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Neutral Zone Wrap: Leaders of the pack

by | Rotowire.com
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One month to go. You can almost taste the end of the NHL regular season. Well, that along with whatever you didn't digest for dinner. But enough about what you shouldn't have eaten last night.

Your league is either winding down the schedule or has started its playoff format. So what can you do to hold on to a lead or pull back into contention? If your postseason has begun and you're not one of the select few who advanced, then you need not worry. And whether you're gunning for the next level or fighting off the pack, there are a few tips that can help achieve either goal.

Team improvement becomes the obvious task, but fulfilling this proves to be more difficult with fewer resources. We're going to assume all leagues' trade deadlines have come and gone, so that avenue is closed. The free-agent market has been mentioned numerous times in this column as a great way to boost your squad, so we'll leave that aside. Let's turn our attention to roster maintenance.

Several factors go into whom you should start on a weekly basis. And while an increased number of games may tilt the favor for one player over another, this basic formula does not always work. Favorable matchups, better skills, and improved health also come into play. Maybe insert the guy who happens to go up against three soft defensive lineups and has been riding a five-game point streak over the slightly-injured fading star that may or may not be ready for any or all of the four contests.

(I should've taken the latter piece of advice last week, as Kris Versteeg stuck me with nothing while Patric Hornqvist excelled on my bench. Fortunately, that didn't cost me a playoff berth. Stubbornly, I retained Versteeg in the starting lineup for this period's wild-card battle while Hornqvist continues to laugh at me from the scoresheet. Let's see how hard this will hurt me come Sunday night.)

And now that we've displayed the silverware, we can now direct you to our select choice of items. Please choose carefully. And don't forget to tip your server:

If you would've announced in early November that St. Louis (then sitting at six wins and seven losses) would be leading the Western Conference by the beginning of March, then many would have gladly turned you in at the nearest government-approved relaxation facility. Andy McDonald missed so much time (four months, to be exact), but is clearly making up for it (seven points in six games, including five goals). Jason Arnott (three power-play points in five) is taking advantage of his elite power-play role. Baby steps for Chris Stewart (four in 14) in his quest to reclaim his role among the league's top power forwards. As Alex Pietrangelo (six in five, including a whopping five power-play assists) emerges back into prominence, Carlo Colaiacovo (two in 10, minus-2) gets shoved out of the picture.

Maybe Montreal's woes on the ice have made locals forget about that whole head coach-isn't-a-francophone deal. No, wait, maybe that was the problem all along. Suuuuuure. Or can we blame the skaters? Let's face it: Erik Cole (three in nine) isn't the same as he used to be. Rene Bourque (six in 23 since arriving from Calgary) wasn't the player the Habs thought he was. And Lars Eller (three in 11) is not the four-goal scorer he revealed himself one night in January. Life isn't all tough in La Belle Province, since P.K. Subban (seven in 12, with five PPPs) has briefly awoken from a two-month nap. And Tomas Kaberle (six in nine, including four PPAs) is not too bad either. Although Yannick Weber (two in 10, minus-8) has slowed down considerably after a few spurts of promise.

Philadelphia has managed to hang on, even when their skaters are dropping like flies at both ends. Don't expect James van Riemsdyk (broken foot) to be available before the playoffs. After getting decked Tuesday, Jakub Voracek (probably concussion) may be slow to recover. Father Time has done laps around Jaromir Jagr (groin problems, now it's his hip), but don't tell that to his hands (44 in 56 is very impressive for someone who belongs in a retirement home). Wayne Simmonds (13 in 16, plenty of special-team minutes) remains far from being a secret. Neither is rookie Matt Read (six in 10), who is playing well above his experience. While still without Andrej Meszaros (dreaded lower-body malady) and now missing Pavel Kubina (sporting an upper-body wound), Matt Carle (four in 14) once again gets the hesitant fantasy thumbs-up due to seniority.

As is often the case with non-contenders late in the season, Columbus has upped their game after their fan base essentially lost interest. Derick Brassard (nine in nine, cemented role centering Rick Nash) has been scorching the ice of late. Veterans Vinny Prospal (seven in seven) and R.J. Umberger (five in eight) are playing as if they were much younger. Due to the multiple defections up front, Mark Letestu (only three points since February 1st) has been given the key to the second line but hasn't yet taken advantage. Jack Johnson (three in two after scoreless in the first three) fits in very well with his new surroundings, while second-year surprise Nikita Nikitin (four in seven) should receive a boost with Fedor Tyutin (crushed hand) presumably done for the season.

Colorado has fought so hard possessing so little, but in the end all their effort may go for nothing. The latest blow has fallen upon Matt Duchene (twisted ankle), who only recently returned from a different (knee) injury. That should open the door for San Jose transfer Jamie McGinn (five in five with nine PIM) to grab some better looks. While not the most consistent, David Jones (seven in eight) has a knack for potting some points. Peter Mueller (three in six) hasn't quite found his pre-concussion form (that 20 in 15 to end 2009-10). And Milan Hejduk (one in nine) isn't approaching anywhere near his usual numbers. For someone as talented as Erik Johnson, he sure isn't using his skills to his benefit (nothing in six). NOTE: The Stefan Elliott experiment (two in 11) may be close to shutting down for the year.

