Ready for a return
Why it's smart to target injured players that will return after the Olympics
With so little NHL hockey left before the Olympic break, we're already looking ahead to when professional play resumes on this side of the pond in late February. Whether you're dominating your league, or looking to move up in the standings, the addition of a soon-to-be-healed prominent performer could go a long way in helping gain (or hold) significant ground.
And while the likes of Steven Stamkos and Logan Couture are spoken for across the ESPN fantasy spectrum, there is a handful of available figures due off injured reserve before the NHL gets back to its own business.
The captain of the Minnesota Wild is one such character. With and without Zach Parise by his side, Mikko Koivu collected 35 point in 44 games before suffering a fractured ankle in early January. One round of surgery and a projected four-week recovery period later, and Koivu still isn't a slam-dunk to participate for Team Finland at the upcoming Olympic Games. However, his return is nearly guaranteed for Feb. 27, the Wild's first contest after the break. Obtainable in 20 percent of ESPN.com leagues, Koivu might also be had for cheap via trade with an owner wary of a setback. Could be worth a shot, anyway.
You may also want to check on the availability of Marian Gaborik, who we touched on in this space last week. Owned in 49 percent of ESPN.com leagues, the Slovakian sniper will not play for his national squad in Sochi, though a comeback for the Columbus Blue Jackets following the Olympics is nearly a sure thing.
Where, exactly, he slides in among the currently high-flying corps of Jackets forwards has yet to be determined, but you can likely bank on a spot on the top power-play unit (in place of Artem Anisimov is our guess). Also, the UFA-to-be could be joining another contender, if such a move suits Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen. Frankly, we're not that concerned with the "where;" Gaborik has 686 points in 787 career regular-season games with three different clubs. Just pick him up.
Then there's sophomore Alex Galchenyuk of the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs' offense hasn't been the same since losing their teen forward to a broken hand in early January. Due back after the Olympic break, Galchenyuk should be in optimum shape to finish the season strong, particularly if he's reunited, as we hope, with linemate Brendan Gallagher. Remember, the young lad burst out the gates in October with seven points in his first four games. And Galchenyuk is available in nearly 65 percent of ESPN.com leagues. Get him before his next hot streak.
Raphael Diaz, D, Vancouver Canucks (owned in three percent of ESPN.com leagues): Shrugging off the oppressive cloak of irrelevance recently worn with the Canadiens, Diaz is already benefiting from his cross-country trade to the Canucks. Filling a puck-moving void on Vancouver's back end, Diaz made his debut by registering four shots, scoring a goal, and amassing over 25 minutes of ice time. Plus, he anchored the squad's top power-play unit (with Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, Ryan Kesler and Alex Edler). Nice start. If you need to plug a hole on defense, the easy addition of Diaz could pay out significant fantasy dividends.
Matt Moulson, LW, Buffalo Sabres (owned in 87 percent of ESPN.com leagues): A pending UFA and top candidate to move before this season's trade deadline, Moulson can only benefit from a change of scenery. With "more than a dozen teams" interested in adding the 30-year-old winger -- Chris Botta's latest claim -- anywhere other than Buffalo is better, from a fantasy point of view.
Mika Zibanejad, C/RW, Ottawa Senators (owned in 22 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Since re-joining the Sens' second line with Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek, Zibanejad has four points in six games, a nice turnaround after a mostly dismal January. And the line, as a whole, has shown promise beyond the numbers on the scoresheet. Still only 20 years old, Zibanejad is destined to enjoy a long and productive career in the NHL. For those in keeper/dynasty leagues, it may be wise to lock him in now.
David Legwand, C, Nashville Predators (owned in 61 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Maybe it's because the Predators play a defensive-minded brand of hockey. Or perhaps it's because Nashville doesn't receive the same exposure as a more traditional hockey market. Whatever the reason, Legwand remains one of the most underrated fantasy assets around. Leading the Preds with 39 points in 57 games, the 33-year-old veteran isn't the flashiest commodities -- particularly when playing with Craig Smith and Gabriel Bourque -- but he'll often get the job done. And now that he's rumored to, maybe, join a contending squad in a pre-deadline trade, we're even more enthusiastic about what Legwand can accomplish in March and April.
Dustin Brown, LW, Los Angeles Kings (owned in 65 percent of ESPN.com leagues): From a goal-scoring perspective, the Kings forward trio of Brown, Justin Williams and Mike Richards just isn't getting it done. And with only a single point, while sporting a minus-9, in his past 13 games, the Kings' captain has been the least productive of the three (only 16 points on the season). No wonder Kings GM Dean Lombardi is actively shopping for a prospective top-six forward (Sam Gagner of the Oilers?) via the trade market.
Darcy Kuemper, G, Minnesota Wild (owned in 75 percent of ESPN.com leagues): You get the sense that the 23-year-old rookie's tenure as Minnesota's transitory No. 1 is nearing an end. Either Josh Harding will be healthy enough to return to regular action after the Olympic break, or the playoff-contending Wild will look to the trade market for an experienced veteran (Ryan Miller, perhaps?). Plus, a struggling Niklas Backstrom -- who needs a three-week break like nobody's business -- is still skulking about. However it shakes out, Kuemper is likely to be relegated to the No. 2 role, at best.
Braden Holtby, G, Washington Capitals (owned in 67 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Like Kuemper in Minnesota, Holtby also appears to have a fairly shaky hold on the regular starter's gig in Washington. An even feebler grip, in fact. Supplanted by Michal Neuvirth in three straight games (it'll be four after Thursday night's clash), Holtby could fall further down the Caps' goaltending depth chart if George McPhee trades for a more reliable netminder presence, as is the general manager's rumored desire. If so, the former playoff darling of 2011-12 may not see much action in the final two months of the regular season.
Nathan Gerbe, LW, Carolina Hurricanes (owned in 11 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Recent shuffling with the Hurricanes' power play has included coach Kirk Muller throwing Gerbe and Jiri Tlusty on a unit with Eric Staal and Alexander Semin. If this combo sticks, it could mean better numbers for the diminutive winger. Gerbe has 26 points in 55 games on the season.
Damien Brunner, RW, New Jersey Devils (owned in eight percent of ESPN.com leagues): Looking to stir things up and inspire more pucks in the opposition's net, Devils head coach Pete DeBoer is splitting up top linemates Jaromir Jagr and Travis Zajac. Could be interesting. As it stands ahead of Friday's contest with the Edmonton Oilers, Jagr is fixed to compete with Andrei Loktionov and Dainius Zubrus, while Zajac is due to skate with Brunner and Patrik Elias. However temporary, the second assembly intrigues us most, as a means to get Brunner going again.
Nail Yakupov, RW, Edmonton Oilers (owned 13 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Well, he's worth discussing again, at any rate. Yakupov's owners will probably like to hear that their guy is set to replace Jordan Eberle on the Oilers' top line with Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, at least for Thursday's tilt with the New York Rangers. Keep an eye on how long the experiment lasts. Mind you, playing with David Perron has served Yakupov reasonably well enough otherwise.
Injuries and other notes
Forward Pavel Datsyuk is slated to return to the lineup for the Detroit Red Wings Thursday. The elite forward has missed over a month with a suspected knee injury ... Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara is taking the final two games off before the break to serve as the Slovakian flag-bearer during the Olympic opening ceremonies ... Canucks forward Henrik Sedin is out until after the Olympic break with a nagging rib injury, and won't play for Sweden during that time.