Front Line: Midseason review

With all NHL teams set to hit the 41-game mark this week, we have to start coming to terms with the fact the season is half over. Has it been that long already? The hockey season can sure fly by if you don't take a few minutes now and then to stop and smell the roses.

And that is what we are doing this week here at ESPN Fantasy Hockey. There is so much depth-chart juggling, so many injuries, hot streaks, slumps, call-ups, upstarts and everything in between that most weeks we don't take a minute to check in on how our star players (roses) are doing (smelling -- not a metaphor you want to mix).

Would there be much point in writing a weekly fantasy column about how good Sidney Crosby has been this season? "Crosby should be in your fantasy lineup." Well, thanks for that, Sherlock. Similarly, how many different ways can I say, "Ovechkin is very good despite his slump; hang on to him." That is not new information and it doesn't help anyone.

While we don't include the Crosbys and Ovechkins of the fantasy world in this space every week, that doesn't mean it's a bad idea to take that occasional pause for reflection and look for what's ahead. The halfway point of the season is as good a time as any. This week we have five top performers I selected as the cornerstones to fantasy success so far this season, five surprise players who were expected to be good and have been great and five disappointments who have been playing well below what was expected of them. Players whose negative performance is largely due to injury were avoided for the disappointments.

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. Sidney Crosby, Pit (1)
2. Steven Stamkos, TB (3)
3. Alex Ovechkin, Was (2)
4. Daniel Sedin, Van (4)
5. Brad Richards, Dal (5)
6. Alexander Semin, Was (6)
7. Corey Perry, Ana (10)
8. Nicklas Backstrom, Was (7)
9. Henrik Sedin, Van (8)
10. Dany Heatley, SJ (9)
11. Martin St. Louis, TB (11)
12. Evgeni Malkin, Pit (12)
13. Jeff Carter, Phi (13)
14. Anze Kopitar, LA (17)
15. Jonathan Toews, Chi (14)
16. Henrik Zetterberg, Det (18)
17. Mike Richards, Phi (15)
18. Eric Staal, Car (16)
19. Ryan Getzlaf, Ana (19)
20. Bobby Ryan, Ana (20)
21. Danny Briere, Phi (21)
22. Patrick Sharp, Chi (22)
23. Ryan Kesler, Van (32)
24. Jarome Iginla, Cgy (23)
25. Mikko Koivu, Min (24)
26. Paul Stastny, Col (25)
27. Loui Eriksson, Dal (30)
28. Alex Burrows, Van (33)
29. Joe Thornton, SJ (28)
30. Pavel Datsyuk, Det (29)
31. Patrick Kane, Chi (31)
32. Marian Gaborik, NYR (26)
33. Rick Nash, Cls (34)
34. Scott Hartnell, Phi (35)
35. Claude Giroux, Phi (36)
36. James Neal, Dal (37)
37. Nathan Horton, Bos (39)
38. Chris Stewart, Col (40)
39. Tomas Plekanec, Mon (41)
40. Johan Franzen, Det (44)
41. Milan Hejduk, Col (42)
42. Milan Lucic, Bos (38)
43. Martin Havlat, Min (50)
44. Dustin Brown, LA (47)
45. David Backes, StL (46)
46. Justin Williams, LA (53)
47. Ilya Kovalchuk, NJ (27)
48. Matt Duchene, Col (48)
49. Marian Hossa, Chi (49)
50. Andrew Ladd, Atl (43)
51. Mike Cammalleri, Mon (45)
52. Stephen Weiss, Fla (52)
53. Ryane Clowe, SJ (54)
54. Ryan Smyth, LA (55)
55. Logan Couture, SJ (56)
56. John Tavares, NYI (57)
57. Evander Kane, Atl (58)
58. Teemu Selanne, Ana (59)
59. Shane Doan, Pho (65)
60. Brenden Morrow, Dal (60)
61. Thomas Vanek, Buf (61)
62. Patrick Marleau, SJ (51)
63. Phil Kessel, Tor (62)
64. Brooks Laich, Was (63)
65. David Krejci, Bos (66)
66. Vincent Lecavalier, TB (67)
67. Brandon Dubinsky, NYR (81)
68. Scott Gomez, Mon (68)
69. Andrei Kostitsyn, Mon (64)
70. Joe Pavelski, SJ (70)
71. Alexander Steen, StL (86)
72. Brian Gionta, Mon (72)
73. Marc Savard, Bos (73)
74. Ryan Malone, TB (80)
75. Ville Leino, Phi (74)
76. Steve Downie, TB (75)
77. Mikael Samuelsson, Van (76)
78. Matt Cullen, Min (77)
79. Alex Tanguay, Cgy (69)
80. Chris Kunitz, Pit (78)
81. David Booth, Fla (71)
82. Mike Ribeiro, Dal (88)
83. Jason Pominville, Buf (82)
84. Tomas Holmstrom, Det (100)
85. Travis Zajac, NJ (84)
86. Daniel Alfredsson, Ott (79)
87. Jeff Skinner, Car (93)
88. Rich Peverley, Atl (87)
89. Sam Gagner, Edm (89)
90. Olli Jokinen, Cgy (90)
91. Bryan Little, Atl (91)
92. Sean Avery, NYR (92)
93. Drew Stafford, Buf (95)
94. Tomas Fleischmann, Was (96)
95. Sergei Kostitsyn, Nsh (97)
96. Dustin Penner, Edm (98)
97. Patric Hornqvist, Nsh (NR)
98. Kristian Huselius, Cls (99)
99. Anthony Stewart, Atl (NR)
100. R.J. Umberger, Cls (NR)

