than any team other than the Vancouver Canucks. Currently converting on 22.4 percent of the team's 170 power-play opportunities this season, the Predators roster is the place to look for help in the power-play department for fantasy. And since only the two All-Star defensemen (Shea Weber and Ryan Suter) plus Pekka Rinne are the only players owned in 100 percent of ESPN leagues, there are plenty of places to look.
First and foremost, the connection established during the past month between Mike Fisher and Martin Erat has been significant. After going through several line combinations this season, these two have really hit things off on the top line. Fisher and Erat have a combined 27 points in the past 12 games, and 11 of those points have come on the power play. While Erat is quickly approaching universal ownership in ESPN leagues, Fisher remains on the free-agent pile in 27 percent of leagues. Another place to cast a glance would be on the blue line. No, not Weber or Suter, but rather up and coming offensive powerhouse Ryan Ellis, who actually leads all Predators blueliners in points during the past month and has connected on four power-play points in his past 12 games. As long as he continues to earn at least 15 minutes of ice time per game, he should have relevance in deep fantasy leagues.
The goaltending for the Columbus Blue Jackets hasn't been that bad. That may seem like a ridiculous statement, but the adjusted goaltender metrics reveal this to be true. If you take every team's goals-against average this season, you will see that only the Tampa Bay Lightning have allowed more goals than the Blue Jackets' 3.28 team goals-against average. However, if you take out all the goals that were scored when the team put the goalie at a disadvantage -- power-play goals, empty-net goals, penalty shots -- the Blue Jackets have the largest improvement in GAA in the league, going from 3.28 to 2.27 GAA. All of a sudden, the Carolina Hurricanes, Ottawa Senators and even the New Jersey Devils have to envy the Blue Jackets' adjusted team GAA. Of course, you also must consider things in context. The Devils are rock-solid at penalty killing, so there's little adjusting to do to the team's GAA. Still, the number above indicates that there is a chance the Blue Jackets, under interim coach Todd Richards, can see a quick and vast improvement to the situation in net. I'm not rushing to the waiver wire to add Curtis Sanford or Steve Mason to my team, but if I see a hot streak by the Jackets in the next couple weeks, I might think that they have solved some issues on the penalty kill and consider adding a Jackets goaltender, probably Sanford.
The St. Louis Blues are one of the plus/minus elite. OK, so you have probably reached this conclusion on your own by now, but maybe not the extent to which this is true. The Boston Bruins are running away with the title, but the Blues are the third-best team in the league in terms of plus/minus rating. The Blues' plus/minus rating is plus-35 this season, and if you add up all the ratings on their current roster, you get plus-164. We have been preaching the virtues of Alexander Steen all season, but his plus-20 hasn't received the attention it should. He is expected back from a concussion over the weekend and is available in 36 percent of ESPN leagues. From Kevin Shattenkirk's plus-17 to even Barret Jackman's empty plus-15, there is positive plus/minus available up and down this roster. David Perron (available in 32 percent of ESPN leagues) rates as a plus-8, but he has missed half the season. Then there is Andy McDonald. You might be getting sick of hearing me praise him in my columns, but he has shed his non-contact jersey at practice, and a return from concussion is looming. McDonald, need I remind you again, was one of the stars of the second half last season. He is still available in 75 percent of leagues and should quickly rise to the top of the Blues' depth chart (even though it's getting pretty crowded with talent).
The last time an NHL player scored eight points in a game was New Year's Eve, 1988 (Mario Lemieux). That is, until Thursday night, when Sam Gagner went nuts against the Chicago Blackhawks. Two important notes here: 1) Gagner is filling in for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on the top line with Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall; 2) Nugent-Hopkins will be back from injury Saturday night. Maybe coach Tom Renney experiments with different line combinations for a few games to see if he can find another fit, but sooner or later RNH will be back with Eberle and Hall again, while Gagner is back to the second or third line. Gagner was recommended several times as a fill-in while RNH was on the shelf, and we hope you had him in your lineup for this explosion, but don't go chasing him now. Unfortunately, it's too late.
"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.
Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers made a depth chart switch to spark some offense, and Wayne Simmonds reacted immediately. Currently available in 47 percent of ESPN leagues, Simmonds played Thursday night on a line with a couple of All-Stars by the name of Claude Giroux and Scott Hartnell. The result: two goals and 10 shots on goal. Simmonds wasn't there because of injury either; Jaromir Jagr was perfectly healthy for the game and playing on the second line with Matt Read and Jakub Voracek. If this turns into a long-term assignment for Simmonds, the returns would be obvious. Even if it's a short-term job, the Flyers have four games next week and an "O: 10" on the Forecaster. Get him into your lineup.
Toronto Maple Leafs: The only words to describe Mikhail Grabovski lately are the words "on fire." Only John Tavares has more points during the past 30 days, and nobody has more points during the past two weeks. Grabovski has 17 points in the past 13 games and is just now approaching 100 percent ownership in ESPN leagues. Why would I even mention him then? Because during the past three games in particular, Grabovski has brought his linemates into the stratosphere with him. We have seen how well Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin can work together in the past, so when they are on a hot streak, it's time to pay attention. MacArthur is the first place to look; he has four goals and two assists in the past three games, and is available in 89 percent of ESPN leagues. If he has been snatched up, look to Kulemin. He has five points in the past three games and is available in 83 percent of ESPN leagues. This week is a great time to consider the Leafs' "second" line as the team plays four contests and rates an "O: 8" on the Forecaster. Consider taking advantage of this trio if you own Phil Kessel or Joffrey Lupul. We have seen evidence in the past that just one of the Leafs' top lines can be hot at a time. If Grabovski continues to roll, it's likely going to be at the expense of Kessel and Lupul.
