Commentary

Front Line: Kid rises to the top

Updated: December 6, 2010, 2:38 PM ET
By Sean Allen | Special to ESPN.com

For the first time in about a year, Sidney Crosby knocks Alex Ovechkin out of the top spot in the rankings. How can he be denied the No. 1 slot any longer? Crosby matches Ovechkin for plus/minus, their ice times are similar and both have minimal penalty minutes. For the first time in memory Crosby is pacing Ovechkin for shots on goal and both players have the same number of assists and the same number of power-play points.

So just because Crosby is finally equal to Ovechkin in all those fantasy categories makes him No. 1? Maybe not, but the fact Crosby has more than twice as many goals as Ovechkin is the icing on the cake. Crosby's 23 goals this season outpace everybody. This is a whole new level we are seeing.

Now, I don't want to belabor the point because what are you going to do about it? Either cheer if you own Crosby or lament the fact you don't. He is untouchable in trade. So, let's turn the focus to the rest of the Pittsburgh Penguins' offense.

Sidney Crosby & Chris Kunitz
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesChris Kunitz's fantasy value is intricately tied to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

One of the most baffling aspects of Crosby's ridiculous pace is the fact he is doing it on his own. Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis have shared the ice with Crosby for a vast majority of the time he has spent on it this season. Kunitz is a lower-tier, role-playing fantasy forward and Dupuis wouldn't qualify as roster-worthy in shallow leagues. Considering Crosby has scored and assisted on 46 goals this season, it's a bit of a wonder that Kunitz has only 15 points and Dupuis has 12. Kunitz never actually leaves Crosby's side as he joins Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as the first power-play unit. Yet the osmosis points you would expect just aren't there. If you subtract all the points from Kunitz and Dupuis in which Crosby was not credited with a point on the same goal, the two wingers combine for seven points.

From a fantasy perspective, this means a couple of things. No. 1 is that Kunitz and Dupuis, while they can contribute to your team, are not the safest of investments for your roster. No. 2 is the fact if I am noticing this, then the Pens' coaching staff is well aware of it. That means that when Crosby hits a slow patch, a change in linemates will be the first thing in order to get him going again. I'm not so sure another player on the Penguins wouldn't do better than Kunitz or Dupuis when it comes to taking advantage of the situation. I know he is supposed to join Malkin on the second line, but who is to say Jordan Staal won't get a shot on the top line with Crosby? Owned in just 56 percent of ESPN leagues, Staal is nearing a return from a broken hand and is definitely worth a preemptive pickup if you are searching for offensive assistance.

Finally, what about Malkin? Considered a top-10 forward, he is closer to 30th on the ESPN Player Rater for production this season. He is on pace to finish with 64 points this season. A far cry from his Art Ross Trophy season of two years ago, but actually not far off the 77 points he finished with last season. Is Malkin just a secondary guy now? Still top 20, of course, but not the offensive dynamite we have seen in the past?

I would say the case for Malkin isn't quite so dire. His shooting percentage is way down at 7 percent. Last season he was at 10.4 percent and for his career he is a 12.7 percent shooter. There is a touch of bad luck in play here. Malkin has also dealt with a complete lack of consistency for his linemates: Eric Tangradi, Mike Comrie, Mark Letestu, Arron Asham, Tyler Kennedy, Kunitz, Crosby and most recently Matt Cooke and Max Talbot. Basically, Malkin has been tried in almost every possible combination.

He is nursing a knee injury, but it doesn't sound like anything to worry about. For now, Malkin owners need to just sit tight. Staal might be the answer here, too. Whether he plays with Malkin or bumps someone down a line, Staal makes the top six stronger for the Penguins. If worst comes to worst, coach Dan Bylsma may even move Malkin onto Crosby's line for an extended period just to get him moving. The bottom line is that I don't think there is any reason to drastically downgrade Malkin at this point even though Justin Williams is having a better fantasy season. Hold tight and things will turn around.

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.

