When it comes to projecting line combinations and defensive pairings for fantasy play, there's no stranger stretch during the NHL regular season than right now. This brief post-Olympics/pre-trade deadline period is, by a country mile, the most transitional and wobbly of all.
While some fantasy standouts are returning from representing their country much worse for wear (see: John Tavares), others are playing a small handful of contests with their current squads before being shipped off elsewhere (see: Thomas Vanek, probably). Playoff will-nots like the Buffalo Sabres and Calgary Flames could look radically different by this time next week. Until the wheeling-and-dealing dust settles the afternoon of March 5, we're stuck trying to manage more than a few wild variables.
That being said, there are still plenty of characters with budding or shrinking fantasy value to discuss ahead of the trade deadline. For instance, the Nashville Predators appear to be, finally, getting their No. 1 goaltender back. After taking five months off to recover from a nasty E. coli infection stemming from last spring's hip surgery, Pekka Rinne is AHL-bound for a rehab assignment. If all goes well, the two-time Vezina finalist should be back between the pipes for the Preds within the next week or two.
"So far I feel really comfortable," Rinne told reporters this week. "I'm happy how things have gone in practice and how things have gone so far. I think I'm actually a little bit surprised it's been going so well. But like I said, it's still a process but for sure I feel like I'm really close to game shape and now it's just a final couple of games before I jump on the ice with the Nashville team."
Sounds promising. Those who have held onto Rinne all this time -- in an IR slot if your league allows it, or by burning a bench spot if not -- allow yourself a moment of delight. Others should check on his availability; as of this story's posting date, the 31-year-old was only spoken for in around 75 percent of ESPN.com leagues.
On the flip side, Rinne's return means Carter Hutton won't likely serve as Nashville's regular starter much longer. In fact, Hutton could be (perhaps undeservedly) sent to AHL Milwaukee, since he's on a two-way deal and third-stringer Devan Dubnyk is not. But first, Rinne has to prove he's in competitive form. Five points out of a wild-card spot with a healthy handful of Western Conference teams in between, the Predators have a steep climb ahead if they want to contend for a playoff spot. Steep, not insurmountable. As long as all isn't lost, they'll want their elite netminder on nightly active duty.
P.A. Parenteau, RW, Colorado Avalanche (owned in 53 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Playing on the Avalanche's top line with Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly looks good on the 30-year-old winger. With veteran forward Alex Tanguay out for the season after undergoing hip surgery, that's where Parenteau should remain, as long as he isn't traded. Before Tanguay was ruled out, there was chatter to that effect.
Johan Franzen, RW/C, Detroit Red Wings (owned in 86 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Considering Henrik Zetterberg (back surgery) is out for the rest of the regular season, the Red Wings will rely even more heavily on Franzen. The 34-year-old vet got off to a solid post-Olympics start, collecting two assists in Wednesday's 2-1 overtime victory over the Montreal Canadiens. Playing on a line with Pavel Datsyuk certainly adds to Franzen's fantasy shine. And, after missing the better part of 11 weeks, we're to believe Detroit's dear "Mule" is finally concussion symptom-free.
Mikhail Grabovski, C, Washington Capitals (owned in 41 percent of ESPN.com leagues): You won't hear Grabovski complain much about the elongated Olympic break. Without the pressure of representing his home country, the Belarusian was able to use the three weeks off to recuperate from a bothersome ankle injury. Now he's good to go, and pegged, again, to center the Capitals' second scoring line. All is swell.
Tom Gilbert, D, Florida Panthers (owned in 6 percent of ESPN.com leagues): He's been decent with the Panthers to date so, by extension, should be better with another, more potent, squad. And by the sounds of it, Gilbert is a leading candidate to be dealt to a contending club seeking a puck-moving defenseman. Fantasy owners short on healthy blueliners might give the often-underachieving 31-year-old a whirl.
Mikael Granlund, LW/C, Minnesota Wild (owned in 42 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Even with the pending return of fellow center Mikko Koivu, Granlund has been too good as of late to ignore. Never mind his solid pre-Sochi production of eight points in seven games for the Wild, the just-turned 22-year-old absolutely lit it up at the Games, notching seven points and earning Olympic All-Star status as a member of Team Finland. Don't be surprised if coach Mike Yeo keeps his top trio of Zach Parise/Granlund/Jason Pominville intact, while slotting Koivu in on the second line with Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter. At worst, Granlund centers a young and dangerous second scoring unit. Either way, we anticipate good numbers from the NHL sophomore through March and early April.
