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NHL Barometer: Happy Times For Vanek

Jan Levine

Levine covers baseball, basketball and hockey for RotoWire. In addition to his column writing, he's the master of the MLB and NHL cheatsheets. In his spare time, he roots for the Mets.

This week’s article includes a young pivot who is hot out West, two young wingers with brilliant futures in Philly and Toronto, a stud d-man down again in Montreal - this time for the season - and the top pick in the 2010 draft going through growing pains.

First Liners (Risers)

Eric Staal, C, CAR – Staal had a hat trick and added two assists as Carolina drubbed Ottawa 7-1 Wednesday. He recorded his 200th career goal in the win and was a force all night long. Staal now has 22 points (9G, 13A) in 18 games, 13 of those coming in the last four games. With the All-Star Game in Carolina this year, Staal was a likely selection, but given the new format, it would not be surprising if he were named one of the two captains.

Logan Couture, C, SJ – Couture lit the lamp again Wednesday, giving him seven goals and four assists in 17 games. The experience he gained in his 25-game NHL stint last year appears to have paid dividends as he looks to be much more comfortable in his second year. Couture is still developing, so don't expect a monster year yet; but don't rule it out for the long term, either. If your league allows long-term keepers and you got him cheaply, it looks like you got a bargain.

Thomas Vanek, LW, BUF – It was a few short weeks ago that Vanek landed on the Fallers part of the column; but as we have always said, things turn quickly in the NHL. Vanek is now riding a five-game point streak in which he has notched seven points. Plus, he and his wife welcomed twins into their family this week. Vanek has tremendous talent and is putting it to use during this recent stretch.

Claude Giroux, RW, PHI – Giroux posted his third consecutive multi-point game Monday, grabbing a goal and two assists against Ottawa. Giroux is a budding superstar, so get your hands on him now because his stock is soaring. Of his 21 points, 16 have come in the last 12 games. What’s scary is that Giroux may just be scratching the surface of how good he will be, which bodes well for Philly in the future.

Nikolai Kulemin, RW, TOR – Kulemin's power play goal in the second period ended up being the game-winner in the Maple Leafs’ 5-4 victory over Nashville on Tuesday. The goal was Kulemin’s first on the man advantage this year but it likely won’t be his last. Like Giroux, Kulemin’s best hockey is likely in the future, but it may take him a bit longer to get there. His point production increased from 31 to 36 points last year, and a move into the 40s wouldn’t be surprising this year with more in the future.

Jack Johnson, D, LA – Many felt that this season would be a breakout year for Johnson, and so far, they have not been disappointed. Johnson padded his already gaudy assists numbers with a pair in the Kings' 5-1 blasting of the visiting Islanders last Saturday. Those two helpers gave Johnson 12 on the season, which is tremendous production from a blue liner. Anyone else think Carolina would like to reverse the Johnson-Tim Gleason trade?

Paul Martin, D, PIT – Martin took over from Alex Goligoski as one of the point men spot on Pittsburgh’s top power-play unit Wednesday against Vancouver. Martin was paired with Kris Letang to take advantage of his ability to move and get the puck on net. Goligoski still leads Penguins d-men with seven PPA, but this could reverse quickly. Look for Martin to get a short-term burst in value while this change is in effect.

Jonas Gustavsson, G, TOR – With Jean-Sebastien Giguere out 1-to-2 weeks after suffering a groin injury Tuesday, the Monster gets his chance to stake a claim to the top goalie spot in Maple Leafs land. Gustavsson got off to a good start, stopping 29 of 30 shots to beat the Devils. Gustavsson gets a bigger test Saturday when he takes on Montreal, but he did show flashes of brilliance last year and is viewed as the netminder of the future for the Buds. If he plays well with Giguere out, the future could be now.

Marc-Andre Fleury, G, PIT – Landing on the Fallers list must have angered Fleury because he has come back with a vengeance lately. Fleury made 29 saves in Wednesday's 3-1 victory over Vancouver and has three wins and an overtime loss in the past week. Fleury is recovering from his dreadful start, and with Brent Johnson hitting the skids, it looks like Fleury is back in coach Dan Bylsma’s good graces and should be between the pipes nearly every game.

Others include: Tomas Plekanec, Mike Richards, Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, Andy McDonald, Derek Roy, David Backes, Joe Pavelski, Nazem Kadri, Tyler Ennis, Alex Burmistrov, Martin St. Louis, Todd Bertuzzi, Ryane Clowe, Marian Gaborik, Alexander Semin, Brad Boyes, David Jones, Clarke MacArthur, Kris Versteeg, Milan Lucic, Marc-Andre Bergeron, John-Michael Liles, Dan Boyle, Brian Rafalski, Alexander Edler, Jordan Leopold, Roman Hamrlik, Brad Stuart, Ondrej Pavelec, Brian Elliott, Peter Budaj (until Craig Anderson returns), Michal Neuvirth, and Tomas Vokoun.

