- Sean Allen
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There are a few key fantasy depth battles that I've touched on during the past three or four weeks that need updating. It's always the small changes to a depth chart that give fantasy owners the openings they need to exploit value from players. We've looked at the Nashville Predators, Buffalo Sabres, New York Rangers and Atlanta Thrashers in some depth in either this column or in Front Line, and all four of those situations have changed somewhat in the past week.
Nashville Predators: The story when I looked at the Preds last week was all about how poor the offense was doing and how troublesome things looked with all their injuries. Fast forward and two Preds are among the hottest scoring forwards during the past week. Coach Barry Trotz decided to try a new line combination by pairing the recently hot Sergei Kostitsyn with the struggling Patric Hornqvist. The result was encouraging, as the pair hooked up on a couple goals in a 4-1 win over the Anaheim Ducks then netted five more combined points in a win over the Los Angeles Kings. Marcel Goc is the third member of the line and acts a defensive balance for the other two. Kostitsyn, while not a strict playmaker, is creative with the puck, which fits with Hornqvist's attitude of shoot first, ask questions later. While Hornqvist's value was slipping with every game in which he wasn't scoring, seven points in four games goes a long way to bringing him back up to snuff. A continued growth in chemistry would help keep Hornqvist as a must-start player and make Kostitsyn (available in 97 percent of ESPN leagues) fantasy relevant. Go further on the depth chart to the power play, where there is no need for Goc's defensive skills, and Colin Wilson joins Kostitsyn and Hornqvist. Wilson has three multi-point outings in his past five games.
Buffalo Sabres: Things are looking up for Thomas Vanek, even though his partner in crime, Derek Roy, is done for the season. Vanek looks rejuvenated next to Tim Connolly and Jason Pominville in recent games, as the trio has combined for 13 points in the past three games with nine of those points coming at even strength. While owners have not given up on Vanek yet (he's still owned in 100 percent of ESPN leagues), Pominville and Connolly still haven't won over most owners. Pominville is available in about 27 percent of leagues and Connolly is available in more than 37 percent. The Sabres likely have little choice but to keep these three players -- their three best -- together for most of the rest of the season, so it's not like the line will be a flash in the pan. As for Drew Stafford, I'd shy away from his recent hot streak. He is still a valuable fantasy player in medium-sized leagues and deeper, but two hat tricks in 10 games and five points in two games is way over his head, especially considering he is the odd man out on offense and skating with Tyler Ennis and Jochen Hecht on the second line.
New York Rangers: The good news is that rookie Mats Zuccarello finally displayed some solid chemistry on the ice with a linemate, the not-so-great news is that is wasn't Marian Gaborik. Brandon Dubinsky and Zuccarello hooked up on a pair of goals in the Rangers' overtime victory against the Carolina Hurricanes, including a flashy OT winner by Zuccarello himself. With Derek Stepan as the third linemate, it was the trio's first full game together. It doesn't excite me as much as the idea of Zuccarello catching on with Gaborik, but Dubinsky isn't a bad consolation prize. Vaclav Prospal could return by mid-January, and he definitely has chemistry with Gaborik. If Prospal can help provide a second strong scoring line, both units have a better chance of success. The bottom line here is that Zuccarello is sticking around and his potential is worth watching closely.
Atlanta Thrashers: There is some fantastic news to pass along for owners who have weathered a rough storm with Andrew Ladd, Rich Peverley and Niclas Bergfors in recent weeks. Bergfors had been in the doghouse for the better part of a month, and both Ladd and Peverley's production had suffered without him. The trio had a strong start to the season, propelling all three into fantasy relevance, but with Bergfors spending time in the press box, Ladd and Peverley's production went into a tailspin (both had just six points in 16 December games). Through two games in January with Bergfors back on the wing, Ladd and Peverley have three points. Ladd, while he probably doesn't deserve it based on his past month, is still owned in 100 percent of ESPN leagues, but Bergfors is available in 50 percent of them and Peverley is available in about 75 percent. Remember this was a line that combined for 57 points in the first 27 games of the season.
None of the above teams stand out offensively for the week ahead in the Forecaster, but if you want to capitalize on any of the above situations for the short term, both the Rangers and Predators at least have a four-game schedule coming up.
"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.
