Commentary

Front Line: Youth movement

Updated: December 28, 2010, 12:45 PM ET
By Sean Allen | Special to ESPN.com

The World Junior Hockey Championship occurs at the fitting time of year, when the calendar is ready to flip and minds turn toward what may lie ahead. The tournament is a better predictor of future success than any other event in hockey and is an opportunity to get an early look at the fantasy stars that will be in your lineup for years to come, including Washington Capitals rookie defenseman John Carlson, who just happened to score the gold-medal-winning goal in overtime last January in the 2010 championship game, giving the United States the championship over the host Canadian team.

Some of the participants in this year's tournament you already know. Nino Niederreiter, who started the year with the New York Islanders before being sent down, opened the event on Sunday with two goals to help Switzerland to a 4-3 win. Brayden Schenn, who put in a stint with the Los Angeles Kings this season, anchored the top line for Canada. Jeremy Morin already has a few points for the Chicago Blackhawks this season and will ply his trade for the United States team. Robin Lehner will tend net for the team from Sweden, after making a few choice appearances with the Ottawa Senators this season.

Some of them you will know soon enough. Calvin de Haan should be setting up John Tavares on the power play next season for the Islanders (as he did for several years in the Ontario Hockey League). Zack Kassian would be the first choice to be called up to replace the injured Derek Roy (out for the season) for the Buffalo Sabres, if the choice were up to armchair general managers. Even players not eligible until the 2012 draft, such as Nail Yakupov of Russia, can be observed.

Take some time during the next week and tune in for at least a couple of games. If the players catch your eye now, it's easier to be the first one on board later. Pick any random year and look back to the tournament's top scorers and you will find household fantasy names.

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

Rising and Falling

Stephen Weiss, Florida Panthers (up nine spots): Weiss has been streaking lately, but much of the credit needs to go to rookie Evgeni Dadonov. Since joining the Panthers and lining up with Weiss, Dadonov has seven points in eight games. Going back over those same eight games though, Weiss has a sterling 11 points. Even Christopher Higgins, long forgotten as a 30-goal threat, has been chipping in as the third member of the Panthers top line. As stated in the Forecaster last week, Higgins has always maintained high shots-on-goal totals, but the goals stopped going in sometime during the 2008-09 season. It was bad enough that Higgins carried a shooting percentage of approximately 4 percent during his time with the New York Rangers last season. Take all those chances and improve the setup to the shot with some solid linemates and the goals will go in. But while Dadonov is an interesting free-agent grab and Higgins is vaguely intriguing, Weiss remains the main story. Weiss has been trying to find some rhythm this season after his longtime linemate, Nathan Horton, was traded. Now almost back on pace for his usual 60 points, Weiss seems to have found that rhythm.

Marc Savard, Boston Bruins (back on at No. 85): With three points in 10 games for the Bruins center, I am putting Savard back in the top 100 purely on spec. It was the fourth line that did the damage in a 4-1 Bruins win over the Atlanta Thrashers heading into the holidays, but Savard was reinserted as the first-line center between Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton. It was a long road to recovery for Savard from last season's concussion, and there is no doubt that not playing until December has him far from mid-season form. It will take some time before he can become the point-per-game (almost assist-per-game) forward we expect. But there is also no doubt that resuming his role at the top of the depth chart should help accelerate the process. Incidentally, the move bumps David Krejci down a line, but I am actually more excited about him now. I know I reminisce too frequently about the Krejci, Blake Wheeler and Michael Ryder line that dominated the league in plus/minus two seasons ago, but they were reunited by this latest line shuffle. You may also note that Horton dropped a baker's dozen in the rankings this week. Consider that a readjustment rather than a knock on his current prospects. It turns out you can change Horton's jersey, but you can't change his inexplicable propensity for prolonged slumps.

