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Neutral Zone Wrap: Juniors drop the puck

by | Fantasy Writer
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Happy folly-days! Yes, the NHL is officially a joke in your town -- provided your town has a sense of humor and even cares about hockey. But never fear, alternative options are here.

With the big kids fighting over who can stay in the sandbox, the young ones are itching to display their wares in the World Junior Hockey Championship. And thanks to the tournament being held in Russia, us Eastern time-zoners are subjected to 4 a.m. wake-up calls and the inevitable office naps that will follow. For those on the left coast, these games are merely an excuse to stay up late.

The next potential stars are ready and able. But can they carry their country to a medal? Here are the players to keep an eye on in Ufa (not to be confused with the acronym for an unrestricted free-agent). No obvious selections like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Nail Yakupov but also no obscure examples from Latvia's practice squad. And here we go:

Goalies

Andrei Makarov/Andrei Vasilevski, Russia

Hard to differentiate between these two netminders due to similar skill sets, although Vasilevski (at 6-foot-3) provides the bigger target. Some would place Makarov as the backup because he went undrafted in 2012 (while Vasilevski was taken 19th overall by Tampa). More likely than not, the two Andreis will continue to rotate unless one of them ends up stealing the show.

Malcolm Subban, Canada

Just like his older brother P.K. Subban, Malcolm plays an aggressive game. The knock on the Bruins first-rounder may be his inexperience and lack of confidence on the larger ice surface. The Canadian coaching staff might want to see more out of Subban before officially anointing him as their No. 1, but Jordan Binnington may end up earning the starting nod when they drop the puck on Boxing Day.

Also keep an eye on: Patrik Bartosak, Czech Republic; John Gibson, USA; Eetu Laurikainen, Finland

Defense

Seth Jones, USA

The son of former NBAer Popeye Jones has been mentioned as a possible #1 pick in next summer's draft. And when you watch him functioning in top gear, you will understand why. Jones captained the US under-18 side to a gold medal in April, shouldering the load from the back line (eight points and a plus-9 in six games). He'll be counted on heavily to make Americans forget about their seventh-place finish from a year ago.

Hampus Lindholm, Sweden

Want to see why the Ducks picked the slick Swede at the six-spot? While Lindholm's offensive resume isn't impressive (six in 19 in the AHL), his stellar work at both ends has turned a lot of heads. He could possibly bulk up a bit (from 195 pounds) to prepare himself for the day-to-day physicality that will hit him hard when he arrives in the NHL.

Olli Maatta, Finland

Pittsburgh may have gotten the blueline special when they selected Maatta at No. 22 a few months ago. Currently anchoring a dominating London Knights squad, where he has excelled as their power-play quarterback (24 in 32 this season after a combined 55 in 77 during 2011-12). He will undoubtedly continue the same role for the Finns.

Also keep an eye on: Tim Bender, Germany; Mirco Mueller, Switzerland; Morgan Rielly, Canada; Rasmus Ristolainen, Finland

Forwards

Aleksander Barkov, Finland

His heritage may be Russian but the kid's got plenty of Finnish. After all, Barkov saw meaningful minutes at last year's event as a 16-year old (four in seven). And it's not as if he is intimidated by older opponents by sitting in the top-10 in the Finnish Elite League scoring race (with 28 in 32). Expect Barkov to be grabbed in the first five picks this coming June -- and more realistically by No. 3.

Marko Dano, Slovakia

Another 2013 hopeful who is earning rave reviews from the scouts. Perhaps not the biggest or fastest skater you'll see but definitely a wizard when it comes to finding the net (14 goals in 15 total underage contests last year). Will Slovakia medal this time? Probably not. Think this youngster can help his country to a respectable finish? Book it, Dano.

Alex Galchenyuk, USA

Yes, you read that right: Galchenyuk is an American, thanks to Dad having played in Milwaukee during the early 90s. The center may actually be better off without former linemate Yakupov in Sarnia, as he can step out from the shadow and show his immense talent (61 in 33). Whether Galchenyuk can transfer this to the WJHC is yet to be seen, but chances are he'll be a star someday in Montreal.

