Front Line: Gagner's value on the rise

It's easy to get overly excited by Sam Gagner's eight-point explosion on Thursday night. He didn't calm those feelings with a follow-up three-point night Saturday. There is reason to be excited, but don't break your fantasy piggy bank to get in on the Gagner action.

Yes, he does have the pedigree for this. Literally. The son of former NHLer Dave Gagner, Sam quickly made his name as a star for the OHL's London Knights. Playing on a line with Patrick Kane and Sergei Kostitsyn, he managed 35 goals and 83 assists and became a first-round pick in the 2007 draft.

But Gagner hasn't busted out like Kane did, even though the two were believed to be a pair of comparable superstars. While it is not fair to compare Gagner's supporting cast to Kane's, Gagner's best season was his rookie campaign in 2007-08 when he scored 49 points. That is until now. The Oilers have a solid supporting cast, and Gagner -- thanks in large part to his 12 points in the past three games -- is on pace for 60 points.

There was a time when we had to wonder whether Gagner got his junior superstardom off Kane's coattails. It's happened before. Marc Pouliot had a similar 2004-05 in the QMJHL with 45 goals and 49 assists with a linemate by the name of Sidney Crosby. You don't see Pouliot playing more than the occasional few games in the NHL these days. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish such players, and Gagner was beginning to look as if he might be a star by association after four unspectacular seasons.

But there is nothing unspectacular about an eight-point night. We have to see the achievement in context, however. Did Gagner manage these points as a second- or third-liner, which has been his typical role? No, he achieved the feat as a first-line replacement for rookie Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. During Nugent-Hopkins' absence with a shoulder injury, Gagner managed seven points in 13 games before exploding in the final game before Nugent-Hopkins' return. The coming-out party Thursday forced coach Tom Renney to keep Gagner on the top line with Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall on Saturday for the three-point follow-up.

Now what? Well, the most likely scenario is that Gagner stays with the top line until the Oilers lose a few games in a row without output from the top unit, at which time Gagner is demoted to the second line and Nugent-Hopkins returns to the top line. That may sound like a knock against picking up Gagner right now, but it's not. This outburst of scoring is a confidence boost for a young player (still just 22) who has the skills to be a fantasy-friendly playmaker. While Gagner won't be seeing any eight-point nights without Eberle and Hall as linemates, Ales Hemsky, Shawn Horcoff and Ryan Smyth aren't exactly small potatoes. Besides, if another slump rolls around with RNH on the top line, Renney may switch Gagner to the top line again for a different look.

The bottom line is that Gagner may have set some crazy expectations for his future performance, but he isn't going away after this. The Oilers have a ridiculous choice in weapons named Gagner, Eberle, Hall and Nugent-Hopkins -- all 22 or younger -- to deploy at their will. Should you pick Gagner up in the 56 percent of ESPN leagues in which he is available? Absolutely. While Gagner being demoted in the near future is the most likely scenario, it is possible that he stays on the top line. What is stopping him from continuing to rock the league with Eberle and Hall while Nugent-Hopkins creates his own offense on the second line? It could happen, which means he should be picked up. But since the more likely scenario involves improved yet muted scoring, don't let anyone fool you into overpaying for his services in a trade.

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. Evgeni Malkin, Pit (3)
2. Steven Stamkos, TB (2)
3. Daniel Sedin, Van (1)
4. Henrik Sedin, Van (4)
5. Claude Giroux, Phi (5)
6. Pavel Datsyuk, Det (6)
7. Marian Hossa, Chi (9)
8. Patrick Sharp, Chi (12)
9. Ilya Kovalchuk, NJ (11)
10. James Neal, Pit (15)
11. Phil Kessel, Tor (10)
12. Corey Perry, Ana (7)
13. Alex Ovechkin, Was (8)
14. Ryan Kesler, Van (13)
15. Jonathan Toews, Chi (14)
16. Scott Hartnell, Phi (19)
17. Jamie Benn, Dal (18)
18. Anze Kopitar, LA (16)
19. Zach Parise, NJ (17)
20. Martin St. Louis, TB (22)
21. Johan Franzen, Det (20)
22. Patrick Kane, Chi (21)
23. John Tavares, NYI (27)
24. Jarome Iginla, Cgy (23)
25. Teemu Selanne, Ana (24)
26. Jason Spezza, Ott (25)
27. Patrick Marleau, SJ (26)
28. Tyler Seguin, Bos (28)
29. Joffrey Lupul, Tor (29)
30. David Backes, StL (31)
31. Joe Pavelski, SJ (33)
32. Ryan Getzlaf, Ana (30)
33. Brad Marchand, Bos (32)
34. Alex Burrows, Van (36)
35. Eric Staal, Car (35)
36. Kris Versteeg, Fla (38)
37. Matt Moulson, NYI (48)
38. Jeff Skinner, Car (40)
39. Jordan Eberle, Edm (43)
40. Henrik Zetterberg, Det (39)
41. David Krejci, Bos (41)
42. Dany Heatley, Min (42)
43. Thomas Vanek, Buf (37)
44. Marian Gaborik, NYR (46)
45. Joe Thornton, SJ (47)
46. Milan Lucic, Bos (45)
47. Nicklas Backstrom, Was (34)
48. Taylor Hall, Edm (57)
49. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edm (54)
50. Patrice Bergeron, Bos (59)
51. Rick Nash, Cls (49)
52. Bobby Ryan, Ana (53)
53. Vincent Lecavalier, TB (63)
54. Jaromir Jagr, Phi (55)
55. Ryan Callahan, NYR (56)
56. Adam Henrique, NJ (52)
57. Mikko Koivu, Min (76)
58. Brad Richards, NYR (44)
59. Tomas Fleischmann, Fla (58)
60. Jeff Carter, Cls (69)
61. Logan Couture, SJ (60)
62. Alexander Semin, Was (61)
63. Patrik Elias, NJ (72)
64. Justin Williams, LA (73)
65. Jason Pominville, Buf (64)
66. Radim Vrbata, Pho (65)
67. Nathan Horton, Bos (51)
68. Loui Eriksson, Dal (66)
69. Stephen Weiss, Fla (62)
70. Olli Jokinen, Cgy (75)
71. Chris Kunitz, Pit (67)
72. Erik Cole, Mon (70)
73. Mikhail Grabovski, Tor (88)
74. Max Pacioretty, Mon (85)
75. Tomas Plekanec, Mon (71)
76. Danny Briere, Phi (68)
77. Martin Erat, Nsh (83)
78. Alexander Steen, StL (79)
79. Gabriel Landeskog, Col (77)
80. Mike Ribeiro, Dal (86)
81. T.J. Oshie, StL (74)
82. Shane Doan, Pho (80)
83. Mike Richards, LA (50)
84. Valtteri Filppula, Det (81)
85. Dustin Brown, LA (82)
86. Daniel Alfredsson, Ott (84)
87. Paul Stastny, Col (95)
88. Kyle Turris, Ott (87)
89. Ryan O'Reilly, Col (100)
90. Ray Whitney, Pho (89)
91. P.A. Parenteau, NYI (90)
92. Saku Koivu, Ana (91)
93. Andrew Ladd, Wpg (94)
94. Steve Downie, TB (97)
95. Brandon Dubinsky, NYR (98)
96. David Booth, Van (NR)
97. Teddy Purcell, TB (99)
98. Mike Fisher, Nsh (NR)
99. Sidney Crosby, Pit (78)
100. Sam Gagner, Edm (NR)

