Unless you play in a league with very late trade deadline, there goes your best route to improving in the standings. No, we didn't say only route, just your best one. The trade deadline in standard ESPN leagues was Feb. 28, but many custom leagues will push it back a week after the NHL's trade deadline. Well, it's been more than a week since the March 5 NHL trade deadline, so the trading window in the vast majority of fantasy hockey leagues is now closed.
The best route to improving in the standings is, naturally, through trade. The players who can have the biggest impact in the standings cannot be picked up off the wire because they are, as a general rule, owned by someone in your league. With the trade deadline behind us, that takes all those players off the table to you.
While trading is the best route, it isn't the only route. There are still those players sitting on the free-agent pile waiting to help you out as best they can. In the interest of finding a few gems, let's pull out the best of who is available in shallow, medium and deep fantasy leagues.
Ales Hemsky, F, Ottawa Senators (available in 62 percent of ESPN leagues): Hemsky has a new lease on life on a line with Jason Spezza. Three games, six assists: That should say it all. When Spezza finds a situation that works for him, he tends to thrive until injury busts up the party. Hemsky is easily the best widely available forward for shallow leagues to take advantage of as the season winds down.
Jason Demers, D, San Jose Sharks (available in 58 percent of ESPN leagues): Demers has gone hot and cold this season, so his ownership numbers are still significant. That said, he is available in more than half of ESPN leagues. He has six points and a plus-9 rating in his past eight games.
Anton Khudobin, G, Carolina Hurricanes (available in 32 percent of ESPN leagues): Cam Ward has started the past two Hurricanes games and has the better career track record. No question that the team will ride the hot hand in net, either. But the thing is, Khudobin has a significantly better track record this season and is the only reason the team is still in striking distance of a playoff spot. Ward may have the advantage at the moment, but don't go dropping Khudobin. There is a lot of hockey left and a lot of time for Khudobin to find the form that pushed him to a January where he went 10-4 with a 2.19 goals-against average and .927 save percentage. Remember, he only had one poor outing. One.
Carl Soderberg, F, Boston Bruins (available in 85 percent of ESPN leagues): Loui Eriksson has found his scoring touch since coming back from the Olympic break. While it hasn't quite earned him a promotion back to the second line, Soderberg has to be hoping that move won't happen. Soderberg has seven points in nine games since the break thanks to his connection with Eriksson.
Dmitry Kulikov, D, Florida Panthers (available in 92 percent of ESPN leagues): You'll have to abandon your plus/minus to use him, but Kulikov is providing value in other areas as the Panthers try to leave an impression for next season. Kulikov has four power play points this entire season and three of them have come in the past four games. Clearly he likes the look of the current man advantage on the team.
Jhonas Enroth, G, Buffalo Sabres (available in 63 percent of ESPN leagues): Michal Neuvirth has looked darned good in goal for the Sabres since he was acquired at the deadline, but don't think that Enroth isn't the team's goaltender of the future. He should still get two starts for everyone one that Neuvirth receives over the remainder of the campaign. And it's not as if Enroth has looked shabby out there. He is 3-3 since taking over for the departed Ryan Miller with some solid games against top-tier competition such as the Boston Bruins, San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks.
Anders Lee, F, New York Islanders (available in 96 percent of ESPN leagues): While he didn't score close to the level of Ryan Strome in the AHL this season, Lee was next in line for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers this season. He had 41 points in 54 games before joining the depleted Isles for the remainder of the season. His advantage over Strome for deep-league owners is that Lee is being given the chance to play alongside Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen for now. That includes time on the power play. Lee has seven points in seven games this season.
Alec Martinez, D, Los Angeles Kings (available in 98 percent of ESPN leagues): Since returning from the Olympic break, Martinez has been using his role on the Kings' second power-play unit to turn in fantasy value. He has five points in seven games since returning from an elbow injury and three of them have come on the man advantage.
Joni Ortio, G, Calgary Flames (available in 96 percent of ESPN leagues): He is available, he is highly skilled and he is playing for a team with nothing to lose. That's a dangerous combination and the Anaheim Ducks learned it the hard way on Wednesday when Ortio and the Flames beat them 7-2. Ortio has three wins in six games and arguably hasn't had a bad outing since making his NHL debut after the Olympic break. What's more, the Flames seem to be limiting shots against him as they play with the kind of abandon only a team that knows they are out of the playoffs can.