1. Sidney Crosby, Pit (2)
2. Alex Ovechkin, Was (1)
3. Steven Stamkos, TB (3)
4. Daniel Sedin, Van (4)
5. Alexander Semin, Was (5)
6. Nicklas Backstrom, Was (6)
7. Henrik Sedin, Van (7)
8. Brad Richards, Dal (9)
9. Dany Heatley, SJ (8)
10. Pavel Datsyuk, Det (10)
11. Evgeni Malkin, Pit (11)
12. Mike Richards, Phi (12)
13. Jeff Carter, Phi (15)
14. Corey Perry, Ana (16)
15. Martin St. Louis, TB (19)
16. Jonathan Toews, Chi (14)
17. Eric Staal, Car (17)
18. Ryan Getzlaf, Ana (13)
19. Bobby Ryan, Ana (24)
20. Patrick Sharp, Chi (30)
21. Henrik Zetterberg, Det (27)
22. Patrick Kane, Chi (18)
23. Ilya Kovalchuk, NJ (28)
24. Danny Briere, Phi (29)
25. Joe Thornton, SJ (20)
26. Nathan Horton, Bos (22)
27. Mikko Koivu, Min (26)
28. Rick Nash, Cls (21)
29. Jarome Iginla, Cgy (31)
30. Paul Stastny, Col (32)
31. Patrick Marleau, SJ (23)
32. Marian Gaborik, NYR (33)
33. Anze Kopitar, LA (34)
34. Scott Hartnell, Phi (42)
35. Tomas Plekanec, Mon (35)
36. Claude Giroux, Phi (36)
37. Loui Eriksson, Dal (38)
38. Phil Kessel, Tor (37)
39. James Neal, Dal (48)
40. Marian Hossa, Chi (25)
41. Daniel Alfredsson, Ott (40)
42. Milan Hejduk, Col (45)
43. Alex Burrows, Van (41)
44. Johan Franzen, Det (43)
45. Derek Roy, Buf (44)
46. Chris Stewart, Col (39)
47. Milan Lucic, Bos (51)
48. Ryan Smyth, LA (46)
49. Mike Cammalleri, Mon (52)
50. Ryan Kesler, Van (49)
51. Matt Duchene, Col (50)
52. Andrew Ladd, Atl (61)
53. Jason Spezza, Ott (47)
54. David Krejci, Bos (53)
55. Thomas Vanek, Buf (54)
56. John Tavares, NYI (57)
57. David Backes, StL (58)
58. Alex Tanguay, Cgy (59)
59. Matt Cullen, Min (62)
60. Steve Downie, TB (55)
61. Brenden Morrow, Dal (60)
62. Teemu Selanne, Ana (69)
63. Patric Hornqvist, Nsh (56)
64. Ales Hemsky, Edm (65)
65. Andrei Kostitsyn, Mon (70)
66. Martin Havlat, Min (83)
67. Scott Gomez, Mon (66)
68. Stephen Weiss, Fla (67)
69. Mikael Samuelsson, Van (68)
70. Jordan Eberle, Edm (64)
71. Travis Zajac, NJ (72)
72. David Booth, Fla (77)
73. Dustin Brown, LA (73)
74. Steve Sullivan, Nsh (71)
75. Brandon Dubinsky, NYR (74)
76. Joe Pavelski, SJ (75)
77. Brooks Laich, Was (76)
78. Patrik Elias, NJ (78)
79. Shane Doan, Pho (80)
80. Justin Williams, LA (100)
81. Brian Gionta, Mon (84)
82. Ryane Clowe, SJ (90)
83. Jason Arnott, NJ (81)
84. Jarret Stoll, LA (96)
85. Derick Brassard, Cls (87)
86. Evander Kane, Atl (89)
87. Nik Antropov, Atl (86)
88. Todd Bertuzzi, Det (88)
89. Mike Knuble, Was (91)
90. Ville Leino, Phi (92)
91. Mike Ribeiro, Dal (93)
92. Sam Gagner, Edm (NR)
93. Bryan Little, Atl (94)
94. Vincent Lecavalier, TB (95)
95. Niclas Bergfors, Atl (97)
96. Jeff Skinner, Car (98)
97. Chris Kunitz, Pit (99)
98. Mason Raymond, Van (NR)
99. Rich Peverley, Atl (NR)
100. Logan Couture, SJ (NR)

Rising and Falling

Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks (down four spots): Just a small dip for now because we don't know too much about the knee injury Kane suffered on Sunday. He fell awkwardly early in the contest and needed help off the ice. He'll miss a couple of games to account for the drop in the rankings, but if it's not long-term he'll start climbing again. If Kane is out for a while, Jack Skille is the one who replaced him on the Jonathan Toews line. Dave Bolland also got more offensive shifts on Sunday and played more minutes than any forward save for Toews and Patrick Sharp (and he scored two goals).

