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.
It's been a fun first five weeks to the 2012-13 NHL season. We've seen plenty of highlight-reel goals, assists, saves and hits, but the one thing that seems to be talked about throughout every game this year is the emergence of young players in the National Hockey League.
On opening night we saw rookie Jonathan Huberdeau score his first goal and add two assists for the Panthers. That same night, Tampa Bay's Cory Conacher notched a goal and an assist in his NHL debut and Russian sensation Vladimir Tarasenko chipped in two goals and five shots on goal in his first game.
All three of these extremely talented youngsters have been fantasy relevant this season. Conacher leads all NHL rookies with 17 points in 18 games, with his Yahoo! fantasy ownership at 59 percent. Huberdeau is second on that list with 13 points in 18 games -- he's owned in 45 percent of leagues. Tarasenko (who was lost due to an injury last week) is tied for third in points with 12 in 17 contests -- he's owned in 50 percent.
The list goes on with rookies like Edmonton teammates Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz, Boston blueliner Dougie Hamilton, the Ottawa tandem of Jakob Silfverberg and Mika Zibanejad, Rangers forwards Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller. Let's also not forget the two rookie forwards that have come on really strong of late in Montreal -- 19-year-old Alex Galchenyuk and 20-year-old Brendan Gallagher. Galchenyuk has three goals and nine assists in 19 games and leads all rookies with a plus-8 rating. Right behind him in the plus/minus category is Gallagher (plus-7), who has five goals and three assists in 15 games. Galchenyuk is owned in 20 percent of leagues, while Gallagher is owned in only six percent -- both players make for great additions, especially if you're in a deep fantasy pool.
However, there's another talented youngster that's taken the League by storm this season, and that's Detroit's Damien Brunner. Because he's 26 years old, Brunner cannot qualify as a rookie, but he has come out of nowhere for fantasy owners this year and we're loving every minute of it.
Of all these newcomers that have produced heavily for fantasy owners this season, none have been more valuable than Brunner, who's currently ranked 38th among all players in Yahoo! fantasy leagues. Brunner's best game of the season came on Sunday as he led the Wings with two goals, two assists, a plus-1, two penalty minutes, two power-play points and five shots on goal in their 8-3 rout of the Canucks. That's about as sound of a fantasy line as you'll find in the game these days.
On the season, Brunner has 10 goals (leads the Red Wings), six assists, a minus-2, 10 PIMs, six power-play points and 66 shots on goal (also leads the team) in 19 games played. Usually with young players, we tend to see them go through cold spells at some point during their first NHL seasons (Conacher had a stretch of six games without a point; Huberdeau and Galchenyuk were both held without a point in five straight games; Tarasenko went four games without a point and was a minus-7 during that time), but Brunner hasn't had that happen. He's been extremely consistent -- his longest drought of games without a point has been two, which happened just once in his first two games of the season.
While Detroit's lines have shuffled a bit in the last few weeks, one thing has remained constant: Brunner and Henrik Zetterberg have remained paired together, and that's worked out flawlessly for both players. The two players have recorded at least one point on the same goal 11 times this season -- good for 15th best in the NHL.
Brunner is receiving 17:05 of ice time per game, with 4:03 of that coming on the power play. He has center and right wing eligibility in Yahoo! leagues and with his ability to fire the puck on goal at will, Brunner has become a must-own and must-start player in all leagues. At this point, it wouldn't shock us if he led all rookies -- ahem, we mean youngsters -- in goals, points, power-play points and shots on goal this season.
Whether it's been Brunner or Conacher or Schultz or any of these young kids, one thing has become very evident this season: NHL teams are relying heavily on their youth to help them win games -- and fantasy owners need to do the same.
Flyers forwards -- Every single Flyers forward that was previously ranked (Giroux, Simmonds and Briere) moved up in our ranks, Scott Hartnell is back in the rankings after missing over a month of action (we slotted him in at 25, but that should rise in time) and Jakub Voracek and Brayden Schenn have joined the top 100. It's been a great last two weeks for Flyers forwards. Over the last 14 days in Yahoo! fantasy leagues, Voracek is the No. 1 player, Simmonds is No. 4, Giroux is No. 10 and Schenn is No. 13. The return of Hartnell should mean good things for Giroux as the Flyers are now rolling out their top two forward lines like this: Giroux-Hartnell-Voracek and Briere-Simmonds-Schenn. That's not a bad top-six, and if you have any of these guys on your fantasy roster, you better be starting them on a regular basis.
