NHL Skinny: Jacket required

GOALIE HOT SEAT

DETROIT RED WINGS RED HOT
1st Chair: Chris Osgood(notes)
2nd Chair: Jimmy Howard(notes)
Skinny: Osgood finally got back to work Friday (2-1 OTL, 20 saves) after losing eight pounds (and obviously a lot of strength) during a bout with the flu. Howard was just fine in relief (4-1, 2.17, .916) and coach Mike Babcock has credited the rookie with solidifying the goalie situation. That means Detroit can carry through with its plan to give the backup plenty of work. Consider Howard a viable G3 even if Osgood remains the starter.


TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING RED HOT
1st Chair: Mike Smith(notes)
2nd Chair: Antero Niittymaki(notes)
Skinny: If you’re a starting goalie who didn’t begin the season as a No. 1, your margin for error is basically zero. So it shouldn’t come as a shock that despite ranking among the league leaders in save percentage, Niittymaki has been a spectator in three of Tampa’s last four games (Smith went 1-1-1). Smith also has little room to falter, but it’s clear the organization wants to give him a chance to nail this job down.


WASHINGTON CAPITALS RED HOT
1st Chair: Semyon Varlamov(notes)
2nd Chair: Jose Theodore(notes), Michal Neuvirth(notes)
Skinny: Theodore returned to practice after a personal leave insisting his recent struggles aren’t anything technical. He’s 2-1-1 in November, but the supporting numbers aren’t pretty: 4.35 GAA, .846 save pct. If focus is the key, as he says, then perhaps the time away will help (he’s been dealing with a significant family crisis since the summer). Varlamov has been stellar this month (3-1-1, 1.59, .946).


TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS RED HOT
1st Chair: Vesa Toskala(notes)
2nd Chair: Jonas Gustavsson(notes) (1a)
Skinny: They are in “win and stay in” mode in Toronto and you can supply your own punch line to that one. Toskala gets the start Monday after defeating Washington on Saturday. Gustavsson has surrendered 12 goals in his last seven periods of action.


ANAHEIM DUCKS HOT
1st Chair: Jonas Hiller(notes)
2nd Chair: Jean-Sebastien Giguere(notes)
Skinny: Since blanking Nashville on Nov. 5, Hiller has allowed at least three goals in five straight games (two wins). Giguere is still looking for his first win on the season. Both goalies aknowledge they have to play better. Coach Randy Carlyle isn’t very forthcoming with goalie information, but you can bet the advantage goes to the first guy to get a hot hand.


NASHVILLE PREDATORS HOT
1st Chair: Pekka Rinne(notes)
2nd Chair: Dan Ellis(notes)
Skinny: Rinne is making the big saves lately. His last two wins have come via the shootout and all five games during his current win streak have been in doubt until the final horn. Rinne starts again Monday, but with five games in eight days coming up, Ellis may finally get back between the pipes for the first time since Nov. 10.


MONTREAL CANADIENS HOT
1st Chair: Carey Price(notes)
2nd Chair: Jaroslav Halak(notes)
Skinny: They’re appreciative of Price’s hard work in Montreal and the end results have been noticed at the league office. His November ratios (2.31, .929) hold up against anyone. We’re not sold on the consistency yet, however. Last year Price was 11-3-4 in Nov.-Dec. and 2-8-1 in Jan.-Feb.


COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS WARM
1st Chair: Steve Mason(notes)
2nd Chair: Mathieu Garon(notes)
Skinny: Mason returned from a brief shutdown due to back spasms to stop 70 of 74 shots in splitting games at Dallas and Nashville. Garon defeated Edmonton and Anaheim in his brief stint as No. 1 (55 saves on 59 shots). Mason hasn’t been great as a sophomore and the Jackets have no cushion right now in the playoff race, so you at least have to keep Garon on speed dial in case Mason hits another tough patch.


NEW YORK ISLANDERS WARM
1st Chair: Dwayne Roloson(notes)
2nd Chair: Martin Biron(notes), Rick DiPietro(notes)
Skinny: DiPietro is expected to practice with the team Tuesday. Over at Islanderspointblank.com a late-December return date is being floated. Roloson and Biron have been adequate – even for fantasy purposes – but it’s just a waiting game now.


ATLANTA THRASHERS LUKEWARM
1st Chair: Ondrej Pavelec(notes)
2nd Chair: Kari Lehtonen(notes), Johan Hedberg(notes)
Skinny: This time last week there was speculation that the Moose might be taking over as top dog in Atlanta. Since then Pavelec has suffered two overtime losses by identical 4-3 scores (one via shootout) and Hedberg has but one start, a 3-2 loss to the Penguins. It’s conceivable that a 2-1 ratio could be maintained, or the Thrashers could wait for a hot hand to emerge and ride it.


