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The Front Line: Vanek primed to join fantasy elite

Tuesday, 02.05.2013 / 12:00 PM
Matt Cubeta  - NHL.com Staff Writer

Every Tuesday during the season, NHL.com fantasy hockey expert Matt Cubeta will provide you with an in-depth analysis of fantasy forwards in his weekly segment: "The Front Line." From updated rankings to players you should keep a close eye on and much more, Cubeta will be your fantasy forwards expert all season long.

Slowly but surely we're starting to see the "superstars" gravitate toward the top of the ranks in Yahoo! fantasy leagues, as we all expected. Sure, there are still some surprise names at the top of the list, but our proven commodities that we all spent early draft selections on are taking their place where we hoped they would.

Steven Stamkos is currently ranked third in Yahoo! leagues -- he has seven goals and nine assists in eight games and has recorded at least one point in each contest this season. He's the only player with six multi-point efforts and has tallied a power-play goal in each of the last three games. It's safe to expect Stamkos to rank among our top three forwards all season long.

Penguins teammates Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are ranked sixth and 11th in Yahoo! Leagues respectively. Crosby started a bit slow (one assist in his first two games), but has come on strong of late with one goal and five helpers in the past two contests while also adding a plus-5 during that span. Crosby's 37 shots on goal are also fourth in the NHL. Malkin's two goals and even rating on the season aren't what owners expected, but he's still contributed five power-play points and 18 penalty minutes, which have been a boon to those that drafted him with a top pick.

The Sharks' trifecta of Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski all still rank among the top-10 forwards in Yahoo!, and while Marleau and Thornton have each been held without a point in the last three games, there's a good chance all three players exceed the expectations we had for them coming into this season.

As you can see, with each team having played about eight or nine game in this condensed season, things are already starting to round into form. However, the guy atop all fantasy boards right now has been a bit of a surprise, despite having been a well-known, all-word talent for many years.

Sabres forward Thomas Vanek is off to the best start of his career and has been a fantasy dynamo in every category to this point, making us wonder if he could be considered among the fantasy elite in 2012-13. Through his first eight games (he missed one due to a muscle strain), Vanek has recorded eight goals, 11 assists (tied for the NHL lead), a plus-seven, 10 penalty minutes, six power play points and 33 shots on goal. With two 40-goal seasons already under his belt, the Austrian forward may be saving his best play for his age-29 season, in which he is still very much in his prime.

Vanek last scored 40 goals during the 2008-09 season, but hasn't topped the 32-goal mark since then. In fact, it actually looked like his play was starting to decline over the last two campaigns -- he posted 32 goals and 73 points in 2010-11 and then notched 26 goals and 61 points last season. Clearly, he has found some new hop in his step while playing the left wing to Cody Hodgson and Jason Pominville -- the trio has combined for 41 points.

Vanek has posted two five-point games this season and at least one point in each game, showing he is extremely consistent. Lindy Ruff and the Sabres have done a good job managing his ice time and keeping him fresh -- Vanek is averaging 19:13 of ice time per game and has topped the 20-minute mark just once. He is seeing 4:02 of power-play ice time and has been just as dominant at home (4 G, 6 A in four games) as he has been on the road (4 G, 5 A in four games).

As you can see, there simply hasn't been a flaw in Vanek's game to this point. Will he join the fantasy elite? It's certainly possible this is his year. He doesn't even have to keep at this insane pace to be in that group, he just has to perform like he has in years past and we'll consistently see him ranked among our top-10 forwards all season long.

TRENDING UPWARD

Henrik Zetterberg, Red Wings -- Just when everyone was expecting the Red Wings players to struggle this year, Zetterberg goes on a tear for seven points in his last three games and quiets everyone down -- for now. While the Detroit captain was held without a point in a 4-2 loss to Columbus on Saturday, he previously was on a six-game point-scoring streak, including two games where he posted eight and nine shots on goal in each. Zetterberg seems to have found immediate chemistry with youngster Damien Brunner (the two played together overseas during the lockout) and fellow Swede Johan Franzen, which should mean good things going forward. Zetterberg is also receiving nearly six minutes of power-play time per game alongside Pavel Datsyuk. The bottom line is this: Zetterberg may have disappointed owners last year (22 G, 69 points), but he seems motivated to redeem himself in 2012-13.

