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CULLEN: 20 FANTASY POINTS – Vilardi proving early returns for Jets – Nichushkin doing heavy lifting – Vets picking up pace in Anaheim – Youngs guns firing in Columbus plus much, much more

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 13: Winnipeg Jets center Gabriel Vilardi (13) celebrates his goal during an NHL hockey game against the Los Angeles Kings on December 13, 2023 at Arena in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire)

Each week, I dive into the numbers to help make decisions when it comes time to make fantasy hockey decisions.

This week, the Jets must like the early returns from Gabriel Vilardi, Valeri Nichushkin is doing some heavy lifting in Colorado, veteran forwards are picking up the pace in Anaheim, young guns are starting to fire in Columbus, and the Flames are finding some top line chemistry.

#1 Right winger Gabriel Vilardi was injured in his third game with the Winnipeg Jets and missed nearly six weeks with a sprained knee. He has fully recovered now, it appears, as Vilardi has put up 10 points (5 G, 5 A) and 15 shots on goal in the past four games. With Kyle Connor out, Vilardi has joined Winnipeg’s top line, alongside Nikolaj Ehlers and Mark Scheifele, and that is working out just fine. Vilardi has 13 points (6 G, 7 A) in 13 games this season, putting him ahead of Pierre-Luc Dubois, who has 12 points (5 G, 7 A) in 29 games for the Kings after Vilardi, Alex Iafallo, Rasmus Kupari, and a second-round pick were sent to Winnipeg in exchange for Dubois.

#2 The Colorado Avalanche have decided that they are going to lean on winger Valeri Nichushkin, and he is thriving under the heavy workload. He is riding a six-game point streak, during which he has 11 points (5 G, 6 A) and 25 shots on goal, while averaging an astonishing 25:44 of ice time per game. Obviously, skating on a line with Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen is a great situation for anyone to contribute offensively, but Nichushkin is a strong two-way player in his own right and is an excellent complement to Colorado’s elite offensive talent.

#3 With injuries down the middle of the ice, the Anaheim Ducks have turned to Adam Henrique and the veteran forward has been thriving in his role, skating on a line with Frank Vatrano and Ryan Strome. Henrique has not only scored seven points (6 G, 1 A) in the past six games, but he has taken 121 face-offs, winning 70 (57.9%). A 33-year-old with an expiring contract, Henrique figures to be popular leading up to the trade deadline as a proven goal-scorer who has scored at least 20 goals in six different seasons.

#4 Another veteran providing offensive production in Anaheim is Alex Killorn, the 34-year-old who was signed as a free agent in the summer after a long stay in Tampa Bay to start his career. Killorn was injured at the start of the season and struggled in his first action, managing zero goals and three assists in his first nine games with the Ducks. Since then, he has contributed nine points (4 G, 5 A) and 40 shots on goal in his past 13 games, having success alongside rookie Leo Carlsson and veteran Troy Terry. Carlsson left Thursday’s loss to Calgary with an apparent lower-body injury, which could cause further upheaval among Anaheim’s forward group.

#5 Acquired by the Flames from the Devils in the summer deal that sent Tyler Toffoli to New Jersey, Yegor Sharangovich took some time to heat up with Calgary. Sharangovich fits well alongside linemates Elias Lindholm and Andrew Mangiapane. In the past eight games, Sharangovich has tallied nine points (6 G, 3 A) and is averaging 19:51 of ice time per game. He has logged more than 20 minutes in seven of his past 12 contests.

#6 Demoted to the American Hockey League at the start of the season, 21-year-old winger Kent Johnson is showing the Columbus Blue Jackets that he belongs on the big club. In his past seven games, Johnson has accumulated eight points (3 G, 5 A) despite only registering nine shots on goal. He is skating on a line with Cole Sillinger and Emil Bemstrom and Johnson is getting opportunities on Columbus’ second power play unit.

#7 Staying in Columbus, 23-year-old Kirill Marchenko continues to boost his credentials as a finisher. Marchenko has seven points (5 G, 2 A) with 15 shots on goal in his past six games. Since the start of last season, Marchenko has recorded 34 goals and 12 assists, giving him 2.83 goals per assist, which is by far the highest rate among players that have recorded at least 30 goals in that time frame.

#8 With Barrett Hayton injured, opportunity has knocked for Arizona Coyotes centre Alexander Kerfoot, who has moved up the depth chart to skate between Clayton Keller and Nick Schmaltz on Arizona’s top line. Kerfoot has produced 14 points (2 G, 12 A) while averaging 19:56 time on ice in his past 12 games and even for a reluctant shooter like Kerfoot, those numbers are strong enough to draw the interest of fantasy managers.

#9 One of the most snakebit players in the league at the start of the season, Montreal Canadiens right winger Josh Anderson had zero goals and two assists through 23 games. Since then, though, Anderson is heating up, putting up seven points (4 G, 3 A) and 27 shots on goal in his past nine games. On a Habs team that is thin up front, Anderson is skating with Sean Monahan and Jake Evans at evens while also taking a turn with Montreal’s second power play unit.

#10 Veteran centre Matt Duchene is enjoying a strong season in Dallas, his first season with the Stars. Centering a line with Mason Marchment and Tyler Seguin on his wings, Duchene has produced 12 points (5 G, 7 A) with 22 shots on goal in his past eight games. For a Stars team that can lean so heavily on its top line, getting this kind of secondary production out of Duchene is what keeps them at the top of the Central Division.

