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Tuesday, January 7, 2014
The value of understudies

By Sean Allen
Special to ESPN.com

Anton Khudobin and Brian Elliott
Anton Khudobin and Brian Elliott may be taking on larger roles from here on out.

Oftentimes in the hockey world, an injury is an opportunity for another player -- often a lesser-known player -- to show off his game at a higher level. That is usually a good thing for all involved, as the lesser known commodity gets a chance to make his name known, while the injured player knows his team is still in good hands.

We saw that with Jonathan Quick, Ben Scrivens and Martin Jones with the Los Angeles Kings. Quick's injury allowed Scrivens to quickly rise to the top as an elite goaltender in his stead, and Jones did the exact same thing when given an opportunity. But now Quick looks like his old self, Scrivens can be relied on with more confidence to back him up and Jones is back to the AHL, waiting for another chance in the future.

However, sometimes something far more sinister occurs during an injury replacement: The player with the opportunity to step in as the understudy plays so well that he usurps the job of the injured player. There are more than a few injury replacement situations in the NHL right now where the understudies are looking pretty good to fantasy owners. Are they usurpers or harmonious replacements?

Anton Khudobin, G, Carolina Hurricanes: Already pushing for more playing time back in October when both he and Cam Ward were healthy, Khudobin made quite a triumphant return to the Hurricanes' crease this past week. He has opened January with three consecutive wins and diminishing goals allowed in each game. Ward is out with a lower-body injury but hasn't had a stretch of successful games equal to that of Khudobin all season. The other option for Carolina, Justin Peters, doesn't seem like the full-time answer, as he looks lights-out one game only to melt down in the next.

Khudobin showed poise as the backup to Tuukka Rask last season with the Boston Bruins and has done nothing but look solid in the Hurricanes' net this season. Meanwhile, Ward has struggled mightily and made it easy for someone like Khudobin to possibly seize his starter's mantle. There will be a back-and-forth between Ward and Khudobin in the coming weeks when Ward comes off the injured list, but we have to suspect the advantage is in Khudobin's corner to be the starter. Fantasy owners should take the leap and invest in Khudobin now.

The Top 200

Note: Sean Allen's top 200 players are ranked for their expected performance in ESPN standard leagues from this point on, not on the statistics that have already been accrued. ESPN standard stats include goals, assists, power-play points, shots on goal, plus/minus, penalty minutes and average time on ice for skaters, and wins, goals-against average and save percentage for goalies. Last week's ranking is indicated in parentheses.

