Commentary

Grand Theft Roto: Strength of schedule

Updated: February 5, 2008, 1:49 PM ET
By Sean Allen | Special to ESPN.com

Strength of schedule can play a major factor in fantasy football leagues. Owners use it to determine which players they should trade at the deadline so they don't wind up with a tough matchup for their players in the championship. It's a little more difficult to apply such an analysis to hockey because the calculations are tedious and time consuming.

Well, here they are. Let's just say I didn't have much to do Saturday morning.

I put the goals per game for each team into a spreadsheet, loaded the remaining schedule and came up with a strength of schedule of my own. The chart below shows the average goals per game of each team's combined opponents. The calculations were done using all games up to Feb. 2. However, the projections include games only after Feb. 4, so as to not use any games that have already been played.

 Strength of schedule Team Games left Opponents' goals per game Buffalo 31 2.91 Toronto 28 2.91 Columbus 28 2.90 Montreal 29 2.86 New Jersey 29 2.85 Nashville 29 2.85 Florida 28 2.84 Tampa Bay 29 2.84 Boston 30 2.84 Ottawa 29 2.84 Atlanta 27 2.83 Pittsburgh 29 2.81 Anaheim 26 2.81 St. Louis 31 2.81 NY Rangers 27 2.80 NY Islanders 29 2.80 Vancouver 29 2.79 Carolina 27 2.78 Washington 29 2.78 Edmonton 27 2.78 Los Angeles 28 2.78 San Jose 30 2.78 Phoenix 29 2.78 Chicago 30 2.78 Minnesota 30 2.77 Philadelphia 31 2.76 Dallas 26 2.76 Colorado 28 2.73 Calgary 29 2.73 Detroit 28 2.72

As you can see, there isn't a lot of deviation, with fewer than 0.20 goals allowed per game separating the best and the worst. That gap actually can be pretty significant, though, when you consider how close your goals-against-average race is in fantasy leagues. So how do I use this to suggest some trades to look into? Read on.

Casing the Joint

Recommendation No. 1 : Get Dominik Hasek. If you are stuck in your standings and feel you must make a major move soon for a chance to win your league, check your goaltending statistics for the season. If they display your weakness, go after Hasek. And I mean go after him. Pay whatever it takes. Look, you aren't going to win your league by standing pat and hoping your team turns things around. You need to take a mitigated risk and make a run for the title. Hasek and the Red Wings already have a powerhouse offense, a great defense and, based on the above chart, the easiest schedule going forward. At some point Hasek will emerge from his timeshare with Chris Osgood to become the true No. 1 goalie. The Red Wings can't possibly be thinking about entering the playoffs with a 50/50 split of the 'tending duties. Somebody needs to be "the guy." Hasek is better equipped to take this team through the rigors of the postseason and should emerge as the primary starter before too long. Yes, I know there is also a chance coach Mike Babcock will refuse to split up the platoon, but if you are sitting in the middle of the pack, you must take this shot to move up. This is a calculated risk that could pay huge dividends if I'm right; even if I'm wrong, you still have the better half of the best tandem in the league.

Recommendation No. 2 : Get rid of Ryan Miller. His numbers are good enough for him to be considered a low-tier No. 1 goaltender, but things are going to get worse for Miller and the Sabres, who have a tough schedule ahead. Buffalo shares the highest remaining goals-per-game average with Toronto, but the Sabres have an even tougher number if you split the remaining schedule in two. After Feb. 29, Buffalo faces a schedule that consists of 2.99 goals per game. Ottawa, Detroit, Philadelphia, Montreal and Carolina are the only teams scoring at a pace better than 3.00 goals per game, and Buffalo faces all of those teams at least once in March and April. Consider trading Miller for someone with a little less name value, and then maybe pick up another player somewhere else. Target a goalie like Rick DiPietro or Ilya Bryzgalov, who should provide similar (or better) numbers but aren't considered to be on the same level as Miller.

Recommendation No. 3: Pay attention to the battle in Colorado's net. Thus far, I've recommended owners to stay away from the battle between Jose Theodore and Peter Budaj, but my opinion has changed of late. I did recommend picking up Budaj recently, but only because Theodore was due to relinquish his lead in the race. As difficult as it has been to predict which goaltender will start for coach Joel Quenneville on any given night, the Avalanche have one of the easiest schedules ahead and should make a run at the playoffs despite missing their best three forwards. With back problems creeping up for Theodore, the early edge goes to Budaj. Theodore has had a laundry list of troubles over the previous few years, and with an easier schedule ahead, Budaj should be able to solidify his 1A role. I'd get my hands on either one, though, especially considering they should come cheap.

Recommendation No. 4: Pick your Maple Leafs carefully. As I noted above, the schedule won't get any easier for Toronto. That means the playoffs should be a distant thought come the trade deadline, which, in turn, means some top Maple Leafs players could be rather lonely after Feb. 26. Players like Jason Blake and Darcy Tucker, who likely will stay put because of big contracts, should be on your "sour" list. Blake and Tucker both need to play with stars to be stars, and should Mats Sundin, Nik Antropov or any of the other noteworthy Leafs leave town, those two would be left out to dry. I'd trust only the guys in Toronto who make things happen on their own. That means Sundin, Kyle Wellwood (when healthy), Tomas Kaberle, Bryan McCabe and Vesa Toskala.

[+] Enlarge
Len Redkoles/Getty ImagesNow would be a good time to get Antero Niittymaki.
Recommendation No. 5: Watch the somewhat dormant goaltender battles in Minnesota and Philadelphia. It's not as if those goaltending battles are red-hot right now, as Martin Biron and Niklas Backstrom have separated themselves as the No. 1 in their respective cities, but the situations were more opaque just two weeks ago and could be again as the season continues. Minny and Philly both have a decent schedule remaining for goalies, and both backup goaltenders are future All-Stars and widely available in fantasy leagues. Odds are that either Antero Niittymaki or Josh Harding will make himself a great stretch-run addition in net. I still don't fully trust Biron or Backstrom. They are the goalies to play right now, but based on the skill set of each backup, and the remaining schedule ahead, I'm keeping a close eye on Niitty and Harding.

Recommendation No. 6: Look to Philly for some plus/minus help. Speaking of the favorable schedule ahead for Philly, the team's forwards and defensemen should be the first place to look for plus/minus help. Everyone knows about Ottawa and Detroit for help in that category, but Philadelphia looks like it could be the sleeper option. Granted, the plus/minus of several Flyers forwards is in the red right now, but the team is poised for a great run to end the season. Only within the last month have the Flyers found lines that click. They soon will be getting Joffrey Lupul back, too. With the fifth easiest remaining schedule and the recent emergence of defenseman Braydon Coburn and backup goalie Niittymaki, I think you'll find some sleepers in the plus/minus category here. To name a few targets: Coburn, Derian Hatcher, Jeff Carter and R.J. Umberger, but also players like Mike Knuble, Simon Gagne and Kimmo Timonen should see a coming improvement.

Sean Allen is a fantasy baseball and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can Email 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.