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From the Press-Box: Powerful Panthers

Paul Bruno

Paul Bruno is co-host of the RotoWire fantasy hockey podcast, The Great Ones. He has been an accredited member of the Toronto sports media for more than 20 years. Paul also helps with RW's DFS podcast and is a contributing writer for RW NFL, MLB and CFL content. Follow him on twitter: @statsman22.

The return of Sidney Crosby tops all other stories this week and we'll chime in with our thoughts about his impact. What about the struggles of his main rival, Alex Ovechkin? A throw-in to a trade between Anaheim-Toronto helps tilt the early returns of that trade heavily in favor of the NHL' s youngest team (in terms of the average age). The Florida Panthers boast one of the league's highest scoring forward lines. Can that last? With a couple of the league's top-scoring defensemen expected to miss at least a month of action, fantasy team owners are scrambling for replacements. Read on to find out about some candidates who could fill the void created by those absences.

Crosby Returns

Early last Sunday, the management of the Pittsburgh Penguins revealed that their team captain would be returning to active duty on Monday in a home game against the NY Islanders. Amid all the related buildup to that game, they also advised that he would be flanked by familiar linemates in Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. If pool owners paid attention, they should have been addressing the availability of those players in their free agent lists immediately. Kunitz was a starter in 40 % of the pools out there, while Dupuis started in only 22% of all pools. The trio enjoyed a big night in their first outing and if those early returns are a portent of things to come, these guys will see a huge spike in fantasy interest. This outcome and its preamble provide a clear example that those fantasy owners who keep their eyes on daily hockey news can really benefit.

At the same time, it says a great deal about the Penguins' handling of their resident leader. From the standpoint of his main rival, Alex Ovechkin, it probably added to his overall sense of frustration. It wasn't so long ago that most observers felt that Ovechkin had a slight edge over Crosby. A couple of upsets in the last two playoffs have caused Coach Bruce Boudreau to change the basic philosophy of his team, opting to become more of a defensively responsible group as opposed to their former run and gun mentality. Last season that translated into greatly reduced offensive totals for Ovechkin and his most of his teammates. That tendency has continued this season and most recently, Ovie's regular center, Nicklas Backstrom has been assigned to another forward line. There is also a very visible tension between star player and coach regarding ice time and that circumstance usually represents the last gasp of a coach making his last stand. If the Caps' struggles worsen, it is going to result in a change at the helm, the way these scenarios usually wind up.

Trade throw-in becomes a key cog in Toronto

The Anaheim Ducks approached the Maple Leafs late last season, with an eye on bolstering their defense corps. They got Toronto to give up veteran Francois Beauchemin in exchange for a conditional draft pick and defense prospect Jake Gardiner. The key aspect to clinching this deal was the ability of the Leafs to also take on the unwanted contract (4.25 annual cap hit through next season) of the injury-troubled winger Joffrey Lupul.

Well, suffice it to say that the Leafs would have been pleased enough with the positive impression made by Gardiner on this year's blueline, but Lupul has found a rebirth in his hockey fortunes since joining the Leafs. Toronto's interest in Lupul stems from his three 20+ goal seasons in the league and he paid immediate dividends with 18 points in 28 games following the trade last year, during which time he formed a quick rapport with Phil Kessel. That chemistry has blossomed even more through the quarter pole this year as the duo, as they rank 1-2 in league scoring. Call the Leafs the big winner in this swap.

The surprising Big Line in Florida

Another look at the league's top scorers thus far reveals a trio of forwards, linemates who have all been scoring at least at a point per game pace. The well-travelled winger Kris Versteeg leads them with 25 points, while long-time Panther center Stephen Weiss has 21 points and veteran Tomas Fleischmann, another first year Panther, at 20 points in 20 games. Ironically, Weiss was reportedly available at last year's trade deadline and it's probably a good thing that he wasn't moved or he would likely be missing out on this career-best start with these new linemates.

