Every Tuesday during the season, NHL.com fantasy hockey insider Pete Jensen provides in-depth forward analysis. From updated weekly top-100 rankings to trending players and more, Jensen is your go-to guy for fantasy forward advice all season long.
Year after year, linemates go a long way in determining fantasy value. So often it makes a night-and-day difference for certain players seeing elevated minutes and/or playing time alongside elite teammates.
Look at this season alone: Matt Duchene, coming off a down season, has gone from an early fantasy disappointment to one of the most productive players in the NHL over the past month and a half since being moved to the Colorado Avalanche's top line with Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. Once-slumping Chris Kunitz of the Pittsburgh Penguins is back with his old linemate Sidney Crosby and has quickly rejoined the top-100 fantasy forwards with points in five of his past six games since the move. Leon Draisaitl, who was off the fantasy map last season in a depth role for the Edmonton Oilers, has exploded for 26 points in 21 games alongside mostly Taylor Hall.
There are plenty of elite-level players in this League who raise the bar for their linemates and maintain production no matter who their linemates are. But once you venture beyond the household names that many targeted in the early rounds of drafts, it becomes even more impressive when middle-tier players maintain steady production as line changes come and go.
Here are five players who have proved to be self-sustaining fantasy assets this season despite line changes, injured linemates and/or competition for top-line duties on their teams.
Evgeny Kuznetsov, C/LW, Washington Capitals
Yahoo performance-based rank: 28
Kuznetsov has climbed the fantasy ranks and continues his breakout season despite being bumped off Alex Ovechkin's line earlier this season. His points have come in bunches (seven multipoint games), but he has been a stable even-strength point producer (21, T-12th in NHL) who has 28 points in 29 games on the season with a plus-15 rating. His shooting percentage (15.3 percent) has been much better than last season (8.7), when he was stuck in mostly a third- or fourth-line role, but it helps he has remained among the top six all season, whether with Ovi and T.J. Oshie on the first line, or more recently alongside Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams on the second unit. He has remained a top-30 fantasy forward despite these line changes and has been just as confident as a puck-mover alongside his new linemates as he was with Ovechkin.
Ryan O'Reilly, C/LW/RW, Buffalo Sabres
Yahoo performance-based rank: 35
Whether he's played alongside Evander Kane or current linemates Jamie McGinn and Sam Reinhart, O'Reilly has been a smashing success in his first season with the Sabres. He has posted between 55 and 64 points in each of his past three full seasons in Colorado despite frequent line changes, and has now taken the next step as a two-way leader for the young, developing Sabres. He's anchoring Buffalo's first power-play unit and is on an 82-game pace of 73 points and 208 SOG. He has at least a point in 19 of his 31 games this season, and is tri-eligible in Yahoo leagues.
Jason Spezza, C, Dallas Stars
Yahoo performance-based rank: 54
Based on Yahoo's Fantasy MVP tracker, which indicates how often players appear among the top-500 public-league teams, Spezza is fifth-most valuable among center-only players behind Tomas Plekanec, Patrice Bergeron, Henrik Sedin and David Krejci. Spezza has skated with almost every forward on the Dallas roster at one time or another, and is averaging more than three SOG per game (96 in 30 games) with a ton of power-play reps (3:22 per game; seven PPP) for one of the top man-advantage units in the NHL. He has finished among the top 80 overall players in Yahoo leagues in each of the past two seasons, and is well on his way to that standing again in 2015-16. Long story short, he doesn't need to be on a line with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn to sustain fantasy production.
Scott Hartnell, LW, Columbus Blue Jackets
Yahoo performance-based rank: 78
Fantasy owners have relied upon Hartnell for 50-plus points, 100-plus penalty minutes and 200-plus SOG in recent years, and he got the job done again last season despite moving up and down the lineup for the up-and-down Blue Jackets. It's been the same story for Hartnell in 2015-16, as he's been productive again in the midst of a coaching change, healthy scratch and new line combinations seemingly every other game under John Tortorella. Whether on the first or third line, Hartnell finds the scoresheet and covers five of the six standard categories -- and also touches on hits for such formats (66 in 31 games). His SOG output is slightly down this season, but his consistency and category coverage has parked him among the top-100 fantasy players.
