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Neutral Zone Wrap: A strange season, indeed

by | Rotowire.com
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Don't stare directly into the sun. Keep away from power lines. Watch both ways before you cross the street.

Those are just some of the things that make sense and keep you aware and alive.

You know what doesn't make sense? Everything that has happened up to now in the NHL. Undefeated streaks, unlikely heroes, unbelievable results. Anyone who claims they predicted Montreal leading the East at any significant point should be evaluated for further testing. And don't get me started on Anaheim. Or how Ottawa can still excel even without their top two producers.

Unpredictability works its way into the Fantasy game as well, especially early on. One day, you're on top of your league and feeling good. The next day, a couple players are out long-term and you're leaking category points from every position. The reverse can also happen, but this situation can lead to temporary confidence. That is, if you're not ready for a possible downturn. In both cases, the key is preparation. Is your lineup deep enough to contend for an entire season? Are you alert -- and willing -- to make moves if someone should go down? Do you know the way to San Jose?

If you're looking to improve, then this is the place to be. We won't promise consistency and we can't guarantee success or titles. We provide the material -- you make the moves that set your team in motion. Now that we've lost your attention, here are this week's pertinent questions:

(Stats as of Thursday, Feb. 21)

Is there any other franchise that is benefiting more from the shortened season than the Maple Leafs? Many thought Nazem Kadri (14, including four power-play goals) was never going to be an everyday player. Maybe Tyler Bozak (11, 20:35 average), truly is the number No. 1 center Toronto has been missing. A minor injury won't keep Matt Frattin (10 in 10, including seven goals) out for long. Behold Cody Franson (11 and a plus-11) and his ever-growing stat line. Beware of Mike Kostka (finally found a point after 10 scoreless games) and his diminishing returns. Mark Fraser definitely isn't a top defender but he can help you in certain categories (plus-13, 42 hits, 23 blocked shots). Now imagine Toronto with both Joffrey Lupul (broken forearm, another few weeks) and Jake Gardiner (22 in 32 in the AHL) in the lineup.

If the Flames fall down and no one watches, is there anyone around to care? Calgary may have predictably started off poorly, but a couple skaters are grabbing attention. Alex Tanguay leads the club in scoring (four goals, eight assists). Jiri Hudler (10 in 12) has shaken off the extended European layover. Curtis Glencross tops the charts in goals (six). And Roman Cervenka (six in 12) provides a nice veteran complement. But the bubble will eventually burst for Lee Stempniak (10, but just one in four). Jay Bouwmeester may continue to rack up the ice time (25 minutes a night), but T.J. Brodie (a goal Wednesday, almost two minutes of PP action) serves as the rearguard with the higher upside.

How soon is the end in Buffalo? The longest-serving head coach is gone but you can hardly blame him for the club's woes. Ryan Miller has to stand on his head (2.87 GAA, .915 save percentage while leading the league in saves and shots against) just so they can lose by a respectable score. Cody Hodgson (15, but nothing on the man-advantage) will fall and no one will be able to stop it. Wake up, Drew Stafford (eight, minus-5, should be averaging more than 2.5 shots per outing), the boys are counting on you. Steve Ott (seven, 38 PIM) should be provided an expanded role under the new regime. And will someone explain why Mikhail Grigorenko (three in 14, 11 minutes) is playing in the NHL when his talent is being wasted on the bottom two lines? If there is a more underachieving D-man pairing than Tyler Myers and Jordan Leopold so far (combined seven points and a minus-13), then they must be hiding really well.

Geez, what's wrong with Washington? So some guy named Alex Ovechkin ('only' 10, but also a minus-8) is shooting but not scoring (only five goals on 68 shots). And another Alexander - Semin, that is - would have really helped the Caps attack (197 career goals with the Caps). But offense is not where they lack. Just look at how well Joel Ward (11, plus-7) and Troy Brouwer (11, with seven PPPs) are producing. Even returnee Eric Fehr (six in 13) has made a difference in his short stint. The problem lies in net, where neither Braden Holtby (3.62 GAA, .891 save percentage in 10) nor Michal Neuvirth (3.05 GAA, .889 save percentage in seven) has been able to show any reliability.

