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Friday, February 5, 2010
Forecaster: Impact of Kovalchuk deal

By Sean Allen
Special to ESPN.com

As we head into the final week before the Olympic break, the first question that comes to mind is: Who is left to move at the trade deadline? But that should be an afterthought for the fantasy hockey owners after seeing that the Atlanta Thrashers have sent Ilya Kovalchuk packing. Kovalchuk and defenseman Anssi Salmela head to the New Jersey Devils for rookie Niclas Bergfors, Johnny Oduya, infamous prospect Patrice Cormier and a first-round pick.

On the surface, the breakdown seems simple: The Devils get better; the Thrashers get worse. Looking closer, though, we can see some subtleties to the impact and possibly a few players worth exploring for your fantasy benefit.

Ilya Kovalchuk
Ilya Kovalchuk should now boost his plus/minus in New Jersey in addition to his great scoring.

On the negative side of things for the Thrashers, a team that had six or seven fantasy-relevant forwards in November now has only one player deserving of that label (Nik Antropov). That's how bad this situation is without Kovalchuk. Even with him on the team over the past month, the best any other Thrashers player could manage is seven points in 13 games (Jim Slater). Bergfors is not going to make a big enough difference this season, especially considering his recent slump for the Devils. Antropov still has enough in the tank to consider keeping, while Tobias Enstrom and Pavel Kubina could probably be retained in most leagues. Barring those three, I think it's fair to bail on any other Thrasher at this point. Maxim Afinogenov and Rich Peverley did most of their damage earlier this season and they did most of it on a line with Kovalchuk. Todd White and Slava Kozlov just aren't the power-play fiends they were last season. Bryan Little and Evander Kane still seem another season away from shining.

That all may sound harsh, but a player like Kovalchuk can go a long way to propping up a team. Since he stepped onto the ice in 2001, no one in the NHL has scored more goals. Kovalchuk is going to add a whole new element to the Devils offense, and coach Jacques Lemaire has two options for how to slide him into the depth chart. He could demote Jamie Langenbrunner and create a super line of Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and Kovalchuk. I believe that trio could score at will. Or, he could leave Langenbrunner with Zajac-Parise and aim for some balance by putting Kovalchuk with Brian Rolston and Dainius Zubrus. (Zubrus would become Patrik Elias if Elias can shake concussion problems.)

It doesn't matter for Kovalchuk's value. He'll still demand a lot of minutes and lots of power-play time and will score a ton of goals. Langenbrunner stands to lose quite a bit of appeal should the Kovalchuk-Zajac-Parise combination get put into place, but it's not all bad, as Langenbrunner would also be the fourth forward on the power play in that situation. Rolston has the most to gain should Lemaire opt for balance and skate Kovalchuk with the "second" line (although with Kovalchuk, it would arguably be the first line). Rolston has a history of being paired with a sniper under Lemaire during their Minnesota Wild days, as he worked with Marian Gaborik. Although the two were often separated at even strength, they worked well on the power play. Having Rolston's cannon on one side and Kovalchuk's on the other could be overwhelming for opposing penalty kills.

As for the other players in the deal: It's always interesting when an organization trades back for a player. After shipping Salmela to the Thrashers last year at the trade deadline, the Devils got him back with Kovalchuk in this deal. Perhaps they have bigger plans for the undrafted Finn. There does happen to be a large opening on the first power-play unit with the departure of Oduya. … Cormier went from a high-high (captain of Team Canada at World Juniors) to a low-low (sending a player convulsing to hospital with an elbow) in recent months and has been suspended for the remainder of the QMJHL season. Still, he is a prospect worth monitoring as long as penalty minutes remain a part of fantasy hockey. … Bergfors and Oduya will both be in the background for the Thrashers this season and are unlikely to get a role worthy of attention in fantasy leagues.

(Before we head into the chart, realize that this is the final week of action before the Olympic break. Fantasy owners will get a full week of action, as the break begins after games on Sunday, Feb. 14. After that, the NHL will resume action Monday, March 1.)

Offensive highlights

The first (test of) Noel: So, you are handed the job of being the interim coach of an NHL team, and the first full week on the job will see you play the first-, second- and third-place teams in the conference. Talk about on-the-job training for new Columbus Blue Jackets coach Claude Noel as his team battles the San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks and Chicago Blackhawks next week (all home games). This is actually a great chance to watch the team, though, and see whether there will be any changes to exploit over the rest of the season. Noel's NHL coaching career got off to a good start with a 2-1 win over the Dallas Stars on Thursday, but there were no signs that the Ken Hitchcock regime was gone. What you want to see, by the way, is Derick Brassard, Jakub Voracek and Kris Russell getting more ice time. These three are cornerstones of the Jackets' future and Hitchcock was babying them. Hopefully, Noel takes a different approach for the sake of fantasy owners.

Rangers settle in: So, Olli Jokinen had an impact in his first game with the New York Rangers on Thursday, tallying a goal and assist, and propelling the power play unit to go 4-for-6 against the Washington Capitals. Jokinen, Marian Gaborik, Vaclav Prospal, Ryan Callahan and defenseman Michael Del Zotto made up the new power-play unit, and they looked cohesive right from the get go. With a week ahead that includes games against two teams in the bottom-third of the league for penalty killing (Nashville Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning), there should be an opportunity to better assess Jokinen's impact. Callahan looks like the player to target right now, but that could change with a couple of more games.

Manny's the man: Ladies and gents, your free-agent pickups of the week are an absolute no-brainer: Manny Malhotra on forward and Jason Demers on defense. The San Jose Sharks have a beast of a schedule on tap, with a Forecaster rating of 10 on offense for games against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings and Buffalo Sabres. Malhotra has been playing with the red-hot Joe Pavelski on the second line and has nine points in his past 10 games with a plus-5 rating. Demers has picked up ice time with both Dan Boyle and Marc-Edouard Vlasic ailing and has managed five points in six games, with four of them on the power play. Malhotra is a must-add for next week's games, while you should check on Demers one last time before activating him to see whether Boyle or Vlasic is healthy.

Defensive highlights

Don't mean to Niitty pick: While Antero Niittymaki has been scorching over the past two weeks, use a bit of restraint next week as things start off for the Tampa Bay Lightning with a game against the powerhouse Vancouver Canucks. Niitty can be streaky, and a bad game against the Sedin twins could throw him off for the rest of the four-game week.

Last warning: His ownership numbers continue to skyrocket, so this may be your last chance to get on the Brian Elliott gravy train. Seriously, the guy has nine straight wins with two goals or fewer allowed against difficult opponents. It doesn't matter who is on the docket next; Elliott will find a way to beat them right now. As a side note, how impressive is it that a sophomore goaltender had to get nine straight wins to beat his previous career-long streak of eight?

Sean Allen is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is the 2008 and 2009 Fantasy Sports Writers Association, Hockey Writer of the Year. You can e-mail him here.