The next couple of weeks will be huge for two young centermen, as the NHL world looks to be their oyster. Subbing into more prominent roles for injured teammates, Brandon Pirri and Nazem Kadri, of the Chicago Blackhawks and Toronto Maple Leafs, respectively, are already taking advantage of recent promotions within their own lineups. But while one is universally available in ESPN.com leagues, the approach to the other is more complicated for fantasy owners.
Competing in place of Michal Handzus (minor upper-body injury) on a Blackhawks' second scoring line with Brandon Saad and Patrick Kane, Pirri has two assists in two games. More importantly, Chicago's head coach is open to permanently awarding the promising young center the top-six gig.
"We're still looking for who's going to be that guy," Joel Quenneville said this week. "It's an opportunity for [Pirri] to hopefully grab that. We certain feel he can play there. At what point are you comfortable giving him that chance? We're comfortable giving him that chance here, and I think he'll do fine."
Pegged to be the Hawks' second-line center of the future, Pirri can't ask for a richer opportunity with his NHL squad. From where we're sitting, it's his position to lose. And he's owned in only one percent of ESPN.com fantasy leagues.
Meanwhile, skating in place of center Tyler Bozak (lower-body injury) on a top line with Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk, Kadri has two goals and two assists (and is a plus-5 in plus/minus) in his last two contests for the Maple Leafs. Clearly, Kadri and a red-hot Kessel are getting along swimmingly.
But there’s no telling how long coach Randy Carlyle will keep that line intact once Bozak returns to health. The 27-year-old center was essentially re-signed this summer for the exclusive purpose of centering Kessel's line (in addition to winning face-offs). And the top-line regular is anticipated back before mid-November. As Kadri's fantasy owner, you may want to market the 23-year-old as a sell-high candidate in the next couple of weeks.
Quick hits from around the NHL
• In other Leafs news, contract talks with defenseman Dion Phaneuf are believed to be in the early stages. But while some analysts (looking at you here, Nick Kypreos) are tossing around projected packages in the seven-year, $50 million range, ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun reports no numbers have been exchanged yet. And Damien Cox of the Toronto Stars suggests there will be serious negotiations between the Leafs and Phaneuf before Christmas. Regardless, there’s only fantasy fallout -- affecting Phaneuf, Cody Franson, Jake Gardiner, et al -- from this scenario if extension talks hit a brick wall. And we're a ways off from that happening.
• Forward Brad Marchand will get at least another handful of plum opportunities to break out of the early-season slump that has badgered the feisty winger to start this regular season. As long as Loui Eriksson (concussion) remains sidelined for the Bruins, coach Claude Julien appears keen to stick with playing Marchand on the second line with Patrice Bergeron and Reilly Smith. And Eriksson isn't expected to start skating again until next week at the earliest. As a fantasy owner, if you've held onto Marchand this long, may as well wait out the next week or so.
• The Calgary Flames may have to do without their captain until Christmas. Burdened with a broken ankle, defenseman Mark Giordano has been placed on the injured shelf for six to eight weeks. As it stands, the Flames intend to manage without Giordano by relying more on their current cast of blue-line characters. This means that Dennis Wideman, T.J. Brodie and Kris Russell will split up the bulk of power-play minutes usually reserved for the 30-year-old (Chris Butler replaces Giordano as Brodie's defensive partner at even-strength). While Wideman is universally owned in ESPN.com fantasy leagues, Brodie and Russell are widely available. And even though Brodie holds more promise over the long haul, Russell has a well-earned reputation of putting up numbers in fits and bursts.
"Erik is getting closer to his game," Lindy Ruff said late Tuesday. "He's had a few injuries, and I've got to get him a lot of credit; he looks like the old Erik Cole. If he brings that every night, he's going to be a dominant player.
Although the top forward trio was relatively indistinguishable during Tuesday's 2-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens, Cole contributed a couple of assists in Monday's 4-3 victory over the Buffalo Sabres. The veteran forward's fantasy value will only grow if he sticks with Benn and Seguin. Keep an eye on how Ruff lines up his forwards against the Colorado Avalanche on Friday.
• Don't hold your breath waiting for the Sabres to trade goalie Ryan Miller. Just because forward Thomas Vanek was shipped off doesn’t mean GM Darcy Regier is about to immediately do the same with his No. 1 goalie. According to ESPN's Pierre LeBrun, there isn't the required demand from around the league for a top-notch netminder at present. However, as LeBrun discussed during Tuesday night's TSN Stars-Canadiens broadcast, that situation could change, and fast, if or when a contender loses its regular starter to injury and/or incompetency. Miller's fantasy owners can only hope that happens sooner, rather than later.
• There's word veteran goalie Tim Thomas, recovering from his second lower-body injury to start the season, could suit up Friday for the Florida Panthers. Such a move, while stirring Thomas' earnestly optimistic owners, would further shrink Jacob Markstrom's already weakened fantasy value.
• Look for Charlie Coyle to compete for the Minnesota Wild this Friday, after missing the past 11 games with a knee injury. The Wild had inflated expectations of the 21-year-old center to start the campaign; it will be interesting to see where he settles in, once fully comfortable again. Coyle lined up with Dany Heatley and Nino Niederreiter early this season before getting hurt.
• Anaheim Ducks veteran Teemu Selanne is headed for the dentist's chair, at the very least, after taking Luke Schenn's stick to the mouth during Tuesday's 3-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers. While losing "several" teeth is one thing, sustaining a more serious head or facial injury is a whole other basket of bananas. Stay tuned, as we await additional details in regards to Selanne's injury. With three goals and four assists in 11 games, Selanne has been a solid fantasy asset in 2013-14.
• While defenseman Dan Boyle (suspected concussion) is a "game-time decision" for Wednesday's tilt, forward Martin Havlat (pelvis) could make his season debut for the San Jose Sharks against the Los Angeles Kings. Talented but exceptionally injury-prone, Havlat has been one the league's more famed high-risk/high-reward fantasy assets. Still, a desperate owner may want to give the dynamic winger a go, at least in the short term.
• Young Beau Bennett (lower-body injury) is due back for the Pittsburgh Penguins soon, perhaps as early as next week. With fellow wingers James Neal (upper-body) sidelined until late November (at a minimum minimum) and Chuck Kobasew (foot) out for the next three to four weeks, Bennett is pegged to slide in on the second line with center Evgeni Malkin. Owned in only one percent of ESPN.com leagues, Bennett could nicely bolster your roster, at least until Neal fully recovers. Forward Matt D'Agostini is currently filling in on the right side of Malkin and Jussi Jokinen.
• Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin is reportedly dealing with an upper-body injury. As of Wednesday morning, that's all we know. With Ovechkin out, the top line for the Caps reportedly consists of Eric Fehr, Nicklas Backstrom and Martin Erat.