Commentary

Front Line: Potential deep sleepers

Updated: January 3, 2012, 4:03 PM ET
By Sean Allen | Special to ESPN.com

In the interest of seeking a fresh start for your fantasy squad for the New Year, I'm putting myself out there with some recommendations for this week. If you are entering 2012 and you are looking at a steep climb in the standings to win your league, you need to start swinging for the fences. Soft and calculated moves are good for maintenance purposes, but when it comes to making a late charge at a championship, you need to go big or go home.

This week, I offer you three players available in at least 98.9 percent of ESPN leagues who I think could be major players for the remainder of the season. Obviously, this comes with an enormous caveat. In at least two of the three cases I will present, we have almost no track record for the player at the NHL level (read: rookie). It was tough to find players with such upside who are still widely available. The collective consciousness that is the ESPN Fantasy Hockey universe is pretty astute, so finding even three players with a shred of potential who were virtually universally available was difficult enough a task, let alone finding three I really liked.

As we have seen with the Calgary Flames line of Jarome Iginla, Olli Jokinen and Curtis Glencross, a boost in production can be fast and furious if the right conditions exist. In each of the cases I will present below, I believe each has linemates to give him a quick rise in value and production. If you have a roster spot that isn't doing much for you or that you save for speculative purposes, using it to secure the ownership of one of these players is a chance to get in on the ground floor. Obviously, if you play in a tight league with minimal bench space or even no inactive roster spots, you will face a tougher decision to act on these speculations. But if you have the flexibility, I encourage you to consider the cases I present below and jump on board with your favorite one.

Koivu
Koivu

Saku Koivu, Anaheim Ducks: Koivu is the most owned of these three players, sitting at 1.1 percent of ESPN leagues. There is an argument for that level of ownership to shoot up quickly. Corey Perry has struggled this season and slumped a bit recently. It's been even worse with Ryan Getzlaf, if you ask his fantasy owners. Getzlaf has a minus-18 rating and only 25 points in 37 games, even though he has topped 90 points before and has been better than a point-per-game pace during the four previous seasons. Coach Bruce Boudreau is going to have to look elsewhere for his offensive production soon. Koivu returned from a groin injury on Saturday and potted a pair of assists while skating with Teemu Selanne and Bobby Ryan. Koivu and Ryan even took a few shifts with Perry in the loss to the Colorado Avalanche. Koivu, Perry and Ryan were the top power-play unit. We had already discussed Bobby Ryan as a likely candidate to turn his season around soon, so here is betting he takes Koivu along for the ride. The key here is that the Ducks' best offensive line is the one that includes three of five from Perry, Selanne, Getzlaf, Ryan and Koivu. Right now it looks like Koivu is in a position to center the best line for the Ducks going forward.

Johansen
Johansen

Ryan Johansen, Columbus Blue Jackets: It's been a quiet rookie season for Johansen so far, with seven goals and seven assists in 35 games. In the past few games, Johansen has had the opportunity to skate with Rick Nash and Jeff Carter on the Jackets' top line and has not looked out of place. Remember that before the most recent draft, scouts were arguing between Johansen and Brayden Schenn as the best NHL prospect. Johansen absolutely has the talent as a playmaker to put enough pucks on both Nash's and Carter's sticks. Available in 99.9 percent of ESPN leagues, Johansen has a real chance to stick on a line with two players who have vastly underperformed this season. Nash is already showing signs of life skating with Johansen, notching three points in the past two games. While still not convinced that Carter will be a big part of the picture, the Nash-Johansen connection has big-time potential if allowed to develop.

Dalpe
Dalpe

Zac Dalpe, Carolina Hurricanes: His first chance to impress under new coach Kirk Muller has not been a disappointment. Instead of playing five minutes per game on the fourth line, as he was doing under former coach Paul Maurice, Dalpe was put on Muller's de facto top line with Eric Staal and Jiri Tlusty. The trio hooked up on some third-period heroics last week against the Toronto Maple Leafs, with Dalpe having a goal and an assist. He played top power-play minutes in the loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday and was on the ice for one of Staal's power-play points. Staal has been a new man under the guidance of Muller with 14 points in 15 games and only a minus-5 rating (compared to his minus-22 on the season). Muller is giving Dalpe every opportunity to succeed in the NHL, something he wasn't allowed earlier this season. Currently available in 99.6 percent of ESPN leagues, Dalpe is certainly a home run swing. Jeff Skinner is skating again in his attempt to return from a concussion. There exists an outside chance that Skinner, Staal and Dalpe wind up playing (and dominating) together.

