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Monday, February 24, 2014
Fantasy Forecaster: Week 20

By Sean Allen
Special to ESPN.com

While the men's ice hockey tournament at the Olympics provided for some great memories and some intense hockey, try singing the positives to the owner of John Tavares in your fantasy hockey league. As is the case with New York Islanders GM Garth Snow, fantasy owners are probably none too pleased with the results of the Olympic break. Tavares is done for the rest of the season after hurting his knee against Latvia in the quarterfinals.

John Tavares
The John Tavares injury has Islanders GM Garth Snow -- and Tavares' fantasy owners -- quite perturbed.

Without Tavares, fantasy owners will be left with a gaping hole at center. He is the seventh best fantasy skater this season on the ESPN Player Rater and is quite simply irreplaceable in a fantasy lineup. And the impact doesn't stop there. Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen and pretty much every other top Isles asset is going to lose some shine. As for Thomas Vanek, the one Islander who can withstand losing Tavares for his fantasy value, he's likely headed elsewhere ahead of the trade deadline on March 5.

Fantasy owners will want to attempt to trade Okposo sooner than later. His pace is going to crumble without Tavares. If Vanek goes, too, all bets are off. The breakout season from Okposo should not be forgotten, and he will be a sought-after asset coming into next season. But the unfortunate turn of events with Vanek is going to cut him off at the knees for the remaining schedule. That said, if you aren't being given an offer that includes a useful fantasy player for Okposo, you can still hold on to him. All this gloom and doom about Okposo is specifically in reference to the 59 points in 59 games he has poured in so far this season. He won't be a point-per-game player, but he is still likely to earn value at the bottom of your roster, even in shallow leagues. Look for value similar to his 2011-12 season, where Okposo would occasionally get into fantasy lineups during a good stretch.

Vanek will find a way to earn value no matter where he is and who he plays with; his continued presence with the Islanders past the deadline will go a long way to determining just how valuable Okposo and others can be. But Vanek was being discussed as obvious trade bait even before the Islanders' outlook for the season became Tavares-less. Don't count on him helping your other Islanders more than a week from now, but take it as a bonus if he is.

The injury to Tavares will have a tremendous negative impact, but there may be one positive. With Nielsen still a week away from returning because of a broken hand suffered in the final game before the break, Ryan Strome is a candidate to fill Tavares' skates on the top line. Even if it's only until Nielsen is healthy, Strome has the kind of offensive skills that will have fantasy owners tripping over themselves to get him, and he has already shown off some of them this season.

Strome was sent back to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers early to make sure he was eligible to play in the AHL through the Olympic break. He has continued to pile on the points, and prove that he is too much for that circuit. He has 49 points in just 37 games, which puts him in the top 10 for scoring, despite playing at least a dozen games fewer than all those ahead of him. Certainly, Tavares' injury is an opportunity for Strome and that opportunity is doubled with Nielsen still hurt. Don't wait until the Islanders bring him up to make a move.

If Strome is fishing too deep for you, what about Michael Grabner? The former 30-goal scorer had a strong Olympic tournament, with five goals and six points for his native Austria, and would be a prime winger due for an increase in workload if the Vanek rumors prove true.

Tavares suffered his injury while playing in Sochi, but he isn't the only top 10 fantasy forward to be ruled out for the remainder of the regular season while we took a break from the NHL. Henrik Zetterberg left Sochi to have back surgery, and is out until the end of the regular season. This news is no less devastating than the blow to Tavares owners, but comes a little softer as there were signs that Zetterberg was having injury troubles.

Again, there is simply no way to replace the kind of production that Zetterberg provides to fantasy owners. It's just not possible to pick up a top 10 fantasy star midseason. But there are some impacts that can be considered.

Henrik Zetterberg #40 of the Detroit Red Wings
Henrik Zetterberg's owners will have to look elsewhere for production.

First, Zetterberg's continued absence locks Gustav Nyquist into an important, if not top-line, role on the Wings for the remainder of the campaign. While viewed as a total, Nyquist's 24 points in 33 games is somewhat impressive for a player getting his first taste of scoring-line minutes in the NHL. But consider that 14 of those points have come in the past 11 games, and you get a true picture of his potential. He's not available in many leagues anymore (fewer than 4 percent), but his owners aren't likely too attached to him yet. It may be possible to even use Zetterberg's absence as an argument to make them part with Nyquist easier. But don't doubt that Nyquist can be his own catalyst and doesn't need to have Hank next to him to have offensive success.

Available in 36 percent of ESPN leagues, Johan Franzen is a no-brainer addition to fantasy lineups. Franzen is claiming to be ready to return to the lineup on Wednesday, and has been rock solid when healthy this season (as is usually the case with Franzen).

