Open Ice: Boosting your plus/minus
Just as all hockey players have a role for their NHL team, there's a role for them in fantasy hockey as well. There are 12 players who are a plus-8 or better as of Monday morning. Of those twelve, only four are owned in more than 5 percent of ESPN leagues and only two are owned in more than 70 percent. Maybe that's because only four of the twelve have more than five points. And herein rests our problem: How do we benefit from league-leading plus/minus when it comes from a player who doesn't help much in any other categories?
We see it every season, as some of the year-end leaders in plus/minus are defensive defensemen or two-way forwards who don't put the puck in the net. They have value for their NHL team, so why not find a way to let them have value for your fantasy squad? With a few careful checks and balances, you can use players like current NHL leader Nicklas Grossman to bolster your plus/minus without wasting roster space.
For head-to-head owners with daily lineups, the solution is quite simple. You will rarely struggle with games-played limits for the week, so it's as easy as parking the plus/minus contributor on your bench and plugging him in when you see an opening. Make sure to check the Fantasy Forecaster each week; the defensive rating was created to help gauge the plus/minus potential for a team for any particular game. So if you see the Colorado Avalanche lined up for a game with a D:7, plug in Scott Hannan. But if their next game rates a D:2, leave him on your bench.
For rotisseries fantasy players, the process is a little more difficult, especially in shallow leagues. You don't want to be starting Davis Drewiske on a consistent basis over your No. 4 defenseman, because you have only 82 games for each defense roster spot for the season. Using too many of those starts on a player whose sole contribution is plus/minus will set you too far back when it comes to points and other categories. The key is to keep a tally of your missed games due to injury and watch your games-played pace as the season wears on. That will allow you to have Drewiske or Jay McKee on the bench and use him whenever you see a good matchup, but remain confident that you won't miss out on Chris Pronger's final five games of the season because you already used up your defense by then. It's easy to click over to "Max & Pace" from your team page and see how many games played you are on pace for and then adjust your use of the plus/minus bench player accordingly, but because not all NHL teams play at the same place, don't forget to check how many games played your starters have versus what their NHL teams has played as well.
Sam Gagner, C, Oilers (owned in 7.5 percent of ESPN leagues): I'm pointing to Gagner here because I expect his other linemates are already owned in your league: Ales Hemsky since the draft, and Dustin Penner since everyone realized he was on fire to start the season. The Edmonton Oilers' lines have been adjusted between periods as coach Pat Quinn changes his mind as often as the wind changes direction, but there has been some consistency for a few games now as the red-hot Penner settles in on a line with Hemsky and Gagner. The trio joined forces to score four goals and have nine assists in their first game together against the Columbus Blue Jackets, then had a goal and four assists against the Calgary Flames Saturday (the whole team was shutout Sunday by Roberto Luongo). This is surely the kind of scoring potential Quinn has been looking for through all his juggling, so we can only hope he sticks to his guns with this combination. It's great news for all three players and their fantasy owners should they continue as a unit.
Derek Morris, D, Bruins (2.8): An injury and a slow start for Dennis Wideman opened the door for Morris to take a more prominent role on the Boston Bruins defense. While he hasn't slammed that door shut to Wideman regaining some value, Morris has done an adequate job. Playing on and off the power play with Zdeno Chara as a defense partner has made Morris an accomplice on six goals through 10 games and he has chipped in a goal of his own as well. It's been a long time since Morris' 48-point career year in 2002-03, and he hasn't cracked 30 points since then, but as long as Chara is at his side he will be fantasy worthy this season.
Marc-Andre Bergeron, D, Canadiens (5.2): Three games, three power-play points and three Montreal Canadiens' wins; that's Bergeron's résumé since being brought on board to replace the injured Andrei Markov as the Habs' offense from the back end. The power-play specialist, who didn't have an NHL job when the season started, certainly looks ready to endear himself to fantasy owners until Markov returns. Although Bergeron won't play as many minutes as other defensemen and will struggle with plus/minus, his points should make up for the shortcomings.
Keith Tkachuk, C/LW, Blues (56.4): Mr. Tkachuk still packs a wicked wrist shot that could beat most goalies from almost anywhere in the offensive zone, but one of the simplest principles behind scoring is that you have to shoot the puck in the first place. Tkachuk is now skating on the St. Louis Blues checking line with Cam Janssen and Brad Winchester and he hasn't taken a single shot on net in more than three games. The Blues boast tons of talent on offense so it won't be easy for Tkachuk to work his way back into the mix after being shuffled out of the top three lines. He may become relevant once injuries set in later this season (if he doesn't succumb to one himself), but for now he won't help in most fantasy formats.
Alex Tanguay, LW, Lightning (73.4): Coach Rick Tocchet has been open about the demotion as being nothing more than a kick in the rear end meant to get Tanguay back on track offensively, but it's hard not to look at his two points on the season and want to jump ship. In shallow leagues, go right ahead and ditch him. Tanguay has not found any rhythm with Vincent Lecavalier, and Ryan Malone has solidified himself as the left winger with the team's offensive catalyst, Martin St. Louis. While Tanguay may mix himself in with Steven Stamkos and find some common ground eventually with Lecavalier, he is expendable in shallow leagues right now. I'd hold in deeper fantasy formats, though. When the chips were down against the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night, Tocchet was quick to bring Tanguay back into the top six, so the demotion may be short-lived in the end.
The line getting the most ice time lately for the Blue Jackets does not include Rick Nash. Antoine Vermette, Kristian Huselius and Jakub Voracek have been clicking as a unit, making all three players notable to fantasy owners. All three are owned in approximately 80 percent of ESPN leagues. It's just a little lower body injury for now, and he'll be back before you know it, but Justin Williams has had a chronic run of injuries over the past few years. That makes it quite notable that in his absence, Wayne Simmonds has managed to contribute a point per game while filling out the Los Angeles Kings top line with Anze Kopitar and Ryan Smyth. Red-hot Ryan O'Reilly is starting to pull his linemates along with him. The 18-year old rookie for the Avalanche has 10 points in 11 games and a plus-10 to make him a good fantasy pickup. Furthermore, on a line with him of late, Chris Stewart has four points in two games and T.J. Galiardi had the second multipoint game of his career Saturday. Derek Dorsett is quickly earning some love from fantasy owners who seek a goon with a decent amount of ice time. Able to actually play defensive hockey as well, Dorsett has found a role on the Blue Jackets third line with Samuel Pahlsson and Raffi Torres. The nice thing about Dorsett's penalty minutes is that they come with at least 10 minutes of ice time in every game (he wasn't kicked out of) except for one. As the Vancouver Canucks still sort out their lines without Daniel Sedin, Michael Grabner is up from the AHL and making a case to never go back. The rookie winger has speed to spare and is playing on a line with fellow speedster Mason Raymond and two-way king Ryan Kesler. The trio has looked like a match made in hockey heaven, with Kesler's defensive ability allowing Grabner and Raymond to speed on ahead and take chances. The same three actually constitute the Canucks' first power-play unit as well. Get on Grabner and Raymond now. Speaking of the Canucks, check out the availability of Mathieu Schneider. In his first game of the season Sunday, he skated just shy of 15 minutes on the third pairing and worked some power play time. He had little to no impact on the box score, but his role will certainly expand in short order.
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.
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