Open Ice: AHL stars today, NHL call-ups tomorrow
Hockey is a bit of a different beast than other fantasy sports when it comes to the minor leagues and how you should treat players who didn't make the team out of training camp. Unlike baseball, where every year players are called up and have a noticeable impact, hockey players who make the jump mid-season tend to make subtle contributions. It's hard to think of a Ryan Braun or Evan Longoria equivalent from recent years.
Still, it can and does happen. So making yourself familiar with at least a few of the NHL's top options that are toiling in the AHL is a wise thing to do. That way, when you see their name appear in a box score (or in our daily blog), you have a better idea of whether or not you want to pounce. That said, you should familiarize yourself with these names after their hot starts in the AHL.
Ondrej Pavelec, G, Thrashers: Having gone 5-3 with a 1.54 goals-against average and a .947 save percentage in nine games this season for the Chicago Wolves, the Thrashers brought Pavelec up for the first time this season on Saturday. The seemingly hopeless Atlanta team started him Sunday and he won them a game for the first time since October 18. He hasn't secured himself a starting job yet and even if he does it's not exactly an enviable place to be, but any goaltender stats have some value in fantasy. Pavelec has the kind of extraordinary talent that could make a difference if the Thrashers decide to use him.
Chris Minard, LW, Penguins: He is a journeyman, no question, but it's worth mentioning any winger with a scoring touch that dons the Penguins jersey. Minard started hot with the Pens' affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, scoring 10 goals and 16 points in eight games, and it resulted in a call up when Pascal Dupuis was hurt. Minard played fourth-line duty, but is notable because Michel Therrien still hasn't settled on line combinations.
Ville Leino, LW, Red Wings: Leino is in a different situation than most of these other players, as he came over to play in North America after winning the Finnish League's equivalent of the Hart Trophy last season and breaking Jokerit's team record for points in a season with 77 (other alumni include Jari Kurri and Teemu Selanne). So Leino and the Red Wings both know he is too good for the AHL already (13 points in first eight games with the Grand Rapids Griffins) and it's just a matter of time before he gets called up to play for the big club, or exercises the out-clause in his contract and heads back to Finland. He is someone who should definitely be kept on your radar.
Bobby Ryan, RW, Ducks: He looked lost in the NHL last season, but dominated the AHL for 49 points in 48 games and then scored 20 in 16 postseason contests with Portland. Ryan looked poised for a breakthrough in the NHL. Alas, he is back in the AHL with 12 points in his first 11 games and waiting for an injury in Anaheim's top six for another shot.
Ilya Zubov, C, Senators: Like Ryan, Zubov didn't do much with his NHL opportunities last season. He's started well with the Binghamton Sens, scoring five goals and five assists in nine games. The Ottawa Senators are a different team this season and they need a scoring spark much more than they did last year. Zubov may use his speed and shot to be that spark at a later point in the season.
Steve Mason, G, Blue Jackets: Among the next crop of great young goaltenders, Mason is making his AHL debut this season as a member of the Blue Jackets affiliate in Syracuse. He is coming off a stellar OHL career with London and Kitchener where Memorial Cup and World Junior tournaments appeared on his resume. Pascal Leclaire is capable, but as we've already seen this season, he is a brittle goaltender. A long-term injury to Leclaire means Mason gets a chance.
T.J. Hensick, C, Avalanche: Talented and physical around the net, Hensick is off to a blistering start with the Lake Erie Monsters, scoring six goals and seven assists in 10 games. He scored 11 points in a limited-ice time 31-game debut last season with Colorado and the justification for sending him down was to make sure he got regular minutes to aid his development. The Avalanche may go back on that decision at some point, and even with limited minutes, Hensick could be a power-play specialist to find some fantasy value.
We wouldn't leave you without some pickups that could help you out right now though, so let's get to this week's risers and fallers.
Bill Guerin, RW, Islanders: This is just to state that Guerin should probably be owned in every standard league. He is currently held in 80 percent of ESPN leagues, but his early-season trends seem to indicate he'll finish with close to 60 points and once again break the 30-goal barrier. If he's available and you are weak on the right side, pick him up.
Jiri Hudler, RW, Red Wings: After being demoted from the second line to the third in Detroit, Hudler has been responding with across-the-board production. In his past six games he has a goal and seven assists, working mostly with Dan Cleary and Derek Meech. There usually aren't many job openings in Detroit's top six, but if Mikael Samuelsson falters, Hudler could get another opportunity.
Steve Stamkos, C, Lightning: Hopefully you held on to Stamkos, as it looks like he finally broke the drought with a four-point week. Two of his points have come while working power-play time with Vincent Lecavalier, so this may just be the beginning. He still has No. 3 center potential this season.
Andrej Sekera, D, Sabres: One of our sleepers during the preseason, Sekera's four-assist week quickly makes him a more attractive option for fantasy purposes. Four of his seven total helpers this season have come on the power play and he's leading the Sabres in ice time, averaging 24:45 per game. Owned in fewer than 5 percent of ESPN leagues, Sekera is the kind of bench fantasy player that is good for rotating with another category specialist like Niclas Wallin.
Kevin Weekes, G, Devils: Again, it's premature to panic about the possibility of Martin Brodeur missing more than just Monday's game with a bruised elbow, but the extent of the injury is still unknown. Therefore, finding room for Weekes on your roster is a must. The Devils are still a very strong defensive team and a starter other than Brodeur could still succeed. Even looking for Scott Clemmensen in deeper leagues isn't a bad idea.
Erik Cole, LW, Oilers: He scored his second goal of the season Sunday, but with Ethan Moreau and Fernando Pisani as his new linemates, the goals may be fewer and farther between. He still played 18 minutes and was logging ice time with the first power-play unit, but with only two power-play points this season (while playing with the first unit all season); it's clear the power play isn't exactly a source of offense for him. Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky have been playing their best hockey of the season over the last few games with Dustin Penner as a linemate instead of Cole, so this switch may be more permanent than Cole owners would hope.
Jonathan Cheechoo, RW, Sharks: Six feet tall and 200 pounds each. Fast right wingers with a quick release shot. Is it possible that Cheechoo sits on the bench and grumbles about Joe Thornton, Cheechoo's former partner that netted him the Rocket Richard Trophy, finding a younger faster version of him? Devin Setoguchi, very much a similar player to Cheechoo, is seven years his junior. A month into the season, it's Setoguchi with seven goals and Cheechoo, doing his best with Milan Michalek and Joe Pavelski, with four. Clearly any renaissance season for Cheechoo will not happen so long as Setoguchi is courting Thornton.
Sean Allen is a fantasy baseball and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.