- Sean Allen
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The Atlantic Division seems to have caught my eye this week. With the return of Simon Gagne -- and a few other factors I point out below -- Philadelphia could very well have a Cup contender on its hands. I doubt they'll catch the Senators, but the Flyers could very well finish second in the East this season after finishing as the worst team in the NHL last season. And that isn't even considering the fact that Peter Forsberg rumors have started back up again.
Pickups This Week
Scott Hartnell, LW, and Steve Downie, RW, Flyers: Mike Richards has new linemates, and things are going fairly well. In the past two Flyers contests, the trio has combined for 12 points. The dynamic Richards, who I like to compare to former Flyer Keith Primeau, makes whoever he lines up with better. Hartnell and Downie deserve attention as they will both see a spike in their scoring skating with Richards, and they both bring significant penalty minutes to the table. Downie, as you may recall, has only been back for six games now after serving a long suspension for his preseason hit on Dean McAmmond. He has 16 PIMs in those six games and is by all accounts considered a Sean Avery-esque pest. Hartnell's physical play also brings no lack of PIMs; he is already approaching triple-digits. Downie will be more widely available -- Hartnell is already owned in about half of ESPN leagues. The Flyers are going to go on a second-half tear, and this line should play a big part in it.
Antero Niittymaki, G, Flyers: Part of the reason for my prediction of a second-half Flyers tear, is the goaltending controversy that is starting to rear its head. Niitty now has a four-game win streak going, allowing just five goals in that span. I said it in the preseason and I'll say it again, now that Niittymaki has two good hips: nothing can stop him from earning a No. 1 starter's job. Martin Biron is in for a big challenge during the next few weeks and he'll have to be at the top of his game to prevent a time-share in net. As a Biron owner, you'll want to think about selling. But grabbing Niittymaki will go a long way toward fixing the problem. I know this sounds like a bold prediction about a goaltender (Biron) who has been terrific all season, but if anyone remembers Niitty's form in the 2006 Olympics for Finland (before his hip problems), you'll probably agree with me.
Jordan Staal, C, Penguins: Putting this recommendation is almost completely pointless -- coach Michel Therrien will no doubt have changed his lines up by now -- but Staal, Ryan Malone and Petr Sykora accounted for three of Pittsburgh's four goals on Thursday night. With just 10 points and a minus-11, Staal has been a disappointment for anyone who didn't read ESPN's draft guide (we told you to stay away from him). Two goals and a helper in one night represents Staal's first multipoint effort of the season. A normal coach would leave this unit together and watch the points rack up, but Therrien will likely start mixing and matching these guys to try to get Sidney Crosby going. So my noting of Staal's good position right now comes with a big asterisk, but we'll see what Therrien does. If Staal stays on a scoring line, go get him.
Michael Leighton, G, Hurricanes: Having played more games than most goaltenders in the American Hockey League this season, and for a team on the cusp of 500-hockey, it's really impressive that Leighton has the fifth-best goals-against average and the second-best save percentage in the AHL. Something is very, very wrong with Cam Ward lately. Whether it is stamina issues like last season or something else entirely, Leighton seems to be performing better in front of the same defense. As a Ward owner, you should pick up Leighton right away. I'd still cross my fingers for Ward to right the ship, but you want to have Leighton ready as backup.
Brandon Bochenski, RW, Ducks: Any decision by Teemu Selanne to return to the Ducks would spoil it, but right now Bochenski has a great role on Anaheim. He is playing wing on the Doug Weight-Chris Kunitz line. Bochenski scored his first goal for Anaheim on Wednesday and plenty more will come if he stays with this unit. I'd consider him a No. 3 right winger in a 14-team league until Selanne returns (notice how I don't say "if"; you're not fooling me, Teemu!).
Guillaume Latendresse, RW, Canadiens: Playing consistently now with Saku Koivu, Latendresse has picked up his pace during the past month. If you need goals (not assists), consider Latendresse as a solid bench addition and play him when you need a boost in goals only.
Mason Raymond, LW, Canucks: Hi, I'm Mason Raymond. You might remember me from such fantasy articles as "Preseason Sleepers" and "Who Might Hang with the Sedins." It certainly took a while, but Raymond finally landed the role alongside Henrik and Daniel that he was pegged for in the preseason. Since his early-December call-up, he has nine points and is a plus-7. He is not getting power-play time with the Twins, but those numbers can help any deep league owner who is weak on the portside.
If You're Hardcore
Kris Versteeg, RW, Blackhawks: He's a bit of a grinder who has only mild offensive skills, but for now, he is playing on what might be considered the No. 2 line in Chicago. I actually wouldn't have expected the four points he has in five January games, but if you need deep league help, here he is.
Jack Skille, RW, Blackhawks: Skille is the injury fill-in who actually piques my interest in Chicago. The 2005 first-rounder is extraordinarily fast and has a wicked shot. He needs to play with a strong playmaker to bring out his full potential, and right now Rene Bourque and Yanic Perreault are not exactly what I consider "strong playmakers." Watch his line assignment and see if he gets a chance next to former World Junior teammate Patrick Kane or any other first-line options. However, he probably finishes the year in the AHL when the other Hawks get healthy.
Casey Borer, D, Hurricanes: Only in the NHL because of his defensive abilities, Borer sent the wrong message with a two-point performance in his second NHL game. He has never shown flashes of any offensive acumen. The only time you can expect points from Borer is from smart outlet passes. He plies his trade by shutting down the opponent's best offensive weapons and making good plays out of the zone. Sometimes that can work for fantasy value, though (i.e. Roman Hamrlik). That said, Borer is an option for 16-team leagues looking for a No. 6 defenseman.
Colin Stuart, LW, Thrashers: Plucky. I don't know how else to describe Stuart. He's never scored significantly at any level and looks like a fifth-round bust draft pick from 2001. Yet here he is skating like a madman and looking solid on a line with Marian Hossa and Eric Perrin. There is a chance he just hasn't had an outlet for his abilities in the AHL this season, as the Chicago Wolves boast a pack of skilled players, but that is just looking for an excuse for him. Hey, I'm rooting for him, but don't expect much. His line assignment right now means he will have value for deeper leagues.
Sean Allen is a fantasy baseball and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.