Top performers

Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins: There are two differences between Crosby and the rest of this pack of top performers. The first difference is that Crosby is way out ahead of the others. Quite literally, actually. The ESPN Player Rater has Crosby well out in front this season based on the ESPN Standard League scoring, so much so that Crosby has twice the value of Bobby Ryan, the 23rd name on the list of forwards. Crosby could afford to give up his eight- assist lead to Steven Stamkos and still have him beat on the ESPN Player Rater.

The second difference is that Crosby has built this lead almost single-handedly. The other top performers have a player (or players) to lean on, someone right behind them in points and value. Daniel Sedin has Henrik Sedin, Stamkos has Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards has Loui Eriksson and Corey Perry has Ryan Getzlaf. The aforementioned duos are ranked Nos. 1 through 4 this season in the number of goals on which each player records a point. Crosby has more combined-point goals with Evgeni Malkin this season than his own regular linemates, Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz. Once he gets over a mild concussion this week, expect and depend on Crosby to continue to pace the NHL for the second half. It doesn't matter what happens around Crosby, he will keep doing his thing.

Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning: The only player even in sight of Crosby's dominance of fantasy this season has been Stamkos. On pace to eclipse 100 points, Stamkos has proven his breakout sophomore campaign was absolutely for real. There is one concern for his fantasy value going forward, though; his shooting percentage. Sustaining a shooting percentage of 17.2 for an entire season was impressive enough last season for Stamkos, but this time he is clipping along at 20.5 percent. While it is not completely impossible to finish with such a high success rate (Mike Ribeiro, 25.23 percent in 2007-08), Stamkos will have to fight against the law of averages to keep his current pace.

Daniel Sedin, Vancouver Canucks: You can't fault either Sedin brother for much about each's game and it's not Henrik Sedin's fault that Daniel trumps him in fantasy value. This is a goal scorer's world in fantasy and Daniel is the goal-scoring brother. Both players have 54 points this season, but Daniel has 25 goals to Henrik's nine. Consider that shots on goal (in which Daniel almost beats Henrik by a 2-1 margin) is also a fantasy category and you see why last year's Hart Trophy winner has to come second in the Sedin rankings. With Alex Burrows revving back up to speed, expect the Sedins to close out the season the way they started: scoring at will.

Brad Richards, Dallas Stars: When an elite playmaker sets his mind on scoring goals as well, the result is often a whole new level of fantasy hockey value for that player. We've seen Marc Savard find that next level immediately following the lockout, we've seen Joe Thornton turn up the heat for a near 30-goal season, but even those big years by a setup guy won't challenge what Richards is putting together this season. He is on pace for 34 goals -- easily a career best -- to go with an elite level of assists (on pace for 55). How is he doing it? Richards is on pace to eclipse 300 shots on goal for the first time in his career. While his overall pace for points would not be a career best, remember, fantasy hockey is a goal scorer's game and this renewed focus on putting the puck in the net means Richards will finish this season among the game's best players.

