Being named to Team Canada for the upcoming Olympics is what finally did it. We've been complaining a bit in this space about Steven Stamkos being available in some ESPN fantasy leagues. He is one of the top fantasy players on the planet and has been -- for several weeks now -- trending toward the sooner rather than later in his return from a broken leg. He is finally back to 100 percent ownership this week after he was named to the Canadian squad.
It's a reminder to check continually on the availability of injured players in your league relative to their potential return. You don't want to be too early to pick them up again, but you don't want to wait too long either. Remember that with the Olympic break from the NHL approaching on Feb. 9, players will have an extra 16 days to recover from injuries. That means someone like Marian Gaborik will have 16 free days to recover from his collarbone injury without missing any time for your fantasy team. That's a pretty good argument for picking him up in the 64 percent of leagues where he is available as the Olympic break approaches. You get Gaborik without having to waste a roster or even an IR spot on him in your league.
Here are some other injured players, along with insight on how the fantasy world should be treating them:
Logan Couture, F, San Jose Sharks: Couture broke his hand and will miss three to four weeks. That means a late January or early February return. He is too good to be dropped in any league and should remain at 100 percent ownership, even if you have to burn a bench spot on him. Unless you play in an eight-team fantasy league, the replacement player can't match Couture's production for the remainder of the season, even with a 10-game head start.
Johan Franzen, F, Detroit Red Wings: Franzen is skating and could return from a concussion soon. Even if it's a few extra days, he should be owned universally, as his return appears imminent. He is still available in 13 percent of ESPN leagues.
Mikko Koivu, F, Minnesota Wild: Koivu should return from an ankle surgery just in time for the Olympic break. His ownership has dropped significantly, considering what he has done for fantasy owners this season. He is 58th among all forwards on the ESPN Player Rater, better than Max Pacioretty, Jeff Carter, Eric Staal and Taylor Hall. If you see him available, eating 10 games with him on your bench or IR is worth a pickup.
Cody Hodgson, F, Buffalo Sabres: His numbers are very bad, but to be fair to Hodgson, most of the damage was done before interim coach Ted Nolan got the team under control defensively. The Sabres have been much better during the past month, and Hodgson has missed most of it with an injured finger. Hodgson is the team's most skilled offensive player and, upon his return, should be on the top line with Matt Moulson. Give him a chance if you see that you are part of the 72 percent of ESPN leagues where he was dropped. Hodgson is on track for a return in the next week or so.
Looking for offense
Tampa Bay Lightning: It surfaces so rarely during the NHL season that you can't help being a little excited by the prospect of realizing that the Bolts have five games next week before your leaguemates do. With games on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, head-to-head league fantasy owners should definitely invest in some Lightning for the next scoring period, but even rotisserie owners with weekly lineup deadlines could likely use a few extra games to catch up to their games played pace. We can all find a use for some of the Lightning players this coming week, especially if you own a lot of Pittsburgh Penguins on your team (more on that in a moment).
First and foremost, he's been discussed in fantasy columns here on ESPN.com all week, but here is your chance to actually go out and get Ondrej Palat for the coming week. He's playing with an inspired Martin St. Louis and Tyler Johnson on the Bolts' top line and is now riding an eight-game point streak with 10 points in that span. He has some familiarity with Johnson from the AHL, where they were current Lightning coach Jon Cooper's go-to offensive weapons. And, of course, St. Louis' vision on the ice fits with any combination of players. Palat isn't staying with the Bolts' top players on the power play, but he has been equally as good there with Alex Killorn and rookie sniper Nikita Kucherov.
If Palat's availability in more than 70 percent of ESPN leagues makes it too easy for you, Teddy Purcell was dropped in many leagues when it became clear that the Lightning had just one line of offense earlier this season. Well, now that everyone is getting in the game with Stamkos out, Purcell has eight assists in his past eight games on the second line with Killorn and Valtteri Filppula. Purcell and Filppula also join forces with St. Louis and Johnson to form the Bolts' top power-play unit. Purcell is being reacquired quickly in most leagues, but is still available in 30 percent of leagues.
And, if we are being honest, five games on the schedule is such a huge advantage to weekly leagues that Johnson, Killorn and Kucherov are all probably useful in even medium-sized fantasy leagues. After all, none of the five opponents for the Lightning next week are even in the top 10 for team save percentage in the NHL.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Just who should you replace in your weekly lineup with all these extra Lightning players? Your Penguins. Maybe even all of them. Even Kucherov's 0.43 points per game might be better in your lineup for five games than Crosby's 1.44 points per game for just a single contest. That's right, the Penguins have only one game next week. A Wednesday tilt with the Washington Capitals is the only time you will see your precious Penguins take the ice. Because it's against the goaltending wasteland that is the Capitals, it might still be fair to leave Crosby or Evgeni Malkin in your lineup if you don't see a reasonable alternative, but it doesn't bode well for your scores this week if you've been leaning on Pens this season.
Washington Capitals: While the Caps aren't the place to look for goaltending help right now, they are a great place to find some offense for next week. Line changes haven't impacted the scoring pace for the top forwards and have helped bring a few new faces into the fantasy-relevant fold. First and foremost is Eric Fehr. A favorite in this space for his work with little ice time and minimalist roles on the depth chart, Fehr must feel like a dive-bar-guitarist-turned-arena-rock-star in his current assignment alongside Alex Ovechkin. Fehr scored twice in a win against the Lightning on Thursday and, sure enough, Ovechkin was on the ice for both, picking up an assist on the first one. Fehr, Ovechkin and Mikhail Grabovski combine to form a very good combination on paper because it gives the Capitals' two underrated forwards a chance to play with a superstar, while Nicklas Backstrom does his best to manage a secondary attack with Troy Brouwer and Brooks Laich.
