Neutral Zone Wrap
by Evan Berofsky, RotoWire Writer
February officially marks the stretch drive of the fantasy season. As the weather turns nasty, so will the atmosphere among owners in your league. Heated discussions and trash talking are implemented in the hopes of throwing off opponents. But, alas, those tools can only take you so far. Goals, points, wins, trophies. These items end up speaking the loudest.
As promised, here she is. The list to end all lists ... until the next list in about a month from now. Enjoy the following compilation of those who thrive in the final weeks and those whose expiry date fall somewhere between February and March. Remember there is only enough room for a small number of candidates, so don't be upset if your favorite didn't make the cut. That's the purpose of a comments section. Well, that and general griping.
Top 4 Radical Recruits
The guys you want on your side when the playoffs are on the line. The ones who consistently provide that final push. The dudes you've gladly owned and would treat to a beer if only you knew where they hung out while in your hometown. Of course, the obvious skaters have been omitted. Because if Steven Stamkos and either of the Sedin twins are available in your league, then you're either dreaming or someone accidentally selected 'Drop' while online when they meant to hit 'Order Pizza'.
Saku Koivu, F, Anaheim - The elder Koivu may be past his prime, but he knows how to get it done when it matters. Just check out his recent late-season splits: 11 points in the last five during his first campaign in Anaheim, 14 in 14 combined before saying farewell to Montreal, and counting in all seven playoff games after his miraculous recovery from a broken foot in 2008. And hey, anyone who can recover from lymphoma and a serious eye injury will fight through anything to help his teammates.
Antti Niemi, G, San Jose - Last year's surprise star for the Blackhawks was almost an afterthought since the Sharks initially grabbed Antero Niittymaki in the summer. But with the other Finn's problems (sore groin) - and San Jose's resurgence - Niemi has taken control between the pipes, going unbeaten in seven. Granted, there is only one previous season on which to base his performance. But the Sharks are built similar to the defending champs, in that Niemi can still earn Ws even if he lets in more than three goals.
R.J. Umberger, F, Columbus - The Pittsburgh native will be remembered for his 10-goal outburst during the 2007-08 playoffs. That led to a trade with Columbus, who went on to sign the forward to a 4-year, $15-million contract. While the Blue Jackets haven't tasted much success, Umberger has gone on to continue his tradition. Eight in 10 to finish out last season and three goals - including Columbus's inaugural postseason marker - in April of 2009. The current nine points in his last 14 also supports his case.
Dennis Wideman, D, Florida - Bruins fans almost gave up on Wideman last year when a 50-point campaign turned into a measly 15 four months into 2009-10. But he was able to break out of his slump at the right moment, notching a point in his last five and then racking up a tidy 12 before being knocked out by the Flyers. With Bryan McCabe (broken jaw) sidelined indefinitely, Wideman should maintain his special-teams roles and will eventually be rewarded for his sufficient shooting attempts (in the top-15 for defensemen with 110 SOG).
(Honorable mention: Andy McDonald, F, St. Louis; Chris Pronger, D, Philadelphia; Ryan Smyth, F, Los Angeles; Drew Stafford, F, Buffalo)
Top 4 Heinous Hexes
The players who will never be confused for clutch, late-season performers. Maybe they once were, but the skills just aren't there anymore. When the going gets tough, they get goingâ€¦to the press box. Basically, they are the banes of Roto existence. And like the last category, you won't see any habitually injured or single-minute-per-game fourth-line scrub here. That is, unless some of them have already been demoted to either of these roles.
Nikolai Khabibulin, G, Edmonton - It seems like only yesterday Khabibulin took Tampa all the way to Cup glory. Of course, that point in history coincides with the last lockout. Since the work stoppage, the 38-year old netminder has kept busy with a few subpar stints, two surgeries and one unfortunate arrest. Including that 2004 run, Khabby hasn't been too shabby as the games have worn on. But now, he wallows as a member of the sad-sack Oilers and is currently riding a 12-game losing streak.
Tomas Plekanec, F, Montreal - After messing around with owners for a while, Plekanec has been nothing but an all-star the last two-plus years. That is, except for the final few from three of the last four campaigns, where the Czech center has amassed two tours of going zero for five and one oh-for-10 to finish off 2008-09. Plekanec may be instilling more confidence in those who follow his progress, but Habs fans still couldn't tell you his whereabouts during last spring's Philly series.
Ryan Callahan, F, NY Rangers - The engine behind the early success on Broadway is back in the lineup after missing six weeks with a broken hand and has already hit goals in his first two back. So what's wrong with that? Well, leading scorer Brandon Dubinsky (leg) has also returned and so has prodigal father Vaclav Prospal (knee rehab). Mats Zuccarello and Artem Anisimov will also battle for a piece of the production pie. Since Callahan has become a Ranger fixture, he hasn't done much to impress in the end months - especially in the 2009 playoffs where he fell woefully short in their collapse against Washington.
Tomas Kaberle, D, Toronto - Kaberle should get bonus points just for enduring 12 seasons in Toronto, but that doesn't excuse his chronic frustrating fantasy profile. The perennial perplexing pointman has never been known to shine in the latter stages, and the last two seasons have been no exception. It's almost as if in mid-February he believes he'll be traded and therefore starts to work hard, but eventually gives up when he realizes his immediate fate in Leaf Land. Even if he is dealt to a contender, Kaberle's workload could likely be reduced.
(Honorable mention: Mike Knuble , F, Washington; John-Michael Liles, D, Colorado; Milan Michalek, F, Ottawa; Alex Tanguay, F, Calgary)
Evan Berofsky enjoys writing. Seriously. When he's not trying to shove hockey miscellany down your throat, he gets his kicks playing tournament Scrabble. 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).