Sometimes they just sneak by you when you are not looking. It's not your fault. There are a lot of NHL players whose value fluctuates near that intangible bubble where they go from waiver-wire fodder to being worthy of a spot on your fantasy team. A few players who fit that bill are currently underowned in ESPN leagues. Their ownership is quickly on the rise, as more and more owners realize such a gem is available in their league, but there may still be time if you act now.
Tyler Bozak, F, Toronto Maple Leafs: He's back in action and playing on the top line because he is all the Leafs have when it comes to centermen. Still not the ideal candidate to launch Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk into the stratosphere for scoring, Bozak has proved time and time again that he is adequate for the job. That'll do, Bozak. That'll do. Available in just over 48 percent of ESPN leagues, Bozak will collect enough fantasy points thanks to playing with Kessel to deserve a lineup spot in your league. He slipped under the radar by missing a month with a hamstring injury, but it's time to pick him back up.
Justin Schultz, D, Edmonton Oilers: We can't blame Schultz owners too much for bailing. Like the rest of the Oilers, he had a terrible start to the season; thereafter, he missed eight games with a groin injury. But Schultz is back, the Oilers' offense is finally healthy and scoring, and he is the catalyst on the blue line. He is playing top power-play minutes and has proved that Anton Belov is not a true threat to his value (despite being one on paper). The door is quickly closing to add Schultz, with his availability down to 15 percent of leagues (closer to 40 percent a week ago). Check your wire and be rewarded with a defenseman who could rise into the top 20 of fantasy D-men if his forwards continue to help carry him.
Gustav Nyquist, F, Detroit Red Wings: We all seemed to forget that Nyquist is the Red Wings' best offensive prospect and is ready for a chance to break into the big leagues. Dominating the AHL the past two seasons, Nyquist was a surprise cut from training camp. But the team has committed to his presence as a top-six forward now, and that means value when it comes to the Wings. Nyquist has three goals and one assist in four games for the Wings. The team has enough offense to spread the love to two lines when everyone is healthy and still include Nyquist in the offensive plans. His ownership has rocketed from almost zero to 24 percent of ESPN leagues and will continue to climb as he continues to score.
Looking for offense
Chicago Blackhawks: With Marian Hossa and Michal Handzus healthy again, both Kris Versteeg and Andrew Shaw are out of the top-six forwards for the Hawks. But that doesn't mean they can't be useful during a good schedule. The Hawks have four games next week, capped off by a visit from the porous goal crease of the Florida Panthers. While Shaw and Versteeg are playing on the third line at even strength, Shaw has a role on the top power-play unit and Versteeg is playing on the second unit. Maybe Versteeg will even be a little inspired by a chance to show his former team up next Sunday. With Brandon Pirri as the third member of the third line, Shaw and Versteeg have an opportunity to produce moderately at even strength as well. When the schedule is good, they are strong plays in your roster, and both are widely available. Deeper leagues can look at Pirri, but he is currently being shut out of the power play.
Ottawa Senators: While we don't know the extent of Ben Bishop's injury, there is a chance that the Sens get to face the Panthers, the Tampa Bay Lightning's backup goalie (Anders Lindback) and the same Maple Leafs who were outshot 19-0 in the third period and overtime by the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday. That would be a good week for the Sens' offense. And this week is coming at a time when Mika Zibanejad is heating up. The Senators' best young prospect is largely unowned in ESPN leagues (available in 73 percent of them) and is locked in on a line with Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek. Zibanejad has five points in his past five games and has watched his ice time spike by almost four minutes per game since he scored a pair of points against the Minnesota Wild on Nov. 20.
Buffalo Sabres: This is to say you should definitely not be looking for offense from the Sabres next week. It's not often we will highlight a team to completely avoid in the Forecaster, but the Sabres' week ahead looks awfully dire. The team, which features only a couple of no-brainer fantasy starters to begin with, should not be the source of any of your roster spots next week. Not only do the Sabres have only two games, but those games will be played against Henrik Lundqvist and Carey Price. Lundqvist and Price own a 2.33 and 2.00 goals-against average, respectively, for their careers against the Sabres. Leave Cody Hodgson and Matt Moulson on the bench if you have other options.
