You can almost hear the wheezing from just south of the Kentucky/Tennessee border, as GM David Poile breathes new life into a young offensive defenseman's stagnant playing career. Traded from the New York Rangers to the Nashville Predators for stay-at-home defenseman Kevin Klein, 23-year-old Michael Del Zotto has a fresh shot at re-establishing himself as an above-average, puck-moving commodity.
After four seasons of trudging in and out of John Tortorella's doghouse, Del Zotto fell well short of endearing himself to new Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. Now we'll get the chance to see how he responds to Barry Trotz. If the defensive-minded coach can find a way of suppressing the giveaways without quashing the former first-round pick's offensive talent, this new match could be magical indeed.
For now -- and before Del Zotto (owned in 24 percent of ESPN.com leagues) even steps a skate on the ice in his new sweater -- we at least have a sense of how and where he fits. As Josh Cooper of the Tennessean explains, the left-handed shot was sought as an appropriate partner for top rookie defenseman Seth Jones (owned in 21 percent of ESPN.com leagues):
"The Predators had too many right-handed shooting defenseman, so Jones had to play a little out of position on the left side -- not his natural spot. Del Zotto is a left-handed shot and should slide in quickly with the rookie on the second pair as a left defenseman. While Del Zotto doesn't fit the bill as a veteran lefty who could help mentor Jones, he does have 292 games of NHL experience and 32 games of playoff experience. Del Zotto and Jones is a duo that could grow together."
Could grow and collect some pretty impressive numbers together, that is. So far, this deal seems win-win for fantasy owners of both Del Zotto and Jones. The only obvious loser here is Ryan Ellis, and his ownership rate is insignificant.
But you know who else is a right-handed shot on the Predators' blue line? Shea Weber. While Trotz & Co. are unlikely to mess with the effective Weber-Roman Josi pairing at even strength, who's to say they won't experiment with a Weber-Del Zotto combo on the squad's top power-play unit? Josi -- who's been hotter than freshly simmered fondue of late -- would lose some value if that were to happen. It's a huge if, of course, but worth keeping an eye on, particularly if the Swiss D-man is on your own roster.
Meanwhile, back in New York, Klein is expected to pair with John Moore on the blue line. While Klein's fantasy worth is negligible (we're being kind here), Moore could soon gain in value. Not only is the lefty being moved back to his natural side, he may also see additional time with the man advantage. While Vigneault depends a lot on Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi in all situations, that trend may not endure as the season wears on. And Moore -- who accumulated nine points in only 13 regular-season games with the Rangers last spring -- is owned in less than one percent of ESPN.com leagues. Don't disregard him as a potential dark horse.
Alex Tanguay, LW, Colorado Avalanche (owned in five percent of ESPN.com leagues): After missing nearly three months with a knee injury, Tanguay is pegged to return to Colorado's lineup Friday. If not immediately, the 34-year-old veteran is anticipated to eventually re-snag his spot alongside former linemates Gabriel Landeskog and Paul Stastny, effectively bumping rookie Nathan MacKinnon elsewhere. To be sure, keep an eye on how it all shakes out over the first week of Tanguay's return.
Mark Scheifele, C/RW, Winnipeg Jets (owned in 14 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Not enough of you out there are adequately smitten with this young fella. Not only is Scheifele averaging nearly a point per game (since Dec. 12), now he's playing with a healthy Evander Kane and Blake Wheeler, and plying his trade for a new coach that's clearly comfortable with throwing him out there on the top power-play unit. Plus, he's averaging close to 19 minutes per game (these days) and is boasting a relatively healthy plus-4 in plus/minus on the season. We don't get the low ownership, but that just means that there are many out there who can snag him for free right now.
Cody Hodgson, C, Buffalo Sabres (owned in 48 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Chumming around with Scheifele as a fellow under-appreciated fantasy asset, Hodgson is averaging a point per game since coming back from a hand injury this month. The Sabres aren't scoring a lot of goals as a group (averaging 1.73 per game), but not because Hodgson and top power-play line companion Matt Moulson aren't doing their bit. The 23-year-old center is worth owning in most leagues of significant size.
