With the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers sitting squarely atop the standings in the Eastern Conference and Western Conference, respectively, this seems like as good a time as any to point out some players who are early surprises during the 2011-12 season. The following are the top-rated players on the ESPN Player Rater (which organically assigns a fantasy rating to each NHLer based solely on performance) who are still available in more than 30 percent of ESPN leagues.
Chris Neil, Ottawa Senators (No. 38 on the Player Rater and available in 61 percent of ESPN leagues): Neil's presence so high on the Player Rater is easy to explain. His 52 penalty minutes trail only teammate Zenon Konopka's 54 PIMs for the NHL lead, but unlike Konopka, Neil is also putting points on the board. Playing with young forwards Zack Smith and Erik Condra, Neil has some talent on his line and is receiving more ice time per game than he has in his career. But he has had seasons such as this in the past, earning fantasy value by scoring as many as 33 points to go with his near-200 PIMs. There is no reason to think he can't do it again. Although his current pace off 44 points is likely to tail off, Neil might be in the range of 30 points. That makes his 200 PIMs among the most palatable in the NHL.
David Legwand, Nashville Predators (No. 51 on the Player Rater and available in 34 percent of ESPN leagues): On pace for an 82-game season right now, Legwand won't get there in the end. However, playing firmly in the Predators' top six will help push Legwand toward a 60-point season that would be only the second fantasy-relevant year of his 12 years in the NHL. Already we have seen that Legwand will be streaky. After scoring eight points in the first four games of the season, he went scoreless for five games before starting another streak that saw him score four points in the past three games. So while Legwand has a chance to be productive this season, the consistency issues might mean he is a better investment for rotisserie owners than in head-to-head leagues.
Radim Vrbata, Phoenix Coyotes (No. 59 on the Player Rater and available in 51 percent of ESPN leagues): It's understandable not to buy the early stats from Vrbata since he has had a tendency to fall off the map after hot streaks during the past few seasons. But just because you don't like him over the long term isn't reason enough not to use him while he is hot. Playing consistently alongside veteran Ray Whitney at even strength and getting time on the first power-play unit, Vrbata has five goals and five assists through 12 games. While his pace will slow, we know he has a knack for scoring goals, and he very well could have his most productive fantasy season to date given the fact that the Coyotes will need to keep him on a scoring line. Expect some cold streaks, but the overall production from Vrbata should be worth rostering him.
Jussi Jokinen, Carolina Hurricanes (No. 71 on the Player Rater and available in 31 percent of ESPN leagues): Jokinen's availability should grow in the next week as he misses some time with a leg injury, but already the prognosis for his return has shrunk from several weeks to a matter of days. Playing on the Canes' top line with Jeff Skinner and Tuomo Ruutu, Jokinen has three goals and six assists, putting him almost dead-on pace to match his fantasy-relevant production from the past two seasons. The lost time with the leg injury might be enough to take away his chance at 30 goals, but 25 should be no problem for Jokinen. He is also one of the few Hurricanes with a manageable plus/minus so far this season (plus-4). The injury means you can wait on adding his services, but don't wait too long.
Craig Smith, Nashville Predators (No. 80 on the Player Rater and available in 94 percent of ESPN leagues): This particular situation doesn't bode well over the course of the season. After starting hot, Smith dropped off the radar for a few games and then started scoring again. His totals, 10 points in 12 games, look solid, but the fact that he is playing third- and sometimes fourth-line duty means this rookie won't sustain the pace. The Preds don't really have room for him in the top six with everyone healthy, and banking on a promotion for an unheralded rookie, even injury-aided, isn't usually the wisest course of action.
Corey Potter, Edmonton Oilers (No. 84 on the Player Rater and available in 32 percent of ESPN leagues): The window is closing quickly on the new Oilers power-play quarterback and puck-moving defenseman. Since being given a chance to play a few games into the season, Potter has done nothing but show wizardry with the puck and chemistry with the young Oilers forwards. He has eight points in 10 games, and six of those have come on the power play, where Potter lines up on the point to feed the puck to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Shawn Horcoff. By the time Ryan Whitney returns from his sprained knee, it's going to be too late for him to steal back his role on the point. So do your best Voldemort impression and go get Potter now.
