Commentary

Front Line: Early position-battle winners

Derek Stepan, Kris Versteeg, Evander Kane could see values rise

Updated: October 11, 2010, 5:05 PM ET
By Sean Allen | Special to ESPN.com

This is the time of year when every microscopic piece of production (or lack thereof) from your fantasy players gets blown way out of proportion. So when that production (or lack thereof) is significant, the results are quite hyperbolic: "Why didn't I take Derek Stepan in my draft?" or "What a terrible pick Ryan Smyth was."

Stepan showed off the hustle that helped him make the New York Rangers with a hat trick in his first NHL contest, but since you already missed out on what likely will be his biggest outburst of the season, don't go dropping Smyth and his goose eggs for Stepan. I actually saw that exact move in one of my leagues. It's the natural overreaction that comes from actually having a tangible statistic to chew on.

The key to the above caution, however, is that you don't want to cast aside a valuable asset in order to pick up an early-season breakout. Picking up Stepan was not the error made, it was dropping Smyth. Just as important in evaluating who the early-season pickups are is the ability to assess deadweight on your roster.

Derek Stepan
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesDerek Stepan is just the fourth player to score a hat trick in his NHL debut.

The biggest problem with this is you can quickly become attached to the sleepers for which you received kudos for snatching in the draft room. The embarrassment that would come from dropping Mikael Backlund now, only to see him become valuable for a rival owner, can sometimes appear to be overwhelming in our minds. But guess what? In a standard ESPN league, you should take one look at the fact that the Calgary Flames have opted to go with Jarome Iginla, Alex Tanguay and Olli Jokinen on the top line, so you can drop Backlund. He was a sleeper because he had the potential to worm his way onto the top line with Iginla. Backlund is skating with Curtis Glencross and Tim Jackman instead. Ditch Backlund and lay claim to another sleeper who actually won a position battle.

Sure, it is early in the season and Backlund could still make good on the depth-chart-fueled potential he has, but there are players making good on that right now. Before we get into the familiar sections of Front Line, let's look at some of these position-battle victors.

Position Battles

Derek Stepan, New York Rangers: He won a roster spot in training camp and notched a hat trick in his first contest against the Buffalo Sabres. The star for Team USA at this year's World Junior Championships is a playmaker with a scoring touch but is a bit undersized. Maybe playing with Sean Avery and big forechecker Ruslan Fedotenko cleared enough room for him to score three goals in his debut, but over the long haul, that is not exactly a line you would expect to be responsible for three goals a night. Still, there is room for maneuvering on the Rangers' depth chart, and Erik Christensen is far from locked in as the center for Marian Gaborik and Alex Frolov. Keep an eye on Stepan.

Jeff Skinner, Carolina Hurricanes: Somewhat of a surprise to make the team given some of the other prospects vying for a role, Skinner now looks like a lock to spend the season in Raleigh. He scored the shootout winner and looked like the Canes' best player in the second game of the season against the Minnesota Wild. Skinner has the potential to be a scoring star, but he is still just 18. He'll have to make adjustments through the season as NHL defensemen get a book on him. With linemates like Tuomo Ruutu and Jussi Jokinen, expect at least mild production.

Kris Versteeg, Toronto Maple Leafs: Versteeg managed to beat out Nikolai Kulemin for the coveted wing opposite Phil Kessel, who makes anyone and everyone around him a fantasy threat. Kessel closed last season by carrying Tyler Bozak and Kulemin into fantasy-relevant territory and he'll do it this season with Bozak and Versteeg.

Evander Kane, Atlanta Thrashers: It's not exactly clear which line would be considered the "top" line, but signs certainly point to Kane as being a catalyst on offense. Through two games of the season, the only player to take more shots on goal than Kane is Alexander Ovechkin. Right now he is skating with Rich Peverley and Anthony Stewart (Chris Stewart's brother). With two goals early this season, Kane may be ready for a breakout sophomore season.

Drew Stafford, Buffalo Sabres: I mentioned Stafford in the Forecaster, and admittedly one assist in two games doesn't make him jump off the chart like the rest of these players. But this is about position battles and Stafford won his during the preseason, anchoring the wing on arguably the Sabres' top line with Derek Roy and Tyler Ennis. While Stafford may have only one assist, Roy has three goals and Ennis has three assists, so something is working. Stafford has been a bust for fantasy owners in the past, but he is turning only 25 this season. He is worth another look.

Top 100 Forwards

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 points, shots on goal, plus/minus, penalty minutes and average time on ice. Last week's ranking is indicated in parentheses.

