Front Line: Disappointing forwards

NHL teams will begin crossing the halfway point of this shortened regular season on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. Normally, we would talk about 24 games of hockey as a small sample size and not enough with which to make major fantasy roster decisions. But this is not a normal season.

Knowing that it's the halfway point of the season, you may be getting frustrated with some of the fantasy players on your roster. In fact, let's take that one step further. Your frustration very well could have already manifested and caused you to jettison a player you had complete faith in just six weeks ago. It's likely that many players who were thought of as key fantasy components at the start of this campaign have been put out to pasture on your league's free-agent list.

But some of them probably don't belong there. Some of them may be more than worthy of being stashed on the bench in even the shallowest of ESPN leagues. This week, we will take a quick glance at some of the players being dropped in ESPN fantasy leagues and decide whether they should be left alone or scooped up and stashed for future use.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers (dropped in 2 percent of ESPN leagues last week, available in 2 percent): OK, so being dropped in 2 percent of ESPN leagues isn't an overwhelming number. But being dropped at all is pretty significant if you can remember how the hockey world regarded Nugent-Hopkins about a year ago. RNH put in a phenomenal campaign as an NHL rookie, potting 52 points in 62 games. Now he is defining how low a sophomore slump can sink. With just one goal and seven points in 20 games, Nugent-Hopkins has as many points as Raffi Torres, Marcel Goc and Casey Cizikas. That is not the company we expect him to be keeping. So what's the issue? It's not linemates. Nugent-Hopkins is sharing the ice with Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall almost exclusively. Could it be power-play opportunities? After all, Nugent-Hopkins chalked up 23 of his points on the man advantage last season. Nope, that's not the problem, either. Nugent-Hopkins trails only Justin Schultz and Hall for power-play time on ice per game. What about how good the Oilers' power play is and how often it is on the ice? Also not the issue. The Oilers power play is currently converting at a 21.7 percent clip compared to last season's 20.6 percent. Also, the Oilers are on an 82-game pace for 377 power-play opportunities. They only had 262 in 82 games last season.

Nugent-Hopkins could be experiencing a legitimate sophomore slump. While proving the existence of a sophomore slump may not be an easy task, surely there is a reason for the existence of the term aside from the fun alliteration it provides. As fantasy owners, we can't really explain what the problem is with Nugent-Hopkins, but we can move him to our fantasy bench and wait him out. He is too good to simply drop in any format or league size. If you do see him hit the wire in your league, scoop him up for your bench and wait.

Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues (dropped in 15 percent of ESPN leagues last week, available in 75 percent): If you can think back to early 2012 and our collective love for the rookie Nugent-Hopkins, it should be easy to think back five weeks and remember how great Tarasenko seemed. That's why it is somewhat surprising to see him on the free-agent list in three-quarters of ESPN leagues. It is certainly troubling to hear the upstart rookie has a concussion with no timetable for a return, but remember how good this guy was for the first eight games of the season? Tarasenko scored highlight-reel goals while compiling 10 points in his first eight NHL games. Of course, the league quickly realized this kid was skilled, and during the next nine games (before he was injured), Tarasenko had only three points and a minus-7 rating. But he was beginning to adjust to the adjustments made on him before the injury. Tarasenko rode an exercise bike at the rink on Saturday, and though he hasn't resumed skating, physical activity is a good start. The road to concussion recovery is different for every player, but if Tarasenko returns in the next week or two, he still has almost half of the season to contribute. If you have an injured reserve spot open on your roster, there is no reason not to have Tarasenko occupying it, rather than sitting on the free-agent pile waiting for someone else to pick him up when the first news breaks about him skating again.