Looking for offense
Columbus Blue Jackets: The Blue Jackets have been scoring and winning games of late and head into a four-game week with a very decent Forecaster rating. The team has been absolutely spreading the offensive love around though. Basically, the Blue Jackets have three lines doing equal damage lately. That isn't the greatest situation for fantasy owners, but there are still places that are better to lean for help than others. If you need universal availability before taking a look, Matt Calvert is your man. The talented youngster is currently enjoying a great opportunity on a line with Brandon Dubinsky and Nathan Horton; this trio also makes up the Blue Jackets' first power-play unit. If any unowned commodity on the team is going to step up, it's most likely going to be Calvert. But don't completely overlook Boone Jenner. A preseason sleeper for playing time with Marian Gaborik, he is in a much different situation now. Playing on a line with Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno, Jenner has points in two straight games and has seven points in his past 12 contests.
Tampa Bay Lightning: The Bolts have four games next week, including contests against the troubled Vancouver Canucks and the possibly Jonathan Bernier-less (lower-body injury) Toronto Maple Leafs. Steven Stamkos finally made his presence on Thursday with a pair of points. It was his first game with a new line combination, and that should be the first place you look for free agents for next week. Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn have plenty to gain from playing with Stamkos, and Johnson was already doing enough to warrant ownership in fantasy leagues. In fact, Johnson now has points in five straight contests and has been placed on a line with one of the best scorers in the NHL. That certainly can't hurt his value. If you need a recommendation for players more widely available than Johnson, Valtteri Filppula, Ryan Callahan or Ondrej Palat, you'll have to look to the defense. Radko Gudas made his return from injury on Thursday night. When on his game, he offers a nice combination of penalty minutes and points.
Looking for defensemen
Andrej Meszaros, D, Boston Bruins: The Bruins have one of the best rated weeks in the Forecaster, Meszaros is widely available and you may have heard of his new sometimes-defense partner, Zdeno Chara. Meszaros and Dougie Hamilton are sharing Chara since Meszaros joined the Bruins at the trade deadline. But if the going gets tough, expect coach Claude Julien to lean toward the veteran for more playing time with Chara. That will mean points, as Chara has scored in three consecutive games.
T.J. Brodie, D, Calgary Flames: Mark Giordano has been on fire lately, so why not grab his defense partner and try to draft off that value. It's modest, but Brodie has three points and a plus-6 rating in the past six games.
Looking for goaltending
James Reimer, G, Toronto Maple Leafs: With Kari Lehtonen and Craig Anderson looking less injured than first thought, we are left with only Reimer as an available goaltender in fantasy leagues that could be in line for extra starts next week. But to be fair, this is fairly speculative. As of Friday morning, there isn't much information available on the lower-body injury Jonathan Bernier suffered on Thursday against the Los Angeles Kings. But Reimer came into the game in the first period and shut out the Kings on 31 shots to pick up the win in relief. We know Reimer can have bursts of fantasy value. If Bernier turns out to be hurt enough to miss a week, Reimer is definitely a fantasy option as the Leafs face a run of opponents that haven't been the most dangerous of late.
Each week the Fantasy Forecaster will also include some advice for the ESPN Hockey Challenge. This is the salary cap game that allows you free reign over your fantasy hockey decisions within a starting budget of $100 million in fantasy money. For more on the game, click here.
Schedule: The Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, New Jersey Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues, Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs all have four games next week. There are a ton of goalies to choose from on the four-game teams. Just avoid the New York Islanders, who only have two games.
Hot streaks: You should make the Minnesota Wild offense a big part of your plans. The team has five games next week and has a top line that has been scoring at will lately. Zach Parise ($6.5M), Jason Pominville ($6.9M) and Mikael Granlund ($6.2M) should be locks for your roster. Ryan Suter ($7.0M) on defense, as well.
My roster for next week:
Still a terrible start to Segment 2. In the 22 percentile with 50 points as of Friday. My salary cap is $100.7 million.
Ryan Miller, G, STL - $11.2M
Pekka Rinne, G, NSH - $9.0M ($8.7M on market)
Ryan Suter, D, MIN - $7.0M
Zdeno Chara, D, BOS - $6.8M
Dion Phaneuf, D, TOR - $5.9M ($6.0M on market)
Shea Weber, D, NSH - $7.2M
Steven Stamkos, F, TBL - $5.5M ($5.3M on market)
Sidney Crosby, F, PIT - $8.9M ($9.1M on market)
Mikael Granlund, F, MIN - $6.2M
Jason Pominville, F, MIN - $6.9M
Evgeni Malkin, F, PIT - $8.6M ($8.8M on market)
Zach Parise, F, MIN - $6.5M