Many NHL teams have turned their eyes to the future at this point of the season. It's true for fantasy hockey franchises as well. Whether you play in a re-draft or a keeper league or if you are out of the running for the championship, you are probably spending your fantasy thinking time on equal parts next hockey season and this year's baseball season. But that doesn't mean there aren't some moves you can make this season that will help you out down the line. And no, we aren't just talking about keeper leagues here (in fact, the players we will mention shouldn't be available in keeper leagues). We are talking about players you can pick up that will give you a competitive punch down the stretch this season and familiarize you with them for next season when they have an expanded role and fantasy worth.
Evgeny Kuznetsov, F, Washington Capitals:A high-end talent that we've been waiting for in the NHL for some time, Kuznetsov has not disappointed. After going scoreless in his first two games, Kuznetsov has six points in the past six games on the second line for the Capitals. Playing with Nicklas Backstrom and Troy Brouwer, Kuznetsov has collected five assists and picked up his first goal on Tuesday. He is already getting trust from coach Adam Oates, as Kuznetsov was on the ice to score the game-tying goal against the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday with 42 seconds remaining, the Caps short-handed and the goaltender pulled. He is beginning to add some power-play time to his resume and will only continue building toward what will surely be a campaign for the Calder next season. Fantasy owners can confidently roll with him now, though, and benefit from his immediate impact in the NHL.
Calle Jarnkrok, F, Nashville Predators:The centerpiece of the deal for David Legwand with the Detroit Red Wings, Jarnkrok had an instantaneous impact with his new franchise on two levels. He scored seven points in five games with the Milwaukee Admirals after switching franchises in the AHL following the trade. That prompted a promotion to the Predators, where Jarnkrok has proceeded to score four points in four games and post a plus-5 rating. He is playing with Craig Smith and Gabriel Bourque and is giving a great audition to be part of a youth movement that will inevitably begin for the Predators next season. Jarnkrok's bread and butter in three professional seasons in Sweden was his smooth passing and that has translated to the NHL. As long as he is playing on a line with a shooting machine like Smith, expect good things.
Ryan Strome, F, New York Islanders: With Kyle Okposo hampered by a lower-body injury, combined with the continued absence of John Tavares and Michael Grabner, Strome is still being left to anchor a second line for the Islanders, rather than try his hand on the first line. But no matter. Even with linemates like the body-checking specialist Matt Martin and defense-first Colin McDonald, Strome is finding a way to contribute. The trio was plus-4 and Strome had a pair of points on Tuesday. They teamed up for another goal on Thursday. Strome is working hard to earn playing time for the Isles, who are definitely looking ahead to next season. If he is finding a way to create some offense with checking line players, it is a very good sign for what he can do in the future on a scoring line.
Martin Marincin, D, Edmonton Oilers: Marincin is starting to get some power-play time for the ever-rebuilding Oilers, and he has a head start on what is going to be a very good young crop of defensemen next season. Justin Schultz's chances to lock down a role as power-play quarterback will be challenged next season by Marincin, Oscar Klefbom and maybe even Darnell Nurse. But Marincin is quickly collecting experience, having played enough games with the Oilers this season to burn his rookie status and land a spot on the Slovakian team at the Olympics. He is less likely than the forwards already mentioned here to help fantasy owners with points this season, but remains a very interesting target headed into next season. If the Oilers have talented defense behind their talented offense, things may finally turn a corner for the franchise. Marincin could be a big part of that change.
Looking for offense
Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks have one of the best schedules for offense on the Forecaster next week and happen to boast a veteran scorer that recently joined up with two top-10 fantasy skaters. Huh? Teemu Selanne is available in 80 percent of ESPN leagues and is currently rolling on the Ducks' top line with Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. There is no question that Selanne is the lead pickup for fantasy owners heading into next week. The Ducks catch two games against the Edmonton Oilers, as well as contests with the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators. There are plenty of reasons to expect big things from the top line and if Selanne stays a part of it, he can be a game-changer for the fantasy playoffs.
But you don't have to stop looking there. Mathieu Perreault has been hot lately and is getting power-play time with Perry and Getzlaf. He is a decent add-on in deeper leagues, as is Patrick Maroon, who is playing with Perreault at even strength and joining him on the four-forward power play with Perry and Getzlaf.
