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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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Ryan White
Flyers' White Undergoes Surgery On Chest Muscle
Ryan White, C, MON
8/28/2014
News: Ryan White underwent surgery Wednesday to repair his left pectoral muscle.
Analysis: The Flyers haven't provided a timetable for a return for Ryan White, who signed with the organization on a one-year, two-way contract on Aug. 7. White, 26, totaled six points and 50 PIM in 52 games with the Canadiens last season. He was slated to compete for a fourth-line role with the Flyers in training camp, but those hopes could be dashed as a result of the procedure.

Lance Bouma
Flames' Bouma Inks One-Year Deal
Lance Bouma, LW, CGY
8/27/2014
News: Lance Bouma signed a one-year contract with the Flames on Wednesday.
Analysis: Lance Bouma is coming off his first full season in the NHL, in which the center supplied five goals and 10 assists over 78 games. The 24-year-old probably has room to grow as a scorer given his relative youth, but he may not amount to more than a second- or third-line center at his peak.

Brandon Manning
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Brandon Manning, D, PHI
8/27/2014
News: Brandon Manning signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Flyers on Wednesday, Renaud Lavoie of TVA Sports reports.
Analysis: Brandon Manning was one of the more productive offensive rearguards in the AHL last season, scoring eight goals and 23 assists over 73 games for Adirondack. He earned a late-season promotion to the Flyers and appeared in six games, totaling two assists. He'll be given the opportunity to compete for a role on the blue line with the parent club in training camp, but more likely than not, he'll head back to the AHL to begin the 2014-15 campaign.

Brett Hextall
AHLer Hextall Signs With Flyers
Brett Hextall, C, PHO
8/25/2014
News: Brett Hextall signed a contract with AHL Lehigh Valley on Monday, Frank Seravalli of the Philadelphia Daily News reports.
Analysis: Brett Hextall's connections with the Flyers' front office (his dad, Ron, is the GM) was likely a major factor in his landing with the new organization. The 26-year-old Hextall spent the past three seasons with AHL Portland, totaling 53 points and 221 penalty minutes in 197 games.

Craig Anderson
Senators Sign Anderson To Three-Year Extension
Craig Anderson, G, OTT
8/25/2014
News: Craig Anderson inked a three-year contract extension with the Senators on Friday.
Analysis: Craig Anderson will get an average of $4.2 million over the three years, a larger contract than the one signed by his fellow netminder and teammate, Robin Lehner, earlier in the offseason. His contract was set to expire following next season, but now he will battle Lehner for the starting gig for the next four seasons.

Carey Price
Montreal's Price Begins Skating
Carey Price, G, MON
8/24/2014
News: Carey Price (knee) began skating a couple of weeks ago, Hockey Inside Out reports.
Analysis: Carey Price suffered a sprained knee in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals that ended his season. He said the skating has done "pretty good so far."

Devin Setoguchi
Flames Sign Setoguchi To One-Year Deal
Devin Setoguchi, RW, WPG
8/24/2014
News: Devin Setoguchi signed a one-year deal with the Flames on Saturday.
Analysis: Devin Setoguchi spent last season with the Jets, scoring 11 goals to go with 16 assists in 75 games. The seven-year veteran has amassed 127 goals and 122 assists in his career. It's a fairly low-risk move for Calgary, which can let go of Setoguchi after the season if he fails to regain the offensive touch that led to three straight 20-plus goal seasons with the Sharks.

Tomas Kaberle
Kaberle Hoping For NHL Comeback
Tomas Kaberle, D, MON
8/23/2014
News: Tomas Kaberle is attempting an NHL comeback and has been in Toronto working out with current pros, reports the Toronto Sun. "I might have a tryout on the table, but not in Ontario," Kaberle said this week.
Analysis: "We'll see what happens in the next few weeks," continued the 36-year-old defender. "I feel good, with no injuries (a charmed career in that sense). I still enjoy the game and that's they key. It would be nice to play a couple of more years." He spent last season with Kladno in the Czech league. His fantasy value will be limited even if he does earn a spot. He'll likely only be a number five or six defender.

Danny Kristo
Kristo Re-Signs With Rangers
Danny Kristo, RW, NYR
8/21/2014
News: Danny Kristo re-signed with the Rangers on Thursday.
Analysis: The 24-year-old Danny Kristo tallied 25 goals and 18 assists in 65 games with AHL Hartford last season. Another season at the AHL level likely awaits.

Patrick Marleau
Sharks Take Marleau's Alternate Captain Status
Patrick Marleau, C, SJ
8/20/2014
News: The Sharks announced Wednesday that they would enter camp without a captain, which includes taking the "A" off Patrick Marleau's sweater, the Mercury News reports.
Analysis: It had been rumored and hinted at all summer that Patrick Marleau and captain Joe Thornton would have their leadership roles passed to younger players. It has also been rumored that both were asked to waive their no trade clause. Neither did. The team wants the younger generation to take the torch, but as far as fantasy is concerned, you can't reduce the playing time of a player like Marleau, who scored 33 goals and 37 assists last season.

 
 
 
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