One of the more frustrating aspects of Fantasy Hockey is the perceived luck factor involved in head-to-head leagues. Matching up with a team that has multiple players on a four game week while you end up with players only playing twice puts you at an immediate disadvantage. With cumulative stats such as shots on goal, penalty minutes and hits often decided by a small margin, a three to five start deficit can be all it takes to lose against an evenly matched Fantasy Hockey team. While most managers will chalk up a discrepancy in starts to the luck of the draw, by analyzing the way the NHL makes its schedule you can consistently get a leg up on your competition.
The NHL schedules the majority of its games on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. These are days when you will often have a full roster of active players and end up wasting starts on your bench. By contrast, Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays have significantly fewer games scheduled, and you will almost always have open slots in your starting lineup. Take this week for example: one game on Monday, 10 on Tuesday, four on Wednesday, eight on Thursday, five on Friday, 11 on Saturday, and five on Sunday. This pattern is consistent throughout the entire season, and therefore can be exploited to your advantage. The first step is to calculate how many games each team will play on what I have termed “soft” nights. I’ve gone through each team’s schedule to find these figures, and while I won’t go into detail on all 30 teams, you can obtain that information by e-mailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. The results of my research are that the NHL average is 30 games played on soft nights per team, with a few teams sticking out as clear exceptions. On the positive side are the Anaheim Ducks who lead all teams with 55 soft night starts; the Chicago Blackhawks are second with 44 and the Edmonton Oilers are third with 42. On the other side of the spectrum, the Nashville Predators have the fewest soft night starts with 16, while the Arizona Coyotes and St. Louis Blues have the second fewest with 21.
Now that we have the information, it’s time to devise a way to utilize it to our advantage. If you have marginal players on your bench, who play the majority of their games on crowded nights, chances are you won’t be able to use them much, as you will have better options in your lineup to start. This holds especially true for single-category assets that you hold onto in order to take over a close category at the end of the week. However, if your marginal assets play a lot of games on nights when you will have open slots in your roster, they become much more useful to you. The difference between a marginal Ducks player that you are unable to use during crowded nights and one on the Predators is a whopping 39 extra starts per year! This is such a large margin that an argument can be made that a lower ranked player on the Ducks is significantly more valuable to your roster than a higher ranked counterpart on the Predators. If you can make three roster moves replacing players from teams at the bottom of the league in soft night starts with players from the top of the list, you can suddenly find yourself with upwards of 100 extra starts over the course of the season. Over a 24 week NHL season that is more than four additional starts per week. Considering how close a lot of Fantasy Hockey teams tend to be, that differential is often going to be enough to move you from the outside looking in, to being firmly entrenched in a playoff position.
The following are players from the Ducks, Blackhawks, and Oilers that are owned in less than 50 percent of standard Yahoo! leagues and should be targeted immediately for their additional weekly starts:
Sami Vatanen, D: currently owned in 36 percent of leagues. The Ducks have come out of the gate looking like the cream of the crop in a loaded Western Conference, and their 25 percent efficiency rate on the power play is a big reason for their early success. Young Sami Vatanen has emerged in the season’s infancy as the Ducks go-to option from the blue line on the man advantage. While his power play counterpart Cam Fowler has the pedigree and an 86 percent ownership level, it is Vatanen doing the scoring with two goals and three assists through six games, all coming on the power play. His level of production is likely to taper off as the season progresses, but his ability to accumulate stats on sparsely scheduled nights will remain consistent throughout the year.
Dany Heatley, LW: currently owned in 28 percent of leagues. Heatley has been on injured reserve with a groin injury since the start of the season, but he started practicing with the team this week and his return should be imminent. The former two-time 50 goal scorer has spent the last two seasons in relative obscurity on the Minnesota Wild’s fourth line. His combination of injuries and declining results may make him a hard sell as an addition to your roster until you factor in the position he is set to enter once he returns to the lineup. All indications are that Heatley will be given a shot on left wing alongside C Ryan Getzlaf and RW Corey Perry. There is no guarantee he sticks in this role, but the potential results skating with two top-10 Fantasy assets more than makes up for the minimal risk involved in the acquisition. Heatley has always had a great nose for the net and his game on paper should mesh well with Getzlaf’s playmaking and Perry’s high volume shooting.
Devonte Smith-Pelly, RW: currently owned in four percent of leagues. Although he has only posted one goal and one assist this season, Smith-Pelly’s peripheral stats make him a valuable addition. He is currently leading the Ducks with 20 hits and is fifth on the club with 12 shots on goal, all despite not cracking the Top-10 in average time on ice. He is also the current winner of the game of musical chairs that head coach Bruce Boudreau is playing with the team’s top line LW position. With both Heatley and Patrick Maroon on injured reserve, Smith-Pelly has an opportunity to cement his position and earn more ice time in a scoring role if he gels with Getzlaf and Perry. Place him on your watch list for now; if he starts scoring goals while continuing to play physically he will be an attractive asset for your bench.
Andrew Shaw, C: currently owned in 28 percent of leagues. The Blackhawks attempted to bolster their depth at center in the off-season by signing former New York Ranger Brad Richards. While he was expected to center the second line with talented wingers Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad, the job has instead been seized by homegrown pivot Andrew Shaw. Although it is a small sample size, Shaw’s three points through four games while Richards remains pointless is a good indication that Shaw could remain as Kane’s center throughout the season, which would make him a valuable commodity for your roster. With their plethora of skilled forwards the Blackhawks tend not to play overly physical, but Shaw still leads the team with 12 hits on the year and put up over 75 penalty minutes last season, making him a multi-category threat that should be owned in more leagues.
Niklas Hjalmarsson, D: currently owned in six percent of leagues. The departure of defenseman Nick Leddy due to salary cap restrictions has created an opportunity for Hjalmarsson to see more minutes in offensive situations. With two assists in the early going, he is a good bet to improve on last year’s career high of 26 points, while maintaining a positive plus/minus rating for the Blackhawks and their elite puck possession system. Hjalmarsson also appears to be playing with some added physicality to his game this season, posting a team high eight penalty minutes through four games. If you are in need of a spare defenseman the Swedish veteran is a great option that you will be able to frequently start due to the numerous games the Blackhawks have on quiet nights around the league.
Mark Arcobello, C: currently owned in one percent of leagues. With the Oilers seemingly stuck in a perpetual rebuild, there is a dearth of skaters worth owning who aren’t already universally spoken for. It may be hard to believe but your best option might be this undrafted second year player only owned in one percent of leagues. Arcobello currently leads the Oilers with a plus-2 rating and is the only player other than LW Taylor Hall with a positive rating. A positive rating is crucial, as plus/minus is the only category applicable to skaters where additional starts can have the potential to hurt your cumulative statistics. If he can continue to play a responsible two-way brand of hockey, an anomaly on this Oilers club, then you can reap the benefits of additional points and shots on goal without the risk of damaging your team’s plus/minus rating. In a close matchup, every little bit of production is crucial, and Arcobello’s flexible schedule makes him more valuable than centers from other teams, who will score at a greater rate yet remain buried on your bench.