It's about time we take a closer look at the resurgence being staged in Raleigh, as the Carolina Hurricanes work their way out of the Eastern Conference basement. Winners of four of their past five, the Canes should have no trouble overtaking the Toronto Maple Leafs in the coming days to climb out of the cellar, and if they can keep up the scoring they could be in the playoff picture (it's a wide-angle lens taking the shot) just before the Olympic break.
What's been happening to turn the ship around? The Hurricanes found the right leadership, that's what happened. After naming Eric Staal captain Jan. 21, the Canes have lost only one contest, and Staal has been the catalyst. He marked his first game as captain with a hat trick and now has a very Staal-like January with 15 points in 11 games.
He's not going it alone, either, as Staal is dragging linemates Jussi Jokinen and Ray Whitney into the spotlight with him. Both players have been on the fantasy-relevant borderline all season, but need to be owned as Staal continues to crank up his engine for the home stretch. Since Staal was named captain, Jokinen has eight points in five games and Whitney has seven. While Whitney's ownership in fantasy hasn't sunk too much below 85 percent, Jokinen's popularity is reciprocal. He's available in just over 85 percent of ESPN leagues.
But the spin-off from a player like Staal doesn't end there. Joni Pitkanen has 12 assists in 13 January games (and shockingly broke even for the month on plus/minus). The evidence isn't there for Matt Cullen at this point, but he is playing the point with Pitkanen on the Canes' power play. The points will come in bursts for him, too. Cullen is also having some success at even strength with linemates Sergei Samsonov and Tom Kostopoulos. The trio has 11 points in the past five games.
Just make sure you don't write this team off before you have to. Remember that Staal's maniacal finish to last season won a lot of fantasy owners their championship, and the biggest winner of last season's trade deadline was Cole coming back to the Hurricanes. There's still plenty of time left for some of these players to have value.
"O" (offense) and "D" (defense) matchup ratings are based upon a scale from 1 (poor matchup) to 10 (excellent matchup), and are calculated using a formula that evaluates the team's year-to-date and past 21 days' statistics, their performance in home/road games depending on where the game is to be played, as well as their opponents' numbers in those categories. The Games T / H column lists the team's total number of games played as well as home games (T / H), and lists the cumulative rating from 1-10 of that week's matchups.
Could I seriously be recommending the Oilers? Losers of 12 straight games and 19 of their past 20, I'm not saying that the Edmonton Oilers are going to turn their fortunes around next week, but I do think they'll pick up the scoring. That could still mean a series of losses, but they should be more in the range of 6-5 or 5-4 given the strong Forecaster rating of their four-game schedule. Offensive ratings of nine, eight, seven and six apply in order to contests against the Carolina Hurricanes, Philadelphia Flyers, Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche. While Dustin Penner and Sam Gagner might be the first players that come to mind to take advantage of the schedule, let me suggest Ryan Potulny, Mike Comrie and Gilbert Brule. Comrie was back Thursday night for the first time since he came down with a case of mono in mid-November, and Brule was back from a three-week absence with the flu. Potulny was their linemate, and despite a sour plus/minus rating over the past 12 games he has actually managed six points (which is all right for an Oiler these days). I understand the trepidation you may feel about using anyone from this team right now, but the offensive ratings really do call for a week of high-scoring affairs. Just so we are very clear, do not start Jeff Deslauriers or Devan Dubnyk.
Desert dogs have some bark: We have come to expect a seven or eight Forecaster rating on offense every week for some teams, but when you see it for the Phoenix Coyotes you can perk up and know there are some players to use. It's Shane Doan, Scottie Upshall and Matthew Lombardi leading the charge, and two of those three players are widely available in ESPN leagues. Over the past five games, the top line has 22 points. The Yotes have three contests on the docket, and both Upshall and Lombardi should be on your radar.
Elliott still stone wall: My colleague Tim Kavanagh's "In the Crease" article makes a strong case for staying away from Brian Elliott as the calendar flips to February, but if you need a goaltender he is red-hot, has a good Forecaster rating and is likely available. Elliott hasn't actually done anything for you to lose faith in his current hot streak yet, so get on board while the getting is still good, because Tim is absolutely right to point out his streakiness and it will come to an end. But right now, Elliott is No. 5 on the Player Rater over the past 15 days and still available in almost 80 percent of leagues.
Flyers Forecaster calls for sunshine: With a seven rating on both offense and defense for their Forecaster score, not only do the Philadelphia Flyers look like they'll rack up some wins next week, but they look like they'll have a strong plus/minus while doing it. Every forward not named Jeff Carter has had a slow week, but make sure all your regular Flyers forwards and defensemen are in the lineup for next week. Consider going a bit deeper with guys like Arron Asham -- who could provide some penalty minutes and offense on a line with James van Riemsdyk and Claude Giroux -- or Daniel Carcillo and Ian Laperriere, who are both always good for some cheap PIMs.
Harding is Wild card: For those that follow prospects closely, you already know how good Josh Harding could be as a starting goaltender. It's tough being in the shadow of a guy (Niklas Backstrom) who is in consistent discussions for the Vezina Trophy. Over the past two weeks, however, thinks look a bit topsy-turvy for the Minnesota Wild netminders. Harding has started four games and allowed four goals, while Backstrom has started four games and allowed a whopping 16 goals. Harding's goals-against average is a sparkling 1.07 since Backstrom started struggling two weeks ago, and his save percentage is an amazing .966. If he wasn't such a highly touted youngster all the way through his ascent to the NHL and if he wasn't so technically sound a goaltender, then maybe I wouldn't be so quick to recommend him as a pickup given the quality of the goaltender in front of him. But Harding is all those things and more. If this is the moment he finally steps into the spotlight for fantasy purposes, you don't want to miss it.
Sean Allen is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He's the 2008 and 2009 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Hockey Writer of the Year. You can e-mail him here.