Front Line: Who's for real?

Are they for real? That used to be a weekly column of questions we did here at ESPN and it still makes for a good framework for a debate. A few players have skyrocketed in value since the calendar turned on 2011 and some of them have not been trustworthy for fantasy hockey owners in the past. Let's have a look at whether their recent fortune is "for real."

Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins: Sometimes the right line combination just clicks, no matter how boring it may look on paper. Bergeron has been on fire since joining Brad Marchand and Mark Recchi in what appears to be the Bruins' third line. In six games with the line combo, Bergeron has seven goals and four assists with a plus-9 rating. He also stepped up last season with injuries to Marc Savard and had a better-than-expected 52 points, but was still only marginally valuable since many of his points came in bunches. Remember that Bergeron scored 70-plus points in his second and third NHL seasons before a scary concussion early in his fourth season (2007-08) seemed to stop a solid upward trend in his development. So, is Bergeron just having another hot streak? Or has he regained his form from earlier in his career? In short, is he for real?
Verdict: For real. The key here is that Savard and David Krejci are both in the lineup on a regular basis right now, so Bergeron is not filling in for anyone to score these points. He is simply stealing the show.

Tuomo Ruutu, Carolina Hurricanes: Thanks largely to a recent hot streak, Ruutu is on pace for what would easily be the best season of his mercurial career, scoring 12 points in nine games since the start of the New Year. That includes multi-point games of both four and three points. He has been skating with rookie Jeff Skinner and Chad LaRose, with the line combination all contributing (Skinner has 10 January points, LaRose a modest four). Touted as the type of player who can do this kind of scoring, Ruutu has failed to put up the numbers thanks in large part to a troubled injury history. Plus, he has also been criticized for a lack of effort in the past. There is no lack of effort on his part lately and Ruutu can be seen battling for every puck in the 'Canes' recent contests. Is this energy and production from Ruutu going to last? Is it for real?
Verdict: For real. The thing a lot of fantasy owners may not realize is that Ruutu's above-average performance this season dates all the way back to the end of October. Since Oct. 29, Ruutu has 34 points in 36 games. That is far too long a sustained effort to simply be a fluke of a hot streak.

Ryan Kesler, Vancouver Canucks: Kesler is on pace for a career season and the month of December was particularly kind to him. In 14 games, Kesler had nine goals and 19 points. His hot hand has carried into January with five goals and eight points in nine games. Kesler is supposed to be an impressive center and a top-40 fantasy player, but remember his career-high for goals is 26 and he already has 24 at barely the halfway point of the season. Playing on the power play with Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin is bound to yield plenty of points, and as the second wave of attack for the Canucks' offense. Kesler's line is also often spared the opponent's toughest defensive players that must handle the Sedins every night. Still, can he finish with 44 goals? Is this the new Ryan Kesler? Is he for real?
Verdict: Unreal. Yes, his play can be described by both the slang adjective use of the word "unreal," but also by the literal definition as "not real." Kesler looks to have improved his stock this season and I would venture a guess that the improved defensive corps has provided him with the ability to focus a little less on two-way hockey. But he has been, according to the ESPN Player Rater, the second best forward in the NHL during the past month. That part of the equation is "unreal" and you can expect a return to this stratosphere from Kesler at some point. He is a top-20 guy now, not a top-five.

Rising and Falling

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

Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins (down one spot): Don't panic. When Crosby returns, he will most likely automatically vault back into the No. 1 spot. It's only the fact that the "mild" concussion he suffered has kept him out so long, with no timeline for his return, that has him slip past Steven Stamkos in the rankings. This is a key reminder that these rankings, for what they are worth, are from this point forward in the season. Since Crosby hasn't had been symptom-free for a day to conduct another baseline test for his concussion, we can only assume he may miss another few games. Spot Stamkos a few games over the course of the rest of the season, and his value exceeds that of Crosby. I led off this paragraph by saying not to panic, but that time will come if Crosby fails a concussion test. That could mean quite a bit of time out. Stay tuned to the news. For those that are extremely nervous about the situation, trading him for Stamkos wouldn't hurt you terribly over the course of the season even if Crosby were back Tuesday. That trade offer might not be a terrible idea if your team was already struggling in your fantasy standings with Crosby in the fold.

Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks (up five spots): It certainly hasn't been a banner season for the Sharks' big centerman. On second thought, Thornton is on pace to not exceed a point per game for the first time since 2003-04 and on pace to defeat his worst career plus/minus rating (in his rookie season) by a gap of more than minus-15. He hasn't finished with a minus rating since 2000-01. So maybe this has been an atrocious season for Thornton. Thanks to the lofty standards we have for him, even an atrocious season for Thornton is still valuable in fantasy. His value in ESPN standard leagues is buoyed significantly by his points on the power play and he is still on pace for 75 points. What has me encouraged, leading to a bump up the rankings, is that Thornton has scored two points in each of the past four games. Eight points (three goals) in four games is enough to highlight any player, but it's also the line combination that has my attention. Thornton has been centering rookie Logan Couture and veteran Dany Heatley for the past two games and the trio have combined for 10 points in those two games. If this line combo sticks for coach Todd McClellan, it could turn around Thornton's season and get him at least back to a pace we are all used to.

Wojtek Wolski, New York Rangers (debuts at No. 100): This looks like a repeat for Wolski from last season when a change of scenery is all it took to bring out his offensive side. In four games with the Rangers since being traded from the Phoenix Coyotes, Wolski has three points. More importantly, the Rangers have six goals since acquiring Wolski, and he has played a role in half of them. When the Philadelphia Flyers were beating down the Rangers 3-0 going into the third period on Sunday, coach John Tortorella switched his lines and put Wolski with rookies Mats Zuccarello and Derek Stepan. The trio would score two goals with all three players notching a point on each. Previously, Wolski scored a goal in a big Rangers 1-0 win over the Vancouver Canucks. He scored that goal on the power play off the sticks of Marian Gaborik and Brandon Dubinsky. In short, Tortorella appears to be giving Wolski every chance to succeed and so far Wolski has been grasping the opportunities. This is a bit of speculation on my part, but the Rangers need the offense and Wolski, under the right conditions, can provide it.

Scoring Lines

Jordan Staal, Pittsburgh Penguins: Staal is one of three players I really struggled with this week to rank at No. 100. On the plus side, Staal is going to have to play the role of a scoring forward if Crosby remains on the shelf for any extended period of time. On the minus side, Staal is such a good two-way hockey player in will be tempting for coach Dan Bylsma to move him back into a checking role if Crosby returns in short order. Still up in the air is the idea that he remains a second-line forward after Crosby returns and plays regularly with Evgeni Malkin. Since this requires so much depth-chart speculation, I leaned away from ranking him this week. But it was close.

Mikhail Grabovski, Toronto Maple Leafs: Rewarding Grabovski was the other option that almost stole the No. 100 rank away from Wolski. Grabovski and his fellow Maple Leafs power-play buddies were discussed at length in Friday's Forecaster. In short, it looks like this powerful unit will continue to score goals with the man advantage. The team had a couple tough contests with Kris Versteeg out of the lineup, but with Versteeg back on the power-play point as early as Wednesday things should pick up again. It's Nikolai Kulemin (who debuted in the ranks this week) and Versteeg that you want to target from the free-agent pile. Kulemin's ownership is flying through the roof, but there is still some time to take advantage (he was at 62 percent ownership on Monday evening).

Blake Comeau, New York Islanders: In a bit of an odd case, Comeau is on a hot streak as an Island(er) unto himself. With 19 points in 21 games since the start of December, and eight points in seven games since the start of 2011, Comeau could easily be considered for a regular roster spot in almost any fantasy league. The strange part is that his linemates (currently Rob Schremp and Josh Bailey, previously Schremp and Frans Nielsen) aren't coming very close to matching his pace. Schremp, specifically, has just three points in 2011. Sometimes you just have to accept what is: Play Comeau if he is still available in your league (which includes 77 percent of ESPN leagues).

Power Plays

Joffrey Lupul, Anaheim Ducks: He may still be the odd man out for the Ducks top six, but he is still a second-hand choice for the team's power play. Lupul has a modest, but valuable, four power-play points during the past nine games playing with Bobby Ryan and Jason Blake on the man advantage. Deep leagues can give him a look so long as Ryan Getzlaf is on the shelf.

Mike Ribeiro, Dallas Stars: Undervalued in a lot of places because of his assist heavy numbers and status as a second-line player, Ribeiro has turned his game up in recent weeks. And a lot of his success has come on the power play. During a current nine-game point streak, Ribeiro has six power-play points. Working with fellow forwards Brenden Morrow, Brad Richards and Loui Eriksson is a deadly combination (two elite playmakers, one elite sniper and one elite power forward). See if his owner truly appreciates the value Ribeiro offers. He is arguably a top-50 player this season.

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.