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Front Line: Tavares starts strong

10/17/2011

Do you feel it too? The urge that follows back-to-back four-point outings by John Tavares to propel him to the upper echelon of the fantasy hockey rankings? How did we not see this coming? After all, Tavares was the "can't miss" prospect of his draft class and one of the most hyped No. 1 overall picks on par with Sidney Crosby. Did Tavares rope-a-dope us with a ho-hum sophomore campaign? Will he put up the 90 points this season that everybody projected last season?

So many questions; Let's start with the facts. Tavares started the season with the line he played with most of last season, Matt Moulson and P.A. Parenteau. Nino Niederreiter was supposed to compete with Parenteau for that other wing spot, but was injured in the preseason and has yet to make his regular season debut yet. Through the New York Islanders' first two games, the line did almost nothing. Tavares, certainly, only had three shots on goal and a minus-2 rating.

During the next two games, Tavares came alive. In the first period against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday, Tavares scored two goals and two assists. Then on Saturday against the New York Rangers, he followed up that performance with a hat trick and an assist. To recap, that is eight points in two games. Tavares has as many points as Jarome Iginla has shots on goal through four games (that is another story). Tavares is tied with Phil Kessel and David Legwand (yet another story) for the NHL points lead after a week and a half of play.

So why does Tavares remain outside the top 30 forwards in the rankings? Because small sample sizes make it easy to exaggerate any statistical output. Tavares may be a legitimate threat to explode for a big season, but taking his eight points now and thinking he will be a top-10 player the rest of the way is taking things too far.

Tavares' outburst was a wake-up call to bring him up nine spots in the rankings. Frankly, he shouldn't have been behind Marian Hossa or Tomas Plekanec to begin with, but there are still too many issues with Tavares for a two-game hot streak (let's face it, scorching streak) to have him shoot up the rankings.

For one thing, he did the same thing last season and then dropped off the map in November. He has eight points in four games this season, but last season Tavares had eight points through six games (including a hat trick) to give us the same warm, fuzzy feeling about his production. After that strong start, Tavares peeled off 13 straight games with no multi-point contests. In fact, he only had four points in all of November (11 games).

Although the Islanders' defense and goaltending is stronger than in previous seasons, we still don't know that Tavares won't finish in the neighborhood of minus-15 again. While not a complete impediment to his value, few other forwards can make a run at 70 points while earning such significantly low plus/minus ratings.

On the other hand, Tavares was a former No. 1 overall draft pick who was tabbed to be an NHL superstar. We can't simply ignore the situation. Given that Tavares is likely considered by his owner as one of the fantasy untouchables, there really is only two ways to take advantage of the situation. Those ways are called Parenteau and Niederreiter.

Parenteau is available in 93 percent of ESPN leagues. He is tied for fourth in the NHL with seven points (a goal and six assists) while playing beside Tavares. What is the harm in scooping him up off the free-agent wire to see if the hot streak lasts? There isn't much harm in that at all.

Niederreiter played on the top line with Moulson and Tavares through the preseason, but hurt his groin before the regular season started. He has resumed skating and has a role on the Isles waiting for his arrival, but Parenteau may have seized the top line opportunity for now. Still, there is a chance he is in the mix for a role beside Tavares and, even if worked into it slowly, may end up usurping Parenteau's prime spot. Niederreiter's ceiling for production is even higher than Parenteau's, so you can imagine the potential windfall. In deeper leagues, sitting on Niederreiter before he returns and starts making depth-chart waves might be the wisest move if you want to benefit from what could be a breakout campaign by Tavares.

