Olaf Kolzig may not want to admit it publicly, but the goaltending coach for the Washington Capitals is stuck managing a messy situation. Even though it's Adam Oates' job to name a starting netminder each game, Kolzig still has to work with, and get the best from, three healthy goalies in practice. And when the established hierarchy is all out of whack because the AHL call-up is outperforming the more experienced NHLers, that can be a tough gig.
Here's the current state of affairs between the pipes in Washington: The No. 1 to start the season, Braden Holtby, laid an egg in his first game in two weeks, in a 5-3 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Jan. 4. Holtby struggled through most of December -- when not riding the bench -- and his confidence is reportedly shot. The backup to start 2013-14, Michal Neuvirth, hasn't competed since suffering a lower-body injury in late November. Healthy for a while now, the press box regular allegedly wants a trade in the worst way.
Philipp Grubauer -- called up when Neuvirth was hurt -- has played great and is pegged to start against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday. With a 2.20 goals-against average and .932 save percentage, he's 5-2-3 since Dec. 8. And Grubauer is the only one of the three who can be sent to the minors without being exposed to waivers. You can see why the Capitals' coaching staff and management are in such a pickle.
So how is a fantasy manager supposed to best take advantage of this situation? Ideally, steer clear of all three. That reads as a cop-out, but it's sound advice. However, if you need goaltending help, Grubauer (owned in 49 percent of ESPN.com leagues) serves as a decent, if temporary, option. As long as the 22-year-old continues to play well, Oates should ride him.
But if Grubauer falters Thursday, the situation becomes really interesting. Especially since the Caps play again Friday night (vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs). Don't be surprised to see Neuvirth -- who's just dying to prove he's all tuned up again -- especially with Holtby so shaky. At that point, Neuvirth (owned in 1 percent of ESPN.com leagues) deserves attention as a depth option, particularly if he looks good. It's possible that the 25-year-old will end up being dealt into a more regular role elsewhere.
Also, odds are that Holtby (owned in 61 present of ESPN.com leagues) eventually pulls himself together and reclaims the No. 1 role in Washington. His personal history as a pro suggests as much. All together, the Caps' logjam of (mostly) unhappy netminders makes for an intriguing case. Kolzig insists the situation "will sort itself out," and of course, that's true. The challenge for fantasy owners is in trying to predict how those dominoes eventually fall.
Tommy Wingels, C/RW, San Jose Sharks (owned in 11 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Out since Dec. 29 with a leg injury, Wingels is due back for the Sharks this week. With Logan Couture (hand surgery) sidelined for about a month, coach Todd McLellan will likely rely heavily on Wingels as a top-six forward. The 25-year-old has nine goals and 13 assists (with a plus/minus of plus-8) in 39 games this season.
Carl Hagelin, LW, New York Rangers (owned in 5 percent of ESPN.com leagues): As long as he's skating on a forward line with Brad Richards and Ryan Callahan, Hagelin is well worth owning in deeper ESPN.com leagues. And he's contributing nicely with those two at present.
Matt Beleskey, LW, Anaheim Ducks (owned in 1 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Riding a four-game points streak (two goals, three assists), Beleskey is attracting the best form of attention from the Ducks' coaching staff these days. The 25-year-old winger was recently promoted to the top line with Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, in place of an ailing Dustin Penner (upper-body injury). Considering how Penner struggled through December, Beleskey might keep a grip on the top-line role, even after the veteran winger returns. It could largely depend on what the former Belleville Bulls standout makes of the opportunity.
Jacob Trouba, D, Winnipeg Jets (owned in 50 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Averaging over 21 minutes and playing on the Jets' secondary power-play unit, Trouba is one to watch closely -- if not pick up outright -- in this, his rookie season. Selected ninth overall at the 2012 draft, Trouba has a brilliant future ahead of him. And with seven points (and a plus-5 rating) in his past 10 games, the 19-year-old keeper/league gem isn't hurting you now.
