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From the Press-Box: Franchise Player Struggles

Paul Bruno

Paul Bruno is co-host of the RotoWire fantasy hockey podcast, The Great Ones. He has been an accredited member of the Toronto sports media for more than 20 years. Paul also helps with RW's DFS podcast and is a contributing writer for RW NFL, MLB and CFL content. Follow him on twitter: @statsman22.

This week we look forward and project some big names may be involved in trade talk and some of these are not even upcoming free agents. We also discuss a trade that may revive the career of a former highly touted Junior Hockey graduate. A couple of goalie situations add to a list that points to an increasing trend of two capable netminders sharing the load. A captain of a young hockey team is having a tough time keeping up. We also look at a player who is among the league-leaders in the plus/minus category and discuss the appeal of that statistics in hockey pools.

In the last few years, there has been a trend where a number of teams have spent big dollars and committed long-term to their top stars. This is a situation that a couple of those squads may be making the tough decision to try to deal these stars simply because the supporting cast that is in place is not good enough and needs to be rebuilt.

In Carolina, Eric Staal has emerged as the club's unquestioned team leader. Entering this season, he had been a model of consistency, having scored at least 70 points in each of the last six campaigns. He developed quite nicely when he broke in, around a core of aging but skilled forwards. In the last couple of seasons, it has been a much different story and he now finds himself as one of only two front-line forwards (with impressive teenager Jeff Skinner), who are now surrounded by less capable forwards. As a result, Staal has become the singular focus of many opposing teams, who have decided quite correctly, that neutralized the Carolina captain is a recipe for success. Staal has struggled mightily under this focus and his misery has been compounded by his guilt in sidelining his brother Marc (of the Rangers), who is dealing with a concussion. Eric has only been able to muster seven goals and 13 assists in 34 games this season. He carries an onerous salary cap hit of $8.25 M over this year and the next four seasons.

If he continues to struggle, GM Jim Rutherford will be challenged to put aside any loyalty that he might feel to the 'Canes rangy center.

In Columbus, Rick Nash is the big man among the Blue Jackets and the club made a long-range commitment to him, in the form of a pact that will reward him with $7.8M annually through 2017-18. The Jackets' management team was counting on being able to surround him with an adequate supporting cast to advance the team's fortunes, but it appears that they have failed miserably in this regard. Consider that they still await the rediscovery of goalie Steve Mason's rookie season form from his outstanding 2008-09 campaign. Good luck with that. Mason is instead in the middle of his worst ever season, posting a 3.52 goals against average and 88% save percentage in 19 appearances. Derick Brassard has been touted as a suitable linemate for Nash, but he is also mired in a career-worst season, with only three goals and four assists in 25 games played. Jeff Carter was acquired with similar intentions and amid great fanfare, yet he, too, has underperformed in adding only seven goals and 13 points in 22 games.   

If there is a competitive fire in Nash, he has to see that the Blue Jackets are not going to be a competitive during the next few years, when Nash should be in the prime of his career. That could lead to a heart-to-heart talk with a management team that should realize that Columbus isn't going to be a contender unless they rebuild from scratch.

Aside from these superstars, Zach Parise, who is in the last year of his current contract, will be a hot commodity at the trade deadline as long as the Devils contract talks continue without a resolution. We could see this deadlock leading to a free agency situation for Parise because the Devils GM Lou Lamoriello is watching closely to see if he should commit long-term to a player who is coming off an injury-plagued season where he played in only 13 games. Parise, who was chugging along at better than a point per game scoring pace in two prior seasons before being sidelined, is off to a decent start, with 27 points in 33 games this year. A larger sample size of games played will clarify this situation but Parise may be inclined to test the open market in any case. 

Speaking of testing the market, the Coyotes made no secret of their intentions to move former Junior hockey star, Kyle Turris, who was never able to realize the potential that both he and the Phoenix hierarchy expected for him since they chose him with the third overall pick in the 2007 amateur draft. This relationship got mired in a "chicken or egg" dispute where Turris never felt he was optimally used and the Coyote front office never felt that Turris gave an effort or showed enough to stay in a top-six forward position.

In the end, the Coyotes feel that they extracted as much value from the market for Turris when they sent him to Ottawa in exchange for promising offensively talented defenseman David Rundblad and a second round draft pick. Turris will immediately be installed on the Senators' second scoring line and play between Eric Condra on one wing and either Nick Foligno or Milan Michalek on the other side.

Rundblad will add more depth to a very talented Coyote blueline but the Sens are looking at a pair of rookies who remain on their current defense depth chart as the main reason for deeming him expendable. The NHL's top scoring defenseman is the Sens' Erik Karlsson, but it's the development of big Jared Cowan that gave this deal the green light. A huge physical specimen at 6'5, 228 lbs., he was expected to be a tough defensive-minded who could handle a heavy workload eventually. Well, he has met those expectations in averaging well over 25 minutes per game in recent outings and has also chipped in 10 points in 34 games played.

The one-man goalie system that saw an increasing number of players capable of handling a 70 game workload in recent years is dwindling due to the demands of the grueling 82 game schedule and injury situations.

In Dallas, with incumbent Kari Lehtonen again sidelined, the Stars quickly became wary when backup Andrew Raycroft was shelled in consecutive starts. They reached into their minor affiliate and promoted Richard Bachman, who delivered the goods in achieving a 4-1-1 mark, while limiting opponents to a 2.25 goals per game and posting a 92.4 save percentage.

In Chicago, Ray Emery proved to be the right ingredient, or was simply in the right place at the right time to backstop the surging Chicago Blackhawks, who climbed into first place overall on the strength of a seven game stretch where they recorded six wins and a shootout loss. Corey Crawford in not injured, but was not playing at the top of his game, prior to this change in goal. He is still expected to regain the crease and should play most of the games over the rest of the schedule.

These are just two of many cautionary tales that should make fantasy owners aware of the pitfalls of over-committing to specific goalies.    

Over the past year and a half, much has been written about the impressive young forwards on the Edmonton Oilers roster. During this time, their captain, veteran Shawn Horcoff appeared well positioned to thrive with his young mates. However, injuries curtailed much of his 2010-11 season and this year he has struggled offensively. He has only produced 20 points and a (-6) rating in 33 games played and seems destined for a diminished role if he doesn't turn things around soon 

Finally, we will touch on the fortunes of Ian White, who is earning recognition for being the NHL's leader in plus/minus with a +23 rating. He has been well travelled, having played with five teams in the past three seasons and all of them saw value in this heady rearguard, who possesses a high hockey IQ. He is a quick skater, adept at moving the puck quickly but he would confess to owing his success to his current situation. He is playing for one of the best teams in the league (Detroit) and is primarily being paired with the venerable Nicklas Lidstrom.

There is a lesson here for fantasy owners. Do you chase after good plus/minus players? How much do you emphasize them in your pre-season planning?

The answers are, no, you don't chase after plus/minus because the top marks may go to well-situated and defensive minded players, which means you would be sacrificing more important and far-reaching categories in terms of overall impact in your fantasy leagues. Your pre-season planning, relative to this category, should be limited to using it as a tiebreaker, when considering the teams of comparably skilled and productive players. In these circumstances, you should opt for the player who is on the better NHL team.

I would like to wish my readers a very Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Season's Greetings! 

I invite you to send your feedback and you can follow me on Twitter (statsman22). You can also listen to me on Tuesday nights, at 9:30 EST on Sirius/XM Radio, on "THE FANTASY DRIVE", Sirius 210 and XM 87.