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 (1)
2. Alex Ovechkin, Was (2)
3. Steven Stamkos, TB (3)
4. Sidney Crosby, Pit (4)
5. Henrik Sedin, Van (5)
6. Anze Kopitar, LA (6)
7. Corey Perry, Ana (7)
8. Pavel Datsyuk, Det (8)
9. Jonathan Toews, Chi (9)
10. Ryan Kesler, Van (13)
11. Brad Richards, NYR (10)
12. Martin St. Louis, TB (11)
13. Evgeni Malkin, Pit (12)
14. Ilya Kovalchuk, NJ (14)
15. Zach Parise, NJ (15)
16. Bobby Ryan, Ana (16)
17. Mike Richards, LA (17)
18. Jeff Carter, Cls (18)
19. Nicklas Backstrom, Was (19)
20. David Backes, StL (20)
21. Dany Heatley, Min (21)
22. Eric Staal, Car (22)
23. Claude Giroux, Phi (27)
24. Henrik Zetterberg, Det (23)
25. Rick Nash, Cls (24)
26. Jarome Iginla, Cgy (25)
27. Alexander Semin, Was (26)
28. Patrick Marleau, SJ (28)
29. Ryan Getzlaf, Ana (29)
30. Phil Kessel, Tor (35)
31. Johan Franzen, Det (30)
32. Danny Briere, Phi (31)
33. Nathan Horton, Bos (32)
34. Milan Lucic, Bos (33)
35. Joe Thornton, SJ (34)
36. Patrick Kane, Chi (36)
37. Mikko Koivu, Min (37)
38. John Tavares, NYI (47)
39. Jaromir Jagr, Phi (38)
40. Thomas Vanek, Buf (44)
41. Marian Hossa, Chi (40)
42. David Krejci, Bos (41)
43. Patrick Sharp, Chi (45)
44. Tomas Plekanec, Mon (42)
45. Chris Stewart, StL (43)
46. Jeff Skinner, Car (53)
47. Alex Burrows, Van (55)
48. Logan Couture, SJ (46)
49. Vincent Lecavalier, TB (48)
50. Devin Setoguchi, Min (49)
51. Teemu Selanne, Ana (51)
52. Marian Gaborik, NYR (52)
53. James Neal, Pit (59)
54. Derek Roy, Buf (54)
55. Andy McDonald, StL (39)
56. Martin Havlat, SJ (56)
57. Shane Doan, Pho (65)
58. Matt Duchene, Col (57)
59. Alex Tanguay, Cgy (66)
60. Joe Pavelski, SJ (60)
61. Jason Spezza, Ott (61)
62. Mike Cammalleri, Mon (62)
63. Paul Stastny, Col (63)
64. Brandon Dubinsky, NYR (67)
65. Patrik Elias, NJ (68)
66. Mike Ribeiro, Dal (82)
67. Michael Grabner, NYI (64)
68. Brenden Morrow, Dal (87)
69. Gabriel Landeskog, Col (69)
70. Patrice Bergeron, Bos (70)
71. Dustin Penner, LA (58)
72. Dustin Brown, LA (72)
73. Jamie Benn, Dal (73)
74. Taylor Hall, Edm (77)
75. Ryane Clowe, SJ (74)
76. Teddy Purcell, TB (75)
77. Drew Stafford, Buf (81)
78. Mikael Samuelsson, Van (76)
79. Andrew Ladd, Wpg (50)
80. R.J. Umberger, Cls (78)
81. Loui Eriksson, Dal (79)
82. Scott Hartnell, Phi (71)
83. Jordan Eberle, Edm (80)
84. Stephen Weiss, Fla (83)
85. Simon Gagne, LA (84)
86. P.A. Parenteau, NYI (NR)
87. T.J. Oshie, StL (88)
88. Brian Gionta, Mon (95)
89. Justin Williams, LA (100)
90. Tomas Fleischmann, Fla (90)
91. Steve Downie, TB (91)
92. Jason Pominville, Buf (NR)
93. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edm (99)
94. Vaclav Prospal, Cls (97)
95. Jiri Hudler, Det (93)
96. Chris Kunitz, Pit (94)
97. Tim Connolly, Tor (86)
98. Joffrey Lupul, Tor (NR)
99. Milan Michalek, Ott (NR)
100. Tyler Seguin, Bos (NR)

Rising and Falling

Brenden Morrow and Mike Ribeiro, Dallas Stars (up 19 and 16 spots): Through five games, the line of Morrow, Ribeiro and Michael Ryder has 10 points and five power-play points. Loui Eriksson, Jamie Benn and Steve Ott have 10 points and two power-play points. This is a close battle for which line should be considered the No. 1 unit. Either way, both lines are producing. Morrow and Ribeiro deserve a little more fantasy respect than they have received so far, as they aren't so far behind Eriksson and Benn for value combinations. Ott and Ryder are still deep league considerations for now.

Andrew Ladd, Winnipeg Jets (down 29 spots): Maybe it's the new jerseys? Whatever the problem, the Jets only have three goals in three games that weren't scored by checking-liner Jim Slater. The supposed top line of Ladd, Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little combined for zero points and a minus-4 through two games. The Jets then swapped rookie Mark Scheifele into Little's spot on the top unit for Saturday's game against the Phoenix Coyotes. The line managed a goal, but it was hardly enough to be noticed in the 4-1 loss. Ladd is the Jets' best statistical producer, and if the offense is actually scoring goals, he stands to be the most valuable. But if this offense is stagnating and not producing, Ladd's value plummets. Stay away from the Jets until they get their line combinations or offense working. It can take some time for a new head coach to arrange things, so be patient with Ladd or the other potential assets, but maybe don't start them every night/week.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers (up six spots): A hat trick and four total goals through three NHL contests? Not bad, Mr. Nugent-Hopkins. Not bad at all. With Ales Hemsky injured, RNH was placed on a line with fellow recent Oilers first-round picks Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle. The three youngsters, who tore up the preseason together, showed they can do the same thing in the regular season as well, with Nugent-Hopkins taking lead on all three goals versus the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday. This is exactly the kind of young-guns line that may make all three future stars so interesting this season for fantasy. Who knows where the ceiling is with all three learning and playing off each other's immense skill? If it's not already too late, pick up Nugent-Hopkins now (available in 62 percent of ESPN leagues). The Oilers would be crazy to send him down to juniors after this start.

