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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
Ryan Wilson
Flames Ink Wilson To PTO
Ryan Wilson, D, COL
2:53 PM
News: Ryan Wilson signed a professional tryout offer with the Flames on Thursday, Randy Sportak of the Calgary Sun reports.
Analysis: Ryan Wilson was limited to just three games as a member of the Avalanche last season, as he suffered a shoulder injury in late October that would ultimately require surgery. Prior to the injury, the 28-year-old wasn't expected to be a major part of the Avs' plans on the blue line, and he'll have an even more difficult time trying to carve out a role in Calgary's defensive corps, which may be the deepest in the NHL.

Nicklas Backstrom
Caps' Backstrom (Hip) "Not In A Rush" To Play
Nicklas Backstrom, C, WAS
1:57 PM
News: Nicklas Backstrom (hip) skated during informal workouts Thursday morning, but is "not in a rush" to return to action, Alex Prewitt of The Washington Post reports.
Analysis: Nicklas Backstrom began skating in August following hip surgery during the offseason, and while he hasn't experienced any setbacks, he doesn't appear to have a specific target date in mind for his return. "I'm not going to be back to 100 percent before I start playing," the 27-year-old pivot remarked, "I'm not going to play on 90 percent. We'll see how it goes. We don't know yet." The uncertainty surrounding Backstrom's return has lowered his standing somewhat in fantasy rankings. While the situation should be monitored closely, Backstrom should provide some serious value if he can get up to speed quickly on the top line with Alex Ovechkin and newcomer T.J. Oshie, as he has been one of the more productive playmakers and power-play performers over the last several seasons. Don't sleep on him too long in your draft if he continues to progress according to plan.

Joe Pavelski
Pavelski Expected To Be Named Sharks' Next Captain
Joe Pavelski, C, SJ
1:01 PM
News: Joe Pavelski is expected to be named the Sharks' next captain, CSN Bay Area's Kevin Kurz reports.
Analysis: Captaincy has been a delicate issue in San Jose over the last year, as former coach Todd McLellan stripped longtime leader Joe Thornton of those honors heading into 2014-15, straining the relationship between the star center and team brass. While Thornton is still around, it's clear that the 31-year-old Joe Pavelski is now the face of the franchise, after ranking fourth in the NHL in goals over the last four seasons with 161. Pavelski figures to pace the Sharks in scoring once again during the upcoming campaign, while taking on more of a leadership role in the locker room.

Keith Ballard
Ex-Wild D-Man Ballard Leaning Toward Retirement
Keith Ballard, D, MIN
9:55 AM
News: Keith Ballard (concussion) confirmed last week that he's leaning toward retirement, Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports.
Analysis: Keith Ballard is still experiencing concussion symptoms from the head injury he suffered Dec. 9 of last season, and it sounds like he's leaning toward hanging up his skates rather than risking permanent health issues. The 32-year-old had previously experienced several concussions during his NHL career, likely leaving many teams disinterested in Ballard's services even if he opts to keep playing.

Andrew Copp
Jets' Copp To Challenge For NHL Job
Andrew Copp, C, WPG
9:47 AM
News: Andrew Copp is expected to compete for the Jets' fourth-line center duties during training camp, Jeff Hamilton of the Winnipeg Free Press reports.
Analysis: Andrew Copp, who finished up his sophomore season at the University of Michigan last spring before turning pro, made his NHL debut for the Jets in their final regular season game in 2015-16, when the team was just trying to rest its regulars in advance of the playoffs. The 2013 fourth-round pick went unused during the Jets' first-round series exit, but the size he presents (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) along with the strong leadership and decision-making he demonstrated during his time at Michigan could make him the Jets' best internal option to pivot the checking line. Holdovers Anthony Peluso and Matt Halischuk likely represent Copp's top competition for that role.

Joakim Nordstrom
Nordstrom, Blackhawks Agree On One-Year Deal
Joakim Nordstrom, C, CHI
9/2/2015
News: Joakim Nordstrom signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Blackhawks on Wednesday, Brian Hedger of NHL.com reports.
Analysis: Joakim Nordstrom waited several months before agreeing to his qualifying offer, but he's at least in the fold to compete for a spot in the Blackhawks' crowded bottom-six ranks. The forward recorded no goals and three assists in 38 games with the parent club last season, so a return trip to AHL Rockford could be in the works to open 2015-16.

Tom Sestito
Penguins Sign Sestito To PTO
Tom Sestito, LW, PIT
9/2/2015
News: Tom Sestito signed a professional tryout contract last week with the Penguins, Josh Yohe of DKonPittsburghSports.com reports.
Analysis: As a tough guy who gobbles up penalty minutes, Tom Sestito doesn't seem to mesh well with coach Mike Johnston's vision of rolling out four lines with scoring ability. Don't expect him to crack the Penguins' 23-man roster out of training camp, barring a litany of injuries.

Evgeni Malkin
Pens' Malkin Healthy Heading Into Camp
Evgeni Malkin, C, PIT
9/2/2015
News: Penguins coach Mike Johnston said Evgeni Malkin is healthy heading into training camp, NHL.com reports. "[Malkin] was injured before the playoffs last year; he's in skating already," Johnston said.
Analysis: The Penguins are expected to tinker with their top-six ranks in training camp after adding Phil Kessel to the mix in the offseason, but it's expected that Kessel will play on the top line with Sidney Crosby, while Evgeni Malkin centers a line of Patric Hornqvist and a yet-to-be-determined left winger. Regardless of which player among David Perron, Chris Kunitz, and rookie Sergei Plotnikov ultimately settles next to Malkin, staying healthy is more essential to the star center's fantasy production than anything else. Malkin has missed 103 regular-season contests over the last six years.

Peter Budaj
Kings Ink Budaj To Tryout Offer
Peter Budaj, G, LA
9/2/2015
News: Peter Budaj has signed with the Kings on a professional tryout contract, Jon Rosen of LA Kings Insider reports.
Analysis: Peter Budaj struggled while seeing limited ice time with AHL St. John's in the Winnipeg organization last season, going 0-9-6 with a 3.55 GAA and .888 save percentage. The 33-year-old clearly seems to be on the downswing of his career, but as a veteran with 296 NHL appearances on his ledger, he could provide insurance in goal for the Kings at the minor-league level.

Markus Soberg
Jackets' Soberg Out 4-6 Weeks
Markus Soberg, RW, CLB
9/2/2015
News: Markus Soberg (groin) will miss the next four-to-six weeks as he recovers from surgery to repair a sports hernia, Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch reports.
Analysis: A sixth-round pick by the Blue Jackets in 2013, Markus Soberg was hampered by an abdominal injury throughout much of last season, ending up with 13 goals and 17 assists in 61 games for OHL Windsor. It's unclear whether he would've been able to make the jump to Columbus this season even if healthy, but the surgery will certainly delay his progress to North American hockey.

 
 
 
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