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It's easy to sometimes take a player for granted after he has been out with an injury for a while and ultimately returns to your fantasy lineup. Things can change while a player is on the injured reserve. His linemates could find new chemistry, fresh blood could be up from the AHL and succeeding, or maybe the player isn't quite at 100 percent when he returns.
This week we are paying a quick follow-up visit with some big name fantasy stars who are coming back from the injured reserve, just to check in and see if everything is OK.
Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins: It was awfully scary for fantasy owners who might have spent a first overall fantasy draft pick on Malkin to see him go down with a concussion. After all, the same injury felled his teammate and fellow All-Star Sidney Crosby for a full calendar year. But Malkin has been back for two games now and only ended up missing four. He already has two points since returning (one of them a single-handed effort to get past two defensemen) and is setting up other plays as well. He may not have received any credit for James Neal's goal against the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday, but Malkin was the reason it went in as he jammed the net.
It might also be a sneaky time to look at Beau Bennett. Forgotten as the latest player to audition as a linemate for Malkin and Neal because of Malkin's injury, Bennett has some speed and quick hands. All it takes is a little bit of chemistry for Bennett to start collecting fantasy-relevant points on this line. He picked up a helper on Thursday on Neal's goal.
Milan Michalek, Ottawa Senators: Playing in his first game Wednesday since Feb. 12 due to a knee injury, Michalek skated 18 minutes, had three shots on goal and picked up an assist. Michalek was glued to Daniel Alfredsson as a linemate, but the duo alternated with a couple wingers on the other side. Michalek showed some speed on a couple chances, but his assist was pure happenstance. This team has been lost offensively without Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson and Michalek, but it's Spezza and Karlsson who are missed most. Michalek on his own is not enough to start generating more offense. There isn't any harm in holding Michalek on your bench if you have room, but he isn't going to be much help in March. You can hold out some hope for April, as Spezza remains on target for an early-April return from back surgery.
Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado Avalanche: Landeskog has been back for seven games now, skating big minutes and collecting four points. Three of those points were in one big game against the Calgary Flames, meaning that Landeskog has been kept off the scoresheet in five of seven games. The minutes are there, but there is no question Landeskog is playing on the Avs' second line right now. P.A. Parenteau, Matt Duchene and Jamie McGinn are still looking like a solid creative unit, and coach Joe Sacco is reluctant to break them up. That leaves Landeskog skating with David Jones and Paul Stastny. It isn't all gloom and doom for Landeskog. Ryan O'Reilly is being eased back into the lineup, with the ultimate goal of reuniting with Landeskog at some point. The pair had an enormous connection last season that pushed O'Reilly to the team lead in points and brought Landeskog the Calder Trophy. It is just a matter of time before the connection is rekindled. Having a secondary scoring line will also help, not hinder, Duchene, Parenteau and McGinn.
Scott Hartnell, Philadelphia Flyers: Hartnell's three points in six games since his return may be a little disappointing to fantasy owners, especially because the Flyers have been scoring so often of late. But don't sweat Hartnell's potential to ride out the remainder of this season on a similar high to the one he was on last season. There was reason to be concerned about Hartnell's role on the team as Jakub Voracek, Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds all stepped up their game when he was out with a broken foot. In the six games since his return, Hartnell has been playing the role fantasy owners want him to. On the ice with Claude Giroux and Voracek at even strength, Hartnell is also playing the power play, as both he and Simmonds stand in front of the net to create absolute havoc. The offensive numbers will start to come for Hartnell sooner than later. And in the meantime, he already has 20 penalty minutes since his return.
