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The Front Line: The return of Ryan Kesler

by Matt Cubeta

Every Tuesday during the season, 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.

What would you say if you could pick up a 28-year-old forward that had a 41-goal campaign two seasons ago, has two 70-plus point seasons under his belt and has consistently been known to be a major asset in the PIMs department? You'd have to be interested, right?

Of course we're talking about Vancouver Canucks center Ryan Kesler, who is miraculously available in 41 percent of Yahoo! fantasy leagues. If you spent a draft pick on Kesler back in January and have had him stashed either on your injured reserve or your bench, you're finally being rewarded about a month later.


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. Evgeni Malkin, Penguins (same)
  • 4. Ilya Kovalchuk, Devils (+1)
  • 5. Jonathan Toews, Blackhawks (-1)
  • 6. Patrick Kane, Blackhawks (+1)
  • 7. Thomas Vanek, Sabres (+1)
  • 8. Eric Staal, Hurricanes (+1)
  • 9. John Tavares, Islanders (+3)
  • 10. Rick Nash, Rangers (-4)
  • 11. Claude Giroux, Flyers (same)
  • 12. Henrik Zetterberg, Red Wings (+2)
  • 13. James Neal, Penguins (+4)
  • 14. Zach Parise, Wild (-4)
  • 15. Pavel Datsyuk, Red Wings (+1)
  • 16. Martin St. Louis, Lightning (+2)
  • 17. Corey Perry, Ducks (-2)
  • 18. Alex Ovechkin, Capitals (+2)
  • 19. Daniel Sedin, Canucks (same)
  • 20. Marian Hossa, Blackhawks (-7)
  • 21. Patrick Marleau, Sharks (same)
  • 22. Jamie Benn, Stars (+3)
  • 23. Phil Kessel, Maple Leafs (+6)
  • 24. Anze Kopitar, Kings (-1)
  • 25. Joe Thornton, Sharks (-1)
  • 26. Marian Gaborik, Rangers (-4)
  • 27. Henrik Sedin, Canucks (+4)
  • 28. Joe Pavelski, Sharks (-2)
  • 29. Patrick Sharp, Blackhawks (-2)
  • 30. Taylor Hall, Oilers (+5)
  • 31. Ryan Getzlaf, Ducks (+3)
  • 32. Matt Duchene, Avalanche (+6)
  • 33. Jason Pominville, Sabres (-1)
  • 34. David Backes, Blues (-4)
  • 35. Tyler Seguin, Bruins (+4)
  • 36. Logan Couture, Sharks (-3)
  • 37. Ryan Kesler, Canucks (NR)*
  • 38. Vincent Lecavalier, Lightning (+3)
  • 39. Jordan Eberle, Oilers (+1)
  • 40. Brad Richards, Rangers (-12)
  • 41. David Clarkson, Devils (+2)
  • 42. Chris Kunitz, Penguins (+2)
  • 43. Patrik Elias, Devils (+6)
  • 44. Teemu Selanne, Ducks (-8)
  • 45. Johan Franzen, Red Wings (-8)
  • 46. Jeff Skinner, Hurricanes (same)
  • 47. Nicklas Backstrom, Capitals (-5)
  • 48. Mike Ribeiro, Capitals (+2)
  • 49. Bobby Ryan, Ducks (-2)
  • 50. Alexandre Burrows, Canucks (+6)
  • 51. Max Pacioretty, Canadiens (-3)
  • 52. Mikko Koivu, Wild (-7)
  • 53. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Oilers (+1)
  • 54. Jarome Iginla, Flames (-1)
  • 55. Evander Kane, Jets (-4)
  • 56. Alexander Semin, Hurricanes (+1)
  • 57. Milan Lucic, Bruins (-5)
  • 58. Matt Moulson, Islanders (+4)
  • 59. David Perron, Blues (same)
  • 60. Cody Hodgson, Sabres (-6)
  • 61. Wayne Simmonds, Flyers (+4)
  • 62. PA Parenteau, Avalanche (+8)
  • 63. Dany Heatley, Wild (-3)
  • 64. T.J. Oshie, Blues (-1)
  • 65. Tomas Plekanec, Canadiens (+9)
  • 66. Radim Vrbata, Coyotes (-8)
  • 67. Loui Eriksson, Stars (-1)
  • 68. Patrice Bergeron, Bruins (-4)
  • 69. Sam Gagner, Oilers (+8)
  • 70. Jordan Staal, Hurricanes (+1)
  • 71. Alexander Steen, Blues (+13)
  • 72. Brad Marchand, Bruins (same)
  • 73. Teddy Purcell, Lightning (same)
  • 74. Damien Brunner, Red Wings (-7)
  • 75. Cory Conacher, Lightning (-7)
  • 76. Vladimir Tarasenko, Blues (-15)
  • 77. Andy McDonald, Blues (-2)
  • 78. James van Riemsdyk, Maple Leafs (+10)
  • 79. Ryan Callahan, Rangers (-3)
  • 80. Danny Briere, Flyers (-2)
  • 81. Ryane Clowe, Sharks (-12)
  • 82. Andrew Ladd, Jets (-2)
  • 83. Kyle Turris, Senators (-1)
  • 84. Dustin Brown, Kings (-5)
  • 85. Jaromir Jagr, Stars (same)
  • 86. Mike Richards, Kings (+4)
  • 87. David Krejci, Bruins (-6)
  • 88. Tyler Ennis, Sabres (+1)
  • 89. Pascal Dupuis, Penguins (+9)
  • 90. Derek Roy, Stars (+1)
  • 91. Nathan Horton, Bruins (-8)
  • 92. Jeff Carter, Kings (-6)
  • 93. Nail Yakupov, Oilers (-6)
  • 94. Derek Stepan, Rangers (-2)
  • 95. Tomas Fleischmann, Panthers (+4)
  • 96. Shane Doan, Coyotes (+1)
  • 97. Chris Stewart, Blues (+3)
  • 98. Nazem Kadri, Maple Leafs (NR)
  • 99. Blake Wheeler, Jets (-3)
  • 100. Milan Michalek, Senators (-7)
* Was listed on IR in last week's rankings