O (offense) and D (defense) matchup ratings are based on a scale from 1 (poor matchup) to 10 (excellent matchup), and are calculated using a formula that evaluates the team's year-to-date and past 21 days' statistics, its performance in home/road games depending on where the game is to be played, and its opponents' numbers in those categories. The Games T / H column lists the team's total number of games played as well as home games (T / H) and lists the cumulative rating from 1 to 10 of that week's matchups.
It's getting a bit repetitive to consistently point out the quality offensive Forecaster ratings for the Vancouver Canucks and Chicago Blackhawks, so unless there is a particular reason to highlight them or things change, consider this notice that the teams will be having a pretty good week on offense.
St. Louis Blues: Contests against the Blackhawks, Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning combine for an O:8 rating on the Forecaster for the Blues. While the window might have closed on acquiring Alexander Steen from the free-agent list, Jason Arnott (available in 63 percent of ESPN leagues) and Matt D'Agostini (available in 68 percent of ESPN leagues) can assist your fantasy scoring next week. Arnott is in a groove working on a line with Steen and is only one point behind Steen for the team's scoring lead. D'Agostini is tied with Phil Kessel for the NHL's plus/minus lead at plus-9 and has six points to bring to the table.
Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres have a solid O:8 rating on the Forecaster with games against the Winnipeg Jets, Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins. The games get a weaker rating as the week progresses, though, from an O:10 against the Jets to an O:5 against the Bruins. The biggest untapped resource on the team is still rookie Luke Adam (available in 65 percent of ESPN leagues). Adam continues to roll with Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek on the Sabres' top line and the team's second power-play unit. With his four goals and seven assists, there is no doubt there are fantasy teams out there with room for him in the lineup. At the other end of the spectrum, Derek Roy is struggling separated from Vanek. Coach Lindy Ruff is still tinkering with the lines to find a combination that works for Roy. The current experiment is with Drew Stafford and Ville Leino, but Roy doesn't have a point in six games. Dropping him outright is certainly not the answer since we aren't even 15 percent into the season yet, but if you have roster flexibility, it might be wise to start sitting Roy until a solution is found.
Florida Panthers: An O:6 is about as good as it gets for the Panthers so far this season. Three games are on tap for next week as the Cats take on the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets and Philadelphia Flyers. The surprise on offense here is actually a defenseman, as Jason Garrison (available in 37 percent of ESPN leagues) has five goals from the point to start the season in style. Garrison is a solid, puck-moving defenseman, about to turn 27 and ready to show his potential. His one healthy season in the AHL saw him produce eight goals and 35 points in 75 games, so there is a basis for offensive production. Working with Brian Campbell at even strength and Ed Jovanovski on the power play doesn't hurt Garrison's potential, either. One indicator this might continue: Garrison has a team-leading 35 shots on goal.
New Jersey Devils: Thanks in part to a pair of matchups against the Washington Capitals next week, the Devils come across as an O:1 on the Forecaster. The team's third game of the week will come against the Carolina Hurricanes. The bad rating for the week ahead makes it a bit easier not to be overly excited by Adam Henrique finally being handed the role of top-line center between Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise. Just two games into the role, the rookie has three points. A tough schedule such as next week's might be a good time to watch to see how the line handles tough matchups. Then again, waiting might make it too late to add him. Just remember the clock is ticking on his time in the spotlight, with Travis Zajac working his way back to health as early as the end of November.
Carolina Hurricanes: Playing the Devils, New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins has the Hurricanes on the low end of the offensive scale with an O:4. There isn't much use for the Hurricanes in this situation, especially with goal scorer Jussi Jokinen out of the lineup. You might want to limit your fantasy starts to just Jeff Skinner given the current numbers on the team.
Minnesota Wild: It's not every week that there is a team on the Forecaster with a strong defensive rating and a goaltender available in most leagues who can help you. The Wild hit the road for games against the Calgary Flames, San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks with a D:7 on the Forecaster. If Josh Harding didn't prove his mettle during back-to-back standout wins against the Detroit Red Wings, he certainly proved it with a huge performance against the Vancouver Canucks. While the winds of change might be only a mild breeze right now given Niklas Backstrom's years of quality service, Harding's start to the season cannot be ignored. Injuries have hampered Harding's development, but for a few seasons, he was considered the top goalie prospect in the NHL. A good schedule on the Forecaster certainly should help sort out the situation better during the next week. If you are desperate to land a goaltender in your league, though, it's worth considering a pre-emptive add. Just in case.