Adam Henrique, New Jersey Devils: This may be a stretch of the definition of the word "recently" as it pertains to players recently returning from injury, but Henrique deserves a mention here. Why? Because he has his legs back. After missing the start of the season due to a thumb injury, Henrique returned in late January and has now been back with the Devils for 19 games. What does a thumb injury have to do with Henrique not having his legs when he returned to the team? Well, Henrique wasn't allowed to work out while he had a cast on his thumb for most of December and into January. He then came back quickly without a lot of time to build up his speed and the Devils didn't even give him a practice before putting him into a game. Six points in 14 games in February wasn't all that much to repay fantasy owners that drafted and stashed the Calder Trophy runner-up. Now into March, Henrique has three goals in the past four games, and two of them have been scored because of his speed. Henrique broke away all alone against the Buffalo Sabres last Saturday, and his speed on the penalty kill forced Victor Hedman to cough up the puck on Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Lightning. He picked up another goal Thursday against the Sabres, putting home his own rebound. Coach Peter DeBoer has recently elevated Henrique by including him on the four-forward power play with Ilya Kovalchuk, David Clarkson and Patrik Elias. Henrique is also playing his even-strength time with Clarkson and Elias. He's available in 36 percent of ESPN leagues, so maybe it's time you gave Henrique another look.
Boston Bruins: We need to get an actual five-game alarm to sound. This week it's the Bruins who are not getting much rest. Three of the B's five games rate an O:9 or better on the Forecaster, and only the home games don't look great defensively. The Forecaster is likely only pointing out Rask's home/road splits this season, in which he is merely human at home with a 2.30 goals-against average and .912 save percentage, as opposed to a goaltending cyborg on the road (1.87 /.933). In both cases, Rask's numbers are phenomenal and the Bruins are winning games. But they aren't doing it by scoring a ton of goals. Brad Marchand leads the team with 12 goals, but given his otherworldly 30.0 shooting percentage, he might not score again this season in order to return to his career 15.7 percent mark. Picking up the slack will be Tyler Seguin, whose slow start is quickly being erased by a current run of 12 points in 10 games. The trouble for fantasy owners with taking advantage of a five-game week for the Bruins will be the fact that every single fantasy relevant player is owned universally, with the exception of one. Dougie Hamilton is available in 36 percent of ESPN leagues and should be in your lineup for next week. Hamilton recently turned in a stretch of four consecutive games with a point and now boasts 12 points in 21 games this season. And may we quickly point out that Zdeno Chara has nine points in 21 games.
St. Louis Blues: We've been talking about Chris Stewart for a week now, and it will be too late to act in a lot of leagues, but he does remain available in 38 percent of ESPN leagues. With Andy McDonald, Alex Steen and rookie Vladimir Tarasenko on the shelf, the Blues need scoring. It's Stewart who has been happy to provide. Playing with David Perron and Patrik Berglund, Stewart has five points in the past two games. Next week, the Blues welcome some Pacific Division squads to St. Louis for three games against the San Jose Sharks, Phoenix Coyotes and Anaheim Ducks. While McDonald is skating again, Steen and Tarasenko don't seem close to a return. That means Stewart should still be in your plans for next week. Deeper leagues can have a look at Jaden Schwartz. Available in 99 percent of ESPN leagues, Schwartz is playing on the other scoring line with David Backes and T.J. Oshie. It wouldn't take much for that line to explode like Stewart has.
Los Angeles Kings: The start of the 2009-10 NHL season seems like ages ago when you consider Dustin Penner was being considered as being a fantasy star. Remember how he started that campaign with 19 points in 14 games in October for the Edmonton Oilers? Penner hasn't been fantasy relevant since shortly after that time and has fallen so far as to be almost universally left off ESPN league teams. We actually had Penner as a sleeper before this season because his line with Mike Richards and Jeff Carter had moderate success during the Kings' Stanley Cup run. A terrible start to the season quickly erased any hope for Penner. But it might not be too late. Thanks to Jeff Carter depositing almost one in every four shots he takes, the line has kicked up its contributions lately. Penner has an assist in four straight games and has a point in six of his past seven. The production all stems from Carter's ridiculous pace of offense, but he probably won't continue shooting 23.9 percent this season. For now, though, jump on board. The Kings have a four-game week on tap, and it might even be a bit nostalgic for you to start Penner in your lineup.
While the long-term answer if you are looking for goaltending is to turn to the Carolina Hurricanes and pick up Dan Ellis or Justin Peters, that is not a good short-term option. The Canes play the Washington Capitals (who just scored seven goals on Thursday) twice next week and then take on the Tampa Bay Lightning. There are better options if you are just spot-starting.
