He's back. After missing nearly half a season to a busted collarbone, Connor McDavid is expected to return the lineup for the Edmonton Oilers Tuesday. We can't remember another occasion where a team so far removed from the playoff mix was so pumped about a returning player. But we're all excited. He's a special competitor; one who makes the game better, regardless of which team you support.
Of course, there are the obligatory apprehensive murmurings. There's talk of rust. It's worth remembering that it did take a couple of warm-up matches off the top of 2015-16 for McDavid to get into the swing. Only thereafter did he maintain better than a point-per-game pace (before suffering the nasty injury on Nov. 3). So a quiet contest or two to help re-start the competitive engine may be in the cards. No biggie. There's also concern the collarbone injury could be in his head. But McDavid insists that isn't an issue, since he has full trust in the Oilers' medical staff.
"The doctors wouldn't let me play if I wasn't 100%," he told the Edmonton Sun earlier this week. "You have to keep that in the back of your mind. You know that you've done everything possible to come back and be 100% healthy again. I have nothing but faith in the doctors. They were telling me when it's safe to play and it's safe to play."
Plus, Oilers coach Todd McLellan doesn't intend to coddle his star, even for a moment.
"Open the door and let him go," McLellan said, outlying his plan for Tuesday's tilt with the Blue Jackets. "The way he skated [Monday], I'm not as worried about Connor as the other 19."
Okay, now that we know it's all systems a-go, let's look at the bigger picture. As with the return of any high-profile performer, the fantasy ramifications tumble about well beyond McDavid himself. Straight off, he's pegged to skate on a line with Jordan Eberle and Benoit Pouliot. The McDavid/Eberle combo is particularly intriguing, as the pair has yet to compete together (the 25-year-old winger missed the first month of the season with his own injury). If everyone gels well, Eberle is projected to experience a nice bump in production. And Pouliot -- owned in less than one percent of ESPN.com leagues -- is also be worth consideration in deeper leagues.
Then there's Nail Yakupov. No one benefited more from playing with McDavid, pre-broken collarbone, than the 2012 top draft selection. If McLellan opts to shuffle his crew of top-six forwards around -- perhaps inspired by an injury, or a trade sending Teddy Purcell, for example, elsewhere -- we could see the star center and underachieving winger reunited. Owned in only 21 percent of ESPN.com leagues, Yakupov collected nine points in 10 games alongside McDavid earlier this season. He has only 14 in 28 games on the year, suffering his own ankle injury in late November. It will be interesting to watch how the Oilers' coach manages his personnel, in the coming days and weeks.
Forwards rising and falling
Nikolaj Ehlers, LW, Winnipeg Jets (up 24 spots to No. 210): Skating on a top line and power play with Blake Wheeler, Ehlers has six goals and two assists in seven games, including a hat-trick versus the Coyotes just before the break. If he sticks in that spot, the versatile winger could maintain a dangerous pace going forward.
Cam Atkinson, RW, Columbus Blue Jackets (up 47 spots to No. 241): The departure of center Ryan Johansen certainly hasn't hurt Atkinson. Enjoying excellent chemistry with Boone Jenner and Brandon Dubinsky, the diminutive winger exploded for four goals and an assist in two games against Montreal before the break. Such a steady top-six role should help Atkinson build on what has already been a promising season.
Ryan Callahan, RW, Tampa Bay Lightning (off): The odd-man out of Tampa's top-six, Callahan has collected all of one assist since Dec. 28. We're more excited about what young Vladislav Namestnikov (owned in 71 percent of ESPN.com leagues) is able to accomplish, playing on a forward line with Steven Stamkos.
Jordan Staal, C, Carolina Hurricanes (up 13 spots to No. 240): A lot is going well for the Hurricanes these days, with no small thanks to Staal's productive efforts up front. On a line with Joakim Nordstrom and Andrej Nestrasil, he has four goals and eight assists in 11 matches. For more on what the Hurricanes are doing right at the moment, check out this week's Forecaster.
Brandon Sutter, C, Vancouver Canucks (up 60 spots to No. 245): Finally healthy himself (abdominal injury), Sutter played his first game since Nov. 10 just before the break, filling in for Henrik Sedin on the Canucks' top line. He scored a goal -- assisted by Daniel Sedin -- on three shots. Good enough start.
Defensemen rising and falling
Danny DeKeyser, D, Detroit Red Wings (debuts at No. 250): DeKeyser -- not Mike Green -- is filling in for the injured Niklas Kronwall on the Red Wings' No. 1 power play. With two goals and an assist in his past trio of contests, the 25-year-old defenseman is also enjoying top-pair minutes.
Seth Jones, D, Columbus Blue Jackets (up five spots to No. 182): Taking over as top dog on Columbus' blue line, Jones is quickly establishing himself as deserving of the gig, with six assists in his past seven contests (including a couple with the extra skater), while playing heavy minutes.
Goaltenders rising and falling
Joonas Korpisalo, G, Columbus Blue Jackets (debuts at No. 249): While we usually shy away from goalies on 'rebuilding' squads, Korpisalo has been super-duper in relief of both No. 1 Sergei Bobrovsky (groin) and No. 2 Curtis McElhinney (ankle). The 21-year-old has secured four wins in his past six starts, all the while allowing a total of only 10 goals.
Eddie Lack, G, Carolina Hurricanes (down five spots to No. 252): The pending return of Cam Ward (concussion) suggests Lacks' days as the temporary No. 1 are numbered. Although he enjoyed his moments, Lack was also inconsistent for the Hurricanes through five straight starts.
Keep an eye on Andre Burakovsky, who's skating regularly with center Evgeny Kuznetsov in Washington. Owned in only two percent of ESPN.com leagues, the young forward has three goals and six assists in six contests. This rhythm keeps up, and the Burakovsky won't be outside the top 250 for long.
Veteran Vincent Lecavalier continues to thrive with his new club, scoring four goals and an assist in seven recent games with the Los Angeles Kings. We're not sure how long this inspired output will last, but he may be worth serving as a injury fill-in on your own roster, if only temporarily.
Updated top 250 rankings
Here are the updated rest-of-season, top 250 rankings of forwards, defensemen and goalies, including position ranks.
Note: The top 250 players are ranked for their expected performance in ESPN standard leagues from this point on, not on the statistics that have already been accrued. ESPN standard stats include goals, assists, power-play points, shots on goal, plus/minus, penalty minutes and average time on ice for skaters, and wins, goals-against average and save percentage for goalies.