It's possible that after missing roughly eight weeks with a groin injury, goalie Jonathan Quick falls flat on his face in his return for the Los Angeles Kings. And, perhaps the Kings again turn to Martin Jones and ride the rookie for the duration of the season. No such scenario can be ruled out with absolute certainty in the wild and wacky world of pro sports. However, we're willing to wager a fully fit Quick performs just as soundly as he has in the past. Which might result in a ticket back to the American Hockey League for Jones.
As wonderfully as the 23-year-old has performed, L.A.'s other backup, Ben Scrivens, hasn't been much of a slouch, either. And, unlike with Jones, the Kings would risk losing Scrivens via waivers if they attempted to stash him in the AHL. Not fair, maybe, but that's life in the big leagues. Even if Jones manages to stick with the big boys -- maybe Scrivens is moved in a trade? -- the rookie isn't likely to see many starts behind a healthy Quick. However it shakes out, Martin's owners -- and he's spoken for nearly universally in ESPN.com leagues -- should prepare to make the necessary adjustments.
On the flip side, the backup with the St. Louis Blues is a growing asset on the fantasy stage. Owned in only 57 percent of ESPN.com leagues, Brian Elliott has had an excellent December, netting five victories and allowing 12 goals in seven games. In fact, he's been much better than No. 1 (in name alone) Jaroslav Halak. After earning the win in relief of Halak on Saturday, Elliott helped the Blues to another victory Sunday. A return to Halak for Tuesday's contest versus the Minnesota Wild would strike us as a curious decision by Blues coach Ken Hitchcock.
If you need goaltending help, Elliott is worth more than a passing glance, particularly in the short term. While the talk of dealing for Ryan Miller (Buffalo Sabres) isn't quieting, the trade deadline remains weeks away. And Elliott has shined for this squad in the past; he was good last season (14-8-1, with a 2.28 goals-against average and .907 save percentage) and superb in 2011-12 (23-10-4, 1.56, .940).
Patrik Berglund, C, St. Louis Blues (owned in 4 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Competing on a line with young wingers Vladimir Tarasenko and Magnus Paajarvi (and with Chris Stewart on the power play) appears to suit Berglund. After a sludgy first half, the 25-year-old center has heated up, notching six points in his past five games. With 203 points in 393 career regular-season games, Berglund sports a résumé indicating a greater productive rate than he'd put forth earlier this season. Plus, he's just a really talented hockey player.
Tyler Bozak, C, Toronto Maple Leafs (owned in 35 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Phil Kessel's most-favorite center returned this past weekend after missing a month with an upper-body injury. To celebrate, Bozak first assisted his top-line buddy on two goals in Sunday's 5-2 defeat of the Carolina Hurricanes. Then he was credited with a helper on a goal by stay-at-home defenseman Paul Ranger (seriously). When healthy, the Leafs' No. 1 center should be owned in the overwhelming majority of fantasy leagues. *As a side note, coach Randy Carlyle is threatening to swap center Nazem Kadri with third-liner Peter Holland if the former seventh-overall draft selection (2009) doesn't smarten up soon. Kadri owners beware.
Alex Goligoski, D, Dallas Stars (owned in 91 percent of ESPN.com leagues): With Sergei Gonchar on injured reserve (concussion), Goligoski is munching up an even larger morsel of minutes with the man advantage and at even strength. The 28-year-old has averaged over 28 minutes per game in his past four contests. Even before Gonchar fell hurt, Goligoski was showing signs of warming up after a wretched start to the season (one point in all of November). When comfortable, this guy is good for 40 points and 160 shots through a full 82-game season. He may be worth targeting in a trade, particularly as an add-on.
Nathan Horton, RW, Columbus Blue Jackets (owned in 33 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Our Fantasy Grapevine headliner earlier in December, Horton is finally in position to make his debut for the Blue Jackets. Word has it that it'll be this week. Columbus management has been in no hurry to throw its long-term investment out there before he's 100 percent following offseason shoulder surgery. So fantasy owners can rest assured, Horton will be in good shape.
