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Blue Line Buzz: Players to watch

by | Rotowire.com
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(all statistics through Saturday, Jan. 4)

Happy New Year!

The last few days were huge for defensemen that you'd expect to produce, only seeing them produce quite a bit more than owners are used to.

Rich Getting Richer

Chicago's Duncan Keith, still leading all defensemen in scoring (3-39-42), grabbed three assists in Friday's rout over New Jersey, giving him nine assists over the last four games. Who cares if he has played most of the season with just one goal before exploding in December? Keith is enjoying life with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp, both of whom have been on an absolute tear the last two weeks, with Sharp notching his second hat trick in five games on Friday. The 14 goals Keith scored in 2010 are long gone, but he's emerging as a more productive Ryan Suter in terms of dishing the puck incredibly, as he is currently tied with Sidney Crosby for second in the league with 39 assists.

Speaking of Ryan Suter, it's not often you get hat tricks from defensemen. Let alone hat tricks from defensemen who average around five goals a season. Suter had himself a game on Saturday, bagging three goals in Minnesota's win over Washington. Suter has five goals in the last four games and is currently riding a wave of points that have seen him notch at least one point in all but one of the last 12 games.

Suter was, unsurprisingly, named to Team USA for the Sochi Winter Olympics where he likely will never be allowed to leave the ice. Suter's an elite defender, maybe one of the top two or three all-around defenders in the NHL, but this kind of production offensively has been a boon to an already solid season. Suter is well on pace to crack the elusive 50-point barrier, something he has never done in his career; a career that has seen him be one of the league's steadiest blue line scorers who didn't boast gaudy goal totals.

While Suter is the lynchpin of Team USA's blue line, it's the player directly behind him in the league's defensemen scoring race that generated much discussion this past week: Phoenix's Keith Yandle.

Yandle was one of several notable point-producers left off Team USA's roster, due to concerns about his overall defensive game, as noted in the revealing piece by ESPN writer Scott Burnside detailing the, at times salacious, selection of Team USA's roster. Yandle has 28 points in 44 games with six in the last four tilts. Fantasy owners will know he has a penchant to disappear for several games at a time, but you have to be a bit surprised that his freewheeling style of play wouldn't be welcomed on the Olympic ice. He's an experienced puck mover, a skill crucial to sparking the attack. It was the perceived slights of the game in his own zone that brought his roster spot into question, although there's something to be said when Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi, a man very familiar with Yandle's style of play, notes that Yandle scares the Kings' coaches.

Yandle wasn't the only snub near the top of the blue line scoring list, as Winnipeg's Dustin Byfuglien, currently fourth with 32 points, five in his last four, was left off the American roster. Byfuglien's omission can be more understandable than Yandle's, but few blue liners fire the puck like Byfuglien. In a tournament where special teams will be at a premium, Byfuglien could have been a boost. However, it appeared to be concerns about what else he brings to the ice than just his ability to score.

Get Thee to Albany

While the Devils have been one of the league's most enigmatic teams, they have been a surprisingly solid source of defensive scoring this season thanks to the reemergence of Andy Greene, mercurial performances of Marek Zidlicky and the establishing of rookie Eric Gelinas as players to watch. However, the team also has a bevvy of veterans getting healthy on the blue line and needed roster spots to put the likes of Anton Volchenkov and captain Bryce Salvador. Gelinas is one of two players on defense who could be sent down to the AHL without passing through waivers, and suffered that fate on Saturday when Volchenkov returned to the lineup.

Gelinas had 16 points in 33 games with 10 of those points coming on the power play. He had looked vulnerable and hesitant in his own zone the last two weeks and began pressing, as noted by coach Peter DeBoer, who also acknowledged that Gelinas brings elements of the game that can't be duplicated in terms of his powerful slap shot and skating ability. Odds are, this will be a short stint in Albany for the promising blue liner. Don't cut bait on him entirely if you have a spot on your roster.

Lightning Developing?

Mark Barberio is a name owners of dynasty leagues and keeper leagues have been aware of for the last two seasons. A major part of Norfolk's AHL Calder Cup win in the 2012 season, he hasn't quite found his stride in the NHL, being a healthy scratch on several occasions this season. He has a modest four assists over 28 games, two of which have come in the Bolts' last two contests. He's seeing little power play time (24 seconds per-game over the season) and is entrenched on the team's third defensive pair. He's definitely worth keeping an eye on considering how productive he was at the AHL and junior level with The Q's Moncton, but he has underwhelmed in his first full NHL season. Until he starts earning more ice time and establishing himself further as a presence, he's still a long-term keeper prospect at best. Don't forget about him entirely, just don't run out a grab him.

