Fantasy Hockey risers and fallers from first half of NHL season

Philadelphia Flyers center Sean Couturier has already racked up a career-high 26 goals. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

By Jan Levine, RotoWire Senior Hockey Writer
Special to Yahoo Sports

This week’s article consists of the Risers and Fallers from the first half of the season, based on expectations entering the season or change in past production, either up or down. Those who have missed a significant time due to injury are not included.

First Liners (Risers)

Sean Couturier, C, PHI – Couturier has scored 34-39 points the last four seasons, carving out a role as a solid shutdown center and Selke Award candidate. Coach Dave Hakstoll placed the 2011 eighth overall pick between Jakub Voracek and Claude Giroux, moving Giroux to left wing. Couturier has exploded offensively since that change, already racking up 26 goals – a career-high – and 23 assists in 49 games.

Mathew Barzal, C, NYI – The NHL has been blessed by an amazing crop of rookies the last several seasons. This year was expected to be good but not at the same level as the Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews classes. The performance of this year’s green class has been pretty impressive. Possibly leading that group is Barzal, who has settled in nicely as the Islanders’ No. 2 center. The All-Star rules and selection of John Tavares and Josh Bailey prevented Barzal from going to Tampa but he was more that deserving of receiving that honor.

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Mikko Rantanen, RW, COL – The Avalanche sit in a playoff spot and a big driver in their climb to that spot, especially in their recent hot streak, has been the play of Rantanen. Drafted 10th overall in 2015, Rantanen already has 17 goals and 30 assists in 49 games, exceeding his total from his rookie season last year. Skating alongside Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog, Rantanen should be a threat to score the remainder of the season.

Jonathan Marchessault, LW, LV – The Golden Knights are the story of the NHL. The big reason for earning that moniker is the play of several players selected in the expansion draft, as well as those acquired via trade. Marchessault was taken in the expansion draft and came along with Reilly Smith from Florida and William Karlsson from Columbus. After bouncing from team to team, Marchessault seemed to have settled in last season, posting 51 points for the Panthers. But Florida’s desire to move Smith’s contract enabled Las Vegas to grab Marchessault. All he has done is post 17 goals and 29 assists in 45 games and earn a six-year, $30 million contract extension with the Golden Knights.

Thomas Vanek, LW, VAN – Vanek has provided Vancouver incredible value for the money after signing a one-year, $2 million deal with Vancouver this offseason. For the Canucks, it was a worthwhile signing, as if the team failed to contend for a playoff spot and Vanek played well, he could be dealt for future assets. This is what looks to be happening, as the veteran winger is having a solid campaign with 14 goals and 21 assists through 49 contests while the Canucks are on the outside looking in again. Pay attention to where Vanek goes, as that will impact his value.

Morgan Rielly, D, TOR – Rielly has missed the last four gamed due to an arm injury but could get the green light to return after the All-Star break. Thought to be relegated to a defensive shutdown role entering the season, Rielly is playing more than two minutes a game on the man-advantage and has blossomed into an offensive weapon from the blueline. With 31 points in 47 games, Rielly is on pace to far exceed the career-high 36 points he notched two years ago.

Mikhail Sergachev, D, TB – Selected ninth overall in 2016 by Montreal, Sergachev was traded to Tampa Bay in the Jonathan Drouin deal. There was clause in the trade with the Habs that said the Bolts would not get the conditional second-round pick in 2018 if Sergachev played 40 games. Tampa Bay focused more on the team needs this year rather than losing the pick, using Sergachev in 47 games to date due to his fine play coupled with injuries, especially to Victor Hedman. Sergachev has earned the ice time, tallying eight goals and 19 assists with a plus-11 rating.

Carter Hutton, G, STL – as I wrote a few weeks ago when profiling Hutton, in deeper leagues, backup goalies have value, and in daily ones, that value rises. One of the best second netminders this season has been Hutton. Coming from Nashville after a solid 2015-16 season, Hutton signed a two-year, $2.25 million deal with Blues. That has been money well spent, as Hutton went 13-8-2 with a 2.39 goals-against average and .913 save percentage, while this year, he is 12-4-2 with a 1.74 GAA and .943 SV% while technically backing up Jake Allen, though lately it has become more of a job share.

