Neutral Zone Wrap
by Evan Berofsky
Even though one-eighth of the NHL season has elapsed, there's no reason to avoid compiling an early recap. You want to know who has exceeded fantasy expectations and who has fallen short. But more importantly, you're curious who can maintain a hot start and who will break out of a slump. What better way to show this than an 'All-Star' player listing from both sides? (Well, other than seeing into the future to accurately predict point totals. But that would kinda spoil the fun.)
Here are the rules: Superstars are generally not included because everyone assumes they'll bounce back and/or their current stats exceed the league average. Jarome Iginla endured a downturn to end last season (five points in 16 games), so there's no reason to be totally shocked over his early numbers (eight in 12 doesn't totally suck). And no more than one player per team in each category. It just wouldn't be fair if a few breakout lineups hogged all the attention.
So here's the best of the formerly neglected and the worst of the onetime protected:
First All-Surprise Team
Ryan Callahan, F, NY Rangers
As we mentioned last week, life isn't all gloomy in Manhattan without Marian Gaborik. The Blueshirts sit in the top half of the Eastern Conference and the outlook among the fans is generally positive. While Brandon Dubinsky (seven goals) may receive more attention, Callahan (four goals, nine assists) quietly leads the Rangers in scoring. For someone who's never topped 40 points, the Rochester native looks to be well ahead of pace. Even when Gaborik makes it back (along with Vinny Prospal and Chris Drury), Callahan should be able to keep it going.
Blake Comeau, F, NY Islanders
With apologies to P.A. Parenteau (nine, including eight on the power-play), Comeau (also at nine) remains the one to watch up front on the Island. The most impressive figure for the former Canadian WJHC standout proves to be his ice time. So far, he ranks fifth for NHL forwards with 21:19 per contest. Not bad for someone who regularly swapped between the Islanders and the AHL only two years ago. As long as the minutes keep coming, there's no reason Comeau won't be in the mix. Just don't expect anything above 50 points.
Brendan Morrison, F, Calgary
The kids in Edmonton may be the talk of Alberta, but you have to travel further south to find the Fountain of Youth. After having his comeback thwarted in Vancouver, Morrison (three goals, seven assists) has fit perfectly into Calgary's lineup. The key may be from not having the pressure of playing with Iginla, but it's also a factor of career stage. The 35-year old center knows he doesn't need to be the offensive focal point and can provide more if he helps others first. But with Matt Stajan (eight) and Olli Jokinen (six) catching up, it's only a matter of time before Morrison hits the veteran wall.
Dustin Byfuglien, D, Atlanta
Based on his output (co-leading with Andrew Ladd at 12), someone apparently forgot to tell Big Buff he switched back to the blueline. Critics have dogged the ex-Blackhawk for mainly showing up in the playoffs, but you wouldn't be able to tell from his early-season intensity and that end-to-end OT winner against Buffalo. Byfuglien will hit 40, but there's no way he'll even be close to becoming a point-per-game defenseman.
John-Michael Liles, D, Colorado
The two Kyles - Quincey and Cumiskey - were supposed to take charge of the defensive corps, but it's ol' man Liles (11 assists) who had led by example. Injuries kept him out for a significant chunk of 2009-10, but a healthy return set him on a hot start with a point in a record nine straight. If he can stay out of the training room and press box, then Liles will continue to be Colorado's A1 option on the point.
Tim Thomas, G, Boston
A year removed from struggling early and being overtaken by Tuukka Rusk, the former Vezina winner has reclaimed his starting gig. Thomas may have been demoralized from the demotion and having significant offseason hip surgery, but he's clearly not showing any ill effects. The opening line may be eye-popping (7-0, 0.70 GAA, .977 SV%, and three shutouts), but let's not get carried away. The Bs will still find a way to use Rask more often; after all, the Finn is their future between the pipes.
First All-Basement Team
Nikita Filatov, F, Columbus
Filatov started the season with back-to-back PPAs. Since then, it's been nine without a point. The expectation was that he would flourish with fellow youngsters Derick Brassard (six) and Jakub Voracek (five). Even a switch alongside Antoine Vermette (four) and R.J. Umberger (five) hasn't motivated the Russian. Looks as though Ken Hitchcock wasn't really Filatov's kryptonite in Columbus. Let's hope the kid can fight through this soon. Otherwise, the only hockey in his future will be back home.
Simon Gagne, F, Tampa Bay
Gagne has been nursing a neck injury that he suffered two weeks ago, but that's no excuse for being kept off the scoresheet in the first six - especially when the Bolts consistently lit the lamp during that period (19 total goals). He has been cleared to practice, but there is no timetable for a return. Even though the initial French-Canadian experiment with Vincent Lecavalier fizzled, the captain provides Gagne's only legit chance for production since Steven Stamkos's line (combined 41 points with Martin St. Louis and Steve Downie) is pretty much set in stone.
Ilya Koval...Patrik Eli...Zach Pari...aw, heck, any New Jersey forward
Their Wednesday third period explosion notwithstanding (three goals in three minutes), the Devils forward contingent has been - for the lack of a more colorful phrase - underwhelming. Jersey has been forced to deal with many distractions, including Ilya Kovalchuk's mega contract hovering like an albatross and now Zach Parise's major malady (knee surgery, out three months). But it's important to remember all the veteran personnel available who know how to win and can chip in when required. So, in other words, there's no reason to jettison anyone whose surname is Kovalchuk, Elias, or Langenbrunner.
Jason Demers, D, San Jose
While Demers may never replace the retired Rob Blake in the minutes department, he has been given the task to become a similar point producer. After all, his 21-point rookie campaign led many to believe he would continue his improvement. However, the evidence so far (two) hasn't upheld this idea. While he's under Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Douglas Murray on the depth chart, Demers still receives second-unit PP duty (averaging around 2:30) and possesses the skills to shine on offense. The coaching staff maintains their confidence in him, so fantasy owners should too.
Erik Johnson, D, St. Louis
Racking up the rounds (leads the Blues at 21:48), but not receiving the rewards (three in nine). Although Johnson has never posted gaudy stats at any level (last year's 39 in 79 qualifies as tops), he is projected as a #1 defender. In addition, he regularly teams up with Eric Brewer, who is more of a stay-at-home skater. As such, the expectation to score is greater. The problem lies in the fact Alex Pietrangelo (four) is coming into his own and Carlo Colaiacovo (five) - when healthy - swings a mean stick. That doesn't necessarily spell doom for Johnson's prospects, but the point total is bound to take a hit.
Marc-Andre Fleury, G, Pittsburgh
You know it's time to worry about your role when backup Brent Johnson (5-1-1, 1.70 GAA, .940 SV%) receives more attention. While he can still flash the glove, Fleury has looked more like a matador (20 goals on 126 shots) than a top-tier goalie (2.54 GAA, .910 SV% the past four seasons). Let's not confuse this with last year's Jimmy Howard and Chris Osgood scenario in Detroit. Fleury may be the one slipping, but he's almost eight years younger than Johnson and owns the credentials (like that shiny Stanley Cup ring) to come out on top in the long-term.
Evan Berofsky enjoys writing. Seriously. When he's not trying to shove hockey miscellany down your throat, he gets his kicks playing tournament ScrabbleTM. If you have anything to say about Evan's work (or need any hot word tips), feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter (@evanberofsky).