Kyle Turris, Ottawa Senators (dropped in 23 percent of ESPN leagues last week, available in 40 percent): This Senators squad has amazing team defense. Look no further than the fact that three different goaltenders have accumulated above-average stats while starting for the Senators. But this team has no offense without Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson. The leaders of the team's scoring are both on the sideline, possibly for the remainder of the regular season. The lack of scoring shows. It was easy to try and remain positive about Turris' chances without Spezza. That could have meant more leadership among the forward crew for this young player still trying to break into his scorer's mold. But after Karlsson went down, it's no surprise that fantasy owners have thrown in the towel on many of the Senators' skaters. In fact, without Karlsson, Spezza or Milan Michalek, the Senators have managed to score fewer than two goals per game. Maybe -- just maybe -- once Michalek returns to the club from a knee injury, the Senators can cobble together a line with Turris, Daniel Alfredsson and Michalek that can make enough noise to be fantasy relevant. But that is only a maybe and you should not be faulted for casting Turris aside to make room for a better source of offense on your team.

Rising and falling

Top 100 Forwards

Note: Sean Allen's top 100 forwards are ranked for their expected performance in ESPN standard leagues from this point on, not on the statistics that have already been accrued. ESPN standard stats include goals, assists, power-play points, shots on goal, plus/minus, penalty minutes and average time on ice. Last week's ranking is indicated in parentheses.

1. Sidney Crosby, Pit (1)
2. Steven Stamkos, TB (2)
3. John Tavares, NYI (3)
4. Eric Staal, Car (7)
5. Patrick Kane, Chi (4)
6. Martin St. Louis, TB (5)
7. Henrik Zetterberg, Det (6)
8. Claude Giroux, Phi (8)
9. Daniel Sedin, Van (9)
10. Alex Ovechkin, Was (12)
11. James Neal, Pit (13)
12. Thomas Vanek, Buf (11)
13. Ilya Kovalchuk, NJ (10)
14. Pavel Datsyuk, Det (18)
15. Patrick Marleau, SJ (17)
16. Joe Thornton, SJ (22)
17. Henrik Sedin, Van (19)
18. Marian Hossa, Chi (16)
19. Jonathan Toews, Chi (20)
20. Evgeni Malkin, Pit (15)
21. Chris Kunitz, Pit (31)
22. Jamie Benn, Dal (21)
23. Alexander Semin, Car (27)
24. Taylor Hall, Edm (24)
25. Matt Moulson, NYI (28)
26. Rick Nash, NYR (30)
27. Corey Perry, Ana (33)
28. Mike Ribeiro, Was (39)
29. Patrik Elias, NJ (38)
30. Patrick Sharp, Chi (23)
31. Joe Pavelski, SJ (25)
32. Tyler Seguin, Bos (29)
33. Anze Kopitar, LA (34)
34. Jakub Voracek, Phi (56)
35. Zach Parise, Min (14)
36. Marian Gaborik, NYR (26)
37. Phil Kessel, Tor (35)
38. Jason Pominville, Buf (37)
39. Jordan Eberle, Edm (36)
40. Scott Hartnell, Phi (46)
41. Ryan Getzlaf, Ana (44)
42. Logan Couture, SJ (45)
43. T.J. Oshie, StL (32)
44. Wayne Simmonds, Phi (54)
45. Sam Gagner, Edm (51)
46. Tomas Plekanec, Mon (40)
47. Vincent Lecavalier, TB (47)
48. Max Pacioretty, Mon (83)
49. Cory Conacher, TB (49)
50. Teddy Purcell, TB (50)
51. David Backes, StL (43)
52. David Clarkson, NJ (48)
53. Matt Duchene, Col (53)
54. James van Riemsdyk, Tor (55)
55. Milan Lucic, Bos (67)
56. Mikko Koivu, Min (41)
57. Evander Kane, Wpg (69)
58. Jarome Iginla, Cgy (57)
59. Brayden Schenn, Phi (77)
60. Alex Burrows, Van (64)
61. Patrice Bergeron, Bos (61)
62. Radim Vrbata, Pho (42)
63. Bobby Ryan, Ana (60)
64. P.A. Parenteau, Col (74)
65. Teemu Selanne, Ana (58)
66. Andrew Ladd, Wpg (76)
67. Nicklas Backstrom, Was (63)
68. Johan Franzen, Det (78)
69. Jeff Skinner, Car (68)
70. Damien Brunner, Det (75)
71. Jordan Staal, Car (70)
72. Saku Koivu, Ana (84)
73. Jaromir Jagr, Dal (59)
74. Jiri Tlusty, Car (99)
75. David Perron, StL (65)
76. Brad Richards, NYR (62)
77. Tyler Ennis, Buf (73)
78. Brad Marchand, Bos (93)
79. David Krejci, Bos (90)
80. Nazem Kadri, Tor (NR)
81. Chris Stewart, StL (NR)
82. Cody Hodgson, Buf (82)
83. Alexander Steen, StL (52)
84. Alex Tanguay, Cgy (91)
85. Mike Richards, LA (98)
86. Mikkel Boedker, Pho (89)
87. Blake Wheeler, Wpg (96)
88. Jeff Carter, LA (92)
89. Loui Eriksson, Dal (80)
90. Pascal Dupuis, Pit (95)
91. Troy Brouwer, Was (NR)
92. Vladimir Tarasenko, StL (66)
93. Gabriel Landeskog, Col (NR)
94. Ales Hemsky, Edm (97)
95. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edm (79)
96. Kyle Turris, Ott (85)
97. Brad Boyes, NYI (88)
98. Michael Ryder, Dal (NR)
99. Brendan Gallagher, Mon (NR)
100. Ryan O'Reilly, Col (NR)

