We are really in the thick of it now. The stretch run for the fantasy hockey season has crept up on us quickly. Many head-to-head leagues will begin their playoffs after next week. Rotisserie owners will get one of their last major chances for a big shake-up next week with the NHL trade deadline. If you are still reading this, it means you are in the hunt (otherwise you are spending your time in the ESPN Fantasy Baseball draft kit).
With that in mind, we will do a final free-agent roundup to help capture some of the possible players still available. We will use the same thresholds we did earlier this season to determine league relevance for you: shallow (no availability to 50 percent availability), medium (51 percent to 90 percent availability) and deep leagues (91 percent availability or more).
Shallow league help
Brad Boyes, New York Islanders (available in 11 percent of ESPN leagues): Everyone should be aware of Boyes' success this season as the replacement for P.A. Parenteau on the top line with John Tavares and Matt Moulson. But it is still notable (and shocking) that he is available in any league, let alone more than 10 percent of them. His total on the season is an impressive 26 points in 30 games. If that doesn't convince you, note that he has a six-game point streak going, with eight points total during the streak.
Roman Josi, Nashville Predators (available in 43 percent of ESPN leagues): Josi has had some moments this season, but until this past week they had been just brief moments where he had shown some fantasy value. Josi has strung together four fantasy relevant games in a row, with a total of seven points in those games. He has been playing the point with Shea Weber for the majority of the season and this recent run may be more than just a streak. Josi may have turned a corner to becoming a top-pairing offensive defenseman.
Jake Allen, St. Louis Blues (available in 29 percent of ESPN leagues): He finally lost his win streak on Tuesday against the Vancouver Canucks and Jaroslav Halak will get a chance in goal on Saturday, but that doesn't mean Allen is done. Coach Ken Hitchcock likes to find something that works and stick to it. If Halak isn't perfect on Saturday night, we could see Allen back in goal again for the very next game. The Blues have confidence playing in front of their inexperienced netminder and even the loss to the Canucks wasn't a bad game for Allen, it was just a bad second period. As everyone else jumps off the bandwagon, casually stash him on your bench.
Medium league help
Patrick Wiercioch, Ottawa Senators (available in 73 percent of ESPN leagues): Playing as a top-pairing defenseman has begun to look good on this rookie. Justin Schultz gets all the love among rookie defensemen, but Wiercioch is right there with him. Schultz has just one more point than Wiercioch and the minus-11 looks pretty bad compared to Wiercioch's plus-5. Erik Karlsson being sidelined has certainly helped the young Senators blueliner. Playing with Sergei Gonchar at even strength eventually led to Wiercioch playing with him on the power play as well. At first glance you might think it would hurt Wiercioch if Gonchar were moved at the trade deadline, but look what the rookie did with the extra ice time afforded by Karlsson's injury.
Brandon Saad, Chicago Blackhawks (available in 77 percent of ESPN leagues): Saad is turning on his afterburner for the stretch run of the fantasy season. While he has been playing on a line with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa for most of the season, it wasn't until fairly recently that he started turning the opportunity into points. Saad now has 15 points in 29 games on the season, but 12 of those points have come in the past 11 games. Of those past 11 games, Saad has been held scoreless in only two of them.
Deep league help
Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Minnesota Wild (available in 99 percent of ESPN leagues): Nothing like a quick trip to the press box to awaken the slumbering talents of this shifty winger. Since being a healthy scratch for a couple of games, Bouchard has returned as a man on fire. Bouchard returned to the lineup on the second line with Devin Setoguchi and Matt Cullen. The trio has helped single-handedly propel the Wild on a four-game win streak. Bouchard is the ringleader with seven points in the past four games.
Beau Bennett, Pittsburgh Penguins (available in 97 percent of ESPN leagues): This is a pre-emptive strike. Evgeni Malkin will be back from injury very soon and that will finally be Bennett's opportunity to showcase his skills on the Pens' second line. Bennett has been waiting for a month through two Malkin injuries for his chance to skate with the superstar playmaker and James Neal. Bennett has the high-end offensive skills to potentially find chemistry with the line and begin collecting points at a fantasy-relevant pace.