Antti Raanta, G, Chicago Blackhawks (owned in 92 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Like with Jones in Los Angeles, Raanta is poised to lose his starter's gig, now that No. 1 Corey Crawford (leg injury) is nearing his return. Prepare to loosen ties with the 24-year-old Finn. Raanta has been good in relief, but Crawford is one of the better goalies in the league.
Jonas Gustavsson, G, Detroit Red Wings (owned in 60 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Not only is Jimmy Howard on the mend, but Gustavsson again is badgered by a groin injury. We could see more of Petr Mrazek in a while. Besides, Gustavsson was only "OK" while standing in for the injured Howard through most of December.
Raphael Diaz, D, Montreal Canadiens (owned in 4 percent of ESPN.com leagues): The recent threat of a benching served as a sad exclamation point to what has otherwise been an altogether disappointing season. After collecting 14 points in 23 games (and being a plus-4) in last winter's lockout- and injury-shortened campaign, Diaz has little to brag about with this season's tally of 11 points in 40 contests (where he's been a minus-3). Maybe the warning of being made a healthy scratch this past weekend (he ended up playing Saturday) will inspire the puck-moving defenseman to do more. Maybe not. Maybe it's time to cut ties. With fantasy monsters P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov on board, the Canadiens only need so much from Diaz.
Sean Bergenheim, LW, Florida Panthers (owned in 2 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Skating with Aleksander Barkov and Brad Boyes, Bergenheim is riding his own little hot-streak (five goals and one assist in six games). It's also worth nothing the rookie Barkov -- owned in less than 2 percent of ESPN.com leagues -- has eight points in his past nine contests.
Saku Koivu, C, Anaheim Ducks (owned in 4 percent of ESPN.com leagues): With four goals and three assists in his past six games, the NHL's elder Koivu brother is on somewhat of a tear. May as well utilize him while he's hot. Something is certainly clicking for Koivu with linemates Andrew Cogliano and Daniel Winnik in Anaheim at present.
Zemgus Girgensons, C, Buffalo Sabres (owned in 1 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Even before hooking up with Matt Moulson, Girgensons was beginning to find his scoring groove. Now the 19-year-old rookie is shooting more -- seven shots alone against the Phoenix Coyotes on Dec. 23 -- and seeing more ice time. The former 14th overall draft pick (2012) probably qualifies as a "trending up" contender, full-stop, but we're slightly wary of how Buffalo's forward lines will shake out once Cody Hodgson returns from a hand injury.
Joe Vitale, C, Pittsburgh Penguins (owned in 1 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Until coach Dan Bylsma settles on a more suitable option, Vitale appears to be the favored candidate to fill in for Pascal Dupuis (who needs knee surgery and is out indefinitely) on a line with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz. And once Evgeni Malkin returns from a leg injury -- as early as Tuesday -- James Neal won't be available to sub in with Crosby and Kunitz all that often. He'll be too busy putting up points with his own recuperated, regular linemate. As long as you don't expect too much from Vitale, he could serve as a solid plug through the short term. Otherwise, keep a close eye on who falls in with Crosby's line instead.
Injuries and other notes
After missing Saturday's tilt with a mysterious injury, Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara took part in practice Monday. Great news for both Chara's fantasy owners and those gifted with goalie Tuukka Rask, who has an easier time keeping the puck out of the net with the imposing Slovak skater defending ... Forward Darren Helm (shoulder) is pegged to return for the Red Wings against the Nashville Predators Monday. Helm is expected to center a line with Justin Abdelkader and rookie Tomas Jurco ... Perhaps no P.A. Parenteau for the Colorado Avalanche for a while. The 30-year-old winger suffered what looked to be a serious leg injury Sunday against the Winnipeg Jets.