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Top 9 Time: Pacific 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.

This is the third in a series of articles; in this issue we will attempt to accurately project the top three lines for each team in the NHL's Pacific 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 fantasywise for each team if/when injuries hit.

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

Anaheim:

Bobby Ryan - Ryan Getzlaf - Corey Perry
Jason Blake - Saku Koivu - Teemu Selanne
Matt Beleskey - Todd Marchant - Dan Sexton

Injured: Joffrey Lupul, top-six winger

The Ducks have had a busy summer, but the turnover has been mostly felt on the defensive corps. As far as the forwards are concerned there's been very little turnover after both Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu re-signed. Heading into training camp, the Ducks had two major question marks - what will happen with Bobby Ryan's contract situation, and when will Joffrey Lupul be cleared to play? The first of those has been resolved - he agreed to a five-year, $25.5 million deal. As for Lupul, he suffered a setback fighting a serious blood infection as a result of back surgery from last November, but recently got cleared to skate. Lupul got the green light to begin working out, but it will be another four-to-five weeks before he will be strong enough to suit up for NHL action. As it stands now Lupul is down to 190, 20 lbs below his playing weight. Lupul is out until at least November. The biggest benefactor will likely be Blake but Beleskey could also move up into a top-six role.

Before the news came out about Lupul being out until at least November, the third line was expected to be anchored by veterans Blake and Marchant with the other wing spot open and likely to be decided between Beleskey (11 goals/18 points in 60 games, minus-10) and Sexton (9 goals, 19 points in 41 games, minus-3). Beleskey is two inches taller and 34 lbs heavier than the 5-10/170 Sexton. Now both Beleskey and Sexton will start the season on the top nine.

Despite the fact that the Ducks could start the year without one of their top six forwards, it is unlikely that the Ducks' top prospects Kyle Palmieri (26th overall pick in '09) and Peter Holland (15th overall pick of '09) make the squad this year. They could both be on the third line as early as 2011-12 but not likely this year. Another name that we could about hear about in the not too distant future is 20-year-old left-winger/center Brandon McMillan (5-11/190), a future third-liner with 15-20 goal potential. McMillan, who scored four goals and eight points for Canada in the most recent World Junior championships, finished his WHL career strong with a 25-goal/67-point season in 55 games and could get a look early on in the season if Ryan is still unsigned and McMillan has a great camp. Koivu's eventual relacement as second line center figures to be Holland or Nicolas Deschamps, a decent sized (6-1/190) center prospect who was drafted 35th overall by the Ducks in 2008. Deschamps finished his Quebec junior career with 87 goals and 228 points in 199 games.

TFFF: Getzlaf, Perry, Ryan, Selanne

Best 7th forward: Beleskey

Dallas:

James Neal - Brad Richards - Loui Eriksson
Brenden Morrow - Mike Ribeiro - Brandon Segal
Steve Ott - Jamie Benn - Fabian Brunnstrom/Scott Glennie

This offseason has been emotional for Stars' fans, as the team said goodbye to two longstanding veterans in Marty Turco and Mike Modano. Modano's departure will allow Dallas to switch Jamie Benn to center and give the team potentially three scoring lines this coming season.

The keys to icing a three-lined offensive group of forwards lay in the production of Segal and Brunnstrom. They are the two relatively unproven commodities in the Stars' top nine forwards. The Stars know what they are getting with the rest of that contingent. If Segal's late season production (five goals and 10 points in 19 games) is a harbinger of things to come, then the Benn to center experiment becomes more promising. Brunnstrom, who came to the NHL with much hype from Europe, has yet to prove he was worth the hefty cost to initially sign him. Back in 2008 the then 23-year-old Swedish forward signed a two-year entry-level contract that paid him in a similar fashion to a top 5 overall draft pick, which translated into a cap hit of over $2 million per season. After a decent first season, with 17 goals and 29 points in 55 games, Brunnstrom hit rock bottom last year with just two goals and 11 points in 44 games. His two year-deal expired and a major disappointment thus far, Brunnstrom agreed to a one-year, $675,000 contract with the Stars in July. Still just 25, Brunnstrom would benefit from playing with a quality player like Benn and he'll be motivated playing on a one-year deal at 66% less salary than he earned previously. Ott is coming off an impressive 22-goal/153 PIMs season and should protect Benn and whoever plays right wing, be it Brunnstrom or someone else.

If Brunnstrom can't right his downward spiral in the exhibition season, then an opportunity could be knocking for top prospect Scott Glennie, a 19-year-old right winger drafted 8th overall by Dallas in 2009. The Stars signed Glennie to an entry-level contract in July and he brings an impressive offensive resume with 86 goals and 217 points in 182 career games in the WHL. Benn played last season for Dallas as a 19-year-old and Glennie could do the same starting this October.

