Front Line: Wild offense coming together
The Minnesota Wild are slowly turning into the offensive machine new head coach Todd Richards claimed he would create when he was handed the job following Jacques Lemaire's resignation last season. Richards previously coached the San Jose Sharks as an assistant, where his specialty was the power play, but it's actually the Wild's even strength lines that have been coming together nicely.
In November, it was the first line that picked up its scoring pace, with Andrew Brunette and Antti Miettinen flanking Mikko Koivu. Then in December, Martin Havlat started turning on his engine after finding chemistry with Kyle Brodziak and Guillaume Latendresse. Also within the last month, Cal Clutterbuck, Owen Nolan and Eric Belanger have come together as a unit.
With the second half of the season still young, how should you rate some of these Wild players?
Koivu and Brunette are now staples of the top 100 here. Koivu remains a threat to finish with a point per game, while Brunette isn't too far behind. They work well together with each netting a point on 26 of the same goals this season, best on the team by a wide margin over the next-best duo, Koivu and Miettinen, with 14 goals. While Koivu and Brunette shouldn't leave your lineup too often, Miettinen is more or less a fill-in when the Forecaster calls for a big week for the Wild.
Top 100 Skaters Note: Sean Allen's top 100 forwards are ranked for their expected performance in ESPN standard leagues from this point on, not on the statistics that have already been accrued. ESPN standard stats include goals, assists, power-play goals, shots on goal, plus/minus, penalty minutes and average time on ice. Last week's ranking is indicated in parentheses.
1. Alex Ovechkin, LW, Was (1)
2. Sidney Crosby, C, Pit (2)
3. Dany Heatley, RW, SJ (3)
4. Marian Gaborik, RW, NYR (4)
5. Evgeni Malkin, C, Pit (5)
6. Zach Parise, LW, NJ (6)
7. Mike Richards, C, Phi (7)
8. Patrick Marleau, C, SJ (8)
9. Joe Thornton, C, SJ (9)
10. Anze Kopitar, C, LA (11)
11. Henrik Sedin, C, Van (18)
12. Rick Nash, LW, Cls (10)
13. Nicklas Backstrom, C, Was (13)
14. Corey Perry, RW, Anh (14)
15. Ilya Kovalchuk, LW, Atl (15)
16. Jarome Iginla, RW, Cgy (12)
17. Steven Stamkos, C, TB (16)
18. Bobby Ryan, RW, Anh (17)
19. Daniel Sedin, LW, Van (20)
20. Ryan Getzlaf, C, Anh (19)
21. Ryan Malone, LW, TB (21)
22. Alexander Semin, LW, Was (22)
23. Jeff Carter, C, Phi (23)
24. Patrick Kane, RW, Chi (26)
25. Eric Staal, C, Car (25)
26. Jonathan Toews, C, Chi (31)
27. Dustin Penner, LW, Edm (27)
28. Nathan Horton, RW, Fla (29)
29. Brenden Morrow, LW, Dal (30)
30. Pavel Datsyuk, C, Det (24)
31. Marian Hossa, RW, Chi (33)
32. Mike Cammalleri, LW, Mon (32)
33. Brad Richards, C, Dal (35)
34. Scott Hartnell, RW, Phi (34)
35. Ryan Smyth, LW, LA (37)
36. Alexandre Burrows, C, Van (42)
37. Loui Eriksson, LW, Dal (39)
38. Paul Stastny, C, Col (38)
39. Mikko Koivu, C, Min (40)
40. Vincent Lecavalier, C, TB (41)
41. Henrik Zetterberg, C, Det (36)
42. John Tavares, C, NYI (43)
43. Brooks Laich, C, Was (44)
44. Olli Jokinen, C, Cgy (45)
45. Martin St. Louis, RW, TB (46)
46. Patrick Sharp, C, Chi (48)
47. Tomas Plekanec, C, Mon (49)
48. Mike Knuble, RW, Was (50)
49. Teemu Selanne, RW, Anh (58)
50. Patrik Elias, LW, NJ (52)
51. Ryan Kesler, C, Van (53)
52. Shane Doan, RW, Pho (54)
53. Tim Connolly, C, Buf (69)
54. Stephen Weiss, C, Fla (64)
55. Milan Hejduk, RW, Col (57)
