In the most general sense, this weekend marked the midpoint of the NHL season. We've seen enough to know how to value each team's quality. In the Eastern Conference, the playoff field is all but set, while the West provides a little more intrigue down the stretch.
The halfway mark is a good time to evaluate fantasy hockey teams too. Given the nature of head-to-head formats, we're a little more than halfway through the virtual regular season before the playoffs start. For the more hands-off managers, it's a good time to evaluate where your weaknesses are.
This week, the focus is on games in hand. In any given season, the NHL season is prone to a bit of scheduling imbalance due to various factors -- building availability is usually at the top of that list. This season, the pandemic has played its role in exacerbating that scheduling issue. Consider this: the Lightning, Predators and Ducks have all played 43 games (through the weekend), while the Islanders (34) and Senators (35) bring up the rear. That's roughly a 10 percent difference in season completion between the top and the bottom.
You may be wondering what that has to do with fantasy. Take a look at Steven Stamkos' season -- he's got 20 goals and 30 assists through 42 games. That's an impressive total and very useful in fantasy. Mikko Rantanen has picked up 48 points and Kirill Kaprizov has 47. Both of them are right behind Stamkos on the scoring list, but the latter two have just 36 appearances to their names. It all comes down to a point-per-game basis, as the raw numbers aren't as effective as comparing value between players of such similar skill sets.
This is something we all have to consider when making trade offers and waiver-wire moves. It's part of a puzzle that also accounts for a player's role, their recent momentum and their talent level. There are some players that will have a handful more games than those on other teams, and that in itself can provide a modest boost to value over the second half of the campaign. I'm not suggesting to pick up a player solely because his team has games in hand, but I encourage you to look beyond simple point totals when making adjustments. In that spirit, here's some quality players to add from teams that have a heavier schedule going forward.
There's a case to be made for Sean Monahan working his way back into fantasy relevance. Since the holiday break, the center has two goals and three assists in eight games while still often being limited to a third-line role. There's two things that make me optimistic about him going forward: he's still on the Flames' top power-play unit, and he's increased his shot volume recently. Prior to the break, he had 45 shots in 28 contests, but he's put 16 shots on net in his last eight outings. For the year, he's picked up 11 of his 18 points with the man advantage. A 40-point center isn't special in standard formats, but the 27-year-old has historically been better than what he's shown so far.
Oilers blueliner Evan Bouchard caught my eye in Saturday's Battle of Alberta. With Tyson Barrie (upper body) out, Bouchard got a chance to quarterback the top power-play unit. The Oilers entered Saturday cold with the man advantage, but the defenseman deposited a couple of his patented Bouch Bombs on the power play to tie the game in the second period. That doubled his power-play point total to four in 37 contests, but most of the time he's been stuck on the second unit. More exposure to Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl is a good thing for anyone -- if Bouchard holds the top-unit role, he's going to return great fantasy value.
The Jets' Josh Morrissey is a player I often waver back and forth on throughout a season. I'm ready to buy in again in the near term, as he's picked up five helpers in his last eight games. The Jets will have quite a fight on their hands to get in the playoffs, so it wouldn't be surprising to see them lean a little heavier on their top-four defensemen in the second half of the season. Morrissey has 16 points in 38 contests this season, but he's picked up six of them on the power play and added 77 shots on net and 76 hits. He could still enjoy a career year and provide plenty of category coverage with his toughness -- count me in.
From the Wild, keep an eye on Jared Spurgeon. He's lost 15 games this season to a recurring lower-body injury, but he just made his return Saturday versus the Blackhawks. He put up two assists in that game. The chance of another injury setback is a concern -- the 32-year-old is a lead-by-example captain for a very balanced team, and the only thing keeping him from a ninth straight 100-blocked-shot season is the time he's missed. Combine his defensive sturdiness (26 blocked, plus-8 rating) with his scoring talent (13 points, five on the power play) in just 22 games so far, and you've got a player poised for a big second half.
There are really no weak spots with the Avalanche, and it's scary to think they've got a four-point lead in the Central Division with two games in hand on the Blues and four in hand over the Predators. January hasn't been kind to Valeri Nichushkin individually, as he missed three games in the COVID-19 protocols and four with an upper-body injury to start the month. It's okay if he slipped off your fantasy radar -- just be ready to add him now. He put up a power-play goal and an assist while blocking four shots in Saturday's 3-2 overtime win over the Canadiens. The Russian looks set to return to a second-line role with Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky -- if they can all stay healthy, that's a pretty good trio to supplement the star power of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog.
To the east, Josh Bailey leads the Islanders in scoring in their last six games. In that span, he's got two goals and four assists. The 32-year-old winger is most likely to help fantasy managers with assists -- he's a playmaker with a low shot volume and no physicality. He's at 18 points, 27 shots on net and an even plus-minus rating through 29 contests overall, which isn't so bad given how rough the Islanders' offense looked for the first three months of the season.
Alex Formenton is on a pretty nice run for the Senators, as he's picked up a goal and six assists in six games since the Senators' season resumed Jan. 13. The 22-year-old has earned a place alongside Tim Stutzle on the second line, but Formenton's been making a bigger impression. He's a speedy winger who continues to impress in his first full season. The pride of Barrie, Ontario has seven goals, 10 assists, 61 shots on net, 39 hits and 21 PIM through 32 appearances this season. I've got a lot of patience for any player who can show they belong in a top-six role, and it's not like the Senators have anyone better down the lineup to challenge Formenton for that spot right now.
Matt Grzelcyk (undisclosed) is now a few games removed from his five-point explosion against the Capitals on Jan. 10. He's made four appearances since then, picking up three assists in those games, including two on the power play. Charlie McAvoy is the star of the Bruins' blue line, but the 28-year-old Grzelcyk could provide a solid mix of offense and blocked shots. The Grizzly Bear is at 16 points, 70 shots on goal and 42 blocks through 36 contests, and he's been a fixture in the top-four, though we'll have to hope his current injury is a minor one.
I won't harp on this too much more going forward, but Michael Bunting needs to be rostered in fantasy when he's playing alongside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. The 26-year-old Bunting saw a five-game point streak end Saturday against the Islanders, but he's more than done enough to be a factor. He's at nine goals, 24 points, 78 shots on net and 36 hits through 38 contests this season. His 11.5 shooting percentage isn't so unreasonable given who he plays with most often.
Top-line Seth Jarvis is back -- he's racked up two goals in his last three games and he's up to six points in nine games since the holiday break. The 19-year-old winger remains an intriguing option whenever he lines up with Sebastian Aho as his center. With eight goals and nine assists in 29 contests overall, Jarvis has already been solid as a rookie. Grab him now, ride the hot streak and move on if he drops back onto the third line in a couple weeks.
I've stressed the importance of finding edges and advantages earlier in the season. In the second half, the biggest weapon any manager can have is getting more games than their head-to-head opponent each week. You've got an established core on your fantasy team, but don't hesitate to ride the hot hand for your depth. Grabbing a player that has a four-game week could make a difference if he outplays a similar guy who's only playing twice in that same week. Players on teams with games in hand will be playing more down the stretch -- let that propel you to victory, especially with the rescheduled games likely to balance things out in February. Enjoy the week ahead and we'll see what adjustments we need to make next week.