You may have noticed a little more green on your television sets during some of your favorite prime-time shows last week. Here at Skinny Central we’re friends of the planet 52 weeks a year. You’ll generally find these intro comments recycled (some might call them stale) from year-to-year. Sometimes, sadly, we’ll keep a theme alive from one week to the next. A few popular themes: Don’t panic; Be patient; Boy there sure are lots of injuries; Isn’t this the craziest season ever? (NFL only); Trading deadline is here!; Hey, we’re at the (insert quarter-pole, halfway or any other relevant calendar milestone) point, let’s hand out some (insert awards, steals/busts, etc.). Today we’ll get right to it, now that we’ve sneakily satisfied the word count for a non-intro intro. Let’s get Skinny …

Like most of you, I got my start playing fantasy sports back in the days when the mainstream media was completely blind to the rotisserie world. NFL pre-game shows were shorter and focused on the premier matchup of the day. Good luck finding last-minute injury updates anywhere. The networks couldn’t be bothered with Kansas City’s WR2 and those of us who did care didn’t have the access to provide accurate and timely updates. These days the hours leading up to Sunday kickoffs can easily be confused for an extended fantasy pre-game show (though all but one are pretenders) and if you’re a member of the credentialed media, you ignore your fantasy audience at your own peril.

Fantasy hockey may not move the needle like virtual pigskin, but you have to believe MSM bloggers who report line combinations from a morning skate or speculate on starting goalies well in advance of the game are at least partially motivated by the thirst of the rotisserie masses. Today’s question: Have things gone too far? Is instant access always such a good thing? If you had your nose buried in the Twitter and/or blog worlds over the weekend, you probably heard rumblings that Sens goalie Pascal Leclaire(notes) had suffered a season-threatening injury. The news did cause a spike in transactions involving Ottawa backup Brian Elliott(notes). Now chances are these owners probably didn’t discard a valuable asset to acquire Elliott, but in any case those who did probably aren’t all that amused by the fact that Leclaire is having a nice chuckle over all the speculation.

The lesson: Not all news is news. Leclaire’s injury doesn’t appear to be serious. Not every morning-skate line combination will survive to see an opening faceoff. Those that do can often dissolve before you can say, “He was probably just sending a message.” Sleep on every update you stumble upon? Certainly not, but do take time to develop trusted sources and often there’s no substitute for simply flipping on a game and seeing if a player passes the eye test. For what it’s worth, a few of my favorite MSM hockey blogs: The Capitals Insider from the Washington Post, the Puck-rakers from the Columbus Dispatch and Working the Corners from the San Jose Mercury News. Non-paper affiliated blogs covering the Kings and Islanders are also must-reads if you are invested in players from those teams.

This week’s question for the comments section: If your fantasy stud is a borderline Olympic team candidate for his country, do you want him making the team? I’d personally favor a snub, but it’s close. There’s just going to be so much passion and scrutiny involved in the games in Vancouver, particularly for Team Canada (obviously) and to a lesser degree the Americans. So best case, a player returns to the NHL dealing with some level of mental or physical fatigue. Worst case the play-your-heart-out nature of the tournament results in some lingering injuries. I think I’ll take a few months of chip-on-your-shoulder hockey, but again it’s really a toss-up.

One-timers: Boston goalie Tim Thomas(notes) is dealing with what could be an upper-body injury but Marc Savard(notes) is due to return to the lineup Monday. … Daniel Sedin(notes) is back and reunited with his brother on Vancouver’s No. 1 line. … Sharks speedster Torrey Mitchell(notes) is close to playing his first NHL game since May of 2008. … Count me among those who feel Brent Burns(notes) is still due to become a difference-making fantasy defenseman this season. As such, consider me as disappointed as anyone to hear that the rearguard has suffered another concussion. … Tuomo Ruutu(notes) has nine points in his last six games and is one of those rare PIM/PPP threats. …

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Anton Stralman(notes), D, Cls (10-percent owned) – Stralman led all Columbus players in power-play ice time Saturday, logging 4:11 with the man advantage. The results (1 power-play goal, 1 even-strength assist) were not out of character with his recent contributions. In the last week, Stralman ranks ninth among all players in fantasy value (2 goals, 2 assists, 4 PIM, 3 PPP). Over the past month his 2-8-10 line places him among the top 20 defensemen in default formats.

There’s no reason to expect a huge dropoff from Stralman. The Jackets acquired him to help invigorate the power play, so those minutes aren’t going anywhere. Columbus has the assets up front for the power-play pace to continue (he has six man-up points in his last nine games). And he’s been responsible enough in even strength situations (even plus/minus in November) to not be a fantasy drag in any one category. Are you getting this type of production from your fourth defenseman? Worth noting: power-play partner Fedor Tyutin(notes) (42-percent owned) has come alive with five points (four on the power-play) in three games.

