It's the time of the season when useful fantasy free agents remain abundant on the waiver wire as you and your leaguemates still cling to sleepers who are looking more and more like busts.
If you can finally talk yourself into letting go of some players, you can't have too many waiver wire recommendations right now. Check out Thursday's Line Shifts for some other options, but here we present you with some other players based on your league size. When we used to do this exercise, we'd sort the players strictly based on availability. That is not the case this time. They are organized into league size, based on how valuable we think they will be overall.
Ryan Malone, F, Tampa Bay Lightning (available in 90.2 percent of ESPN leagues): Given his lofty position on the depth chart, yes, Malone's numbers could be better. But look at the overall picture: He is playing with Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis (two linemates with mantels full of NHL trophies) both on and off the power play, and he has four points and 26 penalty minutes in seven games. The PIMs are normal for the somewhat feisty Malone, and the points are well below what you could expect from anyone on a line with Stamkos and St. Louis. Things will only get better for Malone as long as he stays where he is on the depth chart. And with the way the second and third lines are rolling along for the Bolts, they are unlikely to make any major changes soon.
Sami Salo, D, Tampa Bay Lightning (available in 89.5 percent): Speaking of Tampa Bay's offense and power play, Salo has slowly taken over for Matt Carle as the main man on the point during the man advantage. Taking to the ice with a power play that includes Stamkos, St. Louis, Malone and Teddy Purcell means there will be an opportunity for plenty of points for Salo. But he is helping out at even strength as well, as evidenced by his plus-6 rating in plus/minus through six games played. Of course, Salo has already missed a game, and being injured is not unusual for him. So just don't get too comfortable with his production.
Josh Harding, G, Minnesota Wild (available in 19.7 percent): It's been a long time coming for Harding to earn the respect he is getting early this season as a No. 1 goaltender, while Niklas Backstrom is on the mend. Harding has always possessed the skills, but the opportunity and his consistency have never managed to cross paths for long. Thanks in no small part to the stifling Wild defense, Backstrom has managed to give up just a shade over a goal per game in six appearances, and he is among a handful of goalies with a save percentage of .950 or greater thus far. As mentioned this week in the Fantasy Grapevine, there are rumblings of more starts for Harding even after the return of Backstrom.
Mike Fisher, F, Nashville Predators (available in 63.2 percent): It's still not the flashiest top line in the NHL, but Fisher, Patric Hornqvist and Colin Wilson have skill and will get plenty of ice time to show it off. No, that isn't the most ringing endorsement in the world. But Fisher doesn't get enough credit for his modest but worthy fantasy production every season. He is trending a bit high with 21 PIM already, but the five points in six games is only a little bit over where he could be. As the unquestioned top centerman for the Predators now, he has 65-point potential. Throw in the power-play points and respectable plus/minus, and suddenly you have a reliable player to replace that rookie you took a chance on who doesn't look to be panning out.
Martin Hanzal, F, Phoenix Coyotes (available in 57.2 percent): The Coyotes have been experimenting with different lines, but one constant has been Hanzal playing with Radim Vrbata. As the most proven scorer on the team, Vrbata is exactly who we want Hanzal next to for fantasy purposes. Tied for the team lead with six points in seven games, Hanzal is playing more than 19 minutes per game so far. Who is he tied with, by the way? Vrbata. Recently, the duo was joined by newcomer Mike Ribeiro on a line. That is a combination that could prove extremely fruitful for fantasy owners if there is chemistry.
Jason Demers, D, San Jose Sharks (available in 95.5 percent): Without a timeline for Dan Boyle's return from injury after going face-first into the boards this week, Demers is worth an add in most leagues. The leader in power-play ice time on defense after Boyle, Demers already saw his ice time jump by more than three minutes in the game during which Boyle was hurt. Marc-Edouard Vlasic's numbers look better right now, but if Boyle is out for a long time, Demers has the chance to look better by the end of it.