Olli Maatta, D, Pittsburgh Penguins (owned in 56 percent of ESPN.com leagues): As if the 19-year-old rookie wasn't already shouldering an inordinate share of the load, Kris Letang (stroke) and Paul Martin (broken hand) are reportedly out for most, if not all, of the duration of the regular season. This means that the Penguins will ask for even more offensive support from Maatta. The young Finn could quickly add to his 23 points accumulated to date, and look for Maatta to see more minutes with the man advantage, as well.
Ryan Kesler, C/RW, Vancouver Canucks (owned in 100 percent of ESPN.com leagues): To be honest, the potentially serious hand injury is of greater concern to us than the reported trade request. There's word, via Rogers Sportsnet, that Kesler was spotted leaving the rink Wednesday with some cast/bandage combo on his left hand. The club-issued "day-to-day" status isn't sitting well; we want a genuine timeline. Otherwise, it's safer to assume Kesler's hurting.
Kyle Okposo, RW, New York Islanders (owned in 100 percent of ESPN.com leagues): What a difference three weeks can make. With Tavares lost to a season-ending knee injury and Vanek (99 percent chance) headed elsewhere before March 5, Okposo appears to be all that's left of the Islanders' dangerous top forward line. There's no way playing with center Frans Nielsen (once healthy) and whoever else will extend Okposo's point-per-game output. Lower your fantasy expectations for Okposo through the final six weeks, or try to capitalize on his current numbers in your league's trade market.
Cam Atkinson, RW, Columbus Blue Jackets (owned in 15 percent of ESPN.com leagues): The pending return of Marian Gaborik from a broken collarbone will likely result in Atkinson's demotion out of the top six. Eventually. After missing over two months, Gaborik is pegged to skate on the fourth line in his first game back. However, if all goes well, the 32-year-old sniper won't be stuck with that assignment long.
Darcy Kuemper, G, Minnesota Wild (owned in 72 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Maybe Wild GM Chuck Fletcher brokers a pre-deadline trade for Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres. Maybe the club settles for Florida Panthers vet Tim Thomas instead. Perhaps Niklas Backstrom finally pulls his ailing self together (don't hold your breath). We can't rule out Josh Harding for the rest of the season, either. However you slice the netminding pie in Minny, there's little guarantee Kuemper finishes the 2013-14 campaign as the club's No. 1. As his fantasy owner, consider yourself warned.
Peter Budaj, G, Montreal Canadiens (owned in 7 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Just in case the lower-body injury (leg) badgering Olympic star Carey Price turns out to be a bigger bother than anticipated, keep Budaj on your fantasy radar. Otherwise -- if Price is really and truly going to miss only two games -- the Canadiens backup may not be worth picking up for more than a spot start, here and there. We should get a better sense of Price's status in the next day or two.
Ales Hemsky, RW, Edmonton Oilers (owned in 61 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Showcasing their outwardly perpetual trade asset in the finest light, the Oilers are opting to skate Hemsky on a line with Jordan Eberle and Sam Gagner. Maybe the 30-year-old makes a fair bit of hay before finding a new NHL home, or not, before the trade deadline. With 475 career regular-season points, it isn't like Hemsky is incapable of putting up good numbers.
David Clarkson, RW, Toronto Maple Leafs (owned in 33 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Listen, we're as wary as the next fantasy owner when it comes to taking a chance on this particular season-long disappointment. No one needs to tell Clarkson he's had a lousy turn with the Maple Leafs, he's well aware. However, if the former impact forward is ever going to make something of the 2013-14 campaign, this occasion feels ripe. Instead of frolicking in the southern sunshine like other NHLers during the Olympic break, Clarkson worked his caboose off with Leafs trainers and coaches in Toronto. Now he's getting the opportunity to redeem himself by competing on the Leafs' second scoring line with Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul. Those ingredients have the potential to blend together nicely. We'll see.
J.T. Miller, C, New York Rangers (owned in less than 1 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Fixed to fill in for the injured Mats Zuccarello (out three to four weeks with a fractured hand), Miller has the potential to produce alongside new linemates Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot. The Zuccarello/Brassard/Pouliot trio combined for 21 points in six games leading into the Olympic break, so maybe some of that scoring magic will rub off on the former first-round draft pick (2011). Those in the deepest of leagues may want to give Miller a gander.
Injury and other notes
Whether or not Martin St. Louis is still kicking about after the trade deadline, star forward Steven Stamkos is due back for the Tampa Bay Lightning March 6 ... After missing most of January with a broken hand, forward Logan Couture is expected to return for the San Jose Sharks on Thursday. Couture is slated to skate with Martin Havlat and Patrick Marleau ... Evander Kane (hand infection) is set to re-join the Winnipeg Jets' lineup on Thursday.