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Neutral Zone Wrap: Ride the Lightning

Evan Berofsky

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One quarter of the way through and all is well in the NHL. The action is quick, the competition is intense, and the excitement is indescribable. And the fans are eating it up, right down to the final second of every game.

But then there are the injuries. Oh boy, how they've multiplied lately. Don't think a recent list of casualties needs to be mentioned, so let's just say their absence affects many fantasy teams – enough to make the average owner contemplate undertaking a new hobby.

If you lost a player to a serious injury, then there's nothing you can do. Move on. But if he is carrying some form of non-threatening physical issue, then evaluation is required. Based on the injury, can he return within a week? A month? Longer? Has this problem been lingering and/or possibly hindering performance?

Only when these questions have been answered can you properly assess the status of your lineup. Then you can decide how to fix the holes and reach a point where injuries don't matter. (Except if more than, say, three or four are out. Then you may want to consult a fantasy expert for further consultation.)

After a couple weeks of fooling around with projections, we're back to the five-team format. Let's check the latest talk:

(Stats as of Monday November 18)

The Lightning may have blown a fuse but that won't discourage the current Eastern Conference leaders. Yes, Steven Stamkos (broken tibia) is All-World and will be missed. But his absence only allows others their chance to shine. Valtteri Filppula becomes the obvious beneficiary as he moves up on the power-play (where he has already amassed seven points). Alex Killorn (seven in eight) had already been promoted to the top line but now he moves to center, which allows hotshot Brett Connolly (one goal in nine) to slot in at wing. Tyler Johnson began with a bang last season (six in his first five) and has the chance to build upon this. At 39, maybe we shouldn't expect a lot from Sami Salo (scoreless in 11). And if you haven't heard of Radko Gudas by now (six points, 61 PIM, 74 hits), then you've surely missed the boat.

If you're looking for bargain replacements, then Phoenix is your place to shop. Beyond the obvious leaders, Lauri Korpikoski (five in four) remains your first cheaper option. Give David Moss (five in nine) a chance as long as he continues to skate with the first unit. Rob Klinkhammer (three in 11 after four goals in the opening half) has slowed enough to avoid recommendation. Michael Stone (six points – all goals) serves as the newest blueline flavor of the week, but keep an eye on repeated letdown David Rundblad (he of the one PPP and 14 healthy scratches) to see if he can string a few decent efforts together.

Defense wins championships, but you probably won't go far if you can't score enough. Minnesota may own the best statistical goalie and uplifting story in Josh Harding (12-2-2, 1.25 GAA, .946 SV%), but they're a few markers short of becoming elite (19th in the league with a 2.47 average). Any one of Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, or Nino Niederreiter (combined seven goals) could find the net a little more. Oh, and that former 50-goal man Dany Heatley (four points matching his fourth-line service) must surely be able to recall what he used to do regularly. Jared Spurgeon (seven, including three PPPs) looks to be maintaining his position but one would like to see more from Jonas Brodin (nothing in nine) based on the massive minutes (25:03 a night).

Perhaps we need to see more from Columbus before we can judge their overall worthiness. Management gave up quite a bit to acquire Marian Gaborik (11 in 17, out at least a month), yet Brandon Dubinsky (15, 40 PIM, 53 hits) continues to assert himself as the more consistent arrival from NYC. Don't discount R.J. Umberger, whose hard work has usually translated to the stat sheet (four goals in seven). Both Ryan Johansen (13) and Cam Atkinson (eight) appear to be able to hold their own. No need to highlight James Wisniewski (leads club with 16 points) but here's a thumbs-up for both veteran Fedor Tyutin (four PPPs) and rookie Ryan Murray (only four but up to almost a 19-minute average). As for Jack Johnson (five, minus-7), well, he better improve or else we'll begin to associate that full name with some sappy songwriter/surfer.

Nashville sure picked the wrong division to be in, as they sit last in the Central even though they own a non-losing record. Ain't no slowing down David Legwand (12 in 10) and no need to rush two-time wounded Mike Fisher (eight in 13). Much more is required from both Gabriel Bourque (five) and Colin Wilson (four-point game in between 11 zeroes). Seth Jones started off his pro career with promise (four in first eight) but now he's truly learning the ropes (one in six, demoted to third defensive pairing). That means Roman Josi (two PPAs Saturday) has been reunited with Shea Weber. Even with Pekka Rinne (hip infection) out indefinitely, stay away from either Carter Hutton (3.39 GAA, .891 SV% in 10) or Marek Mazanec (3.16 GAA, .911 SV% in four).