Mikhail Grigorenko, Russia

Buffalo's first 2012 selection (#12) is arguably the purest offensive talent of the bunch (and no offense to teammate Yakupov) who also uses size and strength (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) to his advantage. Clearly a defensive liability but he is bound to improve. And that hardly matters when you're posting gaudy numbers for Quebec of the QMJHL (50 in 30).

Jonathan Huberdeau, Canada

Nathan MacKinnon may be the talk of the Canuck crew but Huberdeau will be the one racking up the most points for the Red and White. Already having served Canada admirably in the last Under-20 (nine in six) and a killer junior contributor (257 in 195!), he's also not afraid to backcheck when necessary. If he can even hit half of his production when the pros come calling, then the Panthers will be happy.

Elias Lindholm, Sweden

No relation to Hampus; after all, Lindholm is like the Swedish version of Jones (no relation to Seth). Like Barkov, Lindholm is proving teenagers can hold their own with much older skaters (21 in 32 in the top Swedish league). With other more recognizable forwards in camp, he tends to get lost. But that hasn't hurt his draft stock, being projected to go somewhere in the first 10 selections.

Also keep an eye on: Filip Forsberg, Sweden; Martin Frk, Czech Republic; Zemgus Girgensons, Latvia; Rocco Grimaldi, USA; Artturi Lehkonen, Finland; Valeri Nichushkin, Russia; Mark Scheifele, Canada

So who do I like to win? Well, I could say Sweden to repeat but that's not very logical or even realistic. Or I might look at an exciting US lineup and tab them for success. Those Russians possess many dangerous skaters and should be front and center for the final. But I think I will stick to my homeland bias and go with Canada to reclaim its junior crown. Who's in your bracket?

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Player News
Darcy Kuemper
Wild's Kuemper Expected To Start Wednesday
Darcy Kuemper, G, MIN
11/27/2014
News: Darcy Kuemper is expected to start Wednesday's game against the Kings.
Analysis: After going with backup Niklas Backstrom on Monday night, coach Mike Yeo will turn the net back over to Darcy Kuemper, who seems to have put his early-November swoon behind him. Since being pulled from a Nov. 13 outing against the Sabres after allowing goals on the first two shots he faced, he's won in three of his four appearances, yielding only five goals during that time.

Matt Cooke
Wild's Cooke Showing Improvement
Matt Cooke, LW, MIN
11/27/2014
News: Matt Cooke (hip flexor) has begun skating without full gear this week, Rachel Blount of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports.
Analysis: Matt Cooke has missed the last 12 games with the ailment and appears set to sit out several more contests, since he'll some time to make up for the lost conditioning work. Nonetheless, the Wild seem to be encouraged that he's at least back on the ice after he had failed to make much progress with his recovery over the last couple weeks.

David Booth
Leafs Activate Booth
David Booth, LW, TOR
11/27/2014
News: David Booth (foot) has been activated from injured reserve in advance of Wednesday's game against the Penguins, James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail reports.
Analysis: David Booth will make his Leafs debut Wednesday after the broken foot cost him nearly eight weeks of action. He figures to slot in among the Leafs' bottom-six forwards this season, which won't allow him to gain much traction in fantasy circles.

Joffrey Lupul
Leafs Activate Lupul
Joffrey Lupul, RW, TOR
11/27/2014
News: Joffrey Lupul (hand) was taken off injured reserve in preparation for his return Wednesday versus the Penguins, James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail reports.
Analysis: The broken hand cost Joffrey Lupul approximately four weeks, but lengthy absences aren't new for the forward at this stage of his injury-riddled career. Though his track record suggests he'll miss time later on this season due to another injury, Lupul has been a productive player when he's been able to suit up. He collected two goals in his first nine games this season before suffering the broken hand.

