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Blue Line Buzz: The beginning of the end

by | Rotowire.com
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With 13 days left in the regular season, the playoff picture has begun taking shape. Right now, Toronto is firmly in the playoffs. The Islanders are likely going to sneak in. New Jersey, last season's Eastern Conference champions, have lost nine straight and likely will miss the playoffs for the second time in three years. Philadelphia, a pre-season favorite from many are out for all intents and purposes, sitting with 37 points following a shutout Saturday by fellow draft lottery friend Buffalo.

In an interesting post-script to the Philadelphia debacle, Columbus is locked in a three-way tie for the eighth spot out West with Dallas and Detroit. Columbus, who recently acquired Marian Gaborik on deadline day and is receiving superb netminding from a Philadelphia cast off, Sergei Bobrovsky, is quickly becoming the darling of the playoff chase. This is a team that was thought to be guaranteed either Seth Jones, Nathan McKinnon or Jonathan Drouin for this year's draft, yet here they are, in firm contention for the eighth spot.

Bobrovsky's play of late has been nothing short of outstanding, as he's likely earned himself a spot on the Vezina Trophy list. Yes, a former Philadelphia netminder could be up for a Vezina. Philadelphia has a tendency to blame their netminders for every fault with the team, yet their system and corps of slow-footed defensemen have more to do with their struggles than anything. True, Ilya Bryzgalov is an easy target, but in last season's second-round playoff exit against New Jersey, Bryz was one of the team's best players, but as Bryz noted this week after being replaced by Steve Mason, it's no beach.

Columbus is succeeding with players acquired in the Rick Nash trade, notably Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov (who left Saturday's win over Minnesota with a head injury courtesy of the Wild's Charlie Coyle). Gaborik appears reinvented in Columbus, likely just happy leave Broadway and John Tortorella's system. True, Columbus might not challenge the West's elite for the Campbell Trophy, but it's a great story.

One of the bigger surprises for Columbus is their blue line production, as one likely assumed, this column included, that Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski would spearhead the offensive charge from the rear. However, with six games remaining in the season, it's steady veteran Fedor Tyutin that's shouldering the points load. His 18 points through 42 games appear in line with what he has done in previous seasons, both with the Jackets and the Rangers, but the fact that he's outscoring Jack Johnson is still surprising. Johnson, acquired from Los Angeles in last season's Jeff Carter giveaway, is eating ice time, seeing 26 minutes per-game and has a solid 16 points, but most had been expecting more.

Tyutin was arguably the fourth-rated fantasy defender on the Jackets' roster heading into the season, trailing Johnson, Wisniewski and Nikita Nikitin; the latter has been woefully underproductive, with nine points in 36 games after grabbing 32 in 54 contests last year following an early-season trade from St. Louis.

Nikitin is one of several underperforming players this season that could be had at a value in this coming fall's drafts. True, Nikitin has three other defenders with whom to share the puck, but Wisniewski has never proven able to stay healthy and Johnson is eating a ton of minutes against the opposition's top players. Nikitin's performance can only go up next season and likely can be had for very little toward the end of drafts.

Here are several other underachievers whose pricetags will be lowered next season:

Jason Garrison, Vancouver: There probably wasn't a bigger candidate for serious regression heading into this year than Garrison, signer of a six-year, $27.6 million contract this past July. Garrison scored a career-high 16 goals last season with Florida, finishing with 33 total points. When joining Vancouver, he became the secondary defensemen on the power play behind Alexander Edler, but veteran Dan Hamhuis is also raking in points, with 21. However, Garrison has a modest 13 points on the season.

Garrison possesses a tremendous slap shot and has offensive upside and his shots on goal are in line with what he did last season, but last season's 10.6 percent shooting percentage was an aberration. Garrison has the skill to make a larger offensive impact than his 13 points, although he has three points in the last four games. You won't have to pay nearly as much for Garrison as the Canucks did in next fall's drafts.

Dmitry Kulikov, Florida: One of the more trendy picks heading into this season's drafts, Kulikov was expected to take the next step in his development following a solid, albeit inconsistent 28 point-campaign one year earlier. Kulikov played just 58 games for the Kitties in 2011-12 and his current season sees him with a mere nine points through 30 games.

