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Thursday fantasy hockey tips: NHL picks, matchups, more

Sam Steel of the Minnesota Wild is playing between Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello. Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The last time Kris Letang had a stroke, he missed a little more than two months of the 2013-14 season. He came back as strong as ever, recording four points in the final three games of the season, played his usual big minutes in the playoffs and scored about as well as any members of the Pittsburgh Penguins did before they were bounced in the second round. He came back the next season and was his usual all-star, stray-Norris-votes self.

With word Wednesday that Letang has suffered another stroke, it's not a question of whether he'll be his usual self when he comes back -- he's proven he will be -- but a question of when we'll see him again. On one hand, general manager Ron Hextall was vocal in saying this stroke was "much less severe" than the last one. On the other hand, it's the second time it's happened.

As a fantasy manager, after you take a moment to wish one of the best defensemen in the post-lockout era a speedy recovery, you need to check on Jeff Petry's availability. He's on rosters in 83.6% of leagues, but you better believe that will push to 97% real fast.

Petry is doing just fine as the Penguins No. 2 to date with 2.0 fantasy points per game (FPPG) driven mainly through his shot-blocking, hits and shots on goal. Add in the power-play time he's going to experience with the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and, baby, you've got a fantasy stew going.

Admittedly, the Penguins power play has been beyond dreadful of late. This is not an overstatement. They are tied for dead last in the NHL with their Pennsylvania brethren with just four power-play goals in November. Maybe the Petry shakeup on the points can spark the unit. But either way, it's a pile of opportunity for a player that finished eighth among defensemen and 36th among all players for total fantasy points for the three seasons that preceded COVID.

The Penguins don't have many other options for special teams on their defense on the NHL roster. But deeper leagues can cast an eye to Ty Smith, a former top prospect in the New Jersey Devils system who is doing just fine for the Pens AHL affiliate, with 10 points and three power-play goals in 19 games. If Letang is out a long time and this Pens power play doesn't but the November doldrums behind them right quick, Smith might be the team's next-best option for a spark.

Hosting the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday, we'll get to see exactly how the Pens deploy things, but you can bet Petry will be awash in chances to showcase his offensive game.

For how long? Well, as discussed, that's the key question when it comes to Letang's recovery.

Overall, there are 11 games on tap, so you shouldn't have to dig too deep for fantasy plays. But, as always in the NHL, there are options if you do need to.

The Buffalo Sabres and Edmonton Oilers are coming off wins on Wednesday, while the Nashville Predators will also play on Friday.

Resources: Goalie depth chart | Injuries | Schedule | How to watch on ESPN+ | Sign up for ESPN Fantasy Hockey | Download the ESPN Fantasy App | Daily lines

All times Eastern.

Favorable scoring match-ups

Florida Panthers at Vancouver Canucks

10 p.m., Rogers Arena, Watch live on ESPN+

A matchup of top-10 teams in goals per 60 minutes at five-on-five, with both teams also in the top half of the league for goals allowed per 60 minutes at five-on-five, equals a potential baseball score in this one (in other words, I'm taking the over here). The Panthers are still expected to be without Aleksander Barkov, which gives Anton Lundell a prime role in the offense, but you'll also want to make sure Sam Bennett finds his way into your starting lineup, as he'll play with Matthew Tkachuk and Carter Verhaeghe. On the other side, you may sometimes keep Brock Boeser and Andrei Kuzmenko on your fantasy bench on crowded slates, but they should get extra consideration here.

Anaheim Ducks at Dallas Stars

8:30 p.m., American Airlines Center, Watch live on ESPN+

I'm taking the over and I'm expecting the Stars to do all the heavy lifting. Like many Ducks matchups this season, this looks like a lopsided affair. Even though John Gibson is sneaking in an occasional gem in the crease of late, the Ducks remain 31st in the NHL at goals allowed per 60 minutes at five-on-five and also 31st in the same category at all strengths (per EvolvingHockey.com). The favorable matchup means Jamie Benn should be in lineups on this crowded slate, with consideration also given to a one-off showing from Tyler Seguin or Mason Marchment, despite their overall lack of fantasy appeal this season.

Vegas Golden Knights at Pittsburgh Penguins

7 p.m., PPG Paints Arena, Watch live on ESPN+

The top blueliners for both clubs will sit this one out, Letang following his stroke and Alex Pietrangelo for personal reasons. Aside from the recommended advice to get Petry into lineups, Shea Theodore should get extra interest for this one. He's been managing just fine this season without access to the top power-lay unit (2.0 FPPG), but should be a no-brainer for rosters whenever Pietrangelo is out. That said, credit to the Penguins; while they had an anemic power play in November, they also boasted the best penalty kill in the league for the month. While both clubs still remain top-10 NHL teams in goals per 60 minutes at five-on-five, there is a script here where this actually turns out to be a low-scoring affair despite the fire power each club has on paper.

