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Neutral Zone Wrap: Don't sleep on these guys

by | Rotowire.com
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We're roughly 60 percent to 65 percent of the way through the schedule and you're looking to improve your chances of winning and/or securing a playoff position. You can sit around and wait for the right player(s) to fall into your lap. Or you can be proactive and seek out that last skater or two to help round out your roster.

Before the season, this column discussed projected sleepers. The ones who had either endured an off-year, returned from significant injury, had been forgotten about, or gained status through opportunity. Through the magic of topicality and redundancy, we can repeat the same topic but (of course) look ahead at similar ventures for the remainder of the schedule.

Many players have definitely underachieved to date, while others literally haven't had a leg to stand on. The benefit of sucking for a while would be that the resulting expectations are lower than normal. So when others have given up on these downtrodden folks, then that's your cue to pick up the pieces. (WARNING: Like I have to mention this, but not everyone who has performed poorly would be worthy of being acquired. And yes, also remember not to ingest tickets.)

Who should you target for the final block to make that glorious climb to the top (or safe standing)? Who will show enough signs of improvement or what notable names have been recalled/returned to warrant ditching others? Here's the short list. No goalies, but that's usually the case at this stage when the available choices are few and the stakes -- for both you and the actual organizations -- are high:

(Stats through Thursday, March 21)

Zach Bogosian, D, Jets: Tobias Enstrom (shoulder strain, gone since mid-February) may have resumed skating with the club but that won't stop Bogosian from enjoying the super Swede's spot for a little while longer. Bogosian went through extensive rehab after offseason wrist surgery, so it's a small miracle he can contribute in any way. It wasn't as if he was lacking in opportunities but the last few have allowed more meaningful minutes (three-game point streak, including one where he racked up 17 PIM) and bonus duty on the power play.

Lars Eller, F, Canadiens: When the Habs were essentially forced to deal Jaroslav Halak a couple years ago, they received two young forwards from St. Louis. One of them was Eller, a 2007 first-round selection with a solid defensive reputation. While the Dane has been key in keeping top opponents at bay, he has recently displayed some sweet stats (seven in 10). Eller's hard work in all areas has earned him increased activity and a prime position in Montreal's surprisingly state-of-the-art system.

Jake Gardiner, D, Maple Leafs: Jake Gardiner has been released into the general population and Fantasy owners could not be happier. While the 22-year old defenseman has only notched one point since being called up (but did skate over 43 minutes over the two), it won't be long until the Minnesota native makes a sizable dent on the Leafs' scoresheet. After suffering a concussion in December, it took Gardiner a couple months to step back on the ice but he continued where he left off in 2011-12 (31 in 43 in the AHL after 30 in 75 with the big boys). His propensity for risk-taking may not be popular with the coaches, but it'll do just fine for those of you in Roto leagues.

Scott Gomez, F, Sharks: Remember when people were making jokes about Gomez's goal-scoring drought last year? Well, this Alaskan may never have served as a sniper in his NHL career, but he's definitely earning more respect since being signed by San Jose in late January. Currently centering the third line but sporting a five-game point streak (eight overall this month, including three PPAs). The other areas may be lacking (minus-10, low in physical categories) but he's still a serviceable forward in a standard 12-team setup.

Tyler Johnson, F, Lightning: Nothing against either Ondrej Palat or the still-relegated Brett Connolly, but Johnson is clearly the one the Lightning were itching to insert into the lineup. Based on their track record with skilled short forwards who just happen to be undrafted (Martin St. Louis, Cory Conacher), it was only a matter of time before the ex-Spokane star got the call-up. When he left for Tampa, Johnson's AHL numbers were staggering (58 in 59, including a league-leading 32 goals). He has extended this run with the Bolts (four in four), even as he's not being implemented in most situations and centers the fourth line.

Magnus Paajarvi, F, Oilers: The 10th pick of the 2009 draft has endured several speed bumps since arriving on the North American scene. And while the team ended up cutting his minutes or demoting him, Paajarvi has maintained his professionalism. The first half wasn't much to talk about (two in 15) but in the last few weeks, MPS has been allowed to shine. Those slick moves and smooth hands now have a purpose and the latest results prove that (six in nine, plus-4, with the latest a 21:35 appearance). The youngster is still only 21, so his talent could take him in either direction. For now, let's hope for the upside.

Tyler Toffoli, F, Kings: Like the other Tyler in this column, Toffoli's offensive skills have only been nurtured in lower leagues to date. So there's no rushing the former OHL scoring champ into a regular role with the Kings. The kid's first professional campaign should be deemed a success (48 in 55 with Manchester) but there's so much more room to grow (two in three to start in LA, including his first goal - but also benched Thursday night). With the Cup holders deep down the middle, Toffoli should be able to find the net a few more times before the regular season concludes.

Honorable mention: Josh Bailey, F, Islanders; Marcus Johansson, F, Capitals; Joni Pitkanen, D, Hurricanes; Andrew Shaw, F, Blackhawks; Jakob Silfverberg, F, Senators; Jared Spurgeon, D, Wild; Ryan Whitney, D, Oilers.

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Player News
Carter Ashton
Suspension Over For Leafs' Ashton
Carter Ashton, RW, TOR
12/20/2014
News: Carter Ashton has completed his 20-game suspension for violating the league's performance enhancing substances protocol and has been reinstated onto the Leafs' active roster, James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail reports. He will now head to AHL Toronto for a conditioning stint, according to David Alter of MapleLeafs.com.
Analysis: Since he hasn't been able to play since early November, Carter Ashton will likely spend multiple games on the assignment before he's called back up to the parent club. Ashton had largely served as a healthy scratch for the Leafs prior to his suspension, making just six appearances on the season. He'll likely see limited duty again once he rejoins the Leafs.

