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Monday, November 21, 2011
Front Line: Crosby finally returning

By Sean Allen
Special to ESPN.com

Sid the Kid is finally coming back. Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby will play his first NHL game in nearly a year Monday night against the New York Islanders, bringing to an end his long journey back from a concussion.

Sidney Crosby
Before this week, Sidney Crosby's last game was on Jan. 5.

To be clear, he should be in your starting lineup if you own him in your fantasy league. You've certainly been patient enough.

First off, if you own Crosby, congratulations. Your fantasy team just got the kind of boost no trade or free-agent acquisition could ever bring. You needed to take him with a relatively early draft pick, considering the circumstances, and by all accounts are to be rewarded in spades. Straight from the ESPN Fantasy Hockey Draft Kit: "Don't discount [Crosby] much more than 20 games, which would still place him among the league's fantasy elite and make him a top-10 pick." Guess what? He has missed exactly 20 games (though he might miss another couple with extra rest in his first week). The logic still applies, though: Crosby scoring at a Crosby-like pace can accomplish more in 60 games than most players can in 82 games.

That question -- Will Crosby still be Crosby? -- could linger through the week, as well. Given that he has been skating and practicing full bore since the start of training camp (minus contact), one has to think he won't have the same kind of rust that happens when a player's injury keeps him from workouts and drills. Expecting midseason form might be ambitious, but thinking Crosby will need weeks to catch up isn't right, either. The Pens have four games this week, and Crosby should be doing his thing by the end of the week.

As to the arguments that go deeper into his general mental capacity and ability to play the game, we can only take what we are given at face value. The Penguins, Crosby and his medical staff all say he will be just as good. What reasons do any of us have to doubt them? Especially when we are talking about the fantasy hockey implications of a subject that has broader life issues involved. For all intents and purposes, expect the same Crosby who scored 66 points in 41 games last season, has won the Hart and Art Ross trophies, and has generally been a scoring machine.

The impact on his teammates will be significant in the fantasy realm, as well. Jordan Staal, who has been on fire as Crosby's replacement in the top six, is back to the third line. Staal usually still manages a humble amount of fantasy value in that role, but it is far less than as a scoring line forward. Unless the team has a reason to bring Staal back into the top six, he won't have value in shallower leagues. Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis can expect similar value to seasons past, decent for Kunitz if healthy and streaky at best for Dupuis. Keep a close eye on whether Steve Sullivan or Kunitz loses the role on the first power-play unit, as that spot is key to generating extra value. Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Kris Letang -- all locks for the top unit -- should start earning more power-play points with Crosby involved.

All in all, this is reason to get excited. After all, you drafted Crosby, likely with a first-round selection, and patched holes in your lineup until now. Enjoy the spoils of your prudent planning and drafting fortitude.

Top 100 Forwards

Note: Sean Allen's top 100 forwards 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. Last week's ranking is indicated in parentheses.

