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Neutral Zone Wrap: Season-ending standouts

by | Rotowire.com
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(NOTE: Stats from games ending Thursday March 31st.)

As the countdown begins to the end of the regular season, it's time to take a look at who is peaking heading into hockey's next stage. Some can be found on clubs fighting to get in or keep others out, while others shine with the reality they'll be doing something other than hockey by mid-April. Whether they're primed for the postseason or ready for some rust and relaxation, many skaters still have that drive to excel and can take advantage of a situation or a less motivated opponent.

Don't think of this column as a playoff preview, as there will be a comprehensive review before the first round. This should only serve as the appetizer, a primer to whet the senses for the upcoming three months. Naturally, none of the superstars or players owned in most leagues will be listed since they're known commodities. And no more than one player per lineup. As well, whoever was mentioned in the last column with respect to next year's risers will also be omitted to avoid repetition.

So while we still have your waning attention, take a look at those who seem to be boosting their effort recently. Great for those NHL clubs still in it; not so much for the non-contenders who would've liked seeing this earlier:

Erik Cole/Tuomo Ruutu, F, Carolina

Every poolie should know by now how much Cole loves Carolina. Take him out of the state and watch his production plummet (27 points in 63 contests). OK, so that was only one season with Edmonton but one could clearly see how homesick he was feeling. Since his return to the site of his only Cup victory, Cole (six in his last six) has once again teamed with Eric Staal to form a deadly duo. Among the Hurricanes' other weapons is Ruutu, who shouldn't be mistaken for older brother Jarkko. The Finn never did much before arriving on the Southeast coast, but Ruutu has built a fine resume in three seasons. His latest hot streak (also at six in six) has helped Carolina edge closer to a playoff berth.

Ray Emery, G, Anaheim

If you haven't been following NHL news over the last month, then you've missed a lot. A bunch of teams have made awesome runs, although most will come up short. That Sidney Crosby guy still hasn't returned from his New Years' slumber. And Ray Emery has dominated in net since Jonas Hiller (vertigo) went down. Yes, the same Emery who showed up to practice on a snowmobile and got into a scuffle with his KHL team trainer. The former Senator and Flyer has looked mighty as a Duck (6-0, 1.90 GAA, .935 SV%), which bodes well should Anaheim reach the playoffs since Hiller's condition may not allow him to play again this season.

Torrey Mitchell, F, San Jose

With the bulk of the forward attention reserved for The Big Four (and a bit of rookie Logan Couture), it's easy to miss other notable accomplishments. Although Mitchell barely receives any power-play time, he still contributes where it matters (four goals in eight). Even though his spot alongside a big name isn't guaranteed, Mitchell's willingness to improve and give it his all should keep him in the black. And if the Sharks finally want to reach the Final, they'll need a balanced effort throughout the squad.

Kevin Shattenkirk, D, St. Louis

Blues fans thought management had gone bonkers when they shipped projected captain Erik Johnson to Colorado for Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart. It's been over a month since the trade went down, but nobody in St. Louis has been complaining. The team knew they were foregoing Johnson's excellent overall ability, but they also realized the two new acquisitions could provide significant potential. And neither has disappointed, as both are currently riding five-game point streaks. At 22, Shattenkirk should continue to build a well-rounded game and join Alex Pietrangelo in their future domination of the league.

Marc Staal, D, NY Rangers

Bryan McCabe and Dan Girardi are expected to carry the defenseman scoring load, but Staal has shown flashes of usefulness in the opposing end (four assists in six). Never known to be a major offensive threat, but his reliability keeps him high on the depth chart and the shift count. With the Rangers battling for the 7th/8th spot, Staal has been offered an expanded PP role – something he hasn't handled since his junior days.

Blake Wheeler, F, Atlanta

The Thrashers haven't experienced postseason action since 2007 but at least they possess several key tools to ensure future success. One of the newest pieces is Wheeler, who first got his break after being forgotten by Phoenix following three years in the NCAA. Boston didn't really like his decline from a 45-point rookie season, but Atlanta obviously saw something special in the 24-year old winger. In 17 games with his new club, Wheeler has notched 13 points and looks to be a natural in the Thrashers' high-speed, high-power attack.

Honorable mention: Matt Carle/Andrej Meszaros, D, Philadelphia; Sergei Kostitsyn, F, Nashville; Alec Martinez, D, Los Angeles; Dominic Moore, F, Tampa Bay; Jason Pominville/Drew Stafford, F, Buffalo; James Reimer, G, Toronto

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
Thomas Vanek
Wild's Vanek Tied To Gambling Investigation
Thomas Vanek, LW, MIN
7/21/2014
News: Thomas Vanek made an appearance at the courthouse in Rochester on Monday in connection to a gambling investigation, News 10 NBC in Rochester reports.
Analysis: It's currently unclear just how Thomas Vanek is involved with the investigation, but he showed up voluntarily at the courthouse and left after a two-hour visit. His agent, Steve Bartlett, released a statement Monday that said Vanek is "not the subject of any investigation or prosecution." Rochester where the Sabres' AHL affiliate is located; Vanek spent eight seasons in a Buffalo jersey.

Jeremy Welsh
Blues Sign Welsh To Two-Way Deal
Jeremy Welsh, C, VAN
7/21/2014
News: Jeremy Welsh signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Blues on Monday.
Analysis: Jeremy Welsh logged 19 games for the Canucks last season, delivering a lone goal and six penalty minutes. The Blues have superior depth at forward compared to the Canucks, so it wouldn't be surprising if Welsh saw less action at the NHL level in 2014-15.

