Open Ice: Get to know Sabres' top line
The Buffalo Sabres' top line still has more to offer fantasy owners. Fantasy owners are already on the Tim Connolly train, and for good reason; Connolly has 24 points in his past 15 games. But linemates Jason Pominville and Jochen Hecht are available in more than half of ESPN leagues.
As usual, Pominville has been inconsistent. He'll go four games with zero points and then have eight points in the next four games. In fact, that's the trend of his past eight games. Meanwhile, Hecht is quietly continuing to offer mild production that is getting overlooked in deeper fantasy formats.
Although Pominville's dry spells can frustrate fantasy owners, his 37 points on the season should be enough to convince an owner in any size fantasy league that he is worth hanging on to for the good times. Yet, in 60 percent of ESPN leagues, Pominville is a free agent. By no means would I consider him to be a solid everyday starter, but he is one of the better fantasy bench options out there. Over the past two weeks, Pominville's production is ahead of right wingers such as Marian Gaborik and Martin St. Louis on the Player Rater.
For Hecht, his scoring is subtle enough that nobody needs to rush out and grab him, but he is definitely a name to keep in mind for weekly owners when the schedule ahead looks good. That said, those who truly believe in what Connolly brings to this line should buy into Hecht, too. Looking at his stats since the line was reassembled by coach Lindy Ruff at the start of December, Hecht has 19 points in 26 games. In January alone, he has 11 points in 11 games.
It's not just the scoring aspect that should have these Sabres on your radar; this top line also can help fantasy owners in the plus/minus category. With only 25 of Connolly's 47 points coming at even strength, he doesn't seem like the type of player who helps you out in your rating, but at plus-11 on the season, it's clear that he can be an asset. Hecht and Pominville are both working the plus/minus category, as well. Pominville has a plus-8 on the season and a plus-8 since the line came together in early December, while Hecht is also plus-8 on the season and plus-10 since the trio was formed.
The trickle-down effect has also helped rookie Tyler Myers, another Sabre who isn't getting the respect he deserves. Myers works the power play with Connolly, Pominville and Thomas Vanek, and his points pace of late has kept him on par with some of the best defensemen in the league. For the season, Myers is 19th on the Player Rater among defensemen, and over the past month, he is 10th. Available in just under 50 percent of ESPN leagues, Myers deserves a look in all leagues.
Between Pominville, Hecht and Myers, there is definitely a free-agent Sabre who should suit your fantasy needs.
Benoit Pouliot, LW, Canadiens (owned in 2.7 percent of ESPN leagues): Since the Minnesota Wild and Montreal Canadiens swapped Pouliot for Guillaume Latendresse, it hasn't been just Latendresse who is enjoying the change of scenery. While Pouliot's overall production has been more subtle than Latendresse's, Pouliot's ice time for the Habs is now significant, and his scoring is hardly subtle at all; Pouliot has 10 goals in 15 games as a Canadien. After three seasons of getting barely 10 minutes of ice time per game, Pouliot is now playing close to 20 minutes per game. He has good chemistry with Scott Gomez on the second line and is still playing first-unit power-play minutes. Since he is owned in only 2.7 percent of ESPN leagues, he should be available to goal-starved fantasy owners.
Jussi Jokinen, LW, Hurricanes (5.6): Jokinen's role as a winger alongside Eric Staal appears to be set in stone for the remainder of the season. While he slipped down the depth chart a bit in the early part of the month, Jokinen has taken back a top-line role from Matt Cullen and is doing everything he can to keep it. He has seven points in his past three games and 13 points in his past eight. Jokinen appears ready to eclipse the career highs he set as a rookie in 2005-06, and the best part of all this is that he's available in more than 94 percent of ESPN leagues. Jokinen is there for the taking, and those in need of power-play goals should consider doing so.
Chris Stewart, RW, Avalanche (20.3): It still amazes me that Stewart isn't universally owned in fantasy hockey. This guy has done nothing but score since being promoted to the top line for the Colorado Avalanche. And it's not like he is an off-the-radar kind of prospect; fantasy owners have been waiting for him to contribute on a regular basis since he made his NHL debut. So what gives with the low fantasy ownership rate? Did you not realize that if you prorate his season looking only at the 28 games since he has been playing on the top line, his totals extrapolate to 50 goals (16 goals in 26 games)? Simply put, since becoming a top-line player, Stewart has been a 50-goal, 85-point player.
Patrik Elias, LW, Devils (93.8): I don't blame anyone for ignoring this suggestion because, frankly, Elias has been fantastic this season. Concussions are so tricky, though, that I can't help but suggest you at least consider moving on from Elias if you own him in a competitive league. The New Jersey Devils have been very vague about Elias' current condition, and although the team and Elias have both expressed hopes about a return before the Olympics, we're still talking about a concussion here, not an injury that should be taken lightly. If every last fantasy roster spot is needed to keep up with your competitors, you can ill afford to hang on to Elias while the news about a possible return strings you along. Naturally, if you do have room to keep Elias, that is exactly what you do, but if you don't have the luxury of bench space, dropping him would be a calculated risk.
Maxim Afinogenov, RW, Thrashers (68.3): Just like with Elias, I'm soft on my suggestion to drop Afinogenov so quickly after watching him light the lamp so often earlier this season. But he has been terrible since being separated from Ilya Kovalchuk. The thing about dropping him is that he could be back with Kovalchuk and Nik Antropov at the stroke of coach John Anderson's pen. Then again, he could just as easily remain on the second line with Rich Peverley and Todd White. The bottom line is Afinogenov is minus-6 with just three points in the past 10 games. Unless you predict a change of heart in the near future for the Atlanta Thrashers' coaching staff, then that is the kind of production to expect going forward for Afinogenov as a second-line player.
It seems there's still no fantasy respect for Wayne Simmonds of the Los Angeles Kings. On a five-game point streak, Simmonds has 30 points on the season, with a plus-18, in 47 games. He is a regular linemate of Anze Kopitar, and the points will continue to flow. The Ottawa Senators did just as I hoped they would. As I noted in last week's "Front Line" column, the Sens have used Jason Spezza's return to create a three-line attack. Spezza took to the ice with former San Jose Sharks linemates Jonathan Cheechoo and Milan Michalek, while Daniel Alfredsson skated with Mike Fisher and Nick Foligno. Finally, Alexei Kovalev is starting to look solid with Peter Regin and Ryan Shannon. This team is definitely going places over the final few months of the season. If you are looking for a goaltender who is going to run out the season on a high note, look no further than the aforementioned Senators. Brian Elliott has been rock-solid of late, and with a team finally scoring in front of him, he'll have the confidence to win some games.
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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