Fehr is available in 99 percent of ESPN leagues and is a great target for the Caps' four-game schedule next week. If you are deciding on which player to move out of your lineup to make room for Fehr, here is some unconventional wisdom: Consider Marcus Johansson. Yes, he has four points in the past three games and still has a role on the top power-play unit. But the new line arrangements looked good against the Bolts, and leave Johansson on the third line. Continued success by Grabovski and Fehr with Ovechkin could likely lead to one of them replacing Johansson on the power play too. If Johansson loses his power-play job, he has no purpose for fantasy hockey. Six of his seven goals and 16 of his 29 points have been on the man advantage. Keep a close eye on his ice time and role going forward.
New York Rangers: Profiled in this Thursday's Line Shifts on ESPN.com, the only line that is really making some noise lately for the Rangers is that of Brad Richards, Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin. Coach Alain Vigneault has decided to spread the love with his offensive forwards among three lines, and this combination has quickly risen to the top as the most consistent. Luckily for fantasy owners, Callahan and Hagelin are available in many leagues. Callahan is available in only 13 percent of leagues, but with good reason. In four games since returning from a knee injury, Callahan has seen his ice time rise to 20 minutes per game and he has three assists with a plus-4 rating. He has combined with the playmaking Richards and speedy Hagelin for four even-strength goals in the past three games. The Rangers have four games next week, including one against a Lightning squad that could be without Ben Bishop, one against a still-struggling Jimmy Howard and one against the mess known as the Capitals' crease.
Looking for defensemen
Johnny Boychuk, D, Boston Bruins: Over the past two weeks, only three defensemen have fired more shots on goal than Boychuk. And yes, his uptick in production coincides exactly with when Dennis Seidenberg was hurt on Dec. 27. Boychuk has taken 23 of his 76 shots in the past seven games, since Seidenberg was hurt. He has four points and is plus-4 in that time frame, and he is playing up to an additional three minutes per game. One might expect Dougie Hamilton or Torey Krug to benefit from the extra minutes eventually, but for now it's Boychuk.
Travis Hamonic and Calvin de Haan, D, New York Islanders: Andrew MacDonald is getting a lot of the attention on the Isles' blue line during this hot streak by the team, and deservedly so. MacDonald has eight points and a plus-6 rating in the past six games. But it's de Haan and Hamonic who are showing better signs of long-term fantasy potential. They have combined for 23 shots on goal in the past six games; for comparison, all other Isles defensemen have combined for 24 (and keep in mind that MacDonald has been getting the most power-play time). De Haan and Hamonic finally found the score sheet in the past two games, with a goal and four assists between them.
Looking for goaltending
Thomas Greiss, G, Phoenix Coyotes: He isn't going to supplant Mike Smith any time soon, but Smith hasn't won a game since Dec. 21 and has been allowing a flurry of goals lately. That contrasts directly with Greiss, who has won his past two games by stopping all 42 shots he has faced; that includes the Dec. 31 game against the Edmonton Oilers in which Greiss relieved Smith after the starter allowed three goals. The Coyotes have four games next week and Greiss deserves some extra work. If you need a long shot, he is your man.
Anders Lindback, G, Tampa Bay Lightning: We are listing Lindback here (the Lightning have five games, after all), but in reality you can choose Eddie Lack of the Vancouver Canucks or Niklas Backstrom of the Minnesota Wild just as easily. Ben Bishop is eligible to return from the injured reserve Tuesday, but that doesn't mean he will. Roberto Luongo and Josh Harding are also out. That gives fantasy owners three solid goaltender gambles to make on the waiver wire. Backstrom should be the first choice, followed by Lindback, then the struggling Lack.
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 rein over your fantasy hockey decisions within a starting budget of $100 million in fantasy money. For more on the game and to sign up, click here.
Schedule: It's a no-brainer what the headline is for this week's schedule: the Tampa Bay Lightning and their five games. Use any and all Lightning you can reasonably fit into your lineup because the extra two games will go a long way. Unfortunately, given the situation with Ben Bishop ($12.4M) on the injured reserve, you will have to look elsewhere for goaltending. Teams with four games include the Calgary Flames, New York Rangers, Phoenix Coyotes, Vancouver Canucks and Washington Capitals. Of those squads, a heating up Henrik Lundqvist ($11.8M) appears to be the only reliable option that might give you the extra game for points. Beware the Detroit Red Wings, who have only two games, and completely avoid the Pittsburgh Penguins, who balance out the universe with the Lightning by having a single game next week.
Hot streaks: Keith Yandle ($7.8M) leads all defensemen in shots on goal during the past 15 days, and the Coyotes have a four-game schedule next week. Who is second in shots? Victor Hedman ($7.5M) of the five-game Lightning and a must-start this week. With forwards, feel free to load up on the Bolts. Martin St. Louis ($8.9M) is the best choice, but Ondrej Palat ($5.8M), Tyler Johnson ($6.0M) and Teddy Purcell ($6.5M) are all solid choices with the five-game schedule.
My roster for next week:
As of Friday, I'm in the 87.4 percentile for the ESPN Hockey Challenge, with 510 points. My personal salary cap is at $116.5M.
Henrik Lundqvist, G, NYR - $11.8M
Ben Bishop, G, TB - $12.4M
Keith Yandle, D, PHO - $7.8M
Ryan Suter, D, MIN - $8.5 ($8.8M on market)
Victor Hedman, D, TB - $7.5M
Matt Carle, D, TB - $6.8M
Martin St. Louis, F, TB - $8.9M
Tyler Johnson, F, TB - $6.0M
Ondrej Palat, F, TB - $5.8M
Teddy Purcell, F, TB - $6.5M
John Tavares, F, NYI - $9.7M ($10.0M on market)
Alex Ovechkin, F, WAS - $9.7M