56. Marc Savard, C, Bos (28)
57. Travis Zajac, C, NJ (59)
58. Tomas Holmstrom, LW, Det (47)
59. Phil Kessel, RW, Tor (55)
60. Andrew Brunette, LW, Min (56)
61. Maxim Afinogenov, RW, Atl (62)
62. Martin Havlat, LW, Min (74)
63. Bill Guerin, RW, Pit (63)
64. Wojtek Wolski, LW, Col (51)
65. Mason Raymond, LW, Van (73)
66. Jason Arnott, C, Nsh (65)
67. Ryane Clowe, RW, SJ (66)
68. Mike Fisher, C, Ott (67)
69. Daniel Alfredsson, RW, Ott (60)
70. Kyle Okposo, RW, NYI (68)
71. Rich Peverley, C, Atl (61)
72. Vaclav Prospal, C, NYR (70)
73. Brian Gionta, RW, Mon (71)
74. James Neal, LW, Dal (72)
75. Steve Downie, RW, TB (86)
76. Mikael Samuelsson, RW, Van (77)
77. Joe Pavelski, C, SJ (78)
78. Chris Stewart, RW, Col (83)
79. Niclas Bergfors, RW, NJ (79)
80. Alexei Ponikarovsky, LW, Tor (80)
81. Jamie Langenbrunner, RW, NJ (92)
82. Milan Lucic, LW, Bos (82)
83. Thomas Vanek, LW, Buf (76)
84. David Backes, C, StL (98)
85. Danny Briere, C, Phi (85)
86. Kris Versteeg, RW, Chi (88)
87. Michael Frolik, C, Fla (89)
88. Matt Moulson, LW, NYI (84)
89. Nik Antropov, RW, Atl (91)
90. Rene Bourque, LW, Cgy (95)
91. Brendan Morrison, C, Was (93)
92. Dustin Brown, RW, LA (94)
93. Jarret Stoll, C, LA (96)
94. Derek Roy, C, Buf (97)
95. Troy Brouwer, RW, Chi (99)
96. Todd Bertuzzi, RW, Det (100)
97. Patric Hornqvist, RW, Nsh (NR)
98. Simon Gagne, LW, Phi (NR)
99. Scott Gomez, C, Mon (NR)
100. Jakub Voracek, RW, Cls (NR)
While the first line has been performing for some time, Havlat didn't get going until December, when Coach Richards finally found him the right combination of linemates. Just like Andrew Ladd and David Bolland were tough and defensively responsible as Havlat's linemates for the Chicago Blackhawks last season, Brodziak and Latendresse fit the same bill. It didn't take long for Havlat to start tickling twine once the trio was formed in early December. In fact, since the calendar flipped to December, Havlat has 21 points in 21 games. He is also cemented in the top 100 and climbing again quickly. The points won't be piling on in the same way for Brodziak as he isn't that type of player, but they have started to flow of late for Latendresse, who has 12 in his past 12 games. While it may be too early to add Latendresse to the top 100, adding him at least to your bench is a wise move. This may not be just a hot streak for him, as the situation is just right for continued success. (Though I mentioned Brodziak isn't a scorer and I don't expect much output from him, I will note he has five points in his past four games. You never know).
As for the Eric Belanger-Nolan-Clutterbuck combination, it is definitely reserved for deeper leagues. Though the trio won't be a strong source of points like the top two lines, it should be noted that the linemates have combined for 24 points in the past 14 games. Belanger and Nolan also have the added advantage of playing with Havlat and Latendresse as a four-forward power-play unit.
So what is the plan of attack? Well, Latendresse should definitely be added to your bench if you have some room, as he and Havlat look very strong together. In fact, so many folks got down on Havlat, even he is available in almost 28 percent of ESPN leagues. Brunette is available in 45 percent of leagues and shouldn't be available in many of them, so go ahead and scoop him up as well. You can also check the Forecaster for whether or not Belanger, Miettinen or Nolan might be of good use any given week.