1. Sidney Crosby, F, Pit (1)
2. Alex Ovechkin, F, Was (2)
3. Patrick Kane, F, Chi (3)
4. Corey Perry, F, Ana (4)
5. Evgeni Malkin, F, Pit (5)
6. P.K. Subban, D, Mon (6)
7. John Tavares, F, NYI (7)
8. Henrik Zetterberg, F, Det (26)
9. Tuukka Rask, G, Bos (9)
10. Pavel Datsyuk, F, Det (10)
11. Ryan Getzlaf, F, Ana (11)
12. Erik Karlsson, D, Ott (8)
13. Chris Kunitz, F, Pit (14)
14. Daniel Sedin, F, Van (15)
15. Patrick Sharp, F, Chi (21)
16. Anze Kopitar, F, LA (13)
17. Henrik Sedin, F, Van (16)
18. Jonathan Toews, F, Chi (17)
19. Carey Price, G, Mon (12)
20. Marc-Andre Fleury, G, Pit (22)
21. David Backes, F, StL (23)
22. Tyler Seguin, F, Dal (18)
23. Phil Kessel, F, Tor (19)
24. James Neal, F, Pit (30)
25. Logan Couture, F, SJ (24)
26. Duncan Keith, D, Chi (27)
27. Claude Giroux, F, Phi (28)
28. Dustin Byfuglien, D, Wpg (25)
29. Nicklas Backstrom, F, Was (29)
30. Patrick Marleau, F, SJ (31)
31. Ben Bishop, G, TB (36)
32. Joe Pavelski, F, SJ (34)
33. Josh Harding, G, Min (20)
34. Bobby Ryan, F, Ott (32)
35. Drew Doughty, D, LA (33)
36. Antti Niemi, G, SJ (35)
37. Semyon Varlamov, G, Col (42)
38. Shea Weber, D, Nsh (39)
39. Corey Crawford, G, Chi (40)
40. Marian Hossa, F, Chi (46)
41. Martin St. Louis, F, TB (41)
42. Ryan Kesler, F, Van (43)
43. Eric Staal, F, Car (38)
44. Roberto Luongo, G, Van (37)
45. Matt Duchene, F, Col (61)
46. Jonas Hiller, G, Ana (52)
47. Taylor Hall, F, Edm (44)
48. Kris Letang, D, Pit (53)
49. Jamie Benn, F, Dal (45)
50. Niklas Kronwall, D, Det (47)
51. Joe Thornton, F, SJ (48)
52. Zach Parise, F, Min (51)
53. James van Riemsdyk, F, Tor (49)
54. Ryan Suter, D, Min (59)
55. Kyle Turris, F, Ott (62)
56. Johan Franzen, F, Det (65)
57. Jonathan Quick, G, LA (97)
58. Alexander Steen, F, StL (60)
59. Andrei Markov, D, Mon (56)
60. Alex Pietrangelo, D, StL (57)
61. Steve Mason, G, Phi (72)
62. Rick Nash, F, NYR (50)
63. Thomas Vanek, F, NYI (58)
64. Max Pacioretty, F, Mon (70)
65. Kevin Shattenkirk, D, StL (82)
66. Craig Anderson, G, Ott (104)
67. David Krejci, F, Bos (64)
68. Jarome Iginla, F, Bos (75)
69. Gabriel Landeskog, F, Col (66)
70. Kari Lehtonen, G, Dal (63)
71. Keith Yandle, D, Pho (68)
72. Evander Kane, F, Wpg (69)
73. Radim Vrbata, F, Pho (73)
74. Jeff Carter, F, LA (76)
75. Jeff Skinner, F, Car (98)
76. T.J. Oshie, F, StL (81)
77. Brent Seabrook, D, Chi (83)
78. Jimmy Howard, G, Det (110)
79. Jaromir Jagr, F, NJ (71)
80. Jonathan Bernier, G, Tor (80)
81. Jakub Voracek, F, Phi (87)
82. Milan Lucic, F, Bos (91)
83. Kyle Okposo, F, NYI (94)
84. David Perron, F, Edm (84)
85. Henrik Lundqvist, G, NYR (78)
86. Jay Bouwmeester, D, StL (85)
87. Justin Williams, F, LA (77)
88. Jaroslav Halak, G, StL (67)
89. Jordan Eberle, F, Edm (86)
90. Dion Phaneuf, D, Tor (88)
91. Brandon Dubinsky, F, Cls (90)
92. Brent Burns, F, SJ (102)
93. Cory Schneider, G, NJ (120)
94. Bryan Little, F, Wpg (93)
95. Alexander Semin, F, Car (162)
96. Brad Richards, F, NYR (74)
97. Andrew Ladd, F, Wpg (95)
98. Cam Fowler, D, Ana (96)
99. Blake Wheeler, F, Wpg (128)
100. Derek Stepan, F, NYR (99)
101. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, D, Pho (54)
102. Sergei Bobrovsky, G, Cls (156)
103. Jason Garrison, D, Van (101)
