You may have noticed a trend in the fantasy hockey columns over the past couple weeks. With such a small stretch of the season left, we've entered into the "What have you done for me lately?" realm, even more so than usual. With just the last few games remaining to be played, there's very little risk involved in making a bold move, such as dropping the superstar you drafted in one of the first three rounds in favor of a lesser-known player who's been posting the best numbers of his career as of late.
The obvious example here is the Vancouver Canucks' Daniel Sedin, who suffered a concussion on a controversial hit from the Chicago Blackhawks' Duncan Keith on March 21. The latest update is that there is no concrete date the team expects the all-world winger back. With the Canucks' regular season finishing on April 7, it's going to be tough for Sedin to make it back, and it's possible he'll stay out even if he's close to recovered, given the team has already clinched the division. Despite the fact he won't have much (if any) impact from here on out, he's still rostered in 71.0 percent of ESPN leagues.
Milan Lucic started March off well, with nine points during a seven-game scoring streak and adding 11 penalty minutes and 14 shots on goal. But in the nine contests since, he's had just three points, registered a minus-3 and just seven PIM. Should Lucic be dropped? He remains on the B's top line with David Krejci and Tyler Seguin, but slumps like this can be devastating with scant games remaining either in a head-to-head matchup or under a game limit in roto format. If there's a better option available on the waiver wire who can deliver in needed categories, he's worth considering.
Taken a little later on in drafts, the Colorado Avalanche's Matt Duchene (his ADP is 84.5, compared to Lucic's 47.7 and Sedin's 2.1) has endured a tough third season in the NHL. After increasing his goals, points, penalty minutes and average time on ice from his rookie campaign to his sophomore season, he's battled a string of injuries, and even when healthy his production has gone down (he's producing at a .49 points-per-game rate, down from .84 in 2010-11). After returning from his latest injury on Feb. 19, he's scored just three points in 16 games. Nevertheless, he's still owned in 40.3 percent of ESPN leagues, as owners must be waiting for some kind of magical turnaround. A better idea is looking for a pivot who is actually producing at this crucial point.
Back on defense, the Phoenix Coyotes' Keith Yandle was a popular pick leading into this season, taken on average in the third or fourth round of 12-team leagues. While not necessarily a standout in any one category, he can contribute across the board, and he finished 2010-11 as the No. 6 defenseman on the Player Rater. Looking at the big picture this season, Yandle has done that -- though not quite to the level of a season ago, as he's only in the No. 23 slot -- but again, "What have you done for me lately?" Over the past 15 days, Yandle has been the No. 69 defenseman on the Player Rater, and in the past seven he's in the coveted No. 133 spot. He's been pointless over the past seven games, with a minus-3 rating and just nine penalty minutes. Like Lucic, he remains a fixture in a key role for Phoenix, but there may be a more effective option available on waivers right now.
Tomas Vokoun has been a topic of much conversation in my In the Crease column, as he was typically one of the first five goalies off the board in fantasy drafts last summer. To this point, the production obviously hasn't matched that draft pedigree, and the situation has been much more dire as of late. After being pulled from two straight contests at the end of February, he's appeared in just four games in March as he's battling a groin injury. Though he's played well in those contests -- registering a 2.39 goals-against average and .915 save percentage -- it's not enough to justify him still being owned in 85.8 percent of ESPN leagues. There are certainly more reliable sources of production elsewhere, even on his team: Braden Holtby (available in 85.5 percent of ESPN leagues) has had better stats -- 2.03 GAA and .935 save percentage -- and with Vokoun ailing again, he might be getting the starts as the Caps fight for a playoff spot.
Again, this is not a call to drop all your underperforming superstars, but just a reminder that at this point of the season, there is much less risk in so doing. We've all experienced the horror of dropping such a player early in the season, only to see him picked up by someone else and catch fire; with four games (at most) left for teams, the chances of that happening are quite slim. So keep a watchful eye on your roster and the players available on the waiver wire -- there may very well be a fine replacement getting hot at the right time, and this can make a difference as the season winds to a close.
"O" (offense) and "D" (defense) matchup ratings are based upon a scale from 1 (poor matchup) to 10 (excellent matchup), and are calculated using a formula that evaluates the team's year-to-date and past 21 days' statistics, their performance in home/road games depending on where the game is to be played, as well as their opponents' numbers in those categories. The Games T / H column lists the team's total number of games played as well as home games (T / H), and lists the cumulative rating from 1-10 of that week's matchups.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Though the Lightning likely won't make the playoffs, there's still plenty to like about their remaining schedule. Not only do they have four games on the docket for the final week (the only team with that many games), but the final two are against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets, two teams for which goaltending has not been a consistent strong suit this season. Steven Stamkos is obviously the centerpiece of this offense, but one player who's not universally owned and had a nice March is Ryan Malone. Available in just over 40 percent of ESPN leagues, he's posted 13 points in 14 games this month, including a hat trick against the New Jersey Devils on Thursday. Tom Pyatt (nearly universally available) has been playing the pivot between Malone and Brett Connolly -- as well as being deployed on the second power-play unit -- and scored nine in his 14 contests this month.
