Line shifts offer fantasy hints

An injury to Tim Thomas has given Jacob Markstrom a great opportunity this season. Robert Mayer/USA TODAY Sports

As you might have noticed, things are a little different around these parts this season. One of the new columns we're debuting is this one, entitled "Line Shifts," because not much makes as big of a difference in the fantasy hockey world as which line combination a coach elects to use on any given night.

This column serves as a forum for discussing players who are beneficiaries or, on the flip side, victims of transition within the makeup of their respective teams, and the projected fantasy fallout. For instance, a demotion to the third line puts a significant dent in Dany Heatley's value as a fantasy asset (the cookie appears to be crumbling, again, in that fashion in Minnesota, as we'll explore in more detail below), or a defenseman of middling value attains an inflated sense of worth once promoted to a plum power-play role. As for goaltenders, a shift in hierarchy, based on merit or health, carries enormous weight.

As any seasoned fantasy manager is well aware, making the appropriate move at the suitable time is what separates the champions from the also-rans. Helping you out in that sense is what we're all about here. We'll also look at a handful of players off to somewhat unexpected hot starts, and assess their potential impact on fantasy rosters.

Trending up

Rich Peverley, RW, Dallas Stars (owned in 0.1 percent of ESPN.com leagues): In an attempt to find the ideal on-ice companion for Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, head coach Lindy Ruff is flirting with the idea of bumping Peverley to the Stars' top line. Actually, Ruff is already beyond the flirtation stage; after skating on the top line in practice, the 31-year-old winger is expected to play with Benn and Seguin against the Winnipeg Jets on Friday. If all goes well -- and admittedly, that's a big if -- Peverley could be in for a huge season. The situation is worth monitoring over the next few days, especially in deeper leagues.

Brayden Schenn, LW, Philadelphia Flyers (owned in 61.9 percent of ESPN.com leagues): With new bench sheriff Craig Berube running the show, Schenn finds himself on the Flyers' No. 2 scoring line with Vincent Lecavalier and Jakub Voracek. And while Lecavalier and Voracek are universally owned, Schenn is not. This trio could put up some excellent numbers this season, as opposing teams focus largely on shutting down the Flyers' top line of Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds and Scott Hartnell.

Frans Nielsen, C, New York Islanders (owned in 7.3 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Competing on a line with Michael Grabner and Josh Bailey -- the Islanders' hottest trio to start the season -- is suiting Nielsen kindly. Seeing significant minutes with the Islanders' power play hasn't hurt the 29-year-old's numbers, either. The "small sample size" siren is blaring, but five points in three games sets the stage for an exciting campaign.

Devin Setoguchi, RW, Winnipeg Jets (owned in 12.4 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Ten days in, we don't get the lack of fantasy love for the former member of the San Jose Sharks and Minnesota Wild. From our perch, the sky's the limit for what the speedy line of Setoguchi, Mark Scheifele and Evander Kane can accomplish in Winnipeg this season. The trio has already combined for eight points in three games, after all. History tells us Setoguchi -- in the final year of his current contract -- can be very dangerous when surrounded by high-end talent. Kane fits that description, and Scheifele -- the No. 7 overall pick in 2011 -- may fit that description soon enough.

Alex Tanguay, LW, Colorado Avalanche (owned in 16.0 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Elder statesman among a youthful horde, Tanguay is keeping up just fine in his return to the Avalanche. Linemate to Paul Stastny and Gabriel Landeskog, Tanguay is averaging an assist per game, while earning significant minutes with the man advantage. Playing some pretty rousing hockey, the Avs deserve more positive attention this season than we initially anticipated.

Sean Monahan, C, Calgary Flames (owned in 2.9 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Don't be surprised if Monahan plays a more prominent role with the Flames before too long. With three goals and two assists already to his credit, the almost 19-year-old soundly merits the opportunity to play top-six minutes. There's still the danger that Monahan could be sent back to his junior squad before appearing in his 10th NHL game (leaving him on the roster would burn the first year of his entry-level contract), but that's a gamble worth taking from our point of view. Especially for managers in keeper leagues.

Seth Jones, D, Nashville Predators (owned in 37.9 percent of ESPN.com leagues): With Roman Josi nursing a concussion, Jones ascends to the top defensive pairing in Nashville alongside Shea Weber. The 19-year-old also benefits from seeing minutes with the extra skater and, subsequently, earned his first power-play assist versus the Wild this week. Plus he's playing over 25 minutes per game. While Josi's return date remains entirely up in the air, Jones warrants ownership in the majority of leagues.

Jacob Markstrom, G, Florida Panthers (owned in 6.6 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Three games in, the pro hockey comeback for Tim Thomas is already suffering its first hiccup. And while the Panthers insist Thomas' groin tweak is a minor one, we're wary this may be just the start of several physical setbacks for the former Conn Smythe winner. He's no spring chicken, and an entire season off is a lot from which to rebound. He's no stranger to groin issues either. Which brings us to Markstrom, who was Florida's starting goaltender before Thomas entered the fray in training camp. Even on one of the NHL's weakest teams, Markstrom is talented enough to offer benefit in spot play in most leagues.