1. Daniel Sedin, Van (1)
2. Steven Stamkos, TB (2)
3. Sidney Crosby, Pit (4)
4. Anze Kopitar, LA (6)
5. Henrik Sedin, Van (5)
6. Corey Perry, Ana (7)
7. Alex Ovechkin, Was (3)
8. Claude Giroux, Phi (9)
9. Thomas Vanek, Buf (10)
10. Nicklas Backstrom, Was (8)
11. Phil Kessel, Tor (12)
12. Evgeni Malkin, Pit (11)
13. Patrick Kane, Chi (14)
14. Ryan Kesler, Van (13)
15. Jonathan Toews, Chi (15)
16. Martin St. Louis, TB (16)
17. Pavel Datsyuk, Det (17)
18. James Neal, Pit (18)
19. Patrick Marleau, SJ (19)
20. Jamie Benn, Dal (20)
21. Rick Nash, Cls (21)
22. Patrick Sharp, Chi (26)
23. Brad Richards, NYR (22)
24. Zach Parise, NJ (23)
25. Ilya Kovalchuk, NJ (24)
26. Dany Heatley, Min (25)
27. Johan Franzen, Det (27)
28. Henrik Zetterberg, Det (28)
29. Ryan Getzlaf, Ana (29)
30. Tyler Seguin, Bos (36)
31. Joe Pavelski, SJ (30)
32. John Tavares, NYI (32)
33. Tomas Plekanec, Mon (44)
34. Bobby Ryan, Ana (31)
35. Marian Hossa, Chi (39)
36. Jason Spezza, Ott (33)
37. Milan Lucic, Bos (34)
38. Jaromir Jagr, Phi (35)
39. Jeff Carter, Cls (37)
40. Marian Gaborik, NYR (40)
41. Mike Richards, LA (43)
42. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edm (47)
43. Danny Briere, Phi (42)
44. Mikko Koivu, Min (45)
45. Teemu Selanne, Ana (46)
46. Jeff Skinner, Car (48)
47. Kris Versteeg, Fla (56)
48. Derek Roy, Buf (60)
49. Vincent Lecavalier, TB (49)
50. Joe Thornton, SJ (50)
51. Joffrey Lupul, Tor (58)
52. Jason Pominville, Buf (52)
53. Alexander Semin, Was (38)
54. Jarome Iginla, Cgy (41)
55. Alex Burrows, Van (51)
56. Tomas Fleischmann, Fla (65)
57. Scott Hartnell, Phi (55)
58. David Backes, StL (57)
59. Nathan Horton, Bos (53)
60. Stephen Weiss, Fla (84)
61. Patrice Bergeron, Bos (68)
62. Logan Couture, SJ (59)
63. Paul Stastny, Col (61)
64. Loui Eriksson, Dal (62)
65. Eric Staal, Car (63)
66. Shane Doan, Pho (64)
67. Brad Marchand, Bos (85)
68. Patrik Elias, NJ (66)
69. Matt Duchene, Col (73)
70. Martin Havlat, SJ (54)
71. Gabriel Landeskog, Col (74)
72. Ryan Smyth, Edm (79)
73. Vaclav Prospal, Cls (70)
74. Brandon Dubinsky, NYR (69)
75. Mike Ribeiro, Dal (76)
76. David Krejci, Bos (71)
77. Dustin Brown, LA (77)
78. Ryane Clowe, SJ (78)
79. Max Pacioretty, Mon (93)
80. Radim Vrbata, Pho (96)
81. Milan Michalek, Ott (80)
82. Alex Tanguay, Cgy (72)
83. Chris Kunitz, Pit (81)
84. Tim Connolly, Tor (97)
85. Brenden Morrow, Dal (82)
86. Taylor Hall, Edm (86)
87. Devin Setoguchi, Min (75)
88. Alexander Steen, StL (88)
89. Mike Cammalleri, Mon (83)
90. James van Riemsdyk, Phi (89)
91. Simon Gagne, LA (90)
92. Brian Gionta, Mon (95)
93. Justin Williams, LA (91)
94. Evander Kane, Wpg (NR)
95. Chris Stewart, StL (67)
96. David Booth, Van (87)
97. Patric Hornqvist, Nsh (99)
98. Andrew Ladd, Wpg (NR)
99. Erik Cole, Mon (NR)
100. Jussi Jokinen, Car (100)

Rising and falling

Radim Vrbata, Phoenix Coyotes (up 16 spots): Vrbata already has three two-goal games, 15 total points and a plus-7 this season. His ownership has climbed to the near-100 percent level in ESPN leagues, but he could still be wrested away from a disbelieving owner. There are a lot of reasons to disbelieve: overall, the Coyotes haven't been great; Vrbata isn't on the "top" line; and he has only one proven season of fantasy worth. Although the 36-goal, 68-point pace is a little out of whack, his role as the top scoring forward for the Coyotes isn't. He could make a run at 30 goals and easily pace the team. More importantly, playing on a line with two-way-inclined Martin Hanzal and Taylor Pyatt likely means the plus/minus is somewhat for real.

Chris Stewart, St. Louis Blues (down 28 spots): A suspension likely was viewed as welcome relief and possibly an excuse for frustrated Stewart owners to get him out of the lineup or outright drop him. Frankly, no one would blame you for ditching Stewart and his five points in 17 games this season. Since taking over for the Blues, coach Ken Hitchcock was not skating Stewart on a top scoring line or using him on the power play, but this ship started sinking well before Hitchcock came aboard. There has been no sign of the player who scored 15 goals in just 26 games after being traded to the Blues last season. That player still exists, but while he lies dormant, it is fair to move on to other resources for your fantasy team. If Stewart doesn't come back from his suspension and land a prime gig under Hitchcock's rule real quick, there is no reason to keep holding on and hoping.

Derek Roy, Buffalo Sabres (up 12 spots): We all knew it was bound to happen eventually, but it is certainly a huge weight off the shoulders of Roy owners to see him back centering the top line again. About a week ago, the Sabres decided to swap out rookie Luke Adam to make room for Roy between Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville. Of course, aside from Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, there is no hotter pairing in the NHL this season. Roy, who had only four points through the first 11 games and was looking sorely lost without Vanek, has come alive in the past nine games to produce 10 points. It's possible the team will resort back to Adam on the top line at some point, but, given the team is already coping with the injury to Ryan Miller, the familiarity of seeing Roy-Vanek-Pominville is going to be hard to break up in the short term. Watch Roy's stock rise as long as they are together.