New Jersey Devils: While still considering Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise strong post-All Star break candidates for improvement, next week might not be the time to look for the snowball to start gaining momentum. The Devils run directly into the defensive walls known as the New York Rangers and St. Louis Blues next week. Tied with each other for the lowest team goals-against average in the league, this is probably not going to be a shining week for the Devils offense. A third game against the Florida Panthers doesn't make up for the earlier games, and the Forecaster hands the Devils offense an "O: 1." Also, note that offensive catalyst, center Adam Henrique, remains day-to-day into the weekend with a sore groin. Don't necessarily bench Kovalchuk and Parise in your league, but don't bench someone else with a better forecast in order to start them.
Florida Panthers: The Panthers don't have the best defensive Forecaster rating for the week ahead, but a "D: 6" is technically on the above-average side. The key is that they have a goaltender available in 93 percent of ESPN leagues that is currently rocking a strong save percentage. Scott Clemmensen has also won two of the past three Panthers games and should continue to carry the load as Jose Theodore rests his injured knee. While the New York Islanders have been hot on offense, the Washington Capitals, Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils haven't been lighting the lamp with frequency lately. There should be strong ratios and a couple wins in store for Clemmensen next week.
Boston Bruins: The Bruins have only two games on tap next week, and both Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask have been a bit cold in recent starts. Making matters worse for fantasy owners who aren't carrying both players, the starts have been split a fairly even 50-50 lately. That means Thomas or Rask owners will get just one start out of a cold goaltender next week. Stay away if you have to lock your goalies in for the whole week. If you get to make daily changes, watch closely for who gets the call against the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday, as that matchup has some redeeming qualities.
Despite coming off the All-Star break in poor fashion against the Dallas Stars this week, the Anaheim Ducks remain atop the leaders in goals per game during the past three weeks of play. The Ducks' 9-2-1 January record has opened our eyes to a few offensive options on the team that go beyond the usual suspects of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan and Teemu Selanne.
First off, Saku Koivu has been solid, if unspectacular, since returning to the lineup from a December injury. In 14 games since his return, Koivu has managed 12 points while centering his countryman Selanne. While the hotter end of his offense came toward the start of January, the conditions exist for Koivu to continue contributing above-average offense for the remainder of the season. The Ducks are as primed as any team to make a run in the second half. With a new coach and new system in place, the high scoring trends should continue.
Jason Blake is another place to look as the final member of the Ducks' top six. Currently day-to-day with an undisclosed ailment, Blake has missed a ton of time this season. But when healthy, Blake can definitely provide offense. During a stretch in January, Blake managed eight points in seven games. Though he was cold before and after that stretch, at least he showed us what he's capable of.
If you think back to some of coach Bruce Boudreau's prime years with the Capitals, his second line consisted of a defensively responsible yet playmaking centerman in Brooks Laich and a veteran winger that liked to shot the puck in Mike Knuble. Both players found a role with Boudreau at the helm and assisted fantasy owners. Perhaps that same kind of role can be kindled and solidified for Koivu and Blake, two similar players, with the Ducks.
Best bets: You will want to consider Flyers, Canucks and Detroit Red Wings options; those squads have the best schedules next week both in quantity and quality of games. Claude Giroux ($8.3M), Henrik Sedin ($8.9M), Daniel Sedin ($8.6M) and Pavel Datsyuk ($8.9M) are the obvious choices, but Matt Read ($6.0M), Jiri Hudler ($6.0M) and Cody Hodgson ($5.3M) are more modestly priced. … The money in net should go to Jimmy Howard ($12.0M), Jonathan Quick ($10.8M) or Henrik Lundqvist ($11.8M). With prices yet to start climbing on goaltenders, you can surely still afford to choose from those three.
Weekly bargains: Now might be the best time to consider investing in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins ($6.3M). After missing several weeks because of a shoulder injury, his price point is low enough that a near-point-per-game rookie is available on the cheap. … For bargains this early in Segment 2, you want to focus on trying to nab a couple players you think will have a big second half on the cheap. Think about defensemen who are better players than they showed us in the first half, such as Alex Pietrangelo ($6.0M), Mark Streit ($6.5M) or Alex Goligoski ($5.7M). For forwards, consider looking at players who are coming off injury, such as Andy McDonald ($5.9M), or players who are usually solid second-half guys, such as Paul Stastny ($6.5M).
Rentals: It's actually pretty unlikely you will need any rentals since the salary rollback means you can still rock an All-Star team from top to bottom. If you find yourself a bit short at a position, though, consider grabbing the aforementioned Wayne Simmonds ($5.1M) to save a few bucks.
My roster for next week:
Jimmy Howard, G ($12.0M)
Henrik Lundqvist, G ($11.8M)
Alex Pietrangelo, D ($6.0M)
Erik Karlsson, D ($7.4M)
Dan Boyle, D ($6.8M)
Kris Letang, D ($6.8M)
Andy McDonald, F ($5.9M)
Wayne Simmonds, F ($5.1M)
Evgeni Malkin, F ($8.9M)
Martin St. Louis, F ($8.1M)
Jason Spezza, F ($8.0M)
Ilya Kovalchuk, F ($8.0M)
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 send him a note here or tweet him @seanard with the hashtag #FantasyHockey for a timelier response.