Patrik Elias, Devils -- Some things never change. That's what we've come to learn about Elias over time. No matter which players he's playing on a line with for the Devils, Elias will continue to pile up the points for his fantasy owners, even at 36 years old. In 19 games this season, Elias has five goals, 17 helpers, a plus-11, 12 PIMs, 10 power-play points and 43 shots on goal, proving that he can contribute heavily in every single category. He's currently skating with David Clarkson and Travis Zajac and has two goals and seven assists in his previous eight games. His 22 points on the year are good for ninth best in the League, yet remarkably, he's available in 10 percent of Yahoo! leagues -- how is that possible?
Alexandre Burrows, Canucks -- Burrows started slowly with no points in his first three games and just three points in his first nine, but he's come on strong since then. In the following nine games, Burrows has three goals and five assists while manning the right wing with Daniel and Henrik Sedin. What's been even more impressive is since those first nine games, Burrows has not once posted a minus rating (he's a plus-9 since then). He has 14 penalty minutes during that time and has definitely regained his form as one of the better all-round fantasy options in the game.
Evgeni Malkin, Penguins -- While Malkin isn't technically falling in our rankings, he has been placed on IR (retroactive to Feb. 22) and for the time being is removed from our top 100. This is obviously a brutal loss for Malkin owners and it won't be easy to find someone to replace his kind of production (4 G, 17 A, minus-4, 30 PIMs, 14 PPP, 60 SOG in 18 games). Malkin is currently ranked eighth overall in Yahoo! leagues, and his 14 power-play points are tops in the NHL (teammate James Neal and Washington's Mike Ribeiro are tied for second with 12 apiece). You're likely wondering what will Pittsburgh's lines look like going forward without Malkin. If Sunday is a hint, you can expect Neal to move onto the top line with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz. Brandon Sutter is the guy that's physically getting moved up a spot (he centered the team's second line with Matt Cooke and Pascal Dupuis), and while he makes for an interesting pick-up in Malkin's place, we tend to think there's probably better players available on your waiver wire outside of the Pittsburgh uniform -- check in on one of these eligible centers: Jiri Tlusty (available in 64%), Michael Cammalleri (63%), Brad Boyes (81%) or Derek Stepan (77%).
Marian Gaborik, Rangers -- Last week it was Brad Richards on this list. This week it's Gaborik. And like Richards, Gaborik found himself in John Tortorella's doghouse on Saturday when he was benched for the entire third period of the Rangers' 3-0 loss in Montreal. Gaborik is an extremely streaky player and while you should never bench a player of this caliber, you're going to sit through some rough times with him. Of course, at some point he'll go on a tear and rattle off eight points in a three-game span (like he did earlier this season), but one of the problems with owning Gaborik is his consistency -- and it's even harder to deal with as a fantasy owner knowing Tortorella is his coach. If you do have him, just hope he snaps out of his current four-game pointless drought soon.
Jason Pominville, Sabres -- Pominville has pretty much been the opposite of Burrows. In his first 10 games, Pominville put up six goals and eight assists -- great numbers for sure. In nine games since that hot start, he has just one point, a goal. In those nine games, Pominville is a minus-4 and has four penalty minutes. It's safe to say opposing defenses have realized that Buffalo's offense is made up primarily of their top line (Pominville-Hodgson-Vanek) and have decided to play a lot tighter defense against them. We think it's probably a good idea to bench Pominville during this cold streak, but you should know he can erupt for a three-point performance at any given time.
KEEP AN EYE ON ...
Cam Atkinson, Blue Jackets -- Atkinson made my fantasy sleepers list prior to the start of this season, but three games into the campaign he went down with an ankle injury. Fortunately, he returned to the Columbus lineup on Feb. 21 and has one assist in his first three games back. Atkinson is skating on the team's top line with Derick Brassard and RJ Umberger and could be a decent source of goals going forward. Remember, Atkinson notched 14 points in 27 games after being called up in late February last season -- a rate of .52 points per game -- but what's most notable is how he closed out his rookie season with five goals in his last two games and 10 points in the final six. There's some definite upside here and he's available in 97 percent of Yahoo! leagues -- if you're willing to take a little bit of a gamble, then Atkinson's your guy.