Chris Kunitz, Pittsburgh Penguins (up 10 spots to No. 21): We discussed Kunitz's rise in the ranks a couple of weeks ago in this space, but it bears mentioning again as he is clearly demonstrating that playing next to Sidney Crosby on every shift is a more than just a huge boon to his numbers. We pointed out two weeks ago that this season is, really, the first time Crosby and Kunitz have both been healthy together for an extended period of time. Therefore, this shouldn't come as a huge shock to see a player who was merely an above-average scorer get catapulted by Crosby's presence. That should send you a clear signal that Kunitz's fantasy value is intricately tied to Crosby's continued health. The second something happens to Crosby, Kunitz goes tumbling down the rankings. Even last season, when Kunitz played with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal on almost every shift, he was a borderline top-80 fantasy forward. Fueled by Crosby's on-ice vision, the two have chemistry and form a potently dangerous duo. You may ask yourself, should you really value Kunitz ahead of players like Hall or Corey Perry, who are both behind him in this week's rankings? The answer is absolutely. While Hall and Perry don't need their linemates to generate their fantasy value and can hold their rankings on their own if need be, Kunitz's numbers with Crosby at his side are, and will continue to be, better than most forwards in the NHL. So why isn't he ranked in the top 10? Because we don't know what will happen and Crosby hasn't given us a perfect bill of health the last few seasons. There has to be a discounted levied against Kunitz's actual value to account for the fact that it is tied to another player's health. And who knows what other factors could contribute? If the team is without Malkin for an extended period of time, maybe coach Dan Bylsma separates Crosby and Kunitz by choice to trigger a second scoring line.

Max Pacioretty, Montreal Canadiens (up 35 spots to No. 48): Appendectomy, schmappendectomy. It seems like nothing can slow down the catalyst of the Habs' offense. Despite missing a week to have his appendix out during this shortened NHL season, Pacioretty now leads the Canadiens with 20 points in 18 games. Pacioretty has been absolutely dialed-in during the past 10 games, with nine goals and six assists. His shots on goal and chances to score have been through the roof. Losing linemate Erik Cole has not slowed Pacioretty down one bit, as rookie Brendan Gallagher has been breathing some youthful energy into the line with Pacioretty and David Desharnais. The trio is also acting as the Canadiens' top power-play unit for the time being. With Rene Bourque on the sidelines with a concussion, this line becomes the Habs' de facto top line. Pacioretty stuffs all of the stats important to fantasy owners, and there is a chance that some of his owners don't respect just how valuable he can be. During the past two weeks, only Jakub Voracek and Steven Stamkos have been more valuable on the ESPN Player Rater.

