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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
Jeff Deslauriers
Deslauriers Heads To Kings Camp On Tryout Basis
Jeff Deslauriers, G, ANA
9/2/2014
News: Jeff Deslauriers will take part in training camp with the Kings on a tryout basis, Jon Rosen of LAKingsInsider.com reports.
Analysis: Jeff Deslauriers has little hope of claiming the backup gig for the NHL squad behind Jonathan Quick, but he does figure to merit consideration for the AHL affiliate in Manchester. The 30-year-old appeared in 40 games for AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last season, going 20-15-3 with a 2.58 GAA and .895 save percentage.

Zac Rinaldo
Flyers, Rinaldo Agree To Two-Year Extension
Zac Rinaldo, C, PHI
9/2/2014
News: Zac Rinaldo agreed to a two-year, $1.7 million extension with the Flyers on Tuesday.
Analysis: Because Zac Rinaldo previously agreed to a two-year deal with the Flyers last April, the extension will keep him on the books through the next three seasons. He proved to be a key cog on the Flyers' checking line in 2013-14, totaling 231 hits and 153 penalty minutes while averaging just 7:41 per ice time. He's shown little scoring acumen during his time in Philadelphia, but few players in the NHL offer more physicality at the forward spot.

Sheldon Souray
Ducks' Souray Might Not Be Able To Keep Playing
Sheldon Souray, D, ANA
9/1/2014
News: GM Bob Murray said Sheldon Souray's career remains in jeopardy as a result of his season-ending wrist procedure in January, NHL.com's Curtis Zupke reports.
Analysis: With the beginning of training camp closing in on the Ducks, it sounds like the team is preparing for the possibility of life without Sheldon Souray for a second consecutive season. Souray hasn't received clearance to begin practicing in full, and his advancing age (he's 38 years old) certainly doesn't work to his advantage. Even if Souray is able to return to some semblance of health at some point this season, expect him to play much less than the 20:56 minutes per game he averaged in 44 contests during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign.

John Gibson
Ducks' Gibson, Andersen To Battle For No. 1 Duties
John Gibson, G, ANA
9/1/2014
News: John Gibson will battle Frederik Andersen for duties as the Ducks' No. 1 netminder in training camp, NHL.com's Curtis Zupke reports.
Analysis: While Andersen, a fellow second-year goalie, probably has the advantage heading into camp since he played well in a larger sample of games than John Gibson, the 21-year-old certainly proved his mettle for the Ducks in the postseason. Thrust into action for the final four games of the team's second-round series with the Kings, Gibson saved 102 of 111 shots (.919 save%) and turned in a shutout in Game 4, convincing the Ducks to let veteran Jonas Hiller walk in free agency. With an outstanding showing in camp, Gibson could very well beat out Andersen, but there's an equally real possibility he could start the season in the minors. Both young goalies are best off playing regularly somewhere while they're still developing, so it wouldn't be surprise if veteran Jason LaBarbera ended up opening the campaign as the backup to the victor of the starting competition.

Frederik Andersen
Ducks' Andersen (Knee) Likely No. 1 to Open Camp
Frederik Andersen, G, ANA
9/1/2014
News: Frederik Andersen (knee) will likely be the Ducks' No. 1 goalie when training camp opens, NHL.com's Curtis Zupke reports.
Analysis: Both Frederik Andersen and fellow competitor for No. 1 duties John Gibson ended up surpassing incumbent Jonas Hiller on the depth chart for the Ducks during the postseason, but it was Andersen's MCL sprain in Round 2 against the Kings that allowed Gibson to leave the last impression. However, Andersen was nearly as good as Gibson over a much larger sample of starts last season, going 20-5-0 with a 2.29 GAA and .923 save percentage. The greater amount of experience confers an early advantage to Andersen in the job battle, but whomever opens the season as the No. 1 goalie will largely earn the gig based on training camp performance.

Shawn Horcoff
Stars' Horcoff Primed For Bottom-Six Duty
Shawn Horcoff, C, DAL
9/1/2014
News: Shawn Horcoff is expected to see most of his action as a bottom-six forward for the Stars this season, Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News reports.
Analysis: Shawn Horcoff, 35, is entering the final campaign of a six-year deal and seems to have accepted his role as a depth player at this stage of his career. A former top scorer for the Oilers during his prime, Horcoff averaged just 12:51 of ice time over 77 games with the Stars in 2013-14, totaling seven goals and 13 assists. He'd do well to eclipse the 20-point mark again during the upcoming season.

Jordin Tootoo
Free Agent Tootoo Still Looking For Work
Jordin Tootoo, RW, DET
9/1/2014
News: Jordin Tootoo is unlikely to re-sign with the Predators, Joshua Cooper of The Tennessean reports.
Analysis: Jordin Tootoo, who became an unrestricted free agent in June when the Red Wings bought out his contract, is likely not a good fit to re-join the Preds, as the team has already made several free-agent pickups this summer to bolster depth. Tootoo recorded just a single assist in 11 games for Detroit last season, and spent most of his time in the AHL. His best days as an NHL forward - and viable fantasy option - are likely behind him at this point.

Nazem Kadri
Leafs' Kadri: Working To Improve Shot Release
Nazem Kadri, C, TOR
8/31/2014
News: Nazem Kadri has been working on his shot over the summer and is looking to put up a lot more points this season, reports Sportsnet.ca. "Every single year I like my production to go up and up, so I want to get better [in terms of] goals, points, assists, plus/minus, time on ice," he said. "These are all things I think about and can improve on."
Analysis: He's been in the gym working on wrist curls and strengthening his forearms and shoulders to improve his shot. "I've really been working on my shot and my release, knowing a lot of NHL goalies can't be beat without a quick release," said Nazem Kadri. "The power doesn't necessarily have to be there, but the release definitely does. I'm trying to score a few more goals and get more pucks on net." The center once potted 35 goals in 56 OHL games with the London Knights, but he will be hard pressed to replicate that scoring rate in the NHL. Still, he could certainly be in line for an improvement over his 20 goals from last season and 60 points could be in the offing.

Sheldon Brookbank
Flames Invite Brookbank To Training Camp
Sheldon Brookbank, D, CHI
8/31/2014
News: The Flames have extended a tryout to Sheldon Brookbank at their training camp in the fall, the Calgary Sun reports.
Analysis: Sheldon Brookbank spent the past two seasons with the Blackhawks, and collected two goals and five assists in 48 games last season. He will get a shot at the sixth or seventh defenseman spot, and his experience may give him an early edge.

Eric Staal
Canes' E. Staal (Abdomen) Back On Ice
Eric Staal, C, CAR
8/30/2014
News: Eric Staal (abdominal surgery) was back on the ice Friday at an informal skate with the Hurricanes, reports the Raleigh News Observer
Analysis: He had surgery in late July for a core-muscle issue that was described more as an abdominal wall injury rather than a sports hernia. He had changed his offseason training approach after delivering his lowest offensive numbers in a full season since his rookie year. The injury was characterized as a training injury, but it's behind him now and he's been on the ice for 10 days. "It was frustrating," he said. "At the time of the injury I thought I was in the best shape I've ever been in." If that's the case and if he can get out of the blocks strong, Eric Staal could be in line for a fantasy rebound. But he's going to turn 30 in October, so don't expect his output to recover to his previous best.

 
 
 
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