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Neutral Zone Wrap: Parts In a Machine

Evan Berofsky

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

Winter is a time for rebirth. A fresh start on a new journey and an excuse to forget what hasn't gone right so far. This happens enough times in the NHL where a coach - and sometimes, a general manager - gets canned when a team significantly and chronically underperforms. Management claim the 'different direction' argument, while concurrently praising and backslapping the departing staff member for his resume of achievements. There ultimately existed some form of disconnect between the coach and his players, so someone had to go. Or was this move really necessary?

We can answer this if we transfer this situation to a fantasy perspective. Imagine your team is doing poorly. And I don't mean slipping up here and there; these guys are really struggling. Would your first inclination be to blow up the squad? If so, then consider what you're really doing - and that is, essentially, giving up on the personnel you trusted before the season. So what happened the last few months to change your mind? The answer is simple: negativity.

When a slump occurs, there's a tendency to stop trusting your instincts and believing in your knowledge. In other words, most common sense flies out the window and into the next bus headed in the other direction. You fail because you think you will and end up blaming everything on your lineup. But as long as you properly planned for a downturn or a moderate injury wave, then you shouldn't be selling off everyone garage-sale style.

Try to think of your players as interchangeable parts in a machine. If one of them breaks, then another one should be able to step in and perform equally as well. Maybe not an exact match, but something that will function adequately. Don't throw away the machine simply because you are looking for a quick fix. Stay patient and keep working at it, even if the initial gains are slow. And by all means, don't panic.

Here are a few clubs who either opted to pull off a major recent change or should really be looking to make a move or two:

Washington probably didn't envision going from preseason Cup favorites to Southeast Division punching bag this early. With Dale Hunter coming in as head coach, it should light a fire under some of the underachievers. Think Alexander Semin (two points in nine games, but leads team with 32 PIM?!) will start showing some effort? Maybe expect a little more production out of Joel Ward (one in 10)? Give additional minutes to hard workers such as Jason Chimera (Caps goal leader with nine) and Troy Brouwer (three in four)? With no set timetable for Mike Green's return (has been out three weeks with groin problem), Dennis Wideman will continue to try (although one in nine with a minus-12 doesn't help). In deeper leagues, take a look at Dmitry Orlov (two in five since being recalled), who has never been shy offensively (18 in 34 AHL contests). And forget about Roman Hamrlik (scoreless in November and only one point in 23), who should not be counted upon for any form of production.

The record may say ‘winner' (13-7-1), but the reality in San Jose isn't as upbeat. So much pressure on Martin Havlat to fill the void left by Dany Heatley, yet not much to show (one in nine). Maybe the expectations weren't as high for Michal Handzus (two in nine, only five all year), but he's got to do better. And Brent Burns brought with him promise from Minnesota and a shiny new contract, but he has also disappointed (two in 12). Know the Sharks' leading D-man? You would have been branded crazy if you pegged Marc-Edouard Vlasic (11, with seven coming in two a couple weeks ago) on top a quarter of the way through. And even though San Jose maintains one of the top goalie tandems (seventh in the league with a 2.26 GAA), keep an eye on Antero Niittymaki's progress from off-season groin surgery.

Nothing is really finer when it comes out of Carolina. Just ask Paul Maurice, who has now left the state without a job for a second time. Every forward, save for Jeff Skinner (way ahead with 22) and Chad LaRose (tied for second with 15), are mired in a rut. Brandon Sutter (three in 11) could sure use some more scoring. Don't be fooled by Alexei Ponikarovsky's sudden resurgence (the three-point outburst last Monday), although he's being relied on for a lot lately (incudling a power-play promotion). Joni Pitkanen (out eight with a leg issue) is back to suck up all the available minutes. Maybe that will coax either Tomas Kaberle (two in 11) or Jamie McBain (one in nine, recently scratched) back into the flow.

Times are also tough in Tampa. The Bolts went so far last postseason, but now look so close again to falling apart. Maybe age is catching up to 41-year old Dwayne Roloson (3.51 GAA, .890 SV% in 15), who has been clearly outplayed by free-agent Mathieu Garon (2.42 GAA, .920 SV% in 14). Besides the penalty minutes (49), Steve Downie (only five points, minus-12) isn't doing much else. Teddy Purcell has not shown himself to be the consistent type (two in 10 after 12 in 13). At least Brett Connolly (four goals) looks like he'll stick with the big club. Eric Brewer (six) was believed to be an afterthought on the Tampa blueline, but has performed well at both ends (49 hits, 45 blocks). The organization may have thrown some money at Victor Hedman (to the tune of five years, $20 million), but that won't get him to suddenly score (two goals, zero assists all season).

The Flyers have been cursed with injuries in the early going, which has prevented them from leading the conference. Jaromir Jagr was on a point-per-game pace (17 in 19), but predictably broke down. Chris Pronger (11 in 13) was almost matching his veteran teammate, before first getting whacked in the eye and then undergoing knee surgery. And James van Riemsdyk (nine points in November) will now be gone for a couple weeks. These absences will open the door further for newcomer Jakub Voracek (11 in 10) and rookie Matt Read (seven in eight), who have already excelled. Even Max Talbot (six goals, six assists) is showing off his long-lost junior offensive chops. Maybe Andrej Meszaros (two in 13) and/or Matt Carle (four in 13) will be able to pick up the slack without the captain in the lineup.

Please note: The Wrap will take a break next week due to a planned work stoppage. Don't worry, I'm not holding out for more money or better hours. Just need some time away to relax. I'm sure hockey can survive without me. And try not to shed a tear while I'm gone.