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. Steven Stamkos, TB (1)
2. Daniel Sedin, Van (2)
3. Henrik Sedin, Van (3)
4. Evgeni Malkin, Pit (4)
5. Pavel Datsyuk, Det (6)
6. Claude Giroux, Phi (8)
7. Phil Kessel, Tor (7)
8. Corey Perry, Ana (5)
9. Jonathan Toews, Chi (9)
10. Alex Ovechkin, Was (13)
11. Ryan Kesler, Van (10)
12. Patrick Sharp, Chi (12)
13. Thomas Vanek, Buf (11)
14. James Neal, Pit (15)
15. Marian Hossa, Chi (16)
16. Anze Kopitar, LA (17)
17. Patrick Kane, Chi (14)
18. Nicklas Backstrom, Was (18)
19. Johan Franzen, Det (19)
20. Jarome Iginla, Cgy (26)
21. Ilya Kovalchuk, NJ (23)
22. Zach Parise, NJ (20)
23. Henrik Zetterberg, Det (22)
24. Jamie Benn, Dal (25)
25. Dany Heatley, Min (28)
26. Ryan Getzlaf, Ana (21)
27. Brad Richards, NYR (27)
28. Martin St. Louis, TB (50)
29. Kris Versteeg, Fla (32)
30. Teemu Selanne, Ana (35)
31. Scott Hartnell, Phi (46)
32. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edm (24)
33. Stephen Weiss, Fla (29)
34. Mikko Koivu, Min (39)
35. Rick Nash, Cls (40)
36. Tyler Seguin, Bos (36)
37. Joffrey Lupul, Tor (37)
38. Joe Pavelski, SJ (34)
39. Tomas Fleischmann, Fla (31)
40. Patrick Marleau, SJ (33)
41. Jason Spezza, Ott (38)
42. Marian Gaborik, NYR (43)
43. Sidney Crosby, Pit (30)
44. Brad Marchand, Bos (54)
45. John Tavares, NYI (41)
46. Jaromir Jagr, Phi (42)
47. Eric Staal, Car (59)
48. Milan Lucic, Bos (44)
49. Tomas Plekanec, Mon (45)
50. Alex Burrows, Van (52)
51. Mike Richards, LA (47)
52. Jeff Carter, Cls (48)
53. Danny Briere, Phi (49)
54. Joe Thornton, SJ (51)
55. Jason Pominville, Buf (53)
56. Evander Kane, Wpg (61)
57. David Backes, StL (55)
58. Jordan Eberle, Edm (64)
59. Bobby Ryan, Ana (63)
60. Patrice Bergeron, Bos (56)
61. Logan Couture, SJ (58)
62. Alexander Semin, Was (67)
63. David Krejci, Bos (60)
64. Nathan Horton, Bos (57)
65. Olli Jokinen, Cgy (73)
66. Erik Cole, Mon (65)
67. Jeff Skinner, Car (75)
68. Mike Ribeiro, Dal (68)
69. Radim Vrbata, Pho (69)
70. Ryan Callahan, NYR (83)
71. Shane Doan, Pho (62)
72. Alexander Steen, StL (72)
73. Gabriel Landeskog, Col (87)
74. Chris Kunitz, Pit (74)
75. Taylor Hall, Edm (90)
76. Ray Whitney, Pho (82)
77. Patrik Elias, NJ (78)
78. Derek Roy, Buf (66)
79. T.J. Oshie, StL (79)
80. Vincent Lecavalier, TB (70)
81. Loui Eriksson, Dal (80)
82. Ryane Clowe, SJ (81)
83. Ryan Smyth, Edm (77)
84. Daniel Alfredsson, Ott (86)
85. Matt Moulson, NYI (85)
86. Derek Stepan, NYR (92)
87. Paul Stastny, Col (76)
88. Adam Henrique, NJ (93)
89. Brenden Morrow, Dal (88)
90. Valtteri Filppula, Det (89)
91. Blake Wheeler, Wpg (99)
92. Christopher Higgins, Van (96)
93. David Perron, StL (94)
94. Vaclav Prospal, Cls (84)
95. Dustin Brown, LA (NR)
96. Martin Erat, Nsh (95)
97. Max Pacioretty, Mon (91)
98. Steve Ott, Dal (97)
99. Tuomo Ruutu, Car (98)
100. Curtis Glencross, Cgy (NR)

Rising and Falling

Martin St. Louis, Tampa Bay Lightning (up 22 spots): This week, he was reunited with last season's linemates, Steven Stamkos and Steve Downie. Since joining forces during the past two Bolts games, the three amigos are responsible for 13 points, eight of which have come as a line. St. Louis was supposed to miss a lot more time with the broken bones in his face, but he made an early return sporting a full cage. This rise in the rankings is a bounce-back from a quick recovery and can be attributed to his old unit getting back together. If you are looking to extract value, Downie is available in 50 percent of ESPN leagues.