Chris Kunitz, Penguins -- He's only taken 14 shots on goal in nine games this season, but Kunitz has certainly made them count. On Sunday, Kunitz took four shots on goal -- all four went in. In fact, five of Kunitz's last seven shots on goal have ended up going in. Kunitz's 2012-13 season got off to a slow start with one goal and three assists in his first seven games (and just four penalty minutes), but thanks to a monster two games over the weekend (5 G, 2 A, plus-5, 2 PPP, 7 SOG), Kunitz reminded owners why they spent a relatively early round pick on him. Playing alongside Crosby during even-strength situations and then playing on the top power-play unit with Crosby, Malkin, James Neal and Kris Letang should mean very good things for Kunitz, and there's reason to believe he'll continue to rise in our rankings.

Tomas Plekanec, Canadiens -- Last season Plekanec finished with 17 goals, 52 points and a minus-15 rating -- his worst numbers in four years. So it wasn't a huge surprise to see that he was selected on average in the 17th round of Yahoo! fantasy drafts coming into the season. However, if you were one of the owners who decided to take a chance on him, Plekanec has definitely rewarded you through his first eight games (4 G, 3 A, minus-1, 4 PIMs, 5 PPP, 24 SOG). A big reason Plekanec has had success early on is because he seems to have found a line he likes playing on -- Rene Bourque and Brian Gionta are on his wings. Plekanec hasn't been known for his goal-scoring touch, but there's a good chance he could finish with over 40 points this season.

TRENDING DOWNWARD

Corey Perry, Ducks -- Make no mistake, Perry is still an elite fantasy option and he will regain his scoring touch -- it's just a matter of time. But until we actually see it return, Perry takes a slight dip in our rankings. Perry started off nicely with a goal, two assists and nine penalty minutes in his first three games, but since then, he has just two assists, no penalty minutes and only 14 shots on goal in the previous five games. Surprisingly, his linemate Ryan Getzlaf is actually off to a good start (3 G, 5 A), so we can certainly expect Perry to turn things around soon enough -- stay patient, and definitely don't panic and trade him.

Jarome Iginla, Flames -- Iginla has yet to score and has just four points in his first six games (he also has a minus-3 rating and two penalty minutes). His fantasy owners are surely getting worried. But remember, we saw exactly this last season and then Iginla erupted and carried his owners down the stretch. Last season, Iginla had just 12 points in his first 23 games, but then finished with 55 points in the final 59 games. Obviously this is a shortened season so there's a bit more concern that he won't have the time to deliver like last year, but there's just no way opposing teams can keep Iginla down for much longer. But until the turnaround begins, he'll continue to fall in the ranks.

Ryane Clowe, Sharks -- Not every San Jose Shark can continue to move up in our rankings. Fantasy owners will immediately look to Clowe's NHL-leading 56 penalty minutes and assume he has great value, but unfortunately 52 of those 56 PIMs have come in two games -- and let's face it, how many more times can Clowe take these misconducts? Outside of those PIMs, Clowe really hasn't provided any fantasy value -- he has yet to find the back of the net through his first nine games and has been held without a point in his last three contests. Clowe is still skating on a line with Logan Couture, which should result in some points, but remember, don't be blinded by his overwhelming penalty minutes as they won't keep at that pace.

KEEP AN EYE ON ...

Brandon Prust, Canadiens -- Known previously for his rugged and physical play, Prust may actually have some offensive value for the Canadiens this season, which could mean good things for fantasy owners. Owned in just 10 percent of Yahoo! Leagues, Prust will always provide you with his usual PIMs (he has 46 right now, which is second in the NHL). However, Prust might even help you out with some points this year as well, and that can be credited to the fact that he's skating on Montreal's third line with rookies Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher (both of whom have plenty of offensive upside themselves and are worth monitoring in fantasy leagues). Prust has a goal and an assist in his first eight games, and although he doesn't shoot the puck too often he has the potential to lead the NHL in penalty minutes and get you around 15 points this season. He's worth a look in deep leagues.

TOP 100 FORWARDS

These rankings are based on expectations of the season going forward (including injuries). The plus or minus for each player is movement based on our most recent rankings -- NR means not ranked in previous rankings. They are based on a standard fantasy league with these offensive categories: G, A, plus/minus, PIMs, PPP, SOG.