TFFF: Richards, Eriksson, Neal, Morrow, Ribeiro (bonus pick!)

Best 7th forward: Benn

Los Angeles:

Ryan Smyth - Anze Kopitar - Dustin Brown
Alex Ponikarovsky - Michael Handzus - Wayne Simmonds
Brad Richardson/Oscar Moller - Jarret Stoll - Justin Williams

The only free-agent addition this summer was Alex Ponikarovsky, a left-winger with size (6-4/220) and a solid two-way game. Pony has scored 20 or more goals four of the past five seasons (18 goals in 66 games in 2007-08). While a decent top-six addition, Ponikarovsky is not Ilya Kovalchuk, whom the Kings tried hard to woo to southern California. Nevertheless, Ponikarovsky should mesh well with "Zeus" and form an effective and physical line. The two major puzzles heading into camp are how the right wings will be deployed and who gets the third-line left-wing gig.

Perhaps the biggest indicator of how the top three RW's will be used this season will come down to which Justin Williams emerges during the exhibition season, the one who played effectively on the first line during the first 33 games of the season or the one who struggled in the latter part of the year and was used primarily on the third line. The Kings started last season with Smyth and Williams as the first-line wingers. While Smyth was banged up and missed six weeks Williams was producing. Then just as Smyth returned to the lineup Williams broke his leg. It happened in Phoenix on Dec. 26. Williams had scored eight goals and 24 points in 33 games before his injury. When Williams returned to the lineup March 12 he went a full 10 games played before scoring his first goal. His post-injury stats were brutal: two goals and five points in 16 games and his ice-time shrank commensurately. In only two games after his return did he receive any power-play time and only once did he surpass 16:03 in total ice time. Brown has the better foot speed to keep up with Kopitar and he's averaged 27 goals and 56 points over the past three seasons while Williams has only managed to score a total of 23 goals in 130 games over his past three injury-plagued seasons. That's a precipitous drop from the back-to-back 30-goal seasons he enjoyed in 2005-06 and 2006-07. Simmonds just turned 22 and is coming off a solid 16-goal/40-point season. A line of Simmonds with Hanzus and Ponikarovsky should prove quite effective at both ends of the ice.

The Kings' top forward prospects include Oscar Moller (21), Brayden Schenn (19), Andrei Loktionov (20), and Justin Azevedo (22). Moller is a virtual lock to make the Kings, as he's already played 74 NHL games (11 goals/22 points). Schenn, who just turned 19 on Aug. 22, is junior eligible for another year but could make the Kings with a big camp and exhibition season. Loktionov scored nine goals and had 24 points in 29 games last season for the Kings' AHL farm team in Manchester, N.H. Azevedo's size (5-7/180) works against him and he may be limited to the AHL for the foreseeable future. His first pro season was mixed, though he did finish fourth in goal scoring for Manchester with 14 goals (27 points) in 46 games not far from Moeller's 15 goals and 33 points in 43 games for Manchester. Moller has more offensive upside than Richardson, a 25-year-old with 30 goals and 72 points in 248 career games, but Schenn and Loktionov could also make a push in camp and the exhibition season.

TFFF: Kopitar, Smyth, Brown, Ponikarovsky

Best 7th forward: Williams

Phoenix:

Ray Whitney - Wojtek Wolski - Shane Doan
Lee Stempniak - Martin Hanzal - Scottie Upshall
Petr Prucha - Ebbett/Tikhonov/Turris - Radim Vrbata

While Whitney is a good addition, especially for their power play, the team is dangerously thin up the middle. It's so thin that the 24-year-old Wolski, a career left-wing, will switch to center and man the first line with Whitney and Doan. Wolski did play center in junior and is coming off a career year with 23 goals and 65 points in 80 games. His late-season production after being traded to Phoenix (six goals and 18 points in 18 games) gave GM Don Maloney the confidence to make him their top center and avoid getting into a bidding war for Matthew Lombardi - the Yotes' No. 1 center last season with 19 goals and 53 points in 78 games, who has since signed with Nashville.

Speaking of centers, the hulking Martin Hanzal (6-6/228) signed just before camp opened. Hanzal projects to be the second-line center. Lee Stempniak, an unrestricted free agent who scored 14 goals in 18 regular-season games after being acquired by the Coyotes in March and then re-signed for two years with the Yotes in late August, is something of a mystery. Was his late-season production for real or was his zero goals in seven playoff games more indicative of that late-season surge being a fluke? Stempniak and Hanzal will likely be joined on the second line by the gritty Scottie Upshall. Upshall was having a career season last year, even leading the team in goals with 18 goals (32 points) in 49 games, when he blew out his knee in January.

