After getting more than a little bit ranty on Wednesday (sorry/hope you were entertained/both), it seems prudent to get back to the business of providing more functional fantasy advice.
More precisely, it means I’ll resume my division-by-division breakdown of the stretch runs for each NHL team. In case you missed it, I took a look at the branching paths for the likes of the Boston Bruins and Florida Panthers in the Atlantic Division bit on Tuesday. Today’s bit will revolve around the competitive Central Division to keep the alphabet-friendliness going.
That actually transitions nicely for the bits of injury news I’ll get to before delving into the Central schedule analysis: Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane is expected to miss at least three weeks with an injury sustained during last night’s 4-0 win against the St. Louis Blues. Honestly, that window of time might make him a painful drop (assuming you can even do so if can’t cut lists are involved). At this moment, it might come down to how much breathing room you have in your playoff races - assuming your postseason hasn’t begun yet, which I think is safe in most league - to determine whether it’s best to drop Kane. Those with a decent cushion would be wise to see if he gets placed on the IR in a timely fashion.
Cam Fowler plays on the Pacific Division’s Anaheim Ducks, so it doesn’t fit as well from a narrative standpoint, but his MCL injury is worth noting regardless. His three-to-five week injury window makes me think that it’s already time to drop him.
Last night's big injury news is clearly the largest concern for Chicago. I understand the fear of rust, but if the Blackhawks are correct about Kane's window being about three weeks, I'd limit him to a season finale game (if that). This is assuming that he'd be ready to go by then, anyway, mind you.
Chicago has six games on the road and six games at home remaining. They don't have any games left against Colorado, who trails them by one point at this moment but holds some significant tiebreaker advantages.
As bad of a break as that Kane injury obviously is, the Blackhawks have little reason to exert themselves too much in April. They have three pretty manageable home games in a row starting Friday (hosting Carolina, Nashville and Dallas) and may very well take it easy when they close out the season with back-to-back road games (at Washington on April 11 and at Nashville on April 12).
If I'm Joel Quenneville - and, let's face it, he has 700 more coaching wins than I do (not counting video games, natch) - I’d weigh the pros and cons of giving hard-driving guys like Jonathan Toews and especially banged-up gem Marian Hossa some holidays going forward.
Especially since Colorado looks to have its hands full ...
With three losses in their last four games, the Avalanche are stumbling a bit to end the month, which isn't ideal since April could end up being awfully challenging. The best opportunities come in the next two weeks. From Friday (March 21) to March 29, the Avalanche play three of four games at home, with that one road game coming against a Nashville Predators team that may (MAY) finally be embracing the fact that they're season is ending in mid-April. It won't be an easy span, though, as they face strong teams in Boston and San Jose and a desperate one in Vancouver.
After that, it's a seesaw start to April, as they rotate home and away games against four teams currently in the playoffs (Blue Jackets, Rangers, Blues and Penguins).
The Avs then close their season with a four-game road trip going through Edmonton, Vancouver, San Jose and Anaheim.
Long story short, Colorado's schedule is tough from here on out. Oddly enough, that could make them more useful in some ways than Chicago fantasy-wise, who may be able to ease into its final games. (Relatively speaking, of course.)
The Dallas Stars need to clean things up quickly, especially since there's a rocky road (not made of ice cream) ahead for them in many ways. The talented-but-flawed team is on a three-game losing streak with an important turnaround opportunity against the Flyers on Thursday night.
After that, it's three of four games at home. They host the ailing-but-desperate Senators and then get a chance to deal a big blow to bubble hopeful Winnipeg this coming Monday. After that it's a road game against Chicago and a home contest against Nashville.
The end of March and beginning of April presents an intriguing challenge. They face a five-game road trip (and six of seven away from home stemming back to March 25), although things get easier after things kick off at St. Louis on March 29, as they'll then face four Eastern Conference teams from what was once the Southeast Division (Washington, Carolina, Tampa Bay and Florida). Three of those teams are fighting for positioning and all of them can be dangerous, but the Stars might not complain about facing teams from what many believe to be the inferior conference. (Seven of their final 14 games are against East teams, by the way.)
The final four games from April 8-13 are expected to be the most crucial, with three straight home games followed by a potentially enormous road game against Phoenix to finish their regular season.
On paper, the Wild seem pretty safe at 82 points in the top wild card spot, and I'd at least guess that's probably accurate. They have a solid lead on other bubble competitors but are also far enough behind the Blackhawks and Avalanche that they're likely just hoping for the ideal first-round matchup at this point.
The rest of March might make them stumble enough to take advantage of a friendly finish that might have been a bit wasted if they were instead coasting, which is pretty good news for fantasy owners.
To start things off, they face a stretch of truly desperate teams: a road game against the Devils, a home-and-home against the Red Wings and then a home game against Vancouver. After that, it's a challenging four-game road trip from March 27-April 3: at St. Louis, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Chicago.
If things are actually pretty tight after that tough of eight games, finishing with four out of five home games could be very beneficial, especially since it's conceivable that all five teams will have less to play for. Pittsburgh may already be cemented atop the Atlantic and in the first or second East seed, Winnipeg may already be out of the running, Boston could be in a similar spot to Pittsburgh, ditto for St. Louis and Nashville will almost certainly be playing out the string.
In a weird way, owners of Wild skaters - not goalies, obviously - may very well want to root for good numbers in losses to end March so that Minnesota doesn't scratch guys who may very well need a little breather like Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
I'm not so sure the Predators are embracing the urge to tank - Barry Trotz might be worried about his job security, which feels strange to type - instead, the Predators' schedule has been challenging lately.
If you ask me, Nashville would be wise to use this closeout time to evaluate Carter Hutton as much as they can. In a way, Trotz might not have much of a choice, at least if he's being reasonable about Pekka Rinne's workload during a stretch that wouldn't behoove many back-to-backs. The Predators have three back-to-back sets remaining, so I'd guess Hutton will get a decent amount of reps.
Oddly enough, Nashville lacks much in the way of guys fighting for their next jobs - at least based on a limited amount of meaningful contract year players - so I can't help but wonder if most players will just go through the motions. /Imagines Trotz's glare and the second-guessing begins …
ST. LOUIS BLUES
You could probably break the Blues' remaining schedule into three chunks.
Phase 1: The last three games of a four-game road trip, all against East teams (playoff contenders Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Toronto)
Phase 2: Five-game homestand with a weird mix of Central Division teams and East opponents (Philly again, plus Buffalo).
Phase 3: The remainder of the season, with three road games and two home contests.
My feeling is that the Blues could enjoy a couple chances to clinch the Central Division on April 5 (home vs. Colorado) or April 6 (at Chicago), but who knows. I'm not so sure Ken Hitchcock will be too worried about resting a team that isn't too reliant upon veterans, although I think he'd be wise to spell Ryan Miller with Brian Elliott more often. (Avoids tomatoes thrown by Miller owners who dealt with months of Sabres squalor.)
It's hard for me to really believe in the Winnipeg Jets' chances, especially since their hopes are resting in some part on either Al Montoya or Ondrej Pavelec's shoulders.
A brutal Pacific swing should either justify those doubts or foster reasonable optimism, however. I'll just lay out their five-game road trip in list form, as I think it does the trick:
March 24: at Dallas
March 27: at San Jose
March 29: at Los Angeles
March 31: at Anaheim
April 1: at Phoenix
Would you be shocked if they lost all five of those games, possibly in regulation? Most of their opponents are in playoff position or are playoff hopefuls, so things could get ugly for Winnipeg.