#11 Goaltending has been a major problem for the Carolina Hurricanes this season. Starter Frederik Andersen has been injured since early November and Antti Raanta was just demoted to the American Hockey League, leaving Pyotr Kochetkov as the best option between the pipes for the Hurricanes. Since getting called up after Andersen’s injury, Kochetkov does have a .913 save percentage in 14 games. For a Hurricanes team that can still control play consistently, above average goaltending can easily bring fantasy value.

#12 Through 17 games this season, Dallas Stars defenceman Thomas Harley had a modest five points (3 G, 2 A) and 22 shots on goal while playing 17:29 per game. In 10 games since then, Harley has 10 points (6 G, 4 A) and 21 shots on goal while averaging 19:00 of ice time per game. The 22-year-old has scored on 20.9 percent of his shots, which obviously can’t continue, but increased ice time and increased shot rates can surely lead to sustainable offensive production.

#13 It has not been easy for Maple Leafs defenceman Conor Timmins, who has battled injuries throughout his career, but injuries to others in Toronto opened the door for the 25-year-old blueliner to get some regular playing time and he is making the most of it. Timmins has produced five points (1 G, 4 A) with 10 shots on goal in his past seven games. He quarterbacks the second power play unit and has generally been quite effective in his limited role. Timmins has value for those in deep leagues and is well worth watching because if he could just stay healthy for an extended period, that would be a notable development.

#14 A second-round pick by the Seattle Kraken in 2021, defenceman Ryker Evans has stepped into the Seattle lineup and looks NHL ready. He just turned 22 -years-old and has four assists in his past four games, playing more than 18 minutes in each of those four contests. Evans had 44 points (6 G, 38 A) in 71 games as an AHL rookie for Coachella Valley last season, then added 26 points (5 G, 21 A) in 26 playoff games. He started this season with eight points (2 G, 6 A) in 18 games and it was enough to earn his promotion to the big club. There is a caveat with Evans, though. He did not play in Wednesday’s win over Los Angeles and, as well as he has played, he is still competing to earn a regular spot on the Seattle blueline.

#15 Veteran St. Louis Blues defenceman Justin Faulk is not scoring like he did last season when he tallied a career high 50 points (11 G, 39 A), but he is starting to launch shots on goal at an impressive clip. While Faulk has four points (1 G, 3 A) in his past eight games, he has also put 30 shots on goal and averaging nearly four shots on goal per game is a terrific way for a defenceman to generate offensive production. Faulk’s career-high average for shots on goal per game is 3.00, set in 2016-2017 when he was with the Carolina Hurricanes.

#16 At the start of the season, as the Edmonton Oilers struggled to get on track, it sure looked like defenceman Mattias Ekholm was still battling an injury that had kept him out of action in the preseason. The veteran blueliner has steadily improved, though. In his past 21 games, Ekholm has 12 points (4 G, 8 A) and 56 shots on goal. Last season, after he was acquired from Nashville, Ekholm contributed 14 points (4 G, 10 A) and 36 shots on goal in 21 games. He has 14 shots on goal in his past three games and 19 hits in his past five games, so he has picked up the pace and as the Oilers appear to be moving in the right direction, Ekholm’s production should be enough for fantasy managers to take notice.

#17 The key for Philadelphia Flyers winger Owen Tippett is to keep generating shots. When he is putting himself in position to fire on net Tippett tends to be effective, and the goals follow. He broke through last season with a career-high 27 goals and 49 points and that has raised expectations for him this season. Although he is playing less this season, Tippett is continuing to produce. In his past six games, he has five points (3 G, 2 A) with 25 shots on goal, landing six shots on goal in each of his two most recent games. That gives him 20 points (11 G, 9 A) in 32 games and his increasing shot rate is reason to expect that the production should continue.

#18 Also in Philadelphia, goaltender Samuel Ersson has recovered from a spectacularly terrible start to the season when he allowed 14 goals on 59 shots (.763 save percentage!) in his first three appearances. Since then, the 24-year-old netminder has been more than steady, posting a 8-2-1 record and .926 save percentage in 11 starts. That is the kind of play that will give Ersson a bigger role in the Flyers crease.

#19 The Vegas Golden Knights had five different goaltenders last season, on the way to winning the Stanley Cup, so they are probably not too fazed by recent injuries to Adin Hill and Logan Thompson. Enter 24-year-old Czech netminder Jiri Patera, a sixth-round pick of the Golden Knights in 2017. Patera played one season in the USHL and two in the WHL before toiling in the minors. He has a .907 save percentage in 74 career AHL games, which does not scream NHL ready, but it’s not terrible, and he has a .909 save percentage in five career NHL appearances. If he is going to get starts behind a quality team, though, Patera might offer some short-term value for fantasy managers.

#20 What can the Toronto Maple Leafs do in goal? Ilya Samsonov and Martin Jones are struggling, and Joseph Woll is hurt. It might be too soon, but would they consider giving Dennis Hildeby a shot? The 22-year-old was a fourth-round pick of the Maple Leafs in 2022 and had a .918 save percentage in 21 games for Farjestads in the Swedish Hockey League last season. He has a .927 save percentage in a dozen AHL games for the Toronto Marlies this season and the way things are going for the Leafs with Woll injured, they might need to consider other options in net. At the very least, Hildeby should be monitored for those in dynasty leagues because the 6-foot-7 netminder has shown promise.