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Neutral Zone Wrap: A look into the future

by | Rotowire.com
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Welcome to March Madness, the hockey edition. The more popular version involves 68 teams, 67 games, and a whole lot of money changing hands. For the ice incarnation, there are fewer teams -- and less interest -- but you'll be able to experience all the same insanity and hoopla from poolies tearing out their hair and consuming supplies for the all-nighters in front of the monitor.

Or perhaps your season is over. I'm afraid that doesn't exempt you from reading this column. As they say, there's always next year. Yeah, good one. They say that every year. In the meantime, you can see what's available in the future. Plan your spending in advance so you won't be caught surprised when the bidding bonanza begins.

To help out, here are a few players who are sure to improve in 2011-12. And while we're in a prediction type of mood, you'll get an extra set of breakout hunches for no extra charge.

Off Until October

Maybe they've waited until the last few games to turn it on. Or perhaps they haven't gotten out of neutral all season. Check back in the fall when these individuals will undoubtedly mature and change their color -- and/or fall off the tree altogether. It's always interesting to see who performs well when a new contract is on the line. The right accompanying personnel couldn't hurt either:

Craig Anderson, G, Ottawa

From a solid backup in Florida to a cult hero in Colorado and then back to nobody in just over one year. The numbers quickly dropped off (from 2.63 GAA, .917 SV%, and seven shutouts to 3.28, .897, and zero) but Anderson has been reborn in Ottawa. He'll be an unrestricted free agent this summer, but he's sure to catch on as a No. 1 or No. 1a goalie somewhere. The Sens should lock him up but may be wary after swinging and missing with Pascal Leclaire.

Marcus Johansson, F, Washington

The young Swede's stats have been boosted playing alongside Alexander Ovechkin (five points in five contests), but Johansson already made a name for himself as a teenager for two seasons in the Swedish Elite League. Nicklas Backstrom can call first dibs on the Great Eight, but Johansson should be able to grab whatever seconds (e.g. Alexander Semin, Mike Knuble) are available.

Dmitry Kulikov, D, Florida

Highly touted after tearing apart the QMJHL is his first North American season, Kulikov's stock dropped as some clubs feared he may leave the continent to go pro. That didn't scare off the Panthers, who selected the rugged Russian with the 14th pick of the 2009 draft. More than half of his 24 points have come in the last two months, where his ice time covers all situations and opportunities. Kulikov is still only 20 but skates as someone about to enter his prime.

Jamie McBain, D, Carolina

The pride of Edina would log more power-play minutes and build on his late 2009-10 surprise (10 in 14) if it weren't for veterans Joni Pitkanen and Joe Corvo. Since the Finn could be lured by more prosperous pastures and as Anton Babchuk serves as a distant memory, McBain is set to step up and take control of his destiny.

James van Riemsdyk, F, Philadelphia

No one can say van Riemsdyk (67 in 140) has turned out to be a flop, but let's not pretend the giant winger has excelled in any part of his two seasons. The pedigree is present, the size is obvious, but the skills just aren't clicking. One could blame the long list of successful forwards already employed in Philly, but that would be a copout. Van Riemsdyk should handle more responsibility - and he will next season. Put him down for 70 points. Book it.

And Now for Something Completely Random

We're allowed to guess, right? The following few skaters will surprise people in a few months. Or they'll go down in history as the quickly forgotten. Nothing much to go on besides a bit of research and a Zamboni-full of intuition. OK, you got us: we wrote every NHLer's name on pieces of scrap paper and pasted them onto a giant dartboard. This is the result of the first five throws:

Jonathon Blum, D, Nashville

With Shea Weber virtually set to head elsewhere for fame and riches, there's no reason to believe Blum will be held back any longer. The early returns (four in 12 to start his career) have garnered mixed reviews, but the lanky Californian has shown enough to be pegged as a long-term starter and one who should carry on the proud Predator blueline tradition.

