The NHL is finally ready to roll after the lockout, and the league introduced a 48-game condensed schedule. Those in leagues which average points per game in a scoring period won't be as adversely affected as those who play in cumulative formats. There will be a lot of mixing and matching in those type leagues, and it will behoove you to have plenty of depth on hand for weekly changes on the fly.
The Blackhawks are one of the lucky teams in the first scoring period of the season. At least if you're a fantasy owner, you're lucky to have many Blackhawks dotting your roster. They play six games in the first nine days of the regular season. They'll face some of the best goaltending in the Western Conference early on, however, facing the defending Stanley Cup champ Los Angeles Kings on the road on Opening Day, while also seeing tough games on the road against the Phoenix Coyotes and Dallas Stars. Even so, in cumulative leagues, all of their big guns are must starts.
Must start: Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews
If you loaded up on Flyers during your draft, then it will pay instant dividends in the extended scoring period to kick off the regular season. The Flyers have a little bit more of a favorable schedule than Chicago above. Philadelphia finishes the week with a swing through the Sunshine State against the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning, two teams with average to below-average netminding. It could be a quick start for the Fly Guys. C Daniel Briere (wrist) is nursing a wrist injury, recently admitted he cannot shoot the puck, and he is not expected to play this weekend. The team also decided on Michael Leighton as the backup to starter Ilya Bryzgalov, placing Brian Boucher on waivers.
Must start: Ilya Bryzgalov, Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell, Wayne Simmonds
St. Louis Blues
The Blues are one of my sleeper picks in the Western Conference. From top to bottom, they don't really have a lot of 'wow' players. But this is a good, fundamentally sound group with plenty of depth and a nice stable of defensemen and goaltending. There will be plenty of Blues gracing rosters of fantasy leagues in most pools, but not as many must starts as some of the other contenders.
Must start: David Backes, Jaroslav Halak, Alex Pietrangelo
Keep an eye on rookie Mikhail Grigorenko, who has conducted himself well during the team's abbreviated training camp. Also, keep in mind that the Sabres might use backup goaltender Jhonas Enroth a bit more with the condensed schedule, eating into the fantasy value of Ryan Miller, at least when faced with multiple back-to-back situations.
Must start: Ryan Miller, Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek
Columbus Blue Jackets
The post-Rick Nash Era is upon us, and it will be interesting to see how youngsters Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky and Tim Erixon fill Nash's giant shoes in Ohio's capital city. The cupboard is certainly stocked with good, young talent in Columbus, but the fantasy pickings are pretty slim. Erixon will start the season in the minors. Cam Atkinson has seen time on the top line in camp, but he is dealing with the dreaded "lower-body injury" after getting banged up in practice.
Must start: Derek Dorsett (PIM leagues), Jack Johnson, R.J. Umberger
The Stars have an interesting group of youngsters, gritty veterans and finesse players, as well as a talented, but oft-injured goaltender. If everything comes together the right way, they could go deep into the postseason. They could also miss it completely. The big story is the addition of Jaromir Jagr, who could be in line for a renaissance-type season. Watch out for Tom Wandell as a deep, deep sleeper. He has seen time as a top-six forward, skating on the team's second line in camp.
Must start: Loui Eriksson, Jaromir Jagr, Kari Lehtonen
Detroit Red Wings
These are not the same, dangerous Red Wings we have seen in the past, but they will still be pretty darn good. Gone is long-time rearguard and steadying veteran presence Nicklas Lidstrom, but C Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, who was named captain, are back. They're expected to skate with Swiss youngster Damien Brunner, so remember that name. Johan Franzen will also be dangerous on the offensive end, and Jimmy Howard is an above-average backstop. Keep an eye on Mike Knuble, as he tries to resurrect his career. If he can stick with Valtteri Filppula and Franzen on the second line, Knuble could re-emerge as a useful option.
Must start: Pavel Datsyuk, Jimmy Howard, Henrik Zetterberg
The Panthers are a mixed bag of talent, but they look to have some decent offensive pieces. The biggest question will be if Scott Clemmensen and Jose Theodore can thrive in net. The team might also try to pull off a deal to reunite with former netminder Roberto Luongo. Either way, the Cats have a bunch of young players that make keeper league owners happy, but not much in the way of must-start talent in weekly formats, even with five games on the schedule.
Must start: Brian Campbell, Tomas Fleischmann
The fans in the Twin Cities might have been the most disappointed by the lockout, as they were forced to wait an additional few months to see their newest additions wearing Wild sweaters. This weekend marks the highly-anticipated debuts of LW Zach Parise and D Ryan Suter. Those were two big-ticket items that the Wild plucked off the free-agent market. They will make the Wild a much better club, and a contender in the Western Conference.
Must start: Niklas Backstrom, Dany Heatley, Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Ryan Suter
The Predators have a decent enough offense, and a strong goaltending combination in Pekka Rinne and Chris Mason, but the biggest question will be on defense, as they try to replace D Ryan Suter (Wild). Watch out for C Craig Smith on offense, too, as he could be a player many fantasy owners forget about.
