Neutral Zone Wrap
by Evan Berofsky
When we last met, we covered the bumps and bruises along with the recommended replacements. But don't get confused: this is neither an injury nor a suspension column, nor is it a repository for the latest puck news. The Wrap is a weekly contribution designed to highlight certain players whose fantasy stock is relevant due to recent trends and team performance. No stars will be mentioned unless they fall out of favor or return from injury. Of course, you'll never read the following recommendation here: "Hey, you might want to pick up this Sidney Crosby dude. We hear he's good." (And I hope never to say 'dude'. As if.)
It may be early, but everyone is starting to settle in and learn their roles, so it's time to look around the league and see what lineups yield intriguing fantasy commodities:
(NOTE: The Islanders, Flames, Bruins, and Canadiens were discussed last week, so you won't see them in this space for a while unless some mega-bombshell of a story emerges which alters the fantasy game forever. In other words, wait about a month.)
Will Sergei Bobrovsky (no relation) be able to keep the #1 spot even after Michael Leighton (back surgery) returns? The Russian rookie has won his first two (with a 2.00 GAA and .930 SV%), but a quick check will show a combined 16 victories in two KHL seasons (albeit for an awful team but with a .927 and .919 SV%). Although he's quick and mobile, Bobrovsky seems to play a riskier, Dominik Hasek-like style. That's not necessarily a bad thing, although the potential for error increases â€“ especially for someone not fully acclimated to the North American game. With Leighton scheduled for a late November return, veteran Brian Boucher (2.47, .909 in last year's Cup run) could easily swipe some starts if Bobrovsky flops too much for the liking of the Philly bench staff.
The same could be asked of Michal Neuvirth in relation to Semyon Varlamov (groin pull). Varlamov is set to rejoin the Caps after going down for the fourth time in two years. But the 22-year old Czech has handled the top job very well in four appearances (2.22 GAA, .924 SV%) and has been just as highly touted as his similarly aged Russian counterpart. Washington observers will say Varlamov possesses more upside and has earned the top spot based on past performance (including two postseasons), but they'll also claim Neuvirth as the safer option. Better wait until Varlamov makes a few appearances in order to gauge his prospects before ruling him out of the picture.
Don't expect a debate in Nashville between incumbent Pekka Rinne (lower-body whatchamacalit problem) and freshman giant Anders Lindback (1.56 GAA, .938 SV% in only a game and a bit). Rinne boasts the stats (2.45, .914 with 14 shutouts in two seasons), and his problem looks to be minor, so the supine Swede (at 6'6", an inch taller than Rinne) will have to wait (or head to the AHL) for an extended tour. The Preds have been blessed with a revolving door of solid netminders, but it's their balance up front that will keep them in the hunt. The secret lies in the fact that on each of their four lines, you'll find at least one competent scorer. And if you look closer at the ice time, you'll notice no single forward â€“ or group of forwards â€“ receives significantly more minutes than another. So, in reality, one can almost designate any trio the 'first line'. While it allows for several fantasy producers, it also creates questions as to which ones should be owned. Patric Hornqvist, Matthew Lombardi, and Steve Sullivan should lead the way (total of four, although Lombardi has zero), but guys like Joel Ward, Colin Wilson, and Cal O'Reilly (also at four) deserve some love too. Even J.P. Dumont and David Legwand (both at two) are worthy.
Most would assume the Sabres to be a defensively minded side, what with Ryan Miller andâ€¦well, Ryan Miller is all they need. But don't forget Buffalo finished 11th in goals scored last season (235) and can call on a number of individuals to find the scoresheet. Beyond the obvious contributors and in the wake of the Jason Pominville concussion, a couple other forwards will be there to help out. Tyler Ennis made the most of his call-up in late March (nine in 10 and then four more in the playoffs) and has continued his efforts to date (four in four). Jochen Hecht (respectable 21 goals in 2009-10) may not be the flashiest skater, but he's smart around the net and provides a big body. And on the blueline, Jordan Leopold (four, power-play quarterback) is already making Sabre fans forget about the departures of Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman. But maybe Chris Butler (21 in 59 last year) should see some service after sitting out the first four as a healthy scratch.
Whoever thought Chicago would fall apart clearly doesn't understand how winning franchises work. If you maintain a sufficient level of talent and a sufficient stock of prospects, then you'll be fine. Yes, the young D-men are struggling early and their offense hasn't exactly wowed anyone (five of 11 goals on the PP), but their new-look lines seem to be working out nicely. Tomas Kopecky (four assists) is the perfect mix of speed and stickhandling in between Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. Bryan Bickell uses his size (12 hits) and soft hands (three points) to match the skills of Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp. Viktor Stalberg and Jack Skille (both scoreless) need to improve, but that'll come with experience and learning from their mistakes. The net tandem of Marty Turco and Corey Crawford may not be in the league's upper echelon, but they should do enough to hold a lead.
Evan Berofsky enjoys writing. Seriously. When he's not trying to shove hockey miscellany down your throat, he gets his kicks playing tournament ScrabbleĂ¤. If you have anything to say about Evan's work (or need any hot word tips), feel free to contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter (@evanberofsky).