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NHL Barometer: Tavares on his Way to Elite Status

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 pair of No. 1 picks off to hot starts, a change of scenery doing wonders for a winger in Calgary, a backup goalie in Pittsburgh possibly challenging for the top spot and the former top center in Montreal struggling.

First Liners (Risers)

John Tavares, C, NYI -
The Islanders are off to a somewhat surprisingly strong start, and it's JT leading the way. Tavares scored two goals and added an assist in the Islanders' overtime win over the Devils on Thursday and now has 11 points in six games. Tavares' offensive production has increased steadily each of the last few seasons and it looks like he may be ready to take that next jump in his development; becoming an "elite" pivot man.

Mike Ribeiro, C, WAS -
Despite the Capitals' overall struggles, there have been a few bright spots in the nation's capital, one being Ribeiro. Washington brought in Ribeiro via trade in the offseason from Dallas for Cody Eakin and a second-round pick. Ribeiro has never been a big goal scorer as he is known for his playmaking skills, which so far have been on display for the Capitals. He notched two more assists Thursday, giving him seven on the year, including his lone lamp-lighter.

Jiri Hudler, RW, CGY -
In his second game with the Flames, Hudler scored two goals and picked up an assist Thursday in a loss to the Avalanche. He has four points in two games with his new team after missing the beginning of the season due to the death of his father. Through most of his career in Detroit, Hudler was viewed as an ancillary or support piece, though he showed in the KHL that he has offensive talent and can score. Now in Calgary, he is being counted on as more of a scoring option, making him a nice target for leagues.

Nail Yakupov, RW, EDM -
Yakupov has lived up to his billing and then some that came as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft. He has shown speed and skill so far for Edmonton, while also breaking out goal celebrations that remind many of another Alberta player, Theoren Fleury. Although he has been a liability in plus/minus (minus-4) through seven games, Yakupov is making the most of his somewhat limited ice time as he continues to get steady run on the Oilers' power-play unit and is quickly showing a nose for finding the net in critical situations. If Devan Dubnyk can continue his solid play and the Oilers obtain a shut-down D-man, the squad could be scary for years to come given the offensive talent.

David Clarkson, RW, NJ -
Last year was viewed as Clarkson's breakout campaign and he is building on that success so far this season. Clarkson notched goals in his first three games this season, and to date (through Thursday), he has four goals and four assists in six games. Clarkson is seeing gobs of power play, and his scoring ability combined with penalty minutes potential and the fact that he racks up hits; make him a valuable commodity in just about every league.

Tom Gilbert, D, MIN -
Another Minnesota native on the Wild, Gilbert came over at last February's trade deadline after several seasons with the Oilers. Gilbert was expected to get a bump up in value playing alongside Ryan Suter, and to date that has been the case. Gilbert has two goals and four assists in seven games, seeing 24:35 in ice time, including close to three minutes with the man advantage, Gilbert also gets a decent amount of blocked shots, which gives him added value in leagues that play this category.

Kevin Shattenkirk, D, STL -
While much of the focus on St. Louis' blue line has been on Alex Pietrangelo, Shattenkirk just quietly goes about his business in becoming one of the better NHL defensemen. Acquired from Colorado with Chris Stewart in what was a steal of deal for Erik Johnson, Shattenkirk already has eight points - all assists - in seven games this year. He notched 43 points each of the last two seasons and has a good shot at finishing in the top 10 in scoring for NHL D-men this year.

Antti Niemi, G, SJ -
There were two schools of thought on San Jose entering the season. One was the Sharks would regress and struggle this year, while others believed they were Stanley Cup contenders. Regardless, one of the big driving factors, regardless of views, was how well Niemi would play. So far, so good as Niemi, with his win Thursday, improved to 6-0-0 while also keeping his goals-against average under two. Obviously, the proof in the pudding will come playoff time, but Niemi, who has a Cup from his time with the Blackhawks, at least has some pedigree there.

Tomas Vokoun, G, PIT -
As someone who owns Marc-Andre Fleury in his home league, it pains me to write this, but Vokoun has completely outplayed Fleury this season in the Steel City. Vokoun relieved an ineffective Fleury on Tuesday and then made 28 saves to shut out the Rangers on Thursday, his second win at MSG over the Blueshirts this season. Vokoun has struggled somewhat the last few years, but he has been excellent so far this year in his starts and we may have a full-blown goalie controversy fairly soon in Pittsburgh.

Others include
John Mitchell, Peter Mueller (from outhouse to penthouse in a week), Olli Jokinen, Tomas Plekanec (rebound campaign in Montreal), Cody Hodgson, Pavel Datsyuk, Joe Thornton, Kyle Turris (more responsibility with Spezza out), Steven Stamkos, Jonathan Toews, Matt Duchene, Vincent Lecavalier, Tyler Ennis, David Backes, Mikko Koivu, Thomas Vanek (hat trick and two assists Thursday, already with 15 points in six games), Jason Pominville (rolling with Vanek), Jordan Eberle, Zach Parise (fitting in nicely in Minnesota), Martin St. Louis, Milan Michalek, Patrick Kane, Matt Frattin, Patrick Marleau (only one goal last three games; what a plugger, sarcasm dripping), James van Riemsdyk, Teddy Purcell, Zack Kassian, Evander Kane, Blake Wheeler, Joe Pavelski, Brad Marchand, Andrei Markov, Christian Ehrhoff, Marek Zidlicky, Alexander Edler, Dougie Hamilton, Tim Erixon (promotion in Columbus), Tobias Enstrom, Victor Hedman (strong play in KHL carrying over), Sergei Gonchar (check injury status), Keith Yandle, Simon Despres, Craig Anderson, Roberto Luongo, Anders Lindback, Devan Dubnyk, James Reimer, Corey Crawford, Michal Neuvirth (started five straight, though numbers are nothing special) and Evgeni Nabokov.