Maybe give Roloson a shot: A shutout in his debut for the Tampa Bay Lightning had Dwayne Roloson fantasy owners salivating, but a five-goal humbling the next night brought those high hopes back down to earth. In reality, the expected performance should be somewhere in between. The week ahead is actually fairly promising for the Bolts defense with a 7, 10 and 5 rating, respectively, in three games at home. Roloson should get at least two, if not all three, starts. Best-case scenario would be a start against the Washington Capitals (who he shut out) and the New Jersey Devils (who still lack an offensive game to speak of). Even if Roloson isn't in your long-term plans for this fantasy season, you could squeeze some numbers out this coming week.
Not a terrible rating for Maple Leafs or Senators: It's been a fairly rare occurrence to see the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Ottawa Senators with better than average ratings (6 or higher) on the Forecaster this season, so when they do, it should be worth a look. The Leafs have a Western road swing for three games then a home contest against the Calgary Flames. Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak have shown improved numbers since call-up. Joey Crabb complemented them on a line. Bozak might be worth a start in deeper leagues. I don't know if many Sens are worth your while, but they do have a four-game schedule. Neither Alex Kovalev nor Mike Fisher has shown much lately, but if you need to pick someone, they are playing first power-play unit with Daniel Alfredsson.
Perfect Canucks: Once again, the Vancouver Canucks have a 10 on offense and a 10 on defense for the Forecaster. You know the usual suspects to start, but Jeff Tambellini still isn't getting enough fantasy love. At the expense of Mikael Samuelsson, Tambellini remains a top-six forward for the Canucks. While the points have trailed off, playing such a key role for a strong Canucks team can help him rebound in no time. And besides points, he has a plus-10 rating and 58 shots on goal in 25 games played. While Tambellini maintained his role, Jannik Hansen was bounced from the top six for the return of Mason Raymond and is no longer a prospect for points. Take note that Kevin Bieksa is playing his best hockey of the year over the past two weeks. He is still available in 10 percent of leagues (but the gap is closing fast).
• Maxim Lapierre does have some offensive talents, even though he has never had a chance to showcase them in the NHL. Since being traded to the Anaheim Ducks, he has made a couple appearances next to Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry on the top line. Though he might not stay there with Ryan Getzlaf returning soon, it could bode well for a top-six job for him.
• Credit whatever you wish -- the trade of James Wisniewski or the return of Josh Bailey as a secondary threat -- but John Tavares is back on his game for the New York Islanders. He is on the same line he has been the whole time with P.A. Parenteau and Matt Moulson, but something has clicked in past couple weeks. Then, the flame really turned up in the past couple contests. This should serve as a reminder that through some ups and downs, Tavares deserves to be in your lineup most weeks (Yes, his ownership did sink below 100 percent at one point).
• I felt good about foreshadowing this one a couple weeks ago, so I want to point out Christopher Higgins again. Since playing consistently with Stephen Weiss on the Florida Panthers' top line, Higgins has 10 points in 10 games. I know he has been useless for a couple of seasons now, but Higgins has always taken a lot of shots. Now some of them are going in.
• I know it's not an appealing play, but as long as the Phoenix Coyotes' Shane Doan is red hot, you could use Eric Belanger as roster-filler. Doan is the hottest player in the league and Belanger has managed four points in his past three games, thanks to lining up with him.
• With Jordan Eberle already out with a hurt ankle and then undergoing an emergency appendectomy on Wednesday, Ales Hemsky has slid into the enviable role alongside Sam Gagner. No matter where he is on the depth chart, though, Hemsky's five points in five games serve as a reminder that he can score a point per game when healthy. He's still available in about 7 percent of leagues, but that number will be shrinking.
• I hate to highlight him again, as we have seen that his fantasy relevance is entirely dependant on his linemates, but Tomas Kopecky is putting in points again on a line with Patrick Kane and Troy Brouwer. I pointed it out, but feel free to ignore it.
• Stick a fork in the idea of using Marco Sturm as a secret weapon. He appears to have been demoted from a line with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown after failing to provide much offense. Given that he didn't start playing until mid-December means he is not in game shape. A week or two on a checking line to get his legs back could mean another promotion. The Los Angeles Kings are still actively auditioning wingers for the prime role on the top line.
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.