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Neutral Zone Wrap: Finding short-term talent

by | Rotowire.com
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It's time to sit down in front of the television (or the streaming online video, as the kids are doing these days) and start watching regular-season hockey. A socially acceptable time to drink and swear to your heart's content. A few hours to keep all the other distractions out of mind. Or so you'd think.

You know those things that appear on broadcasts besides the actual show when we usually run off to the bathroom or grab a refill? Yeah, commercials. Well, when you have nothing better to do during these lulls, the brain ultimately takes over. So if you're looking at hockey, then you're ultimately thinking about hockey. And if that's the case, then your Fantasy teams will inevitably invade your thoughts.

Your squads are set and the games start to mean something, so the focus turns from planning to worrying. Should I have drafted the lower-scoring forward because he would've provided more penalty minutes? Have I forgot to insert the right players into my lineup? And yes, the most important concern: How soon until one of my guys gets injured?

As I say every year, you cannot protect your Fantasy players from getting hurt; that's the nature of the game. Short-term aches and pains will go away and the free-agent market is often loaded with serviceable replacements. However, if you own a skater who may be out for a while, then you may have to dig deeper. The waiver wire still applies, but you'll often find the best fill-in for a prolonged casualty on the same NHL roster. With that in mind, here are a couple significant wounded folk and their beneficiaries:

Note: Long-term casualties such as Sidney Crosby and David Perron are not included since they have already missed long stretches and their replacements are known. Goalies are also left out for the latter reason.

Who has fallen?

Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond, F, Vancouver: Kesler underwent hip surgery in August and will be gone for at least a few weeks. Raymond should be out longer thanks to fractured vertebrae suffered in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup.

Who will pick up the slack?

The obvious: Without Kesler, Mikael Samuelsson gets a bump up to the top power-play. Marco Sturm should also benefit, thanks to his 13 years and 482 points of experience. Meanwhile, Cody Hodgson inherits the No. 2 center spot … for now.

The reach: Manny Malhotra has never established himself as an NHL scorer (either low-30s or high-20s the last seven seasons), but will grab more minutes if his eye holds up. Andrew Ebbett showed spurts of offense during his stints at Anaheim and Minnesota. Chris Higgins boosted his stock thanks to a decent postseason (eight points in 25 contests), but should only be counted on for secondary scoring.

Who has fallen?

Andrei Markov, D, Montreal: The recovery for Markov from a second major knee procedure has been slow. Swelling has hindered his rehab, so a return date is unknown. It could be weeks. It may be months. (Check your calendar to see what moon phase will affect Markov and plan accordingly.

Who will pick up the slack?

The obvious: If the Habs want to employ a two-D alignment on the power play, then Jaroslav Spacek will no doubt be asked to cover. Same goes for new acquisition Chris Campoli, although he got his bell rung late in the preseason and may be slow to adapt to Montreal's system. (Fact: Campoli was once considered a power-play specialist, especially in his initial days with the Islanders. How time has sufficiently passed.)

The reach: Josh Gorges could be recommended, although he's also coming off knee surgery and he's never been known to fill up the score sheet (peaked at 23 points in 2008-09). Russian rearguard Alexei Yemelin was signed in the summer, but Swiss sensation Raphael Diaz (70 combined points the last two seasons in Europe) has impressed the last few weeks and may have an edge on the competition.

Who has fallen?

Sam Gagner, F, Edmonton: Just as the fifth-year pro was ready to turn the page on his career after wrist surgery, a high ankle sprain will now keep him out indefinitely. Gagner is trying to fight his way back on the ice, but the Oilers' staff knows better and has classified his injury as “week-to-week.”

Who will pick up the slack?

The obvious: First-overall selection Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has battled his way into the lineup and is slated to center one of the top two lines. But like Gagner as an 18-year-old, the Oilers will try not to rush his progress. Shawn Horcoff will have to show he's fully healed from last spring's fractured ankle, while more will be expected based on declining numbers. (Anyone remember the 73 points he posted in 2005-06? Exactly.).

The reach: Eric Belanger is famous for his faceoff skills, but he's not terrible when it comes to adding a touch of scoring (40 points in 82 games last season while with Phoenix. The key is he's healthy). Another 20-and-under, Swede Anton Lander, starts the season as the fourth-line pivot man after a solid preseason. Don't expect a lot from the 2009 second-round pick, as he will probably be sent to the AHL once Gagner returns.

Who has fallen?

Marc Staal, D, NY Rangers: Came to training camp with headaches and left soon after clearly feeling the effects of post-concussion syndrome. You must be careful with this type of injury. Rest and patience is key.

Who will pick up the slack?

The obvious: Dan Girardi is no slouch (check out the 31 points from last year) and has to serve as alpha defenseman sans Staal. Recent times may have been disappointing for Michael Del Zotto (that extended stay in the minors must've been a blast), but it wasn't long ago he was setting the man-advantage world on fire (22 power-play points in 2009-10).

The reach: The Blueshirts obviously saw something in Tim Erixon when they picked him off Calgary's roster. The young Swede may only be around for a few games, but possesses the offensive tools (37 points last year in the Swedish Elite League) to succeed. At one point in his career, Brendan Bell was being touted as a future power-play quarterback. Fast forward to the present: the former Leaf/Coyote/Senator is left to pick up the scraps.

Who has fallen?

Travis Zajac, F, New Jersey: After a horrific campaign that saw the Devils finish near the league basement, things are expected to turn around. However, fortune did not smile upon Zajac after he tore an Achilles tendon during summer workouts. Reports are saying we'll be seeing him again in late November/early December, but don't be surprised if Zajac is held out until 2012.

Who will pick up the slack?

The obvious: Petr Sykora (at almost 35) should make the most of his return to North American hockey, seeing that he's already clicked with Zach Parise and Patrik Elias in early action. Another veteran, Dainius Zubrus, also has a chance at redemption. The numbers aren't exactly promising (135 points in four seasons with the Devils), but really no one outside of Ilya Kovalchuk, Parise or Elias should be expected to excel.

The reach: A rather quiet debut for Jacob Josefson (10 goals in 28 games), but he's young and learning his way around the smaller ice surface. Adam Henrique may be the one to watch for Jersey up front. The two-time Memorial Cup winner has been turning a few heads in training camp and will look to build upon his notable professional start (50 points in 73 games with Albany last season).

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