104. Jason Spezza, F, Ott (79)
105. James Wisniewski, D, Cls (89)
106. Patrice Bergeron, F, Bos (103)
107. Zdeno Chara, D, Bos (105)
108. Mike Green, D, Was (106)
109. Ryan Johansen, F, Cls (108)
110. Clarke MacArthur, F, Ott (124)
111. Ryan Miller, G, Buf (144)
112. Shane Doan, F, Pho (109)
113. Mikko Koivu, F, Min (55)
114. Jaden Schwartz, F, StL (138)
115. Brian Elliott, G, StL (298)
116. Dustin Penner, F, Ana (111)
117. Brandon Saad, F, Chi (107)
118. Daniel Alfredsson, F, Det (113)
119. Tomas Plekanec, F, Mon (126)
120. Martin Hanzal, F, Pho (115)
121. Matt Niskanen, D, Pit (150)
122. Nazem Kadri, F, Tor (92)
123. Torey Krug, D, Bos (118)
124. Jiri Hudler, F, Cgy (119)
125. Paul Stastny, F, Col (116)
126. Mike Smith, G, Pho (122)
127. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, F, Edm (114)
128. Erik Johnson, D, Col (125)
129. Chris Kreider, F, NYR (136)
130. Joffrey Lupul, F, Tor (127)
131. Matt Moulson, F, Buf (117)
132. Dustin Brown, F, LA (123)
133. Reilly Smith, F, Bos (145)
134. Radko Gudas, D, TB (130)
135. Dan Boyle, D, SJ (112)
136. Scott Hartnell, F, Phi (147)
137. Ryan Callahan, F, NYR (199)
138. Valtteri Filppula, F, TB (133)
139. Jason Pominville, F, Min (121)
140. Mark Giordano, D, Cgy (135)
141. Dennis Wideman, D, Cgy (NR)
142. Cam Ward, G, Car (137)
143. Jussi Jokinen, F, Pit (158)
144. Ryan O'Reilly, F, Col (134)
145. Anton Khudobin, G, Car (196)
146. Niklas Backstrom, G, Min (NR)
147. Wayne Simmonds, F, Phi (175)
148. Mikhail Grabovski, F, Was (141)
149. Mike Ribeiro, F, Pho (131)
150. Mike Richards, F, LA (129)
151. Steven Stamkos, F, TB (163)
152. Victor Hedman, D, TB (146)
153. Kevin Bieksa, D, Van (140)
154. John Carlson, D, Was (151)
155. James Reimer, G, Tor (153)
156. Cody Franson, D, Tor (143)
157. Nick Bonino, F, Ana (176)
158. Brendan Gallagher, F, Mon (154)
159. Pekka Rinne, G, Nsh (132)
160. Andrej Sekera, D, Car (164)
161. Marek Zidlicky, D, NJ (178)
162. Brian Campbell, D, Fla (148)
163. Martin Brodeur, G, NJ (159)
164. Justin Faulk, D, Car (160)
165. Frans Nielsen, F, NYI (161)
166. Francois Beauchemin, D, Ana (NR)
167. Mark Streit, D, Phi (177)
168. Hampus Lindholm, D, Ana (165)
169. Jonas Gustavsson, G, Det (152)
170. Nathan MacKinnon, F, Col (174)
171. Mats Zuccarello, F, NYR (186)
172. Patric Hornqvist, F, Nsh (167)
173. Tyler Bozak, F, Tor (NR)
174. Brad Marchand, F, Bos (169)
175. Michal Neuvirth, G, Was (NR)
176. Troy Brouwer, F, Was (173)
177. Mike Fisher, F, Nsh (NR)
178. Sam Gagner, F, Edm (166)
179. David Desharnais, F, Mon (NR)
180. Valeri Nichushkin, F, Dal (171)
181. Tyler Johnson, F, TB (181)
182. Derek Roy, F, StL (179)
183. Robin Lehner, G, Ott (155)
184. Chris Stewart, F, StL (180)
185. Chris Higgins, F, Van (170)
186. Kimmo Timonen, D, Phi (182)
187. Andy Greene, D, NJ (187)
188. Roman Josi, D, Nsh (190)
189. Aleksander Barkov, F, Fla (209)
190. Dan Hamhuis, D, Van (183)
191. Sergei Gonchar, D, Dal (193)
192. Antoine Vermette, F, Pho (194)
193. Ryan McDonagh, D, NYR (195)
194. Travis Zajac, F, NJ (197)
195. Matt Carle, D, TB (249)
196. Kris Versteeg, F, Chi (198)
197. Brayden Schenn, F, Phi (242)
198. Mark Scheifele, F, Wpg (210)
199. Nick Foligno, F, Cls (200)
200. Cody Hodgson, F, Buf (201)