Scoring Lines

New York Rangers: Admitting that he wasn't playing his best hockey of late, Marian Gaborik sat out the final game before the holiday break with a groin strain. Setting aside the concern when you hear "Gaborik" and "groin strain" in the same sentence, you get that feeling the stars may be aligning for a better second half to the season. Why? Fresh blood, that's why. Mats Zuccarello, last season's Swedish Elitserien MVP, signed a deal to move over to the NHL, and it looks like he's getting his shot now. Zuccarello made his debut last Thursday in place of Gaborik and skated more than 18 minutes and scored in the shootout. He was sent down after the game but was back up from the American Hockey League again for Monday's contest, and this time he skated alongside Gaborik and managed an assist. The Rangers aren't exactly blessed with enough offense to look this gift horse in the mouth. Zuccarello is holding his own just fine with 25 points in 33 games in the AHL as a rookie. The team is fairly defined up front, but don't be surprised to see the team make an excuse to keep its prized rookie in the NHL.

Also soon to rejoin the offense will be Vaclav Prospal. Vinny has been out all season because of his right knee but has recently been skating at a fairly high tempo during practices. A mid-January return is the worst-case scenario. Prospal was Gaborik's main partner in crime last season, and having him back in the fold should help rekindle the firepower that had Gaborik as a top-10 fantasy player for most of last season.

Josh Bailey, New York Islanders: Back from a three-week banishment to the AHL to get his game back, Bailey had a three-point night before the holidays. Bailey notched 17 points in 11 games during his time in the minors, and don't forget that he opened the season with six points in five games before the 13-game skid that had him sent down. He can't be sent down again (without waivers anyway), and there are tons of options on the Islanders for speedy scoring linemates. Right now he is lined up with Michael Grabner and Frans Nielsen, which offers a quick duo for Bailey to set up with his crisp passes. He may be worth another risk, given his high upside and the impending return of yet another offensive weapon for the Isles in the New Year in Kyle Okposo (who is also an option to pick up if you have the bench room).

Sean Bergenheim, Tampa Bay Lightning: Vincent Lecavalier is not a top-tier fantasy option anymore, but he is still definitely a catalyst for scoring and worth owning. To that end, Lecavalier, Simon Gagne and Sean Bergenheim have an opportunity to show chemistry as the secondary scoring punch for the Bolts. Bergenheim has collected three assists in the six games since Lecavalier returned from his wrist injury and even had six shots in one of the games. Given his near universal availability in ESPN leagues, he is a speculative option for even the deepest of leagues.

Power Plays

Chicago Blackhawks: It will be a little disappointing to the active fantasy owners that have been enjoying Bryan Bickell, Troy Brouwer or Dave Bolland's contributions while Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane were out of the lineup, but Hossa is already back and Kane should be with the club before week's end. Hossa and Kane will resume their respective roles on a power play that hasn't been its usual self in their absence. Hossa was lined up with Tomas Kopecky, Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews for the power play on Sunday, but Kane should replace Kopecky in that role when he returns. How the lines shake out at even strength is another story, but expect Brouwer to be pushed down the depth chart. The good news is that Bickell and Bolland might welcome Brouwer to the third line and maintain some value for all three. However, it is more likely there isn't enough offense to go around for more than six Hawks forwards to have value, so keep an eye on how the lines shake out.

Infirmary

Derek Roy, Buffalo Sabres: Well, there is no good news for Roy owners. He is gone for the year with a freak quadriceps tendon injury. Rob Niedermayer replaced Roy between Tyler Ennis and Thomas Vanek on the top line, but that doesn't look like a long-term solution by any means. Niedermayer has always been a checking line guy. I really would look to Kassian if he weren't playing in the OHL still this season, as it's rare to end a junior year early. Nathan Gerbe and Ennis could battle over which one plays center on the top line, but that might be too much inexperience for a top unit. The best answer would be the return of Tim Connolly, who is due back within the next week, but his fractured nose was his second extended ailment of the season, and he is a player known for having trouble with health. Still with a gaping hole at center on the top line, Connolly should be scooped up in the 40 percent of leagues in which he is available. From there we have to wait and see how things shape out.

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.