Left Wing - CBJ
GOALS: 12 | ASST: 10 | PTS: 22
SOG: 65 | +/-: -9
Frans Nielsen, C, New York Islanders
Yahoo performance-based rank: 79
Nielsen is one of the most underrated, well-rounded players in the League and plays in all situations on a nightly basis. He's been consistent in fantasy despite not having the best linemates (Anders Lee, Josh Bailey of late) to work with as New York's No. 2 center. He's one of the Islanders' top defensive forwards, shoulders a heavy faceoff workload, and sees first-unit power-play duties all season long (2:28 per game on PP; seven PPP). He averages well over two SOG per game (81 in 31 games), has reached double digits in goals (12) and assists (10), and leads all forwards in blocked shots (37). It's shocking he's only owned in 41 percent of leagues. He's never scored 60 points in a season, but the 31-year-old is in a position to do it this season.
Victor Rask, C, Carolina Hurricanes
Center - CAR
GOALS: 9 | ASST: 13 | PTS: 22
SOG: 64 | +/-: 4
Rask's production can no longer go unnoticed. He has one goal, six assists, a plus-4, four power-play points and eight SOG during his four-game point streak and is slowly but surely becoming relevant in standard leagues. He's one of 17 forwards with 10 or more PPP, and sees 2:56 per game with the man-advantage on the top unit for Carolina, which quietly ranks fourth League-wide in shot attempts percentage (53.59). He has ignited his frequent even-strength linemate Jeff Skinner
, who has eight goals and a high shot volume in his past 11 games. Rask is only center-eligible in Yahoo but is severely undervalued at 27 percent owned.
Joe Thornton, C, San Jose Sharks
Even through San Jose's perennial inconsistencies, Thornton is usually an assist machine at the very least. But the second-leading assist man among active players has seen his production fade, with one goal and one assist in his past 11 games. The Sharks bumped the slumping center down in the lineup Saturday but lost their sixth straight, so their Sunday practice lines had Thornton centering usual linemate Joe Pavelski and wing Tomas Hertl (C/LW, 17 percent owned in Yahoo). Keep an eye on this trio as the Sharks visit the Montreal Canadiens and third-string goalie Dustin Tokarski. Hertl has been a fantasy non-factor this season, but has two assists and 11 SOG in his past four games and could be poised for a scoring outburst if he sticks with the guys who made him a rookie sensation in 2013-14 prior to his injury. It's definitely worth holding onto Thornton for another week or two to see if this latest tweak can get him back on track.
KEEP AN EYE ON
Sam Reinhart, C, Buffalo Sabres
Reinhart, as mentioned above, is playing alongside O'Reilly on the top line of late and has seen a spike in production in his past eight games with four goals, two assists, two power-play points and 21 SOG in that span. The rookie is playing on the top power-play unit with O'Reilly, McGinn, Brian Gionta and breakout defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. At eight percent owned, he needs to be scooped up now in deep leagues and is worth adding to your watch list in all formats as he continues to pick up steam. He's playing the wing and could be eligible for added position eligibility in Yahoo leagues as the season progresses.
- The high-scoring Ottawa Senators have re-arranged their top six, with Mike Hoffman and Bobby Ryan now centered by Mika Zibanejad (21 percent owned). That change yielded stellar results Monday against the Los Angeles Kings, with Zibanejad posting one goal, two assists, a plus-3 and one SOG. The Senators' second line has Kyle Turris centering Mark Stone and Zack Smith (one percent owned).
- The Tampa Bay Lightning will be without Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin for at least this week because of injuries, so their top line is comprised of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Vladislav Namestnikov (one percent owned). That trio combined for no points on six SOG against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday but remains at the forefront of the offensive gameplan, playing together on the top power-play unit as well.