Brian Elliott, G, St. Louis Blues: Elliott was an all-world goaltender during the 2011-12 season but then stumbled and lost his portion of the Blues' timeshare during the 2013 campaign. That allowed for Jaroslav Halak to open the 2013-14 season as the team's No. 1. But Elliott stayed prepared in the background. The second that Halak slipped with an illness in late December, Elliott was ready. Now having started in five consecutive games -- and rocking a six-game winning streak with no more than two goals allowed in any one contest -- Elliott looks like his 2011-12 self in the Blues' crease.

Admittedly, he has played solid only after Halak was ruled out, so it's curious why his spot starts all season prior to this point have been less than spectacular. That said, there is enough of a track record with Elliott to know this could easily be more than a streak. Calling Elliott a usurper wouldn't be fair because, if anything, he has forced a stricter timeshare upon Halak's return, not outright stolen the No. 1 gig. This significantly impacts Halak's value in fantasy leagues, where he was a high-end No. 2 fantasy goaltender earlier this season. Now both Halak and Elliott are low-end No. 2 fantasy netminders, unless one of them can establish a stranglehold on the starting role for the Blues. Or, if you own both and have the time to manage your daily lineup, they are actually one elite goaltending combination.

Jaden Schwartz, F, St. Louis Blues: It started with Schwartz replacing an injured David Backes, then it was Alexander Steen, then it was Steen and Backes and now just Steen. Through some combination, Schwartz has had the luxury of playing alongside T.J. Oshie in recent weeks and the results have been nothing short of spectacular for this already budding sophomore sniper. Schwartz now sports an eight-game point streak with seven goals, three assists and a plus-10 rating in plus/minus.

Steen is due back eventually, and Schwartz will be destined to return to second-line duty, but that isn't so bad with the Blues. Schwartz's regular linemates include Russian dangler Vladimir Tarasenko and shifty Czech possession forward Vladimir Sobotka. Besides, Schwartz had eight goals, 14 assists and a plus-13 rating in 31 games before the injury promotion. Those are pretty solid fantasy numbers by themselves. So while Schwartz might have a hard time being a usurper of top-line duty, he has certainly used the opportunity to earn more minutes from coach Ken Hitchcock.

Tampa Bay Lightning: The Lightning are a special case, because it took more than one player to step up in the absence of an injured Steven Stamkos ... really, it took a whole village. From the work of Tyler Johnson around the crease, to the playmaking of Ondrej Palat with his familiar linemates, to the sniping of Nikita Kucherov, to both Valtteri Filppula and Teddy Purcell stepping up at the right time, the Bolts have soldiered on in spite of losing their offensive catalyst.

Johnson, Palat and Killorn have a long history together, including success in two consecutive AHL seasons with the Norfolk Admirals and then Syracuse Crunch. The fact that their current coach, Jon Cooper, was with them for most of that development can only help when it comes to earning ice time at the NHL level. Actually, Kucherov, Killorn and Palat have formed an unlikely trio to be featured as the second power-play unit. They have two power-play goals in the past three games (both from Kucherov). At even strength, it's Palat and Johnson who have the most appeal for fantasy owners on a line with Martin St. Louis; but, Killorn, Filppula and Purcell have looked solid as the second trio.

The bottom line here is that there are plenty of fantasy options for Cooper to choose from to play with Stamkos when he does return (which is increasingly looking like near or immediately after the Olympic break). Palat is definitely a name to stash for the chemistry he is building as the opposite winger to St. Louis, but Killorn could also win back the role. No one can usurp Stamkos' role in the NHL, but the Bolts have plenty of players ready to draft off his success when he returns.

Forwards Rising and Falling

Jeff Skinner, F, Carolina Hurricanes (up 23 spots to No. 75): Eric Staal's current injury does throw this for a bit of a loop, but the early returns on a Hurricanes lineup with only one Staal have been positive for Skinner. With Staal out, Alexander Semin stepped back up to the top line and combined with Skinner and Tuomo Ruutu on a pair of goals.

It appears Skinner is well over his sophomore and junior slumps and is back to the elite scoring fantasy asset he was when he burst onto the scene as a rookie. His 20 goals this season is already equal to his output from his troubled sophomore campaign and, at this pace, he should break his career high of 31 goals before we break for the Olympics. Staal's injury may not even be a setback to the re-emergence of Skinner as a fantasy force, as evidenced by the immediate connection with Semin. It remains to be seen how the Hurricanes will balance the top two lines when everyone is healthy, but you can bet Skinner will be featured no matter the outcome.

Wayne Simmonds, F, Philadelphia Flyers (up 28 spots to No. 147): Simmonds, Scott Hartnell and Brayden Schenn are about the hottest thing on the ice these days. Simmonds has nine goals in the past nine games, with 13 points total, but both Hartnell and Schenn have respectable numbers as well. The trio has come on strong as the second line for the Flyers, now that Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek have awoken as the top line. Now, this isn't going to keep up, as Simmonds is scoring on 28 percent of his shots during this hot streak and is a career 12 percent shooter, but it certainly is enough to give the trio some respect as fantasy commodities. Simmonds and Hartnell have particular appeal to fantasy owners who are always looking for some penalty minutes without sacrificing a lineup spot to a goon.

Mike Richards, F, Los Angeles Kings (down 21 spots to No. 150): It looks as if the Kings might be just as fed up with Richards' slump as bottom-six forward as fantasy owners are. After an extended run as the third-line center for the Kings, Richards was finally bumped back up to the second line this past week. He has just one assist in the past 11 games, but now that he is back with Justin Williams and Dustin Brown, we can hope to see some kind of consistency begin to emerge.

Defensemen Rising and Falling

Oliver Ekman-Larsson, D, Phoenix Coyotes (down 47 spots to No. 101): It's not just injury but an extended slump that has Ekman-Larsson spiraling down the ranks this week. Dealing with an upper-body injury can hopefully help get Ekman-Larsson back on track with his October and November numbers, because December was disastrous.