It's An Island Life For Me

The Islanders have been proving to be a difficult squad to play against of late, even if they're not winning every game. They topped Chicago on Thursday and stormed back against Boston on New Year's Eve for a 5-4 win. John Tavares is one of the league's best players and Kyle Okposo is finally emerging as the offensive force the Islanders hoped he would be when they drafted him years ago. Very quietly, though Andrew MacDonald is proving to be worth a look in deeper leagues, although he's not an ideal pickup.

He has six assists over the last four games and points in all four of those contests while living on the Islanders' top power-play unit. One needs to pause for concern though when examining the shot totals of MacDonald; he grabbed three shots and a helper in Saturday's loss to Carolina, but in the five previous games, MacDonald put just one puck on net. Plenty of defenders have been productive without shooting much (Brian Rafalski, Paul Martin, earlier incarnations of Ryan Suter), but this line from MacDonald might not spell continued production. In one of those games MacDonald failed to put a shot on goal, he saw 7:08 of power play time and 4:24 the previous game. In fact, he had five assists in the three games before Saturday without putting a puck on net, two of which came on the power play. The helpers will still come, as he seems to be the only game in town on the power play, but the old axiom of following the shots will not apply with MacDonald. Caveat Emptor.

Opportunity Bruin

With steady veteran Dennis Seidenberg out of the season, Johnny Boychuk is stepping up to a larger role on one of the Eastern Conference's top teams with five points over the last eight games. He's never been a big scorer in his career, but owners looking to add a player in deeper leagues could do worse than a Bruin who won't hurt your plus-minus too much. He's seen a slight uptick in power play time, with 2:07 in Tuesday's loss to the Islanders, but little to none in the last two weeks.

He's Back (For Now At Least)

Nashville rookie Seth Jones has turned heads as one of the more impressive 19-year olds to play in the NHL in a while, if you believe what Nashville GM David Poile said in Burnside's ESPN piece. While it was a consensus that Jones will be an Olympian in the future, it wasn't to be this season, especially with how his ice time dwindled in December. Owners or prospective owners will want to notice that Jones played 23:26 in Saturday's shootout loss to Florida. He played just 20 seconds on the power play but saw over 2:20 on the penalty kill; most young defenders have those numbers reversed.

Jones scored in Saturday's loss and has seen his name on the scoresheet often of late, with five points in the last four games. More importantly, his ice time has shot up from the single digit totals he'd been seeing earlier in the month. Expect more ebbs and flows from the utterly skilled youngster, but he's going to be an elite player.

Question of the Week: Who was the biggest Olympic snub, for any country?

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Player News
James Sheppard
Sharks Activate Sheppard
James Sheppard, LW, SJ
12:58 AM
News: James Sheppard (knee) has been activated from his rehab assignment at AHL Worcester, David Pollak of the San Jose Mercury News reports.
Analysis: After appearing in two rehab games for Worcester over the weekend, James Sheppard was given clearance to return to the NHL club, with whom he'll make his season debut Tuesday versus the Bruins. He's set to man the Sharks' third line, with Andrew Desjardins and Tomas Hertl flanking him on the wings.

Raffi Torres
Sharks' Torres Will Avoid Second ACL Surgery
Raffi Torres, LW, SJ
12:55 AM
News: Raffi Torres (knee) will not require a second operation on his torn ACL, David Pollak of the San Jose Mercury News reports.
Analysis: It's a fortunate bit of news for Raffi Torres, and while he's now in line to return earlier than originally anticipated, he's still looking at a lengthy recover timetable. Rather than opting for surgery, Torres will instead work on strengthening the muscles around the injured right knee, a process that will likely last two months or longer. Torres will train in his native Toronto before visiting the Sharks staff for a checkup at some point in November or December.

Pekka Rinne
Preds Likely To Go With Rinne On Tuesday
Pekka Rinne, G, NSH
12:48 AM
News: Pekka Rinne is expected to return to the net Tuesday versus the Coyotes, NHL.com's Robby Stanley reports.
Analysis: The Predators received a highly-impressive outing from backup Carter Hutton during the team's most-recent tilt with the Blackhawks, but he's no threat to cut into Pekka Rinne's workload. The two-time Vezina Trophy nominee has certainly put himself under early consideration for that honor again through his first four starts in 2014-15, going 3-0-1 with a 1.22 GAA and .948 save percentage.

