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Top 9 Time: Central Division

Peter Maingot

Peter Maingot

Peter has been covering fantasy sports for Rotowire for over 10 years. He's covered hockey, football and basketball over the past decade but now focuses strictly on the frozen game. From the Great White North, Peter is a strong proponent of physical, up tempo hockey.

Top-9 Time - Central

The first of a series of articles, in this issue we will attempt to accurately project the top three lines for each team in the NHL's Central Division factoring in all the offseason activity as well as players that might be changing roles or moving up from the minors, college or junior ranks. As most would agree, offensive output virtually always equates to opportunity. The players on the top two lines usually get significantly more ice time and power-play ice-time which leads to better output. Opportunities will come for third-line forwards when injuries, trades, and/or slumps occur. That's why it's imperative to know who's on the third line and which of those third-liners have the requisite upside should second-line duty call. 

The final section for each team will include a ranking of their top four fantasy forwards (TFFF) in addition to the most attractive seventh forward fantasy-wise for each team if/when injuries hit.

(All stats for the 2009-10 NHL season unless otherwise noted)

Chicago:

Tomas Kopecky - Jonathan Toews - Patrick Kane

Viktor Stalberg - Patrick Sharp - Marian Hossa

Kyle Beach - Dave Bolland - Troy Brouwer

The cost of ending the Hawks' 49-year Stanley Cup drought was prohibitive in terms of what it did to the roster. The Hawks had to jettison (or chose to in some cases like Antti Niemi) nine players from last season's team. Three of the nine that left were top-9 forwards: Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, and Andrew Ladd. Tomas Kopecky, who averaged just 9:29 of ice time last season with 0:51 on the power play (PP), should see the largest year-over-year bump among returning forwards as the conditions are most favorable after all the wheeling and dealing that Chicago GM Stan Bowman did over the summer. The three top-9 forwards that are gone all played much more minutes than him. Byfuglien averaged 16:25 of ice time with 2:43 on the PP while Versteeg went 15:44/1:55 and Ladd 13:42/0:37. With the Hawks determined to keep Patrick Sharp and play him at center and left-wingers Byfuglien and Ladd both gone, Kopecky finds himself the de facto No. 1 left winger in Chi-town. Former Leaf Viktor Stalberg has less experience and after that it's rookie prospect Kyle Beach (a 20-year-old promising power forward) and Bryan Bickell (taken 41st overall in 2004) who's played mostly in the AHL the past four seasons with a total of 23 NHL games played (5 goals, 1 assist). Kopecky should get the first shot at making the top line and could as much as double last season's 10-goal output if he can stick with Toews and Kane.

The Hawks made keeping the versatile Sharp an offseason priority and we can expect a bump in ice time and thus opportunity this coming season. Paired with Hossa, a year into his Chicago tenure, on an above-average second line with big Swedish left winger Stalberg (6-3, 210), Sharp should be able to match if not exceed last season's career high of 66 points. Sharp could also return to the 30-goal level (he's averaged 27 goals over the past four seasons) with inclusion into the team's top power play unit with his ability to play left wing.

Troy Brouwer's career really took off last season. With Hossa out of the lineup to start the season due to shoulder surgery, Brouwer got more minutes and the soon-to-be 25 year old (August 17) more than doubled his career high in goals with a 22-goal season where he finished with 40 points. Back in his usual third line role Brouwer still managed to score four goals and eight points in 19 playoff games. Third line center Dave Bolland, a 24-year-old who scored 57 goals in 59 games in his last year in juniors then potted 15 more in 15 OHL playoff games, showed in the playoffs that he's now fully recovered from last November's back surgery that cost him 43 regular season games. Bolland scored eight goals and had 16 points in 22 games. First in line for the third line left wing gig is Kyle Beach, a mercurial power forward who has developed a reputation in junior as a hothead and major disturber. The 20-year-old Beach scored 52 goals, 86 points and 186 penalty minutes in 68 games last season for Spokane in the WHL. Beach will need to reel in some of those inner demons if he wants to make it. A little humble pie and less trash talking would go a long way towards him being accepted on the team.

