NHL — Fantasy hockey forecaster for the week of Dec. 25-31

NHL News

Following the first two nights of NHL action, we optimistically, and maybe sarcastically, pointed out that 6.75 goals per game offered just a glimmer of hope for an uptick in offense this season. That optimism for added scoring has held through almost three months of action.

Including games through Dec. 21, the league has still witnessed an average of 5.96 goals per game this season, up from 5.53 last season. If it holds for the remainder of the season, it would be the highest total since the league average of 6.17 goals per game during the 2005-06 season.

While it’s an incremental increase on a per-game basis, the increase means that we are on pace for about 550 more goals than last season. That might explain some of the individual on-pace numbers we are seeing at the moment.

There are 10 players currently on pace to finish this season with at least 40 goals. The last time we had 10 players finish with 40 or more goals, it was 2008-09, and not coincidentally, league scoring was close to where it’s been so far this season (5.83 goals per game).

If league scoring was still down around 5.50 goals per game, there might be an argument to expect several of our current goal-scoring leaders to regress during the coming months. But with the uptick in total goals, there is room for everyone to maintain pace and stay in line with historical expectations for goal distribution. Nikita Kucherov and Alex Ovechkin are the only two on pace for more than 50 goals, while linemates John Tavares and Anders Lee are both pacing for 49 goals. Rookie Brock Boeser, who dodged a bullet with a foot injury last week, is on pace for 45 goals. James Neal, Brad Marchand, Patrik Laine, Sean Monahan and Michael Grabner round out the list of players in line for 40 goals.

Monahan is a bit of a shock, as he’s profiled as a bit more of a playmaker during his career so far. Still, he did score 31 in 2014-15, so this isn’t completely out of character. Grabner, as usual, has a ridiculous imbalance in his scoring, as he’s on pace for 40 goals and only seven assists, which somewhat clips his overall fantasy value.

As for assists, there are currently four players on pace to eclipse 70. Prior to Connor McDavid earning 70 helpers last season, the last player to crack that threshold was Henrik Sedin in 2009-10 and 2010-11. We haven’t seen four players with 70-plus helpers since the 2006-07 season (5.89 goals per game). Josh Bailey and Jakub Voracek are on pace for 82 apples apiece this season, while Steven Stamkos is on pace for 77, and Blake Wheeler is looking at 73. Bailey is kind of a no-brainer to continue his pace, considering both of his linemates are making a run at 50 goals.

You have to go back to 2009-10 to find a season in which we had more than one player with triple-digit points. Right now there are five players on pace to break the century mark this season. Kucherov is way out in front with a current pace of 121 points. Stamkos, Tavares, Bailey and Voracek are all on pace to finish with between 100 and 110.

Since we have had one or zero players top 100 points in each of the past seven seasons, the natural reaction is to expect regression from some of these guys. But with scoring up by almost half a goal per game on each of those seven seasons, this scoring trend could easily sustain until April.

In fact, I’m going to suggest that scoring could even increase between now and April. When teams get tired, sound defensive play tends to be the first sacrifice. The trends bear this out during the past couple of seasons. At this point last year, goals per game sat at 5.44 before finishing at 5.53. The season prior, there were 5.33 goals per game at this point in December, and the season would finish at 5.42. If that trend for a late-season surge in scoring holds, this season could peak past six goals per game for just the second time since league scoring dropped off in the 1996-97 season.

Fantasy Forecaster: Dec. 25-31

With a clean slate on Monday and Tuesday for the holidays, this is obviously a short week for NHL action. That said, all teams fall within the window of having either two or three games next week, so there are virtually no imbalances.

The Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers, Los Angeles Kings, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks are limited to just two games, while everyone else plays three. Of those teams with only two games, just the Flyers are playing a back-to-back set, which puts Brian Elliott as a questionable asset for next week, despite the goalie currently rolling on a hot streak. The Flyers have turned to Michal Neuvirth in four out of five back-to-back sets this season.

Note: For those new to the forecaster chart, here are some explanations: “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 season-to-date 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 “Ratings” column lists the cumulative rating from 1-10 of that week’s offensive (“O”) and defensive (“D”) matchups.

In the notes — team, goalie and player — below, the focus every week will be mainly on players who are available for potential use. Being rostered in less than 50 percent of ESPN leagues is a good generalized cutoff, and I’ll try to include players below 10 percent whenever possible to cater to deeper formats.

Team notes

Toronto Maple Leafs

The Leafs are on the road for three games next week, but their three opponents are somewhat pliable when it comes to allowing goals. The Leafs visit the Arizona Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights, but the biggest question is whether catalyst Auston Matthews will be back with the club following the holiday break. Matthews returned to practice on Friday and admitted he felt “concussion symptoms” following a collision on Dec. 9. The fact that he’s a game-time decision for Saturday suggests he’ll be good to go after the break. That means it’s time to get some Leafs back in your fantasy lineup with confidence. Mitch Marner has been the Leafs’ best player in Matthews’ absence and should continue to see an increased role on a line with James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak even after Matthews returns to the ice. Patrick Marleau is likely to slide back down the depth chart to allow Matthews his usual spot with Zach Hyman and William Nylander.

