Welcome to fantasy hockey's short but intense "wacky" season. With campaign-long team success comes the springtime luxury of playing who you want, how you want, and when you want for a handful of privileged NHL coaches. That club-specific bonus can serve as a real kick in the teeth for many fantasy owners. Often, dynamite players on dominant squads -- you know, the veterans who helped get you into the position of fantasy contention in the first place -- take a step back to rest up before the playoffs get underway. Owners who fail to adapt to these ever-changing developments and club-mandated decisions will fall short of winning it all. Guaranteed.
As discussed in depth by ESPN Insider Craig Custance, the Boston Bruins have earned themselves the ability to rest some key figures before the postseason. Sitting on top of the Eastern Conference with a nine-point pillow on the second-place Pittsburgh Penguins, Claude Julien's charges have little left for which to compete. So why run Jarome Iginla (day-to-day with a lower-body injury), Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci or Zdeno Chara ragged? Limited minutes, if not full games off in some cases, lie in wait for Boston's best.
On the flip side, other Bruins will be called upon to pick up the slack. For instance, forwards Loui Eriksson and Reilly Smith, and defensemen Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton are expected to see additional playing time, including valuable power-play minutes. Owned in only 50 percent of ESPN.com leagues, Eriksson strikes as a particularly promising late-season addition.
A similar situation is playing out in the West. For instance, as well as the blossoming 22-year-old has played, Andrew Shaw is still no Jonathan Toews. While the Chicago Blackhawks -- only battling for home ice at this stage -- wisely shelve their injured captain for the duration of the regular season, Marian Hossa is instead saddled with Shaw as his center (alongside fellow winger Patrick Sharp), and that's if Hossa even plays the entire rest of the regular season. Banged up with an upper-body injury not that long ago, the 35-year-old could likely benefit from some time off as well.
Also, there's word that Alexander Steen of the St. Louis Blues will sit out Thursday's game (vs. the Buffalo Sabres) with a minor upper-body injury. Again, the Western Conference-leading Blues can afford to scratch their star players, an investment for potential playoff glory. For now, rookie winger Dmitrij Jaskin is fixed to serve in Steen's place on a top line with T.J. Oshie and David Backes.
This obviously isn't to suggest you boot your fantasy studs from Boston, Chicago, St. Louis or other contenders to the nearest curb. But keep a close eye on who's in or out on a game-by-game basis, and be prepared to plug in another capable body when needed.
Patric Hornqvist, RW, Nashville Predators (owned in 55 percent of ESPN.com leagues): If Hornqvist is bummed about his club's almost certain exclusion from the playoff picture, he's not making a show of it on the ice. Skating with Mike Fisher and Matt Cullen -- at even strength and with the man advantage -- the 27-year-old has four goals, five assists and 33 shots in his past seven games.
Andrei Loktionov, LW, Carolina Hurricanes (owned in three percent of ESPN.com leagues): Skating with Eric Staal, Loktionov has eight points in his past eight contests. A restricted free agent this summer, the 23-year-old would certainly benefit from ending 2013-14 on a high note.
Ilya Bryzgalov, G, Minnesota Wild (owned in 17 percent of ESPN.com leagues): As outlined in Wednesday's Fantasy Grapevine, Bryzgalov is favored to start the bulk of the Wild's final six games while Darcy Kuemper nurses an upper-body injury. Despite Bryzgalov's unexceptional numbers this campaign, we anticipate an inspired finish to the regular season from the predictably unpredictable pending UFA. It also doesn't hurt that the Wild are defensively sound.
Mikhail Grabovski, C, Washington Capitals (owned in 25 percent of ESPN.com leagues): If serving as a winger on a forward line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom doesn't get Grabovski going, we're not sure what will. After sitting out a month with an ankle injury, the 30-year-old is already through his two-game warm-up. Now it's time to break out. This newly formed trio -- on an exceptionally desperate Capitals team -- should also motivate Ovechkin to emerge from his maligned even-strength scoring slump.
Paul Martin, D, Pittsburgh Penguins (owned in 26 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Pledging to return this weekend from a broken hand, if not sooner -- perhaps Thursday? -- Martin is hoping to get back into the groove before the postseason. If you need to plug a hole on your own blue line, the 33-year-old puck-moving defenseman could be a great, late addition.
Pavel Datsyuk, C, Detroit Red Wings (owned in 80 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Due back Friday for the Red Wings, Datsyuk (knee) is pegged to skate on a forward line with Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader. Re-inserting the Russian superstar into your lineup serves as a no-brainer; however, there's a fresh case to be made for exploiting Helm and Abdelkader -- as Datsyuk's linemates -- as well. Both are owned in approximately one percent of ESPN.com leagues.
Kyle Okposo, RW, New York Islanders (owned in 92 percent of ESPN.com leagues): On the opposite end of the NHL's success spectrum from the Bruins, Blues etc., the Islanders have equally little reason to lay it all out there. As a result, we may not see much, if any, of Kyle Okposo before the bitter end of the campaign. Nursing a lower-body injury, the Isles' top scorer has already missed four straight games. With nothing on the line, the club may as well let unseasoned rookies like Ryan Strome (six points in five games) experiment and strut their stuff in preparation for next fall.
Ryan O'Reilly, C/LW, Colorado Avalanche (owned in 100 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Similar to the Toews/Hossa situation in Chicago, the loss of Matt Duchene sticks a deflating pin in O'Reilly's fantasy value in Colorado. Stuck on a line with center John Mitchell -- in lieu of Duchene -- and Jamie McGinn, O'Reilly is in position to cap off the 2013-14 relatively quietly. The Gabriel Landeskog-Paul Stastny-Nathan MacKinnon forward unit should provide the bulk of scoring through the Avalanche's final seven games.
Mike Richards, C, Los Angeles Kings (owned in 86 percent of ESPN.com leagues): From a production standpoint, the final third of 2013-14 hasn't been Richards' best stretch. With only six points in his past 26 contests, the 29-year-old is presently skating on a line with Kyle Clifford and Trevor Lewis. Don't expect a flurry of scoring from Richards to end the campaign.
Mikael Granlund, LW/C, Minnesota Wild (owned in 44 percent of ESPN.com leagues): The 22-year-old Finn is ruled out indefinitely with a head injury, which may be a concussion. If you're challenging in a non-keeper league, cut him loose ASAP. Erik Haula is expected to fill in on the Wild's second line with Matt Moulson and Jason Pominville.
Curtis McElhinney, G, Columbus Blue Jackets, (owned in one percent of ESPN.com leagues): The Blue Jackets have three games in four days coming up (Thursday through Sunday). We're betting McElhinney starts one of them, to give Sergei Bobrovsky a break, and McElhinney has been excellent in relief of late, allowing only five goals on 81 shots in his past three contests (two of them victories).
Brian Elliott, G, St. Louis Blues (owned in 55 percent of ESPN.com leagues): While Ryan Miller enjoys a rare night off, Elliott faces the Sabres on Thursday. He pitched a shutout in his most recent start, which was 12 days ago.
The shoulder injury bothering Ryan McDonagh is reportedly not serious. That being said, the New York Rangers defenseman won't suit up against the Colorado Avalanche Thursday. Don't be surprised if McDonagh sits out Saturday's tilt with the Ottawa Senators as well ... Henrik Sedin (knee) may be back in the Vancouver Canucks' lineup as soon as this weekend.