Open Ice: Howard spreads his wings
That's not to say Chris Osgood might regain the role later this season, but Howard is enjoying his first run in net after fighting down Osgood on the merit of his own play. That means he won't have to do as much to win back the role if he loses it.
For fantasy owners, this is the beginning of what will be a long and happy relationship. Howard has been a star in waiting for some time. His minor league numbers with the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins aren't great, but they were a really bad team when he was backstopping them from 2005 until last season. Looking back to his college hockey days, you'll notice he holds the NCAA record for save percentage and goals-against average in a season.
His numbers are only so-so this season, but a .910 save percentage and 2.55 goals-against average are still passable. Besides, those numbers have been steadily improving. Since Nov. 1, Howard has a 2.17 GAA and a .923 save percentage. When Howard starts on Wednesday against St. Louis (which coach Mike Babcock has already confirmed), he will have started six of the past eight games for the Red Wings as a healthy Osgood warms the bench.
Believe it or not, the starter for a team that has played in the past two Stanley Cups is available in more than 88 percent of ESPN.com leagues. So go ahead and snatch Howard now. This will be the first of many times you own him during his career.
Steve Reinprecht, C, Panthers (owned in 35.4 percent of ESPN.com leagues): I have avoided strongly recommending Reinprecht during some decent stints he already has put together this season, as inevitably he would fall back to being a 40-point player. After scoring nine goals in eight games near the end of October, he had morphed back into his usual self. That is, until the past week and a half saw him promoted to at least a part-time role on the Florida Panthers' top line. Although Panthers coach Peter DeBoer still has not completely committed to skate Reinprecht with Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss, the results may force his hand soon. Michael Frolik may have opened the most recent Panthers game on the top line, but by the third period, when the game was tied, DeBoer had Reinprecht in the role. Weiss is red-hot (six goals in four games), and Horton is right there with him, making Reinprecht's potential role quite lucrative for fantasy owners.
Matt Duchene, C (11.3), and Chris Stewart, RW (1.3), Avalanche: No question that this is a bandwagon worthy of riding. The new Colorado Avalanche top line has been on fire since the trio was formed after David Jones injured his knee. With Duchene and Stewart flanking team leader Paul Stastny, the points have been just flowing out. Each of the three players has six points in the four games they've been together. Coach Joe Sacco wouldn't dare break up such chemistry, so it's time to invest in either Duchene or Stewart on your fantasy team. Lean toward Duchene if you need the shots on goal and look at Stewart should you need a few extra penalty minutes, but honestly, grab both if you can.
Antti Miettinen, RW, Wild (1.6): Who knew a few days off for swine flu could be the turning point on a season? That's not exactly accurate, as Miettinen had started to kick things into gear before he came down with H1N1. The Wild's top line of Miettinen, Andrew Brunette and Mikko Koivu has found some rhythm of late, despite Miettinen's illness keeping him out for three games last week. In fact, the Wild have scored at least five goals in four of their past five games after managing to score as many as four only three times in 23 previous games. Miettinen won't maintain a point-per-game pace, but a career year with 25 goals and 55 points is attainable as long as keeps his spot on the depth chart.
Michael Del Zotto, D, Rangers (80.7): I, too, was excited about this kid's start to the season, but there comes a time when you have to question whether the plus/minus is worth the trouble. Del Zotto's inability in his own defensive zone is no surprise to anyone, but a minus-5 in one game is still tough to wrap your head around. Given that he is a threat to have a disastrous game like that at any time, it's hard to leave him in your lineup at all times. Especially when you note that he has only five points in his past 17 games.
Jason Spezza, C, Senators (95.1): I don't think you can drop Jason Spezza because he is still Jason Spezza, but it has become evident that someone misses a certain someone a little more than the other. Although Dany Heatley battles to pace the NHL for goals, Spezza is on pace to fall short of 50 points. His actual value to date this season doesn't belong on shallow-league rosters, but you have to hold out hope for Spezza's season if you invested a high draft pick on him. It's not as if Alexei Kovalev and Daniel Alfredsson are chopped liver ... or are they? The numbers say drop Spezza, but you had better think long and hard about it. He had two points versus Anaheim on Sunday and has two goals in his past six games. That may not be fantastic, but it is great compared to his lone tally in the previous 20.
Could Steve Downie be a power-play specialist? He certainly didn't work out as a regular in the Tampa Bay Lightning's top six, but he has a power-play goal in two straight games after being put on the first unit with Steven Stamkos and Ryan Malone. Keep an eye on his power-play minutes during the next week. Speaking of the Bolts' top six, Jeff Halpern is the first of at least five different players to audition for the sixth and final spot who has started scoring points right away. That certainly bodes well for him keeping a job alongside this glut of talented players. He's certainly no Phil Kessel, but Byron Bitz is doing his best to keep up with Marc Savard and Blake Wheeler as linemates. Savard did manage to score two of his three goals at even strength on Saturday, so there may be hope for this combination yet. Eric Fehr remains a serious addition to any fantasy team. His application for a job in the top six has been extraordinarily successful, as he has 14 points in 15 games. So far, a teammate has been injured to allow him the ice time, making Mike Knuble's imminent return of interest. If you ask me, I'd say Fehr's production speaks for itself, but then you wonder whose ice time would get cut? Coach Bruce Boudreau has a tough decision to make, and you'll want to watch and see what happens with Fehr.
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.