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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
Dennis Rasmussen
Chicago Recalls Rasmussen
Dennis Rasmussen, LW, CHI
2:58 PM
News: The Blackhawks have recalled Dennis Rasmussen from AHL Rockford, the team's official site reports.
Analysis: Dennis Rasmussen, who has recorded 16 points in 44 games AHL games to date, gives the Blackhawks some extra forward depth for the team's upcoming six-game road trip.

Patrick Kane
Hawks' Kane Wins Most Accurate Shooter Contest
Patrick Kane, RW, CHI
1/24/2015
News: Patrick Kane won the Shooting Accuracy competition at the NHL All-Star Skills Competition in Columbus on Saturday night.
Analysis: He needed just five shots to get through all four targets in the fastest time (13.529 seconds).

Shea Weber
Preds' Weber Wins Hardest Shot Competition
Shea Weber, D, NSH
1/24/2015
News: Shea Weber won the Hardest Shot competition at the NHL All-Star Skills Competition in Columbus on Saturday.
Analysis: He fired the puck at 108.5 mph, just 0.3 mph off Zdeno Chara's record (2012). There were plenty of nods and murmurs among the other all stars, so perhaps this win will buy Shea Weber a few more lanes to the net for that shot. No-one will want to stand in front of one of those.

Steven Stamkos
Bolts' Stamkos Hopes To Sign Extension Next Summer
Steven Stamkos, C, TB
1/24/2015
News: Steven Stamkos is eyeing a summer contract extension with the Lightning, reports the Tampa Bay Times. He can't sign an extension until July 1.
Analysis: Stammer is in line for a deal like the ones that Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews signed in Chicago. Those are eight-year, $84 million contracts and they both inked the deals a year before they could become unrestricted free agents. It looks like he'll be a fixture in Tampa for a long time and that's great news for fans and fantasy owners alike.

Tyler Johnson
Tampa Bay's Johnson Out For All-Star Game
Tyler Johnson, C, TB
1/24/2015
News: Tyler Johnson (lower body) will not play in Sunday's All-Star Game, but he will be eligible to play in Tuesday's game against the Hurricanes if healthy, ESPN reports. He is at the All-Star festivities even though he isn't going to play.
Analysis: Tyler Johnson appears to be sitting out as a precaution more than anything. He played in the last three games leading up to the All-Star break, so there's little reason to think he won't be ready to go for Tuesday's game.

Jonathan Drouin
Bolts' Drouin Fastest Skater In NHL
Jonathan Drouin, LW, TB
1/24/2015
News: Jonathan Drouin won the Fastest Skater competition at the NHL All-Star Skills Competition in Columbus on Saturday night. His time was 13.103.
Analysis: He's been in and out of the lineup, but he is an elite talent. He also scored a beauty goal in another part of the competition. Short term, his value may be limited, but long term, he will be among the league's elite.

Clayton Stoner
Ducks' Stoner Expected To Play Next Week
Clayton Stoner, D, ANA
1/24/2015
News: Coach Bruce Boudreau said that he expects Clayton Stoner (lower body) to be available when the Ducks resume play the Canucks on Tuesday, Eric Stephens of the Orange County Register reports.
Analysis: Clayton Stoner was a late scratch for the Ducks' final game before the All-Star break this past Wednesday due to the lower-body ailment, which he sustained the previous weekend against the Kings. It appears to be just a minor concern for Stoner, whose availability for the game against the Canucks should be confirmed when he returns to practice Monday.

Stephen Johns
Hawks' Prospect Johns Suffers Knee Injury
Stephen Johns, D, CHI
1/24/2015
News: Stephen Johns, who is considered one of the top Blackhawks' top prospects at AHL Rockford, suffered a knee injury on Monday and is expected to miss two-to-three weeks, ESPN Chicago reports.
Analysis: The 22-year-old defenseman suffered a head injury Nov. 26 that forced him to miss nearly two months. After his return last week, he skated in only three games before being dealt yet another setback on the health front. He has six assists and is plus-13 in 23 games with Rockford, his first season as a pro after finishing four years at the University of Notre Dame.

David Rundblad
Hawks' Rundblad Making His Mark In First Half
David Rundblad, D, CHI
1/24/2015
News: David Rundblad has been showing some good stuff in the first half as one of the last pair of defensemen on the Blackhawks, Hawks general manager Stan Bowman told ESPN Chicago.
Analysis: David Rundblad scored goals in back-to-back games earlier this week and has collected three goals and six assists in 27 games this season. The games skated is the most in his six seasons in the NHL, including stints with Ottawa and Arizona. Bowman gave Rundblad raves so far this season, but it will be interesting once rookie defenseman Trevor Van Riemsdyk returns from a leg injury which could be as early as mid-February. "I think David has probably grabbed the reins the most of all those guys," Bowman said. "He's (Rundblad) really shown he's kind of emerged as a guy that's getting more comfortable. He's always had the talent. I think as a young defenseman it's trying to gain the game-to-game confidence. He's moved from the left side to the right side. Having not only not played the left side much, that was an adjustment for him, but I thought he got pretty good at it."

J.T. Miller
Rangers' Miller Continues Roller Coaster Ride
J.T. Miller, C, NYR
1/24/2015
News: J.T. Miller will begin the second half of the NHL season on a five game point-scoring drought.
Analysis: After logging four points in three games after the new year, J.T. Miller has found himself in a rut. With the 23-year-old Ohio native most likely focused more on play without the puck and occasional centering duties, he's a safe bet to continue the roller coaster ride in traditional production. Although the highly regarded first-round pick (2011) has a decent five goals and 10 points in 23 games this season, standard format owners should only have him on their radar, not their roster.

 
 
 
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