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Frozen Fantasy: Is West Best?

Janet Eagleson

Janet Eagleson is a four-time winner of the Hockey Writer of the Year award from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

It hit me like a ton of bricks on Monday night as I watched the Ducks take on the Pens. It was a whole lot of stunning and little bit of sad.

The East blows. It really does.

I think I already knew that in my heart. But it was shoved right in my face Monday night. The Pens may have won that game, but the Ducks were the better team. A much, MUCH better team. And so are at least seven other teams in the West.

Yes, you read that right.

The pendulum has swung so far toward the West that it actually hurts. The top teams in the East on Friday night (the Pens and the Bruins) wouldn't even be in a playoff spot in the West.

Go look for yourself if you don't believe me.

Stiff. That's the only word I can use to describe the competition out West. They play a full 200' game. It's tough, grinding, puck possession hockey. The East plays a different game. It's played off the rush.

The East is more exciting, but is it effective?

I'm afraid not. The Bruins and the Penguins would be in a dogfight for the last playoff spot in the West. The bloody Preds, who are in a quest for the doghouse in the West, would actually be in third in the Metropolitan Division.

Yah. Third.

Individually, almost 60 percent of the league's top 50 scorers come from the West. But the table is turned when it comes to goalies - close to two-thirds of the top-25 goalies reside in the East.

I'm not sure if we actually have enough data to be able to say these individual numbers are some kind of trend. But I do think the different styles of each conference can have a huge bearing on guys who get traded.

Are Jarome Iginla's 12 points a function of his historically slow starts or a transition to a new style that doesn't quite fit his game? Is Mason Raymond's current success in Toronto fueled in part by getting out of the West? And is that the same case with Jonathan Bernier, who's now toiling in a somewhat less-intense environment?

Food for thought. Now let's take a look at who caught my eye this week.

Peter Budaj, G, Montreal (9 percent owned) - Budaj may not get a lot of starts, but he sure does a great job when he does step in the blue paint. Consider this. Not only is he 4-1 this season with an exceptional GAA and save percentage, but after Friday's win, he's also 12-1 in his last 13 games. Yup. The most impressive part of this year's work? It's all happened on the road. Fantasy baseball managers stream pitchers - why can't we stream goalies every once in a while? Consider the matchup and then pick Budaj up. Or for that matter, take a look at Cam Talbot (Rangers; 9 percent owned) or Alex Stalock (2 percent owned). There's nothing wrong with trying to get a couple of wins early while you still have games to give.

Sean Couturier, C, Philadelphia (2 percent owned) - Stink. Stank. Stunk. That's pretty much all you can say about Couturier's 2012-13 season. And his first 16 games of this season for that matter. Peee-yew. But something has changed in his last five games and I think it's time to jump on board. And fast. His face-off percentage still sucks, but he has four points and a plus-5 rating in those last five games. Cooter just has too much talent to be this bad for so long. Pick him up.

Matt Cullen, C, Nashville (1 percent owned) - Has Cullen lost his game? Yes and no, but that's not a surprise - his odometer is about to turn up 1,100 games. He has just 10 points in 22 games this season, but six of those have come in his last three outings. He's at his best when he's killing penalties and winning face-offs, but he can clearly streak offensively, too. You've heard it before - he's a Mitchum Man. Roll him on when hot and roll right back off when he's not.

Andrew Ference, D, Edmonton (2 percent owned) - Ference sure has gotten his ugly on over the last couple weeks. He has 20 PIM in his last five games and he's crunching bodies like a man possessed. He has three, seven-hit games already this season and two of those have come since early November. He's not much of an offensive guy and he's kind of small for a guy who plays as hard as he does. And of course, there's that lead weight he can put on your plus-minus (he plays for the Oil, after all). But he can help you climb the hit category if he can stay healthy. I say he's worth a sniff.

Eric Gelinas, D, New Jersey (3 percent owned) - Soooo...Gelinas sure came back down to earth last season (22 points) after blowing the doors off the AHL (16 goals, 37 assists) as a rookie. He isn't as good as he was in his first year, but he's certainly better than the guy who showed up last season. The Devils installed him and his cannon shot on the blue line and his goal and assist Wednesday against Anaheim caught my eye. So did his five points in his last eight games. And sooner or later he'll start throwing his body around. His ceiling isn't high, but it's not like stud defenders drop out of the sky in the middle of the season.

Craig Smith, RW/C, Nashville (4 percent owned) - A lot of fantasy owners overlooked Smith on draft day and rightfully so - he absolutely sucked last season. In an I-should-have-been-in-the-AHL kind of sucked way. But there's this thing called the World Championships - you know, the one few of us pay attention to when we're glued to playoff hockey. Well, Smith flashed some of the brilliance of his rookie season in that tourney and it has sort of carried over into this season. He already has more points than all of last season and in half the games. And six of his 14 this season have come in three games this past week. The dual eligibility helps, too. Take a look.

Trevor Smith, C, Toronto (0 percent owned) - Carpe diem. Johnny on the spot. Living in the moment. Pick your poison - Trevor Smith sure has. The Leafs have struggled down the middle of late and it's Smith who has helped plug the dike. The undrafted 28-year-old journeyman with all of 37 NHL games in his jock has delivered five points in four games leading into Saturday. And that includes a three-point outburst Tuesday against the Isles. His ice time will diminish with the return of Tyler Bozak, but you might get a game or three more of opportunity out of him. What would it hurt? We pretty much all have one roster spot filled with a marginal and/or streaky guy. If baseball poolies can stream pitchers, why can't we stream pylons?

Carl Soderberg, LW/C, Boston (1 percent owned) - Boston's wind-up toy is at it again - he's been a shot machine this month and he's actually doing it in limited ice time. Best of all, he's getting points here and there, too, so he's not just a one-category wonder. Since a week Friday, he has three points (including two goals) and 16 shots in just four games. He won't keep up the point totals, but those shot totals will likely stick.

Scottie Upshall, RW, Florida (2 percent owned) - Dang, Upshall seemed destined for greatness back in 2002 when he played on the silver-medal winning Canadian junior squad. But there have been disappointments compounded on injuries and he has never lived up to the hype. Until now...maybe. He was held off the score sheet Friday night, but still had six points in the previous five games. He's toiling on an otherwise forgettable team, but don't miss out on the value he brings to the fantasy ice. He won't be invisible for long.

Danius Zubrus, RW/C, New Jersey (1 percent owned) - Yes, I agree - he's big and boring, and he plays for the (insert yawn here) Devils. But it may come as a surprise to learn he has points in five of the last six games and a plus-8 rating in those same games. Use him if you need immediate support. But remember - he's best deployed as a forechecker and that will ultimately erode most of his fantasy opportunity. Just saying.

Back to the West.

It really is best. And it saddens me to think that I've shortchanged myself by watching east coast hockey for most of this season.

Don't be like me.

I'm going to watch a whole lot more west coast games. And I do know I'm going to pay really close attention to guys who get traded from one conference to another.

Sometimes the true fit just doesn't match the perceptions. And that can cripple a fantasy squad that's trying to take a title.

Until next week.