Justin Williams, Los Angeles Kings (up 20 spots): I know, I know. I just jinxed him and now he'll pull some pesky muscle that will end his awesome season this week. The fact Williams has 25 points in 25 games is not a shock at all. The only shock is that the season is barely a quarter over and he has played in 25 games. Known more for missing time than his scoring ability, Williams has always had the skill, he just hasn't had the endurance. Being ranked No. 80 is still pretty low for a point-per-game forward, but trusting his health will be a process. I think a move up to 80 still balances the risk against the potential benefit if he can stay on the ice with Ryan Smyth and Jarret Stoll for the rest of the season. I'll add this point, as well: For fantasy owners who are beginning to look desperately at their season, Williams is the perfect trade target. Great production with a horrible past that weighs down his value. It's the ultimate bang or bust.

Patric Hornqvist, Nashville Predators (down seven spots): To be perfectly fair let me lead with the fact Hornqvist actually has more goals this season than he did at the same point last season. But to be fair to fantasy owners, we didn't want another slow start and a dash to 30 goals; we wanted steady production and a shot at 40 goals. Hornqvist is on pace for 20 goals and has been demoted off the Preds' first line. Not good. Because he has the ability to suddenly start lighting lamps with proficiency, Hornqvist gets some reprieve in the rankings. But it won't last forever. Nick Spaling and J.P. Dumont are not good linemates to have for production and unless he can climb back up the depth chart, this ranking will continue to slip. There isn't help on the way as Matthew Lombardi appears no closer to a return from injury and Linus Klasen (not a bad player from the Swedish Elitserien, but not a game-changer) is leading the team's AHL affiliate in points, so Hornqvist will have to find a way to work with what is available. December and January were key months for Hornqvist last season, so watch for some action soon or start thinking about other options.

Scoring Lines

Jakub Voracek, Columbus Blue Jackets: While Rick Nash and Derick Brassard are ranked on the top 100, Voracek remains on the bubble. That will change if the trio continue to light up the league. Only the top lines for the Anaheim Ducks, Vancouver Canucks and Washington Capitals have combined for more points during the past month. While the trio has hit a small slump, they will get going again. Although he has been slower to collect points than his linemates, Voracek is too talented to not chip in with such high-caliber company. Look at him in deeper leagues now and put him on your radar in shallow formats.

Taylor Hall, Edmonton Oilers: It was a slow start for Hall and he dropped off the top 100 early. Linemate Jordan Eberle has weathered a storm and remained ranked, but barely. The two rookies are starting to find their legs alongside Shawn Horcoff. Hall has eight points in his past nine games. Available in about a third of leagues, the rookie is worth another look.

Simon Gagne, Tampa Bay Lightning: As expected, Gagne took over the role of Steve Downie on the top line with Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. He also played with the duo (plus Ryan Malone) on the power play. The result was a win over the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday and three points for Gagne. That is now two fantastic games sandwiching a stinker since his return from a neck injury. There is no question he needs to be picked up right away (available in 45 percent of leagues), but there is some debate as to whether he should be slotted into a roster spot right away. Downie's broken ankle buys him a four-week tryout on the top line, so he is definitely worth a gamble right now. When Downie and Vincent Lecavalier (maybe another two weeks) return is when we will find out if Gagne has long-term value.

Alexander Steen, St. Louis Blues: Already missing offensive catalysts David Perron and T.J. Oshie, Andy McDonald looks like he will miss time with an "upper-body" injury (concussion?). Steen stepped it up Sunday with three points. Always a consistent shooter for the team, Steen played two minutes more than his norm in the game and joined the first power-play unit. If the Blues continue to miss key players, Steen may see enough value to be a shallow league option.

Bobby Butler, Ottawa Senators: The Sens promoted their leading scorer from the AHL, Bobby Butler, and placed him on a line with Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza. The trio didn't do anything, but the Sens got a win on Sunday with that lineup, so Butler will get another chance. The Hobey Baker finalist from 2010 translated his college game well into the AHL to lead all rookies with 15 goals and 23 points through 25 games.

Power Plays

Ryan Malone, Tampa Bay Lightning: If he keeps up his play, Malone will retain a power-play role even after Lecavalier returns and Gagne is healthy. Twelve of Malone's 20 points this season have come on the man advantage. What's better, Malone is a shooting machine. Only six players in the NHL have fired more shots during the past month. Still available in 50 percent of ESPN leagues, Malone's value may not be a flash in the pan.

Thomas Vanek, Buffalo Sabres: The biggest thing missing from Vanek's game during last season's disappointing showing was the power-play numbers. After finishing the previous two seasons with 19 and 20 power-play goals, Vanek had just 10 last year. He already has six this season, which puts him on pace for 18. That could be the difference between a 25-goal Vanek, and a 35-goal Vanek.

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

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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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