Open Ice: Are the big three free agents worth roster slots?
Discussions and news this week have heated up about what can be referred to as the final three big fish in the free-agent pond. Fantasy owners, in varying degrees, are still hanging on to the three free agents in question while hoping the players might contribute to their team sometime before the calendar flips to 2009. Are they worth a roster spot, though?
Brendan Shanahan, LW
Most linked teams: Flyers, Penguins, Blackhawks
Owned in almost two-thirds of ESPN leagues, Shanny is rumored to be the closest of the three to making a decision. All indications point to his signing with the Philadelphia Flyers. The Penguins were thought to be a close competitor but recently were quoted as not having any interest, while other suitors seem to be in the background compared with Philly. The Flyers waived Lasse Kukkonen this week with the intention of freeing up enough cap space to ink Shanahan, and the deal was supposed to be announced Wednesday. Then it was supposed to be announced Friday. Yet, here we are on Monday with no deal in place. Still, the signing appears imminent.
Shanahan would be the only player on the Flyers' roster with a Stanley Cup ring and would serve as a veteran presence in the locker room, but what of his actual production for fantasy purposes? Philadelphia might be the best place for him in that respect. The Flyers have three strong centers, allowing enough flexibility for Shanahan to play with plenty of talent no matter which line coach John Stevens uses him on. He also could easily spell Mike Knuble as the other right-handed shot on the first power-play unit with Daniel Briere, Mike Richards and Simon Gagne. Given 60 games, projecting Shanny for 25 goals and 25 assists certainly looks like a basement assessment given this talented Flyers team. That would make him a No. 3 left winger in even shallow fantasy leagues, and the remaining 35 percent of ESPN leagues should look to scoop him up now.
Most linked teams: Senators, Ducks, Canucks, Rangers, Lightning, Leafs, Flyers, Blackhawks
Half of ESPN leagues have a team with Sundin on its roster, meaning he's a free agent in the other half. That seems about right at the moment, as Sundin continues to train in Los Angeles and contemplate his future. Gleaning anything intelligible from the mishmash of news reports about Captain Mats' future is difficult, but it seems that he plans to release a short list of possible destinations later this month and would be back on the ice before Christmas. Then again, there also have been subtle hints from him that this year might even be used as a sabbatical from hockey, and he would return for the 2009-10 season. Given the ridiculous extremes of the two scenarios, his 50 percent roster ratio seems about right.
Whether he'll be a No. 1 center for fantasy purposes absolutely depends on where he decides to play hockey. The Lightning and Blackhawks would be the least fantasy-friendly destinations, as they have clear-cut centers without the depth at wing to guarantee that Sundin gets to play with top talent every shift. If he signs with either of those teams or another club that can't provide the supporting cast, you will want to shop Sundin and shop him hard before he plays his first game. If the Rangers, Canucks or Leafs were to win the sweepstakes, a couple of scenarios could unfold as far as the depth chart is concerned to ensure Sundin maintains a pace of earning a point per game. It really depends on how those clubs handle his arrival. In a case such as this -- when you aren't sure how he'll fit in but can envision a good fit -- you'll want to hold Sundin and see exactly what kind of asset you have.
Meanwhile, a signing by a team such as the Ducks or Senators should make you excited. Given his significant upside playing with those teams, you will want to go after Sundin or even offer a trade for him. In Ottawa, he would join fellow Swede Daniel Alfredsson on a line, and the two have shown terrific chemistry in past international and All-Star events. In Anaheim, he surely would line up with Teemu Selanne, whose shoot-first style would match Sundin's make-room style of play perfectly. Clearly, it would take a crystal ball to make any solid prediction about Sundin at this point, but if your bench allows you to hold more than two or three players, there shouldn't be much harm in picking up Sundin and hoping the news keeps flowing in a positive fashion during the next few weeks.