Josh Harding, G, Minnesota Wild (owned in 6.3 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Like Markstrom, Harding is poised to take over now that his squad's No. 1 -- Niklas Backstrom, in this case -- is dealing with an injury. Similar to the Panthers, the Wild are listing their top netminder as "day-to-day." Maybe Backstrom fully recuperates quickly, and maybe not. We do know that Harding looked sharp when subbing in on Tuesday. If he performs well again Thursday against the Jets, Harding shouldn't remain widely available as a fantasy free agent for long.

Trending down

Jason Spezza, C, Ottawa Senators (owned in 100 percent of ESPN.com leagues): It's not the malady itself, but rather the steps the Senators are taking in hopes of protecting their captain that are of most concern. Tossing around the word "chronic," the Sens are worried that Spezza's groin injury could be a recurring issue. Coach Paul MacLean has gone on record saying he'd rather Spezza be active for 70 contests than "in and out of the lineup for the next 80 games." The alarm bells set off by this adopted strategy, this early in the season, are notable. This is not to suggest that people should dump Spezza from their fantasy roster (please don't do that), only keep your expectations in check. And, perhaps, if or when the center goes on a productive run, market him as a sell-high candidate via trade.

Martin Erat, RW/LW, Washington Capitals (owned in 25.0 percent of ESPN.com leagues): For whatever reason, the former Predator hasn't endeared himself to the coaching staff in Washington. Odd man out among the Capitals' top-six (if not top-nine) forwards, Erat seems poised for a fairly dismal season, despite his résumé as scoring forward. Neil Greenberg of ESPN Insider believes Erat will eventually capture a spot on the Capitals' second line with Mikhail Grabovski and Troy Brouwer (replacing Brooks Laich), but until that move actually shakes out, use the 32-year-old winger sparingly.

Nail Yakupov, RW, Edmonton Oilers (owned in 84.6 percent of ESPN.com leagues): You're much better off with Oilers forward Boyd Gordon on your fantasy roster than Yakupov at the moment, and that's saying something. The former first overall draft pick (2012) simply doesn't fit into Edmonton's top six at present, and that's without Sam Gagner (who has an injured shoulder) in the lineup. While Yakupov will get his chances on the power play, the platform from which he'll have a chance to score at even strength isn't optimal.

Dany Heatley, LW, Minnesota Wild (owned in 26.1 percent of ESPN.com leagues) : It hasn't taken long for the Wild to become, once again, slightly disenchanted with the former 50-goal scorer. Word on the street is that the Minnesota club finds Heatley sluggish and slow to start the season. And, consequently, he's hanging on to his second-line spot by a proverbial thread. Unless Heatley smartens up, and fast, with current linemates Jason Pominville and Mikael Granlund, he's in real danger of demotion. If that happens, he'll struggle to maintain fantasy relevance altogether.

Ray Emery, G, Philadelphia Flyers (owned in 81.2 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Emery is locked in a battle with Steve Mason to start the season; much may be determined with how things go in the next few weeks. Mason put on quite the performance for his new coach, Craig Berube, stopping 33 of 34 shots in a 2-1 win against the Panthers this week. Disadvantage: Emery.

Short-term substitutes

Mike Santorelli, C, Vancouver Canucks (owned in 0.1 percent of ESPN.com leagues): As long as he remains on the top line with Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin, Santorelli is in position to put up some pretty serious numbers with the Canucks (he already has three goals through four games). And coach John Tortorella happens to be really sweet on the 27-year-old at the moment. Just be ready to let go once Alex Burrows is able to return from injury.

Boyd Gordon, C, Edmonton Oilers (owned in 1.5 percent of ESPN.com leagues): The aforementioned Gordon is humming along nicely (three points in three games) as a second-line center between David Perron and Ales Hemsky with the Oilers. While the eventual return of Sam Gagner doesn't bode well for Boyd holding on to that spot long-term, late November is still a few weeks away. In the meantime, Gordon might serve as a productive sub for an injured player on your own roster.

Mathieu Perreault, C, Anaheim Ducks (owned in 0.4 percent of ESPN.com leagues): With linemate Jakob Silfverberg (also worth a look in most leagues), Perreault is off to a surprisingly productive start with the Ducks. He won't average a point per game for the bulk of the campaign, but don't underestimate the 25-year-old's scoring ability either. He's had his moments with the Capitals over the past four seasons.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic, D, San Jose Sharks (owned in 19.8 percent of ESPN.com leagues). Notching four points in his first three games, Vlasic is off to a smokin' start for the Sharks. But, with respect to history, we feel reasonably assured this pace won't last. Exploit Vlasic while he's hot.