Brad Richards, New York Rangers (down 14 spots to No. 76): Solely blaming Richards is perhaps unfair on our part, but he certainly makes a good scapegoat for the Rangers' offensive woes. A playmaker with Richards' skills should be able to set up goals for players like Marian Gaborik and Rick Nash in his sleep. Yet Richards has just two goals and 11 assists in 20 games this season. On paper, Richards, Gaborik and Nash should be near the top of the league for points this season. It makes it easy to single out and move Richards down in the rankings because he doesn't contribute in other categories when the offense isn't clicking. Nash and Gaborik still shoot a ton, collect both goals and assists, and Nash doesn't seem to have a problem with plus/minus this season (a new thing for him). Meanwhile, Richards has above-average assists but is negligible in every other standard ESPN category. Richards is still playing with either Nash or Gaborik more often than not, but it seems that coach John Tortorella's stubborn stance to keep the three from playing on a line together is going to hurt them all for fantasy. There is nothing to do but sit tight and hope for a reunion of the Gaborik-Richards-Nash line from earlier this season.

Scoring lines

Ryan O'Reilly, Colorado Avalanche: It looks like O'Reilly will have to play his way back to relevance, or at least get his legs back in the NHL with a few games. Rather than insert their reigning leading scorer into the top six forwards, the Avalanche let O'Reilly play on the third line for his debut on Sunday. Playing with John Mitchell and Milan Hejduk is not going to be conducive to O'Reilly's scoring right away. He is still worth a speculative pickup given that there are plenty of opportunities for him to move into a scoring-line role sooner than later.

Andrew Cogliano, Anaheim Ducks: His scoring has been somewhat bunched this season through hot streaks and cold spells, but the total package from Cogliano this season is not to be trifled with. With eight goals, 13 points and a plus-10 in 20 games, Cogliano has been more valuable than a lot of other forwards this season. His 13 points have him even with Alex Burrows and Danny Briere while his plus-10 ranks him as top 15 in that category among forwards. It seems that coach Bruce Boudreau keeps defaulting back to Cogliano with Daniel Winnik and Saku Koivu on a line, though he occasionally gets away from the combination to try and spark his top six forwards. Cogliano could have some use in head-to-head leagues, but it looks like his streakiness can make him more useful to rotisserie owners at this point.


Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins: In weekly leagues, you could consider sliding Malkin back into your lineup for the coming week. That is probably not the best move, but he could be back in a matter of days. Malkin was cleared for contact in practice, which means he is very close to a return from his concussion.

Thomas Vanek, Buffalo Sabres: Vanek's injury doesn't come with a lot of details, but he has missed two games with an upper-body injury. He is close to a return, and because of his scoring proficiency this season, it might be best to err on the side of starting him in weekly formats.

Taylor Hall, Edmonton Oilers: Hall hurt his leg during a collision against the boards and has missed one contest. Given Hall's history with his reckless-abandon style of play, we might have to start discounting him regularly for missed time. In the meantime, give him a rest in weekly leagues since we don't know the extent of his leg injury.

Radim Vrbata, Phoenix Coyotes: Vrbata and Martin Hanzal have left the Coyotes shorthanded on offense for a couple weeks now. They are both edging closer to a return and their status should be monitored closely. On a per-game basis, both players have been very fantasy relevant this season and both have been dropped in a lot of leagues.

Alexander Steen and Andy McDonald, St. Louis Blues: Steen's shoulder injury and McDonald's knee ailment combine with Tarasenko's concussion to put the entire Blues' second line on injured reserve. In the meantime, Jaden Schwartz and Chris Stewart will have an expanded role in the offense and should be looked at for their possible contributions.

Benoit Pouliot, Tampa Bay Lightning: With his arm in a sling following a hard hit on Saturday, Pouliot could be out for a while. That leaves a gaping hole in the Bolts' top six. Alex Killorn is the internal solution and could provide fantasy value if he consistently plays with Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. Also keep an eye on the team possibly calling up Brett Connolly. He just won the AHL's Player of the Month award and has been scoring like a machine with the Syracuse Crunch.

Matt Frattin, Toronto Maple Leafs: One of the best players this season for making big use of limited ice time, Frattin appears ready to return soon from a knee injury. He has 10 points in 10 games this season and deserves a chance to be picked up in medium-to-deep fantasy leagues.

Ryan Kesler, Vancouver Canucks: First a broken wrist and shoulder. Now a broken foot. Bye, bye, Kesler. See you next season.