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Frozen Fantasy: Big Change in Buffalo

Janet Eagleson

Janet Eagleson is a four-time winner of the Hockey Writer of the Year award from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

Ruff day in Buffalo on Wednesday, eh? It wasn't that long ago that general manager Darcy Regier was saying Lindy would be the Sabres' coach as long as he was the GM. Now Ruff is unemployed and Regier probably isn't far behind.

Three words: praise the Lord. And Terry Pegula, too.

Don't get me wrong - Lindy Ruff is a quality coach and he won't be unemployed long if he decides he wants to keep coaching. But he was killing fantasy owners.

Let me explain.

On the surface, the stat lines of Sabres' players look solid enough. But Ruff's style rubbed his guys the wrong way - there were plenty of rumors about him berating players behind closed doors and more than ample evidence he had no problem doing it in the media, too.

Confidence is a fragile thing, particularly in young players. And eroding it can forever screw up a young player's future on the ice and yes, that means fantasy, too. Consider this:

Cody Hodgson's stat line (15 points in 17 games) looks like a breakout, but he is being completely misused and utterly overwhelmed in defensive situations. That eventually messes with a guy's head and his output.

Tyler Myers is a mess. Even Leo Komarov of the Leafs pushed the big boy around Thursday night. Myers looks like a broken conch shell that someone glued back together wrong.

Drew Stafford scored his first goal in Game 15. This from a guy who has three seasons of 20 goals or more in his last four, and 31 in 2010-11.

Mikhail Grigorenko could be the next Sean Couturier, but not the way he's being jerked around. And Nathan Gerbe could have been a 70-point player. Not any more.

Coulda, woulda, shoulda...even Jason Pominville is struggling - despite having 15 points in 18 games, he has just seven points in his last 14 and three in his last 11.

I used to think a defense-first coach killed fantasy, but a guy who picks away at the psyches of core - or future core - players is way worse.

Now let's take a look at who caught my eye this week.

Cam Atkinson, RW, Columbus (3 percent owned) - This little guy was a trendy sleeper pick in preseason drafts, but a lingering ankle injury kept him out for 13 games. He slipped off the fantasy radar - out of sight, out of mind - but not any more. He snagged an assist in his first game back Thursday and will have every opportunity to prove his mettle on the top line. The Jackets are awful, but a first-line player is a first-line player. Just watch for the plus-minus anchor that will hang around his neck.

Richard Bachman, G, Dallas (7 percent owned) - The desperation is growing in Texas. Kari Lehtonen's injury record is checkered at best, and he's currently out with a groin injury. Bachman looks like he's the solution until Lehtonen returns or the team trades for a veteran twinetender. He's not a perfect solution and long-term he's only a placeholder for Jack Campbell. But goalie points are painfully hard to get this season - you need to roll the dice.

Tyson Barrie, D, Colorado (2 percent owned) - Barrie is a star in the making. He's excelled at every level he's played in and now doesn't look out of place in the NHL. He's a slick puckmover with great vision and a strong, heavy shot. And that has translated into four points in his last four games heading into Saturday's game against the Kings. He'll struggle with consistency - young players always do. But right now, he's a smart stash.

Matt Beleskey, LW, Anaheim (1 percent owned) - Bruce Boudreau pulled out his Tarot cards this week, shuffled and pulled out the Ten of Wands card. And he knew immediately what he needed to do - put the hard-working Beleskey up on the top line. It worked - the guy with the bust-it mentality has four points (two goals, two assists) skating with Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. It won't last - Boudreau will pull another card. But until he does, Beleskey will deliver sneaky value from the left coast.

David Desharnais, C, Montreal (13 percent owned) - This pint-sized torpedo is finally heating up - he has five points (one goal, four helpers) in his last four games. And you only need to look at what he did over the last four months of last season (try 44 points in 51 games) to know the reward could be high if you pick him up. Worst case, you just dump him back in the pool and go fishing again. I don't think you'll need to do that, though.

Nikolai Khabibulin, G, Edmonton (6 percent owned) - The Oil are Devan Dubnyk's team. But the trade deadline isn't far off and the Bulin Wall could be - no, is likely to be - moved to a team that's desperate to make the playoffs. His expiring contract makes it a whole lot easier to trade him and he could provide valuable insurance to a new team. Stash him if you have room and drop him if he's not moved.

Sergei Kostitsyn, LW, Nashville (6 percent owned) - Someone has to score in Nashville right? This aggressive and skilled winger dawdled through the first 14 games - he had just one goal after a two-point effort on opening night. But he has a goal and three assists on a three-game streak heading into Friday night and he's looking a bit more motivated than he has all year. That's key to his success and his fantasy value.

Robin Lehner, G, Ottawa (2 percent owned) - Go get him now. Don't wait - he won't be there if you pause. This guy is ready and he's better than Ben Bishop. Craig Anderson had to be helped off the ice Thursday night and was later diagnosed with a sprained ankle. The door is opening should step right through.

Aaron Palushaj, RW, Colorado (1 percent owned) - The Avs snagged Palushaj off waivers a couple weeks ago and it's looking like a brilliant move. He has second-line upside and that's where he's found a home in Denver, at least for now. He's skating with Paul Stastny and David Jones, and has picked up four points in his first five games. He was particularly sharp in Monday's game against the Preds - try a goal and two assists. Short term, you can do a lot worse.

Benoit Pouliot, LW, Tampa Bay (14 percent owned) - Pouliot's ownership jumped eight percent Tuesday night. Honestly, I'm surprised it didn't go up more after his three helpers against Toronto. He's getting a shot at a top-six spot and is making proverbial hay - he was on a four-game point streak (two goals, five assists) heading into Thursday and had 13 points in 16 games this season. Get on board - he's always had potential, but this is his first time delivering on it.

Drew Shore, C, Florida (1 percent owned) - Shore was a star at the University of Denver before turning pro last spring and is already a regular with the kitties. He plays a power forward's game and has the size and skating skill to pull it off in a big way. Plus he already knows how to check, something it often takes youngsters years to deliver. He's going to be elite soon enough and we're getting a glimpse of it right now. He has five points in his last five games and looks like a natural fit with Jonathan Huberdeau and Peter Mueller. Center is deep, but he can help in spot duty.

Category Nitro - Plus-Minus and Blocked Shots

Josh Gorges, D, Montreal (3 percent owned) - Gorges must have had his Wheaties this past week because the guy carved out a plus-6 rating in five games. And two of his three points have also come in those five games. And it just so happens he led the NHL last year in blocked shots...He's the heart and soul of the Habs and he'll do the same for your more obscure categories.

Back to Buffalo.

Owner Terry Pegula has one thing on his mind. It starts with an S and rhymes with Manly Pup. Thankfully, new coach Ron Rolston "gets" player development; he really does. And that means he might be able to get the Sabres' young studs back on track.

Maybe I won't have to trade my Sabres after all.

Until next week.