Fantasy hockey: Updates on when Kane, Malkin and more will return to the ice

Evander Kane has reported to the AHL's San Jose Barracuda. AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Forward Evander Kane is ready to return to the NHL. Whether the NHL is ready for Kane is a whole other matter. But after getting caught for reportedly submitting a fake vaccination card to the league and completing a 21-game suspension as punishment, he is back on the ice. Not in a San Jose Sharks uniform, mind you, but skating nonetheless.

What comes next might interest fantasy managers with little to lose, either those already struggling to compete or looking to pad an extra-large roster in deeper leagues. Kane, 30, appears both intent on, and optimistic about, returning to NHL play. Like, soon. In preparing to join the AHL's Barracuda, the scoring winger faced reporters and seemed convinced this would all sort itself out shortly. Maybe he's right.

Off-ice situations -- no deep dive into that pool here; this is a fantasy column -- aside, the guy can score. Kane led the Sharks with 22 goals and 27 assists in 56 games, which would equate to 32 goals and 40 assists over an 82 game season. If the Sharks can pull off an arrangement that involves retaining some salary, a trade could see Kane win another fresh start elsewhere. I'm not suggesting such a deal is in the bag, but it certainly isn't out of the question. Having a new agent work the situation only helps. NHL teams are in the business of winning games, and a key element to achieving that aim is scoring goals. Kane does that better than most.

While muddled in uncertainty, the fantasy fallout from Kane's undetermined future is such: If your squad is going nowhere fast, and there's little to gain from finishing midpack at best, the controversial winger could merit a roll of the dice. Maybe another NHL club (a future with the Sharks' organization seems less likely) feels the risk of inviting Kane into the dressing room is worth the potential payoff. Maybe, in a fresh top-six/power-play role, he goes back to lighting it up, as is habit. At his best, Kane is a fantasy gem in leagues that reward scoring, shots, hits and penalty minutes. He's a difference-maker and available in 75% of ESPN.com leagues. Whether he's worth the gamble is up to you.

In other fantasy news, a few other high-profile assets could be rejoining the game, sooner rather than later, after extended absences due to injury (and in one case, not returning anytime soon). Here's what to make of such transitions and the associated fantasy fallout:

Pittsburgh Penguins: According to coach Mike Sullivan, Evgeni Malkin "is at the next stage of his rehab process where [the] medical team thinks he's ready to get more players around him and participate in a non-contact fashion." In line with that plan, the 35-year-old center is travelling with the team out west. Once ready to go, in the next couple of weeks is my guess, Malkin should boot Jeff Carter - who has been a fantasy disappointment to date -- from the second-line center position. A spot on the team's No. 1 power play unit is also there for the veteran's taking. Goodness knows the Penguins could use the scoring boost, particularly with the man-advantage. No one not named Jake Guentzel has produced with any consistency to date. And Malkin -- who potted 74 points in only 55 games two seasons ago -- remains available in 20% of ESPN.com leagues. Meanwhile, Bryan Rust remains listed as week-to-week with a lower-body injury.

Tampa Bay Lightning: The Lightning could have two key figures back before the end of the month. Barring setbacks, both Nikita Kucherov (lower-body) and Brayden Point (upper-body) could return to game action by the new year (if not soon after). While the fantasy takeaway here is shallow and brazenly obvious - make sure these elite healthy players are in your lineup! - it's worth keeping view of where other forwards shift about once everyone is fit. Particularly Alex Killorn (56.5%), Anthony Cirelli (67.9%), and Ondrej Palat (87.7%). For instance, who skates with Point and Kucherov, if they're re-united on a scoring unit? Or does Jon Cooper return to the Killorn-Point-Cirelli line that was effective in early November? Who sticks with Stamkos, who's racking up points like in the olden days (2019)? Invested fantasy managers will want to pay close attention to how it all shakes out.

Washington Capitals: As announced by the Capitals' Twitter account, he's "Back-y with the boys". Rehabbing from a hip injury suffered last spring, Nicklas Backstrom is indeed back to practicing with his teammates - albeit in a non-contact sweater. Still no return date set, but this is progress. Once Backstrom -- available in 13% of ESPN.com leagues -- is ready to roll, center Lars Eller will drop into the bottom-six. Battling his own injury issues of late, Eller has been productive when active, averaging a point/game in his past five contests on a scoring line with Tom Wilson.

Los Angeles Kings: Almost two months after suffering a preseason ankle fracture, a non-contact-sweater-clothed Quinton Byfield is back to practicing with the Kings. Great news for a team that could use some inspiration in the scoring department. Following a predicted conditioning stint with the Reign, Byfield is likely to first slot in as the Kings' third-line center. We'll see how matters shake out after that. Even outside of dynasty/keeper leagues, the 2nd overall draft pick (2020) is one to watch.

Columbus Blue Jackets: After suffering an oblique strain in early November, Patrik Laine is back to skating and could return in the next week or two. Revved right up in his second tour with the Blue Jackets, the winger collected three goals and seven assists in nine games to start the year. His availability in worth checking on in all but the shallowest of ESPN leagues. Whichever center lines up alongside Laine -- if not Boone Jenner (73.0%), Cole Sillinger (1.6%) or Jack Roslovic (49.6) - stands to benefit from the winger's healthy return. Linemate Jakub Voracek also deserves a fresh look for those not already enamored with the winger's 18 points on the season.

Edmonton Oilers: Last we heard, Mike Smith suffered a setback in his recovery from a lower-body injury and was sent home from a recent road trip. Without a fresh timeline in sight, this stinks for Smith, the Oilers, and fantasy managers eagerly anticipating his return. It also means Edmonton's net belongs to Mikko Koskinen -- not Stuart Skinner in the meantime (which could stretch out to quite a while). After a brief mid-November stumble, Koskinen is back in form, winning three-straight. He was flat-out great this past week versus Pittsburgh and Vegas. And the Oilers -- especially vicious at home - are top of the Western Conference table, sitting 16-5-0. Yet Koskinen remains available in nearly half of ESPN.com leagues. Puzzling.