Scoring Lines

Christopher Higgins, Vancouver Canucks: Ryan Kesler is practicing and could be ready as early as this week as he returns from hip surgery. In the meantime, Higgins has worked his way up the Canucks' depth chart to become the prime candidate to fill out the second line with Mikael Samuelsson once Kesler is healthy. Cody Hodgson has done a decent job so far as acting No. 2 pivot, but it is doubtful the Canucks will just force him to the wing once Kesler is back. At the very least, there is likely to be some transition time for Hodgson to adapt to the wing, allowing Higgins some time as a second-liner. With 11 shots on goal and four points through five games, Higgins can act as a low-tier forward option for even standard leagues. That level of production could even improve if he has chemistry with Kesler.

David Legwand, Nashville Predators: The scoring hasn't stopped for Legwand. Though Craig Smith has come back down to earth and been shoved from the top line, Legwand, Colin Wilson and now Sergei Kostitsyn are taking no prisoners. There is no way that Legwand's two-point-per-game pace keeps up for long, but there are clear indicators that he has found a groove with Wilson on the ice. If you are in an active league and someone has already scooped up Legwand, that is OK. You want Wilson anyway. While Legwand is showing the stats so far, it's Wilson that is creating the offense. After all, who is more likely having the breakout campaign here? The 31-year-old Legwand or the 21-year-old Wilson?

Derek Stepan, New York Rangers: Wojtek Wolski? Still hurt. Ruslan Fedotenko? Non-starter. Brandon Dubinsky? Needed back with Ryan Callahan. Who's next? Stepan is, of course. The Rangers are still looking for the right player to set next to Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik on the top line. Stepan is the most recent to audition and makes a strong candidate for the position. Stepan showed his offense with a solid 45-point rookie campaign even though he rarely played on a top line for the Rangers. In his first contest on the top unit, he helped set up a goal by Gaborik (though he wasn't awarded an assist). For better or worse, Stepan is the Rangers' best option for the top line unless Wolski can return to compete for the spot. Since Wolski's health is hardly top-notch, consider adding Stepan to your list of players to watch.

Power Plays

Martin Hanzal, Phoenix Coyotes: The Coyotes are 5-for-21 on the power play to start the season, and Hanzal is skating on the top unit with Shane Doan, Ray Whitney, Radim Vrbata and Keith Yandle. That is a pretty good power-play cast, and Hanzal, with his 6-foot-5, 220-pound frame, is spending a lot of the time in front of the net. He has two power-play points through four games, and there's plenty more where that came from. So long as Kyle Turris holds out, Hanzal is their centerman with the most potential.

Brian Rolston, New York Islanders: That line of John Tavares, Matt Moulson and P.A. Parenteau we just discussed is pretty good, right? Well, Rolston is the unsung fourth member of the unit when the Islanders go on the man advantage. Rolston and his booming slap shot are being used as a fourth forward on the top power-play unit for the Isles. He may only have one power-play point so far, but if he keeps playing with that combination, there are many more to come.

Quick Hits

Andy McDonald might be out with a concussion. That is very bad news since he seems to miss time with a concussion every season. Wait for more news on his injury before cutting ties, but I wouldn't hold on to McDonald too long if his bell was rung again. … Tim Connolly better hurry up and get back on skates. Tyler Bozak is making a case to stay on the top line when Connolly returns. Bozak has helped propel Phil Kessel to eight points and Joffrey Lupul to five points in three games. That is the kind of output Kessel and Lupul were only supposed to achieve with Connolly. Keep an eye on the situation once Connolly makes his regular season Leafs debut. … David Krejci might not want to miss too much time on the Bruins' top line. Tyler Seguin is managing a pretty good impression of a top-line centerman in his absence. Seguin has a point and four shots on goal in each of the two games Krejci has missed with an abdomen injury (that's right, an abdomen injury). … Joakim Lindstrom, remember him? The tough but offensively-skilled forward is back in the NHL with the Colorado Avalanche after spending the last two seasons in the Swedish Elitserien and the KHL. Lindstrom has been on the radar as a potential fantasy power forward since the Columbus Blue Jackets drafted him in 2002. He made his Avs debut in the top six Thursday and scored twice in the rout of the Montreal Canadiens. Playing with Matt Duchene and Milan Hejduk, Lindstrom has as long as it takes Peter Mueller to get healthy to prove himself. It's a situation worth watching. … Alexandre Giroux is being given a shot in the NHL early this season with the Columbus Blue Jackets on their second line with R.J. Umberger and Antoine Vermette. Giroux has been one of the most prolific AHL snipers in recent years, scoring 142 goals over the past three seasons, but has managed little more than a cup of coffee in the big leagues. … Jason Blake is out for three months, but that won't impact too many fantasy rosters. However, there is potential for whoever fills his role on the second line with Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu to earn some value. So far it looks like Brandon McMillan is getting the assignment. Hold back your excitement for when the Ducks consider a call-up of Kyle Palmieri (who already has six points in two games in the AHL).

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.