MARKET MOVERS: Charting player values
Milan Lucic(notes), LW, Bos – Lucic returned from a finger injury Thursday and recorded a goal and three shots in two weekend games. You’re investing in third-line minutes here, but you’re also buying the potential for a robust stat haul – recall Lucic’s postseason numbers from April-May (10 games, 3 goals, 6 assists, 43 penalty minutes). At just 50 percent owned he makes an intriguing add as a LW2 or 3.

Alex Burrows(notes), LW, Van – The numbers say Burrows should be a starter in standard formats – he currently ranks 23rd among left wings, thanks in part to 30 PIM in 23 games. Yet he remains a free agent in about 25 percent of Yahoo! leagues. If it’s offense folks are waiting for, it’s worth noting that Burrows is understandably jazzed about the return of linemate Daniel Sedin. Burrows had 18 goals in his final 34 games a year ago.

Christopher Higgins(notes), LW, NYR – The scoresheets say Higgins hasn’t done much to date – just two goals and five points in 21 games. But he’s getting a shot on the Rangers’ top line and coach John Tortorella told the New York Daily News that Higgins actually ranks second on the team in scoring chances with 24. I’m not making a speculative add on this line shift alone, but it does have my attention.

Jonathan Ericsson(notes), D, Det – When a guy like Niklas Kronwall(notes) goes down, you don’t expect someone to just step in and inherit his 50-point pace. That’s simply not going to happen. But there is more ice time to go around and premier power-play assignments to divvy up, so give Ericsson, Derek Meech(notes) and Brad Stuart(notes) upgrades and see which guy emerges as the top beneficiary. Stuart, an upgrade here last week, had a goal and 10 shots (not a misprint) in Saturday’s win over Montreal.

Mike Fisher(notes), C, Ott – The NHL named Fisher its No. 3 star for the week after the Ottawa centerman two goals, four assists and a plus-5 rating in three games. Of particular interest: He’s having a career year despite a fairly flatlined start of the season from Alex Kovalev(notes).

Claude Giroux(notes), RW, Phi – Perhaps taking offense to last week’s bargain bin slight, Giroux erupted for two goals and seven points during a four-game point streak. He can be acquired for a series of clicks in about 80 percent of Yahoo! leagues. The skillset for extended production is certainly there.

Maxim Afinogenov(notes), RW, Atl – The masses are catching up with the Thrashers’ top offseason acquisitions. Afinogenov (6-7-13 in 10 Nov. games) is no longer bargain-bin eligible and Rich Peverley(notes) (2-9-11 in same span) has an ownership figure approaching 70 percent. Must be those folks with 2-9 records in their fantasy football leagues finally giving their hockey rosters a good once over.

Nathan Horton(notes), C/RW, Fla – The fantasy masses probably still feel burned by Horton, who followed up a 62-point, 85-PIM season in 2007-08 with across-the-board regression and 15 missed games a season ago. Well Horton is currently on pace for a career-best 66 points and another 80 PIM campaign isn’t out of the question. We’d like to see more from him on the power play, but right now he’s outperforming his 59-percent ownership level. The dual-position eligibility is nice, too.

Ryane Clowe(notes), LW, SJ – After a slow start, Clowe now has points in 10 of his last 12 games. He’s playing with more confidence and shooting the puck more than he did in the early going when he put one or fewer pucks on net in six of his first eight games.

Brian Pothier(notes), D, Was – Pothier has done almost all his damage in November (3-3-5 in nine games this month after just one assist in 12 October games). Not surprisingly, he says he’s getting more comfortable jumping into the fray on offense.

Martin Havlat(notes), RW, Min – I must admit I was surprised to Havlat dropped to waivers in the Yahoo! experts league. Then I saw his recent scoring pace (one point in seven) and the injury report (he’s dealing with a hamstring injury) and the deal made a little more sense. Your forecast for Havlat’s season likely depends on your opinion of the system implemented by new coach Todd Richards.

Yahoo! Friends and Family League update
Representing the brand, Yahoo! Sports’ own Scott Pianowski has taken over first place. If we weren’t working his fingers to the bone covering football and getting ready for spring training (it is November, after all), you’d be quick to learn this guy really knows his hockey. Pianow got four wins in net (Nabokov, Huet) and a nice offensive push from Jason Arnott(notes) (3 goals). League-wide transactions included moves for Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Jaroslav Spacek(notes), Marc-Andre Bergeron(notes), Francois Beauchemin(notes), Wayne Simmonds(notes) and Matt Carkner(notes).

Matt Romig is a senior editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Matt a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Nov 23, 2009