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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
James Sheppard
Sharks Activate Sheppard
James Sheppard, LW, SJ
12:58 AM
News: James Sheppard (knee) has been activated from his rehab assignment at AHL Worcester, David Pollak of the San Jose Mercury News reports.
Analysis: After appearing in two rehab games for Worcester over the weekend, James Sheppard was given clearance to return to the NHL club, with whom he'll make his season debut Tuesday versus the Bruins. He's set to man the Sharks' third line, with Andrew Desjardins and Tomas Hertl flanking him on the wings.

Raffi Torres
Sharks' Torres Will Avoid Second ACL Surgery
Raffi Torres, LW, SJ
12:55 AM
News: Raffi Torres (knee) will not require a second operation on his torn ACL, David Pollak of the San Jose Mercury News reports.
Analysis: It's a fortunate bit of news for Raffi Torres, and while he's now in line to return earlier than originally anticipated, he's still looking at a lengthy recover timetable. Rather than opting for surgery, Torres will instead work on strengthening the muscles around the injured right knee, a process that will likely last two months or longer. Torres will train in his native Toronto before visiting the Sharks staff for a checkup at some point in November or December.

Pekka Rinne
Preds Likely To Go With Rinne On Tuesday
Pekka Rinne, G, NSH
12:48 AM
News: Pekka Rinne is expected to return to the net Tuesday versus the Coyotes, NHL.com's Robby Stanley reports.
Analysis: The Predators received a highly-impressive outing from backup Carter Hutton during the team's most-recent tilt with the Blackhawks, but he's no threat to cut into Pekka Rinne's workload. The two-time Vezina Trophy nominee has certainly put himself under early consideration for that honor again through his first four starts in 2014-15, going 3-0-1 with a 1.22 GAA and .948 save percentage.

Patrik Nemeth
Stars Place Nemeth On IR
Patrik Nemeth, D, DAL
12:44 AM
News: Patrik Nemeth (arm) was placed on injured reserve Tuesday.
Analysis: The move to injured reserve was a foregone conclusion for Patrik Nemeth, after he was ruled out for the remainder of the regular season following surgery for a serious arm laceration. The Stars hope that Nemeth will be able to contribute at some point during the team's potential playoff run, but such a decision would hinge entirely on how much progress the blueliner makes in the coming months.

Valeri Nichushkin
Stars' Nichuskin (Groin) Moved To IR
Valeri Nichushkin, RW, DAL
12:40 AM
News: Valeri Nichushkin (groin) has been placed on injured reserve.
Analysis: Valeri Nichushkin has already been out for over a week with the lower-body ailment, so the move to IR doesn't come as much of a surprise. It's uncertain how much longer the Stars will be without the services of Nichushkin, but the youngster was able to get in a skate Monday, Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News reports, suggesting a return to practice may be in the offing. Fortunately for Nichushkin, none of the Stars' other wing options have made a strong case over the last few games to take over his top-line role on a permanent basis.

Ryan Stanton
Canucks' Stanton Moved To IR
Ryan Stanton, D, VAN
12:37 AM
News: Ryan Stanton (lower body) has been placed on injured reserve.
Analysis: The injury will be retroactive to Oct. 17, keeping Ryan Stanton out for at least the next three games. Frank Corrado was recalled from AHL Utica over the weekend to replenish Vancouver's depth on defense.

Ryan Miller
Canucks Return Net To Miller On Tuesday
Ryan Miller, G, VAN
12:31 AM
News: Ryan Miller will be in the net Tuesday versus the Stars, Brad Ziemer of the Vancouver Sun reports.
Analysis: Ryan Miller received his first rest of the season in the Canucks' previous game against the Lightning on Saturday, will backup Eddie Lack taking the loss in his stead. The 34-year-old Miller figures to be rested later in the week when the Canucks play another back-to-back set, but the three-year, $18 million contract he signed in the offseason ensures he'll see a large workload this season. He's been generally excellent in his first three turns with the Canucks, winning all of his starts and posting a 1.95 GAA and .927 save percentage.

Ondrej Pavelec
Jets Rolling With Pavelec On Tuesday
Ondrej Pavelec, G, WPG
12:23 AM
News: Ondrej Pavelec will get the starting nod Tuesday versus the Hurricanes, Ken Wiebe of the Winnipeg Sun reports.
Analysis: Ondrej Pavelec's been the recipient of some poor offensive support by his mates to saddle him with a 1-3-0 record, but his 2.61 GAA and .906 save percentage through five games aren't world-beating, by any means. Just as was predicted heading into the season, Pavelec looks like one of the league's weakest starting netminders, though he should be a fine fantasy play Tuesday against Carolina, the NHL's only winless team.

Radko Gudas
Bolts' Gudas Doubtful For Tuesday
Radko Gudas, D, TB
12:12 AM
News: Radko Gudas (lower body) is doubtful to play Tuesday versus the Flames, Erik Erlendsson of the Tampa Tribune reports.
Analysis: Radko Gudas was generally expected to return to action in time for Monday's tilt with the Oilers, but he hasn't quite progressed as quickly as the Bolts had anticipated. While a long-term absence looks to be off the table for the blueliner, he'll still head off to the press box for his fourth consecutive contest.

Jonathan Drouin
Bolts' Drouin Quiet In Debut
Jonathan Drouin, LW, TB
12:07 AM
News: Jonathan Drouin (thumb) turned in a quiet outing in his NHL debut Monday against the Oilers, attempting one shot on goal and finishing with a minus-1 rating over 16:10 of ice time.
Analysis: Jonathan Drouin was activated from his rehab assignment at AHL Syracuse on Sunday, but was expected to sit out Monday's game, until an injury to Alex Killorn (undisclosed) ushered the youngster into the lineup. With both Killorn and Ryan Callahan (upper body) doubtful to play Tuesday versus the Flames, Drouin will slot into the Bolts' top-six forwards for a second straight game. It shouldn't take long for the much-hyped Drouin to cement himself as a mainstay on the top two lines and the team's power play.

 
 
 
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