RK. Name, Team (Preseason)
1. Alex Ovechkin, Was (1)
2. Sidney Crosby, Pit (2)
3. Nicklas Backstrom, Was (3)
4. Steven Stamkos, TB (4)
5. Henrik Sedin, Van (5)
6. Daniel Sedin, Van (6)
7. Dany Heatley, SJ (7)
8. Alexander Semin, Was (8)
9. Zach Parise, NJ (9)
10. Evgeni Malkin, Pit (10)
11. Pavel Datsyuk, Det (11)
12. Ilya Kovalchuk, NJ (12)
13. Eric Staal, Car (13)
14. Jeff Carter, Phi (14)
15. Rick Nash, Cls (15)
16. Patrick Kane, Chi (16)
17. Jarome Iginla, Cgy (17)
18. Marian Gaborik, NYR (18)
19. Joe Thornton, SJ (19)
20. Mike Richards, Phi (20)
21. Brad Richards, Dal (22)
22. Anze Kopitar, LA (24)
23. Patrick Marleau, SJ (21)
24. Ryan Getzlaf, Ana (25)
25. Jonathan Toews, Chi (23)
26. Johan Franzen, Det (26)
27. Nathan Horton, Bos (28)
28. Corey Perry, Ana (27)
29. Henrik Zetterberg, Det (29)
30. Martin St. Louis, TB (30)
31. Bobby Ryan, Ana (31)
32. Daniel Alfredsson, Ott (32)
33. Paul Stastny, Col (33)
34. Marian Hossa, Chi (35)
35. Phil Kessel, Tor (40)
36. Tomas Plekanec, Mon (36)
37. Chris Stewart, Col (37)
38. Ryan Kesler, Van (34)
39. Travis Zajac, NJ (41)
40. John Tavares, NYI (38)
41. Mike Cammalleri, Mon (42)
42. Ryan Smyth, LA (43)
43. Patrik Elias, NJ (44)
44. Jason Spezza, Ott (50)
45. Mikko Koivu, Min (46)
46. Alex Tanguay, Cgy (47)
47. Derick Brassard, Cls (48)
48. Patrick Sharp, Chi (49)
49. Alex Burrows, Van (45)
50. Tim Connolly, Buf (51)
51. Loui Eriksson, Dal (52)
52. Dustin Penner, Edm (53)
53. Ales Hemsky, Edm (54)
54. Danny Briere, Phi (55)
55. Jordan Eberle, Edm (63)
56. David Krejci, Bos (70)
57. Milan Lucic, Bos (56)
58. Olli Jokinen, Cgy (64)
59. Scott Hartnell, Phi (57)
60. Patric Hornqvist, Nsh (58)
61. Matt Duchene, Col (59)
62. Tomas Holmstrom, Det (60)
63. Vincent Lecavalier, TB (61)
64. Derek Roy, Buf (66)
65. Thomas Vanek, Buf (65)
66. Stephen Weiss, Fla (68)
67. Brenden Morrow, Dal (74)
68. Jakub Voracek, Cls (69)
69. David Booth, Fla (71)
70. Jason Arnott, NJ (72)
71. Jason Pominville, Buf (73)
72. Jamie Langenbrunner, NJ (75)
73. Mike Knuble, Was (79)
74. Wojtek Wolski, Pho (76)
75. Scott Gomez, Mon (77)
76. Nik Antropov, Atl (67)
77. Claude Giroux, Phi (78)
78. Nikita Filatov, Cls (82)
79. Mikael Samuelsson, Van (80)
80. David Backes, StL (83)
81. Shane Doan, Pho (84)
82. Brian Gionta, Mon (85)
83. Rene Bourque, Cgy (86)
84. Alexander Frolov, NYR (88)
85. Chris Kunitz, Pit (96)
86. Guillaume Latendresse, Min (81)
87. Simon Gagne, TB (89)
88. Taylor Hall, Edm (90)
89. Brooks Laich, Was (92)
90. Dave Bolland, Chi (97)
91. Teemu Selanne, Ana (NR)
92. Devin Setoguchi, SJ (93)
93. Steve Downie, TB (94)
94. Niclas Bergfors, Atl (95)
95. Tyler Ennis, Buf (98)
96. Shawn Horcoff, Edm (NR)
97. Mike Fisher, Ott (NR)
98. Ryane Clowe, SJ (NR)
99. David Perron, StL (NR)
100. Josh Bailey, NYI (NR)

Rising and Falling

Olli Jokinen, Calgary Flames (up six spots): The positive note for Jokinen is that he has taken 11 shots through two games. After averaging nearly 350 shots a season for the Florida Panthers, when he was a top-10 fantasy player, Jokinen has barely broached 200 shots the past two seasons. If he continues to put pucks at the net, he has the potential to make a quick rise through the rankings.

