Hold or trade: Second-half fantasy outlook for NHL All-Stars

Tage Thompson, left, and Linus Ullmark, right, have been two of the best players in fantasy hockey this season. Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire

As is the norm, the Fantasy All-Star Class of 2023 features numerous familiar faces. While David Pastrnak endeavors to price himself out of the Bruins' future budget, Roman Josi once again checks each box across the scoring and non-scoring board, Connor Hellebuyck performs at his shot-stopping best in nearly every game, and that one-two punch in Edmonton continues to, somehow, exceed already lofty expectations.

Still, as is also usual, joining the common crew of regular suspects is a batch of fresher elite faces -- fantasy performers who are ripping apart our preseason expectations to varying degrees and in the most pleasant of ways. Players who, for the most part, deserved to be selected much higher than they were on fantasy draft day. In retrospect, of course.

Keep on keeping on

Tage Thompson, F, Buffalo Sabres (Rostered in 99.5% of ESPN.com leagues/average draft position: 69.5): The bad news is Buffalo fans won't get to watch their rising star strut his Pitch 'n Puck or what-have-you stuff in Florida this weekend. On the upside, after suffering/reaggravating an upper-body injury against Carolina this week, he isn't expected to miss much, if any, time once the regular season gets back into swing. Which, for the Sabres faithful and Thompson's fantasy managers alike, carries greater big-picture weight.

After turning heads with an impressive 38-goal/30-assist campaign in 2021-22, Thompson is now blowing his own resume into the rafters with 34 and 34 through only 50. Comprising a blossoming Alex Tuch and a reinvigorated Jeff Skinner, that top line works, in no small thanks to the later-blooming 26th overall draft selection (2016). Yet he's rarely satisfied. Coach Don Granato credits Thomson's statistical success to his unrelenting work ethic, commitment to routine, and insatiable hunger to do more. Which should ring as dulcet music to the ears of invested fantasy managers everywhere. Some expected a significant drop off after December's eruption for 22 points in 11 games. Didn't happen. And likely won't, as long as the 25-year-old remains healthy.

Zach Hyman, F, Edmonton Oilers (91.9%/ADP: 188.8): The Oilers probably weren't anticipating a 95-point season out of the former Maple Leaf when they signed him to a seven-year/$38.5 million deal two summers ago, yet that impressive stat now lies well within reach. Serves as a nice productive bonus for a club that's already rostering the likes of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl -- uncoincidentally, two skaters with whom Hyman is spending much time on ice. Including on the power play, in which he's potted half of his 26 goals, most of them are from right in front of the net. "He is finishing more this season," according to Edmonton coach Jay Woodcroft. I'd say so.

He's also shooting more often and throwing his body around with reassuring regularity. While the current seven-game point streak (six goals, 10 assists) will end at some point for the 30-year-old, there's no reason to anticipate a lasting dip in production or performance. Not with Hyman's valuable role secure, surrounded by such an elite supporting cast. Keep this redraft-league gem close for the duration of fantasy competition.

Jack Hughes, F, New Jersey Devils (99.7%/ADP: 19.0): The only member of this All-Star gaggle initially selected in appropriate draft order, Hughes is even more valuable in fantasy leagues that exclude non-scoring categories such as hits or blocked shots (he doesn't provide much of either). Instead, the Devils star is all about the goals, ranking fifth (one removed from third spot) in the league with 33, while pitching in another 31 assists (in 49 games). What I comparatively appreciate most about Hughes as a high-level asset is he's becoming more dangerous as the season wears on. Earning First Star honors for January, the 21-year-old scored 15 goals and 11 assists in 14 games since Dec. 30. Totals that bode well for the final weeks of competition.

My only worry about this exceptionally talented player concerns his health. Losing games to a shoulder injury and then later a sprained MCL, the first overall draft pick played only 49 this past season. In fact, with the pandemic largely to blame, he has yet to near an 82-game campaign in his, admittedly, still young career. While there's zero chance I'm jettisoning Hughes via trade at present -- unless the offer is flat-out irrefusable -- I'll feel better as an invested dynasty/keeper/future re-draft manager once a full 80 or so are in the books.

Rasmus Dahlin, D, Buffalo Sabres (99.9%/ADP: 62.0): Too many of us are often too impatient when it comes to the development of young, promising defensemen. Especially when they're selected first, or near first, overall. (Aaron Ekblad, anyone?) So no one should feel terribly surprised that the top overall draft pick from 2018 -- who's still only 22 years old -- is finally rounding out into the player the Sabres hoped he would become.

Playing more minutes than anyone not named Cale Makar or Drew Doughty, Dahlin (26:05) is bettering all blueliners in the even-strength points department (55) with the exception of Erik Karlsson. He's tops all his own in producing on the power play and ranks fourth in shots. Most importantly, perhaps, Dahlin is as consistent as they come in never failing (to date) to string together more than two games without a goal or assist. Then often making up for that "lull" with a multi-point showing. The only defender to average 3.0 fantasy points is ESPN.com competition is one to cherish until the curtain falls on 2022-23 and beyond. Offer yourself an extra lofty high-five if you have him rostered in dynasty/keeper competition. This Buffalo club, including this gifted young player, is on the rise.

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Cause for concern

Erik Karlsson, D, San Jose Sharks (98.8%/ADP: 164.0): Unlike the aforementioned few, the veteran defenseman is one of my favorite sell-high trade candidates at the moment, pending the right return. First off, Karlsson's production is already levelling out -- an inevitability, really -- but not altogether noticeably. Yet. Only needing 34 points to reach 100 -- which is amazing, no question -- he likely gets there. But asking the 32-year-old, badgered by injuries in recent years, to maintain his current 1.29 point/game pace is an unrealistic demand.

Plus, before the March 3 deadline, we could see a trade out of going-nowhere San Jose to a club that won't need him to play nearly half a game every night (he's averaged 26:48 of ice time since Jan. 7). One where the puck-moving blueliner will fit into an offense as a complimentary productive piece of a greater whole. Again, 66 points in 51 games? Consider trading him now, when his value is greatest.

Linus Ullmark, G, Boston Bruins (98.1%/ADP: 147.3): Ullmark's fantasy managers should roundly pat themselves on the back for having the foresight, likely combined with good fortune, for having landed one of the season's most pleasing surprises. They should also brace for a meaningful dip in fantasy production from the current Vezina candidate.

Not because the mighty Bruins are in for a slide, or that Ullmark himself is due to fall apart, but because Boston's other netminder is playing often and playing well. Since wading back into full-time action in later December, Jeremy Swayman (65.3%) is 7-0-3 with a .932 SV% and 1.97 GAA. In the name of freshness, why wouldn't the B's split starts between their two very good netminders if both are winning. In fact, Swayman earned more standard ESPN.com fantasy points (37.8) in January than his teammate (30.6). Hey, I'm not telling you to trade one of the NHL's best goalies, but if the return is handsome enough, I'm also not telling you not to trade him. Not in the spirit of an inevitably diminishing workload.

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