Brandon Dubinsky
Jackets' Dubinsky Not Expected Back Friday
Brandon Dubinsky, C, CLB
11/27/2014
News: Brandon Dubinsky (abdomen) is not expected to be ready to play in either of the Blue Jackets' games over the weekend, Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch reports.
Analysis: Brandon Dubinsky first returned to the ice Monday following a recent setback in his recovery from abdominal surgery, so he'll still need several more practices to get back up to full speed. The Blue Jackets have dealt with a number of lengthy absences due to injury this season, but few have been more significant than Dubinsky's. While not an elite scorer, Dubinsky is sound in just about every phase of the game and will represent a welcome addition to Columbus' top-six once he's healthy.

Brian Elliott
Blues' Elliott Week-To-Week With Knee Injury
Brian Elliott, G, STL
11/27/2014
News: Coach Ken Hitchcock announced after Wednesday's practice that Brian Elliott is considered week-to-week with a suspected knee sprain, Lou Korac of NHL.com reports.
Analysis: Though Brian Elliott will miss multiple games as a result of the injury sustained Tuesday night, he appears to have avoided a more serious issue, as the Blues determined surgery won't be necessary. Still, the week-to-week timetable will make it tough to pin down an expected return date for the netminder. Jake Allen is expected to carry the load for the Blues as the No. 1 netminder and should make for an upper-tier fantasy option in the interim now that he won't have to share duties with Elliott.

Jonathan Bernier
Leafs' Bernier Struggles In OT Loss
Jonathan Bernier, G, TOR
8:33 PM
News: Jonathan Bernier allowed four goals on 26 shots in Wednesday's overtime loss to the Pens.
Analysis: Jonathan Bernier continues to struggle early in games to give the Leafs some confidence to build on. The Pens scored just 26 seconds into the game which saw the Leafs fall back on their heels. After the first period, Bernier picked up his game and made some key saves on odd man rushes to at least give the Leafs a fighting chance to win the game. The loss gives Bernier a 7-5-3 record with a .915 save percentage and a 2.63 GAA which is 19th and 25th in the league. With the Leafs not playing until Saturday, expect Bernier to be thrown back in between the pipes when they take on the Caps. Randy Carlyle has yet to ride Bernier but because of the recent struggles of James Reimer, this could be Bernier's time to put up or shut up.

Marc-Andre Fleury
Pens' Fleury Makes 24 Saves In OT Win
Marc-Andre Fleury, G, PIT
8:15 PM
News: Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 24 of 27 shots to propel the Pens to a 4-3 overtime win against the Leafs on Wednesday.
Analysis: This was not one of Marc-Andre Fleury's best games statistically this season, but he was able to make the big saves when he needed to and gave the Pens the opportunity to win the game in overtime. The win ties him for 3rd in the NHL with 13 on the season. He is still leading the league in shutouts with four and has not shown any signs of slowing down. Fleury has always been an outstanding regular season goalie who will compete for the most wins in the league, so consider him a must start every night, until the playoffs.

Blake Comeau
Pens' Comeau Doffs His Hat Wednesday
Blake Comeau, LW, PIT
8:08 PM
News: Blake Comeau potted a hat trick Wednesday in Pittsburgh's 4-3 overtime win against Toronto.
Analysis: He also led the team with five hits and four shots. Blake Comeau appears to have found a home with Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz. The fact that he was on the ice in overtime with Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang shows the level of trust coach Mike Johnston has in the journeyman. Comeau now has eight goals and 13 points in 20 games for the Pens.

Evgeni Malkin
Pens' Malkin Has Big Night In Win On Wednesday
Evgeni Malkin, C, PIT
8:00 PM
News: Evgeni Malkin contributed a power-play goal and two assists in a 4-3 overtime win against the Leafs on Wednesday.
Analysis: Evgeni Malkin has been an absolute beast this season having 28 points (11G, 17A) in 21 games, which is good for 3rd in the NHL scoring race. He is riding a six game point streak which has seen him collect 11 points over that span. Malkin has always played well against the Leafs in his career, averaging 1.8 points per game. So the three point night came as no surprise. Barring injury, Malkin will again compete for the NHL scoring lead, putting up an 80+ point season with ease.

 
 
 
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