Rising and Falling

Mike Richards, Los Angeles Kings (down 33 spots): On pace for a 47-point season and pointless during the past eight games, Richards is hardly worth the time of day to fantasy owners. In retrospect, we should have seen this coming. Richards' two-way ability and checking skills are off the charts, and coach Darryl Sutter has a penchant for keeping just one line focused on offense. That job falls to Anze Kopitar, while Richards' job is to stop the other team. The only reason Richards isn't off the Top 100 completely is that this could be a slump disguised as a defense-first role, and we don't want to overreact when talking about a guy who has scored 80 points before. In all likelihood, though, this is the last you will see of a Sutter-led Richards on the fantasy scoring charts. For the sake of Richards owners everywhere, let's cross our fingers and hope this is just a slump, but you should fear the worst.

Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins (down 21 spots): We are giving Crosby one more week for some positive news regarding his concussion-like symptoms before we drop him from this list of the elite. Skating on his own and keeping a mild level of fitness don't mean one bit toward whether his equilibrium is stable. The hope that he could sit for a bit, get back into practice and return in relative short order is completely out the window. It's been two months since his short-lived return to the ice. If we don't see some hint of him getting back to practice or a promise that there are no concussion-related symptoms remaining during the next week, it's time to part ways with Sid the Kid on the Top 100 for this season. If keeping him on your roster doesn't hurt your bench or ability to compete, there is no point in dropping him. But if dropping him will help raise the quality of your team, no one will blame you at this point for saying goodbye.

Jeff Carter, Columbus Blue Jackets (up nine spots): In his return from a separated shoulder, Carter scored a goal on the power play. He played the game with Vaclav Prospal and Colton Gillies and skated just shy of 19 minutes. The reason to be mildly excited about Carter's return -- even though his time as a Blue Jacket has been checkered -- is that he fits into the profile of a successful player under coach Todd Richards. Carter has offense and a great shot that he wields freely. At the very least, some significant power-play success should be expected. Carter has a long way to go to regain his former glory, but we should see him take some baby steps in the short term.

Scoring Lines

Todd Bertuzzi, Detroit Red Wings: Big Bert is starting to conjure up memories of a glorious fantasy past that has unraveled during the past several seasons. His overall pace this season is in the 40-point range, but during the past two months, he has been much hotter than that. Since the start of December, Bertuzzi has 21 points in 29 games for an 82-game pace of 59 points. Mix in his plus-18 and the fact that he is taking 2.5 shots per game since the start of January, and Bertuzzi is one valuable fantasy commodity. All this production stems from playing with Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen on the top line, but since there is no indication that will change, why not go all-in with Bertuzzi? Some names trailing Bertuzzi on the ESPN Player Rater for overall value this season: David Krejci, Rick Nash and Nugent-Hopkins.

Wayne Simmonds, Philadelphia Flyers: While the time spent on the top line was short-lived for Simmonds this weekend, there is still evidence suggesting he should be a target in fantasy leagues. First, if Jaromir Jagr is ever battling aches and pains, Simmonds will be his replacement on the top line. Second, Simmonds joins Claude Giroux and Scott Hartnell on the top power-play unit. Thirdly, his overall ESPN Player Rater ranking is No. 73 among all forwards this season. His combination of decent scoring, above average penalty minutes and good numbers on the power play makes him a strong fantasy asset. Some names trailing Wayne Simmonds on the ESPN Player Rater for overall value this season: Daniel Alfredsson, Brad Richards and Ryan Getzlaf.

Power Plays

David Clarkson, New Jersey Devils: Just where are all these points coming from for Clarkson? He plays on the third line for the Devils, and while he has offensive skills, 10 points in eight games seems out of line. Looking at those points, most of them came from a mix of different linemates and situations. However, four of those points came on the Devils' top power-play unit, where Clarkson takes to the ice with Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Patrik Elias. This is a great situation for a player who manages fantasy value beyond the power-play points. Clarkson's 88 penalty minutes and above-average shots on goal will help in other departments.

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.