Looking for defensemen
Ryan Ellis, D, Nashville Predators: This is probably premature to mention with no word on the severity of the injury to Shea Weber, but the Preds' captain was hit in the face with a puck Thursday and left the game against the Oilers. He is listed as day-to-day, but a puck to the face can have ramifications for more than a day or two. If Weber is out longer, this comes at an absolutely ideal time for Ellis. Just days ago, Ellis was moved to the second defensive pairing by coach Barry Trotz as a reward for his strong play of late. Ellis responded with two assists and a plus-3 on Wednesday against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Ellis, remember, is a prolifically offensive defenseman who is being slowly trained in the way of the Trotz. But he likely hasn't forgotten his bread and butter. Ellis was the CHL player of the year and defenseman of the year after posting 101 points in 58 games with the OHL's Windsor Spitfires in 2011; yes, he did that as a defenseman. When it finally clicks for Ellis, he is going to be a fantasy darling. Now is a good time to consider him anyway, with the move to the second pairing. But if it turns out Weber misses time, Ellis could have a true breakout.
Looking for goaltending
Semyon Varlamov, G, Colorado Avalanche: He is probably still squarely in your lineup, but since he was drafted by some owners as a third goaltender, there is a chance you have a decision to make. This is just a note that he should definitely be started for the Avalanche's road swing through western Canada. Varlamov has been dominant on the road this season -- with a 1.73 goals-against average -- and two of the three teams he faces (the Oilers and Calgary Flames) haven't been the models of consistent offense, to put it graciously.
Each week, the Fantasy Forecaster will include some advice for the ESPN Hockey Challenge. This is the salary-cap game that allows you free rein over your fantasy hockey decisions within a starting budget of $100 million in fantasy money. For more on the game and to sign up, click here.
Four-game teams: There is a weaker selection of teams with four games next week than usual, as the Blackhawks, Panthers, Wild, Montreal Canadiens, New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, San Jose Sharks and Maple Leafs are the only teams with an extra game in hand. Goaltending decisions should come down to Corey Crawford ($12.0M), Carey Price ($11.9M) or Antti Niemi ($12.0M) when aiming for the most possible wins. Josh Harding ($11.0M) is an option, but you'll want to see both he and Zach Parise make a return on the weekend before using them.
Streaking players with four games: Dion Phaneuf ($7.3M) has had a recent drop in value, and the Leafs have a solid four-game schedule for possible offense. Picking him up now might net you some points and earn you some additional salary-cap room in the future. P.K. Subban ($8.3M) and Andrei Markov ($8.0M) are always good starts when the Canadiens have four games. It will be difficult to resist loading up on Blackhawks, given the awesome schedule and large selection of forwards to roll with. Don't hesitate to put Jonathan Toews ($9.1M), Patrick Kane ($9.3M), Marian Hossa ($8.1M) and Patrick Sharp ($8.2M) in your lineup together.
My roster for next week:
As of Friday, I'm in the 85.3 percentile for the ESPN Hockey Challenge with 287 points. My personal salary cap is at $108.1M.
Corey Crawford, G, CHI - $12.4M
Josh Harding, G, MIN - $10.9M ($11.0M on market)
Kris Letang, D, PIT - $7.5M ($7.3M on market)
Dion Phaneuf, D, TOR - $7.3M
P.K. Subban, D, MTL - $7.8M ($8.3M on market)
Ryan Suter, D, MIN - $8.2M
Tyler Bozak, F, TOR - $4.4M
Charlie Coyle, F, MIN - $4.5M
Patrick Sharp, F, CHI - $8.2M
Marian Hossa, F, CHI - $8.1M
Patrick Kane, F, CHI - $9.3M
Jonathan Toews, F, CHI - $9.1M