Can people honestly be shocked the reigning champs are struggling to score goals (averaging 2.3)? This story line is not new in LA, as they stumbled offensively through most of last season (at a sizzling 2.25 clip) before sneaking in as an eight-seed. One could point at almost every Kings forward and claim he is underachieving. The exception may be Kyle Clifford (eight, leads with 47 hits), who currently is enjoying life alongside Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. The struggles of Justin Williams  (six) were detailed last week, so let's focus on new press box tenant Simon Gagne (scratched last two) and former resident Dustin Penner (one point). If you haven't heard, Slava Voynov (six points, averaging 23 minutes this month) is accumulating lots of experience with three defensemen on the shelf.

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Player News
Joakim Nordstrom
Nordstrom, Blackhawks Agree On One-Year Deal
Joakim Nordstrom, C, CHI
1:24 PM
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, VAN
10:22 AM
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
10:19 AM
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, MON
8:46 AM
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
8:23 AM
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.

Marcel Goc
Ex-Blues Center Goc Returns To Germany
Marcel Goc, C, STL
8:21 AM
News: Marcel Goc signed a one-year contract Tuesday with Adler Mannheim of the German Ice Hockey League.
Analysis: Marcel Goc will return to his native country after failing to attract NHL interest following a nine-point campaign while skating as a fourth-line player in 74 games for the Penguins and Blues. At 32 years old, Goc's career in North America could very well be over.

Maxim Lapierre
Ex-NHLer Lapierre Signs With Swedish Club
Maxim Lapierre, C, PIT
8:06 AM
News: Maxim Lapierre signed a one-year contract Tuesday with MODO of the Swedish Hockey League, Renaud Lavoie of TVA Sports reports.
Analysis: After skating in 80 games with the Blues and Penguins last season while scoring two goals and nine assists, Maxim Lapierre was unable to generate much interest from other teams as a fourth-line option in free agency. Rather than having to enter an NHL training camp on a professional tryout offer, Lapierre determined it was in his best interest to take the guaranteed money overseas in attempt to rebuild value. The 30-year-old's deal with MODO contains an option for a second season, allowing him to return to North America next summer if he so chooses.

Bryce Salvador
Ex-Devil Salvador Announces Retirement
Bryce Salvador, D, NJ
7:53 AM
News: Bryce Salvador (back) announced his retirement Wednesday in an article on The Players' Tribune.
Analysis: Bryce Salvador skated 14 seasons in the NHL, recording 24 goals and 86 assists over 786 games. The 39-year-old spent his final eight years in the league with New Jersey, captaining the team for the last three seasons. Injuries dogged him later in his career, but his leadership and sound positional play from the blue line were attributes that outweighed his lack of offensive contributions. He'll remain in the New Jersey organization as an ambassador for the sport.

Patrick Kane
Image Conscious Hawks Fielding Trade Calls On Kane
Patrick Kane, RW, CHI
9/1/2015
News: The Hawks have apparently fielded speculative trade calls about Patrick Kane from more than five different teams, reports the Chicago Sun-Times. There is no indication the Hawks would trade him, but the team is extremely image conscious and there are suggestions they feel "disrespected" by Kane's alleged actions this summer.
Analysis: No charges have been laid in the investigation into an alleged rape of a woman at Patrick Kane's home. The team has largely remained quiet on the issue, but it was already displeased that he used the Hawks' Stanley Cup rally to proclaim he intended to act like a fool again while celebrating the Cup win. Optics matter to the Hawks and the team may be forced to do something to maintain its image. Others have been quick to distance themselves from Kane. He has been quietly removed from the cover of EA Sports NHL '16 video game and his former OHL squad (London Knights) dropped the moniker "Team Kane" from its annual training camp agenda. Camp is only a few weeks away and things could change dramatically for Kane and the Hawks before then.

Valeri Nichushkin
Stars' Nichushkin Says Injury Is Behind Him
Valeri Nichushkin, RW, DAL
9/1/2015
News: Valeri Nichushkin missed most of last year after an early-season hip injury, but is expected to be healthy for the start of the season. In an update at the Stars' site he said, "Everything feels so good now. I don't feel pain anymore."
Analysis: The promising young winger played only four games before getting injured, then played just four of the team's final five games after coming back. If healthy, he is expected to get top six minutes this season playing wing for either Tyler Seguin or Jason Spezza, which should make the big winger a potential fantasy sleeper.

 
 
 
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