Open Ice: Fine-tuning category needs
There are four weeks left in the NHL's regular season and fantasy owners in rotisserie-type leagues who need to make up some ground would be wise to do a category tuneup by taking a fine-toothed comb to your standings and determining which categories you may or may not be able to gain ground.
There have been 21 weeks in the NHL season, so if you are in first place in your league in assists with 600, that means you have been averaging about 28 assists a week. As an extreme example, if second place in your league for assists had only 480, you may be able to win the category without getting another assist all season. That means you could focus your efforts elsewhere.
The previous scenario is highly unlikely to occur, but works to introduce the concept. Let's look at a real example using the same league assist leader with 600 assists on the season. If second place in the league actually had 530 assists this season, that would be a pace of about 25 assists per week. So if you have been getting 28 assists per week and second place has been getting 25 per week, you could possibly afford to lose Joe Thornton's assist production (three assists per week for 21 weeks is pretty close to Thornton's 62) for the rest of the season and still have a shot at first in the category. I'm not saying you actually need to get rid of a player like Thornton, but if you have someone on your team who is netting all their fantasy value from assists, it is fair to toss them aside or bench them (tossing them aside is risky because it means other owners in your league can upset the balance by picking them up).
Look at Tomas Kaberle: His ESPN Player Rater value for the season is 2.69 and his value in the assist category alone is 2.55. He is virtually worthless and sometimes detrimental in most of the other ESPN standard categories. If you don't stand to lose any rotisserie points in assists, there is no reason to waste games on Kaberle.
Let's look at the other type of example about how to gain points. If the leader for penalty minutes in your fantasy league has 1,100 on the season and you have 1,020, that means you have four weeks to make up 80 penalty minutes. That is a tall order, but it doesn't mean it can't be done. Look at some of the goons on the free-agent wire. Zenon Konopka has averaged just shy of 10 penalty minutes a week this season, so adding him takes you halfway there. Colton Orr, Steve Downie or Daniel Carcillo would almost take you the rest of the way. By adding two of the above PIM-accumulating players, you would give yourself a mathematical shot at gaining that one rotisserie point.
But how do you just add two players to help you with penalty minutes? That is where you have to do the entire categorical tuneup and make the two examples work in concert. If you have an abundance of assists and can get away with diverting roster attention from that category, you can try to make up ground somewhere else like PIMs.
There are four weeks left, and every rotisserie point in your league needs to be fought over. Take stock of your categories and devise a plan of attack. What's the worst that can happen? You stay in fifth? Drop lower? If you don't finish in a money spot or as the champion, do you really care where you end up? Pull out all the stops.
So how about a few names to go with the strategy? I'll offer up a few from the ESPN standard categories where you can still make up some ground. Goals and assists won't be included because everyone focuses on that. And I'll bypass goals-against average, save percentage and average time on ice, because they're all ratios and it's likely far tougher to make up significant ground with such little time left in the season.
Plus/Minus: Carl Gunnarsson is making the rounds with defense partners for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but it always seems to work in his favor. Whether on the ice with Jeff Finger or Luke Schenn, Gunnarsson has managed a plus-8 in March with a minus rating in just one of eight games. Since the trade deadline brought some fresh faces to the Phoenix Coyotes, Vernon Fiddler has been a new man. He has a plus-7 in five games with five points to boot. Most of his plus-6 for March came from one game against the Dallas Stars, but the Buffalo Sabres' Jochen Hecht has value for the category. As long as he remains on a line with Tim Connolly and Jason Pominville, that won't change.
Penalty minutes: First, go see if Downie or Carcillo are available. I can't believe they are free agents in some leagues. Both players will help you in PIMs, yet not hurt you elsewhere. Seriously consider Orr as a fantasy goon. He is usually good for a fight and is a risk of exploding for double-digit penalty minutes every dozen or so games. Best of all, the Leafs are forced to dress Orr almost every night, given that their talent level has sunk to the level that most people off the street could walk on to the team. There are plenty of goons out there to chose from, just make sure they don't sit in the press box too often and that you don't have too many of them dragging down your average ice time.
Power-play goals: With the Los Angeles Kings, Fredrik Modin has been receiving decent power-play time, and it has resulted in two power-play goals in his six games since the trade deadline. Dustin Byfuglien is earning first-unit power-play time with the powerful trio of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp. The three stars and Duncan Keith work the puck around the perimeter while Byfuglien uses his size in front of the net. "Buff" has scored six of his 16 goals on the power play this season. Alexander Steen isn't putting up the stats, but he is playing on the top power-play unit for the St. Louis Blues and has had bursts of production this season on the man advantage.
Shots on goal: Hecht makes his second appearance among these recommendations thanks to his tenacity with the puck lately. Only six players have taken more shots over the past two weeks. Even though his scoring pace has calmed considerably, Patric Hornqvist is still taking a lot of chances. Hornqvist is seeing time on the first power-play unit, as well as working with Steve Sullivan at even strength. The added minutes as a top-line player with the Atlanta Thrashers has meant plenty of opportunity for Niclas Bergfors. He is averaging 3.5 shots per game since being traded from the New Jersey Devils.
Wins: Jaroslav Halak has won each of his five straight starts since helping Slovakia make noise at the Olympics. The Montreal Canadiens' starting goalie spot is now his job to lose. Consistency is still a big issue, but Michael Leighton is not required to do a whole lot to give the Philadelphia Flyers a chance at winning. Watch the matchups closely and he can be a real gem.
Fortunes fall, fortunes rise. One week after I note Mikael Samuelsson's demotion to the third line as reason enough to ditch him in shallow leagues, coach Alain Vigneault moves him to the top line with Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin, and Samuelsson catches fire. Mmmm, crow. Hey, that's why line assignments are so important to follow. Rick Nash disappeared from rosters last week due to a bad back, but could return for the majority of this week. Ville Leino -- the ultra-talented Finn who could never crack the Detroit Red Wings' depth chart -- seems to be getting a fresh start with the Flyers. He played on a line with Jeff Carter and James van Riemsdyk over the weekend. Teddy Purcell now has four points in five games as a wingman for Vincent Lecavalier with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He looks good as a Bolt and may fit on your fantasy roster.
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.