1. Steven Stamkos, Lightning (same)

2. Sidney Crosby, Penguins (+1)

3. Evgeni Malkin, Penguins (-1)

4. Claude Giroux, Flyers (same)

5. Jonathan Toews, Blackhawks (+2)

6. Rick Nash, Rangers (+3)

7. Zach Parise, Wild (+3)

8. Corey Perry, Ducks (-3)

9. Ilya Kovalchuk, Devils (-1)

10. Marian Hossa, Blackhawks (+1)

11. Patrick Kane, Blackhawks (+1)

12. John Tavares, Islanders (+3)

13. Daniel Sedin, Canucks (-7)

14. Thomas Vanek, Sabres (+13)

15. Patrick Marleau, Sharks (-1)

16. Eric Staal, Hurricanes (+6)

17. Marian Gaborik, Rangers (-1)

18. James Neal, Penguins (-5)

19. Joe Thornton, Sharks (same)

20. Anze Kopitar, Kings (-3)

21. Martin St. Louis, Lightning (+2)

22. Pavel Datsyuk, Red Wings (+4)

23. Henrik Zetterberg, Red Wings (+7)

24. Alex Ovechkin, Capitals (-6)

25. Henrik Sedin, Canucks (-4)

26. Brad Richards, Rangers (-1)

27. Patrick Sharp, Blackhawks (-3)

28. Joe Pavelski, Sharks (same)

29. David Backes, Blues (+3)

30. Logan Couture, Sharks (-1)

31. Jason Pominville, Sabres (+12)

32. Ryan Getzlaf, Ducks (+2)

33. Nicklas Backstrom, Capitals (+3)

34. Jordan Eberle, Oilers (+1)

35. Matt Duchene, Avalanche (+12)

36. Jamie Benn, Stars (+1)

37. Tyler Seguin, Bruins (-4)

38. Phil Kessel, Maple Leafs (-7)

39. Taylor Hall, Oilers (same)

40. Mikko Koivu, Wild (same)

41. Johan Franzen, Red Wings (+8)

42. Teemu Selanne, Ducks (-1)

43. Evander Kane, Jets (+1)

44. Max Pacioretty, Canadiens (NR)*

45. Vincent Lecavalier, Lightning (+3)

46. Milan Lucic, Bruins (-4)

47. Dany Heatley, Wild (-9)

48. Bobby Ryan, Ducks (+2)

49. Jarome Iginla, Flames (-4)

50. Jeff Skinner, Hurricanes (+2)

51. Cody Hodgson, Sabres (+4)

52. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Oilers (-6)

53. Chris Kunitz, Penguins (+15)

54. Vladimir Tarasenko, Blues (+7)

55. Alexandre Burrows, Canucks (-4)

56. David Perron, Blues (same)

57. Patrik Elias, Devils (+2)

58. Loui Eriksson, Stars (-5)

59. Radim Vrbata, Coyotes (+6)

60. Alexander Semin, Hurricanes (+9)

61. T.J. Oshie, Blues (+2)

62. Matt Moulson, Islanders (same)

63. Patrice Bergeron, Bruins (-5)

64. Mike Ribeiro, Capitals (+8)

65. Andy McDonald, Blues (+1)

66. David Clarkson, Devils (+9)

67. Brad Marchand, Bruins (-3)

68. Ryane Clowe, Sharks (-8)

69. Cory Conacher, Lightning (+11)

70. Jordan Staal, Hurricanes (+1)

71. PA Parenteau, Avalanche (+10)

72. Teddy Purcell, Lightning (+2)

73. Dustin Brown, Kings (same)

74. Damien Brunner, Red Wings (+9)

75. Danny Briere, Flyers (+7)

76. Tomas Plekanec, Canadiens (+19)

77. Nathan Horton, Bruins (+10)

78. Kyle Turris, Senators (+13)

79. David Krejci, Bruins (+6)

80. Andrew Ladd, Jets (+9)

81. Martin Havlat, Sharks (+3)

82. Mike Richards, Kings (-5)

83. Sam Gagner, Oilers (NR)

84. Milan Michalek, Senators (-8)

85. Jaromir Jagr, Stars (-6)

86. Jeff Carter, Kings (-8)

87. Erik Cole, Canadiens (-1)

88. Nail Yakupov, Oilers (+10)

89. Mikkel Boedker, Coyotes (+10)

90. Derek Stepan, Rangers (+2)

91. Patrik Berglund, Blues (NR)

92. Shane Doan, Coyotes (-4)

93. Chris Stewart, Blues (-3)

94. Zack Kassian, Canucks (NR)

95. Blake Wheeler, Jets (-1)

96. Adam Henrique, Devils (NR)*

97. Curtis Glencross, Flames (-4)

98. Pascal Dupuis, Penguins (-1)

99. Derek Roy, Stars (NR)*

100. Tomas Fleischmann, Panthers (NR)

* Was listed on IR in last week's rankings

Players that dropped out of previous rankings: Travis Zajac, Matt Read

Injured: Jason Spezza, Scott Hartnell, Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan Callahan, Wayne Simmonds, Joffrey Lupul, Ray Whitney, Ryan Kesler, Cam Atkinson

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