Players that dropped out of previous rankings:
Erik Cole, Adam Henrique

Injured: Jason Spezza, Scott Hartnell, Gabriel Landeskog, Joffrey Lupul, Ray Whitney, Cam Atkinson

Kesler, who returned to the Vancouver lineup on Feb. 15, is modestly ranked 37th in our updated top-100 forward ranks, but clearly there's plenty of room for him to move up and he should be started every time the Canucks take the ice.

Two years ago, Kesler emerged as an elite player and ended up the sixth most valuable fantasy player in Yahoo! leagues when he finished the season with 41 goals, 32 assists, a plus-24, 66 penalty minutes, 30 power-play points and 260 shots on goal. Not too many people saw a season like that coming -- of course he did have a career-best 75 points the season before, but Kesler had never scored more than 26 goals in a season prior to the 41-goal breakthrough.

Last season, Kesler struggled and never seemed to find a rhythm -- he finished with 22 goals, 27 assists, a plus-11, 56 penalty minutes, 19 power-play points and 222 shots on goal -- leaving many of us wondering if his amazing 2010-11 season was a fluke. We may never see him score 41 goals again, but it's not out of the question to think he could be a point-per-game player that contributes plenty of value in every other peripheral category.

Since becoming an everyday player in 2005-06, Kesler has complemented his good scoring numbers with an average of 69 penalty minutes and a plus-7 rating. He has emerged as a major power-play contributor over the years, averaging 23.5 power-play points over the last four seasons, and has eclipsed the 200-shot mark in each of the last three seasons. Simply put, Kesler is one of the true six-tool players in fantasy hockey, and that's a rare thing to find.

Despite missing his team's first 12 games, Kesler has gotten off to a solid start in his first two contests with a point in each game. While he is a minus-3, you can expect that to improve as he gets more comfortable in his own end. Another good thing is that Alain Vigneault has shown plenty of trust in Kesler -- giving him 17:27 of ice time in his first game back and then 22:49 in the next. Kesler is also receiving 3:43 of power-play ice time to this point (he scored his goal with the man advantage), and with a power play unit consisting of the Sedin brothers, Alexandre Burrows and Alexander Edler, it's safe to assume he'll put up hefty numbers in that department.

Kesler is a welcome sight back to any of his fantasy owners, and he has the potential to finish as a top-20 forward going forward. For those of you in the fantasy leagues where he's still available, stop reading this story and grab him from your waiver wire immediately.


John Tavares, Islanders -- After earning the NHL's first star of the week, Tavares also finds himself among fantasy's "trending upward" thanks to a five-game stretch where he recorded seven goals and nine points -- all of this coming prior to Monday's minus-3, no-point performance against the Flyers. Regardless, Tavares is currently ranked eighth among all players in Yahoo! fantasy leagues and finally cracks our top-10 forward ranks for the season going forward. Tavares' 10 power-play points are tied for the NHL lead, his 11 goals are second only to Thomas Vanek's 12 and his 59 shots on goal are seventh best. He might not help you in the PIMs (8) or plus/minus (minus-6) categories, but Tavares has the potential to lead the NHL in points (he's currently five back of Vanek's 25). He and Matt Moulson have combined to form a deadly duo -- they lead the NHL with 13 goals in which each has recorded a point on the same play -- and that means great things for Tavares owners.