Jason Pominville, RW, Minnesota Wild (owned in 100 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Competing on a top power-play unit with Dany Heatley and Mikael Granlund isn't the same as skating with Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise. And skating at even strength with Heatley and Charlie Coyle isn't the same as playing with Koivu, as had been the case of late. That's why Pominville's numbers could take a mild hit. While new dad Parise (fractured foot) is scheduled to start skating "soon," Koivu is out four weeks after it's been determined that he requires ankle surgery. We're not suggesting you dispose of Pominville, but opting to activate another prominent RW on busier nights may pay off.
Chris Stewart, RW, St. Louis Blues (owned in 60 percent of ESPN.com leagues): While the Blues' offense has managed nicely without leading scorer Alexander Steen in the lineup, the forward pairing of Stewart and Derek Roy has underachieved of late. No worries, they'll get back into the groove at some point. Until then, put your have faith in hotter fantasy performers on a night-by-night basis. For examples from the Blues, look to C Vladimir Sobotka and RW Vladimir Tarasenko. Sobotka, in particular, has been smokin' hot (and is available in nearly 80 percent of ESPN.com leagues).
Frans Nielsen, C, New York Islanders (owned in 96 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Here we defer to our in-house fancy stats guru, ESPN Insider Neil Greenberg, on why we can expect a dip in production from Nielsen through the second half of 2013-14:
"Nielsen was known more for his defensive prowess than scoring efforts, but so far this season, he has tallied 16 goals and assisted on 18 others in 45 games. That's a 29-goal, 62-point pace for a player whose best scoring campaign was in 2011-12, with 17 goals and 47 points over a full 82-game season. Now for the bad news: Nielsen is shooting 18.2 percent at even strength, while his linemates convert at 10.4 percent, both way over his career averages of 8 percent for each."
Tuomo Ruutu, LW/C, Carolina Hurricanes (owned in less than 1 percent of ESPN.com leagues): With Eric Staal (lower-body injury) out for at least another couple of games, Ruutu remains on the Hurricanes' top line with Alexander Semin and Jeff Skinner. Filling that spot last Sunday, Ruutu earned two assists (and was a plus-2) in a 2-1 win over the Nashville Predators.
Eddie Lack, G, Vancouver Canucks (owned in 45 percent of ESPN.com leagues): With Roberto Luongo set back on the shelf with an ankle injury, the reins are, once again, handed to Lack. Despite posting lackluster numbers in the new year, Lack has the goaltending chops to win games for the Canucks. And he's obtainable for the majority of owners in ESPN.com's fantasy universe.
Ondrej Palat, LW, Tampa Bay Lightning (owned in 28 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Skating on a top line with Martin St. Louis and Tyler Johnson looks good on the 22-year-old rookie. Mind you, playing with one of the best wingers in the league in St. Louis would suit just about anyone. Still, Palat is the one with eight points in his past seven games, and that's why he merits ownership in most ESPN.com leagues.
Anton Khudobin, G, Carolina Hurricanes (owned in 81 percent of ESPN.com leagues): As discussed in Tuesday's Open Ice, Khudobin is filling in nicely for the injured (again) Cam Ward. It will be interesting to see how coach Kirk Muller manages his goaltending tandem once the certified top banana is ready to return, which isn't that far off. In admittedly limited action, Khudobin has been much better than Ward this season.
Injuries and other notes
The Lightning have placed goalie Ben Bishop on injured reserve with a sprained right wrist. The club is hoping Bishop is able to return to action once he's eligible to come off IR on Tuesday. ... Nursing a lower-body injury, center Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings is ruled out for a second straight game. According to MLive.com's Ansar Khan, coach Mike Babcock seems worried Datsyuk may miss more than just a couple of contests. Fortunately, center Darren Helm (groin) is due back soon, and the return of forward Johan Franzen (concussion) isn't far off either. ... The Canucks could have defenseman Alexander Edler (knee) and forward Alex Burrows (jaw) back soon, as early as Friday in Burrows' case. Both have been out since the start of December. ... Bruins forward Loui Eriksson (concussion) has been cleared for contact and could return to the Bruins' lineup this weekend.