It's been a while since Jordan Staal, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were all healthy at the same time for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Thursday's 5-2 win against the New York Rangers marked just the 11th time in the past two seasons that all three Pens centermen have been in the same game together. From what we saw on Thursday, a healthy Crosby will once again mean the demise of Staal's exceptional fantasy value.
Though Crosby started out the game on the third line with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy, Crosby and Staal switched places by the middle of the second period. Crosby played out the remainder of the game taking the vast majority of his shifts with Steve Sullivan and Pascal Dupuis. Cooke and Kennedy are not the same quality of linemates as Sullivan and Dupuis when it comes to the Pens' attack. Though Staal extended his point streak to nine games with a secondary assist, you should expect him to revert back to the type of fantasy player he was in the 2009-10 season.
Staal can still be useful in deeper leagues as he goes back to a 0.60 points-per-game player with a better than average plus/minus, but he won't necessarily be an everyday player in shallower leagues. Still, you can't just drop a guy on a nine-game point streak, so consider this a caution for now. Keep rolling him until he finally stops getting points.
Crosby managed an assist and a plus-3 rating in 16 minutes of ice time. Obviously, that ice time is low for Crosby, but he is obviously taking things easy to start. He should be back up over 20 minutes in no time and the production will go up with his minutes. Dupuis and Sullivan have already been fantasy relevant thanks to a connection with Staal, and Crosby will help keep that going for both players. Whether there is eventually an adjustment to get Chris Kunitz back with Crosby (his regular linemate going back to 2008-09 season) is a waiting game, but with Malkin playing so well this season, the actual combinations in the top six don't matter as much.
Overshadowed by Crosby's return was the return to the ice of Kris Letang as well. Missing five games with concussion symptoms, Letang was on the ice for all five Penguins goals, finishing with an assist and a plus-5 in his return. Obviously, the return of both Letang and Crosby is going to have a huge impact on all the Penguins you normally deploy, such as James Neal, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury. In fact, with Letang back on defense and Staal playing defensively focused hockey again, Fleury might be the best goaltender over the remainder of the regular season.
Sadly, like Staal suffers from Crosby's return, Brooks Orpik suffers from Letang's. Orpik's ice time dropped by a full five minutes with Letang back and he registered a minus-1 for the second straight game. Orpik has been a plus/minus machine with Letang out and has even been chipping in some offense. With such a drop in ice time and responsibility, it is probably safe to set him free again.
"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.
New York Rangers: It seems to be the Carl Hagelin love-fest in many of my recent columns, but with him still available in 88 percent of ESPN leagues, there is no reason to stop pouring it on. Hagelin has found a cozy home playing with Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik on the Rangers top line. Yes, Ryan Callahan's return from injury could disrupt the trio eventually, but for now Hagelin has five points in his past two games and looks like a fantastic addition to fantasy rosters to close the season. His ice time has skyrocketed with Callahan out of the lineup, but it should stay near 20 minutes so long as he remains with Gaborik and Richards. There is no reason to think the Rangers won't try a combination of Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky and Derek Stepan when Callahan's foot is healed. The Rangers have a four-game week on the schedule and offer plenty of opportunity to take advantage of Hagelin's recent play. You can also have a look at Anton Stralman in deeper leagues. So long as Michael Del Zotto is out with a hip injury, Stralman will man the point on the Rangers' top power-play unit.
Edmonton Oilers: The Oil have a four-game trip next week to take their league-leading power play on the road. Shawn Horcoff (available in 55 percent of ESPN leagues) is a staple on that power-play unit with the trio of young stars (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle). Thanks to his veteran presence on the man-advantage, Horcoff has three power-play points in the past six games. If you need a specialist to help get you over the top in a close power-play-points battle, Horcoff is your man. If you need to mix in some penalty minutes, Ryan Smyth might be the place to look. Smyth has two misconducts in the past eight games while mixing in four points and 21 shots on goal (trailing only Hall during that span for the team). Smyth is available in 25 percent of ESPN leagues.
Colorado Avalanche: Though the Forecaster has the Avs down for a weak week on offense (O:2), it will take more than a poor outlook to slow down Jamie McGinn. Having found a home next to Paul Stastny, McGinn has rattled off nine points in the past seven games with Stastny has been on the ice for all but two of them. Though the Avs face a formidable foe (of late) in the Calgary Flames to start the week, the Phoenix Coyotes and Vancouver Canucks have been letting plenty of goals in lately. Don't let the Forecaster rating scare you off McGinn (available in 78 percent of ESPN leagues) or even Peter Mueller (available in 93 percent of ESPN leagues) for that matter. Mueller has points in five of the past seven games from the third line and only trails Gabriel Landeskog on the team for shots on goal during the past two weeks.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Steve Mason (available in 81 percent of ESPN leagues) may be back next week to continue his late-season charge to respectability. Winner of four straight before getting his hand cut by a skate last week against the Los Angeles Kings, Mason was able to practice on Tuesday and should return before next week. The Blue Jackets face the Chicago Blackhawks, Carolina Hurricanes and Edmonton Oilers, so it isn't as if they are facing powerhouse offenses (other than the Hawks). Mason will be able to jump right back into active duty as Curtis Sanford has hardly made a statement in his absence by losing three straight. If you are desperate for goaltending (and that should include Tim Thomas and Roberto Luongo owners based on recent performances), look to Mason as a possible solution to your problems.
Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks: The Bruins and Canucks have perfectly acceptable ratings on the Forecaster next week, but Tim Thomas and Roberto Luongo haven't been earning a lot of trust lately with fantasy owners. Thomas has a 3.74 goals-against average and .852 save percentage so far in March, which is about as poor as Luongo's 3.97 GAA and .879 save percentage. That rates them 54th and 56th out of 60 goaltenders that have touched the ice in March on the ESPN Player Rater. The Forecaster may suggest that these two goaltenders are safe starts next week, but the cautious fantasy player will want to see something more before blindly starting them. If Luongo or Thomas doesn't have a solid outing this weekend, I'd even hesitate to march them out there in weekly leagues that have Monday roster locks. And yes, I realize it is the head-to-head fantasy playoffs. The old adage is that you play the guys who got you this far, but I don't know that the adage applies to goaltenders who have GAAs that are only better than Evgeni Nabokov and Josh Harding this month. Let's hope Thomas and Luongo can restore faith over the weekend before anyone has to make a gut-wrenching roster decision, but start preparing yourself to consider the possibility of benching them if they continue to act like sieves. What to do? You can consider the previous suggestion of Steve Mason or you can look a little closer to home. While Marty Turco is not a viable alternative to Thomas while Tuukka Rask is still hurt, Cory Schneider has been lights out while Luongo has struggled. Schneider (available in 48 percent of ESPN leagues) hasn't allowed more than two goals in an outing since January and has a save percentage of .949 in four February starts and a .939 save percentage in two March appearances. Get ready to see more of him.
We get excited by the opportunities presented by injuries to starting goaltenders because sometimes it is the only way we get to see some of the goaltenders of the future get some playing time. Noting the goals-allowed per game numbers during the past three weeks we also get a reminder that sometimes the goalies in question need some more seasoning.
In the absence of Mathieu Garon, Dustin Tokarski was fantastic in the Tampa Bay Lightning's 6-1 win against the Boston Bruins this week, but he has allowed three goals in his three other starts (and didn't last to the end of all of them). Matt Hackett has had some good games with Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding on the shelf, but he has had some bad ones as well.
On the other end of the scale, Ben Bishop has actually been performing quite well for the Ottawa Senators, but the offense has let him down in the past two games and Craig Anderson is ready to return very soon.
Best bets: With four games on the schedule, the Pittsburgh Penguins make a good starting place for both your goaltenders and top offensive options. Marc-Andre Fleury ($12.9M) could be in store for four wins next week with the team back at full force. Evgeni Malkin ($10.3M), James Neal ($8.7M) and especially the recently returned Kris Letang ($7.2M) all make solid investments. … Few duos have been as deadly in recent weeks as Marian Gaborik ($8.7M) and Brad Richards ($7.9M) finally playing together on the same line. Both forwards have 11 points in the past eights games and the New York Rangers are looking at a four-game week. … If there is one duo that has been stronger than Gaborik and Richards, it's Jarome Iginla ($8.7M) and Alex Tanguay ($8.0M). The Calgary Flames' duo has 23 points combined in the past seven games. The only drawback is that the Flames only have a regular three-game week on tap.
Weekly rentals: The time to buy Sidney Crosby ($8.0M) is right now. His price will only skyrocket as the market feasts on his availability. As a nice bonus, the Pittsburgh Penguins have a four-game week on the schedule. … If you are looking for player to potentially save money over what is left of the season by keeping them in your lineup, one thing to look at will be games remaining. The Vancouver Canucks, Minnesota Wild, San Jose Sharks, New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning will lead the pack entering next week with 11 games remaining. On the other end of the scale, the Colorado Avalanche will only have eight games left.
Bargains: Going out on a limb this week, the Vancouver Canucks have a four-game schedule and Roberto Luongo has been downright rotten. What is Cory Schneider ($8.6M) is allowed to start a few games in a row? Schneider is obviously a risky play, but at a full $4.6 million cheaper than your top-dollar goalie, the savings can be used quite well elsewhere. … The third member of the duos mentioned in the "Best bets" section would be Matt Stajan ($3.9M) and Carl Hagelin ($6.6M). Both players have been drafting value off their superstar linemates and, Stajan in particular, offers a deep discount to put money elsewhere in your roster.
My roster for next week:
Cory Schneider, G ($8.6M)
Marc-Andre Fleury, G ($12.9M)
Alex Pietrangelo, D ($6.0M / $7.6M on market)
Kris Letang, D ($7.2M)
Dan Boyle, D ($6.7M / $7.4M on market)
Erik Karlsson, D ($7.8M / $8.5M on market)
Sidney Crosby, F ($8.0M)
Joe Thornton, F ($8.9M)
Evgeni Malkin, F ($8.9M / $10.3M on market)
Brad Richards, F ($7.9M)
Marian Gaborik, F ($8.7M)
Ilya Kovalchuk, F ($8.0M / $9.4M on market)
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.