Training Room (Injuries)

Vincent Lecavalier, C, TB – Lecavalier, a Faller earlier in the year, now lands in the Training Room section of the column. Lecavalier suffered a non-displaced fracture in his right hand and underwent surgery that will sideline him 4-to-5 weeks. A plate and a screw were inserted in his hand; so don’t look for him to return until the second half of December.

Marco Sturm, LW, BOS – GM Peter Chiarelli hopes that Sturm, who is recovering from knee surgery, will be back in the Bruins' forward mix by early December. Sturm, who was originally expected to be out until January, thinks that timeframe may be a tad conservative and is targeting late December for a return. In deeper leagues, he is worth stashing.

Jamie Langenbrunner, RW, NJ – Langenbrunner (upper body) did not accompany the Devils to Toronto for Thursday's contest. This was the third straight game New Jersey's captain missed while dealing with what could be a concussion or a neck injury following an awkward crash into the boards. Given the lack of clarity regarding the extent of the injury, if you did have Langenbrunner active, bench him. Given the Devils’ recent injury woes, insert your own comment about them selling their souls to have all those good years.

Andrei Markov, D, MON – Markov’s star-crossed year took another turn for the worse when he was injured again last Saturday. Reports seem to indicate that Markov has a partial tear to the ACL graft that was inserted during his last surgery, as well as associated bone contusions and a large radial tear to the lateral meniscus. The minimum recovery for an ACL reconstruction is four months, but athletes are rarely at peak condition in that span; six to nine months is more typical for full mobility and confidence. Given this is his second surgery on the same knee, we think all bets are off in terms of recovery time -- we can't help but think it'll be longer than it typically is. This is horrible news for Markov and the Canadiens, but the hope is he will be back at 100 percent by next year’s training camp.

Nikolai Khabibulin, G, EDM – Khabibulin was placed on injured reserve Thursday with a groin injury. This news comes as a bit of a surprise since there had been no reports that the Bulin Wall had even suffered an injury. Khabibulin has allowed 22 goals in his last four games and is now 4-10-1 this season. Information should be forthcoming as to the severity of the injury and to how long Khabibulin will be out. While he is sidelined, Devyn Dubnyk will see most of the starts.

Others include: David Perron, Marc Savard (inching closer to return), David Krejci (traveling with team), Steve Downie (back in action), Simon Gagne (back soon?), Guillaume Latendresse, Shane Doan (back this weekend), Michal Rozsival, Victor Hedman, Dustin Byfuglien, and Martin Brodeur (left Thursday’s game, elbow again?).

Fourth Liners/Press Boxers (Fallers)

Tomas Fleischmann, C, WAS – Fleischmann took part in the scratches skate Wednesday morning, and the player who started the season as the team's second line center did not play that evening when the Capitals hosted the Sabres. It's been a horrible start for Fleischmann, who after scoring 51 points last year has just eight points in 18 games this season even though the Caps are the highest-scoring team in the league. He should be on your bench until he snaps out of it.

Taylor Hall, LW, EDM – Hall, the first overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, is going through his going pains at the highest level. Rather than sending him down to the AHL, the Oilers are having him learn and adapt with the parent club. While this should pay dividends down the road, Hall is obviously finding the NHL much more difficult than the OHL. If you own Hall, hopefully he is on your bench. However, we wouldn’t advocate waiving him because he likely will get his sea legs and have a solid second half of the year.

Tomas Kopecky, RW, CHI – After a hit start, Kopecky has hit the skids. Kopecky had eight points in his first eight games this year but has just one point – a goal on November 1 – since then. This cold stretch has resulted in Kopecky getting pulled off the top line in the Windy City, and as such, he should be riding your pine.

Erik Johnson, D, STL – Like his namesake Jack, many people thought Erik would also take the next step in his development this season. So far the prognosticators have been right about Jack, but wrong about Erik, who has just four points in 17 games and just one in his last 10 contests. Last year’s second-half performance looks like a mirage, so the Blues and his owners have to hope that maybe Johnson just needs a while to get warmed up.

Jaroslav Halak, G, STL – Halak allowed seven goals on 31 shots in Wednesday's loss to Detroit. As good as Halak was to start the season, he has been equally bad recently. He has allowed 13 goals in the last two games and appeared to lose focus in the third period Wednesday when the Red Wings slipped four pucks by him. The Blues are now winless in five straight games with Halak picking up three regulation losses and a shootout loss. You are never as good as you look when you are on, or as bad when you are off; but while some regression from his early brilliant numbers was expected, no one figured it would come this quickly.

Others include: Patrick Sharp, Mike Ribeiro, Tim Connolly, Matt Stajan, Jarome Iginla, Jason Pominville, Wayne Simmonds, Milan Michalek, Zach Bogosian, Michael Del Zotto, Jamie McBain, Alex Goligoski, Brent Johnson, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Chris Mason, Rick DiPietro, Cam Ward, and Pascal Leclaire.