Derek Roy, Buffalo Sabres (down 12 spots): Roy's drop-off hasn't been as quick as expected, as he has taken some shifts on the top line, but his power-play time has dropped off the table in recent weeks and he is no longer a threat to join Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek on a regular basis. Nope, this is approaching the end of the line for Roy's fantasy season. His 23 points in 38 games is no better than Kyle Wellwood and lags behind David Desharnais. Roy will have one more week of reprieve since the Sabres aren't scoring and a shake-up may be in order, but if Lindy Ruff doesn't make a drastic change soon, Roy won't even be sniffing the Top 100.

Scott Hartnell, Philadelphia Flyers (up 15 spots): It's time to slap down a little more respect for Mr. Hartnell's productive season. Usually a top-50 fantasy guy thanks in large part to his penalty minutes, Hartnell has been a different beast this season. Hartnell is in the top 10 on the ESPN Player Rater and even after removing his PIMs as a factor, he would remain top 20. Certainly playing with Claude Giroux and Jaromir Jagr helps a lot, but Hartnell has survived injuries to both players and remained productive. Trending toward a 38-goal, 78-point season, we do have to wonder if there are slumps to come between now and April, but it is hard to envision him slowing down. Jagr is once again out to nurse a calf injury; look to Jakub Voracek or Wayne Simmonds for a promotion to the top line in the short term.

Scoring Lines

Benn Ferriero, San Jose Sharks: We know that Martin Havlat will be out eight weeks with a hamstring injury. Ferriero has the first opportunity to solidify a role in the top six to replace him. Things were slow when he was playing with Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton, but Ferriero showed some life on Monday when he lined up with Logan Couture and Ryane Clowe, as he scored a goal and had five shots. There are worse places to look for help in deep leagues, as the Sharks can be pretty steady with scoring.

Milan Michalek, Ottawa Senators: Michalek's return from a concussion is actually a bit concerning for the Senators' fantasy flow. It's great news from a real NHL point of view, and Michalek's fantasy owners are happy with the boost, but those who have watched Daniel Alfredsson skyrocket in value have to be a little concerned. Alfie's rise was in conjunction with playing with Jason Spezza. Since Michalek returned, Alfredsson was returned to the second line. The situation certainly bears watching as it could change again, but the best-case scenario for fantasy value may not be the best-case scenario for the Senators in reality. As much as we would like to see a top line of Spezza, Michalek and Alfie, that is unlikely to happen. Michalek and Alfredsson are still worth speculative bench spots in most leagues, but Spezza is the only one to roll with confidence right now.

Tim Connolly, Toronto Maple Leafs: There is a window of opportunity to give Connolly another look. Tyler Bozak is expected out for a week or two with a shoulder injury. That means Connolly is playing with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul in the meantime. The chemistry shown by the trio has been limited, but their opportunities to play together have also been somewhat limited by injuries and the emergence of Bozak. Connolly had an assist in his return to the top line.

Power Plays

Ryan Malone, Tampa Bay Lightning: While the Bolts have reunited their top line from last season at even strength, the power-play unit has been a different combination. Using Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Malone, the man-advantage is the perfect place for a physical player like Malone to start earning some value. He has only one assist on the power play since the lines and units were shuffled two games ago, but there is potential for a lot more.

Quick Hits

• Taking a page out of former coach Bruce Boudreau's playbook, Washington Capitals coach Dale Hunter has combined his top three offensive players with terrific results. Playing with Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin, Alex Ovechkin has six points in the past three games. Let's hope Semin doesn't miss any time with a cut on his arm. We want nothing to disturb these three players as they wake up from a long slump.

• A concussion for Alex Steen has briefly opened another door for the already productive David Perron, who has assumed top-line duty with T.J. Oshie and David Backes. There is already some talk of a return by Steen, though, so the boost could be short-lived.

• We know Sidney Crosby is participating in light workouts, but that isn't necessarily a good sign. It means that as of Dec. 28, his concussion-like symptoms prevented him from taking part in a full workout. The longer he goes without full workouts, the longer it will take him to get back once his symptoms clear. This is bad news for those who are looking to Crosby to make or break their fantasy season.

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 send him a note here or tweet him @seanard with the hashtag #FantasyHockey for a timelier response.

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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