With fantasy playoff matchups in head-to-head leagues beginning to take shape, the decision on whether to drop a player instead of wasting a valuable roster slot on him is easier than it was a few months ago. As such, some players have become quite expendable, especially if you're on the cusp of that final playoff spot or scratching your way for points in a certain Roto category.
But the past week was also one for returns, especially for the Colorado Avalanche. Ryan Smyth returned during this column's vacation, and two other top-six forwards, Paul Stastny and Joe Sakic, returned over the weekend. Owners of Wojtek Wolski, Marek Svatos and Andrew Brunette should all benefit from the offensive firepower that has been returned to its rightful place in the Colorado arsenal.
It's business time
Paul Stastny, C, and Joe Sakic, C, Avalanche: Friday night marked the return for young star Stastny and Sunday was Sakic's night, and each man earned points in his first game back. Sakic's ownership jumped 17 points in the past week, but he is still unowned in 6.8 percent of leagues right now. You should lower that number if one of those is your league. As the Avs try to scratch their way to the playoffs -- they sit four points back at the moment -- it will be up to these two leaders at the opposite ends of their careers to guide them there, so making a play for either guy is a smart move.
Marc-Andre Fleury, G, Penguins: Although he has yet to play a return game with the Penguins, Fleury has been recalled from his minor league rehab assignment. In the five games he played for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, he allowed just seven goals total, and his two losses came on the wrong end of a 1-0 tally. Whether this resplendent performance was because he was being cheered on by the employees of Dunder Mifflin (of "The Office" fame) will be determined upon Fleury's return to the Pittsburgh pipes, but this much is known: His trademark bright yellow pads have gone the way of Zubaz pants. During his recovery, Fleury was shown statistics that showed that goalies who wear brightly colored pads give up more goals than those who wear ice-colored (i.e. white) pads. In any case, Fleury is sitting at 78.5 percent ownership in ESPN leagues as I type this, but he should be owned in almost all league setups. Although we won't know until he plays whether the new pads work their magic, he does have the skill to be an elite fantasy goaltender if given the chance. So even if you don't own current Pittsburgh starter Ty Conklin, but especially if you do, Fleury's definitely worth the little risk. Conklin has not been as much of an unstoppable force lately in net, and the Penguins will need elite goaltending down the stretch as their season stretches to the playoffs.
'Tis but a scratch
Nicklas Lidstrom, D, Red Wings" On Friday, Detroit coach Mike Babcock said that Lidstrom's timetable had been moved up: "He's two weeks [away] -- max." This is encouraging to those who are awaiting his return for the fantasy playoffs, so just hold tight if that's you. If you need a stopgap for these two weeks, Lidstrom's teammate (and name mate) Niklas Kronwall is widely available and will be leaned upon for production until Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski return.
Mike Richards, C, Flyers: The timing for this franchise center's hamstring injury could not be worse for his real-life team or his fantasy owners. The Flyers, who this week lost Simon Gagne for the season, are currently on the outside looking in on the Eastern Conference playoffs, just a point behind the Sabres, and the next three weeks (the time Richards is expected to miss) will in the same way determine who's in and who's out in the fantasy playoff hunt. Although no one in Richards' neighborhood for seasonal stats is available, you might want to take a chance on Brandon Dubinsky, as 28.3 percent of ESPN owners have done within the past week. After Sunday's game, Dubinsky has seven points, 24 penalty minutes and a plus-4 in his past five games.
Chris Neil, RW, Senators: Although the extent of the injury to Neil's knee is not known, we do know that he has regressed to a one-dimensional player after the trade for Cory Stillman pushed him off the second line in Ottawa, just as Sean Allen predicted in his breakdown of that trade. From Feb. 12, when the Sens' lineup was augmented by Stillman's presence, to the time of the injury, Neil's ice time had gone down sharply, and he was held scoreless. There is a place for one-category studs in fantasy, so while Neil is on the shelf, you can look to guys like Zack Stortini, Jared Boll, Riley Cote or, if you appreciate tonsorial style, George Parros. However, for the dual benefit of penalty minutes with an occasional point, you should look to Alex Burrows or Steve Ott.
Sergei Zubov, D, Stars: Although Zubov hasn't played a game since the middle of January, there is a status update: He'll now miss three to four more weeks after surgery on his right foot Sunday. While this news provides a timetable for his return, it's time to move on for head-to-head owners. The four weeks that he'll be missing are crucial as the season winds down, and the playoffs begin within that time span in many leagues. The best advice is to look elsewhere, although you might not have to look very far. His teammate, Philippe Boucher, who scored 51 points in 2006-07, is set to return this week from his shoulder injury, and he's owned in just 40.3 percent of ESPN leagues.
Tim Kavanagh is a fantasy hockey analyst for ESPN.com.