Training Room (Injuries)

Jason Spezza, C, OTT -
Spezza was diagnosed with a herniated disc in his back that required surgery to repair. The original estimate for his absence is six-to-eight weeks, which in the best-case scenario has him back in mid-to-late March. Spezza had a slight bounce-back campaign with 84 points last season and had five points in five games before he was sidelined by the injury. In his absence, Kyle Turris, Mika Zibanejad, etc. will be relied on to help pick up the slack.

Max Pacioretty, LW, MTL -
Pacioretty underwent an emergency appendectomy last Saturday and is expected to miss 3-to-4 weeks, Pacioretty, who was thought to just be suffering from flu-like symptoms that were expected to pass in a couple of days. Instead, the Habs will be without their top left wing for what amounts to a large chunk of the shortened season. Pacioretty scored 65 points in 79 games and was well on his way to another impressive campaign before the surgery, having compiled four points in the first three games. The good news is that Pacioretty was able to skate Thursday, so he may be make it back on the shorter end of the expected absence window.

Gabriel Landeskog, LW, COL -
There is no timetable for Landeskog (head/leg) to return from the hit he took from Bard Stuart last Saturday. It is unclear when Landeskog will return; as his symptoms have worsened from the day the hit took place. Landeskog was the NHL rookie of the year last season with 52 points, so the Avs, who have struggled offensively until Thursday's six-goal output, will feel his absence.

Ryan Callahan, RW, NYR -
Captain Callahan, the heart and soul of the Rangers, will be out 10-to-14 days with a partial subluxation of his left shoulder. The injury occurred as he was fighting with Max Talbot, who did a classy move by pulling up and calling for the trainers when he realized Callahan was hurt. The Rangers will clearly miss Callahan, who had scored a PPG earlier in Tuesday's game before he was sidelined, as seen in their lethargic effort and performance against the Penguins on Thursday.

Others include
Adam Henrique (surgery on left thumb, returned Thursday), Derek Roy (groin, on IR, may be back early next week), Kris Versteeg (groin, returned to action this week and had a goal and an assist Thursday), Sven Baertschi (hip flexor, IR), Patric Hornqvist (sprained knee, out 3-to-4 weeks), Dustin Byfuglien (aggravated mystery injury in morning skate Thursday, day-to-day), Matt Niskanen (ankle, out 2-to-4 weeks), Jake Gardiner (concussion symptoms, assigned to AHL, where he likely will stay a few weeks) and Mike Smith (groin).

Fourth Liners/Press Boxers (Fallers)

David Desharnais, C, MTL -
Desharnais burst on the scene last year, taking over the role as the top center in Montreal from Tomas Plekanec. Based on how he has played the first few weeks of the year, it looks like the switch has flipped as Desharnais has struggled mightily while Plekanec has played well. As a result, Desharnais, who had 60 points last season, has seen his time-on-ice reduced since opening night and has been dropped from the team's top power-play unit.

Dustin Penner, LW, LA -
Penner, who did little during the regular season last year but was huge in the Kings' playoff run, has reverted back to form this year. He was a healthy scratch for the fourth straight game Thursday, and with L.A. playing better lately, he may have a hard time getting back into the lineup. Penner's playoff run should have been viewed as fool's gold, as he has only really had one good regular season but disappointed in all the rest of his six full seasons in the league.

Roman Josi, D, NAS -
Josi appeared to be first in line to take over for the departed Ryan Suter on the Preds' blue line this season. However, through the first seven games, Josi has done little offensively to show he can take over for Suter, notching zero points with a minus-one rating. The good news is that he is averaging 24:22 in ice time, including just less than three minutes on the PP, which is second behind Shea Weber among D-men in Nashville.

Braden Holtby, G, WAS -
Holtby was the new kid in town for the Caps last year and established himself as a formidable netminder in last spring's playoffs. Filling in for injured Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth, Holtby played 14 playoff games with a save percentage of .933. While Neuvirth was expected to see some starts, many expected Holtby to be the main man between the pipes in Washington, but that has not been the case. After opening the season with two poor performances and losses, Holtby has had to be content with opening the bench door the last five games, including Thursday. Eventually, he should get another chance and has the talent to make the most of it, but for now, he is riding the pine.

Others include
Jaden Schwartz (moved down to fourth line and was inactive Thursday but is still a good long-term play), Carl Hagelin (has been one of the Rangers' best players lately but does not have the points to show for it), Mattias Tedenby (sent to minors), David Jones (just one assist in seven games in Colorado, not the way to live up to the four-year deal just signed last July), Ryan Smyth (third-line duty and no real production from him in Edmonton), T.J. Brennan (a lot of talent, but has been a healthy scratch most of the season), Ben Scrivens (backup to Reimer for the time being) and Miikka Kiprusoff (brutal start to the season).

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