Rising and Falling
David Backes, RW, Blues (up 13 spots): You can almost judge when to turn the calendar on the new year by when Backes decides it's time to start racking up points. There's no question he is a second-half guy. For his career, he has 0.20 points per game in October, November and December, but after January he scores at a 0.34 clip. That's not a great pace, but it shows his improvement as the season wears on. Then you look at last season, when he scored 36 points in the final 45 games after the calendar turned to 2009. Backes is playing the top line and first power-play unit with Andy McDonald and Brad Boyes. He's not done climbing the ranks.
Simon Gagne, RW, Flyers (debuts at No. 100): After Gagne got hurt in the early going, the prudent thing to do was drop him way down the ranks because of his injury history. With no guarantee he was coming back any time soon and with James vanRiemsdyk and Claude Giroux to push for his spot on the depth chart, Gagne's production for the season was put into serious question. Now that he is back on the ice and putting up points, it's hard to argue with him being anything but a fantasy starter at this point. He's looking solid with Mike Richards and Giroux both on and off the power play.
Teemu Selanne, RW, Ducks (up nine spots): The power-play goal king is back on the ice with the Anaheim Ducks and already has two goals in two games since returning from his broken bone in his hand. The goals didn't come on the power play, but do serve as a reminder that Selanne still has his wicked shot and still uses it with frequency. Then there is the fact that he scored the goals while still playing on the third line and getting into game shape. He hasn't even had any significant power-play time since coming back. Once Selanne slides back onto the second line with Saku Koivu and Bobby Ryan and the first power-play unit, the points will start coming in bunches.
Wojtek Wolski, LW, Avalanche (down 13 spots): Wolski is slumping, but he seems to be doing it on an island. He still plays on the Colorado Avalanche's first line and power-play unit, yet while Paul Stastny and Chris Stewart have been keeping up their pace, Wolski has only three points in his past 10 games with no points on the man advantage. Since he still has a good situation, we can only speculate that the slump will be temporary, but it certainly draws attention to the fact that he isn't as elite as he appeared to be in the first half.
Thomas Vanek, LW, Sabres (down seven spots): How can we not drop Vanek down in the rankings when looking at his pace and realizing he is going to finish with the worst numbers of his career if he doesn't turn things around quickly. Vanek's current pace has him finishing with 47 points. He scored 48 in his rookie season and hasn't dropped below 64 since then. So what's the problem? He's not taking as many shots as he usually does (on pace for fewer than 200 for the first time in his career) and his shooting percentage is down (12.4 percent compared with 19.0 last season), but those could also be symptoms of the problem rather than causes. When I look at Vanek and the Sabres, I think the simplest answer is a healthy Tim Connolly means Vanek doesn't need to do as much. Connolly is the team's best player when he stays on the ice and Vanek doesn't play on a line with him. Although Vanek does have a history of having a big second half (23 post-All Star break goals in 2007-08), this looks more like a lost season at this point.
• Ilya Kovalchuk has zero points and a minus-7 in his past three games. Rich Peverley was shifted onto his line three games ago to try to spark his offense. It appears Peverley may have gone from unbelievable waiver claim to plus/minus poison. I'd rather not think that the bubble has burst on him, but it just may have. The Thrashers need Nik Antropov to get healthy and back on a line with Kovalchuk and Maxim Afinogenov. Until then, you can lean toward other options in your lineup.
• Good 'ol Jamie Lundmark is up from the AHL with the Calgary Flames and he has already scored a goal and a shootout winner in three games. More importantly, he is playing with Olli Jokinen and Jarome Iginla. Lundmark actually had some value down the stretch last season with 14 points in 24 games.
• He still needs his minutes to go up before he really matters, but Luca Caputi is a future scoring winger and is getting top-six minutes with Chris Kunitz on the shelf. Caputi has been spending most of his 10 minutes per game with Evgeni Malkin and has two points in four games.
• If you can swallow the plus/minus trouble, 14 of Matthew Lombardi's 28 points this season have come on the power play. That includes four in his past five games, but he is minus-5 during that span.
Sean Allen is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com and the 2008 Fantasy Sports Writers Association, Hockey Writer of the Year. You can e-mail him here.