Patrik Nemeth
Stars Place Nemeth On IR
Patrik Nemeth, D, DAL
12:44 AM
News: Patrik Nemeth (arm) was placed on injured reserve Tuesday.
Analysis: The move to injured reserve was a foregone conclusion for Patrik Nemeth, after he was ruled out for the remainder of the regular season following surgery for a serious arm laceration. The Stars hope that Nemeth will be able to contribute at some point during the team's potential playoff run, but such a decision would hinge entirely on how much progress the blueliner makes in the coming months.

Valeri Nichushkin
Stars' Nichuskin (Groin) Moved To IR
Valeri Nichushkin, RW, DAL
12:40 AM
News: Valeri Nichushkin (groin) has been placed on injured reserve.
Analysis: Valeri Nichushkin has already been out for over a week with the lower-body ailment, so the move to IR doesn't come as much of a surprise. It's uncertain how much longer the Stars will be without the services of Nichushkin, but the youngster was able to get in a skate Monday, Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News reports, suggesting a return to practice may be in the offing. Fortunately for Nichushkin, none of the Stars' other wing options have made a strong case over the last few games to take over his top-line role on a permanent basis.

Ryan Stanton
Canucks' Stanton Moved To IR
Ryan Stanton, D, VAN
12:37 AM
News: Ryan Stanton (lower body) has been placed on injured reserve.
Analysis: The injury will be retroactive to Oct. 17, keeping Ryan Stanton out for at least the next three games. Frank Corrado was recalled from AHL Utica over the weekend to replenish Vancouver's depth on defense.

Ryan Miller
Canucks Return Net To Miller On Tuesday
Ryan Miller, G, VAN
12:31 AM
News: Ryan Miller will be in the net Tuesday versus the Stars, Brad Ziemer of the Vancouver Sun reports.
Analysis: Ryan Miller received his first rest of the season in the Canucks' previous game against the Lightning on Saturday, will backup Eddie Lack taking the loss in his stead. The 34-year-old Miller figures to be rested later in the week when the Canucks play another back-to-back set, but the three-year, $18 million contract he signed in the offseason ensures he'll see a large workload this season. He's been generally excellent in his first three turns with the Canucks, winning all of his starts and posting a 1.95 GAA and .927 save percentage.

Ondrej Pavelec
Jets Rolling With Pavelec On Tuesday
Ondrej Pavelec, G, WPG
12:23 AM
News: Ondrej Pavelec will get the starting nod Tuesday versus the Hurricanes, Ken Wiebe of the Winnipeg Sun reports.
Analysis: Ondrej Pavelec's been the recipient of some poor offensive support by his mates to saddle him with a 1-3-0 record, but his 2.61 GAA and .906 save percentage through five games aren't world-beating, by any means. Just as was predicted heading into the season, Pavelec looks like one of the league's weakest starting netminders, though he should be a fine fantasy play Tuesday against Carolina, the NHL's only winless team.

Radko Gudas
Bolts' Gudas Doubtful For Tuesday
Radko Gudas, D, TB
12:12 AM
News: Radko Gudas (lower body) is doubtful to play Tuesday versus the Flames, Erik Erlendsson of the Tampa Tribune reports.
Analysis: Radko Gudas was generally expected to return to action in time for Monday's tilt with the Oilers, but he hasn't quite progressed as quickly as the Bolts had anticipated. While a long-term absence looks to be off the table for the blueliner, he'll still head off to the press box for his fourth consecutive contest.

Jonathan Drouin
Bolts' Drouin Quiet In Debut
Jonathan Drouin, LW, TB
12:07 AM
News: Jonathan Drouin (thumb) turned in a quiet outing in his NHL debut Monday against the Oilers, attempting one shot on goal and finishing with a minus-1 rating over 16:10 of ice time.
Analysis: Jonathan Drouin was activated from his rehab assignment at AHL Syracuse on Sunday, but was expected to sit out Monday's game, until an injury to Alex Killorn (undisclosed) ushered the youngster into the lineup. With both Killorn and Ryan Callahan (upper body) doubtful to play Tuesday versus the Flames, Drouin will slot into the Bolts' top-six forwards for a second straight game. It shouldn't take long for the much-hyped Drouin to cement himself as a mainstay on the top two lines and the team's power play.

 
 
 
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