Commentary

Front Line: Replacement Penguins

Updated: February 14, 2011, 12:20 PM ET
By Sean Allen | Special to ESPN.com

All right. I think we have reached a point where the pendulum of opinion about Sidney Crosby's injury has swung too far in the pessimistic direction. I was concerned earlier that not enough people were telling fantasy owners that he may well miss the rest of the fantasy season. Now I'm concerned that is all you are hearing.

In reality, Crosby is always just a week and a half away from returning to the lineup. If he wakes up symptom-free and can pass the baseline concussion tests, he could work back into game shape and be on the ice in seven to 10 days.

That said, he hasn't been symptom-free yet and it is time to adjust the rankings to forecast that Crosby will be missing some time. He drops to No. 66 in the rankings this week. Low enough that if you swapped him out for any of the players listed above, you wouldn't be at too much of a loss if he returned soon, but still high enough to account for the possibility that he is back on the ice in time to play the final 20 games of the season.

It is a largely subjective balancing act, but I think we can all agree that it is definitely time to resign yourself to finishing the fantasy season without him. Which also means, the Penguins have to at least be considering the possibility of finishing their season without Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. And while the players replacing them on the NHL ice won't have nearly as big an impact in your fantasy lineup, let's have a look at where the value is amongst this group.

Tyler Kennedy, Pittsburgh Penguins: While Penguins may have been weakened up front, the team's bevy of offensive defensemen remains intact. With Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski still manning the power play, the Penguins man advantage will find a way to succeed. Enter Kennedy. In February, when things started to get dire for the Penguins, Kennedy has five points in eight games. Four of those five points have come on the power play that now features Kennedy and Jordan Staal up front.

If there is one piece of good news for the Penguins, the team they are poaching in the AHL has been pacing the entire league this season. The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have 80 points this season, and the team's 40 wins are seven more than any other squad. Only the Carolina Hurricanes affiliate has more goals than the Pens. Actually, the chemistry the players have from playing in the AHL together this season is one of the main reasons I find them intriguing as potential fantasy options. Consider this an interesting experiment: The top seven scorers from the Baby Penguins have been poached by the Pittsburgh Penguins. In a way, the top AHL team is being placed into the NHL to compete.. While Eric Tangradi and Dustin Jeffery have since hurt themselves, there are plenty of other Baby Pens to choose from.

Sterling/Johnson
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesBrett Sterling and Nick Johnson earned a shot at the Penguins top line with their solid play in the AHL this season.

Brett Sterling, Pittsburgh Penguins: Seeing Sterling's name resurface got my 2007 self very excited. Sterling was one of my favorite sleepers coming into the 2007-08 season after he potted 55 goals and 97 points in his rookie AHL season for the Atlanta Thrashers' affiliate. A 5-foot-7 scoring winger, Sterling could never translate that success into the NHL despite a couple chances. He has to fight to overcome the size differential with most opponents, but players don't get any smaller in the AHL compared to the NHL and he has found a way to overcome his size there. Still only 26 years old, Sterling has been having a solid season with the Baby Penguins by posting 39 points in 46 games. What has me more excited is seeing the results of his three-game debut with the Penguins: Sterling has two goals and an assist playing on the top line with Staal and fellow call-up Nick Johnson. He is also playing on the power play with Staal, Kennedy, Letang and Goligoski.

Nick Johnson, Pittsburgh Penguins: No, not the oft-injured free-agent first basemen with a good eye at the plate. This Nick Johnson has been honing his craft as a scoring winger in the AHL since 2008, finally breaking out this season at the age of 25. Johnson has been a standout for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins this season with 39 points in 48 games, but the kicker has to be his team-leading 10 power-play goals. Johnson has been on a particular tear since Dec. 10, with 16 goals and 11 assists (27 points) in 27 games. Debuting on the top line with the Penguins, alongside Staal and Sterling, Johnson has a goal and an assist in three games in the NHL.

Ryan Craig, Pittsburgh Penguins: While not nearly as exciting as his up-and-coming fellow AHL call-ups, Craig needs to be pointed out simply because he is the only one of the Baby Penguins to have had any NHL success in the past. Remember when Craig scored 15 goals and 28 points in 48 games as a rookie with the 2005-06 Tampa Bay Lightning? I know, it took me a second, too. He fell off the map after posting almost the same totals over a full season in his sophomore campaign and then going through a couple seasons where he couldn't stay healthy. Still, his scoring touch hasn't completely disappeared. He potted 23 goals in the AHL last season (his first time healthy since 2007) and has 13 goals already this season in the AHL. Craig did not get a plum assignment upon being re-called by the Penguins, but there is some familiarity with his linemates. He has been playing as the fourth line with fellow AHL call-ups Tim Wallace and Joe Vitale. The three are fifth, sixth and seventh in points for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins this season. While I might not take action in fantasy leagues with Craig, Vitale and Wallace right now, it would be worth keeping a close eye on them going forward. As I said before, the chemistry that could come from having played together all season could translate into more production than expected.