Finally, keep a distant eye on Stephen Weiss. One of the most disappointing offseason movers in fantasy this season, Weiss is nearing a return from a sports hernia. By no means should he be picked up preemptively, but the loss of Zetterberg means the Wings have to reconfigure their scoring lines. Weiss might be in the mix if he can get healthy in time. His past as a playmaker means it's at least worth acknowledging he will be around.

Tavares and Zetterberg are the biggest examples, but we'll make sure to touch on all the other injury news floating around as we work through this week's Forecaster.

Note: Because of a light schedule returning from the Olympic break, ESPN.com fantasy hockey has combined the next two weeks into a single scoring period. That means head-to-head matchups will stretch from Feb. 25 to March 9. That means that "weekly" leagues will have their lineups lock on Feb. 25 and remain locked until March 9. Some teams have as many as seven games and some have as few as four.

Looking for offense

Boston Bruins: The Bruins come back from the Olympics with a cake-walk schedule for the next two weeks.

Loui Eriksson and Henrik Lundqvist
Loui Eriksson (No. 21) reminded us in Sochi why he's such a valuable asset in fantasy hockey.

With a total of seven games on tap, the Bruins catch the Washington Capitals and Florida Panthers each twice during this fantasy scoring period. If you recall, the goaltending hasn't exactly been sharp for either of these opponents. But where should we look for some value as the Bruins return to the NHL? How about looking at one of their third-liners, who was a second-liner on the silver-medal-winning Swedish team?

Loui Eriksson has struggled to fit in during his tenure with the Bruins this season, but he quickly reminded us all about the important role he can play in an offense in Sochi. Eriksson had two goals and an assist during the tournament, and certainly has earned another chance to play on a line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. He will have to supplant rookie Reilly Smith in the role, but Eriksson is a better offensive package when he has his groove. He is available in 66 percent of ESPN leagues.

Minnesota Wild: After establishing his NHL game in place of the injured Mikko Koivu with the Wild, Mikael Granlund actually continued his breakout at the Olympics, arguably in place of the injured Koivu. With eight points in the final seven games before the break, Granlund had seven points in six games as the Finnish team rolled to the bronze medal.

It will be interesting to watch this week as Koivu returns to practice from an ankle injury. If Granlund shows that he can be a centerman for Zach Parise, this might give the Wild an excuse to break up the pair of Koivu and Parise to strengthen the second scoring line. That decision would be absolutely key for Granlund to continue his hot streak. But that decision would also buy some value for Nino Niederreiter on the second line. Keep an eye on the situation as the Wild return to action on the road against the Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers.

Tampa Bay Lightning: We may have lost John Tavares for the season, but we should get Steven Stamkos back. Following an X-ray on Monday, Stamkos will either be cleared to return to play or have his return pushed back one more week. Either way, it's time to get set for the return of the NHL's top goal scorer.

The biggest question is who benefits? We know that Martin St. Louis will line up on one side of Stamkos, but who will be on the other? In Stamkos' absence, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat have shared top-line duties with St. Louis, but Johnson and Palat appear to me more of a package deal, and will likely stay together for the Bolts. The most obvious solution is for the team to revert to the top line that it was using before Stamkos was hurt, which includes Alex Killorn as the other winger. Because he was bumped from the top line during Stamkos' recovery, Killorn is available in 80 percent of ESPN leagues now, but he had 12 points in 17 games before Stamkos was hurt in early November.

Looking for defensemen

Olli Maata, D, Pittsburgh Penguins: The Penguins are proceeding as if Kris Letang won't be returned to them this season following a stroke, so fantasy owners should follow suit. While he probably isn't the first choice as a fantasy replacement for Letang, a good argument can be made for Maata.

He had nine points in the final 11 games before the break, including three multi-point efforts. During that time it appeared as though Maata had even jumped past Paul Martin on the offensive defenseman depth chart for the Pens. It helps that he is sharing the blue line with Matt Niskanen, who continues to have a breakout offensive campaign. Maata is coming back with a bronze medal from the Olympics, and the door is wide open for him to build on his scoring this season.

Looking for goaltending

Darcy Kuemper, G, Minnesota Wild: Sadly, Josh Harding is not ready to return from the Olympic break. Although it still hasn't been confirmed by the team, we can make the leap that his multiple sclerosis is the issue. His goaltending earlier this season was nothing short of spectacular and we wish him the best of health. Hopefully Harding can make it back to fantasy lineups, but if not, fantasy owners need to start lining up behind Darcy Kuemper.

Josh Harding
It's unclear when Josh Harding will be back in net for the Minnesota Wild.

