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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
Ryan McDonagh
Rangers' McDonagh Likely To Play Friday
Ryan McDonagh, D, NYR
12:45 AM
News: Ryan McDonagh (shoulder) appears likely to return from IR to play Friday against the Flyers, Andrew Gross of The Record reports.
Analysis: Out since Nov. 1 with a separated shoulder, Ryan McDonagh has been practicing since Tuesday and was paired up with regular partner Dan Girardi at Thursday's session, suggesting he'll be ready to go Friday. The Rangers won't hold a morning skate Friday due to the 1:00 p.m. ET puck drop, so McDonagh's return to lineup likely wouldn't be announced until pregame warmups.

Francois Beauchemin
Ducks' Beauchemin Questionable For Friday
Francois Beauchemin, D, ANA
12:41 AM
News: Francois Beauchemin (upper body) is questionable to play Friday versus the Blackhawks, Eric Stephens of the Orange County Register reports.
Analysis: Francois Beauchemin hasn't been practicing since exiting Tuesday's game against the Flames with the injury. The odds would seem against him suiting up Friday, but his outlook could change if he's able to take part in the team's morning skate.

Matt Hendricks
X-Rays Come Back Negative For Oilers' Hendricks
Matt Hendricks, C, EDM
11/27/2014
News: X-rays taken on Matt Hendricks' injured leg came back negative.
Analysis: Matt Hendricks took a puck off his kneecap in Thursday's game, but he avoided a serious injury, and was only having trouble bending his leg after the game. Consider Hendricks day-to-day moving forward.

Jussi Jokinen
Panthers' Jokinen Pointless In Last Four Games
Jussi Jokinen, LW, FLA
11/27/2014
News: Jussi Jokinen has not recorded a single point in his last four games and has only recorded two shots on goal.
Analysis: Although he has gone dry in the last four games, Jussi Jokinen is currently tied for the team lead in points with 12 (2G, 10A). Jokinen has found himself playing on the third line for most of the season, but his value comes on the power play, where he is averaging 2:45 minutes per game. He leads the team with four PP points and is second on the team with 18 PIM. Jokinen's career shooting percentage is 13.1% and this season he is only sitting at 6.5%, therefore his goal scoring totals should increase while his percentages move toward his career average.

Brandon Pirri
Panthers' Pirri With Assist In Debut On The Wing
Brandon Pirri, C, FLA
11/27/2014
News: Brandon Pirri notched an assist while playing his first game on the wing, in Wednesday's 1-0 win against the Hurricanes.
Analysis: The natural center was shifted to play on the right wing with Nick Bjugstad and Jonathan Huberdeau for Wednesday's game against Carolina. The good news for Brandon Pirri is he is playing on a line that features the two hottest players on the team right now in Bjugstad and Huberdeau, the bad news is we don't know how long it will last. When asked about the new line after the game, coach Gerard Gallant responded with "I loved [the newly formed line] in the first period; I didn't like it much the second and third because there were too many chances against them and they weren't skating the same". If that trend continues, Pirri could easily see himself playing on a bottom six line. For the time being, he should produce some points while playing with his new linemates.

Dan Boyle
Rangers' Boyle Claims First Point
Dan Boyle, D, NYR
11/27/2014
News: Dan Boyle collected his first point of the season with a first-period power-play goal in Wednesday's loss to the Lightning.
Analysis: Dan Boyle has yet to get going after a broken hand cost him entire month of action, but Thursday's goal could spark his production. Though he's long past his peak at 38 years old, Boyle's presence on a top power-play unit ripe with talent should allow him to finish the season as an above-average source of offense from the blue line.

T.J. Brodie
Flames' Brodie Dishes Out Two In Win
T.J. Brodie, D, CGY
11/27/2014
News: T.J. Brodie assisted on both of the Flames' goals in Wednesday's 2-0 victory over the Sharks.
Analysis: There hasn't been a more dynamic defensive pairing so far this season than Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie, who have combined for an incredible 44 points over the Flames' 24 games. That level of production probably won't be sustained over the course of the full season, but it's clear that both blueliners are premier talents at their positions. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 45 to 50 points could be a realistic benchmark for Brodie.

Adam Lowry
Jets' Lowry Docked One Game For Boarding
Adam Lowry, LW, WPG
11/27/2014
News: Adam Lowry has been suspended one game for boarding the Sabres' Patrick Kaleta in Wednesday's match.
Analysis: As a rookie, Adam Lowry doesn't have any track record for malicious hits, so the league office went relatively light on him for the first-time violation. Lowry collected 15 penalty minutes for his transgressions Wednesday night, doubling his PIM total from the previous 23 games combined. He'll be eligible to return to action Dec. 3 against the Oilers.

Corban Knight
Flames Bring Back Knight
Corban Knight, C, CGY
11/27/2014
News: Corban Knight was recalled from AHL Adirondack on Thursday, NHL.com's Aaron Vickers reports.
Analysis: Corban Knight was assigned to Adirondack just a day earlier, but it sounds like he never left the team. The Flames were simply waiting for Devin Setoguchi to clear waivers, and since that situation is now resolved, Knight will take his spot back on the 23-man roster.

Ryan Garbutt
Two-Game Suspension For Stars' Garbutt
Ryan Garbutt, LW, DAL
11/27/2014
News: Ryan Garbutt was suspended two games for kneeing the Oilers' Taylor Hall in Tuesday's match, NHL.com's Mark Stepneski reports.
Analysis: As he is often wont to do, Ryan Garbutt was pestering the Edmonton star throughout the game but went a little overboard with eight minutes remaining in the third period, clipping Hall with his knee and earning a two-minute minor for tripping. The banishment will keep him out of action until the Stars' Dec. 2 game against the Maple Leafs.

 
 
 
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