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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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