Open Ice: And awaaaay we go!
Are you happy with your fantasy team?
I suppose that likely depends on how you've started the season. If you drafted Brooks Laich, Brandon Dubinsky, Wojtek Wolski, Jay McClement and Craig Anderson, you are probably beaming. But if you picked Pavel Datsyuk, Teemu Selanne, Nathan Horton, Thomas Vanek and Roberto Luongo, you are singing a different tune.
Panicked overreactions in the early days of a season can have wide-ranging implications, and I know I chose underperforming players in the previous paragraph that you would never consider dropping, but the same should go for your deeper-league sleepers, as well. Just because Stephen Weiss and Joe Corvo don't have any points doesn't mean it's time to trade them in for Mikhail Grabovski and Steve Begin.
There are some interesting free agents who deserve your attention, though, so don't stand idly by just because it's so early in the season. Let's just see if there is a way you can tweak your roster in a positive fashion.
With that, I welcome you to Open Ice! This will be your place to check for weekly fantasy hockey free-agent recommendations, in our new "Grab 'em/Ditch 'em" features. I'll have a few names every week of players who are owned in a lower percentage of ESPN leagues but can help your fantasy roster (Grab 'em). And to help you make room for that free agent, I'll include the names of a few players owned in a fair number of ESPN leagues that you can part ways with (Ditch 'em).
Matt Duchene, C, Avalanche (owned in 9.2 percent of ESPN leagues): There were some questions as to whether Duchene, the future of the Colorado Avalanche, was ready or needed in what is supposed to be a rebuilding year. Duchene answered those questions by looking like a firecracker during the Avs' first two wins, against the San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks. He made plays shorthanded and played just as much power-play time as Paul Stastny, so don't let his modest points total (just one assist) turn you off. While Cody McLeod and Marek Svatos don't inspire a heck of a lot of confidence, Duchene will be able to do damage on "special teams" and during crunch time, and he should see some top-line minutes. Be patient with Duchene because the points will come. If you don't take my recommendation at face value, watch one Avalanche game and you will be convinced.
Michael Del Zotto, D, Rangers (1.6): The highly touted offensive defenseman surprised many by beating out fellow prospect Bobby Sanguinetti for a role on the New York Rangers' power play. Now, Del Zotto has certainly attained a fantasy-friendly role on the Rangers; he and Ales Kotalik have manned the blue line for the team's power plays. But what he has in offense, Del Zotto lacks in defense. If you play ESPN.com standard leagues with average ice time and plus/minus, don't "go blotto" for Del Zotto just yet, but for leagues that don't include those categories, he is a recommended pickup as a No. 5 defenseman. As much as coach John Tortorella likes to stick with the players he has selected for certain roles through thick and thin, the odds are strongly against a 19-year-old rookie defenseman having a big impact.
Matt Moulson, LW and Rob Schremp, C, Islanders (0.1): Yes, this is the same Moulson who came into the season with just 10 points in 29 career games. Moulson showed some chemistry with John Tavares in the preseason and was rewarded with the left wing role on the New York Islanders' top line with Tavares and Kyle Okposo. That said, he is more of a short-term pickup because there are other candidates for the line still waiting for a chance. Schremp was plucked off waivers when the Edmonton Oilers felt he didn't do enough to make the team, and the Islanders might also give him a trial by fire on a line with Tavares. The talented, yet unproven Schremp is the pickup for anyone thinking long-term potential this season. In fact, I might need to start a Schrempaholics Anonymous program for fantasy players such as myself who have been drinking this guy's Kool-Aid for five years with no results, but his junior career still screams of untapped potential. Note, however, that there is the possibility that Doug Weight shifts to the wing when he is healthy and makes both players irrelevant.
Dan Ellis, G, Predators (2.7): No, I don't think Ellis has a legitimate chance of unseating Pekka Rinne in the Nashville Predators' goal, but being given the season opener by coach Barry Trotz indicates Ellis has become a handcuff for Rinne owners. Ellis earned the start with a strong preseason (3-0, 1.59 goals-against average) and a strong history against Dallas (5-3), and he parlayed it into a 3-2 shootout victory. Rinne will cement his role as the No. 1 goalie in the coming weeks, but after investing a high draft pick in Rinne, you should at least take the extra precaution of snatching up Ellis.
Andrei Markov, D, Canadiens (83.0): I struggled with the decision to include him here, and if you have an injured reserve spot or are in a deeper fantasy league, hold on to him. But in a standard ESPN league, four months to recover from ankle tendon surgery is too long. Even for a No. 1 defenseman such as Markov, the standard leagues are just too shallow, and the NHL schedule too staggered, to waste a roster spot until February. See who is available and make the switch immediately. Roman Hamrlik will fill in on the Montreal Canadiens' power play but won't approach Markov's production. You can always get Markov back if you get on a winning streak or solidify your defense enough that you can afford the drag on your team.
R.J. Umberger, C, Blue Jackets (10.2): He might have scored a shorthanded goal to begin the season on a positive note, but Umberger was the odd man out when coach Ken Hitchcock finally settled on the Columbus Blue Jackets' top six forwards. A threat for 30 goals last season, Umberger might not even reach 20, considering he is off the power play (where he scored nine times last season) as well.
Craig Anderson is still out there in about 8 percent of ESPN leagues, and he certainly looked like a No. 1 goaltender as the Avalanche opened the season 2-0. Max Pacioretty is a future leader for the Canadiens, and coach Jacques Martin seems to think the future is now, lining up Pacioretty on the wing with Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta. Dustin Byfuglien opened with a pair of power-play points over in Finland for the Chicago Blackhawks. His size in front of the net makes him a threat to continue doing so. Mika Pyorala won a top-six role with the Philadelphia Flyers but offers little to fantasy hockey owners. His time on the top lines will be short-lived, especially with prospects such as Claude Giroux and James vanRiemsdyk lurking on the third line. Mike Santorelli made the second line and second power-play unit for the Predators. Not the best situation to breed points, but the rookie has a real shot at 45 of them as part of Nashville's secondary scoring unit. Don't get too excited about Erik Karlsson making the Ottawa Senators' roster and being named the "power-play quarterback." He has the potential to be a quality fantasy defenseman, but he won't achieve that potential unless he can actually unseat Filip Kuba on the first even-strength unit. Brandon Dubinsky is getting along just fine with Marian Gaborik, as the center has notched a point all three times Gaborik has so far. Jamie Benn, the Dallas Stars' top forward prospect, made the roster out of training camp and was spotted skating with Mike Ribeiro and Brenden Morrow. There are certainly worse lines to play on. In case you drafted early and have been paying little attention until now, it's safe to drop Mats Sundin, Brendan Shanahan and Sergei Kostitsyn, as they are unlikely to play a single NHL game between them.
Sean Allen is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com and the 2008 Fantasy Sports Writers Association, Hockey Writer of the Year. You can e-mail him here.
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