Arizona Coyotes at Los Angeles Kings

10:30 p.m., Crypto.com Arena, Watch live on ESPN+

After the sloppy 17-goal game with the Seattle Kraken on Tuesday, some of the players pointed to the condition of the ice at Crypto.com Arena as a contributing factor. Well, here we are again two days later. But it's not as if the Coyotes and Kings need bouncy ice to have a sloppy game, as both teams are bottom-10 clubs in goals allowed per 60 minutes at five-on-five and are bottom-12 clubs in power-play goals allowed this season. The Kings have, what I will now call, two equally effective power-play units, so it's tough guessing which one will pop off in any individual game, but Sean Durzi and Phillip Danault are more available in fantasy free-agent pools than they should be. As for the Coyotes, it's last call for Jakob Chychrun (now up to 78.8% of rosters) and maybe second- or third-last call for Nick Schmaltz (up to 41.1%).

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Jakob Chychrun tallies goal vs. Red Wings

Jakob Chychrun tallies goal vs. Red Wings

Mid-tier fantasy forwards

Dawson Mercer, C/W, New Jersey Devils (5.2%): Playing with Jack Hughes? Check. Four assists in past three games? Check. Get's to join the top power-play unit with Nathan Bastian shelved this week? Check.

Dylan Cozens, C/W, Buffalo Sabres (9.7%): If the Avalanche have one major weakness, it's been their penalty kill. That's where Cozens plays with Jeff Skinner, Tage Thompson, Alex Tuch and Rasmus Dahlin on the top unit.

See also:

Deep league/Daily Fantasy value forwards

J.T. Compher, W/C, Colorado Avalanche (1.2%): He's getting some power-play looks with the Avs forward crop so hampered by injuries. Anyone getting power-play time with this top unit and facing a bottom-10 kill like the Sabres should be in consideration.

Sam Steel, C/W, Minnesota Wild (0.2%): If, for whatever reason, you need to find a guaranteed-available body for Thursday's slate, you could do a lot worse than Steel. Almost universally free off wires, Steel is playing between Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello as the Wild still wait for Ryan Hartman's return.

Lukas Sedlak, C, Philadelphia Flyers (0.1%): Given their clamor for a second line of consequence, you have to wonder if the Avs are regretful of waiving the player now playing on the top line for the Flyers. Sedlak has four points in his past two games, which coincides with him being elevated to play with Joel Farabee and Kevin Hayes. This recommendation goes out the window if we find out late Thursday that Cam Atkinson makes his season debut.

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Lukas Sedlak scores goal vs. Islanders

Lukas Sedlak scores goal vs. Islanders

See also:

Mid-tier fantasy defensemen

Cam Fowler, D, Anaheim Ducks (18.0%): With John Klingberg expected to miss the game, Fowler draws in for additional offensive looks -- on and off the power play.

See also:

Deep league/Daily Fantasy value defensemen

Mike Matheson, D, Montreal Canadiens (6.3%): Not that we can expect a big outing from the Habs against the Calgary Flames, but Matheson is on the point for the power play, which offers up an advantage if you are looking for a defenseman to add and activate.

See also:

Goalies

Pyotr Kochetkov or Antti Raanta, G, Carolina Hurricanes (6.8% or 13.0%): It's not a guaranteed win by any means on the road against the St. Louis Blues, but this matchup does look defensive on paper for both sides. This is probably your best bet for an available goaltender with a shot at positive fantasy production.

Philipp Gurbauer, G, Seattle Kraken (6.3%): The matchup isn't that great for Grubauer either, but the script is primed for a strong showing. Coming back from injury to find Martin Jones has claimed his crease, Grubauer should get the start here after Jones coughed up 12 goals in his past two games. A big win would go a long way to Grubauer earning his gig back.

Bench 'em

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, C/W, Edmonton Oilers (89.3%): The Oilers have tightened up their depth chart, skating Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid on a line together. It means Nugent-Hopkins, while he still gets power-play time with the two superstars, does not have access to them at even strength. He's skating with Mattias Janmark and Jesse Puljujarvi of late.

Adam Ruzicka, C/W, Calgary Flames (3.7%): In case you were enjoying his run off time on the top line, it's over. Jonathan Huberdeau is back with Elias Lindholm and Tyler Toffoli,