Nashville Predators: The new best goaltender in the NHL (according to pay scale) gets to show off his new contract with games against the Kings, Ducks and Montreal Canadiens that combine for a D:6 on the Forecaster. Of three subpar outings this season in 12 starts by Pekka Rinne, only one came against an offense most wouldn't consider to be top five in the NHL (Coyotes). So with a solid week ahead, make sure you are rolling Rinne (like you would consider otherwise). The quality forecast also means you can lean on some forwards, such as David Legwand and Craig Smith, to earn bonus plus/minus points along the way.
Phoenix Coyotes: A pair of games against the Sharks and Canadiens doesn't bode well for the Desert Dogs. A D:3 next week means defensive shortcomings might be on tap. Mike Smith has had a great run during the past week and has a three-game win streak going, but approach with caution next week given the light schedule and poorly rated matchups.
Something has to give sooner rather than later for the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings. As you can see, the offenses are first and second for shots on goal per game during the past three weeks. What you can't see in the chart is that the Bruins are 27th and the Red Wings are 29th for goals scored this season. The obvious next statistic is that the Bruins are 28th and the Red Wings are 30th for shooting percentage. Currently less than 7 percent of shots are going in for both teams. Both teams finished last season above 9 percent.
When the ships begin to naturally right themselves, there will be fantasy fallout as some players finally start tickling the twine. For the Bruins, Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg have combined for 61 shots with only one goal between them. Joe Corvo has fired 24 shots to absolutely no avail this season. Brad Marchand scored on 14 percent of his shots last season and is scoring on barely 7 percent this campaign. On the Red Wings, Henrik Zetterberg has 48 shots with two goals. He usually trends near 7 percent shooting percentage but is closer to 4 percent so far. Pavel Datsyuk scored 16 percent of the time last season but is down at 5 percent at the moment. Danny Cleary has just one goal (scored Thursday night) on 31 shots. That's a lowly 3 percent shooting mark for a player who finished at 14 percent last season.
Best Bets: Your first stop this week on offense should be the Chicago Blackhawks. With four games and a solid Forecaster rating, Patrick Kane ($7.9M), Jonathan Toews ($8.9M), Patrick Sharp ($7.9M) and Marian Hossa ($7.9M) will be some of the best purchases this week. The Vancouver Canucks, although with one fewer game, share the best offensive rating for the week on the Forecaster with the Blackhawks, keeping the Sedin twins a top option as well. A cheaper option for the week would be Jason Arnott ($6.1M). The St. Louis Blues have one of the better offensive weeks ahead, and Arnott has eight points in 11 games.
Weekly Bargains: Considering the Hawks' solid rating and the fact that he has four points in the past three games, Nick Leddy is a steal on defense at $5.2 million. Currently leading all Blackhawks blueliners with eight points, Leddy will save you a few bucks somewhere else this week, and you might just end up keeping him going forward. ... It might sound like a crazy move at first, but betting on the Minnesota Wild to continue to roll the hot hand could pay off in spades. Josh Harding at $9.4 million is almost $5 million cheaper than your highest-paid goaltenders, except he has been the best goaltender during the past week. The Wild have one of the better defensive Forecaster ratings for the week, and Harding has started and won three games in a row.
Rentals: The Los Angeles Kings have the best defensive rating on the Forecaster, and Jonathan Quick has stolen the show once already for a full week this season. At $12.7 million he isn't the most expensive goaltending option, either. ... The same goes for Tomas Vokoun if you want to spend big in net. Vokoun and the Washington Capitals are right behind Quick and the Kings for the defensive Forecaster rating, although Vokoun costs a whole $1 million more at $13.7 million.
My roster for next week:
Thomas Vokoun, G ($13.7M)
Jonathan Quick, G ($12.7)
Nick Leddy, D ($5.2)
Erik Karlsson, D ($6.4M / $7.1M on market)
Dion Phaneuf, D ($6.9M / $7.1M on market)
Corey Potter, D ($5.4M)
Daniel Sedin, F ($9.0M / $9.2M on market)
Patrick Kane, F ($7.9M)
Sidney Crosby, F ($8.8M) -- I'm trying to stay ahead of market increase.
Phil Kessel, F ($7.7M / $8.4 on market)
Henrik Sedin, F ($8.9M / $9.3 on market)
Jason Spezza, F ($7.3M / $8.1 on market)
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.