Last season James Reimer came out of practically nowhere to take the NHL and fantasy leagues by surprise. After making just seven starts prior to last season's All-Star Game, Reimer went on to make 28 starts for Toronto after the break. He finished with a 16-7-5 record to go along with a 2.69 goals-against average, .917 save percentage and three shutouts while powering the Maple Leafs to a second-half surge that would give them hope heading into the 2011-12 season.
Reimer is the ultimate example for a player fantasy owners hope to snag up around the midway point of the season. We're all in search of that unknown guy that gets called up and produces at a high level when his team is willing to give young players a chance -- this is the time for coaches to see what kind of talent they have in their minor league systems.
Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic was a similar story last season, emerging as a major fantasy difference-maker on the blue line. Hamonic was called up early last season (Nov. 24), but turned out to be extremely valuable in the latter part of the season, finishing with 5 goals, 18 points, a plus-11 and an amazing 78 penalty minutes in 33 contests after the All-Star break.
When the Senators realized they would likely miss out on the playoffs last season, they actually had a couple of forwards that became fantasy relevant: Bobby Butler and Colin Greening. In 28 games after his recall in February, Butler went on to notch 10 goals and 21 points, while Greening registered 13 points in 24 contests.
Similar to Ottawa, Columbus had a number of players show off their skills late in the season. The most notable guys were defenseman Grant Clitsome (called up on Jan. 11) and energetic forward Matt Calvert (called up on Jan. 7). Clitsome posted 4 goals and 15 assists in 31 games, with 10 of those points coming on the power play. Calvert tallied 11 goals and 9 helpers as well as a plus-3 rating in 42 games.
Montreal's David Desharnais, the Rangers' Mats Zuccarello, Pittsburgh's Dustin Jeffrey, New Jersey's Nick Palmieri and Nashville's Matt Halischuk were just a few other names that ended up helping fantasy owners down the stretch last season.
It's never an easy task predicting who will get called up to the big show, let alone actually become a fantasy difference-maker, but here's our picks for who you should be keeping in the back of your mind over the remainder of the fantasy season -- some of these players are already in the NHL, some have been up this season and sent back down, and some have to yet to make their NHL debuts (in no particular order):
Ryan Ellis, D, Nashville Predators
We've been talking about him since the preseason and then again when he was called up by the Predators on Dec. 26. In 14 games Ellis has posted 2 goals, 5 assists, a plus-6, 2 penalty minutes, 4 power-play points and 18 shots on goal. He has all the skill in the world and will be a top-10 fantasy option on the blue line for years to come.
Andrew Shaw, C, Chicago Blackhawks
SOG: 27 | +/-: 1
Cam Atkinson, RW, Blue Jackets
Atkinson has 1 goal in five games for the Blue Jackets this season, but hasn't been in the NHL since Nov. 5. The 22-year-old has been tearing it up in the AHL with 23 goals and 33 points in 38 games and will likely be called up by Columbus at some point down the stretch. He's as good a bet as anyone to be this year's Bobby Butler among forwards.
Carl Hagelin, LW, New York Rangers
Already known for his blazing speed, Hagelin has been a key player for the Rangers since joining the team back in late November. He started his NHL career with a four-game point-scoring streak and has a pair of two-goal games under his belt. In 29 games he has 8 goals and 8 assists to go along with an outstanding plus-13 rating and 63 shots on goal. He won't see much time on the power play, but he's currently playing the wing on New York's top line with Marian Gaborik and Derek Stepan.
Jacob Markstrom, G, Panthers
GAA: 2.66 | SVP: 0.923
Goalies Mark Dekanich, Ben Bishop and Dustin Tokarski were close to making this list. While Dekanich may play for the Blue Jackets at some point this season, between his current injury and his struggling statistics in the AHL (4.00 GAA and .867 save percentage in five games), it's hard to think he'll help many fantasy owners.
Ben Bishop has thrived with St. Louis' AHL affiliate (17 wins, 2.36 GAA, .926 save percentage), but it's hard to see how he'll factor into the Blues' end-of-the-season plans with Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott holding the fort down. Bishop could end up being traded to a team that's looking to get younger in net -- if that's the case he's definitely worth adding.
As for Tokarski, he could be worth a fantasy roster spot if a few things happen. First, the Lightning need to remain in the cellar of their division (their current four-game winning streak isn't helping that cause). Second, if they do look like they'll miss the playoffs, they would have to trade either Dwayne Roloson or Mathieu Garon in order to give Tokarski a shot. Tokarski has 17 wins, a 2.53 GAA and a save percentage just under .900, so it's a definite possibility he sees some time if the Lightning are out of the playoff hunt.
Tyson Barrie, D, Colorado Avalanche
Barrie is just 20 years old, but that hasn't stopped him from being a dominant player for Colorado's AHL affiliate. In 43 games with the Lake Erie Monsters, Barrie has recorded 5 goals and 21 assists -- his 26 points rank fifth among all defensemen in the AHL. The Avalanche are currently in the thick of the West's playoff race, but if they fall out, Barrie could be among those getting a shot in the NHL.
Gustav Nyquist, C, Detroit Red Wings
If the Red Wings decide they want to add some young talent late in the season, Nyquist will likely be their choice. He's played in five games for the Wings this season and has totaled one assist, but he's been producing heavily in the AHL with 11 goals and 26 assists in 36 games.
Other players worth monitoring: Zack Kassian (Sabres), Zac Dalpe (Hurricanes), Kyle Palmieri (Ducks), Drayson Bowman (Hurricanes), Mark Barberio (Lightning)