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Neutral Zone Wrap: A look into the future

by | Rotowire.com
  •  

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
Oscar Klefbom
Oilers' Klefbom Will Return Thursday
Oscar Klefbom, D, EDM
12:59 AM
News: Oscar Klefbom (foot) will return to the lineup Thursday against the Sharks, Jack Michaels of the Oilers Radio Network reports.
Analysis: Despite practicing Wednesday, Oscar Klefbom was expected to sit out Thursday's contest in an effort to provide him with more time to heal. However, after the injury didn't seem to compromise him during the morning skate, Klefbom was given the go-ahead to suit up following a two-game absence. He'll join Mark Fayne on Edmonton's second pairing.

Lee Stempniak
Rangers' Stempniak Undergoing Mumps Tests
Lee Stempniak, RW, NYR
12:55 AM
News: Lee Stempniak will undergo testing for the mumps virus and will be isolated from the Rangers for the next five days, Andrew Gross of The Record reports.
Analysis: Though Lee Stempniak hasn't been diagnosed with the virus, the Rangers aren't taking any chances after Tanner Glass and Derick Brassard both previously dealt with the mumps. Even if the tests don't reveal Stempniak's illness to be anything serious, the five-day timeline will force him to miss at least the Rangers' two games over the weekend. The Rangers could recall a forward from AHL Hartford to cover for Stempniak's absence.

Torrey Mitchell
Sabres Labeling Mitchell As Week-To- Week
Torrey Mitchell, C, BUF
12:50 AM
News: Torrey Mitchell's foot injury is considered to be a week-to-week concern, Bill Hoppe of the Olean Times Herald reports.
Analysis: With Torrey Mitchell yet to resume skating since leaving Monday's game with the foot injury, the Sabres aren't expecting him to return in the near future. He could be placed on injured reserve in the coming days as the Sabres look to add further depth at forward.

Cody McCormick
Sabres' McCormick Week-To-Week
Cody McCormick, C, BUF
12:47 AM
News: Cody McCormick (lower body) is considered week-to-week, Bill Hoppe of the Olean Times Herald reports.
Analysis: Cody McCormick has already missed the last three games with the injury and doesn't seem to be particularly close to a return. The Sabres could place him on injured reserve in the next few days to open up a roster spot for a healthy body at AHL Springfield.

Ben Scrivens
Desperate Oilers Stick With Scrivens Thursday
Ben Scrivens, G, EDM
12:17 AM
News: Ben Scrivens will man the net again Thursday against the Sharks.
Analysis: Ben Scrivens has turned in back-to-back credible outings for the Oilers against the Rangers and Coyotes, but he's been cruelly handed the loss on both occasions. If it's not Edmonton's horrid defense that lets him down, Scrivens has too often seen the Oilers' offense fail to provide him with much support. Simply put, the team is a disaster right now and could struggle mightily over the remainder of the season, making its goalie situation one to avoid whenever possible.

Derick Brassard
Rangers' Brassard To Skate Friday
Derick Brassard, C, NYR
12:12 AM
News: Derick Brassard (mumps) will resume practicing with the Rangers on Friday, Andrew Gross of The Record reports.
Analysis: The Rangers put Derick Brassard under a five-day isolation period after he was diagnosed with the mumps last Sunday, and it appears the virus is no longer wreaking havoc on his body. Though ostensibly healthy, Brassard is no sure bet to return to the lineup Saturday against the Hurricanes, as it will likely hinge on how he looks during Friday's skate. J.T. Miller has been absorbing most of Brassard's ice time over the last two games.

Stefan Noesen
Ducks' Noesen Resumes Skating
Stefan Noesen, RW, ANA
12:06 AM
News: Stefan Noesen (Achilles) posted on his personal Twitter account that he was able to resume skating Thursday.
Analysis: Stefan Noesen isn't projected to return until mid-to-late February due to the Achilles injury, so he still has significant hurdles to clear in the recovery process. He'll likely work out on his own for the next several weeks before the Ducks allow him to practice with AHL Norfolk.

Karri Ramo
Flames' Ramo Misses Practice With Illness
Karri Ramo, G, CGY
12:04 AM
News: Karri Ramo missed Thursday's practice with an illness.
Analysis: Coach Bob Hartley said that Karri Ramo called in sick prior to practice, but is expected to return to the ice for Friday's morning skate. He's slated to serve as the backup for Jonas Hiller later that evening against the Stars, but the Flames will bring a goalie up from the AHL ranks if Ramo fails to notice improvement with his condition by that time. Hartley said there's no indication at this time that Ramo is dealing with the mumps, but the Flames are taking precautions nonetheless, according to NHL.com's Aaron Vickers.

Jonas Hiller
Flames Rolling With Hiller On Friday
Jonas Hiller, G, CGY
12:00 AM
News: Jonas Hiller will receive the start in goal Friday against the Stars.
Analysis: With Karri Ramo absent from Thursday's practice due to an illness and uncertain to be availalbe Friday, it was an easy decision for coach Bob Hartley to tap Jonas Hiller for his third start in four games. While Hiller has been unable to snap a losing streak for the Flames that now sits at six games, he's at least outperformed the struggling Ramo recently, stopping a respectable 91.8 percent of the shots he's faced over his last four appearances. The Flames will play their second game of a back-to-back set Saturday, but if Ramo's not healthy by then, look for Hiller to get the call again.

Mike Green
Caps' Green Gets First Points Since Return
Mike Green, D, WAS
12/18/2014
News: Mike Green assisted on Troy Brouwer's late-third-period game-tying goal and Eric Fehr's overtime winner Thursday against the Blue Jackets.
Analysis: The points were his first in four games since returning from a lower-body injury, but his slump goes back to before the injury, as he hadn't been on the scoresheet since Nov. 15 (a span of six scoreless games) and remains without a goal since way back on Oct. 22. As has been the norm for Mike Green the last few years, it's been an injury-plagued season with flashes of offensive talent muted by near-constant physical ailments.

 
 
 
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