Open Ice: The Phil Factor
One player does not a team make ... but boy, he can go a long way to making it respectable. Since Phil Kessel made his Toronto Maple Leafs debut, the Leafs' overall output has gone from 2.50 goals per game in October, to 3.09 goals per game in November. The team had one win and six points in October, and has five wins and 13 points so far in November (the Leafs finish the month Monday night against the Buffalo Sabres).
So Kessel may not be a one-man show, but he took a bottom-dweller and made it competitive.
What about his effect on other players? Matt Stajan had seven points in 11 games in October and has 10 points in 12 November games, so it's not a huge impact. But consider that Kessel wasn't playing on a line with Stajan consistently until recently. Stajan has nine points in his past eight games following his promotion to the first line midway through a game against the Minnesota Wild on Nov. 10. That does look like a big improvement.
How about his other linemate, Alexei Ponikarovsky? Poni had six points in 12 October games and has nine in 12 games so far in November. Again, not a huge impact, but Ponikarovsky does have six points in his past five.
The same principle is working in the opposite direction for the Los Angeles Kings. I wasn't alone in pointing out that Ryan Smyth was perhaps the sole reason that Anze Kopitar had become a powerhouse fantasy star, and just look at what has happened since Smyth injured his upper body: Kopitar has one assist in five games. Prior to Smyth getting hurt, Kopitar had 32 points in 22 games. That's a huge difference and it goes to show what Smyth's hard work for puck possession can do for Kopitar's game.
So while a single player may not make a team, he can go a long way in affecting the games of the rest of his team. The bottom line here: You can't just watch the players on your fantasy team, you really do have to follow every team in the whole league.
Gilbert Brule, C, Oilers (owned in 2 percent of ESPN leagues): With Ales Hemsky down for the season, coach Pat Quinn needed to find a new scoring line to attack with. Dustin Penner is the key forward on the team this season, and his linemates will be the ones who matter. So, it seems Shawn Horcoff is being left out of the picture in favor of Brule and Sam Gagner. Penner has been lining up with Brule and Gagner and the trio combined for 14 points in the past four games. While Brule and Gagner have both teased with value at times already this season, this looks like a permanent boost to their performance.
Filip Kuba, D, Senators (30.3): I suppose missing the bulk of the first few weeks of action didn't help his cause, but Kuba gets no respect for what he provides in fantasy hockey. He is a reliable assist machine thanks to his passing abilities. On an assist-per-game basis, Kuba is right up there with the top 25 playmakers in the league, and would certainly be among the top five defensemen. He is every bit as valuable as Tomas Kaberle, Alexander Edler and Scott Niedermayer in fantasy.
David Backes, RW, Blues (72.8): There may be hope for some of these Blues yet. Backes is a known second-half performer, but a lot of folks don't realize just how slow a starter he is. With six points in his past four games, he is starting to heat up and is deserving of our attention again, so let's go over the numbers: Last season Backes would finish with a valuable 54 points, 31 goals and 165 penalty minutes. Last season at the end of November, he had four goals and four assists -- that's actually one assist fewer than what he has this season. So if he produced the remaining 27 goals and 46 points after November last season, that means any owner who scooped him up about this time last year was rewarded in spades. Hint, hint.
Brian Rolston, LW, Devils (87.6): Patrik Elias, meet Brian Rolston. Oh, that's right, you two do know each other from about 10 years ago on this same New Jersey Devils squad. Well, it is good to see you get reacquainted so comfortably. Now that Elias is back scoring with the Devils, it has allowed coach Jacques Lemaire to make a line adjustment. The Devils now have a legitimate top six, with Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and Niclas Bergfors as the top line and Elias, Rolston and Jamie Langenbrunner as the second line. Rolston has four goals and six points in the past four games, which actually represents half of his production all season. Let's just say, things are looking up for Rolston so long as the Devils have two scoring lines to roll.
Kurtis Foster, D, Lightning (0.2): Specialist alert: Foster is barely playing 10 minutes a game for the Tampa Bay Lightning, but he is still fourth on the team for power-play time over the past five games, averaging more than three minutes per contest. Foster has three power-play points and five total over those same five games. With both Mattias Ohlund and Victor Hedman proving to be complete failures on the power play for the Bolts, Foster could carve himself out a nice niche. Standard league owners just have to be wary of his overall ice time being detrimental.
Eric Fehr, RW, Capitals (0.4): Is Fehr an injury-prone nonproducer, or did his lack of production stem from being injury prone? All I know is that Fehr's minor league numbers have long indicated that he could be a high-scoring power forward in the NHL, and his numbers of late -- eight points in 10 games -- hint that it may be happening now. A long line of injuries, starting in the WHL and progressing through the AHL, has kept Fehr from getting a crack at top-six minutes. Now he is healthy while Alexander Semin and Mike Knuble are on the sidelines, giving him the chance he has long deserved. Coach Bruce Boudreau knows what Fehr can do, and even coached him in the AHL for a time, so the opportunity is there for Fehr to start living up to his potential.
Milan Lucic, LW, Bruins (78.8): Really? Can you drop him? Lucic was back from a finger injury for four games before hurting his ankle. He'll miss another month. I actually think you have to swallow the loss in deeper leagues, and this drop recommendation is only for folks playing in leagues that draft fewer than 215 players. Lucic is too good when he is healthy, contributing to too many categories to simply toss him away in deeper formats.
Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville is using a top-heavy lineup with the return of Marian Hossa from injury. Hossa is skating with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews off and on the power play. Troy Brouwer, who recently has seen a spike on the top line, will lose value sliding back to the third line. Also knock Brian Campbell down a few pegs as he loses power-play time to Hossa and a four-forward attack on the man advantage. Maxim Afinogenov is still available in 30 percent of ESPN leagues. No matter how you slice it, he's been better than a point per game: four in his past three, eight in his past seven and 18 in his past 14. The return and subsequent reinjury of Milan Lucic certainly hasn't helped things, but coach Claude Julien has been all over the place with his line combinations. Players like Marc Savard thrive by knowing their linemates and knowing where to pass. With Byron Bitz and Blake Wheeler flanking him, there will be a learning curve. Also, just when David Krejci, Michael Ryder and Wheeler were hitting their stride together, they have been separated and strewn about the top three lines. Send Ray Whitney to the bench for a while. When Eric Staal returned, not only was Brandon Sutter booted from the top line, but Whitney went with him. Staal is currently centering Erik Cole and Sergei Samsonov while Sutter and Whitney play with Patrick Dwyer.
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.