For those who partake in the fantasy game, the future is always now. The owners who succeed are usually the ones who operate at least one step ahead of the others. Good fortune also plays some role in the final outcome but more often than not, the winner of your league will be the most proactive person. (And notice I didn't say 'active'. Because we all know quantity doesn't always equate to quality.)
Here are a couple skaters who perhaps haven't been given the most opportunities or have been forgotten/injured but should continue a steady pace into the playoffs (should their teams make it) and, more importantly, be of service next season. We can't repeat any recent featured material but enough examples exist from which to choose.
(NOTE: Three weeks running and still no goalies. Just so we don't forget about them, maybe we should make wild guesses as to which netminders will suddenly star in the coming months. Want to speculate Chad Johnson as the #1 in Boston because Tuukka Rask will be traded? How about Zachary Fucale seamlessly making the jump from juniors due to Carey Price's unfortunate hunting accident this summer? Wait, is Dominik Hasek still playing somewhere?)
Cam Atkinson, F, Columbus
Nothing to see lately (three points in 15 games), and that doesn't even include three healthy scratches earlier in the month. So why recommend someone who seems to have lost his goal-scoring touch (two in his last 17)? It isn't as if Atkinson has lost his skills; they're just in storage. Even if the Columbus offense isn't exactly shooting the lights out (23 goals in 10), the forward lines are finally displaying depth and continuity. If you consider Nathan Horton (four in 12, currently out) as the top RW, then it isn't too far fetched to see Atkinson supplant him soon.
Charlie Coyle, F, Minnesota
It's easy to forget about Coyle when flashier forwards Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter earn more press. But the young American has looked steady the last week or so (five in five) in a feature role alongside Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu. Maybe the prime power-play time isn't there yet (second-unit minutes still acceptable), but you need not worry. Coyle is learning on the job and progressing every day. He's a big kid, filling in to his 6'2" frame. As long as the Wild are patient with the 22-year old, there's no reason you shouldn't be likewise.
Andrew Shaw, F, Chicago
Shaw may be a bit undersized as a center (5'10") but he makes up for it with loads of grit and hustle. Now in his third pro season, the Belleville boy has ascended to the #2 pivot position in Chicago. And while he may never become a top-tier fantasy player, Shaw is serviceable in multiple categories. Beyond the decent point haul (36), there's a nice reserve of penalty minutes (74), shots in goal (141), and hits (158). With continued improvement and increased opportunities, expect somewhere in the 50-60 point and 80-100 PIM ranges.
Jared Spurgeon, D, Minnesota
Congrats to the Edmonton native for making this list two years in a row! OK, so that honor may sound negative if you think about it, yet hope remains when a club keeps its faith in a player. Proof of this can be found in his regular pairing with Ryan Suter and a decent amount of time on the PP (over two minutes a night). Spurgeon may be undersized but you wouldn't know that from his sizzling point shot. All his hard work the past four years has solidified a spot within the top-four, which translates to job security for him and fantasy relevance for you.
Sami Vatanen, D, Anaheim
Even a solid showing in Sochi (five assists) didn't help the Finn from sticking with the Ducks in February. Vatanen has missed almost 30 NHL games this season either due to minor injuries, benching, or outright demotion. But when in action, there's no denying his talent (26 in 53 combined at both levels). With Cam Fowler (MCL sprain) sidelined indefinitely, the 2009 fourth-round selection has taken advantage (five in four since being recalled, including a 26:55 effort vs. Edmonton Friday). The future looks bright for Vatanen. Be sure to wear proper eyewear.
(Honorable mention: Jake Gardiner, D, Toronto; Nick Holden, D, Colorado; Calle Jarnkrok, F, Nashville (briefly mentioned in two recent columns); James Sheppard, F, San Jose; Tyler Toffoli, F, Los Angeles)
For our final piece of the regular season, we'll explore players to avoid for 2013-14. Sticks and stones won't break their bones, but words are guaranteed to get them upset.