Losing its top three defensemen -- Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik -- in the span of three weeks, the club has had to make do with a hodgepodge of young bodies on the blue line. And they've managed just fine, thank you very much. Despite using a corps of D-men with an average age under 23 years, coach Dan Bylsma continues to rack up the victories in Pittsburgh. The Penguins have lost once, 3-2 to the Boston Bruins, in their past 11 games.
While enduring fantasy favorites Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and the head coach himself are to be acknowledged for such an accomplishment, the less-flashy types and largely unknown youngsters also deserve a fair share of the credit. Matt Niskanen, for instance. The current elder statesman on the back end, at 27 years of age, Niskanen has adequately held down the fort at even strength and on a top power-play unit that is missing one of the game's best in Letang. While Niskanen hasn't scored lately, the points will come, especially if he continues to skate nearly 30 minutes per game. If you have him on your fantasy roster (owned in 97 percent of ESPN.com leagues), just hold tight. Even if Letang returns shortly after the Christmas break, as hoped, Martin isn't due back from a broken foot until mid to late January.
Then there are the young lads. Of them all, rookie Olli Maatta -- whose proper name shouted aloud serves as celebratory goal-scoring exclamation all on its own ("Ollliii Maaaaattaaa, HOW did that go in!!!") -- is worth solemn consideration in deeper and keeper leagues. Those paying closest attention claim Maatta is comporting himself like a veteran, despite playing only 36 career NHL games. In Wednesday's 4-3 victory over the New York Rangers, Maatta registered an assist and four shots (and was a plus-1) in over 28 minutes of ice time while also serving on the club's secondary power-play unit. He's 19 years old. It's not often you get that type of performance from such a young player, never mind a defenseman. As for the other "kids," Brian Dumoulin and Simon Despres show a great deal of promise as career NHL offensive defensemen and solid fantasy assets.
Beyond the blue line, it's not all rosy cheeks and healthy constitutions up front either. Listed as day-to-day, Evgeni Malkin (lower-body injury) is the most missed. But while the Penguins are winning, there's no rush in returning the superstar forward to action. So Jussi Jokinen (owned in 74 percent of ESPN.com leagues) stands as a significant fantasy force. Centering the second line in place of Malkin and competing on the Pens' top power-play unit, Jokinen is in great shape to extend his point-per-game pace, even with the recently suspended James Neal back in the lineup. In fact, Jokinen will benefit further from playing with Neal on the second line. And what's not to love about Jokinen's multipositional (LW/C/RW) eligibility?
Sergei Gonchar, D, Dallas Stars (owned in 49 percent of ESPN.com leagues): With many a season of evidence at hand, it's achingly clear that Gonchar requires a good, long while to warm up with a new set of teammates. Like, two months minimum. Case in point: After contributing little to nothing through October and November, the 39-year-old perennial power-play presence has eight helpers in his last seven games with the Stars, including a four-assist night last weekend versus the Winnipeg Jets. We're all aware what this guy is capable of when comfortable (877 career NHL points, including playoffs), so grab him while he's still easily grabbable.
Mark Scheifele, C/RW, Winnipeg Jets (owned in 2 percent of ESPN.com leagues): It was never a question of if Scheifele would transpose his obvious talent and skill on display in the junior ranks to the highest level, but when. Well, how about now? The former OHL standout (Barrie Colts) and seventh overall draft pick (2011) has 10 points in his past 12 games, including five goals. Playing on a forward line and No. 1 power-play unit with a healthy Evander Kane, there's no pending dry spell in sight. This 20-year-old seems to have found his stride in the NHL; it won't take long for him to find fans in the fantasy world as well.
David Booth, RW, Vancouver Canucks (owned in 2 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Those extracurricular skating lessons appear to be paying off. Finally, after working with a private coach, Booth seems to be fitting in to the swing of things with the Canucks. Skating on a third line with Brad Richardson and Zack Kassian, Booth has two goals and an assist in his last three games (and is plus-3, to boot). Perhaps more importantly, coach John Tortorella is no longer simmering with disgust in his view of the 29-year-old. If Booth continues to improve, he could be a top-six forward and power-play regular in Vancouver before too long. Seriously, don't rule it out.
Derek Roy, C, St. Louis Blues (owned in 31 percent of ESPN.com leagues): While Roy has been a legitimate "trending up" candidate for some time, he's still owned in fewer than a third of ESPN.com leagues. That cohort should be larger. Twelve of Roy's 24 points accrued in 33 games have counted with the man advantage. Skating with Chris Stewart and (often) Brenden Morrow, Roy is in a great spot with the Blues.
Peter Holland, C, Toronto Maple Leafs (owned in 2 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Just as he was starting to make a real positive impression, Holland will once again be relegated to a minor role up front for the Maple Leafs as Tyler Bozak is due back by the end of the month. Too bad, as the young center was just starting to discover his groove in Toronto (averaging a point per game in his last six contests). The Leafs have five games on the schedule between now and Dec. 29, including Thursday's tilt with the Phoenix Coyotes.
Sven Baertschi, LW, Calgary Flames (owned in 21 percent of ESPN.com leagues): He could be stuck in the AHL a while. With cheerleader Jay Feaster out the door as general manager, Baertschi must now convince coach Bob Hartley and acting head honcho Brian Burke (plus whoever Burke hires to sport the GM's cap full time) that he merits promotion. Both Hartley and Burke seem extremely underwhelmed with the 21-year-old Swiss winger. It looks to be an uphill climb.
Loui Eriksson, LW/RW, Boston Bruins (owned in 34 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Still experiencing symptoms, Eriksson is nowhere near returning from a concussion. The Atlantic-leading Bruins can afford to take their time with the winger's recovery. If you can't spare an IR spot, cut him loose.
Michael Raffl, LW, Philadelphia Flyers (owned in 2 percent of ESPN.com leagues): This being Raffl's second appearance of the season in this space proves the 25-year-old Austrian is willing to fight hard for significant minutes and a prominent scoring role. On a Flyers' top line with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek, Raffl has amassed six points (and is a plus-4) in his last five games. As long as Vincent Lecavalier is sidelined with back spasms, Raffl should remain entrenched alongside Giroux and Voracek, if not after as well.
Tomas Jurco, RW, Detroit Red Wings (owned in fewer than 1 percent of ESPN.com leagues): With a gaggle of full-time and part-time top-six forwards in the infirmary -- including Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Gustav Nyquist, Justin Abdelkader and Stephen Weiss -- Jurco looks to keep a temporary grip on his top-line role with Pavel Datsyuk and Daniel Alfredsson. This is an exciting, skilled young player with a bright future in the NHL. However impermanent the current posting may be, Jurco will fill a significant fantasy role for seasons to come. Keeper league owners, take note.
Dylan Olsen, D, Florida Panthers (owned in 4 percent of ESPN.com leagues): On a tear of late, Olsen has three goals and four helpers in his last seven games. This flurry of scoring activity is out of character for the physically imposing 22-year-old, so cut bait once it dries up. As a bonus, Olson leads all Florida skaters (tied with forward Nick Bjugstad) in plus/minus (plus-3). Hey, better than minus-8 (see: Marcel Goc).