His splits this season are just as inconsistent as they were last year, with two goals and no assists in the last 10 games. He's a former first-round pick and will be 23 at the end of October; there's reason for optimism with Kulikov as he's likely to get a few more chances due to his young age. There's still potential there, but some of that is tied to his teammates in Florida. The Panthers aren't the greatest offensive team but the presence of uber-prospect Jonathan Huberdeau and the fact that Brian Campbell will be on the team until 2016 can only help Kulikov's efforts next season.

Again, Kulikov has little places to go but up. He still has a few years left where people will be referring to his potential.

Cam Fowler, Anaheim: The 21-year old has seen 32 games for the Ducks this season and he's regressed seriously since his 40-point rookie campaign two seasons earlier. Fowler has no goals and seven assists this year, that's it. The presence of veterans Francois Beauchemin and Sheldon Souray certainly have cut into Fowler's chances and productions, but owners expected more than seven assists through 32 games. He's missed some time due to injury and is currently day-to-day with an upper-body issue, however this season appears lost for Fowler. He, like Kulikov, also will wear the potential label for a few more seasons, but Fowler can likely be had for almost nothing next season, be it late in drafts or on waivers.

His teammate, Luca Sbisa is also seeing his numbers down from last year after notching 24 points through 80 games last season. Sbisa, famous for being the Philadelphia prospect sent to Anaheim in the Chris Pronger trade, can only bounce back next year. He's still 23-years old and stands to see more ice time for Anaheim as he matures.

Jake Gardiner, Toronto: The saga with Gardiner this season has been well documented; his struggles with coach Randy Carlyle, time spent in the AHL and his Twitter campaign, #freeJakeGardiner, started by his agent. There's no way to predict what will happen with Gardiner and the new regime in Toronto this offseason, but the kid has some serious upside. He's a better offensive option than John-Michael Liles and certainly will offer more scoring potential than recently acquired defender Ryan O'Byrne.

Gardiner has two points through nine games at various points of this season, but seems to be punished for every mistake he makes much more than other players on the Buds' roster. Gardiner posted 30 points through 75 games one year ago, his rookie campaign.

Yes, he's one of those American College boys that Don Cherry loves, but Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk are Americans as well. (Not that it should factor into it, but this is Toronto.) Gardiner should be a late-round target next fall, but bump him up a few spots if he moves from the Leafs.

Video clip of the week: The Devils lost 2-0 to Ottawa on Friday night, outshooting the Sens 33-11. Nothing was more comical than Ottawa's second goal, scored by Milan Michalek. Watch as Devils' defensemen Henrik Tallinder and Marek Zidlicky collide with one another after an offensive zone faceoff-win, springing Michalek and Daniel Alfredsson.

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Player News
Frederik Andersen
Ducks' Andersen Hangs On For OT Win
Frederik Andersen, G, ANA
12:06 PM
News: Frederik Andersen stopped all but one of the Stars' 22 shots in a 2-1 overtime win Friday.
Analysis: Frederik Andersen was 5:27 away from his second shutout of the season before a back-door goal from Antoine Roussel knotted things up. He's been one of the best fantasy options in net this year with his 6-1 record, shiny .940 save percentage and 1.70 GAA and still has quite the advantage over John Gibson for Anaheim's starting gig.

Kari Lehtonen
Stars' Lehtonen Absorbs Another OT Loss
Kari Lehtonen, G, DAL
12:00 PM
News: Kari Lehtonen turned aside 22 of 24 shots in a 2-1 overtime loss -- his third of the season -- to the visiting Ducks on Friday.
Analysis: The good news is that the 4-0-3 Kari Lehtonen still hasn't lost in regulation, but owners are undoubtedly a little frustrated by his bad luck in the extra frame. He hasn't been particularly good of late, giving up eight goals on his last 78 shots for a save percentage of .897. Also, Lehtonen is somewhat of a complex fantasy commodity, as he'll get the bulk of Dallas' starts but is also largely at the mercy of a mediocre defense for an offense that relies heavily on Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and to a lesser extent, Jason Spezza. If those guys have an off night (like they did against Anaheim), Lehtonen's chances at the all-important victory will likely be slim. The Stars play again Saturday against the Wild -- who are second in the NHL in shots with a whopping average of 35.6 per game -- so even if Lehtonen gets the nod in the second of back-to-backs, it won't be the most favorable matchup for him to get back in the win column.