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Player News
Justin Schultz
Oilers Sign Schultz To One-Year Deal
Justin Schultz, D, EDM
7:51 AM
News: Justin Schultz signed a one-year, $3.8 million deal with the Oilers on Friday, Ryan Rishaug of TSN reports.
Analysis: The restricted free agent defenseman averaged 23:21 of ice time per game last season, registering 11 goals and 22 assists. His production has still been somewhat disappointing, though, as he hasn't quite shown the consistent offensive game that vaulted him to college stardom. Still, he's been a consistent contributor and should return in a similar role in 2014-15.

Ryan White
Flyers' White Undergoes Surgery On Chest Muscle
Ryan White, C, MON
8/28/2014
News: Ryan White underwent surgery Wednesday to repair his left pectoral muscle.
Analysis: The Flyers haven't provided a timetable for a return for Ryan White, who signed with the organization on a one-year, two-way contract on Aug. 7. White, 26, totaled six points and 50 PIM in 52 games with the Canadiens last season. He was slated to compete for a fourth-line role with the Flyers in training camp, but those hopes could be dashed as a result of the procedure.

Lance Bouma
Flames' Bouma Inks One-Year Deal
Lance Bouma, LW, CGY
8/27/2014
News: Lance Bouma signed a one-year contract with the Flames on Wednesday.
Analysis: Lance Bouma is coming off his first full season in the NHL, in which the center supplied five goals and 10 assists over 78 games. The 24-year-old probably has room to grow as a scorer given his relative youth, but he may not amount to more than a second- or third-line center at his peak.

Brandon Manning
Flyers, Manning Agree On One-Year Deal
Brandon Manning, D, PHI
8/27/2014
News: Brandon Manning signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Flyers on Wednesday, Renaud Lavoie of TVA Sports reports.
Analysis: Brandon Manning was one of the more productive offensive rearguards in the AHL last season, scoring eight goals and 23 assists over 73 games for Adirondack. He earned a late-season promotion to the Flyers and appeared in six games, totaling two assists. He'll be given the opportunity to compete for a role on the blue line with the parent club in training camp, but more likely than not, he'll head back to the AHL to begin the 2014-15 campaign.

Brett Hextall
AHLer Hextall Signs With Flyers
Brett Hextall, C, PHO
8/25/2014
News: Brett Hextall signed a contract with AHL Lehigh Valley on Monday, Frank Seravalli of the Philadelphia Daily News reports.
Analysis: Brett Hextall's connections with the Flyers' front office (his dad, Ron, is the GM) was likely a major factor in his landing with the new organization. The 26-year-old Hextall spent the past three seasons with AHL Portland, totaling 53 points and 221 penalty minutes in 197 games.

Craig Anderson
Senators Sign Anderson To Three-Year Extension
Craig Anderson, G, OTT
8/25/2014
News: Craig Anderson inked a three-year contract extension with the Senators on Friday.
Analysis: Craig Anderson will get an average of $4.2 million over the three years, a larger contract than the one signed by his fellow netminder and teammate, Robin Lehner, earlier in the offseason. His contract was set to expire following next season, but now he will battle Lehner for the starting gig for the next four seasons.

Carey Price
Montreal's Price Begins Skating
Carey Price, G, MON
8/24/2014
News: Carey Price (knee) began skating a couple of weeks ago, Hockey Inside Out reports.
Analysis: Carey Price suffered a sprained knee in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals that ended his season. He said the skating has done "pretty good so far."

Devin Setoguchi
Flames Sign Setoguchi To One-Year Deal
Devin Setoguchi, RW, WPG
8/24/2014
News: Devin Setoguchi signed a one-year deal with the Flames on Saturday.
Analysis: Devin Setoguchi spent last season with the Jets, scoring 11 goals to go with 16 assists in 75 games. The seven-year veteran has amassed 127 goals and 122 assists in his career. It's a fairly low-risk move for Calgary, which can let go of Setoguchi after the season if he fails to regain the offensive touch that led to three straight 20-plus goal seasons with the Sharks.

Tomas Kaberle
Kaberle Hoping For NHL Comeback
Tomas Kaberle, D, MON
8/23/2014
News: Tomas Kaberle is attempting an NHL comeback and has been in Toronto working out with current pros, reports the Toronto Sun. "I might have a tryout on the table, but not in Ontario," Kaberle said this week.
Analysis: "We'll see what happens in the next few weeks," continued the 36-year-old defender. "I feel good, with no injuries (a charmed career in that sense). I still enjoy the game and that's they key. It would be nice to play a couple of more years." He spent last season with Kladno in the Czech league. His fantasy value will be limited even if he does earn a spot. He'll likely only be a number five or six defender.

Danny Kristo
Kristo Re-Signs With Rangers
Danny Kristo, RW, NYR
8/21/2014
News: Danny Kristo re-signed with the Rangers on Thursday.
Analysis: The 24-year-old Danny Kristo tallied 25 goals and 18 assists in 65 games with AHL Hartford last season. Another season at the AHL level likely awaits.

 
 
 
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