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Neutral Zone Wrap: Some Surprises That Will Stick

Evan Berofsky

Evan Berofsky

Evan Berofsky enjoys writing. Seriously. When heís not trying to shove hockey miscellany down your throat, he gets his kicks playing tournament Scrabble(TM). If you have anything to say about Evanís work (or need any hot word tips), feel free to contact him at eberofsky@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter (@evanberofsky).


Sidney Crosby IS AWESOME. Yes, we already knew that. Not only did he make his return Monday after nearly a year away, but he also saved a family of kittens from a tree and performed the Heimlich on a patron who choked on a pretzel before the game. Betcha didn't know that. So say his name again along with some special synonym of the original sentiment. Get it out of your system. Now exhale and please try to think of a new topic.

Don't mean to diss Sid, but we've got to move on and take a look at, you know, *other* players who have surprised most of us with their play so far. Yes, kids, it is time for the first list of the regular season. I'm getting goose bumps just thinking about this compilation. Hope it's not contagious. But if it is, then I hope you can find a cure by reading this column. (NOTE: I would've suggested printing this out, boiling it in water, and then inhale its therapeutic essence, but that's just crazy. I mean, I have no idea what ink your printer uses.)

Top 5 Fantasy Surprises Who Will Keep on Surprising

The following NHLers have made us look good, whether it be the guy who has returned to noteworthy status or the one making the jump from subpar to mediocre. Don't consider the final figures to match their current pace, but get ready for some stats to boost you throughout the season:

Brian Campbell, D, Florida

In recent years, Campbell has received more attention for his substantial contract than his declining numbers. In Chicago, he eventually slipped down the depth chart to being, at best, the Hawks' third or fourth best blueliner. So when Panthers (and former Chicago) GM Dale Tallon traded for Campbell over the summer, many thought this move would prove to be a financial waste. But ever since opening night, the 11-year veteran has been allowed to play his style and everyone is benefiting. Campbell currently leads all NHL defensemen in points (19) and is tied with Nicklas Backstrom for most power-play assists (11). And considering Florida's aggressive approach, there are no signs of him slowing down.

James Neal, F, Pittsburgh

Including Neal may be a bit of a cheat since he didn't exactly come from nowhere. Three 20-plus goal campaigns in Dallas prove that and his 13 tallies so far - including a league co-leading six PPGs - seconds that notion. Yes, it helps to have a healthy Evgeni Malkin setting them up but ultimately, you have to finish the job. Even with Sidney Crosby back in the lineup, Neal retains his spot alongside Malkin and on an elite top man-advantage unit. No complaints here.

Tyler Seguin, F, Boston

The infamous Taylor/Tyler debate should now be comfortably resolved, as both individuals are on the cusp of stardom. While Taylor Hall enjoyed moderate success as a rookie (42 points in 65 outings), Seguin was not provided the same opportunities and the stats show this (22 in 74). After a brief positive postseason stint, Seguin has shattered the sophomore jinx with a perfect combination of quick hands and a wicked shot. He has already surpassed last year's goal total in only 20 contests (12 to 11), including his first career hat-trick versus the Leafs. Seguin's ice time is up almost five minutes per night this season and he remains an integral piece of the Bruins power-play.

Mike Smith, G, Phoenix

One could have best characterized Smith's career up to training camp as snakebitten, having endured assorted injuries and sufficient inconsistencies over five seasons. The Coyotes, having lost Ilya Bryzgalov to the Flyers and without big bucks to spend, required a goalie to compete for the starting job with remaining candidate Jason LaBarbera. For only $2 million over two years, Smith has done more than expected in making Phoenix look like serious contenders (10-3-3, 2.15 GAA, .935 SV%). What makes his hold on the #1 spot that much more secure is the lack of competition in the organization.