Nate Prosser
Blues Ink Prosser To Two-Way Deal
Nate Prosser, D, MIN
7/21/2014
News: Nate Prosser (finger) signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Blues on Tuesday, Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports.
Analysis: The Wild elected not to extend a qualifying offer to Nate Prosser this summer after he totaled a meager eight points, 22 hits and 83 blocks over 53 regular-season contests. He'll compete for a depth role with the Blues.

Vladimir Sobotka
Blues' Sobotka Awarded One-Year Deal By Blues
Vladimir Sobotka, C, STL
7/21/2014
News: Vladimir Sobotka was awarded a one-year deal with the Blues on Monday, which will take effect if he returns from the KHL, NHL.com's Dan Rosen reports.
Analysis: Vladimir Sobotka signed a three-year deal with the KHL's Avangard Omsk in early July, so this deal merely means that the Blues will retain his rights if and when he decides to return to the NHL. The team used club-elected arbitration to get the deal done, so Sobotka will be a Blue when he returns unless they trade his rights. According to Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he'll receive a $2.725 million salary in the season he makes his return. The 27-year-old center had nine goals and 24 helpers over 61 games with the Blues in 2013-14.

Cody Franson
Leafs Sign Franson To One-Year Deal
Cody Franson, D, TOR
7/21/2014
News: Cody Franson signed a one-year, $3.3 million deal with the Maple Leafs on Monday, Wayne Scanlan of the Ottawa Citizen reports.
Analysis: Cody Franson's new deal allows him and the team to avoid arbitration. The 26-year-old defenseman had 33 points (five goals) last season with the Leafs, logging 30 penalty minutes along the way. He skated with the team's third defensive pairing in 2013-14, and can expect a similar role in the upcoming season.

Ryan Johansen
Jackets' Johansen Inching Closer To New Deal
Ryan Johansen, C, CLB
7/21/2014
News: Negotiations between Ryan Johansen and the Blue Jackets have started up again after Johansen's agent proposed a two-year deal to the club, the Columbus Dispatch reports.
Analysis: This is a big step, as the length of a new contract was the biggest stumbling block between the two sides. The actual dollar amount will still be an issue, but it wouldn't be surprising to see Ryan Johansen back in a Jackets sweater by the end of the week.

Matt Hackett
Sabres' Hackett Sidelined Until Christmas
Matt Hackett, G, BUF
7/20/2014
News: Matt Hackett suffered a season-ending ACL in the second-last game of the regular season and will not be returning until Christmas, reports The Buffalo News.
Analysis: It's been less than two months since Matt Hackett's surgery to repair a torn ACL, so the Christmas return date is only a rough estimate for now. When Hackett is healthy enough to return, he will have to go undergo rehab before he can return to game action. With Nathan Lieuwen and Andrey Makarov already vying for the starting job, there's no hurry for Hackett to return, but if he can't play, he can't convince the Sabres to keep him around long-term. The Sabres qualified Hackett in June, which means the organization is willing to be patient and give him a fair shake. The 24-year-old has 162 AHL appearances under his belt but has managed only to appear in 21 NHL games.

David Clarkson
Leafs' Clarkson Looking Ahead To Better 2014-15
David Clarkson, RW, TOR
7/19/2014
News: David Clarkson is "looking forward to what's ahead" after a horrible start to his career as a Maple Leaf. "It's tough to go through that, when your first impression or start is that," he told Sportsnet. "But that's all behind me. Everything's behind me, and I'm looking forward to what's ahead."
Analysis: We should hope it's behind him. The dude had more fights (nine) than goals (five) and more games missed because of suspension (12) than points (11). Yes, it was that bad. His fantasy value is going to be tied to the potential for power-play time. And in Toronto, that's far from a guarantee. #badfit.

Teuvo Teravainen
Hawks Preach Patience On Teravainen
Teuvo Teravainen, LW, CHI
7/19/2014
News: Teuvo Teravainen has impressed at rookie camp, according to CSN Comcast Sportsnet, but the Blackhawks will be patient with his development. "It's going to take a number of years … He's only 19 years old," said General Manager Stan Bowman.
Analysis: His offensive skills were on full display during the camp and coach Joel Quenneville raved about him Friday. "I thought he had a special day," said Quenneville. "Over the course of the week, you can see his skills. When you put a puck and you're playing for real, you see his vision, anticipation and how he's creating with the puck. And his anticipation offensively is excellent." There is still a chance that Teuvo Teravainen starts the season in Rockford of the AHL, so don't overrate him in single-year leagues.

Michael Del Zotto
Free Agent Del Zotto Talking To Suitors
Michael Del Zotto, D, NSH
7/19/2014
News: Michael Del Zotto remains a free agent past the mid-point of July, but he's not disappointed. "It's motivating," said the defender this week at a charity golf tournament. "This summer is the hardest I've ever worked."
Analysis: He says he's been talking to "a bunch" of teams, but he wouldn't reveal how many or which ones. "I'm just waiting for the right opportunity to prove myself again," he said, "and prove everybody who's doubted me wrong." He'll need top-four minutes and a job on the power play to be fantasy relevant again. There just aren't a lot of those gigs out there.

 
 
 
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