- Pittsburgh Penguins wing Beau Bennett left the game Monday with a shoulder injury, so new coach Mike Sullivan moved Patric Hornqvist back up to the top line with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz. Each component of that trio posted four SOG in the Penguins' 4-1 loss to the Washington Capitals. Fantasy owners have grown frustrated with Hornqvist, who has been in and out of the top six this season with 10 points on 75 SOG in 29 games after scoring 51 on 220 SOG last season in 64 games. That said, Hornqvist (48 percent owned) is available in some shallow leagues and is worth adding in case he turns things around.
- As noted in Sean McCullen's Fantasy All-Access column, Jakub Voracek of the Philadelphia Flyers is changing position and moving to a line with Wayne Simmonds and Sean Couturier ahead of his game Tuesday against the Carolina Hurricanes. There's still a window to buy low on Voracek via trade in fantasy.
TOP 100 FANTASY FORWARDS
These rankings are based on expectations for this season. Value is quantified by line combinations, power-play usage, past performance and overall upside in standard Yahoo categories (goals, assists, plus-minus, penalty minutes, power-play points and shots on goal).
||Patrick Kane, C/RW, CHI (SAME)
||Pavel Datsyuk, C/LW, DET (-4)
||Tyler Seguin, C/RW, DAL (SAME)
||Jaromir Jagr, RW, FLA (DTD)
||Alex Ovechkin, LW/RW, WSH (SAME)
||Brandon Saad, LW/RW, CBJ (SAME)
||Jamie Benn, LW, DAL (SAME)
||Mats Zuccarello, LW/RW, NYR (+3)
||Vladimir Tarasenko, RW, STL (+1)
||T.J. Oshie, C/RW, WSH (SAME)
||Max Pacioretty, LW, MTL (-1)
||David Backes, C/RW, STL (+3)
||Claude Giroux, C/RW, PHI (+2)
||Brad Marchand, LW, BOS (+11)
||Evgeni Malkin, C/RW, PIT (-1)
||Sean Monahan, C, CGY (+9)
||Sidney Crosby, C, PIT (+1)
||Kyle Palmieri, LW/RW, NJD (+3)
||Taylor Hall, C/LW, EDM (+2)
||Nikita Kucherov, RW, TBL (+5)
||Joe Pavelski, C/LW/RW, SJS (-3)
||Kyle Okposo, RW, NYI (+8)
||John Tavares, C, NYI (-1)
||Leon Draisaitl, C/RW, EDM (+16)
||Daniel Sedin, LW, VAN (SAME)
||Gustav Nyquist, C/LW/RW, DET (-5)
||Patrice Bergeron, C, BOS (+1)
||Jakub Voracek, RW, PHI (-9)
||Nicklas Backstrom, C, WSH (-1)
||Milan Lucic, LW, LAK (+1)
||Steven Stamkos, C, TBL (SAME)
||Wayne Simmonds, LW/RW, PHI (-6)
||Nathan MacKinnon, C/RW, COL (SAME)
||Loui Eriksson, LW/RW, BOS (+3)
||Zach Parise, LW, MIN (SAME)
||Derick Brassard, C, NYR (+4)
||Jeff Carter, C/RW, LAK (+1)
||Tomas Tatar, LW/RW, DET (-6)
||Blake Wheeler, RW, WPG (-1)
||Marian Hossa, RW, CHI (-6)
||David Krejci, C, BOS (+1)