Paul Stastny
Blues' Stastny (Upper Body) Out Saturday
Paul Stastny, C, STL
12:50 AM
News: Paul Stastny (upper body) will miss Saturday's game, NHL.com's Lou Korac reports.
Analysis: Paul Stastny suffered the injury Oct. 18 against the Coyotes and hasn't returned to action since. He appeared to be on track for Thursday's contest, but was ruled out in a game-time decision and now will miss Saturday as well.

Jonas Hiller
Flames' Hiller Victorious Friday
Jonas Hiller, G, CGY
10/31/2014
News: Jonas Hiller thwarted 28 of 31 shots en route to a 4-3 victory over the visiting Predators on Friday.
Analysis: Jonas Hiller owes a large part of this "W" to the Flames offense, which exploded for three goals in less than five minutes in the third, erasing a 2-1 Nashville lead. The former Duck has played extremely well while splitting time with Karri Ramo this season, surrendering just six goals on 151 shots (.960 save percentage) over his last five starts. Hiller was recently appointed the No. 1 starter in Cow Town by head coach Bob Hartley, so as long as he's playing well, he should be between the pipes with regularity for the Flames.

Pekka Rinne
Preds' Rinne Takes Loss Friday
Pekka Rinne, G, NSH
10/31/2014
News: Pekka Rinne allowed four goals on 30 goals in a 4-3 loss to Calgary on Friday.
Analysis: Pekka Rinne and the Preds coughed up a 2-1 lead in the third period -- allowing three goals in under five minutes -- that they ultimately wouldn't recover from. Nashville has four games remaining on its road trip against the Canucks, Jets, Stars and Blues, and with none of those contests coming on back-to-back nights, it's conceivable that the 6-2-1 workhorse will get the nod for all four.

James Neal
Preds' Neal Pots Two More Friday
James Neal, LW, NSH
10/31/2014
News: James Neal scored a pair of goals in Friday's 4-3 loss to the Flames.
Analysis: The former Penguin and Star also fired seven shots on goal, tying his season high. Although he's yet to record an assist through 10 games, James Neal has found the back of the net seven times so far, dispelling the notion that he'd suffer a significant decline in production without the help of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The 27-year-old still has a lethal release and one of the best shots in the league on what's looking like a much-improved Predators offense, so go ahead and roll him out there each time he takes the ice.

Ryan Callahan
Bolts' Callahan Set To Play Saturday
Ryan Callahan, RW, TB
10/31/2014
News: Ryan Callahan (lower body) declared himself ready to return to the lineup Saturday against the Capitals, Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times reports.
Analysis: The Bolts already reassigned Cedric Paquette back to AHL Syracuse on Friday, clearing the way for Ryan Callahan's activation from IR prior to Saturday's game. The 29-year-old practiced fully Friday, and so long as nothing bothers him at Saturday's morning skate, he'll reenter the lineup for the first time in five games. Look for him to claim a spot on the Bolts' second line, joining Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat.

Kyle Quincey
Wings' Quincey Diagnosed With Ankle Injury
Kyle Quincey, D, DET
10/31/2014
News: Kyle Quincey has been diagnosed with an ankle injury, Ted Kulfan of the Detroit News reports.
Analysis: GM Ken Holland said the Red Wings were uncertain whether Kyle Quincey's injury was a short-term or long-term concern. A more thorough evaluation by the team's medical staff over the next 24 hours should offer a clearer prognosis for Quincey, who has one point in 10 games this season.

Paul Martin
Martin Makes It Through Uneventful Thursday
Paul Martin, D, PIT
10/31/2014
News: Paul Martin was held pointless with a plus-1 rating in just over 17 minutes (17:17) of action Thursday against Los Angeles.
Analysis: He made it through the contest without missing a shift. The Pittsburgh defenseman, who missed Wednesday's practice due to a stiff back, saw 3:06 TOI penalty killing but just 20 seconds on the power play.

Michael Ferland
Flames' Ferland Leaves With Injury In Debut
Michael Ferland, LW, CGY
10/31/2014
News: Michael Ferland was removed from Friday's game against the Predators with an upper-body injury and will not return.
Analysis: The Flames recalled Michael Ferland on Thursday specifically to address the rash of injuries that hit the team in recent days, but he was only able to provide some relief for less than two periods Friday. The Flames should have more information on the extent of his injury after the game. Ferland was held without a point and attempted one shot in his 15 shifts.

 
 
 
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