Calgary Flames: Available in 58 percent of ESPN leagues, Miikka Kiprusoff is clearly still needed in the Flames goal. Leland Irving showed he is not ready to take over yet, while Joey MacDonald and Danny Taylor were passable at best. Kipper will settle back in as the team's workhorse, and that could mean some fantasy relevant numbers. Kipper held the San Jose Sharks to one goal in his return. The Flames catch the Detroit Red Wings, Los Angeles Kings and Nashville Predators next week, and, with Kipper and the new look on offense, the team could pick up some wins. Jarome Iginla has looked awesome playing on a line with Jiri Hudler and Roman Cervenka in a recent line shuffle.
Ottawa Senators: This is a situation to watch closely, but one that could be beneficial in the week to come. While Craig Anderson is edging closer to a return, he still isn't ready to take over in the Sens' net. That could mean another week of Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner exchanging starts. Bishop finally looked human this week as the Sens were dismantled by the Toronto Maple Leafs, but Lehner has been excellent in two starts. If the duo stays on a strict rotation, Bishop will get the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres next week, while Lehner catches the Montreal Canadiens and Winnipeg Jets. That's if they stay on a rotation. Lehner could earn even more starts with another great outing against the New York Rangers on Friday. A third option would see Anderson return to action for next week.
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 reign over your fantasy hockey decisions within a $100 million fantasy budget. For more on the game and to sign up, click here.
The skeds: Obviously, the Boston Bruins are the place to start your search for players this coming week in the Hockey Challenge. Already an elite team, the five-game schedule elevates the B's to a whole other level. Tyler Seguin ($8.5M), Patrice Bergeron ($8.2M) and Brad Marchand ($7.4M) should be your first choices with David Krejci ($7.3M), Milan Lucic ($7.6M) and Nathan Horton ($7.7M) available as a slightly-less-expensive backup. While Zdeno Chara ($7.5M) will be a good choice for your defensemen, Dougie Hamilton ($6.8M) offers a much better price-to-point ratio.
While the Bruins have a five-game week, the Los Angeles Kings, Nashville Predators, Ottawa Senators, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and Winnipeg Jets all offer a four-game schedule. Clearly no one is hotter than Jeff Carter ($7.6M), but there are elite options available as well, including Sidney Crosby ($10.3M), Evgeni Malkin ($9.5M) and Alex Ovechkin ($9.0M). Kris Letang ($8.5M) offers you elite production on defense, but don't overlook Slava Voynov ($6.5M) and Jake Muzzin ($4.9M) as much cheaper options.
If you want to try to save a few bucks on your forwards, Mike Zibanejad ($5.6M) has been one of the better Senators on offense lately, Eric Fehr ($7.0M) continues to perform well in his minimal minutes and Dustin Penner ($4.9M) is a long shot as Carter's linemate.
Avoid the Chicago Blackhawks, Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers this week. The teams all have a week of rest by playing only two games each.
Goaltending: Braden Holtby ($12.0M) has certainly shaken off whatever was ailing him at the start of the season. He has been picking up wins in most of his outings lately, and the Caps have four games to play next week against mostly beatable opponents (Boston is a tall order). With five games to play, Tuukka Rask ($12.5M) could start in as many as four of them for the Bruins. Avoid keeping Jimmy Howard ($12.4M) in your lineup, even though he is coming off a big week. The Red Wings play three times on the road, and Howard only has one win away from Detroit this season.
My roster for next week:
Braden Holtby, G ($12.0M)
Tuukka Rask, G ($12.5M)
Kevin Shattenkirk, D ($6.7M / $7.3M on market)
Slava Voynov, D ($6.5M)
Kris Letang, D ($8.5M)
John Carlson, D ($6.3M)
Sidney Crosby, F ($8.8M / $10.3M on market)
Jaden Schwartz, F ($4.4M)
Steven Stamkos, F ($8.7M / $9.9M on market)
Justin Williams, F ($6.9M)
Alex Ovechkin, F ($9.0M)
Evgeni Malkin, F ($9.5M)