While the results weren't so great in the two most recent contests against the New York Rangers and New York Islanders, one must remember that this squad of "misfits" (I use the term endearingly) topped the Los Angeles Kings in the first contest after the slew of call ups. Either way, with Malkin and Crosby sitting for the long term, this group of upstarts has a chance to show that they can play in the NHL. I'd consider taking a chance on both Sterling and Johnson, with Kennedy as a recommended pickup as well. Chris Kunitz will be back soon and Crosby, as mentioned, could return anytime, but even with both players back on the ice there is room to earn a spot in the top six for these players going forward.

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

Rising and Falling

Mikael Samuelsson, Vancouver Canucks (up 32 spots): I'm trying to find a balance for Samuelsson in the rankings that reflects the fact that he has been playing like he is one of the best in the NHL, but also takes into account the fact that he could fall out of favor in a matter of days. Samuelsson has stormed up the rankings since Alexander Edler was hurt and a fourth forward (himself) was added to the power play in lieu of a second defenseman. With Edler out of the lineup, Samuelsson has 12 points in seven games with half of those points on the power play. Samuelsson had three points in 15 games prior to Edler's injury. So why improve his ranking so much if he can disappear so thoroughly? Because Edler is not coming back anytime soon. Because Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond provide the necessary skill for him to score at even strength in addition to on the power play. Because as much as coach Alain Vigneault tried other options on the second line, none have been as effective. While he may not continue to score two points per game, Samuelsson should remain a solid fantasy asset thanks to this recent outburst.

Drew Stafford and Michael Grabner, Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders (up 16 and 20 spots respectively): Both are recommended adds in multiple columns over recent weeks here on ESPN.com, but perhaps you needed both of them to score a hat trick in the same game in order to really believe in them. Done and done. Since most recently pointing them both out in last week's Forecaster, Stafford and Grabner scored three goals each when the Sabres and Isles met on Sunday. Grabner is now riding a five-game scoring streak with nine goals and two assists. Stafford is working on eight goals in four games and now has four hat tricks this season. Since I wrote about them on Friday, Grabner's ownership in ESPN leagues has gone up by 20 points to 60 percent of leagues while Stafford's has gone up almost 30 points but is still owned in only 50 percent of leagues.This may be your final warning before they are gone from your waiver wire.

Ilya Kovalchuk, New Jersey Devils (up nine spots): Hopefully you bought low when you had the chance because if the window to do so with Kovalchuk is not closed, it is closing quickly. With 12 points in his past nine games, it is safe to say Kovy is back. Travis Zajac and Nick Palmieri have clicked alongside Kovalchuk both on and off the power play and coach Jacques Lemaire has shown unrelenting faith in his top-paid player. Perhaps most exciting for fantasy owners is that fact that Kovalchuk has now gone seven straight games without a minus on his scoresheet and is up to minus-22 on the season after flirting with minus-30 at his lowest. Congratulations if you either acquired or stuck with Kovalchuk through an awful start to the season. You will be handsomely rewarded during the final months.

Scoring Lines

Alexei Kovalev, Ottawa Senators: Look who has come alive as the trade deadline approaches and his team is talking fire sale? After resting his knee for a week in January, Kovalev has returned to score eight points in eights games. An inspired Kovalev is certainly capable of keeping up such a pace. Why not scoop him up in hopes he lands somewhere he enjoys playing before the trade deadline? If he is traded to a winning club he may just end up providing some value down the stretch.

Power Plays

Radim Vrbata, Phoenix Coyotes: Vrbata has gone long stretches without scoring goals this season and prior to the past week had not done any better than three goals in five games. He has now scored in three straight contests with a total of four goals. Two of those goals have come on the power play with a first unit consisting of Vrbata's even-strength linemates Martin Hanzal and Ray Whitney, plus Shane Doan and Keith Yandle. He may be a streaky player to use in fantasy, but there is no denying that when he is on, he pots his fair share of goals.

David Desharnais, Montreal Canadiens: While he hasn't really climbed the depth chart when the Canadiens are skating even strength, Desharnais has scaled to the top of the mountain when it comes to the man advantage. Playing with Scott Gomez and Andrei Kostitsyn with the man advantage, the trio can be considered the Habs No. 1B power play unit. Brian Gionta, Tomas Plekanec and Max Pacioretty may be the top unit on paper, but Desharnais' three power-play points in his past three games say otherwise. Overall he has six points in those three contests and makes a strong case to use him while he is hot.

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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