Henrik Lundqvist
Rangers To Start Lundqvist On Saturday
Henrik Lundqvist, G, NYR
12/20/2014
News: Henrik Lundqvist will be between the pipes Saturday against the Hurricanes.
Analysis: Coach Alain Vigneault is expected to split the starts between Henrik Lundqvist and Cam Talbot for the team's weekend back-to-back, but that plan could change if King Henrik submits a dominant outing Saturday. Given that Lundqvist is riding a four-game winning streak and will be facing a Carolina squad that ranks second-last in the league with 21 points, he should be viewed as one of the better goalie plays on the Saturday slate.

Jordie Benn
Stars Rule Out Jordie Benn For Friday
Jordie Benn, D, DAL
12/20/2014
News: Jordie Benn (illness) has been ruled out from playing Friday against the Flames, Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News reports.
Analysis: Jordie Benn was participated in the Stars' morning skate Friday, but coach Lindy Ruff decided to err on the side of caution and give him another day to recover from the illness. Jamie Oleksiak will join the lineup in Benn's stead.

Christian Ehrhoff
Pens' Ehrhoff Has Lower-Body Injury
Christian Ehrhoff, D, PIT
12/20/2014
News: Coach Mike Johnston said Friday that Christian Ehrhoff was suffering from a lower-body injury and remains under evaluation, Seth Rorabaugh of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.
Analysis: With the extent of Christian Ehrhoff's injury unknown at this time, the blueliner's status remains in limbo for Saturday's game against the Panthers. Brian Dumoulin would likely draw into the lineup Saturday in the event Ehrhoff is deemed unavailable.

Tuukka Rask
Bruins To Start Rask On Friday
Tuukka Rask, G, BOS
12/20/2014
News: Tuukka Rask will be in the crease for the Bruins on Friday in Winnipeg, Ken Wiebe of the Winnipeg Sun reports.
Analysis: Since Tuukka Rask received the night off in the Bruins' last game Wednesday against the Wild, he'll slot back into the net in search of putting an end to his three-game losing streak. He's been a victim of some poor offensive support in the last two games of that stretch, as he's stopped 67-of-71 shots (.943 save percentage) in shootout defeats to the Senators and Predators. He'll oppose the Jets' Michael Hutchinson in Friday's tilt.

Jeff Schultz
Kings Call Up Schultz On Friday
Jeff Schultz, D, LA
12/20/2014
News: Jeff Schultz was recalled from AHL Manchester on Friday, Jon Rosen of LA Kings Insider reports.
Analysis: The Kings promoted Jeff Schultz in the wake of the hand injury suffered by Robyn Regehr on Thursday, which will sideline him for two-to-three weeks. Jamie McBain is expected to assume a regular spot in the Kings' lineup during that time, while Schultz figures to serve primarily as the team's seventh blueliner.

Robyn Regehr
Kings' Regehr On IR, Ruled Out 2-3 Weeks
Robyn Regehr, D, LA
12/20/2014
News: Robyn Regehr's upper-body injury is related to his hand and will keep him out for two-to-three weeks, NHL.com's Curtis Zupke reports. The Kings placed him on injured reserve Friday.
Analysis: Robyn Regehr suffered the injury in the second period of Thursday's victory over the Blues, likely when he collided with Paul Stastny. It's the second noteworthy injury Regehr has dealt with this season, as he previously missed just over a week in November with an undisclosed ailment. Jamie McBain figures to assume a regular spot on the Kings' defense while Regehr is sidelined.

Cam Talbot
Rangers Ink Talbot To One-Year Extension
Cam Talbot, G, NYR
12/20/2014
News: Cam Talbot signed a one-year, $1.45 million extension with the Rangers on Friday, Larry Brooks of the New York Post reports.
Analysis: The new deal will keep Cam Talbot under contract through the end of the 2015-16 campaign. It was an easy decision for the Rangers to retain Talbot for another year, as he's performed as one of the league's best backups since taking the reins of the role last season. Over his 28 career regular-season appearances (25 starts), Talbot is 14-9-0 with a 1.80 GAA, .936 save percentage, and five shutouts.

Mirco Mueller
Sharks' Mueller To Participate In World Juniors
Mirco Mueller, D, SJ
12/20/2014
News: Mirco Mueller is expected to leave the Sharks in the coming days to play for Team Sweden in the World Junior Championships, CSN Bay Area's Kevin Kurz reports.
Analysis: The tournament will run from Dec. 26 through Jan. 5, so look for Mirco Mueller to return to the Sharks at the end of the competition or when his team is eliminated. The 19-year-old has been a healthy scratch in six of the Sharks' last nine games, so he'll likely benefit from picking up more regular ice time during the tournament.

Jimmy Howard
Red Wings' Howard Exits With Lower-Body Injury
Jimmy Howard, G, DET
5:45 PM
News: Jimmy Howard left Friday's game with a lower-body injury and will not return, Craig Custance of ESPN The Magazine reports.
Analysis: The Red Wings announced that Jimmy Howard's removal was precautionary, so it would appear they don't believe his setback is serious. Consider Howard questionable for the Red Wings' next game Sunday.

 
 
 
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