Cedrick Desjardins, Tampa Bay Lightning (available in 99 percent of ESPN leagues): With Anders Lindback suffering an ankle injury (always a very bad thing for a goaltender) and Mathieu Garon not impressing anyone, Desjardins is an interesting potential asset. Desjardins has top-end talent and showed it two seasons ago when he stopped 61 of 63 shots during a two-game call-up for the Lightning. In the AHL this season, Desjardins was getting lit up a bit while he was with the Hamilton Bulldogs, but has been rock solid for the Syracuse Crunch since a trade. In eight games, he has five wins and a 1.74 goals-against average. Ankle injuries for goalies can be pretty serious, so this might not be just a quick call-up.
Looking for offense
Chicago Blackhawks: They had a rough outing on Wednesday against the Anaheim Ducks, but the Blackhawks have the best Forecaster rating for the week ahead with a perfect O:10 score. Marian Hossa's injury is considered minor and he could be back with the club before next week to help prevent another stinker against the Ducks. The Hawks play the Los Angeles Kings, Calgary Flames, Ducks and Detroit Red Wings next week, with three of the games at home. Assuming Hossa returns in time for next Monday's tilt -- but even if he doesn't -- Brandon Saad is your first target for acquisition. Saad has been on a tear lately playing on a line with Hossa and Jonathan Toews. With Patrick Sharp out of the lineup, Dave Bolland and Jimmy Hayes are serving as linemates for Patrick Kane, but both players have been kept off the scoresheet. Deep leagues should look at what Andrew Shaw can do this weekend. A hot streak could be around the corner for Shaw, as his even-strength line with Bryan Bickell and Viktor Stalberg has looked strong and he has a tendency to see power-play time with Toews and Hossa. On defense, Nick Leddy has picked up his pace lately with five points in five games and is available in a handful of ESPN leagues.
New York Islanders: The Isles rate surprisingly well for three road games against the Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins next week. The Forecaster is calling for a burst of offense from the team for all three contests. Since the first line is mostly (see Boyes, Brad) owned in ESPN leagues, have a quick look at the second line. Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey have been showing some signs of life lately and there is a precedent for a strong finish to a season for this line. During the final 19 games of last season, Bailey had 17 points, Nielsen had 17 points and Okposo had 14 points as the trio found enormous chemistry as the second line. Could it be happening again? The trio had a two-goal night against the Ottawa Senators earlier this week. Keep an eye on the line through the weekend and consider deploying the trio if you see any more signs of progress.
Los Angeles Kings: The Kings' four-game road trip next week takes them up against the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars. The Forecaster expects above-average offense from the team throughout its travels. Being a power-play specialist is apparently like riding a bicycle. After being left off the Kings' offensive plans for most of the season, Jarret Stoll started showing up on the power play this week and he already has two points there. His booming point shot is well known to fantasy players for the past several seasons, when Stoll used to collect up to double-digit goals while playing the point on the man advantage. Those days are behind him, but that doesn't mean he forgot the skill. He could be useful for owners in deeper leagues looking to boost power-play production. Also Tyler Toffoli, for now, remains with the big club. While he could be sent down to the AHL at any time, he has offensive talents to contribute if the Kings try him out more in the top six. He could easily replace Dustin Penner as the linemate for Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.
Looking for goaltending
Carolina Hurricanes: Cedrick Desjardins and the Tampa Bay Lightning are mentioned as an option earlier in this column, but the Bolts' division rivals could have a new main netminder for next week as well. Cam Ward is already sidelined, and Dan Ellis suffered a cut to his leg in Thursday's game. This paves the way for Justin Peters to potentially man the Hurricanes' goal, depending on the severity of Ellis' cut. The Hurricanes have two games this week against the Winnipeg Jets, whose offense has finally cooled off a bit. Peters could have some value if you spot start him.
