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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
Kevin Connauton
Jackets' Connauton Likely Won't Play For A Week
Kevin Connauton, D, CLB
3/1/2015
News: Coach Todd Richards said after Saturday's morning skate that Kevin Connauton (foot) likely wouldn't play for another week, Shawn Mitchell of the Columbus Dispatch reports.
Analysis: Assuming that timetable holds through the start of next week, Kevin Connauton will miss at least the next three games while he recovers from the foot injury. The Blue Jackets will lean on some combination of Cody Goloubef, Dalton Prout, and Jordan Leopold to cover for Connauton's absence.

Blake Wheeler
Jets' Wheeler Could Return Sunday
Blake Wheeler, RW, WPG
3/1/2015
News: Blake Wheeler (knee) was a full participant in Saturday's practice and looks like he could be ready to play Sunday against the Kings, Ken Wiebe of the Winnipeg Sun reports. "If Blake comes to the rink [Sunday] feeling the way he did [Saturday], he'll be in the lineup," coach Paul Maurice said after the practice.
Analysis: Blake Wheeler didn't skate with Andrew Ladd and Bryan Little during the practice like he has for much of the season, but did see regular work with the third line and on the Jets' top power-play unit. As Maurice alluded to, the Jets will check in on Wheeler's condition following Sunday's morning skate, after which he would likely be activated from IR if all goes well.

Craig Anderson
Sens' Anderson Still Not Ready To Play
Craig Anderson, G, OTT
3/1/2015
News: Craig Anderson (hand) will not be available for Saturday's game against the Sharks, Don Brennan of the Ottawa Sun reports.
Analysis: Craig Anderson seemed to be trending toward a return by facing a number of shots during practices the last few days, but there's still no clear timetable for when he might be able to play. While the lack of clarity regarding Anderson's return date is undoubtedly an annoyance for fantasy owners, the Senators have done just fine without him. In the absence of Anderson and No. 2 goalie Robin Lehner (concussion), the Senators have stumbled into a hot goalie in Andrew Hammond, who has won four straight starts while posting a 0.75 GAA.

Curtis Lazar
Sens' Lazar To Sit Out With Illness Saturday
Curtis Lazar, RW, OTT
3/1/2015
News: Curtis Lazar will miss Saturday's game against the Sharks due to an illness, Don Brennan of the Ottawa Sun reports.
Analysis: Curtis Lazar wasn't on the ice for the Senators' morning skate after apparently acquiring the illness over night. Matt Puempel is set to assume Lazar's spot in the lineup Saturday.

Andrew Hammond
Sens Riding Hammond On Saturday
Andrew Hammond, G, OTT
3/1/2015
News: Andrew Hammond will make his fifth consecutive start Saturday against the Sharks, Don Brennan of the Ottawa Sun reports.
Analysis: Andrew Hammond has been the story of the NHL since taking over as the Senators' No. 1 goalie just over a week ago. After posting middling numbers at AHL Binghamton, Hammond has won his first four NHL starts, posting a 0.75 GAA and .976 save percentage. The matches haven't come against the dregs of the league either; he's posted shutouts his last two times out on the road against the Ducks and Kings. He'll try to continue his California dominance against the struggling Sharks, who will counter with Antti Niemi in goal.

Nathan MacKinnon
Demotion In Store For Avs' MacKinnon
Nathan MacKinnon, C, COL
3/1/2015
News: MacKinnnon, who was benched during the third period in Friday's game against the Stars, will be dropped to the third line for Saturday's game against the Wild, Mike Chambers of the Denver Post reports.
Analysis: Nathan MacKinnon entered Friday's game with four goals in his previous two games, but his play against the Stars clearly irked coach Patrick Roy. The young forward would finish without a single shot on goal in his 12:35 of ice time, and was bumped from the second line in favor of Cody McLeod by the tail end of the game. The Avalanche ultimately prevailed in a shootout without any participation from MacKinnon, prompting coach Patrick Roy to say after the game that McLeod would stick on the second line for Saturday's game. Don't expect MacKinnon's demotion to last long.

Stephane Veilleux
Veilleux Clears Waivers, But Remains With Wild
Stephane Veilleux, C, MIN
3/1/2015
News: Stephane Veilleux cleared waivers Saturday, but will remain with the Wild, Chad Graff of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports.
Analysis: Rather than sending Stephane Veilleux to AHL Iowa after he went unclaimed, the Wild will likely keep the forward around as a healthy scratch for Saturday's game against the Avalanche. Despite being waived, Veilleux remains eligible to play in games with the Wild, and can be assigned back to Iowa at any time.

Lubomir Visnovsky
Visnovsky Won't Play Saturday For Islanders
Lubomir Visnovsky, D, NYI
3/1/2015
News: Lubomir Visnovsky will be a healthy scratch Saturday for the Islanders, according to Newsday's Arthur Staple.
Analysis: The Islanders and Lubomir Visnovsky played Friday so this may be a case where coach Jack Capuano doesn't want the veteran defenseman to play back to back nights. The truth however is that Capuano has benched Visnovsky on quite a few occasions as he seems to look for any excuse to get Brian Strait in the lineup.

Brandon McMillan
Canucks Waive McMillan
Brandon McMillan, LW, VAN
3/1/2015
News: Brandon McMillan was placed on waivers Saturday, Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet.ca reports.
Analysis: Brandon McMillan continued to practice with the Canucks after the transaction was announced, so there's a chance he could remain with the club even after he clears waivers Sunday. The team was likely motivated to make the move in an attempt to free up salary cap space ahead of Monday's trade deadline.

Cam Ward
Carolina's Ward To Get Nod Saturday
Cam Ward, G, CAR
3/1/2015
News: Cam Ward will be in the net for Saturday's game against the Islanders, Brian Compton of NHL.com reports.
Analysis: The Hurricanes elected to rest Cam Ward on Friday against the Capitals so he could be honored in a pregame ceremony for his 500th career appearance in the NHL, which he made in Tuesday's win over the Flyers. Though Anton Khudobin spun his first shutout of the season in Friday's win, Ward won't be bypassed for a start, as he's been quite excellent in his own right of late. Ward has won his last three starts while conceding a total of five goals, though none of the team he faced during that stretch were as strong as the squad he'll match up with Saturday.

 
 
 
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