Corey Perry, Anaheim Ducks: Perry has always had it in him to be a point-per-game player; he was off that pace by only six points last season. His shots on goal aren't going to be a revelation. So what has taken him from being a top-25 player to a top-10 player? To be frank, it's his physical edge on the ice and his work on the power play. Perry, instead of pacing closer to his usual 100 penalty minutes, is looking to finish at 150 PIMs this season. In addition, while he scored just six power-play goals last season, Perry already has seven. He is also on pace for a career-best 38 goals. I keep repeating the point, but goal scorers are the key to fantasy success and Perry is looking like an elite goal scorer this season.

Just missed: Martin St. Louis, Tampa Bay Lightning; Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit Red Wings; Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings; Ryan Kesler, Vancouver Canucks; Patrick Sharp, Chicago Blackhawks.


Danny Briere, Philadelphia Flyers: Briere was supposed to be a strong fantasy play, but closer to a top-50 guy than a top-20 guy. In point of fact, he is the 12th-best forward on the ESPN Player Rater this season. Is Briere doing anything different? Not really. The key to his success has been the Flyers' defensive play. Briere, who as recently as three seasons ago finished with a minus-22 for the Flyers, is a plus-17 at the halfway point. Of course, I'd also be remiss not to point out that he is on pace for a career high in shots on goal, penalty minutes and goals. Briere has found the perfect linemates in Ville Leino and Scott Hartnell; as long as that doesn't change, expect more of the same.

Dustin Brown, Los Angeles Kings: For a guy who has never had a positive plus/minus rating in his career, has never eclipsed 60 points and was no more than a reserve forward at the beginning of the year, Brown has certainly turned some heads. Thanks in large part to being cemented on the wing of superstar Anze Kopitar this season, Brown is on pace for 34 goals, 34 assists and a plus-28. That's right, the same Dustin Brown who is minus-51 for his career. The only caution I offer with Brown is to realize that the hottest part of his season thus far came when Justin Williams was elevated to the other wing on the top line. If the Kings can't find a strong player to play opposite Brown on this unit, the pace could slip (fingers crossed for Marco Sturm to find his midseason form).

Milan Hejduk, Colorado Avalanche: The injuries are still taking a toll, but Hejduk has gone from being a candidate for early retirement to a must-start fantasy asset. He has missed more than a couple of games with minor ailments, but Hejduk has 35 points in the 35 games he has played. Despite the absences, Hejduk is on pace for his best season since 2006-07. Why the improvement? Matt Duchene seems like the logical answer here as Hejduk has spent the vast majority of his time on the ice with the young sophomore sniper. Can he finish a season at a point per game for the first time since 2002-03? That might be asking a lot, but Hejduk should continue to be a must-start fantasy player. And that's a lot more than anyone could have suggested in September.

Justin Williams, Los Angeles Kings: Williams had been consistently hurt to the point that fantasy owners had written him off almost completely by the start of this season. Sure he had shown flashes of his point-per-game potential with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006-07, but that was also the last time he played more than half a season. Lo and behold, Williams has remained intact this season and is rewarding fantasy investors with nearly a point per game. On pace for 70 points this year, Williams has made the perfect complement to Ryan Smyth and Jarret Stoll on the Kings' second line. As always with Williams, if he stays healthy he will continue to produce.

Brandon Dubinsky, New York Rangers: Dubinsky was supposed to be propelled into a role as an occasional fantasy starter thanks to playing on a line with Marian Gaborik this season. Instead, Dubinsky has become a pivotal fantasy starter despite rarely sharing the ice with Gaborik. The Rangers center has come into his own this season with 16 goals and 20 assists in just 43 games. At this pace, he will best his career highs for goals, assists and points by the end of January. If the Rangers can get some supporting cast members to start pulling their weight (Gaborik), things could even improve for Dubinsky as the second half of the season plays out.

Just missed: Ryane Clowe, San Jose Sharks; David Backes, St. Louis Blues; Mikhail Grabovski, Toronto Maple Leafs; Ryan Malone, Tampa Bay Lightning; Andrew Ladd, Atlanta Thrashers.


Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals: Disappointment is relative and Ovechkin is the case in point. While he is the fifth-best forward this season according to the ESPN Player Rater, he is a disappointment because he was supposed to be the best. The way Crosby is running away with the title of best fantasy player this season is supposed to have been how Ovechkin ran away with it. Ovechkin has been, hands down, the best fantasy asset during previous seasons thanks to his prolific shots on goal, point totals and strong plus/minus. After scoring no fewer than 46 goals in any of his previous five NHL seasons, Ovechkin is on pace for just 29 goals this season. The shots on goal pace is still there, but his shooting percentage has gone from a career average of 12.1 percent to just 7.7 percent this season. Something just isn't connecting for Ovechkin. He still possesses the elite talent to turn this season around (which is why he still ranks so high in the top 100), but that is little solace to the fantasy owners who suffered through a bum first half of the season. There is no consolation and no way out of what happened with Ovechkin so far and the only course of action is to hope he and the rest of the Capitals offense can find their A-game.

Ilya Kovalchuk, New Jersey Devils: Disappointment doesn't begin to sum up Ilya Kovalchuk and the rest of the Devils' offense this season. There is a laundry list of statistics to pull out illustrating just how bad things have been, but my favorite has to be Kovalchuk's minus-29. That is abysmal for a player who hasn't dipped below 40 goals since 2002-03. His plus/minus pace puts him at minus-59 by the end of the season if things don't change. That's starting to get into the territory of the worst all-time plus/minus mark (minus-82 by Bill Mikkelson in 1974-75). Unlike Ovechkin, where the disappointment is relative and the Capitals forward remains a must-start, you can justifiably bench Kovalchuk (and should have been doing so for some time). With news Zach Parise won't be returning to save the team (there's talk of him not being healed until late March), there is little reason to make a big move on Kovalchuk. His overall numbers have trended up slightly since just before the coaching change from John MacLean to Jacques Lemaire, but that does little but illustrate how much worse he was at the start of the season. He is still Ilya Kovalchuk, so putting him at the end of your bench would be preferable to outright dropping him. But in a pinch, no one would blame you for handing the biggest offseason signing his walking papers.

Daniel Alfredsson, Ottawa Senators: Count me among those who believed Alfredsson had at least one more season left before the scoring dropped off. With Jason Spezza still around as his centerman and power-play specialist Sergei Gonchar in the fold, who would have predicted it would be the first season Alfie would fail to get at least 70 points since the turn of the century. Without a miraculous outburst, it doesn't look like Alfredsson will even get to 60 points this season. This is also the first time since his rookie year in 1995-96 that Alfredsson is trending toward a minus rating. In short, he is easily a droppable commodity in standard ESPN leagues.

Wojtek Wolski, Phoenix Coyotes: After a rejuvenating change of scenery at last year's trade deadline, Wolski peeled off 18 points in 18 games for the Phoenix Coyotes and positioned himself as the leader of the team's offense coming into this season. Lately, however, he's been taking trips to the press box and has only 16 points this season in twice as many games as he played with the Coyotes last season (36). There was still an opportunity for Wolski to seize the reins of the club up until Shane Doan and Ray Whitney started getting hot in December. Now it appears as though another promising young forward will have to bide his time in the desert (Kyle Turris anyone). Wolski should be booted from your fantasy team unless you play in a league deep enough that his potential has value. His ice time in the past few games has slipped below 10 minutes.

Patrick Marleau, San Jose Sharks: While I was among those who had Marleau down to regress from his 44-goal, 83-point season in 2009-10, I did not expect him to regress this much. Marleau is on pace for 29 goals, 29 assists and a minus-31 at the end of the season, numbers hardly worthy of a starting fantasy player in all but the deepest of leagues. He is still piling up power-play points this season, but that may be his one redeeming quality. Why the tough go of it? While some try to point to contract-year syndrome with Marleau, I think it has a lot more to do with the good play of Ryane Clowe and Logan Couture, rather than the bad play of Marleau. Clowe, Couture and -- to a certain extent -- Joe Pavelski have upped their games this season to the point where they demand more of the offensive ice time than in the past. A lot of the success for Marleau last season stemmed from the fact coach Todd McLellan had little choice but to roll Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton and Marleau for the better part of each game in order to score goals. He doesn't have to do that anymore. I don't see Marleau's lot improving this season with Couture and Clowe in the picture so strongly.

Just missed: Marian Gaborik, New York Rangers; Patric Hornqvist, Nashville Predators; Phil Kessel, Toronto Maple Leafs; John Tavares, New York Islanders; pick any New Jersey Devil.

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.