TFFF: Hossa, Kane, Toews, Sharp

Best 7th forward: Bolland

Columbus:

Kristian Huselius - Antoine Vermette - Rick Nash

Nikita Filatov - Derick Brassard - Jakub Voracek

Ethan Moreau - Sami Pahlsson - R.J. Umberger

Antoine Vermette has come a long way since his days as a third line left wing/center for Ottawa. Now ensconced as Columbus' No. 1 center, Vermette clearly established himself as a bona fide top-two line center last year breaking through with a 28-goal/65-point campaign, thereby setting career highs in both categories. Vermette took advantage of Derick Brassard's less than stellar early-season play to usurp him on the top line. In the long run the Blue Jackets would rather that Vermette be the second line pivot and Brassard be on the first, as Vermette is more ideally suited for that role. Brassard's development had been fairly impressive before last season's surprising disappointment. After playing his first pro year in the AHL as a 20-year-old he had amassed 15 goals and 51 points in 42 games. That year he also saw his first action in the NHL but managed just a goal and two points in 17 games. The next NHL season he was off to a flying start with 10 goals and 25 points in 31 games but a shoulder injury prematurely ended his season. Bottom line: Brassard needs to improve on last season's totals of nine goals and 36 points in 79 games and there are some compelling reasons to believe that it will happen. Reason one is the development of second line right winger Jakub Voracek. The 21-year-old (August 15) Voracek scored 15 goals and 50 points last season, both career highs. When the season starts Brassard will be 23 and Voracek will be 21. They could very well form 2/3 of a Jackets' Kid Line with 20-year-old Nikita Filatov this coming season.

Filatov is back from the KHL and has already arrived in Columbus to begin preparations for the season. The Blue Jackets' development coach Tyler Wright went over to Russia in July to spend five days living, training and talking with Filatov. Wright returned very impressed with the visit and with Filatov's maturity and commitment to improve his game. Not only is Filatov training every day, the six-foot left winger has bulked up to 187 lbs. Playing for new coach Scott Arniel could make all the difference, as former coach Ken Hitchcock was not known to give decent ice time to young players. Filatov left the team last fall, as Hitchcock was only giving the then-19-year-old Filatov a mere 8:07 of playing time per game (0:47) through the first 13 games. Filatov had gone on record that he will not play in the AHL and remains firm on the matter, for as an 18-year-old rookie Filatov averaged a mere 8:08 a game for Columbus in eight games then was sent down to the AHL where he scored 16 goals and 32 points in 39 games. There was no point in going back to the "A" the next season when Hitchcock once again denied him a true opportunity. He returned to Russia and played 26 games for CSKA Moscow, scoring 9 goals and 22 points. Remember this - just a year ago Filatov was considered the top prospect not in the NHL. Moreover, coach Arniel has told Fiklatov that he's starting with a clean slate so all signs point to a real opportunity for the gifted young Russian on a team that will be more open-minded offensively in 2010-11.

While Columbus has other talented youngsters in their pipeline, none appear ready to make the team this season. Matt Calvert (5-10/182, drafted 127th overall in '08) played on a super line for Brandon in the WHL last year with Brayden Schenn (drafted 5th overall by the Kings in '09) and Scott Glennie (drafted 8th overall by the Stars in 09') scoring 47 goals and 99 points in 68 games but likely needs a year in the AHL after dominating the WHL as a 20-year-old. Meanwhile Maksim Mayorov has put up back-to-back 17 goal seasons in the AHL and doesn't seem good enough yet for the Big League.

If Filatov gets his chance on the second line this season, R.J. Umberger (23 goals, 55 points) would switch down to a third line spot at right wing, thereby joining Sami Pahlsson and newcomer Ethan Moreau on a big and physical shutdown line. Umberger would be the first forward moved up were an injury to occur amongst the top-six whereas Pahlsson and Moreau are checking forwards and won't see much action, if any, this season on the Jackets' top two lines.

TFFF: Nash, Huselius, Vermette, Brassard

Best 7th forward: Umberger

Detroit:

Henrik Zetterberg - Pavel Datsyuk - Tomas Holmstrom

Johan Franzen - Valtteri Filppula - Todd Bertuzzi

Jiri Hudler - Mike Modano - Dan Cleary

Detroit fans have to be excited over the return of Jiri Hudler, as they struggled at times to score goals last season after losing the services of Hudler, Marian Hossa and Mikael Samuelsson. Hudler jump starts what was a moribund third line last season. The other addition to the third line is Mike Modano. The Michigan native returns home for what he hopes will be a rink of dreams season. Modano's arrival makes it that much easier for the Wings to keep Datsyuk and Zetterberg together on the first line. The second line should see Franzen and Filppula with Bertuzzi. Cleary slots in on the third line but could switch spots with Bertuzzi.

If the Wings hope to keep Datsyuk and Zetterberg together they are going to need to get a full season from Filppula as Modano is 40 and the tank is running low. Filppula missed 27 games last year and finished with 11 goals and 35 points in 55 games. Patrick Eaves and Drew Miller are the next in line for third line duty but the best player outside the Wings' projected top six is Hudler by far. In fact Hudler is one of the few third line NHL forwards who will get drafted in standard 12-team leagues, as he is just a year removed from a 23-goal/57-point season.