Peter Forsberg, C
Most linked team: Avalanche
The news is looking very grim for Foppa. He is still owned in just more than 5 percent of ESPN leagues, but even that might be high at this point. Forsberg said before the season he planned to rehab his wonky feet with a strengthening and workout regimen while avoiding yet another surgical procedure. Unfortunately, The Denver Post's Adrian Dater cited an anonymous source in Sweden who says Forsberg has undergone another surgery on his foot. Whether that is the case or not, the news of Forsberg skating and working on returning to the NHL has been slow to emerge so far this season. Obviously, he can be an asset during even the shortest period of time, as his 14 points and plus-7 rating in nine games last season indicate. But the roster spot he costs you 'til he finally signs just isn't worth it. If the rumors of another surgery are true, you should be in a deep league with deep benches to even think of hanging on to him.
Christopher Higgins, LW, Canadiens: After missing the first part of the season because of a groin strain, Higgins has seven points in 10 games as the wingman on a line with Saku Koivu and Alex Tanguay. That might not seem like a lot, but consider that Guillaume Latendresse had six points in six games in the same role before Higgins was healthy.
Joey MacDonald, G, Islanders: He didn't seem like an immediate add for Rick DiPietro owners after they lost their goaltender to knee surgery, but DiPietro's real-life replacement might be just what the doctor ordered. MacDonald has allowed more than three goals only twice since taking over the starting role and actually has a two-game win streak following a home-and-home series with Ottawa. The wins won't be plentiful, and his goals-against average should be slightly subpar, but MacDonald will face more shots than your average goaltender, and his solid save percentage will mean more for your team. Paired with the right No. 1 goalie, he has some value until DiPietro returns.
Jeff Schultz, D, Capitals: Since the Capitals' top performers all started lighting the lamp (not just Alexander Semin), Schultz has been a big beneficiary. He pairs up with Mike Green at even strength and not only gets to enjoy Green's solid plus/minus as a result but also chips in a few points just by touching the puck at the right time. He won't be a great help in shallow leagues, but if you play with six defensemen, he is a specialist for ice time and a decent plus/minus.
Trent Hunter, RW, Islanders: Largely useless in fantasy hockey since his 25-goal rookie campaign in 2003-04, Hunter is experiencing a resurgence this season. He plays a tough game (top 15 in the league in hits) and mixes in plenty of offense (top 50 in shots on goal). With 13 points in 17 games, Hunter is on a fantasy-relevant pace, and it's not hard to envision him overachieving this season given the relative lack of talent on Long Island.
Erik Ersberg, G, Kings: It won't always be pretty, but Ersberg has nailed down the starting job in L.A., and the team's defense has played well in front of him. Drew Doughty and Kyle Quincey are playing better than expected, adding to solid play on the back end from Tom Preissing and Denis Gauthier. Because the guys in front of him do such a good job, it's not a huge shock to see that Ersberg has allowed more than two goals just once in six starts this season. His usefulness in fantasy leagues will come in waves, but he'll be worth starting when things are going well (like right now).
Kevin Weekes, G, Devils: He got his chance, but he blew it. Surely no one expected the second coming of Martin Brodeur, but Weekes inherited a team built from the defense out. Scott Clemmensen is getting a chance now, but he doesn't look like the answer for the Devils, either. If you were hoping that Weekes would work for you, consider one of the two goalies (MacDonald and Ersberg) that I've profiled above and be ready to drop Weekes. Also be sure to watch for New Jersey to look outside the organization for help. You will want anyone they make a move for.
Patrick O'Sullivan, C, Kings: He's in the doghouse and playing fourth-line minutes; there is simply no valid reason to hang on to him right now. O'Sullivan's breakout end to last season on a line with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown doesn't mean much to first-year coach Terry Murray. Murray didn't even get to see much of O'Sullivan in training camp because of contract issues. For now, O'Sullivan's 80 percent ownership in ESPN leagues is way too high. If he works out the kinks in his defensive game, he could climb the depth chart again, but that will take time.
Wojtek Wolski, LW, Avalanche: Despite playing significant minutes with Colorado's second line all season, Wolski hasn't found the net since the opening game. It hurts to have rookie T.J. Hensick at center instead of Joe Sakic, but given the power-play time that Wolski, Hensick and Marek Svatos see, we would expect to see more than one goal so far. In fact, the whole line has combined for three goals this season. It looks as if it's best to stay away from any Avalanche forwards not named Milan Hejduk, Paul Stastny or Ryan Smyth, at least until Sakic returns.
Sean Allen is a fantasy baseball and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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