- Sean Allen
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It's been fun; a real joy over the past month and a half. You've ridden some of your late-round fantasy hockey draft selections or waiver wire pickups as they have crested among the most productive players in the league, but it's time to ask yourself a serious question: Are they for real? Is Anze Kopitar going to score 121 points? Will Ryan Miller finish with a goals-against average better than 2.00? If you believe the answer to those questions is a resounding "no," then there will come a point this season where their value has peaked and things begin going downhill. Here's some Player Rater surprises and a judgment on whether or not they appear to be "for real."
Ryan Miller, G, Sabres (Ranked No. 1 on the ESPN Player Rater): Miller holds down the top overall spot on the Player Rater as he paces the NHL in all three fantasy hockey goalie categories thanks to his 12 wins, 1.77 goals-against average and .939 save percentage. His Buffalo Sabres were not expected to be as defensively sound, or offensively adept, as they have proven to be this season, but head coach Lindy Ruff is the longest-tenured coach in the league for a reason and he continues to get the best out of his entire squad. Miller won't win the goaltending triple crown this season, as the wins will most certainly fall off that pace at some point, but he has a shot at being near the leaders in goal-against average and save percentage. However, the annual league leaders in those ratio categories tend to have worse numbers than what Miller has right now, so expect a fall at some point. Verdict: For real, he'll be a top-five goaltender the rest of the way.
Ryan Smyth, LW, Kings (Ranked No. 9): Currently on pace for the best season in his 14-year NHL career by a margin of 20 points, Smyth is certainly a surprise among the top 10 players this year. Riding shotgun with Anze Kopitar has been the perfect matchup as Smyth's hard work for the puck and in front of the net complements Kopitar's natural puck skills. This pair will be able to do damage for years to come. The pace is going to slip for both players a little bit, but Smyth should still easily have a career year. Verdict: For real as a No. 1 left winger in fantasy, but not as a top-10 player overall.
Mike Fisher, C, Senators (Ranked No. 35): Always a strong No. 2 centerman with enough scoring punch to keep opposing teams honest, Fisher has morphed into a near point-per-game player for the Senators this season. He finished with only 32 points last season, a number he is on pace to hit by the end of December. Fisher has been benefitting on the score sheet because of the chemistry troubles among the veteran Ottawa Senators and newcomers like Milan Michalek and Alexei Kovalev. While Michalek doesn't seem to function when away from Jason Spezza, Kovalev hasn't clicked with Daniel Alfredsson or Spezza. Eventually the right combination will be found, and Fisher may not be a part of it. He'll slow down considerably at some point. Verdict: Not for real. Fisher is still a 50-point player, so his 70-point pace is unsustainable.
Kevin Bieksa, D, Canucks (Ranked No. 48): The surprise is not that Bieksa is a No. 1 fantasy defenseman, as he certainly had a reasonable shot at being top-12 at his position if healthy. No, the surprise here is that Bieksa is the third-best fantasy defenseman overall. Only Chris Pronger and Dan Boyle are better on the Player Rater. Bieksa derives much of his value from his penalty minutes, of which he is currently on pace to deliver more than 200. Actually, all of Bieksa's numbers line up quite well with what you would expect, looking at his career numbers. The reason Bieksa has been left out of the elite in the past is simply his tendency to get injured. A healthy Bieksa appears to be a top-five overall defenseman. Verdict: For real, if he stays healthy, which is no sure thing.
Matt Moulson, LW, Islanders (Ranked No. 62): With an impressive 16 points in 20 games, Moulson's resurrection has been perfect with the New York Islanders. Noting his non-prospect status with the Los Angeles Kings prior to the season and the fact he managed just 10 points in 29 career games before this season, it's understandable to be a bit nervous about Moulson's future production. The trouble with players like him is that they depend entirely too much on someone else for their value. While he may line up next to John Tavares all season and keep up his 30-goal, 30-assist pace, Moulson could just as easily be moved to another line and revert to a 40-point checking forward. When the player's value is derived from the whims of the coach, you want to cash in your chips when you can. Verdict: For real only if he stays with Tavares all season.
Maxim Afinogenov, RW, Thrashers (currently owned in 12.6 percent of ESPN leagues): Since Ilya Kovalchuk's return from a broken foot, he's been nestled on a line with Nik Antropov and Afinogenov and the trio have been lighting the lamp. Afinogenov now has 16 points in 16 games as he continues to resurrect his career with the Atlanta Thrashers. If Afinogenov can steer clear of the injuries that ravaged his final three seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, he can easily be a 75-point player.
Ville Leino, LW, Red Wings (50.5): Coach Mike Babcock finally found a line combination that not only clicked, but excelled over the past week. Daniel Cleary, Henrik Zetterberg and Leino have 15 points and a plus-16 in the past three games as a unit. Leino and Cleary are the two players to get on board with as they are more widely available. Leino had only one goal to contribute to the line's success from the week, but with the way they are playing together look for the combination to stick.
Mike Modano, C, Stars (3.7): No, I'm not getting all nostalgic for no reason. Modano is actually in a very good position to contribute for the Dallas Stars. He has replaced Jamie Benn as the winger for the Mike Ribeiro-Brenden Morrow line. Modano has managed four points in his past two games since winning the assignment and he fired nine shots on goal. He even played the fourth forward on the first power-play unit with Loui Eriksson, James Neal and Brad Richards.
Bryan Little, C, Thrashers (72.9): Little is getting hurt and playing poorly at the worst possible time. Missing the past two games with a groin strain and having zero points with a minus-3 in the previous three contests means he has some fighting to do for top-six minutes upon his return. The top two lines have been firing on all cylinders without Little, and even the third line of Evander Kane, Colby Armstrong and Marty Reasoner is scoring. The bottom line for Little is that he faces an uphill climb back to a sweet spot on the Thrashers' depth chart.
Sean Avery, LW, Rangers (90.8): In his past eight games, Avery has zero points, a minus-4 and just 12 shots on goal. Normally with stretches like this you can relax with Avery, knowing that the penalty minutes are there, but he has only 12 PIMs during the eight-game span. His ice time dipped below 10 minutes during a couple of contests and he is lucky to occasionally get second-line duty. Currently on pace for just 25 points and 78 PIMs, his fantasy value would be lower than it was during the mess that was last season. There are better ways to acquire penalty minutes than desperately holding on to Avery.
Mike Knuble's broken finger means that Tomas Fleischmann is no longer just a short-term weapon for fantasy owners. Even though Alex Ovechkin looks to be back imminently, Knuble's absence means Fleishmann sticks in the top six. It's starting to look like anyone can have value playing a lot of minutes on the New Jersey Devils blue line. In the absence of the injured Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya, both Andy Greene and Colin White are racking up a solid plus/minus with a few points chipped in. The St. Louis Blue have finally put their only three productive forwards on a line together, and while David Perron still leads the pack for value, both Brad Boyes and Andy McDonald could regain some respect if they can stick with Perron for any length of time.
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.