Taylor Hall, Oilers -- Hall might not be scoring as many goals as some of his owners were hoping for (he has three), but he's putting up points at a career-best 1.07 per game through his first 14 games. However, there's definitely reason to believe the goals will be coming soon enough -- he tallied eight and nine shots on goal in each of his last two games. As long as Hall continues to shoot the puck that frequently, the goals will follow -- and he has five points in his last three games, so you can't complain too much. He's skating on arguably the most gifted, young and promising line in the NHL with Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and will continue to be an incredible fantasy asset to his owners.

Alexander Steen, Blues -- Still relatively unknown to the fantasy world (he's owned in 67 percent of Yahoo! leagues), Steen has quietly emerged as a key performer over the last few games. The 28-year-old power forward notched a career-high 51 points in 72 games in 2010-11, but then posted just 28 points in 43 games last season. So far, his 2012-13 campaign (4 G, 11 A, plus-2, 4 PIMs, 7 PPP, 54 SOG) is going more like his season two years ago. What's been even more impressive is Steen's hot streak, where he's posted four goals and nine points in the past six games (including two three-point efforts). Steen is receiving just under three minutes of power-play ice time per game (2:57) and has found brilliant chemistry with his even-strength linemates Andy McDonald and rookie Vladimir Tarasenko. As long as he continues to put up numbers like this, Steen will continue to rise in our ranks.


Marian Hossa, Blackhawks -- Hossa's season got off to a tremendous start with five goals and nine points in his first seven games -- he even found himself ranked 10th in The Front Line two weeks ago. Unfortunately, Hossa has just one goal in his last 11 games and only three points in eight games during the month of February. Luckily, February is the shortest month of the year and we believe Hossa will turn it around soon enough. The Blackhawks remain unbeaten in regulation despite Hossa's recent slump, but fantasy owners are surely frustrated with the early-season tease Hossa gave them. He is more than capable of being a point-per-game player with a phenomenal plus/minus (currently a plus-6), but until he snaps out of this skid, he slips in our ranks.

Brad Richards, Rangers -- One New York center moves up in our rankings and another drops down. Richards' New York tenure hit a new low this past Thursday against the Islanders when he found himself on the bench for all but 47 seconds of the third period in the team's 4-3 shootout loss. Richards still has 11 points in 14 games (not terrible), but this is definitely not what his fantasy owners were hoping for when they drafted him on average in the fifth round coming into the season. Given the fact he's played just about every shift with Rick Nash or Marian Gaborik, most of us would have expected a lot more points from the playmaking center. It just hasn't been there. What's more alarming is Richards -- typically a power-play specialist -- has just two points on the man advantage and only 31 shots on goal. The Rangers are averaging 2.64 goals per game (16th in the NHL), but at some point we think Nash and many of the other talented Ranger forwards will start putting more of their attempts in the back of the net, and when that happens, you'll likely see Richards in the middle of it.

Milan Michalek, Senators -- The Senators just can't catch a break these days. First Jason Spezza went down for an extended period of time, then they lost Erik Karlsson for the rest of the season, and now they lose their leading goal-scorer from a year ago to a lower-body injury. Luckily, Michalek shouldn't be sidelined for nearly as long as Spezza or Karlsson. He missed Monday's game and isn't expected to suit up on Tuesday, but even prior to the injury Michalek had been struggling -- he hadn't scored a goal in his past seven games and had just two assists during that span. Of course, many of Michalek's 35 goals last year were set up by his linemate Spezza, and without the crafty centerman on his side, Michalek's production will be extremely limited. Take away a power-play quarterback and playmaker in Karlsson, and Michalek isn't left with much to work with. The Sens may have managed to beat the Devils on Monday, but without three of their best players, there could be some rough days ahead for Ottawa and fantasy owners of any of their players. Regardless of his health, you're probably best off leaving Michalek on your bench or dropping him in most leagues.


Steve Ott, Sabres -- Ott is right on the fringe of cracking our top 100 -- another solid week and he could make it. Ott's the type of player we all love to hate -- that is, of course, unless you own him on your fantasy team. Ott is ranked 41st in Yahoo! leagues over the last two weeks, and that's largely in part to his 18 penalty minutes during that span -- he also has two goals, three assists, a plus-5 and 13 shots on goal during that span, but it's the PIMs we all love. Ott has recorded at least two penalty minutes in five of the last six games and is currently centering a line with Nathan Gerbe and Mikhail Grigorenko on it. He's also seeing almost two minutes of power-play ice time per game, which could result in some decent production going forward. Available in 63 percent of Yahoo! leagues, Ott could be a nice pick up for a team in need of penalty minutes, and he might even kick in a bit of scoring.

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