Vancouver Canucks: With the injury to Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin is now being paired with Mason Raymond and Zach Kassian at even strength, with Raymond seeing time on the first power play unit. Raymond has scored three points in the four games since Daniel's injury (and added 14 shots) and is only owned in 4.1 percent of ESPN leagues, so he makes a sharp pickup for the final week with Daniel unlikely to return. As for Kassian, though he is nearly universally available, he's yet to find the score sheet since the promotion, and now is not the time to believe in miracles. Interestingly enough, the player leading the Canucks in scoring for March is Chris Higgins (4.6 percent ownership), who has scored 10 points while plying his trade on the third line with Samuel Pahlsson and Jannik Hansen in addition to some work on the second PP unit.
Calgary Flames, Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche: All three of these teams play just two games in the final week of the season, and they'll be facing some of the NHL's elite netminders along the way. The Flames have it the worst, with matchups against the Canucks (and either Roberto Luongo or Cory Schneider) and Anaheim Ducks (with Jonas Hiller); the Blackhawks have one against the Minnesota Wild (with Niklas Backstrom back in action) before taking on Jimmy Howard and the Detroit Red Wings; the Avalanche have the Columbus Blue Jackets on the docket for April 5, so they have that going for them, which is nice. However, they close out the season against Pekka Rinne and the Nashville Predators. As well as players such as Mike Cammalleri and Gabriel Landeskog have contributed of late, alternatives should be explored.
St. Louis Blues: The forecaster predicts a nice week for Ken Hitchcock's charges, and this is not a surprise: They play the Dallas Stars, Coyotes and Red Wings, to whom they've surrendered 2.00, 1.00 and 2.40 goals per game, respectively. The problem, of course, is figuring out which of the two goalies is going to be starting. Jaroslav Halak had seemingly taken control of the situation, with a 16-10 starts edge in January and February, as well as a 5-2 advantage in the first half of March. But Brian Elliott has started three of the past four and has not allowed a single puck past him in regulation or overtime in that span. As has been the case all season, daily lineup league members can check the morning skate reports and adjust accordingly; those who have to set their lineup at the start of the week have to roll with who they have and hope for the best.
Colorado Avalanche: As the Avs fight for a playoff spot down the stretch, it's coincided with a rough patch for the previously solid Semyon Varlamov. The good news is that Colorado coach Joe Sacco let Varlamov play his way out of the kinks -- he stopped 21-of-22 during the 1-0 loss to the Canucks on March 28 -- but the bad news is that the team only has two games left in the final week of the season. Moreover, they're against the Blue Jackets, who have scored 14 goals in the past four games, and a Predators team bolstered by the addition of Alexander Radulov. Based upon the limited (and tough) matchups, it's best to find another option for the final stretch.
•Henrik Zetterberg has scored seven points in his past three games, and while neither he nor Valtteri Filppula is available for a pickup right now, linemate Jiri Hudler (39.6 percent ownership) just might be.
•R.J. Umberger has been providing the Blue Jackets with some scoring punch from the second line, with six points in his last four games. Available in 72.5 percent of ESPN leagues, he's an intriguing option for a final week that will include a home game against the New York Islanders, who might be stuck with tossing GM Garth Snow between the pipes by then.
•While the Isles' woes in net have been well-documented, their success on the other end has gone under the radar. The second line of Josh Bailey (0.2 percent ownership), Frans Nielsen (25.4) and Kyle Okposo (14.9) has combined for 39 points in the 14 games played in March, outpacing the team's top line. After playing the Devils on Tuesday, they close out with the Jets and Blue Jackets, so any of the three make a smart play this week.
•Keep an eye on the reports out of Pittsburgh, as Kris Letang did not travel with the Penguins for their games on Thursday and Friday, but he could return to the ice on Sunday against the Philadelphia Flyers.
•Speaking of Philly, Ilya Bryzgalov's injury -- which went unexplained after Monday's contest in spite of him limping around the locker room -- has now been identified by the team as a chipped bone in his right foot, and he is considered day to day. It would not be surprising to see Sergei Bobrovsky play more in the final week so that Bryz is as healthy as possible for a likely first-round matchup against Pittsburgh.