TOP 100 FORWARD RANKINGS
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. Sidney Crosby, Penguins (same)
2. Steven Stamkos, Lightning (same)
3. John Tavares, Islanders (+6)
4. Claude Giroux, Flyers (+7)
5. Ilya Kovalchuk, Devils (-1)
6. Thomas Vanek, Sabres (+1)
7. Patrick Kane, Blackhawks (-1)
8. Eric Staal, Hurricanes (same)
9. Henrik Zetterberg, Red Wings (+3)
10. Jonathan Toews, Blackhawks (-5)
11. James Neal, Penguins (+2)
12. Pavel Datsyuk, Red Wings (+3)
13. Alex Ovechkin, Capitals (+5)
14. Corey Perry, Ducks (+3)
15. Martin St. Louis, Lightning (+1)
16. Daniel Sedin, Canucks (+3)
17. Zach Parise, Wild (-3)
18. Patrick Marleau, Sharks (+3)
19. Jamie Benn, Stars (+3)
20. Phil Kessel, Maple Leafs (+3)
21. Marian Hossa, Blackhawks (-1)
22. Henrik Sedin, Canucks (+5)
23. Anze Kopitar, Kings (+1)
24. Joe Thornton, Sharks (+1)
25. Scott Hartnell, Flyers (NR)*
26. Ryan Getzlaf, Ducks (+5)
27. Patrik Elias, Devils (+16)
28. Taylor Hall, Oilers (+2)
29. Patrick Sharp, Blackhawks (same)
30. Joe Pavelski, Sharks (-2)
31. Matt Duchene, Avalanche (+1)
32. Tyler Seguin, Bruins (+3)
33. Vincent Lecavalier, Lightning (+5)
34. Marian Gaborik, Rangers (-8)
35. Chris Kunitz, Penguins (+7)
36. David Backes, Blues (-2)
37. Ryan Kesler, Canucks (same)
38. David Clarkson, Devils (+3)
39. Matt Moulson, Islanders (+19)
40. Jordan Eberle, Oilers (-1)
41. Mike Ribeiro, Capitals (+7)
42. Alexandre Burrows, Canucks (+8)
43. Brad Richards, Rangers (-3)
44. Jason Pominville, Sabres (-11)
45. Max Pacioretty, Canadiens (+6)
46. Alexander Semin, Hurricanes (+10)
47. Nicklas Backstrom, Capitals (same)
48. Teemu Selanne, Ducks (-4)
49. Logan Couture, Sharks (-13)
50. Evander Kane, Jets (+5)
51. Wayne Simmonds, Flyers (+10)
52. Jarome Iginla, Flames (+2)
53. Bobby Ryan, Ducks (-4)
54. PA Parenteau, Avalanche (+8)
55. Damien Brunner, Red Wings (+19)
56. Mikko Koivu, Wild (-4)
57. Milan Lucic, Bruins (same)
58. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Oilers (-5)
59. James van Riemsdyk, Maple Leafs (+19)
60. David Perron, Blues (-1)
61. Jakub Voracek, Flyers (NR)
62. Jordan Staal, Hurricanes (+8)
63. Tomas Plekanec, Canadiens (+2)
64. Sam Gagner, Oilers (+5)
65. Cody Hodgson, Sabres (-5)
66. T.J. Oshie, Blues (-2)
67. Patrice Bergeron, Bruins (+1)
68. Brad Marchand, Bruins (+4)
69. Dany Heatley, Wild (-6)
70. Brayden Schenn, Flyers (NR)
71. Alexander Steen, Blues (same)
72. Teddy Purcell, Lightning (same)
73. Radim Vrbata, Coyotes (-7)
74. Cory Conacher, Lightning (+1)
75. Loui Eriksson, Stars (-8)
76. Andrew Ladd, Jets (+6)
77. Danny Briere, Flyers (+3)
78. Gabriel Landeskog, Avalanche (NR)*
79. Andy McDonald, Blues (-2)
80. Mike Richards, Kings (+6)
81. Jaromir Jagr, Stars (+4)
82. David Krejci, Bruins (+5)
83. Jeff Carter, Kings (+9)
84. Dustin Brown, Kings (same)
85. Chris Stewart, Blues (+12)
86. Pascal Dupuis, Penguins (+3)
87. Ryan Callahan, Rangers (-8)
88. Tyler Ennis, Sabres (same)
89. Blake Wheeler, Jets (+10)
90. Kyle Turris, Senators (-7)
91. Nathan Horton, Bruins (same)
92. Derek Roy, Stars (-2)
93. Ryane Clowe, Sharks (-12)
94. Nazem Kadri, Maple Leafs (+4)
95. Jiri Tlusty, Hurricanes (NR)
96. Carl Hagelin, Rangers (NR)
97. Jamie McGinn, Avalanche (NR)
98. Derek Stepan, Rangers (-4)
99. Nail Yakupov, Oilers (-6)
100. Jonathan Huberdeau, Panthers (NR)
* Was listed on IR in last week's rankings
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