Must start: Pekka Rinne, Shea Weber
New York Islanders
The Islanders have been poor for many years, racking up bright, young talent, and those players are finally starting to mature and become household names, at least to those who play fantasy hockey. Don't bother with goaltenders from the Isles, but there are a couple of potential gems on offense and defense.
Must start: Matt Moulson, Mark Streit, John Tavares
New York Rangers
All of the talk will center around C Rick Nash, but there is a lot more going on for the Blueshirts than just their newest, shiny toy. G Henrik Lundqvist is one of the best, if not the best, at his position, and the Rangers have plenty of offensive talent from top to bottom. The defense is a little suspect, but there are plenty of fantasy options on this roster, especially in a five-game scoring period.
Must start: Ryan Callahan, Marian Gaborik, Henrik Lundqvist, Rick Nash, Brad Richards
One of my favorite recent nickname lines was the 'CASH' line, which featured RW Daniel Alfredsson, C Jason Spezza and the departed Heatley (Wild). Alfredsson has really gotten old before our eyes, and is now considered more of a fringe fantasy player. Spezza is still elite, but his propensity for injury is always in the back of people's minds. The biggest fantasy player on this need resides on defense, as D Erik Karlsson is money.
Must start: Erik Karlsson, Milan Michalek, Jason Spezza
When hockey fans think quality, they don't often think of an Arizona team, but the Coyotes have some pretty solid weapons for fantasy owners. G Mike Smith emerged as a dependable and bona fide No. 1 netminder last season, and they have some potent pieces on offense. Outside of D Keith Yandle, the defensemen corps is a bit suspect, however.
Must start: Mike Smith, Radim Vrbata, Keith Yandle
The lockout might have actually helped C Sidney Crosby (concussion), who missed giant chunks of the season making his way back from concussion. He had an extra 100-plus days to rest his noggin, and he is good to go right out of the chute this season. He and C Evgeni Malkin are bona fide first-round fantasy players, but there are so many more options on this very deep roster. Keep an eye on LW Eric Tangradi, who could skate with C Evgeni Malkin and RW James Neal. He could be a huge sleeper if that pairing sticks.
Must start: Sidney Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury, Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal
San Jose Sharks
The Sharks swim into the season with a ton of top-notch talent up front, but G Antti Niemi will need to show a lot more in between the pipes. At best, he is a marginal No. 2 fantasy goaltender. The Sharks have plenty of pieces to make some noise in the Western Conference, but they likely will need to make some more moves along the way.
Must start: Dan Boyle, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton
Tampa Bay Lightning
Some might argue that Lightning C Steven Stamkos should be the top overall pick in fantasy leagues, and they could be right. It is hard to argue the differences between he and Pittsburgh's Malkin. The Lightning have a big-time drop-off after Stamkos, though RW Martin St. Louis remains a solid fantasy producer, and C Vincent Lecavalier might still make some noise on occasion. Watch out for RW Teddy Purcell, too, and don't sleep on D Matt Carle.
Must start: Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos
Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto is already in mid-season form, some might say, as they shocked everyone with their firing of GM Brian Burke shortly after the lockout was lifted. The Buds replaced Burke with formed Canucks brass man Dave Nonis, and some speculate he might be clearing salary cap room to add G Roberto Luongo to the mix. If so, the Leafs would be a much better team. There are some fantasy pieces here, but not enough to make a run at a 'real' championship. It will also be interesting to see if a change of scenery helps RW James van Riemsdyk finally realize his potential.
Must start: Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, Dion Phaneuf (PIM leagues)
Luongo is in camp for the Canucks, but this is clearly G Cory Schneider's team now. Louie waits for the phone to ring, hoping the Maple Leafs, Panthers or anyone will give him a chance to start again. The Canucks will be a dynamic bunch again, and thankfully fantasy owners only care about regular season success, as this team is a disaster come playoff time. The Sedin Twins will be fantasy studs again, and watch out for C Ryan Kesler (knee) when he gets 100 percent healthy.
Must start: Alexandre Burrows, Alexander Edler, Cory Schneider, Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin
Like the Canucks above, the Capitals aren't exactly gold when the postseason comes around. Again, fantasy owners don't care much about that. The biggest question in D.C. is can RW Alexander Ovechkin re-gain his form. For many, 38 goals and 65 points in a season is pretty solid, but for Ovie and his fantasy owners, it was a giant disappointment. In fact, for the first time in his seven NHL seasons, he failed to average at least a point-per-game. That has to change if Washington is to make noise in the Eastern Conference.
Must start: Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Ovechkin
It still irks me that the Jets are included in the Southeast Division, but it will change eventually. The travel combined with the condensed schedule will wreak havoc on the Jets, as those frequent cross-continent trips to Carolina, Florida, Tampa Bay, etc. will be tiring. Luckily, they have bunch of youthful roster which will likely respond much more favorably than a veteran-laden bunch.
Must start: Dustin Byfuglien, Evander Kane