Mike Smith, G, CGY – The move from Arizona to Calgary has done wonders for Smith. Tending the net behind a porous offense and defense, Smith’s numbers left a lot to be desired. Resurrected by the team change, Smith has been stellar between the Flames’ pipes. On the season, Smith is now 20-13-6 with a 2.39 GAA and .926 SV%. His play is a big reason why the Flames are third in the Pacific Division.

Others include Aleksander Barkov, Brayden Schenn, Brayden Point, Eric Staal, Nathan MacKinnon, Anders Lee, Dylan Larkin, Vincent Trocheck, Brian Boyle, Mathieu Perreault, William Karlsson, Blake Wheeler, Claude Giroux, Reilly Smith, Dustin Brown, Travis Konecny, Evander Kane, Mark Stone, Josh Bailey, Yanni Gourde, Nick Schmaltz, Elias Lindholm, John Carlson, Jacob Trouba, Nate Schmidt, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Sami Vatanen, Erik Johnson, Mathew Dumba, Ivan Provorov, Torey Krug, John Klingberg, Aaron Dell, Jonathan Bernier, Marc-Andre Fleury, Malcolm Subban, Anton Khudobin and Tuukka Rask.

Training Room (Injuries)

Charlie McAvoy, D, BOS – McAvoy underwent a successful procedure, known as an ablation, last Monday to treat an abnormal heart rhythm, supraventricular tachycardia (SVT). The hope is that McAvoy will only be sidelined two weeks following the procedure. McAvoy, who has logged 25 points in 45 games, is one of the aforementioned rookies having a big year steadying a Boston blueline while playing almost 23 minutes a game.

Others include Joe Thornton (arthroscopic procedure on MCL, indefinite), Evgeny Kuznetsov (groin injury, left Thursday’s game), Nino Niederreiter (lower body, could return Feb. 2), Tyson Barrie (broken hand, out since Dec. 23, could be back right after the All-Star break), Roberto Luongo (lower-body, out since Dec. 4, could practice this week, back in early February), and John Gibson (leg injury, left Thursday’s game).

Fourth Liners/Press Boxers (Fallers)

Kevin Hayes, C, NYR – Hayes scored a career-high 49 points last season, notching 17 goals and 32 assists. But his play tailed off as the season wore on, managing only 10 points in the next 37 games, including just three assists scattered over 12 playoff games. This season, Hayes has been deployed in more of a shutdown role by coach Alain Vigneault. So despite Hayes moving from the third to second line, his production has dropped from 49 to 20 points in 44 games.

Artemi Panarin, LW, CLM – Panarin isn’t having a “horrific” season with 12 goals and 27 assists in 49 games. After tallying 30 and 31 goals with 47 and 43 assists, respectively, some regression was expected with Panarin’s move from Chicago to Columbus. Last season, Panarin played with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, etc.; this year he is skating with a slight drop in talent. Mix in a decline from 16.0 and 14.7 shooting percentages to 8.8 this season and you have a recipe for his struggles and likelihood of his failing to reach 30 goals again.

Duncan Keith, D, CHI – Keith can’t buy a goal. He and Ryan McDonagh were basically competing to see who could get off the schneid first. McDonagh scored twice, leaving Keith as probably the biggest name defenseman who has yet to light the lamp. Keith has zero goals in 49 games despite putting 116 shots on net, continuing his decline in tallies the last three years, when he dropped from 10 to nine to six. In addition, with just one point in his last seven games and only 23 assists in his 49 games, Keith could finish with his lower output since 2011-12.

Scott Darling, G, CAR – I’ll admit I was grossly off base when it comes to Darling. I loved the move by Carolina acquiring Darling from Chicago and signing him to a four-year, $16.6 million contract to be the starting goalie. Darling has been nothing short of horrific, posting a 3.02 GAA and .892 SV% and going just 9-13-6 in the first half of the season. Cam Ward has seen most of the action between the pipes lately for the Hurricanes.

Others include Mikko Koivu, Max Domi, Matt Duchene, Brandon Saad, Bobby Ryan, Andrew Ladd, James van Riemsdyk, Jaromir Jagr, Dustin Byfuglien, Aaron Ekblad, Brent Seabrook, Cam Fowler, Robin Lehner, Thomas Greiss and Carey Price.