Fantasy hockey draft: NHL 2021 schedule breakdown

Sergei Bobrovsky is watching his back at the new divisional opponents, but the Florida Panthers' goalie may actually face an easier schedule this season. Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire

Realignment certainly wasn't on the agenda at this time last year, but a massive overhaul of how the NHL schedule works is yet another new reality in a pandemic world.

With teams only facing opponents within their new division, rivalries should be at an all-time high. But advantages and disadvantages are also accelerated with a lack of schedule variance.

Given the minimal matchups involved, however, this new bubbled schedule makes it easier to take a crack at strength of schedule calculations.

And that's what I've done here. I'll explain the statistics I included and then we'll get right into it.

A couple of decisions I made inject quite a bit of personal preference into the calculations, but hopefully you can see where I was coming from.

To get a goals-for and goals-against rating for each team, I used team statistics from Dec. 1, 2019, to the end of last season. That gave each team between 41 and 45 games into the formula. To generate the rating for each team, I used five-on-five goals-for and -against as a rate against Corsi-for and -against, combined with five-on-four power-play goals for and against as a rate of power-play opportunities and times shorthanded.

Sounds a bit funky, but I can defend it. I didn't want to use a whole season because so much can change during the course of one, but I still wanted a decent sample size, so that's why I settled on Dec. 1. As for only including five-on-five and five-on-four goals, I wanted to focus on where the vast majority of goals come from in the most frequent situations.

That gave me an offensive and defensive rating for each team (goals for and goals against), but I inserted some human judgement at this stage. I wanted to account for offseason changes - especially significant ones. So, I manually ballparked a minor adjustment to teams based on offseason trades, drafts, injuries and signings. I waffled on doing this, but ultimately decided additions like Taylor Hall need to be included for the Buffalo Sabres, because it's (likely) a significant impact to the base numbers. Some teams received a positive or negative addition to the goals for or against. Others didn't get any changes, if the offseason was insignificant or just a wash.

Once I had the base goals-for modifier and goals-against modifier for each team, creating an offensive schedule rating was pretty straightforward from there. For the Central, West and East divisions, it was just a matter of multiplying 56 times each team's goals-for rating and adding it to the goals-against rating for each of their opponents (eight times for each of their divisional rivals). It was a little more complicated for the North Division, for which I had to manually make the calculations since each team doesn't play a balanced number of games.

The inverse of that formula also gives us a defensive schedule rating for each team.

North Division

The Canadian teams give us the division with the highest goals-for rating and the highest goals-against rating - and that is with accounting for having one fewer team than the others.

The division has four of the top 10 teams in my offensive schedule calculation: Edmonton Oilers (1), Winnipeg Jets (4), Calgary Flames (6) and Vancouver Canucks (7). The Ottawa Senators (13) and Toronto Maple Leafs (15) are also top 15.

For defensive schedule, the teams are - as expected - near the bottom of the list: Senators (31), Maple Leafs (29), Oilers (26), Canucks (25), Jets (24), Canadiens (19) and Flames (13).

When it comes to drafting, this does highlight some ideas that were probably already percolating for many fantasy players. Do you want to trust Jacob Markstrom when 20 of his potential games are against Connor McDavid's crew and his former teammates? Does being in the division with the strongest schedule amplify your desire to take McDavid or Leon Draisaitl as your team anchor in the first round? Are any thoughts on Matt Murray holding down the fort for the Senators crushed by this schedule?

Central Division

If the North Division is the place to find more goals, the Central Division is where to expect fewer of them.

Five of the top 10 teams for best defensive schedule reside here: Columbus Blue Jackets (1), Tampa Bay Lightning (3), Florida Panthers (4), Nashville Predators (6) and Dallas Stars (10). Meanwhile, all eight teams are ranked 16th or below for offensive schedule.

I have to admit the schedule ranks makes me a little more intrigued to get shares of the Blue Jackets net. Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins are likely to trade off and reduce each other's value, but if one of them emerges or gets hurt, the distilled value of just one them should be significant.

Sergei Bobrovsky gets on the radar here, too, as fantasy managers will have to determine whether to give him a pass on last year's rough ride.

The absence of Tyler Seguin for a bulk of the season and Nikita Kucherov for all of it helps to suppress the offense overall in the division. It's also no surprise to find the Detroit Red Wings low for both offense (30) and defense (27), as they shouldn't be in the mix yet as a strong home for fantasy.

East Division

The Philadelphia Flyers (2) and New York Rangers (3) stack near the top for offensive schedule. The Boston Bruins are a surprise to me at 26th for offensive schedule. I did manually penalize their rating just a touch for the injury to David Pastrnak and the loss of Torey Krug, but not that much.

The Buffalo Sabres (11), Pittsburgh Penguins (12) and Washington Capitals (14) are in the middle of the pack for offensive schedule, while the New York Islanders (8), Bruins (11), New York Rangers (12) and New Jersey Devils (15) are in the top half for defensive schedule.

If the opportunity presents itself to secure both Semyon Varlamov (earlyish pick) and Ilya Sorokin (later pick) in your draft, it looks like a quality handcuff opportunity for a No. 1 goaltender that would be slightly cheaper than investing in one of the top tenders.

There's a little bit of a disconnect between the Flyers second-best offensive schedule and Travis Konecny checking in as the top forward on the fantasy rankings at 47th. But that might be an opportunity for some elevated value in the early-mid rounds of a draft (fifth to seventh), with Konecny, Sean Couturier, Ivan Provorov and Claude Giroux as good options.

Near the bottom of the defensive schedule, we find the Penguins (28) and Sabres (30). No one was leaning on the Sabres tandem for fantasy production, but it's just a tad concerning for Tristan Jarry that the Pens have such a tough row to hoe.

West Division

The West Division provides us with a series of haves and have-nots. The Minnesota Wild (5), Vegas Golden Knights (8), St. Louis Blues (9) and Colorado Avalanche (10) are in the top 10 for offensive schedule, while the Anaheim Ducks (25), San Jose Sharks (28), Los Angeles Kings (29) and Arizona Coyotes (31) are all among the bottom seven.

It's a touch less stark on the defensive schedule, with the whole division trending higher. The Avs (2) have the easiest schedule, with the Golden Knights (5), Coyotes (7) and Ducks (9) in the top 10. The rest of the division ranks 22nd or better, too.

This suggests we could find some sleepers among the forward ranks of the Wild, especially with so much turnover. Kirill Kaprizov and Joel Eriksson-Ek will be among my targets in all drafts.

I agree that Philipp Grubauer will be the better target in drafts, but for value, I don't mind stashing Pavel Francouz - especially given the Avs defensive schedule. I will say something similar for the Vegas Golden Knights, too. As much as I've been a Robin Lehner truther for his entire career, it still may be one year too early to rank Marc-Andre Fleury as the 32nd goaltender for fantasy.