||Tyler Johnson, C, TBL (DTD)
||Ryan Johansen, C/RW, CBJ (+2)
||Eric Staal, C/LW, CAR (+2)
||Corey Perry, RW, ANA (SAME)
||Bryan Little, C/RW, WPG (+2)
||Alexander Steen, C/LW, STL (+1)
||Evander Kane, LW, BUF (-3)
||Henrik Zetterberg, C/LW, DET (+1)
||Scott Hartnell, LW, CBJ (+6)
||Evgeny Kuznetsov, C/LW, WSH (+4)
||Mark Stone, RW, OTT (+4)
||Johnny Gaudreau, LW, CGY (+6)
||Jack Eichel, C, BUF (-1)
||Patrick Sharp, C/LW/RW, DAL (SAME)
||Joe Thornton, C, SJS (-5)
||Rick Nash, LW/RW, NYR (-2)
||Chris Kunitz, LW, PIT (+16)
||Phil Kessel, RW, PIT (-9)
||Radim Vrbata, RW, VAN (-3)
||Artemi Panarin, LW, CHI (SAME)
||Adam Henrique, C/LW, NJD (DTD)
||Mike Cammalleri, C/LW, NJD (SAME)
||Chris Kreider, LW, NYR (+2)
||Matt Duchene, C/LW, COL (+9)
||Lee Stempniak, LW/RW, NJD (+6)
||Jonathan Toews, C, CHI (-4)
||Mark Scheifele, C, WPG (+6)
||Filip Forsberg, C/LW/RW, NSH (-1)
||Patrick Marleau, C/LW, SJS (+2)
||Kyle Turris, C, OTT (-1)
||Victor Rask, C, CAR (NEW)
||Tomas Plekanec, C, MTL (SAME)
||Boone Jenner, C/RW, CBJ (+5)
||Jason Spezza, C, DAL (SAME)
||Frans Nielsen, C, NYI (NEW)
||Ryan Getzlaf, C, ANA (-3)
||Aleksander Barkov, C, FLA (DTD)
||Gabriel Landeskog, LW, COL (SAME)
||Artem Anisimov, C/LW, CHI (-2)
||Ryan O'Reilly, C/LW/RW, BUF (+8)
||Alex Galchenyuk, C/LW, MTL (SAME)
||James Neal, LW/RW, NSH (+2)
||Paul Stastny, C, STL (-7)
||Dylan Larkin, C/LW, DET (-2)
||Justin Williams, RW, WSH (+1)
||Max Domi, C/LW, ARI (-1)
||Jarome Iginla, RW, COL (-11)
||Tyler Toffoli, C/LW/RW, LAK (-6)
||Justin Abdelkader, LW/RW, DET (+2)
||Henrik Sedin, C, VAN (+2)
||Jonathan Huberdeau, C/LW, FLA (SAME)
||Mike Hoffman, C/LW, OTT (+5)
||Mikael Granlund, C, MIN (+2)
||Anze Kopitar, C, LAK (+3)
||Mikkel Boedker, LW, ARI (SAME)
||Andrew Ladd, LW, WPG (-4)
||Valeri Nichushkin, RW, DAL (SAME)
||Bobby Ryan, LW/RW, OTT (+4)
||Mathieu Perreault, C/LW, WPG (NEW)
Just missed: Jeff Skinner (LW/RW, CAR), Cam Atkinson (RW, CBJ), Jason Pominville (RW, MIN), James van Riemsdyk (LW, TOR), Jordan Eberle (RW, EDM), Joel Ward (RW, SJS), Mikko Koivu (C, MIN), Brandon Pirri (C/LW/RW, FLA), Nick Foligno (C/LW, CBJ), Marian Gaborik (RW, LAK), Thomas Vanek (LW/RW, MIN), Oscar Lindberg (C, NYR), Anthony Duclair (LW/RW, ARI), Mika Zibanejad (C/RW, OTT), Teuvo Teravainen (LW, CHI)
Dropped out: Kevin Hayes
Key injuries: Connor McDavid (C, EDM), Logan Couture (C/LW, SJS), Brendan Gallagher (RW, MTL), Ondrej Palat (LW, TBL), Martin Hanzal (C, ARI), Jaden Schwartz (LW, STL), Derek Stepan (C, NYR), Nick Bjugstad (C, FLA), Tyler Ennis (C/LW/RW, BUF)