Chicago Blackhawks

The Blackhawks will mimic a road trip that division-rival Nashville Predators ventured on last week. The Predators outscored the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Canucks 13-1 during the western Canada road trip, which bodes well for the Hawks to pick up some slack offensively. Nick Schmaltz is available in 86.3 percent of ESPN leagues and is producing modest totals while skating with Patrick Kane and Artem Anisimov. He makes for a good target for next week’s trip, as does Alex DeBrincat, who is skating on the other scoring line with Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad.

Goalie notes

Cam Ward, G, Carolina Hurricanes (rostered in 3.0 percent of ESPN leagues)

Since Nov. 10, Ward has posted a 6-0-1 record with a .911 save percentage. Scott Darling is 4-7-3 in that span with a .886 save percentage. We should see the starts begin to trend toward a 50-50 split in the immediate future, which puts Ward on the radar for deeper league or situational usage.

Juuse Saros, G, Nashville Predators (2.3 percent)

Pekka Rinne‘s numbers are still good enough that he’ll remain at workhorse status for the foreseeable future, but the Predators can’t ignore Saros’ numbers forever. After a slow start in October, Saros has made five appearances since Nov. 1. His record stands at 3-0-1 in that span with a ridiculous .958 save percentage on 192 shots. Rinne allowed nine goals over his past four periods of work, which could put Saros on the radar for a short-term boost in action. At the very least, he’s clearly made himself a worthy addition to fantasy teams as a handcuff in deeper leagues.

Honorable mentions: Aside from Elliott’s back-to-back set limiting his action next week, Cam Talbot is another starter to potentially avoid. The Oilers face the potent Winnipeg Jets lineup twice, sandwiched around a date with the always-dangerous Blackhawks. … Roberto Luongo and Devan Dubnyk have been spotted back at practice, so watch for a potential return following the extended holiday break.

Player notes

Noah Hanifin, D, Carolina Hurricanes (29.7 percent)

It’s time for fantasy managers to relent and admit that Hanifin is now the defenseman to own in Carolina. Justin Faulk is still the preferred player in ESPN leagues, as he’s rostered in 48.2 percent of leagues, but his appearance on rosters is just about the only place Faulk beats Hanifin. Hanifin has seven goals to Faulk’s one and 19 points to Faulk’s eight. Hanifin is even beating Faulk for shots on goal over the past 30 days. At this rate, it won’t be long before Hanifin is leading Faulk for power-play ice time, too.

Danton Heinen, C/RW, Boston Bruins (19.9 percent)

It seems to be a different player he’s filling in for every other week, but Heinen continues to exploit every opportunity he is getting on the Bruins’ scoring lines and the power play. Heinen has 10 points in his past nine games with five of them coming on the man advantage. Most recently, he was playing on the top power play in place of an ill Ryan Spooner. Heinen had a bit of a coming out party in last season’s Calder Cup playoffs, posting 18 points in 17 games for the AHL’s Providence Bruins.

Shea Theodore, D, Vegas Golden Knights (9.9 percent)

Despite playing fewer power-play minutes than Nate Schmidt and Colin Miller, Theodore is tied for the team lead in power-play points in December. Going back further, Theodore is ninth on the Golden Knights in total power-play time since Nov. 1, but is tied for first on the team with six power-play points. It’s becoming evident that Theodore is ready to ascend to the role he was primed for as the Knights’ top offensive-defenseman. Perhaps his breakout four-power-play point night on Tuesday can help him solidify his role.

Brian Boyle, C, New Jersey Devils (5.7 percent)

Remember how Scott Hartnell was making some noise at the start of the season for fantasy managers by virtue of standing in front of the crease during his team’s power plays? Boyle is doing essentially the same thing now. The big-bodied forward has seven points in his past three games and is up to nine goals on the season. Four of his goals and five of his 15 points have come on the power play, where he plays a front-of-net role with the top unit. If he continues to use his six-foot-seven frame effectively, he could continue to earn power-play specialist status for fantasy teams.

Honorable mentions: The New York Islanders‘ offensive schedule on the Forecaster is promising for next week, but most of the relevant assets will be spoken for in your league. It may be worth checking on Andrew Ladd‘s availability if you need plug-and-play help for the week. … The Sedin twins are averaging a full two additional minutes of ice time per game in December compared to earlier this season, a requirement brought on by the injuries to Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi. More importantly, both Henrik and Daniel Sedin are responding to the additional time and have both been roster-worthy throughout the whole month. Both remain available in more than half of ESPN leagues.

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