David Krejci, Boston Bruins (up 14 spots): We still weren't sure until the puck actually dropped what the Bruins' lineup would look like. Last season when the team's top centerman, Marc Savard, was hurt, it was Patrice Bergeron who leapfrogged up the depth chart past Krejci to take the role. This season, Krejci has locked down the top-line pivot and his line looks phenomenal: Nathan Horton joins Ovechkin and Brad Richards as the early-season point leaders, while Milan Lucic is doing exactly what he should with a goal, an assist and four penalty minutes. For his part, Krejci has three assists.

Nik Antropov, Atlanta Thrashers (down nine spots): It doesn't look as though Antropov will be the focal point of the offense for the Thrashers after all. For one thing, Evander Kane (see above) has made leaps and bounds over the summer. For another, Antropov has been placed with diminutive Nigel Dawes and veteran Fredrik Modin as linemates. Antropov is still valuable and is still a centerpiece for the power-play unit, but his linemates are not exciting for fantasy owners.

Guillaume Latendresse, Minnesota Wild (down five spots): For whatever reason, Latendresse's stock on the Wild's depth chart has dropped since the end of last season. After polishing off a breakout season with Martin Havlat and Kyle Brodziak as his linemates, his line now includes Casey Wellman instead of Havlat. Far worse for Latendresse's outlook is the fact that the trio was clearly considered the fourth line. Something has to give quickly for him not to freefall down the ranks.

Scoring Lines

San Jose Sharks: I'm not so sure it will matter given that four of the Sharks' five goals so far have come on the power play, but it's worth noting that the depth chart is in flux still and coach Todd McLellan has a newfound mantra to spread the love. While Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau still comprise the bulk of the power-play unit, they were on three different lines against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Europe. All three lines look fairly solid and it's still not clear what the overall fantasy ramifications will be, but the situation bears monitoring. Thornton, Devin Setoguchi and Jame McGinn comprise one line. Marleau, Torrey Mitchell and Joe Pavelski are together. Heatley skated with Logan Couture and Ryane Clowe.

Chicago Blackhawks: Like the Sharks, the Hawks are all over the map when it comes to line combinations. Tomas Kopecky appears to have some sleeper value as the third man with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. Kopecky also manned the power play with Hossa, Toews and Patrick Kane. With Patrick Sharp in the lineup, the Hawks placed him with Kane and Fernando Pisani. With Sharp hurt for the second game, Dave Bolland replaced him. It appears the Hawks are testing a divide-and-conquer approach and we'll have to see how long it lasts. In the meantime, Kopecky and Pisani could have value thanks to their linemates.

Eric Belanger, Phoenix Coyotes: While he may not be there long, it is worth noting that he is starting the season as the team's No. 1 pivot between Shane Doan and Wojtek Wolski. As long as he can hold down this fort, he will be good for three or four points a week.

Power Plays

Brian Rolston, New Jersey Devils: He is a little banged up at the moment, but Rolston has won a key role on the Devils this season, as his blistering shot is being used on the first power-play unit. Why is that such a great role? Because that power-play unit consists of Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and puck-moving defenseman Matt Taormina. Not bad company for Rolston to unleash his bullet.

Matt Cullen, Minnesota Wild: The Wild deployed the rare, but impressive, five-forward power play over the weekend. This will be more a product of Marek Zidlicky missing the opening two games with a pulled groin, but it also means that no other defenseman appears to be in coach Todd Richards' playbook. That means Matt Cullen, who has earned fantasy value in the past as a power-play pointman, looks to win that same role with the Wild.

Chris Kunitz, Pittsburgh Penguins: We knew Kunitz would land on the wing of either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. We didn't know he would be the choice to play with both Crosby AND Malkin on the Penguins' top power-play unit. The power play won't be as fantastic as it was in recent years with Sergei Gonchar gone, but with Crosby and Malkin anchoring the unit, it will still be productive.

Sean Allen is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is the 2008 and 2009 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Hockey Writer of the Year. You can e-mail him here.

Sean Allen is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He was the 2008 and 2009 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Hockey Writer of the Year. You can tweet him @seanard.

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