The return of NHL hockey to Winnipeg has been an exciting time for Manitoba residents and those who have fond memories of seeing Dale Hawerchuk, Thomas Steen and Teemu Selanne racing down the ice at Winnipeg Arena. It appears that their bid for a playoff spot will fall short this season, and part of the problem has been inconsistent play from their young franchise netminder, Ondrej Pavelec. On nights in which he's on, he can challenge any elite goalie in the league, but those performances have been scant as we've entered crunch time in March: after allowing just one goal on 57 shots in the first two games of the month, he's allowed 35 in the 10 ensuing contests, posting a 3.70 GAA and .881 save percentage . His future is bright, but he has no business on a fantasy roster for the rest of this season.
Ty Conklin has not been completely horrible in his four-game stint filling in for Jimmy Howard and Joey MacDonald -- wait a minute Jimmy, Joey and Ty? Sounds more like a boy band than a goaltending trio -- but with Howard ready to return, the little cameo seems to be coming to a close. And that ugly 3.50 GA/G figures to be lowered once that happens.
Best bets: The Pittsburgh Penguins remain top options on all three levels of the Challenge. The price of Marc-Andre Fleury ($13.4M) keeps going up and for good reason: aside from the two brutal starts against the Islanders this past week, he's allowed more than two goals only once in March, adding eight wins in the process. Compared to the other goalies in that section of the parking lot (Henrik Lunqvist and Pekka Rinne), he's the safest choice for continued production in the final week. Another nice option is Ryan Miller ($11.9M), who has won five straight starts while allowing six total goals in the process. Familiar names continue to fill the top spots on the Player Rater for defensemen, with Zdeno Chara ($8.7M), Shea Weber ($7.7M), Alex Pietrangelo ($7.9M) and Erik Karlsson ($8.6M) all in the top 10 over the past seven days. Back from injury, Nicklas Lidstrom ($7.1M) is a slightly less pricey stud for the final week. If money is no object -- or you've budgeted to go big on forwards -- there's no argument in using Steven Stamkos ($10.6M), with four games this week for Tampa Bay. It's also difficult to argue against continuing to roll with the top Penguins -- Evgeni Malkin ($11.0M), Sidney Crosby ($8.8M) and James Neal ($9.3M). But another top option for this final week is Red Wings dynamo Henrik Zetterberg ($9.2M), who has come alive with a flurry of production as the season winds down. Seven points in the three-game span this past week, coupled with two out of three games at home in the final week? Yes, please!
Bargains: If you've been following this column or In the Crease as of late, you'll understand why Edmonton Oilers netminder Devan Dubnyk's price tag has gone up $400,000 in the past week (he's now at $8.8M). But he's still a bargain given what he's been producing lately, especially compared to other goaltenders in that price range. As the Flyers close out their schedule, there's uncertainty as to how much starting goalie Ilya Bryzgalov will play. His backup, Sergei Bobrovsky, has been solid in relief, an at $7.7M, he's at a clearance price for this week. Calgary Flames D-man Mark Giordano has had a nice month of March -- in 15 games, he's scored 11 points, including four on the power play -- and at $6.4M he's an intriguing play, despite the fact that the Flames have just two games in this final week. Nikita Nikitin's name is fun to say, and for just $5.5M, he's a nice bargain, especially considering he's seen some extra work both at even strength and on the PP unit with James Wisniewski on the shelf. As mentioned above, the Islanders' second line is on a hot streak as of late, and the best bargain of the trio is Josh Bailey ($4.0M). The former first-round pick (No. 9 overall in 2008) has shown flashes of that talent in streaks, and that includes the 12 points he's scored (3 G, 9 A) in his current six-game scoring streak. The Flyers will continue to play hard over the final week as they jockey for position in the playoffs -- they're two points behind Pittsburgh for the No. 4 spot and all-important home-ice advantage in Round 1 -- and the second line (Danny Briere-Wayne Simmonds-Braydon Schenn) has been providing ample secondary scoring boost as of late. Briere is a decent bargain at $7.0M, but Simmonds ($6.0M) gives some extra leeway. Schenn is a bit more of a sleeper, but if he continues to get time in that spot (and on the second PP), the $4.0M it takes to use him will be a definite bargain.
My roster for next week:
Ryan Miller, G ($11.9M)
Marc-Andre Fleury, G ($12.9M/$13.4M on market)
Alex Pietrangelo, D ($6.0M/$7.9M on market)
Kris Letang, D ($7.2M/$7.7M on market)
Dan Boyle, D ($6.7M/$7.8M on market)
Erik Karlsson, D ($7.8M/$8.6M on market)
Sidney Crosby, F ($8.0M/$8.8M on market)
Evgeni Malkin, F ($8.9M/$11.0M on market)
James Neal, F ($8.9M/$9.3M on market)
Henrik Zetterberg, F ($9.2M)
Josh Bailey, F ($4.0M)
Teddy Purcell, F ($7.9M)