- Sean Allen
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How many changes has the NHL fan had to put up with over the last three years? Lockouts, home jerseys, salary caps, instigators, schedules, Versus, shootouts, delay of game -- just to mention a few. I have come to accept most of these changes. But now they've gone too far. The league is messing with the skills competition.
I love the All-Star skills competition. It's amusing, impressive and settles arguments pretty quickly. "Yeah man, Mike Gartner is that fast!" The fastest skater event is now a mad dash from the end boards to the far blue line. I always thought gliding around corners while doing a lap was a great representation of who could get around quicker. Now the fastest skater will simply be a measure of who responds to a whistle better.
Dare I even begin to mention the obstacle course makeover? Rather than a display of stick-handling through pylons, the obstacle course looks more like the Eliminator from American Gladiators and actually ends with a goaltender firing pucks into the far net, a la Ron Hextall.
I suppose that as long as the All-Star Game doesn't decide who gets home advantage in the Stanley Cup finals, I can live with it.
On to the fantasy pickups.
Pick 'em up
Alexander Steen, LW, Maple Leafs: With most of the distractions in Toronto on their way out, the Maple Leafs should be able to buckle down and win a few games. Steen has played his way onto a line with Mats Sundin and Nik Antropov, and that, obviously, is the best wing spot on this team. Consider him an upgrade over most No. 3 left wingers at this point. Even if Sundin is shipped out, Steen still will be on whichever line is responsible for the offense.
Scottie Upshall, RW, and Jeff Carter, C, Flyers: To pick up on my theme from Open Ice two weeks ago, I am recommending that Philadelphia's third line also be in consideration for fantasy purposes. Carter, Upshall and Mike Knuble display the depth of scoring this team has as the third unit. In seven games this month, Upshall has six points, a plus-6 and 12 PIMs. Similarly, Carter has 11 points in 11 games. Think of the Flyers' depth like you did the Buffalo Sabres' last season. Almost every player on the roster has a fantasy purpose and will come with an improving plus/minus.
Peter Mueller, C, Coyotes: With ownership in the 60 percent range in ESPN leagues, Mueller isn't getting enough credit for his red-hot January. With 12 points in 11 games and a plus-5 rating so far this month, we are finally seeing the real Mueller emerge. He is a team leader and deserves to be owned universally in fantasy. Shane Doan's turnaround can be partly attributed to being paired on a line with Mueller. I know center is deep, but this is a guy who will continue to contribute. While you are at it, Radim Vrbata's ownership is too low as well. Get on board, people! Phoenix is a competitive team again.
Matt Carle, D, Sharks: The cream is rising to the top in San Jose. On Tuesday in my Grand Theft Roto column, I decided to lead with the advice to go out and trade for Jonathan Cheechoo. My belief is that Joe Thornton is a traditional second-half player, and the Sharks have finally reunited Thornton and Cheechoo on a line. Well, they have also reunited Carle with the top power-play unit. He is available in 70 percent of ESPN leagues and is going to pick up his pace significantly over the rest of the season as the big-name Sharks take over.
Johnny Oduya, D, Devils: After failed attempts to get Paul Martin, Andy Greene and Karel Rachunek to be the power-play defenseman, the Devils may have found their man in Oduya. In 11 games this month, Oduya has eight points, a plus-8, eight PIMs and four power-play points. Mike Mottau has also started to come on strong lately and deserves some consideration as well.
Dan Boyle, D, Lightning: I warned you two weeks ago, and now it's your last chance. Boyle returned to action Thursday and picked up two goals. He's owned in only 85 percent of ESPN leagues and is going to be a top-five-caliber defenseman for the remainder of the season. Check to see if you are in the lucky 15th percentile.
Darcy Tucker, LW, Maple Leafs: I'll admit that this is partly gut feeling, but I like the line of Matt Stajan, Jason Blake and Tucker now that Alexei Ponikarovsky is out for six weeks with a dislocated shoulder. Tucker has been an abomination this season after being a solid power-play points/penalty minutes combo player over the previous two seasons. The trio was out during crunch time of a tight game with Washington on Thursday and Blake managed to fire seven shots on goal through the game. The line would also represent the second power-play unit (if Toronto gives Sundin a break). So in deeper leagues, snatch up Tucker and see what happens over the next two weeks.
Brent Johnson, G, Capitals: Olaf Kolzig is not the type of goaltender whose fantasy owners worry about who his backup is. But Kolzig's reign in Washington may be coming to a close. He's an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and may not be in the Capitals' long-term plans. More importantly, he is not winning right now. Washington is in striking distance of a playoff spot and Johnson is on a three-game win streak, while Kolzig has allowed four or more goals in four of his past six starts. Johnson has long been stuck behind Ollie the Goalie, long enough that few recognize the fact that Johnson came up as a projected No. 1 goaltender and could still develop into that role. New coach Bruce Boudreau had promised to give Johnson more starts, and this is his opportunity to do so.
If you're hardcore
Peter Budaj, G, Avalanche: The tide should be turning again soon in net for the Avalanche. When I have supported a Colorado goaltender this season, it has been Jose Theodore, but for the first time I view their perceived values as reversed. With Budaj now available in 35 percent of ESPN leagues and Theodore having a red-hot January, I think it's time to start acquiring Budaj and getting rid of Theodore. This goaltender battle will rage back and forth a couple of more times this season. Theodore probably benefited from playing five of his nine games this month back in the familiar Eastern Conference. Of course, things will start trending back to where we are now, so only ride the Budaj wave as long as it holds up.
Sandis Ozolinsh, D, Sharks: The plus/minus isn't going to be there, but Ozolinsh is starting to round into the offensive contributor we have been waiting to see again. Who am I kidding? The plus/minus will be horrendous because Ozo can no longer be a force in his own zone. But the offense is definitely back. In four games he has played this January, Ozolinsh has four points, all on the power play. Of course, he is also a minus-6 in those four games. So really, you are going to have to pick your poison.
Sean Allen is a fantasy baseball and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.