All three players have similar resumes, where much offensive productivity had been expected in each player. Curiously, though, Weiss' 61 points in the 2008-09 season is the highest single season total posted by any of these players. That fact then raises the question: is their collective start sustainable - are they for real?

Career numbers and rates of productivity rarely tell lies and this abnormal scoring pace is also based on a spike over the career shooting percentages for each player, over 5% greater than each of their career marks. Add to this oddity, the fact that Florida can only count one more forward with more than five points thus far (Tomas Kopecky has 10 points) and we have to expect that opponents will soon put the clamps on the Panther trio.
Undoubtedly, fantasy pool owners of injured offensively-gifted defensemen Tyler Myers and Lubomir Visnovsky are coming through their league's free agent pools for quality replacements. We look at this area the same way that many baseball poolies look for saves from relief pitchers. Ever year, some quality options emerge. This hockey season is no exception.

In San Jose, much of the offensive thrust begins from a talented and deep defense. For the last few seasons Marc Edouard Vlasic has teased observers with flashes of offensive skill, in line with long-term expectations that Sharks' management has had for him. This season, he appears destined to finally reach that level as he is on pace for a career-high in scoring, with 11 points in 18 games played. Since the Sharks are again expected to contend for the top rung in the Western Conference.

If you are a stats guy, you might find an alternate solution in a player like the Rangers' top minute-man Dan Girardi, who is again leading the Broadway Blueshirts in playing time (averaging over 25 minutes per game) including anchoring the club's power play.

If a hard point shot is what you are looking for, then Cody Franson (TOR), Yannick Weber (MTL), or Jason Garrison (FLA), should all be attractive alternatives at this time.

To close out this week's column, I would like to come back to a couple of early season issues that were raised in this space.

Last year's Stanley Cup finalists both stumbled out of the starting blocks but now they have hit their stride.

In Boston, the Bruins have deployed the same formula that led to the ultimate prize last season. Tim Thomas is back to supplying the quality goaltending that any contending team must have in their arsenal. In addition, this roster is showing that it is one of the few teams that can [lay the game any way that opponents choose to go. You play run and gun and that gives Tyler Seguin or David Krejci chance to strut their stuff. You think you're tough, meet Chara, Lucic or Shawn Thornton, three tough guys who play a regular shift. Behind all of that variety of skills, you have to get past one of the best goalie tandems in the league, with Thomas and Tuukka Rask. It is no fluke that they have accumulated a nine-game win streak. This team is once again loaded for bear (no pun intended).

In Vancouver, the rebound has been less dramatic, but the quality of this club's roster is again taking shape. The Sedins lead the club's scoring parade, while a veteran defense corps, led by Kevin Bieksa and Alexander Edler, has been front and center in lowering the quality of opposing scoring chances. Roberto Luongo, while still not at the peak of his game has allowed no more two goals against in four of his last six starts. Ryan Kesler's slow recovery from last season's injuries remains the lone big concern, but he should start firing soon, to put the Canuck's over the top.

Finally, we come back to the discussion of a couple of rookies, Luke Adam and Matt Read. Comments came from some readers who disagreed with my dismissing Adam, as a young player, whose hot start was unlikely to last. Well, his game log shows a steady decline in ice time (10 minutes per game in last three starts) and his torrid early scoring pace has declined to a total of three points in his last nine games.

Meanwhile, I advocated that we keep an eye on Matt Read in Philadelphia, who started more anonymously, but has evolved into a fixture on the Flyer's top two lines, whose ice time is up to over 21 minutes per games. He has picked up his scoring pace with five goals and an assist in his last five games.

I told you so ... come back next week for more good information.

I invite you to send your feedback and you can follow me on Twitter (statsman22). You can also listen to me on Tuesday nights, at 9:30 EST on Sirius/XM Radio, on “THE FANTASY DRIVE”, Sirius 210 and XM 87.