This is the fourth of a series of articles in which we will attempt to accurately project the top three lines for each team in the NHL's Atlantic 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 fantasy-wise for each team if/when injuries hit.
(All stats for the 2009-10 NHL season unless otherwise noted)
New Jersey Devils
The Devils' signing of Kovalchuk is now complete. Who they will have to trade to fit under the cap remains a mystery. As it currently stands Kovalchuk seems destined for the second line and should be centered by Arnott, who returns to the Devils for whom he toiled for five seasons from 97'to '02. Who plays on the right wing is debatable, though Elias (more experienced as a left wing and center) has both the requisite skill set to play with Kovy and has also enjoyed past success playing with Arnott (the Elias-Arnott-Sykora line was the Devils' top line back in the day). Other options for the second line right wing gig include Rolston, Clarkson, Zubrus and perhaps even Vladimir Zharkov.
As we wait to see who GM Lou Lamoriello moves from Jersey to fit the team under the cap, this situation will remain fluid. Rolston and Clarkson would both receive a significant fantasy boost where they to be moved to the Kovalchuk-Arnott line.
TFFF: Parise, Kovalchuk, Zajac, Elias
Best 7th forward: Rolston
New York Islanders
For some reason the Islanders brought back Doug "Dead" Weight. Maybe they'll sign Bill Guerin too! After all he is a free agent. After the Isles first line the talent level drops precipitously, though there are some talented/unproven youngsters who will be working hard to make a name for themselves, guys like Bailey, Comeau and Neiderreiter.
Bailey is an emerging talent who could really use a full productive season out of Trent Hunter on his wing, as he could be an effective scorer while playing with the young centerman. Hunter has missed 48 games over the past two seasons. If Hunter falters or goes down again then one of a pair of 24-year-olds -- Comeau or Schremp -- could step in.
A name to keep an eye on in training camp is Niederreiter, the big rookie Swiss native drafted 5th overall last June, who was dominant at the 2010 World Junior Championships with six goals and 10 points in just seven games while being named to the World Junior All-Star Team. While third-line duty is the early best-bet were he to make the team, some time on the second PP unit would likely be in the offering in addition to possible upward line movement should he impress from the get go. If the rookie falters in his first pro camp then Parenteau, a better than point-per-game player in the AHL since 2006-07, could get a long look at the third line left wing gig. The other possibility is that the Isles switch Schremp over to left wing and deploy him with Nielsen and Comeau.
TFFF: Tavares, Okposo, Moulson, Hunter
Best 7th forward: Comeau
New York Rangers
The Rangers had a busy offseason in adding forwards Frolov, Zuccarello-Aesen, and White. Most expect Frolov to play with Gaborik but there appears to be less of a consensus as to who will be their center. It looks as though it will be Prospal or Christensen. Prospal played most of last season with Gabby and that's where he should be.
The second line is a carryover from last season while the third line is definitely up for grabs with six players in the mix. MZA is a real wild card, as he led the SEL in scoring with 64 points and finished third in goals scored with 23. He won the Guldhjälmen award as the league's Most Valuable Player. While those are great accomplishments there remains uncertainty over whether or not the diminutive Norwegian (5-9/170) can handle the rigors of the North American style of game on the shorter sheet of ice. Should the rookie be able to perform in exhibition season and crack the lineup a perfect linemate to protect would be Avery, who's coming off a disappointing season with 10 goals and 31 points in 69 games. Of note here also is that Drury suffered a broken finger last week and will be for the first week or two of the regular season.
Christensen had eight goals and 28 points in 56 games for the Rangers last year and can play both left wing and center. Christensen's main competition for the the third center spot is White and Anisimov. The 35-year-old White seems to be slowing down if last season is any indication, as he dropped to seven goals and 26 points in 69 games after scoring 22 goals and 73 points in 81 games in 2008-09. Like Christensen, White can also play left wing in addition to pivot. The 6-4/220 Anisimov scored 12 goals and 28 points in 82 games in his first full season of NHL duty. Just 22 there is some upside here that doesn't exist with the likes of White. Kennedy, a left wing, offers little upside for a 24-year-old. He's more of a grinder but did manage 10 goals and 26 points in 78 games for Buffalo, mainly due to a brief stay on the top line with Derek Roy and Tomas Vanek. Grachev may need another year in the AHL, as the 20-year-old scored just 12 goals and 28 points in 80 games in his first pro season while playing for the Hartford Wolf Pack.
TFFF: Gaborik, Frolov, Prospal, Dubinsky
Best 7th forward: Christensen
The Flyers have to be the deepest team in the league when it comes to having top-six forwards on their roster. Eight of the names listed above are legitimate top six talents with Carcillo the lone exception. The downside of that, fantasy-wise, is that few of these guys will get the normal ice time that's commensurate with their skill set. All indications are that the very successful playoff line of Hartnell - Briere - Leino will remain intact. Hartnell, who generally underperformed last season compared to his ADP, could provide better value this time around unless others draft him like it is 2009. Zherdev is coming back from a year in Russia like his countryman Alex Frolov, now of the Rangers. Like Frolov, Zherdev is playing on a one-year deal so motivation will be high. Unlike Frolov, Zherdev is on a team that has a lot of talented competition for ice time among the top nine.
TFFF: Richards, Carter, Hartnell, Briere
Best 7th forward: Giroux
While the Penguins main offseason additions were on the back end, they did sign veteran Mike Comrie. Unfortunately it is too soon to say whether he'll be playing with Crosby and Kunitz on the first line as a right winger or whether he'll be the third line center. No matter the outcome of Comrie's deployment, Staal is expected to move up to second line when he returns from a foot infection and Malkin is expected to move to right wing. If Dupuis stays up with Sid and Chris then Comrie will center the third line with two of Talbot, Kennedy, Cooke, or Tangradi. Despite the first line prospects Comrie is still listed as a center in most leagues and, thus, has less value in most leagues where center is the deepest position.
The 21-year-old Tangradi, chosen 42nd overall in 2007, finished his first pro season with 17 goals and 39 points in 65 games in the AHL. The Philadelphia-born winger has pro size at 6-4/221 and is worth a later-round dart in many leagues if he can firmly entrench himself onto the second line with Malkin and Staal with an impressive camp and exhibition season. If you're looking for a deep sleeper, look no further than Dustin Jeffrey. Just 22 and a Penguin draft pick (171st overall in '07), Jeffrey put up 24 goals and 71 points last season in 77 games for the Pen's AHL affiliatte in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and he was a prolific scorer in his last two years of junior hockey (189 points in 124 games in the OHL).
TFFF: Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Kunitz
Best 7th forward: Comrie/Tangradi