When looking back over the last week or so of hockey, it stood out to me just how good the Avalanche have been recently. They've won seven out of 10 games in November, and they've done almost all of that winning with their best player, Nathan MacKinnon, watching from the press box due to his lower-body injury. To understate things simply: no one player made up for his absence. It was a team effort that led to them scoring 49 times in the month.
That leads me to my spotlight player, Valeri Nichushkin. The Russian winger's return to the lineup coincided with MacKinnon's exit, but Nichushkin has done a great job. He's picked up five goals and two assists in eight games while skating on the second line with the white-hot Nazem Kadri and ever-steady Andre Burakovsky. Nichushkin has an obvious caveat here – he's shooting 29.4 percent this season, a mark that's bound to drop off sharply at some stage. I don't think he'll end up plummeting in performance though, as he's seized control of the second-line spot that Brandon Saad often occupied last year. Until Tyson Jost starts playing better, I don't see Nichushkin ceding his position.
I don't want to overlook the contributions of Burakovsky or Kadri for the Avalanche's strong play lately. Burakovsky has five goals and five assists in his last nine outings, although he was held scoreless in both games after the Thanksgiving break. Kadri has perhaps been the team's most impressive forward this month with four goals and 17 assists in 10 contests. He was only held off the scoresheet once, although he's the least likely of the second-line trio to be available in fantasy due to his more established talent. That said, he's just five points shy of his output from 56 games last year with plenty of season left. He's notably streaky, so I don't recommend buying high – wait for him to cool off later, then float an offer out there with the expectation he could surge again a couple times this year.
It's not just the forwards that have lifted the Avalanche's offense. Cale Makar has stepped his game up another level lately – good luck getting his fantasy managers to dangle him in a trade now. It's his defense partner, Devon Toews, that has benefited most lately. Toews missed the first nine games of the year due to an injury, but he's shown absolutely no rust since returning. Toews has three goals, seven helpers and a plus-13 rating in nine outings this year, including six points in his last four. He's worth a look in all formats, as his steady defense will almost assuredly keep him on the top pairing, and even a bump down to the second unit won't damage his value much.
After a quiet start to the season, it's encouraging to see Adam Boqvist make some noise. Remember – the Blue Jackets acquired him as part of the Seth Jones trade with the Blackhawks this offseason. Boqvist is no Jones, but he's picked up three goals and two helpers in the last three games, with two of those points coming on the power play. The Swede has suffered a handful of injuries in his first three NHL campaigns, so it'll be important to keep him on the ice, but he's got the scoring touch to be a top-pairing option. Mix in some power-play time on a reasonably good Columbus team, and Boqvist looks capable of producing as a No. 4 defenseman in fantasy.
I'm ready to believe in Evan Rodrigues at this point in the season. He collected two goals and two assists in his last four games. The production has been solid all year, but he's also first in line to take a top-line spot alongside Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel with Bryan Rust (lower body) landing on injured reserve. Sure, Crosby's started slow this year, but Guentzel's been great. Rodrigues could benefit big-time from premium ice time. He has 15 points, 68 shots on goal and a plus-3 rating in just 21 games while shooting a reasonable 11.8 percent. His career-high production is just 29 points in 74 contests from 2018-19, but I believe Rodrigues could have a new high-water mark by the end of January. With center and wing eligibility in some formats, he checks boxes on offense and versatility.
It's fair to admit if you forgot about Andreas Johnsson last year after his forgettable first season with the Devils. He's been a fringe fantasy option in the last two seasons after a 2018-19 breakout with the Maple Leafs that saw him tally 20 goals, 23 assists and 130 shots in 73 games. Fast forward to now, where the Swedish winger has 17 points in 19 games, including six in his last two. Johnsson has traded last year's 7.7 shooting percentage for an unsustainable 26.5 this year – he'll likely level off somewhere between 10 and 12 percent. For now, he's playing in a second-line role with Dawson Mercer and Jesper Bratt, who I've mentioned in previous weeks. That unit could end up being more vaguely middle-six once Jack Hughes (shoulder) comes back.
For managers needing power-play help, Sean Durzi could be part of the solution. The 23-year-old defenseman has a goal and two assists, all on the power play, through his first two NHL games. Whether we're seeing the beginning of another Torey Krug-like career or not remains to be seen, but Durzi's 16 points in 13 AHL games this year earned him a call to the Kings. Drew Doughty (knee) is getting close to returning, which could throw a monkey wrench into Durzi's NHL time, but he could still make an impression on head coach Todd McLellan. Ideally, Durzi would stay with the Kings and play a sheltered third-pairing role while Kale Clague heads to the minors and Olli Maatta serves as veteran depth. If Durzi sticks in the lineup after Doughty's return, he'll have a good chance to remain serviceable in fantasy.
Perhaps the most interesting position in fantasy hockey is first-line right wing alongside Connor McDavid. To begin the season, that belonged to Jesse Puljujarvi, who ran with the opportunity. In the last two games, it's been old friend Zack Kassian filling the role. Prior to the promotion, Kassian had no points in 10 games running, but he's picked up a goal and three helpers since moving up. The 30-year-old is a bruising winger – his 51 hits and 27 PIM in 16 contests will attest to that – but any player seeing regular time with McDavid demands fantasy attention. Just have another option ready to go when Kassian inevitably returns to a bottom-six job.
By now, the Stars' goaltending situation has frustrated almost everyone involved. The team went into the year with Anton Khudobin and Braden Holtby on the big club's roster, and it was assumed Khudobin would be the starter. Instead, Holtby had a great start to the year and played his way back into the hearts of fantasy managers prior to a lower-body injury that cost him about two weeks. In that time, Jake Oettinger established himself as essentially the No. 1 option in net. It's not just the 4-0-0 record either – Oettinger has served as the executioner to lengthy point streaks for McDavid and Kadri. He's limited the Blues, Oilers and Avalanche to a combined three goals in three games. The Minnesota native is very clearly the Stars' goalie of the future and should be rostered across the spectrum in fantasy, but there's only one reason for concern: the salary cap. When the Stars are healthy, they can have three goalies on the active roster, but if injuries pop up, Oettinger is the only twine-tender that is waivers exempt. That free pass to the minors may outweigh performance even as he makes quite the case for himself on the ice.
Another three-headed monster in net came to an end this weekend when Matt Murray was waived by the Senators. He'll head to AHL Belleville, which means the net in Canada's capital belongs to Filip Gustavsson for now. Let me be clear that I recommend Gustavsson solely on the basis of workload – the Senators are still not very good, and he's posted a 3.37 GAA in nine games. His .907 save percentage isn't anything to write home about either, but if he's getting the starts, as he has in four of the team's last seven games, there's a place for him on virtual squads.
With teams at or around the quarter mark in their seasons, we've got a pretty good sense of who's good and who's bad. During December, I'll take a deeper dive into the ins and outs of each team on a division basis, highlighting surprises, stars and systems. Those will probably be a little meatier than what I've done so far, but there will still be a handful of recommended players to ponder. First up will be the Atlantic Division next week.