Scoring lines

Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado Avalanche: In a move that was expected but still felt surprising, the Avs have moved Landeskog to the de facto top line. Playing consistently all season outside of the team's top six, Landeskog was paired with Matt Duchene and Milan Hejduk this weekend. Duchene had a pair of goals and Landeskog a pair of assists (though only one goal was earned together). Landeskog still isn't doing quite enough to be worthy of a start in every league, and his stock was on the verge of starting to drop before this weekend (one goal, no assists in eight games). He is still owned in 100 percent of ESPN leagues and deserves another chance, given his new co-workers.

Mikael Backlund, Calgary Flames: Backlund made his return last week from a preseason broken finger. The bad news, he has zero points and a minus-5 rating. The good news, he is skating with Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay. Finishing last season with that same line, Backlund had 10 points in 17 games. Given his potential as a prospect, it is certainly worth noting his opportunity in a prime role. The other good news is that if he doesn't capitalize, yet again, on a golden opportunity, you know it is probably not worth wasting a roster spot much longer.

Todd Bertuzzi, Detroit Red Wings: Consider this as a very light heads-up at this point because the lines tend to change with the wind in the Motor City. Bertuzzi returned from a sinus infection to play the weekend with Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen on the Wings' top line. He finished with a plus-2 as Datsyuk and Franzen potted four points. That would be the likely scenario going forward, with Big Bert missing out on most scoring plays. But the mild contribution of points combined with a decent plus/minus and a propensity for penalty minutes could add up to something if this line settles in any better than the hundreds of combinations experimented with so far this season.

Quick hits

• So the Edmonton Oilers' new line combinations work out pretty well, eh? In the 9-2 blowout against the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday, Taylor Hall managed one of his three goals at even strength with Sam Gagner and Ales Hemsky. Ryan Smyth continued to score on a line with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle. Shawn Horcoff likely is reduced to a power-play specialist role if he is kept on the third line after this shake-up. He had three points, but two came on the man advantage, where he skates with Hall, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins.

Ilya Kovalchuk returned from a groin strain for the New Jersey Devils and re-formed the line with Zach Parise and Adam Henrique. Obviously, Henrique remains worth starting at least until Travis Zajac is healed up.

• Super talented Andrei Loktionov is up from the AHL to fill a top-six role in the absence of Dustin Penner for the Los Angeles Kings. Skating with Mike Richards and Dustin Brown, Loktionov has one point in three games. But he had 14 points in 17 games in the AHL before getting the call.

• As was the main concern with his run of scoring, the well dried up for Nashville Predators rookie Craig Smith when everyone got healthy. Once David Legwand was back in the lineup, Smith was pushed to the third line.

• He will have to play a lot more minutes and in a much better depth chart position before you would act on it, but Islanders rookie Nino Niederreiter is finally healthy and playing some NHL hockey. He is working the fourth line for now but could rise quickly.

• Whether it is a temporary punishment or a long-term assignment, it is cause for concern that Martin Havlat was bumped from the San Jose Sharks' top six. Torrey Mitchell took his place on the second line.

• You have no idea the prize you have won if you correctly predicted that a groin strain to Jaromir Jagr would mean a promotion to the Philadelphia Flyers' top line for Harry Zolnierczyk. No, I didn't make that person up.

T.J. Oshie, David Backes and Alexander Steen skated together Saturday and teamed up for a pair of goals. This line represents the first attempt in a while to simply put what is, on paper, the best three players for the Blues together on the ice and is a refreshing dose of Hitchcock common sense. The trio is a logical fit and is worth watching for a value spike for all three players.

Eric Fehr made his debut with the Winnipeg Jets in the offseason. Similar to the story of how Tomas Fleischmann emerged last season with a trade away from the Washington Capitals, Fehr's talents were buried on the depth chart with the Caps. Once he finds his legs with the Jets, it is quite possible for Fehr to begin to shine. Keep an eye on his ice time and line assignments.

• This Jannik Hansen next to Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin experiment is lasting longer than a lot of people thought it would. It's been six games now with no signs of things changing. Hansen is still available in 95 percent of ESPN leagues and is certainly worth a look at this point. Six games is starting to move away from "fad" territory.

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 send him a note here or tweet him @seanard with the hashtag #FantasyHockey for a timelier response.