Braden Holtby, G, Washington Capitals (owned in 61 percent of ESPN.com leagues): After an awful six-week period, has the 24-year-old finally turned the corner? With Philipp Grubauer reassigned to Hershey, and Michal Neuvirth appearing more than a bit blah, the Capitals had better hope so. The truth is, Holtby has looked like his old, impressive self in recent play, sporting a .924 save percentage in his past three appearances. Even those with decent netminding on hand might want to give the Caps' No. 1 an extra thought as insurance, particularly if he's readily available.
Dennis Wideman, D, Calgary Flames, (owned in 48 percent of ESPN.com leagues): From an offensive standpoint, blueliner Kris Russell is getting it done for the Flames, and Wideman is not. So Russell is skating with the team's No. 1 power-play unit, with fellow blueliner Mark Giordano, relegating Wideman to the secondary assembly. Cobble that bit together with a reduction in ice time and an icky minus-13, and you may want to temper expectations of the 30-year-old sniper for the next little while.
Loui Eriksson, LW/RW, Boston Bruins (owned in 41 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Five games in, post-concussion recovery, and Eriksson is still competing on the Bruins' third forward line with Ryan Spooner and Carl Soderberg. That's not where the winger's fantasy owners want him settled, especially since limited minutes with the man advantage haven't resulted in positive markings on the scoresheet either.
Justin Faulk, D, Carolina Hurricanes (owned in 81 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Even before the Hurricanes acquired John-Michael Liles in trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Faulk had lost a fair amount of his fantasy sparkle. With only one goal and three helpers in his past 20 games, the 21-year-old hasn't produced up to snuff recently. And given that Liles is a viable and experienced option to anchor the Canes' top power play, it may be the right occasion to give Faulk a "time-out" from your own lineup.
Chuck Kobasew, RW, Pittsburgh Penguins (owned in less than one percent of ESPN.com leagues): Only -- only -- because he's skating on a top line with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz does Kobasew merit mention here. Mind you, given the plum chance to pull off his best Pascal Dupuis impression, Kobasew hasn't made much of a splash to date. But he did once collect 42 points in 68 games with the Boston Bruins (2008-09). So, there's that. We're curious to see where the Pens go with this.
Andrej Meszaros, D, Philadelphia Flyers (owned in 23 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Remember, Meszaros was once a reasonably productive fantasy performer, and not that long ago. Now, nearly two seasons, a slew of injuries (back, Achilles, shoulder), and lots of talk about his heart not being in it anymore later, and Meszaros is re-visiting the, um, glory days of old. Honestly, with 11 points in the past 12 contests, the veteran defenseman is worth picking up in most leagues. At least for a stretch.
Jonas Gustavsson, G, Detroit Red Wings (owned in 33 percent of ESPN.com leagues): With Jimmy Howard (knee) back in the infirmary for at least a week, Gustavsson reclaims top-banana status in Detroit. Having defenseman Jonathan Ericsson back in the lineup helps in the goals-against department. And the pending healthy returns of forwards Pavel Datsyuk (very soon), Daniel Alfredsson (soon), and Johan Franzen (hopefully soon) certainly won't hurt the Red Wings' chances overall. Gustavsson could be in for a fairly successful stretch.
Joe Whitney, LW, New Jersey Devils (owned in zero ESPN.com leagues): Who? Yeah, not exactly a well-recognized name for most hockey fans. But supporters of the Albany Devils will know Whitney as their club's leading scorer. And with Reid Boucher sent back to the AHL, someone has to slide in on the NHL Devils' top line with Travis Zajac and Jaromir Jagr. That someone, apparently, will be the former Boston College forward, at least for Friday's tilt with the Washington Capitals. We'll have to see if the diminutive winger is able to make a grand impression in his first NHL game. He's clearly a long shot for now.
Forward Zach Parise (foot) is expected back in the lineup Thursday, when the Minnesota Wild face the Chicago Blackhawks. Look for Parise to play on a line with Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter, while Jason Pominville skates with Mikael Granlund and Dany Heatley. So, no more Jason Zucker (for now) in the top-six ... Troy Brouwer will likely continue to fill in for Alex Ovechkin on the Capitals' top line with Marcus Johansson and Nicklas Backstrom. That being said, Ovechkin is slated to travel with the team to Newark ahead of Friday's tilt with the Devils.