The third line will likely include a pair of Czech wingers in Vrbata and Prucha, while the center spot should see an open competition with many suitors. The oldest of those vying for the third-line center gig is Andrew Ebbett, a 27-year-old who has scored at every level (143 points in 167 NCAA games, 166 points in 173 AHL games) but the NHL (17 goals and 47 points in 112 games). The other two main contenders are the highly-touted/drafted young talents Kyle Turris (drafted 3rd overall in '07) and Viktor Tikhonov (drafted 28th overall in '08). Turris was rushed into the Phoenix lineup as a 19-year-old back in 2008-09, where he played 63 games for the parent club and 8 games for the AHL farm team in San Antonio. Turris was allowed to play a full year in the AHL this past season and finished the season with 24 goals and 63 points in 76 games. Now 21, Turris may be ready for top-9 NHL duty either at his natural center spot or possibly on the wing. The 22-year-old Tikhonov is coming to Phoenix's training camp with an aim at making the team but he could return to the KHL if he's sent down to the AHL, as he split last season between both leagues. After 18 games with San Antonio (with 2 goals, 8 points) of the AHL, he was loaned to Cherepovets Severstal of the KHL (14 goals/15 points in 24 games). Tikhonov played 61 games for the Coyotes as a 20-year-old back in the 2008-09 season, in which he scored eight goals and 16 points. The Yotes have had a tendency to rush their prospects over the last few years, partly due to a lack of established talent and partly due to the fact that all rookies play on an entry-level deal and are far cheaper than signing proven NHL talent. After both being rushed initially these two young talented forwards may be ready for full-time NHL top-9 duty.

Like promising young centers Tikhonov and Turris, left wing Mikkel Boedker (drafted 8th overall in '08) was rushed too quickly into NHL duty. Still just 20, Boedker may spend the entire coming season in the AHL, essentially switching places with Brett MacLean. MacLean is considered the Coyotes' top prospect at forward who's yet to play an NHL game. MacLean, who scored 61 goals in 61 games in his last year in junior for Oshawa of the OHL, has toiled for his first two pro seasons in San Antonio, where he scored 30 goals and 65 points in 76 games last season.

TFFF: Wolski, Whitney, Doan, Stempniak

Best 7th forward: Vrbata

San Jose:

Patrick Marleau - Joe Thornton - Dany Heatley
Logan Couture - Joe Pavelski - Devin Setoguchi
Jamie McGinn - Torrey Mitchell - Ryan Clowe

The Sharks only lost one member from last season's top nine, third line center Manny Malhotra. His replacement will be either the 25-year-old Mitchell or the 35-year-old Scott Nichol. Not only is Mitchell a decade younger but he's quicker and has better hands. While Mitchell has yet to put it all together at the NHL level (12 goals/31 points in 138 games), one needs to remember that he missed the entire 2008-09 regular season with a broken leg. Moreover, Mitchell only averaged 11:26 of ice time last season. Mitchell needs to step up this season, as the Sharks have two younger centers working their way up the Sharks' organizational depth chart in Benn Ferriero and Steven Zalewski. The 23-year-old Ferriero split last season between the AHL and NHL. He bagged 19 goals and 50 points in 58 games in the "A" and potted 2 goals and 5 points in 24 games for the Sharks. Zalewski, who just turned 24 (Aug. 20), has played two seasons in the "A" where he's amassed 37 goals and 107 points in 160 games.

During the latter half of the 2009-10 NHL season, the Sharks made a top-nine switch - moving Clowe to the third line and Couture to the second line - that both added scoring depth to their third line and demonstrated a committment to develop Couture, a player they drafted 9th overall in 2007. The 21-year-old Couture spent half of last season in the AHL, where he was dominant with 20 goals and 53 points in 42 games, but by season's end he was receiving top nine minutes with the Sharks. Couture did not look out of place on a line with Pavelski and Setoguchi and has been tabbed by many as a breakout candidate for the coming season. The only caveat is that he's still listed as a center in many league commish software sites and would only have major appeal were he to be listed as left-wing eligible.

McGinn is similar to Couture in that they both played their junior hockey together in Ottawa of the OHL, they both played parts of last season in the AHL, and they are both expected to play the full upcoming season with San Jose as top nine forwards. Drafted 36th overall in 2006, the 22-year-old McGinn had 10 goals in 59 games last season and he should form a promising third line with the big power forward Clowe and the speedy Mitchell.

TFFF: Heatley, Marleau, Thornton, Clowe

Best 7th forward: Clowe