Most fantasy hockey leagues are just diving into the playoffs or are prepping to do so next week. One decision can be the difference between fantasy glory or disappointment.
Our expert staff is here to help. Fantasy hockey writers Victoria Matiash and Sean Allen, ESPN.com senior NHL writer Greg Wyshynski and fantasy hockey editor Ben Arledge review players to bench, players to add, sneaky playoff-run sleepers and more as you navigate your league playoffs.
Good luck on your championship run!
Which highly-drafted, highly-regarded player am I sitting in the playoffs until he finds his game?
Victoria Matiash: Coloring outside the lines a bit here, I’m pointing to Duncan Keith, who was drafted at an average position of 82.7 overall. Fast forward several months, and the Chicago Blackhawks‘ franchise defenseman is wrapping up an altogether bleak year with one goal and three assists in 19 recent games. He has two points with the man advantage since the new year. At this stage, I’d even rather take a flier on another, less prominent blueliner in Chicago. Anchoring the Hawks’ top power play, Erik Gustafsson has six points altogether in his past four games — and he’s widely available.
Sean Allen: Braden Holtby is absolutely relegated to the bench until further notice. There is no amount of past history that can erase more than six weeks of sustained futility in the crease. Allow this number to sink in: 4.31. That is Holtby’s goals allowed per 60 minutes since Jan. 28, and it’s putrid, at best. Even after things looked up briefly following the outdoor game against Toronto, Holtby promptly got the hook in the next game. In the meantime, Philipp Grubauer has been killing it. The Washington Capitals and fantasy managers alike would be nuts to keep going back to the Holtby well just because of his history, but Grubauer is certainly worth a look while he remains hot.
Greg Wyshynski: Brayden Schenn. It’s negatives across the board for the St. Louis Blues center, who has eight points in his last 17 games. But hey, he’s going to surpass his career high in points, and he’s already given fantasy managers great value this season. In a ‘win or go home’ scenario, I’m playing the trends: Give me a hot goalie or a line playing with straight fire over a name-brand player. Put Schenn on the bench.
Ben Arledge: T.J. Oshie. After going in the top four rounds of standard drafts, the Sochi hero has just 12 goals and 24 assists to his name. He last scored in January and isn’t providing much in other categories, but is still represented on 90 percent of rosters in ESPN leagues. Sit the Washington winger in favor of someone else if you are in the playoffs. If you are deciding between a hot player and a star in a must-win matchup — especially on the final day of said matchup — I generally prefer sticking with the star in crunch time, rather than leaving my season up to a “hot” player. However, if that star is cold, as Oshie is right now, don’t be stubborn. Don’t be afraid to bench someone who isn’t performing.
I need a roster spot in a re-draft, non-keeper league. Can I cut any injured big name players?
Matiash: Still in recovery from a concussion, Carey Price is probably done for the year. Same goes for Corey Crawford. Vegas Golden Knights forward James Neal and his injured hand isn’t worth sweating over, either, if you need to clear roster space. Boston’s Patrice Bergeron and his fractured foot haven’t even started skating yet, which is concerning. But my biggest worry is Auston Matthews. Maybe we see the Toronto Maple Leafs forward take contact in practice early next week, or maybe Toronto chooses to wait it out a bit longer, ensuring that injured shoulder — not a new problem — is fully healthy. With little to play for and cushioned in third in the Atlantic Division, why not take the cautiously patient approach? A pre-playoff warmup of three or four games might suit everyone best. Well, except Matthews’ fantasy managers.
Allen: Crawford, Price and Neal are all eligible for cutting. Even if Crawford and Price come back healthy, they are playing behind teams that are destined to be golfing by mid-April. Crawford would be at least interesting if he did come back, but with the mystery surrounding his injury and the zero chance of Chicago in the postseason, I just don’t see it happening. As for Neal, his stats just aren’t good enough for “hold regardless of injury status” to begin with. He’s in the same territory as Thomas Vanek, Bryan Little or Adam Henrique for fantasy. Ride the bandwagon when they’re hot and get off when they’re not. I’m already on record for holding Jack Eichel and Brian Elliott for deployment at a later date, while many of the other injured guys are all on track for a return sooner rather than later or are too good to ever ditch when a return is possible.