Robin Lehner, G, Ottawa Senators (available in 93.7 percent): Craig Anderson has looked good so far this season, but not spectacular. Lehner has looked absolutely spectacular while being peppered with shots. On the West Coast trip, Lehner faced 50 shots against the San Jose Sharks and then faced 47 shots in relief of Anderson against the Anaheim Ducks the very next day. In all, he stopped 92 of 97 shots in back-to-back appearances. No, he didn't get a win, but he made a big impression. Three of Anderson's six starts this season have been more damaging to your fantasy hockey numbers than helpful. Anderson isn't at risk of losing his job, but Lehner can be valuable with a start per week and will be ready if the winds of change do start blowing.
Cam Atkinson, F, Columbus Blue Jackets (available in 97.4 percent): Although Marian Gaborik was sick for Thursday's game, Atkinson is playing on the top line with the Blue Jackets' offensive catalyst when he isn't ill. Atkinson has four points in the four games he has played on the top line with Gaborik this season (it is notable he has no points and a minus-4 rating in the other two games). There is a ton of skill in a small package with the 5-foot-7 Atkinson. He was his division's scoring leader with Boston College in 2010-11 and scored 29 goals in 51 games in the AHL during the 2011-12 season.
Andre Benoit, D, Colorado Avalanche (available in 93.3 percent): Unless Erik Johnson decides to pick up the mantle that is rightfully his, it really does look like Benoit is the Avs' top offensive defenseman in what looks to be a very good offensive season for the club. Benoit doesn't have your typical puck-moving defenseman's resume, having fought his way through years of the AHL, Finnish Elite, Swedish Elite and KHL to finally stick in the NHL, but there have been hints of his offense along the way. The bottom line is that coach Patrick Roy appears set to use Benoit as the power-play quarterback. That should be enough to grab him in many leagues.
Al Montoya, G, Winnipeg Jets (available in 99.1 percent): Ondrej Pavelec has a very long leash, but that length is finite. Four of Pavelec's six starts have resulted in three or four goals against for a 3.05 goals-against average and .907 save percentage. In between all those lackluster starts (with just one win), Montoya pitched a shutout. Now, shutting out the New Jersey Devils here in the early going isn't exactly something to write home about, but the situation is worth monitoring, as Montoya's pedigree has always been that of a possible No. 1 goalie. That said, he can't score goals and the Jets have bigger problems before their netminder -- whoever it is -- can have much value.
With our waiver wire shopping out of the way, let's look at the Forecaster:
Looking for offense
New York Islanders: The Isles don't have a particularly positive outlook on the Forecaster this week, with only three games and an O:6 rating. But we bring them up here to lead the offensive suggestions because the team's top six is criminally under-owned in fantasy leagues. Starting with Kyle Okposo, leading into Frans Nielsen and finishing with Josh Bailey, the Islanders have some potent offensive weapons that are being largely ignored in fantasy leagues where they can easily contribute. Okposo is a talent in his own right, and has slowly been building his capacity to contribute points in the NHL. This season is a make-or-break one, as he is being handed the top-line wing assignment with John Tavares. He has not disappointed yet, with six points in seven games, and has a ton of room to still grow into his potential on that line.
Nielsen gets separated from the rest of the Islanders' second line for discussion because he has the honor of joining Tavares and Matt Moulson when it is time for the power play. Anchoring a solid second line with Bailey is probably enough for Nielsen to be considered for your team anyway. Throw in the power-play assignment and he is truly under-appreciated. Bailey has flashed his potential before (with Okposo and Nielsen, actually) when the trio closed the 2010-11 season with a bang. Riding the second line with Nielsen, Bailey is once again showing off his skills with seven points in seven games. By the way, Moulson will be back with Tavares soon enough. Michael Grabner would go back to the second line and Pierre-Marc Bouchard can expect a demotion back to the third line. Coach Jack Capuano is surely just sending Moulson a message with a brief demotion from the top six. The bottom line is to get Okposo (available in 86.9 percent of leagues), Nielsen (52 percent) and Bailey (98.8 percent) on to your team before it's too late. At the very least, pick up Okposo. Please. Now.