New York Islanders: With or without Kyle Okposo, the Islanders will be collecting some points next week during a favorable four-game schedule. Either way, both Anders Lee (available in 90 percent of ESPN leagues) and Frans Nielsen (available in 9 percent of ESPN leagues) will be available to help fantasy owners. If Okposo remains out through next week, Josh Bailey is a target on the top line as his replacement. Though still underperforming offensively compared to his pedigree, Bailey has shown an ability to shine during brief periods when the Isles have leaned on him for offense.
Looking for defensemen
Hampus Lindholm, Anaheim Ducks: Cam Fowler remains sidelined, Francois Beauchemin is being spotted in the press box and Lindholm is proving that he is the future on the Ducks' blue line. Still available in 52 percent of ESPN leagues, Lindholm sports a plus-29 on the season and is now getting first-unit power-play duty. If Lindholm is not available in your league, Sami Vatanen is the next tier. With three assists in two games since being called up from the AHL, Vatanen is earning second-unit power-play time and is available in 99 percent of ESPN leagues. As already mentioned in this space, the Ducks have a great week ahead on offense.
Looking for goaltending
Anton Khudobin, Carolina Hurricanes: Cam Ward was a threat for a bit, sure, but Khudobin was dropped in far too many fantasy leagues. That's good news for you, as he remains available in 32 percent of ESPN leagues heading into a strong schedule, defensively, for the Canes. Khudobin has the clear advantage in the battle with Ward for netminding duties and, although they're still a playoff long shot, the Hurricanes are still pushing for every possible point.
Thomas Greiss, Phoenix Coyotes: The Coyotes don't have the best schedule on the Forecaster, but Greiss is widely available, has been lights-out in relief of Mike Smith and Smith is being re-evaluated for his lower-body injury on Friday. If the prognosis calls for another week of rest, Greiss could pick you up two wins and solid ratios next week during a crucial time of the season.
• Ondrej Pavelec is getting close to a return for the Winnipeg Jets, but Al Montoya has done well enough in his stead to earn a decent split of the remaining duties this season. He could even push for additional playing time in a situation similar to the one for the Hurricanes.
• While Roberto Luongo has been a fantasy darling in goal for the Florida Panthers since the trade deadline, Dan Ellis won't have the same success. If Luongo's injury suffered on Thursday is serious, stay away from the team's crease.
• The Vancouver Canucks are struggling with injured Sedins and a cold Ryan Kesler, but the duo of Zack Kassian and David Booth have been hot on the third line. Unfortunately, the Canucks have only two games next week, so they can't help much.
• Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar were quite a duo in the AHL for the Grand Rapids Griffins last season. Now they are on a line again and doing damage for the Detroit Red Wings. Tatar has three consecutive multipoint games since being paired up with his old linemate from the AHL.
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: Half the league plays a four-game schedule next week, so we won't list them all here. Suffice it to say that Jonas Hiller ($11.6M), Semyon Varlamov ($12.2M), Jonathan Quick ($11.4M), Craig Anderson ($10.9M) and Ryan Miller ($11.3M) are the best bets in this game based on schedule and skill. If you need to spare a few million, Anton Khudobin ($10.1M) is a value pick in net. Avoid the Vancouver Canucks and Nashville Predators, as both teams have only two games.
Hot streaks: Erik Karlsson ($7.9M) has four games and has been hot. He should be a lock. Alec Martinez ($5.6M) is your value pick on defense. The Blues' top line has been on fire and has a four-game week on tap. Starting all three of T.J. Oshie ($7.9M), David Backes ($7.4M) and Alexander Steen ($7.8M) could only help your team. Gustav Nyquist ($6.0M) and Tomas Tatar ($5.5M) should also stay hot for the Detroit Red Wings and come at a much lower price.
My roster for next week
I'm making steady gains now after the terrible start to Segment 2, in the 47.4 percentile with 140 points as of Friday. My salary cap is $105.0 million.
Jonathan Quick, G, LA -- $11.4M
Semyon Varlamov, G, COL -- $12.2M
Alex Pietrangelo, D, STL -- $7.5M
Hampus Lindholm, D, ANA -- $6.0M
Erik Karlsson, D, OTT -- $7.7 ($7.9M on market)
James Wisniewski, D, CBJ -- $7.2M
David Backes, F, STL -- $7.4M
Sidney Crosby, F, PIT -- $8.9M ($9.5M on market)
Claude Giroux, F, PHI -- $9.4M
Matt Duchene, F, COL -- $9.0M
Corey Perry, F, ANA -- $9.1
Ryan Getzlaf, F, ANA -- $9.1M