Wyshynski: First off, do not cut Eichel under any circumstances. He has 35 points in 37 games for his career in March and April, also known as garbage time for the Buffalo Sabres. But from the rest of this list … look, this is a total gamble, but I might cut Bergeron. He’s out for the next week and still waiting for further evaluation. The Boston Bruins keep winning and are all but locked into the No. 2 vs. No. 3 matchup in the Atlantic. One wonders if they’ll shelve him for longer than necessary.
Arledge: Obviously the guys who are done for the regular season (Brock Boeser, Charlie McAvoy, etc.) can all go, as they offer you nothing. The tricky ones are a few of these top-tier goalies who might be done. Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville said it’s “status quo” for Crawford right now. With the Blackhawks out of the playoff picture, I can’t imagine he’ll return. It’s fine to cut bait. Price, meanwhile, is reportedly skating on his own in recovery from a concussion, but his status is still very foggy. I’d wait a few days before I dump the Habs’ goalie, but then you can safely follow suit there, too. Beyond those two, I wouldn’t drop either injured Bruins forward or Matthews. You can let go of Elliott if you really need a spot, and you might even be able to pick him right back up in a week, but Ben Bishop and Matt Murray should be back in due time. Oh, and Eichel is back at practice, so keep him right where he is.
I need a goalie for the playoffs. Of goaltenders available in at least 50 percent of ESPN leagues, who should I pick up?
Matiash: I’d suggest Semyon Varlamov, a healthy Antti Raanta and Antti Niemi, in that order of preference. Even though the Habs are out of it, Niemi is playing for his next contract, and a positive conclusion to 2017-18 would help the 34-year-old with that. If all three are spoken for, and I’ve got nothing to lose, give me the New York Islanders‘ Christopher Gibson. The 25-year-old, with his seven career NHL appearances spanning three seasons, doesn’t seem bothered by backstopping the league’s most generous defense.
Allen: Varlamov has to be the choice at the moment, although this landscape could change quickly. With goaltenders, you want assured starts and respectable ratios (the team controls the wins). Varlamov is healthy, in the driver’s seat for starts and has ratios that can pass the sniff test. If I knew Raanta was going to return to health in short order, he’d be my choice, but goaltender injuries are unpredictable.
Wyshynski: Put me down as a follower of the Raanta-sance. He’s been good all season for the Arizona Coyotes (when healthy) and will be down the stretch (if healthy) for a team that’s really figured a thing or two out about itself defensively since the All-Star break. Again, this is entirely contingent on his health, having practiced late last week but remaining out of the lineup.
Arledge: Varlamov for me. He’s just 44.8 percent rostered, but as the No. 1 for a team battling for a playoff spot (and with No. 2 Jonathan Bernier injured), Varly will see plenty of minutes down the stretch. After a shaky start to the season, he settled in a little bit after returning from injury in early February. And if you’re in a league that counts saves as a category, he’s absolutely the guy. Elsewhere, I also like Raanta, but his health is a concern of mine, as well. When he’s playing, he’s been dominant, though.
Who is my ride-or-die fantasy playoff sleeper?
Matiash: Rostered in only 31 percent of ESPN leagues, Ryan Spooner has two goals and 11 assists in eight games since joining the New York Rangers on Feb. 25. Altogether, I like that new scoring line that also includes Kevin Hayes and Mats Zuccarello. Even once New York is mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, Spooner, set to become a restricted free agent at 26 years old, still has his next deal to play for.
Allen: I’ve been pumping Nick Bjugstad for a couple weeks, but his rostership in ESPN leagues has crept up to 42.7 percent, so I’m not sure he still qualifies as a sleeper. If he doesn’t, I’ll grab Riley Nash wherever he is available. Bergeron’s fractured foot doesn’t seem to be healing quickly, so “the other R. Nash” will continue to see time on an incredibly dangerous top line with Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. Since Bergeron was hurt, Nash has 10 points in eight games.