Edmonton Oilers: The very first thing to check on is Sam Gagner's availability in your league (and on the newswire). His ownership numbers are way down around the 50 percent mark in fantasy due to his original November prognosis to return from a broken jaw. However, the timeline could now be a matter of days if doctors approve him for contact this week. We could find out he is available for next week's four-game Oilers schedule. If not Gagner, check on sophomore Nail Yakupov. Many fantasy owners are jumping ship since Yakupov started on the third line this season. But the team knows that the only long-term solution is to get Yakupov on a scoring line. He was there on Thursday with David Perron and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, likely in preparation for Gagner's return as his centerman. Either way, Yakupov looks like he is back in top-six consideration and could be worth snagging in the 52.5 percent of leagues where he was dropped.
Looking for defense
Seth Jones, Nashville Predators: It's time to get on board with Jones. Actually, it was probably time to get on board after he topped 25 minutes of ice time in three of his first four games. Ice time will be the difference-maker in giving Jones relevance in fantasy leagues. While it's hard to completely judge his chances with Roman Josi on the sidelines, things definitely look favorable right now. The rookie played a whopping 28 minutes on Thursday and -- in Josi's absence -- has been paired with none other than Shea Weber both on and off the power play. You are probably too late to get him, but it's worth a shot. At the very least, Jones will be a great start next week as Josi has yet to be cleared for contact.
Anton Belov, Edmonton Oilers: As mentioned above, the Oilers' four-game schedule is one of the best outlooks for offense next week. Belov is making strides in adjusting his game from the KHL, and the 27-year-old Russian rookie is being given all the time in the world to make those adjustments. He is playing at even strength with the slick-handed Justin Schultz, and is playing on the Oilers' second power-play unit as the lone point man. There could be a moment coming soon when things finally click for him, and if that moment is coming, it is likely soon as he has more than a half-dozen NHL games under his belt. Given the upside of his depth chart role and the favorable schedule, now might be a good time to gamble.
Looking for goaltending
Joey MacDonald, Calgary Flames: The Flames have four games next week, and three of them are against teams in the bottom half of the league for scoring. MacDonald's ratios aren't stellar, but he is the starter and the team is winning games. Available in half of ESPN leagues, you probably aren't going to find a better free agent option for next week.
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 $100 million fantasy budget. For more on the game and to sign up, click here.
Four-game teams: Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, San Jose Sharks, Winnipeg Jets. That list means that Anttii Niemi ($11.4M) is a must-start in net. Joey MacDonald ($9.9M) is a discount option if you need it.
Streaking players with four games: Heading into the weekend, Patrick Marleau ($7.6M) has six points in four games and will play four times next week. Linemate Logan Couture ($7.8M) would also make a good addition. If you are looking for savings, Tomas Hertl ($5.8M) is leading the NHL in goals, and is still very affordable. Also in the discount department, Mark Arcobello ($6.0M) has six points in his past four games as he skates in the Oilers' top six. Be sure to check to see if Gagner is returning before using Arcobello.
The blue line: Jason Demers ($4.8M) and Jonathan Ericsson ($4.4M) are both potential money-earners in the Hockey Challenge in the coming weeks, following the ugly-looking hits to Dan Boyle and Niklas Kronwall, respectively. Demers and Ericsson will both be asked to step up their game in absence of their talented mentors. The Winnipeg Jets' offense has been cold, but it's hard to resist Dustin Byfuglien ($7.5M) and Tobias Enstrom ($7.1M) on a four-game week for the Jets.
My roster for next week:
Marc-Andre Fleury, G, PIT - $11.3M
Anttii Niemi, G, SJ - $11.4M
Dustin Byfuglien, D, WPG - $7.5M
Erik Karlsson, D, OTT - $7.5M
Tobias Enstrom, D, WPG - $6.9M ($7.1M on market)
Jason Demers, D, SJ - $4.8M
Tomas Hertl, F, SJ - $5.8M
Patrick Marleau, F, SJ - $7.6M
Logan Couture, F, SJ - $7.8M
Sidney Crosby, F, PIT - $8.8M ($9.1M on market)
Daniel Sedin, F, VAN - $8.3M ($8.4M on market)
Henrik Sedin, F, VAN - $8.4M