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Blue Line Buzz: APB in Newark

Dan Pennucci

Dan Pennucci

Dan Pennucci has covered hockey for Rotowire since 2002 and is the author of Blue Line Buzz since 2011 as well as being the co-author of Morning Skate. He also is a contributor to Talking Red, a New Jersey Devils blog and podcast. He is an English teacher and formerly wrote for The Coast Star in Manasquan, New Jersey where he and his sports section won several New Jersey Press Association awards. Dan Pennucci is a supporter of the New Jersey Devils, Washington Nationals and Chelsea FC. He's attended sporting events in six countries.


Let's all agree that most considered Ottawa to be essentially out of the postseason race when Matt Cooke stepped on Erik Karlsson's Achilles' tendon several weeks ago. Then we looked at Craig Anderson's ankle injury shortly afterward and figured the Senators were going to be deciding between Seth Jones and Nathan McKinnon this June, holding a lottery pick. However, Ottawa has not fallen off. Quite the contrary, they've adapted rather nicely to life without Karlsson, Anderson and point-per-game center Jason Spezza, trailing Boston by just three points in the Northeast Division, good enough for fifth place in the East.

Carrying the attack are highly-touted youngsters Jakob Silfverberg and Mika Zibanejad but it's a cagey veteran still producing that's dishing from the blue line. Sergei Gonchar is in the midst of one of his most consistent seasons in years, having posted at least one assist in each of the last 10 games, registering 15 points, albeit with just one goal (what a slacker). Half of those assist totals have come on the power play; Gonchar is showing his veteran leadership and that he can still pass the puck with aplomb even if he's not averaging 50-plus points as he did during his Washington Capital days and earlier days with Pittsburgh. Surprisingly, Gonchar cracked 20 goals just once in his career, with his 26-goal, 33-assist campaign in 2001-02 being just one of his seminal statistical seasons.

While Gonchar is in the midst of one of his stronger point-per-game seasons, teammate Patrick Wiercioch is quietly putting up numbers worthy of consideration in deeper leagues if you haven't snagged him already. His 15 points through 28 games rate out to over 40 in a full season and he's been busy of late with four assists in the last week, three of which came in a 5-3 win over the Islanders. Wiercioch was seeing power-play time when Erik Karlsson was healthy, but he's been capitalizing more on his chances of late with nine points in March alone.

Gonchar will still orchestrate the team's attack as only a savvy player like he can, but Wiercioch is emerging as a player worth considering for those in need of a small boost along the blue line.

APB In Newark: Point Man Needed

It's not like the Devils are the most dynamic offensive team in the NHL, with a modest 80 goals scored. Take Ilya Kovalchuk out of that lineup, the odds of the Devils having an offensive surge are slim. Kovalchuk is slated to miss between 2-to-4 weeks after blowing a tire, crashing into the boards and injuring his right shoulder. Now, detractors of the Devils might point out that Kovalchuk has a mere 10 goals on the season, but he's leading the NHL in ice time among forwards and does quite a bit on the ice from carrying the puck through the neutral zone to organizing the team's power play and creating space for his teammates. His presence on the man-advantage will be missed as the Devils will be forced to actually hand over more playing time to some of their defensemen on the power play.

Now, Marek Zidlicky is already seeing quite a bit of power-play time and producing decently (for a Devils' defenseman) with 13 points on the season, eight of which have come on the power play. His offensive "skill" makes up for his minus-7 rating and poorly taken penalties (as in the ones he took against Carolina and Florida this past week.

Second-year defender Adam Larsson is being eased back into the offensive fold of the team, but has seen almost no power-play time this season, averaging just nine seconds per-game, which includes the 1:35 he logged on Saturday after Kovalchuk left the game. The Devils drafted Larsson fourth overall in 2012 and he played well at times last season, only to see limited action late in the season and just a handful of games during the team's run to the Stanley Cup Final. Larsson has an offensive edge to his game, but has been focusing mostly on securing his own end of the ice, where he and teammate Andy Greene are a combined plus-13 on the season.

Odds are Larsson will see a slight uptick in power-play time but might not starting piling up the points, as this is the Devils' power play after all. Greene has run the point before and offers the team less of a risk defensively than Zidlicky. Greene snagged a handful of power-play points during a six-game stretch earlier in the season, but he has not been doing much offensively since, with just two points in the last month.

Then there is Peter Harrold, who has seen himself in and out of the lineup this season but does have some ability to move the puck and get shots on goal. Harrold owns two goals and an assist in 10 games and has a spot in the top six defensemen right now due to an injury to Henrik Tallinder and Mark Fayne falling out of favor with the Devils' coaching staff.

Larsson is the upside play for the Devils on the blue line with Kovalchuk out of action for up to possibly a month, but it's likely that Greene and Harrold will see more time on the power play with the possibility of Zidlicky playing even more than the 3:43 he's averaging heading into Monday's contest with Ottawa.

The Devils' power play has not boasted a legitimate threat since Brian Rafalski bolted in 2007 for Detroit despite solid seasons from current Penguin Paul Martin and Greene since then. Still, the Devils have solid, point-producing forwards in Patrik Elias and David Clarkson on the man advantage along with the suddenly surging Travis Zajac (five points in three games), but the team is operating at just 17.5 percent on power play.

Life In the OC (Don't Call It That)

Francois Beauchemin and teammate Sheldon Souray are currently tied for the NHL lead among defensemen for plus-minus, with both being a plus-20. One of them however, is producing offensively. (Hint, it's not Souray). Beauchemin has been a valuable player in leagues that count secondary statistics such as plus-minus and his 18 points aren't shabby either. He has five points in the last two weeks, but all five of those points have come in two games. He scored two goals in last Monday's win over San Jose after a three-assist effort on March 10. Meanwhile, Souray has four points since February 8.

Little D in Dallas

While Kari Lehtonen has been carrying Dallas to a few wins in recent weeks, the team's defensive corps has not been contributing all that much to their attack, as the Stars have received a modest eight goals from their defensemen on the season. Leading the charge for Dallas is Alex Goligoski, who owns 16 assists on the season with no goals. The player deemed worthy of James Neal has solid assist numbers, but he's regressed massively since his 46-point season during the year he was traded. It might have been amazing foresight on the part of Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero, or just a bevy of blue line prospects in the Pens' system that made Goligoski expendable. (Interesting note: Pittsburgh and Dallas swapped defensemen for forwards again Sunday, sending prospect Joe Morrow to Dallas for gritty veteran winger Brenden Morrow; also swapping 2013 draft picks in the deal).

After Goligoski, it's his teammate, Stephane Robidas clocking in at 10 assists while rookie Brenden Dillon has six points on the season but is contributing much in secondary categories such as shots, hits and penalty minutes. Jamie's brother, Jordie Benn, has two points in four games this past week for Dallas.

-If you haven't done so yet, check out Teemu Selanne's video for Valio Suomi milk from his native Finland, featuring Teddy Flash as a type of tooth fairy for a young boy dreaming of hockey stardom.

Question of the Week: What defensemen in the NHL is changing addresses in the next two weeks? How much of an impact will they have?

Questions, comments and suggestions for future articles are welcomed. Drop a line to Blue Line Buzz.

Follow Dan Pennucci on Twitter @dpennucci

Check out Morning Skate on Rotowire by Dan Pennucci and Frozen Fantasy author, Janet Eagleson for a unique take on the NHL and fantasy hockey.

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