Neutral Zone Wrap
by Evan Berofsky
The holiday season brings us the promise of good cheer and a whole whack of consumer-related activities. Whether you're shopping for that perfect gift or worrying about how you'll pay for everything, the latter half of December will always remind us who's in charge.
So remember to slow down and spend time with loved ones. Invite some friends over and chill. Sit on the couch and do absolutely nothing. And don't worry; you can continue pulling your hair out in the New Year. Now there's a resolution you can probably keep.
Which cities will the Wheel of Fantasy land on this week? Here's a hint: all of them will be located somewhere in North America where professional hockey is played. So that leaves out Toronto, right?
Could the Sergei Bobrovsky era soon be coming to an end in Philly? With playoff hero Michael Leighton active (back surgery in October) and Brian Boucher earning his contract (5-0-1 since November 20th with only 11 goals allowed), the young Russian's starts could be cut considerably. Hey, remember that guy the Flyers drafted with the second pick in 2007? Anyone know what happened to him? That mystery individual would be James van Riemsdyk, who finally has the points (four in three games, plus-5) to match the hype. Some owners would like more out of Scott Hartnell (five in eight with only six PIM) and Braydon Coburn (one in 10), but you can probably squeeze more out of former fantasy backup Andrej Meszaros (five in six, league-leading plus-21).
From Stanley Cup favorite to seven-game losing streak is not the direction Washington wanted to go. It might be easy to blame the goalkeeping tandem of Semyon Varlamov (let in seven on only 20 shots vs. the Rangers) and Michal Neuvirth (hasn't won in three weeks) for this tailspin into mediocrity, but neither has been well protected. As clichÃ© as it sounds, Father Time may actually be catching up to 38-year old Mike Knuble (five in 12). Once a regular point producer thanks to a spot on the top power-play, Brooks Laich (three in nine) has tailed off. You think the Caps wish Tomas Fleischmann (10 in seven since the trade, including a hat-trick on Wednesday) wasn't in an Avalanche uniform?
What a difference two weeks makes in Edmonton. The Oilers may have been blitzed by the Leafs at home in front of a decidedly pro-Toronto crowd, but they returned fire on the poor Blue Jackets (see below for further Columbus sympathy). No need to worry about Shawn Horcoff's prolonged absence (torn MCL, out eight weeks), because Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall (both with 10 in 11) have proven to be more than suitable replacements. Even another rookie, Linus Omark (four in four since the AHL call-up), is worth your hard-earned fantasy dollar. Magnus Paajarvi (eight in eight, plus-6) didn't adapt as quickly as the other three, but he is slowly building his NHL resume.
Can Dustin Byfuglien continue this pace and finish the year a Norris Trophy nominee? The numbers are unbelievable (leads all blueliners with 33, including 17 in 14) but the expectations of him receiving postseason hardware may end up being far-fetched. Freshman Alex Burmistrov is slowly climbing the depth chart, but is not fully reaping the rewards (only three in eight). Headed in the opposite direction is Niclas Bergfors (four in 10), who recently has been alternating between the press box and the doghouse. And congrats to Ron Hainsey (three in 33), who has officially been certified a D-man dud.
The glow has worn off in Columbus with only two victories in nine December encounters. Even though Rick Nash has been consistent (eight in six), there's no hiding how frustrated he must feel. Steve Mason (16 goals against in the last 185 minutes) looks scared and is getting more hooks than a coat rack (three of the last four). Kristian Huselius (severe ankle sprain) is back and has already injected a bit of life back into the offense (all three goals against Edmonton). After repeatedly being dogged for slacking on the back end, Kris Russell now displays a solid defensive game. Unfortunately, that has hurt his chances on the other side (three in 10).