Radim Vrbata, F, Phoenix

Many believed Vrbata's NHL tenure had ended when he fled to his native Czech Republic in 2009 after a lackluster debut in Tampa. Turns out he was just homesick for the desert and was promptly shipped back to Phoenix. Vrbata had mainly been known as a shots-on-goal specialist (752 of them the previous three seasons in Phoenix), but he has recently diversified his fantasy portfolio (18 in the first 20). He plays in all situations and seems to be improving, even at 30. Unless the Coyotes decide to pick up a big name or two down the road (spoiler alert: they won't), then Vrbata's place in the upper ranks is safe.

(Honorable Mention: Tomas Fleischmann/ Kris Versteeg/Stephen Weiss, F, Florida; Nick Leddy, D, Chicago; Ondrej Pavelec, G, Winnipeg; Jason Pominville, F, Buffalo; Kyle Quincey, D, Colorado)

Top 5 Fantasy Surprises Who Surely Can't Keep it Going

The bubble always bursts. It may happen at the conclusion of a career, but often takes place after a quick rise. You know some of these players have only achieved their current totals via some major help from a big name or two. They may not fall completely off the planet, but their inevitable descent will make it seem that way. Perhaps you can sell one or more of them while the price is right:

Jaromir Jagr, F, Philadelphia

In the first few weeks, it almost looked as though Jagr didn't take a three-year KHL sabbatical. The points were flowing (including a seven-game streak) and the chemistry with Claude Giroux was obvious. But lately, the Czech legend has sadly looked his age (39, for those counting at home). Not only the decline in production (two in five), but a groin problem has crept back. Let's face it: he may be able to grow hair, but there's no way he can become younger or prevent injury. NHL clubs and fantasy owners knew the risk when he was signed, so the pain and suffering are things both groups will just have to live with.

Nikolai Khabibulin, G, Edmonton

Much like Jagr, Khabby lies on the older side (38) and was thought to be washed-up only months ago. But, lo and behold, the Bulin Wall is back and is stoning the opposition at an unbelievable rate (1.86 GAA, .936 SV% in 14 appearances). Most experts would have tabbed Devan Dubnyk as the Oilers' top keeper, based on past performance and, well, age. Those same people could eventually be proven correct, as Khabibulin has been susceptible to injury and/or poor second-half performance in recent years. That and the fact Dubnyk hasn't exactly done poorly to date (2.74 GAA, .907 SV% in eight).

Joffrey Lupul, F, Toronto

Definitely the most surprising skater over the first quarter. Lupul isn't only finding the scoresheet; he's ripping it to shreds. Tied for third in league scoring (at 11 goals and 15 assists) and having a ball playing shotgun to top dog Phil Kessel. He has also done well to adapt in switching to the left wing after the majority of his career on the other side. The 2002 first-rounder has never lacked for offense (a career regular season 0.6 points/game), although he's had a tough go trying to stay healthy for an extended period. It would be nice for Leaf fans if Lupul could keep this run going, but reality - and history - dictates it can't be maintained over an 82-game schedule.

Milan Michalek, F, Ottawa

Since his arrival from San Jose, the winger has been hit by some mild maladies (missing 16 each season) and a few cold patches (the worst being a nine-game scoreless stretch in 2009-10). Gone are the days of 50-60 points; now it's a struggle for Michalek to reach the 40-point mark. The initial splits are promising (12 goals, including four power-play) and so is the pairing with Jason Spezza on the first line. However, if he takes another dip, then Ottawa would not hesitate to mix up the roster and call on someone from their significant youth corps as a temporary replacement.

Sheldon Souray, D, Dallas

After wallowing in the AHL and waiver hell following his self-excommunication from Edmonton, Dallas picked up Souray on the cheap ($1.65 million for one year) during this summer's free-agent frenzy. While the former 64-point defender began the season on fire (13 points, plus-11, 29 PIM in the first 14), his production has come to a halt (no points, even, six PIM in the last seven). Souray may have turned around his career, but he is starting to lose power-play minutes with the Stars on a 0-for-11 drought. His cannon point shot is still feared, but it will be of no use without regular usage.

(Honorable Mention: Brian Elliott, G, St. Louis; Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, F, Edmonton; Craig Smith, F, Nashville; Kyle Wellwood, F, Winnipeg; Ryan Wilson, D, Colorado)

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