Wyshynski: Paul Stastny on his new team, the Winnipeg Jets. I’m still baffled that a guy slotted between Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine on a top-four offensive team isn’t getting more fantasy love. He’s getting some playing time on the power play, too. Eight points in his first seven games. Let’s go.
Arledge: I’ll go with Jake DeBrusk of the Bruins. The left wing has 39 points in his rookie campaign, and he is getting a boost in role with so many Boston forwards taking injury timeouts in the press box. Before leaving Tuesday’s contest against the Carolina Hurricanes early, he was averaging over a minute more than his season average in ice time over the course of March. Skating with the second line and dabbling with the power play (three power-play assists on Saturday against the Blackhawks), DeBrusk is a potential difference maker down the stretch. Over his past 10 contests, he has three goals, seven assists and a plus-six. He’s available in nearly three quarters of ESPN leagues. Just be sure to check in on his injury status, as he is day-to-day right now.
Which widely available player am I looking to for power-play help to close the season?
Matiash: Available in 99 percent of ESPN.com leagues, defenseman Dylan DeMelo certainly qualifies as widely available. Right now, the 24-year-old is also anchoring an effective secondary power play for the San Jose Sharks. An appealing option in deeper leagues only, DeMelo has seven assists in five games, two counting with the extra skater in his past three contests. Hey, desperate times and all that…
Allen: Tyson Barrie, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen are first, second and fourth in power-play points during the past month of NHL action, so why not take the guy who has been quietly sharing the ice with them for all that success? Tyson Jost is the unsung fifth member of the Avalanche power-play unit that also features Gabriel Landeskog. Jost is available in 98.4 percent of ESPN leagues and is on the ice with the hottest man advantage in the league.
Wyshynski: Sami Vatanen is available in more than 50 percent of ESPN leagues, while the New Jersey Devils‘ power play has crept up to No. 15 overall at a 20.6-percent clip. Vatanen just went through a seven power-play points in 11 games run. Assuming the Taylor Hall Show isn’t on hiatus, that could continue.
Arledge: I agree wholeheartedly with Greg. Vatanen is quarterbacking a decent man-up unit, and he’s available in most leagues. DeBrusk, if healthy, is also a guy here (five power-play points in the past two weeks), as is another member of that top New Jersey power play. For those truly desperate for power-play help, Patrick Maroon has three such points in his six games with his new club. Just don’t expect much else from him now that he’s off Connor McDavid‘s wing.
What offenses would I want to stack players from in the final month of the fantasy season, both in standard fantasy and DFS?
Matiash: Give me the Nashville Predators and Florida Panthers. The Preds have averaged 3.71 points per contest through 14 games in the past month, while the Panthers are also scoring and have more games left than anyone else.
Allen: The Panthers have the advantage for man-games for the remainder of the season, as Victoria pointed out, and that advantage only intensifies over the final weeks of the season. They lead the league with nine games in the final two weeks and also lead the way with 13 games over the final three weeks. Get Bjugstad on your squad in medium-sized pools, and deep leaguers may even stash Frank Vatrano. The Bruins and Ottawa Senators also feature back-loaded schedules, with eight games over the final two weeks. The Bruins have 12 over the final three weeks, and the Senators have 11.
Wyshynski: I’ll go with the Jets (3.26 points per game) and the Pittsburgh Penguins (3.24), who, top to bottom, are going to surge towards the end of the season.
Arledge: Obviously, getting a piece of the league-best Tampa Bay Lightning lineup is a good spot to start, but I’m also checking in on Boston and Winnipeg. Yanni Gourde, J.T. Miller and Alex Killorn are potential options from the Lightning. DeBrusk (again, if healthy) and Riley Nash are good options in Beantown, and Kyle Connor and Stastny are my first looks from the Jets.