Darren Helm, F, Detroit

With 10 forwards under contract for 2011-12, you wouldn't expect anyone could move up the Wings' depth chart. Don't tell that to Helm, who works his backside off every night just to stay in the lineup. The kid from Winnipeg is also a jet on the ice and uses these skills to frustrate opposing defensemen and earn a regular shorthanded gig. Here's hoping he makes a lasting impression and adds some scoring to his repertoire.

Taylor Pyatt, F, Phoenix

Not many thought Pyatt could ever return to hockey after the tragic death of his fiancée in 2009, let alone cope with the daily rigors of life. He's exceeded expectations and suited up for nearly every game since his comeback. Those flashes of offense he displayed early in his career (10 goals in 48 for Buffalo in 2001-02) may be gone, but Pyatt can still function as a fine secondary scoring option. A consistent performer who can be counted on for effort and perseverance.

Peter Regin, F, Ottawa

A horrific shoulder injury may have knocked the Danish center out for six months, but he'll have a real shot at a prime job once he completes his rehab. Since Ottawa is in the midst of a rebuilding phase, Jason Spezza and his $8M contract would appear to be moving cities. That leaves the door open for a top-line pivot that can distribute the puck effectively and add a bit of point punch. Enter Regin, who may not have proved his worth yet (only 17 in 55 this year) but is set to bust out if given the chance.

Kris Russell, D, Columbus

Someone who has frustrated owners since his arrival in 2007 might not be a prime choice for improvement since precedent would claim continued anguish. But it appears four seasons and significant work on his defensive game has lifted Russell into a regular role, one where his offensive talent should take over. At least this has been the case of late (eight in 12), but there's no telling when the enigma will once again escape from the cage.

Evan Berofsky enjoys writing. Seriously. When he's not trying to shove hockey miscellany down your throat, he gets his kicks playing tournament Scrabble. If you have anything to say about Evan's work (or need any hot word tips), feel free to contact him at eberofsky@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter (@evanberofsky).

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Player News
Matt Beleskey
Ducks' Beleskey Day-To-Day
Matt Beleskey, LW, ANA
12:40 AM
News: Matt Beleskey is day-to-day with a lower-body injury, Eric Stephens of the Orange County Register reports.
Analysis: We'll revisit Matt Beleskey's status Friday, but at the moment his status for Game 2 against the Stars is cloudy.

Trevor Daley
Stars' Daley Continues Hot Streak In Game One
Trevor Daley, D, DAL
12:39 AM
News: Trevor Daley had an assist, a plus-1 rating, two shots, and two blocked shots in the series opener against Anaheim on Wednesday.
Analysis: Trevor Daley has three goals and seven assists over the last ten games. He's poised to have the best postseason of his career as he entered game one with two goals and no assists over 29 career postseason games.

Travis Moen
Habs' Moen Still Sidelined
Travis Moen, LW, MON
12:23 AM
News: Travis Moen (concussion) will not play Friday against the Lightning, the Canadiens' official site reports.
Analysis: According to coach Michel Therrien, Travis Moen -- who was on the ice with his teammates Thursday -- is progressing well, but we won't see the forward before Sunday's Game 3 against the Lightning, in any case.

Tyler Seguin
Stars' Seguin Scores In Game 1
Tyler Seguin, C, DAL
12:22 AM
News: Tyler Seguin scored on one of five shots and played 20:41 in the Stars game one loss on Wednesday.
Analysis: Tyler Seguin's hot streak continues and with him on a line with Jamie Benn it's hard to imagine him slowing down at all. He's a great play in almost any format.