This chart shows you the top and bottom teams in the NHL in goals and shots, for and against, during the past 21 days.
Florida Panthers: Consider that the Panthers have allowed the second-most goals during the past three weeks of NHL action, then consider what Jacob Markstrom has looked like for the past two games. Markstrom has stopped 77 of 79 shots during the past two games. Since those games count toward the past three weeks of statistics, things must have been pretty ugly prior to the past two games. In fact, until Markstrom's stellar performances these past few days against the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers, March hadn't been great to the Panthers. The team allowed at least three goals (and as many as seven) in the six games prior to Markstrom getting hot. The element that is exciting here for fantasy owners is that we just don't know when Markstrom will finally click. We know he is probably the best goaltending prospect in the league right now and it could be as simple as a goaltending coach pointing out one minor flaw before he can start stopping a stream of NHL pucks. Is that what happened leading up to his amazing performances this week? We don't know, but it's going to happen at some point this season or next season that Markstrom will turn that corner. If it didn't just happen, be ready for it.
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 $100 million fantasy budget. For more on the game and to sign up, click here.
The skeds: No five-game squad to take advantage of this week, but a whole slew of teams have four-game weeks. The Anaheim Ducks, Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild, Philadelphia Flyers, Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose Sharks and Toronto Maple Leafs all play four contests.
The St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning are the only teams with just a two-game week.
Given the Forecaster ratings and injury news, Sidney Crosby ($10.7M) and Evgeni Malkin ($9.6M) look like your top starts on offense for the week. Malkin is getting close enough to a return from shoulder injury that next week is a safe bet. Given that news, risky owners might want to jump out ahead of Beau Bennett ($6.1M) as he finally gets a chance to audition as Malkin's linemate.
With two games against the New York Islanders, betting on a return of the Flyers' offense looks like a positive move. Claude Giroux ($9.4M), Jakub Voracek ($8.6M) and Scott Hartnell ($7.2M) can't be kept down for long. The Maple Leafs also have a four-game week and Nazem Kadri ($7.3M) is particularly hot. Phil Kessel ($8.8M) is a good option and Joffrey Lupul ($7.4M) will have served his suspension by next week.
On defense, Kimmo Timonen ($7.8M), Zdeno Chara ($7.9M) and Ryan Suter ($8.3M) are the elite players with a four-game week ahead. On the cheap end, Roman Josi ($5.9M) has been hot and Brent Burns ($5.9M) has been playing as a forward and scoring on the Sharks' top line, but is still eligible at defense. The Kings also have a four-game week and Jake Muzzin ($5.5M) is still terribly cheap.
Goaltending: The Minnesota Wild have been rattling off wins lately and Niklas Backstrom ($12.2M) is a workhorse. He looks as good as any of the other four-game goalies, including Tuukka Rask ($12.5M) and Jonathan Quick ($12M). With several goaltender injuries this week, it could also be an opportunity to toy with some really cheap options in order to save money and bolster your offense. With Dan Ellis and Cam Ward hurt, Justin Peters ($9.4M) might start all week for the Hurricanes. Cedrik Desjardins ($7.5M) is the possible replacement for an injured Anders Lindback and Jason LaBarbera ($9.6M) might be leaned on if Mike Smith's injury from Thursday turns out to be serious.
My roster for next week:
Niklas Backstrom, G ($12.2M)
Justin Peters, G ($9.4M)
Ryan Suter, D ($8.3M)
Zdeno Chara, D ($7.9M)
Kimmo Timonen, D ($7.8M)
Brent Burns, D ($5.9M)
Sidney Crosby, F ($8.8M / $10.7M on market)
Evgeni Malkin, F ($9.6M)
Beau Bennett, F ($6.1M)
Steven Stamkos, F ($8.7M / $10.0M on market)
Claude Giroux, F ($9.4M)
Simon Gagne, F ($5.7M)