Top forward prospects Tomas Tatar (Grand Rapids, AHL), Jan Mursak (Grand Rapids), Landon Ferraro (19, could return to WHL or join Grand Rapids), and Gustav Nyquist (University of Maine) are all at least a year away, if not more with how the Red Wings take their time meticulously developing their talent.

TFFF: Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Franzen, Hudler

Best 7th forward: Hudler

Nashville:

Steve Sullivan - Matthew Lombardi - Martin Erat

J.P. Dumont - David Legwand - Patric Hornqvist

Linus Klasen/Jonas Andersson - Colin Wilson - Sergei Kostitsyn

Despite being a low-scoring team last season, the Predators enjoyed some positives last season offensively. One was the emergence of Patric Hornqvist, who enjoyed his first 30-goal season. Another was Steve Sullivan's return after missing 148 games over the previous three seasons (including the entire 2007-08 season). Amazingly they got a full 82-game season from Sullivan. Since the season's end there's been some bad news: their captain and top center, Jason Arnott, was traded to New Jersey and their top prospect Alexander Radulov remains in Russia playing in the KHL. Now the good news: they signed a fast young center in Matthew Lombardi, they traded for Sergei Kostitsyn (an intriguing talent who has yet to put it all together), and they have brought in two potential scoring forwards from Europe in Jonas Andersson and Linus Klasen.

Lombardi should roll with Sully and Erat. A huge question for the Preds is David Legwand, the mega-bust center taken 2nd overall in 1998. Since scoring 27 goals and 63 points in 2006-07, Legwand has averaged just 15 goals and 42 points in the last three seasons, culminating in a pathetic 11-goal, 38-point campaign last season. Legwand needs to step up big-time. Otherwise the Preds may as well play Wilson on the second line with Marcel Goc on the third line and Legwand in the press box. Okay, that's a bit drastic but perhaps Wilson should replace Legwand now on the second line, as he represents the future while Legwand represents disappointment.

Jonas Andersson is 29 and is something of a Euro-league nomad having played in Russia, Sweden and Finland since 2005. Andersson scored six goals in nine games for Sweden in last spring's World Championships after scoring seven goals and 20 points in 31 KHL games for Dynamo Minsk last season. The season before he bagged 24 goals and 57 points in 55 games for Karpat in the Finnish Elite league. While Andersson is a big winger at 6-2/209, Klasen is more diminutive at 5-8/176. Klasen, just 24, is coming off his finest season as a pro. Playing his third season in the Swedish Elite league for Sodertalje SK, Klasen scored 19 goals and 51 points in 51 games.

The Preds are hoping that the European influence will lead to a more productive third line and the competition between Kostitsyn, Andersson, and Klasen will be one of the more interesting battles in training camp.

TFFF: Lombardi, Hornqvist, Erat, Sullivan

Best 7th forward: Wilson

St. Louis:

Andy McDonald - David Backes - T.J. Oshie

David Perron - Patrik Berglund - Brad Boyes

Alexander Steen - Vladimir Sobotka - Matt D'Agostini/T.J. Hensick

Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk are gone and the youngsters are moving up the depth chart. David Backes and T.J. Oshie work well together and the playmaking McDonald can either play the left flank with them or play center. Patrik Berglund and David Perron can hopefully get Brad Boyes back to his former scoring self after a forgettable season in which Boyes bagged just 14 goals and registered 42 points despite playing a full 82-game schedule. Boyes, still just 28, had scored a combined 76 goals in his previous two seasons for the Blues and they need him to return to his 30+ goal form this season.

Alexander Steen will lead a third line that should see some competition at the other two spots. Vladimir Sobotka is a superior talent to Jay McClement and should beat him out for the third line center role. The other wing spot will likely come down to who has the better training camp and exhibition games between former Colorado left wing/center TJ Hensick and former Montreal right wing Matt D'Agostini. I like Hensick slightly more than D'Agostini. Hensick has more speed and is coming off a 70-point season in the AHL (58 games) so there's nothing left for the 24-year-old Michigan native to prove in the minors. Hensick's potential inclusion on the Blues roster raises the question: can an NHL team have two T.J.'s?

Brett Sonne, a 100-point forward for Calgary of the WHL in 2008-09, likely needs another year of pro seasoning in the AHL while Phil McRae, a point-per game player the last two years in the OHL, will probably be joining him in Peoria.

TFFF: McDonald, Backes, Boyes, Oshie

Best 7th forward: Steen

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