Take a random sample of 12 regulars in the NHL this season and they’ll probably have played at least a collective 400 games this season. But the following 12 players are not random and have played nowhere close to that volume.
As you’ll see, some are rostered in most NHL fantasy leagues, but some are rostered in virtually none. As we enter 2023, I figured it was as good a time as any to check on some of the possible fantasy contributors that won’t show up (much) in box scores for this season — in many cases because they’ve yet to grace the NHL ice.
They are listed in order of my best guess as to when we’ll see them back in the NHL.
Tom Wilson, W, Washington Capitals (20.7% rostered): Wilson has to be getting close for the Capitals. He’s been back at practice for almost a month and in a full-contact jersey for about two weeks. Recovering from offseason knee surgery, Wilson will return to a top-six role with the Capitals and should be on rosters at this stage, so go have a look in your league. Wilson with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin was the Capitals best line last season, scoring 28 goals together at five-on-five, which ranked them as 12th for goals per 60 among lines with at least 400 minutes last season and tied for 10th overall for goals as a line.
Nikolaj Ehlers, W, Winnipeg Jets (65.6%): A full-go at practice on Monday, we could see Ehlers back on the ice for the Jets by the end of the week. While he isn’t returning to a perfectly healthy top six, it’s a little tougher to guess how he’ll be deployed. Before Cole Perfetti and Blake Wheeler were also injured, it looked like Ehlers would come back to a spot with Kyle Connor and Pierre-Luc Dubois, but with the aforementioned wingers being both removed from Mark Scheifele’s side, maybe Ehlers goes there to start. But it doesn’t matter too much, as you can bank on Ehlers skating with one of the team’s elite centers and getting prime power-play time.
Robby Fabbri, C/W, Detroit Red Wings (0.2%): The story of Fabbri’s NHL career has been glimpses of potential and then injury, rinse and repeat since 2015-16. He has been marginally productive in a Red Wings jersey when healthy, posting 41 goals and 79 points in 138 games since he was traded in November 2019. But with the current Red Wings lineup, it’s not clear he has a top-six role waiting for him, even with Tyler Bertuzzi still out. He’s not worth a roster spot, but worth keeping an eye on just in case.
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Max Pacioretty, W, Carolina Hurricanes (15.9%): The impetus for this column’s theme of returning players, Pacioretty looks like he’ll obliterate his late February projected return and be back with the Canes before January is over. In fact, coach Rod Brind’Amour has said: “It’s definitely within the realm of where you could say are we going to see him within the next 10 games? Maybe. I don’t know.”
The point is, the time to pick up Pacioretty is now. Shaving a month of games off what he’s projected to miss immediately puts him back in the fantasy-relevant mix. Does Martin Necas shift over to center to make room on the line with Andrei Svechnikov? Or does Pacioretty push Seth Jarvis out of the top six? These are good problems to have that the Canes will solve. The fantasy hope would be that Jarvis gets bumped, as he isn’t fantasy relevant with his top-line role anyway (1.3 FPPG).
Nicklas Backstrom, C, Washington Capitals (4.2%): Also practicing in full with the Capitals, Backstrom was considered a possible write-off for the coming season, which helps explain his low rostership. But he will be back and it looks like it will be some time this month. Now, this isn’t the Backstrom that was once a top-20 fantasy asset, as his results have been down for several seasons. But he can still be a contributor and may still earn a power-play role and/or a spot centering Ovechkin. So he’s worth having in most formats as a low-key contributor.
Josh Norris, C, Ottawa Senators (58.8%): Traveling with the team now, Norris is getting close to a return. He probably isn’t in for a role on this dangerous top power-play unit, as some serious chemistry has been established there in his absence, but Norris will step back to a second-line center role with Alex DeBrincat and Drake Batherson. He should be on rosters in all leagues.
Anthony Duclair, W, Florida Panthers (3.0%): The Panthers have some cap issues to solve, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Duclair actually makes his return for another franchise following a trade. That said, he showed last season that he has the chops to be a top-line winger with a strong center. Don’t forget that Duclair had 31 goals and 58 points a season ago. He’s roster-worthy ahead of his return.
Gabriel Landeskog, W, Colorado Avalanche (90.3%): It was rough to see the quote Monday from coach Jared Bednar that Landeskog is “nowhere close” to a return. The original timeline had him back mid-January, so perhaps Bednar’s definition of nowhere close when the team is losing games is actually mid-January and nothing has changed. Either way, Landeskog is a top-tier fantasy asset when healthy and as long as there hasn’t been a setback, he’s someone to target via trade. I have him ranked at No. 111 in a spot where I would trade Chris Kreider for him. And yes, I would do that.
Bowen Byram, D, Colorado Avalanche (20.2%): It feels like Byram’s been day-to-day, on the verge of returning for more than a month. We saw in the playoffs and in his small sample from this season that he has the stuff to still be fantasy relevant even living in the same sphere as Cale Makar.
Evander Kane, W, Edmonton Oilers (77.5%): We are probably still looking at late February for Kane, but that still leaves 20 games of production in the stretch run or fantasy playoffs (depending on your format). Certainly, if you see him among the free agents in your league, he’s worth grabbing and stashing on your IR or bench for another two months. There is always the chance he returns earlier, too.
Jake Muzzin, D, Toronto Maple Leafs (1.6%): We won’t find out until late February if Muzzin is returning at all, so he’s probably not worth stashing at this stage, but he’s fantasy relevant through his defense when he’s playing. If you see news next month about him ramping up for a return, you could get a head of the demand by a week or two in mid-February. He should have value in any medium or deep league as a fourth or fifth defenseman.
Sean Couturier, C, Philadelphia Flyers (15.5%): And our Hail Mary of the group, this is just a reminder that Couturier isn’t technically ruled out for the season yet. He probably won’t even hit the ice for another two months, but that could leave a month of action for Couturier to help you push to the finish line. If you have unlimited injured reserve spots or have been lucky not to need the ones on your team to this stage, why not stash him now? You can always drop him later if the injury bug hits and you need the room for someone with more imminent contributions.