With just four assists and one power-play point in 13 games, Ekman-Larsson was a fantasy wasteland for the month. This after a start to the season in which he looked like he was ready to take over for Keith Yandle as the chief power-play producer for the Coyotes. It wouldn't take much for Ekman-Larsson to make a jump in the ranks, but until we see something from him again, consider him outside the elite defenders.

Dennis Wideman, D, Calgary Flames (enters ranks at No. 141): Back from injury to a blue line that has plenty of opportunities for those who would seize it, Wideman has a new defensive partner in Ladislav Smid and a role on the power play with Mark Giordano. We know Wideman packs a point shot that can earn double-digit goals in a season, but we don't know that he will get to flex that muscle for the Flames. He is definitely worth keeping an eye on, as power-play production is the fastest way to climb the ranks of the fantasy defensemen.

Goaltenders Rising and Falling

Craig Anderson, G, Ottawa Senators (up 38 spots to No. 66): Two more games, two more great outings by Anderson, with wins to boot. The Sens and Anderson stifled the Montreal Canadiens' top-10 power play in five attempts on Saturday and didn't afford the Jets a single power-play opportunity last Thursday. As we've discussed before, power-play goals were what was killing Anderson earlier this season. The Sens seem to have addressed the problem, and Anderson is looking like a rock star fantasy goaltender again.

Michal Neuvirth, G, Washington Capitals (enters ranks at No. 175): You might notice that Neuvirth is the only Capitals goaltender in the top 200 right now. That may be considered a bold ranking, but take a look at the situation. Philipp Grubauer has been the de facto starter lately, with Neuvirth hurt and Braden Holtby playing terribly, but Grubauer is likely ticketed for the AHL upon Neuvirth's return.

Holtby got his first start in two weeks on Saturday and allowed five goals for the third consecutive outing. And get this: He faced 11 shots. That's right, in a 60-minute game against the Minnesota Wild, Holtby made six saves and allowed five goals. In fact, his past four outings have resulted in 73 saves on 91 shots, for an .802 save percentage. That is spectacularly useless for fantasy owners. With Grubauer likely headed down and Holtby lacking all confidence, Neuvirth is the default answer for now. But it is a short-term answer, as Grubauer was impressive in his time with the Capitals this past month, and the team may make some room for him to return via trade before the season is done. Keep him on your radar.

Quick Hits

• Scoop up Niklas Backstrom where you can. As we've discussed many times while analyzing Josh Harding's amazing season, his multiple sclerosis is unpredictable and could impact him at any time. When Harding hits the injured reserve due to "illness," Backstrom should be activated immediately.

Ben Bishop hurt his hand on Sunday but could be back as early as Tuesday's contest. Don't sweat too much and don't worry about handcuffing with Anders Lindback, who hasn't shown much promise for the Bolts as a backup this season.

Roberto Luongo is injured again, which means another run of value for Eddie Lack. This one should be about two weeks. Don't you dare drop Luongo, but grab Lack if you can.

Sergei Bobrovsky returned with a win for the Columbus Blue Jackets, allowing three goals on 43 shots to the New York Rangers. He'll have to do a bit more than that to return to No. 1 fantasy goaltender status, since his numbers weren't great before his injury. That said, he is definitely a buy-low candidate for anyone seeking steady goaltending.

Johan Franzen has been cleared to practice and needs to be picked up immediately in the 17 percent of ESPN leagues where he is available. When healthy, Franzen has been dominant for fantasy owners this season.

Cam Talbot's story is great, but it should not be forgotten that he is technically backing up the most solid NHL goaltender during the past decade. Henrik Lundqvist won't easily be pressed aside from his starting role. That said, Talbot is a talented netminder who is hitting the peak goaltending age of 26 and has shown consistency that Lundqvist has lacked. Handcuffing is certainly recommended at this point.

Mikko Koivu will join Zach Parise on the sidelines for the Minnesota Wild after having ankle surgery. Koivu's recovery might take him right to the Olympic break. Parise is skating again and is eyeing a return a little sooner. With Koivu out and Parise on the way back, there will be an opportunity for playmaker Mikael Granlund to finally step into his own.

Brian Gibbons who? He's the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins' top scorer, with 27 points in 23 games, and he played Sunday on a line with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz. Now that the second line of Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Jussi Jokinen are back together, the Pens need to find a replacement for Pascal Dupuis on the top line. Gibbons has a chance to seize the role, but don't overlook Beau Bennett when he returns from injury later this month.