This is the first column of the season, and given the shortened season and training camp, much of the focus will be on injuries, demotions and line changes with a slightly truncated article this week. If you have any suggestions, criticisms etc., email firstname.lastname@example.org or comment below.
This week's article includes a new No. 1 center in Buffalo, last year's AHL MVP getting a shot in Tampa Bay, injures all over the league and a key holdout in Montreal.
First Liners (Risers)
Cody Hodgson, C, BUF - Hodgson, who came to Buffalo last year for Zack Kassian, is expected to open the season in a pretty nice position. Hodgson is penciled in as the Sabres' top-line center, flanked by Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville. Hodgson, a former first-round pick, should also see top-line PP duty, giving him every chance to succeed.
Pierre-Marc Bouchard, C, MIN - Bouchard, who missed the final 41 games last year with a concussion, was activated from injured reserve Thursday. Bouchard made a strong impression in training camp, assisting on two power-play goals in Monday's scrimmage. He'll begin the season on the Wild's third line with Cal Clutterbuck and Kyle Brodziak and also play the point on the Wild's top power-play unit. He'll have a prominent role early in the season, but his durability remains a question given his injury history
Cory Conacher, RW, TB - Conacher, last year's AHL MVP, has earned a spot with the Lightning out of camp. He is slated to skate on a line with Teddy Purcell and Vincent Lecavalier while also skating on the second PP unit. Conacher is worth a look late in drafts to see of his minor-league success carries over to the pros.
Pascal Dupuis, LW, PIT - Dupuis came out of nowhere to post a career-high 59 points last season but hasn't gotten much love this pre-season as many view that season as a flash in the pan kind of year. Dupuis will get a strong crack at proving that is not the case as he opens the season back on a line with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz. There are worst linemates.
Carl Hagelin, LW, NYR - Hagelin, who had a solid 38 points in 64 games as a rookie last year, was expected to open the year on the third lime. A funny thing happened on the way to the season, as coach John Tortorella decided to move Hagelin up to the top line alongside Rick Nash and Brad Richards while shifting Marian Gaborik to left wing and onto the second grouping. Also of importance is that Hagelin is no longer dealing with any significant effects of the shoulder injury that sent him back to New York from Sweden in November. If Hagelin is able to use his speed and mesh well with Richards, he could see a significant uptick in value this season.
Tyson Barrie, D, COL - Barrie was in a battle with Stefan Elliott for what looked like the last D-man spot in Colorado to almost the last day of camp. Barrie won that fight and spent Wednesday leading the Avs PP alongside Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Steve Downie and P.A. Parenteau. There is no guarantee that this combination remains intact, but if you are looking for a late-round sleeper with upside, Barrie clearly fits that bill.
Dmitry Kulikov, D, FLA - Kulikov, who heading into most drafts was a major question mark as he was an RFA and playing in the KHL, resolved that status by signing a two-year deal Thursday. Kulikov, who scored a career-high 28 points in 58 games played last season, is on the upswing, and his return to the Panthers is a nice boost to the team's blue line.
Cory Schneider, G, VAN - Schneider is set to open the season as the Canucks' No. 1 goalie. This shouldn't come as a surprise after Schneider split duties with Roberto Luongo down the stretch last season before taking over in the playoffs. Luongo remains on the Canucks roster, but the veteran netminder should be traded before long, which will open the door for Schneider to carry the load for Vancouver. And even if the unexpected happens and Luongo sticks around, Schneider should hold the edge in playing time after posting a 1.96 GAA and .937 SV% last season.
Others include Alex Galchenyuk, Zach Boychuk, Andrew Ebbett, Jannik Hansen, Zack Kassian (shot at second-line duty with David Booth out 4-6 weeks), Tomas Kaberle, Simon Despres, Mathew Dumba, Filip Kuba, Anders Lindback and Devan Dubnyk.
Training Room (Injuries)
Anze Kopitar, C, LA - Kopitar (knee) could be cleared for contact shortly after getting through some drills in Wednesday's practice but still seems unlikely to be ready for the start of the season. Kopitar, who suffered a Grade 2 MCL sprain Jan. 5 and was expected to miss 3-4 weeks, continues to make steady progress, but expect the Kings to make sure he's ready before inserting him back into the lineup
Adam Henrique, C, NJ - Henrique skated Wednesday for the first time since having surgery on his left thumb in late November. GM Lou Lamoriello said Henrique remains "a couple weeks away" from shooting the puck and all signs point to an early-February return.
Jake Gardiner, D, TOR - Gardiner, who suffered a concussion in mid-December in the AHL, is skating on his own and appears to be inching closer to returning to action. Gardiner's career will be long, so both he and the Leafs are exercising caution. His absence might allow Morgan Rielly to break camp with the parent club, and when he does return, look for him to see action in all situations, including the PP.
Others include Daniel Briere (wrist, inching closer to return), Roman Cervenka (blood clot, not cleared to play yet, but should be back fairly soon and fill top-six role in Calgary), Ryan Kesler (wrist/shoulder, no timeframe for return, but could be out until mid-March), Raffi Torres (filling last eight games of suspension), Brent Burns (off-season hernia surgery, still not cleared to play), Andrej Meszaros (Achilles, possibly plays in opener) and Jonathan Quick (back surgery, cleared to play and should be between the pipes Opening Night).
Fourth Liners/Press Boxers (Fallers)
Tim Connolly, C, TOR - Connolly, whose major issue the last few seasons has been injuries, as well as his salary compared to his production, was waived Thursday. The training-camp efforts by the likes of Nazem Kadri, Leo Komarov and Matt Frattin squeezed out both Connolly and Matthew Lombardi (who was traded Wednesday). Connolly will clear waivers Friday if no NHL team claims him, at which point the Leafs will contemplate their next move with regard to the veteran center.
Nino Niederreiter, LW, NYI - Niederreiter may have been the most impressive player on the ice during the Islanders scrimmage Wednesday, though it did not do him much good. For some reason, however, the Isles chose not to bring Nino up to the big club. He has been the best player for Bridgeport this season, has impressed in camp and the Isles need all the help they can get on offense, yet still he won't begin the season with the team. This is yet another curious move by the Isles. Perhaps Nino is being punished by the organization for criticizing how things were run by coach Jack Capuano last season and/or this is another instance of the Isles ruining Nino by misusing him as they have done since he joined the organization.
P.K. Subban, D, MTL - Subban and the Canadiens remain deadlocked over a new contract and it is unlikely Subban will play in Saturday's season opener even if the contract situation is resolved. There was some hope that the deal Michael Del Zotto signed with the Rangers might facilitate Subban signing, but that has not been the case. Subban's agent, Don Meehan, said Wednesday that the two sides were not close. Meanwhile, Tomas Kaberle took Subban's spot on Montreal's top power-play unit in Wednesday's practice and could open the season in that spot.
Tim Thomas, G, BOS - Just in case you have been out of the country and incommunicado, Thomas announced on his Facebook page last June that he would not play this year. He has been designated as a suspended player, so that Boston gets the cap relief, but it can roll his contract forward to next year, so it retains his rights. That may be key as there are strong rumors that Thomas will return and play in 2013-14.
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