Niklas Backstrom is struggling to stay healthy this season, with abdominal issues that may be related to an earlier sports hernia injury. Without Harding and without Backstrom, the Wild only have Kuemper. Though he isn't as consistent as the other goaltenders, he plays for a very good defensive team and has obvious upside that comes with that. The Wild have a very solid five-game schedule as they return from the break, and Kuemper could win some hearts and minds by the time this scoring period is over.

Reto Berra, G, Calgary Flames: Two things are working in Berra's favor in the return from the Olympics: His team has a six-game schedule against modestly scoring teams, and he no longer is battling Karri Ramo for playing time. With Ramo on the sidelines, Berra gets a chance to run with the starter's mantle for the foreseeable future. His potential has shown through this season outside of the hiccups we can expect on occasion from a rookie goaltender. Just watch the schedule closely when using him.

Quick hits

Logan Couture is reportedly ready to hit the ice for the San Jose Sharks. This means a potential bump of Brent Burns from the first power-play unit and it means Matt Nieto might become a sleeper again on a line with Burns and Joe Thornton.

Pekka Rinne has been practicing. Though he definitely will need a little more work to rehab after his hip surgery in October, his return seems possible now. If you are hurting in net -- and play in the 31 percent of ESPN leagues where he is available -- stash him.

• Keep a close eye on the potential fantasy return of Alex Burrows. Henrik Sedin and Burrows are both healed up after resting through the Olympic break. The Canucks might hit reset on their lines with a healthy lineup again for the first time in a while, and that would mean a chance for Burrows to reconnect with the Sedins.

Matt Moulson is healthy, and will come off the injured reserve on Tuesday. But fantasy owners should recognize that just because he is back doesn't mean he should be a lock for their lineups. Still, he has skill and the Buffalo Sabres need to score more goals.

• Make sure you pick up a healthy Marian Gaborik, set to return for the Columbus Blue Jackets this week. If you miss out on him, grab his probable new linemate Nathan Horton. This will be the first chance for the skilled wingers to connect on a line.

Aleksander Barkov could miss the rest of the season following his own injury at the Olympics. It's an obviously less impactful situation than that of John Tavares or Henrik Zetterberg, but it's still disappointing, as Barkov was getting some time in deeper fantasy lineups.

Mats Zuccarello broke his hand at the Olympics, and will be out for another couple of weeks. Again, a lesser impact than others that were hurt at the games, but there is still a definite impact in some leagues.

Hockey Challenge

Each week the Fantasy Forecaster will also include some advice for the ESPN Hockey Challenge. This is the salary-cap game that allows you free rein over your fantasy hockey decisions within a starting budget of $100 million in fantasy money. For more on the game and to sign up, click here.

Segment 2 of the game begins this week, so make sure you are resetting your lineup. Why do you need to absolutely make sure? Because your roster was purged for you over the Olympic break to kick off Segment 2. All your sleepers are gone, and you have to repurchase all your players. Your salary cap is back down to $100 million like everybody else, too.

Of course, the reset button isn't all bad news. Because the new salaries are based solely on this season's performance, there is a wealth of sleepers now available in the game. Go ahead, scroll down the list of salaries to spot Pavel Datsyuk ($6.0M), Steven Stamkos ($5.5M) or Logan Couture ($6.1M) available at insanely low prices because they missed some time earlier this season. Your lineup should definitely include some sleepers such as these players (at the very least Stamkos) as a strategy to quickly build your salary cap back up.

Schedule: The Hockey Challenge doesn't have a two-week schedule like the regular fantasy hockey game. That means most teams have only two or three games this week. The exception are the Carolina Hurricanes, who play four times. That means Eric Staal ($7.7M), Jeff Skinner ($6.7M) and Alexander Semin ($6.0M) should all be in your lineup.

Hot streaks: Since it's been so long since an NHL game, it's difficult to consider hot streaks. That said, both Carey Price ($11.5M) and Henrik Lundqvist ($11.3M) have three games this week and are coming off of spectacular Olympic tournaments.

My roster for next week:

I finished Segment 1 in the 91.0 percentile for the ESPN Hockey Challenge, with 663 points.

Henrik Lundqvist, G, NYR - $11.3M
Carey Price, G, MTL - $11.5M
Olli Maata, D, PIT - $6.3M
Erik Karlsson, D, OTT - $7.5M
Dion Phaneuf, D, TOR - $5.9M
Lubomir Visnovsky, D, NYI - $3.7M
Steven Stamkos, F, TBL - $5.5M
Pavel Datsyuk, F, DET - $6.0M
Marian Gaborik, F, CBJ - $4.3M
Eric Staal, F, CAR - $7.7M
Jeff Skinner, F, CAR - $6.7M
Alexander Semin, F, CAR - $6.0M