Nicklas Backstrom
Caps' Backstrom Unavailable For World Championship
Nicklas Backstrom, C, WAS
12:19 AM
News: Nicklas Backstrom will not play for Team Sweden at the 2014 IIHF World Championships in Belarus, according to a report in Svenska Dagbladet.
Analysis: Team Sweden benchboss Par Marts said Nicklas Backstrom declined the invitation due to family reasons. Backstrom has had an impressive but emotional season of hockey this year. He led the NHL with 44 power-play points, and tied with Alexander Ovechkin for the team lead with 79 points in all 82 games for the Capitals this year. Those accomplishments bookended an Olympic campaign that ended when Backstrom was held out of the Gold Medal game against Canada for failing a drug test due to allergy medication, and would have to wait weeks to ultimately be awarded the Silver Medal. After such an emotional roller coaster ride ended with the Capitals missing the playoffs, one could hardly blame the Gavle native for wanting to spend a little time away from the game. Although the Capitals likely face a turbulent offseason, Backstrom remains one of the safest options at his position in all of fantasy hockey. His minus-20 performance should be viewed as an anomaly, and as long as he is getting consistent playing time with the likes of Alex Ovechkin, there's no reason to believe he won't produce solid totals next season. Look for Backstrom to be one of the first centers taken in all formats during next season's fantasy drafts.

Dmitry Orlov
Caps' Orlov To Play At World Championship
Dmitry Orlov, D, WAS
12:07 AM
News: Dmitry Orlov will play for Team Russia in the 2014 IIHF World Championship in Belarus, Dmitry Chesnokov of Yahoo Sports reports.
Analysis: Dmitry Orlov will suit up for Team Russia after taking a significant step with the Capitals during the 2013-2014 season. After requesting a trade early in the season due to displeasure with lack of playing time and constant movement to and from the NHL and AHL ranks, the Capitals started playing Orlov more consistently, and the promising young Russian took great strides. Though he finished with only three goals and eight assists in 54 games, the 22-year-old Novokuznetsk native has emerged as a top-4 defenseman for the Capitals, logging a career-high 19:36 per game this season. Orlov will get a chance to hone is offensive skills in Belarus after posting point-per-game totals with Russia's Under-20 World Junior Championship teams. With Mike Green's future in Washington uncertain, there may be an opportunity for Orlov to claim an even larger role heading into next season as the team looks for another blue liner to share the load with workhorse John Carlson. Orlov will be worth keeping an eye on in the later rounds of next season's fantasy drafts.

Ben Bishop
Lightning's Bishop Not Ready
Ben Bishop, G, TB
12:05 AM
News: Coach Jon Cooper indicated Thursday that he does not to expect to see Ben Bishop (elbow) play "any time soon," Damian Cristodero of the Tampa Bay Times reports.
Analysis: Cooper suggested that Ben Bishop could return to action if the Lightning's current playoff series is extended, but it looks like Anders Lindback will remain in net Friday against the Canadiens, at a minimum.

Ondrej Palat
Lightning's Palat A Game-Time Decision For Friday
Ondrej Palat, LW, TB
12:00 AM
News: Ondrej Palat (upper body) is considered a game-time decision for Friday's game against the Canadiens, Damian Cristodero of the Tampa Bay Times reports.
Analysis: Cristodero adds that Ondrej Palat missed practice Thursday, with the report classifying the injury that the forward is dealing with as an upper body issue.

Tomas Hertl
Sharks' Hertl Notches Two Points In Playoff Debut
Tomas Hertl, C, SJ
4/17/2014
News: Tomas Hertl scored a goal and added an assist Thursday against the Kings in his first-ever NHL playoff game. He went minus-1 and put five shots on goal.
Analysis: A heck of a debut for Tomas Hertl, who skated just 12:15 in the contest. If he keeps going like this, he's going to have to be bumped up into the top six, and soon.

Martin Jones
Kings' Jones Makes Playoff Debut
Martin Jones, G, LA
4/17/2014
News: Martin Jones relieved Jonathan Quick for the third period of Thursday's Game 1 loss to the Sharks, stopping four of four shots.
Analysis: It's interesting to see Quick -- who was ineffective, allowing five goals in two periods -- get yanked in this one, but the move seemed to invigorate the Kings, as they stormed back from a 5-0 deficit to make it a game at 5-3 before Brent Burns' empty-netter sealed it. Quick is likely to be back out there for Game 2, but if he struggles again, well, there's not much room for error in the playoffs, and that means Martin Jones could get his shot.

 
 
 
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