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From the Pressbox: Winter Classic 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.

Today, From the Pressbox: Both teams featured in the New Year's Day Winter Classic game are faltering right now. What's gone wrong for Detroit and Toronto? The Florida Panthers playing with a renewed purpose. How are things going in Phoenix?

The Winter Classic Matchup - a look at both teams

The Detroit Red Wings will host the Toronto Maple Leafs at 1:00 p.m. at the famed Michigan Stadium (The Big House) on January 1, 2014. It was made fairly clear, in the first episode of the HBO series 24/7, that neither team is playing their best hockey right now, although both clubs still have a hold on a playoff spot at this time. That's a good point to begin a comparison of the two clubs and what ails them currently.

The Wings have been a playoff participant in each of the last 20 postseason tournaments. During that span they have recorded four Stanley Cup wins and have become the NHL's gold standard, based on a solid management team that has replenished their roster and dealt with the salary cap implications in an organized manner.

The Leafs, on the other hand made a return to the post-season last year after a seven-year absence. This storied franchise, the NHL's most valuable according to Forbes Magazine, has escaped the mire of that drought and seemed poised to build on last season's turn around. Off the ice, the Leafs made headlines in the past year, by assembling a new, well-regarded management team and have made good use of their vast financial riches to cover up some recent issues with the salary cap.

Detroit has switched back to the Eastern Conference and they will renew hostilities and rivalries with many more sensible geographic rivals as a result of this move - none more than the Maple Leafs.

Detroit heads into this matchup having fallen on some unaccustomed struggles of late. Their attack has been led by the dynamic duo of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk for the past several years, but both players have missed playing time due to injury (a rarity for both stars in recent years) this season. Zetterberg, who has not played since December 1, is eligible to come off the LTIR on December 28, and at this time indications are that he will return to the lineup and be ready to play. That ought to be music to the ears of Datsyuk, who tallied two points in his first game back from his own injury woes, but has been blanked in four games since then. Add to these misfortunes the fact that Jimmy Howard had been inconsistent with his play (6-8 record and a 2.68 gaa) and a recent knee injury that will sideline him until early January and you have a recipe for a continuation of a slide that has seen the Wings lose 15 of their last 21 games.

The Leafs have had their own share of roster issues, losing man games to key injuries and suspensions among their top six forwards (Joffrey Lupul, David Clarkson, Tyler Bozak and David Bolland). This string of misfortune has prevented the Toronto club from icing its complete roster for any of their 36 games played to date. Their own stretch of futility has resulted in only seven wins in their last 22 games played.

These are still two teams projected to make the playoffs this year, but their recent struggles have offered hope to trailing teams that have closed the gap on both of these teams. Though you will not usually hear NHL teams use injuries as excuses, there is little doubt that Toronto and Detroit would be much better off if they had regular use of their top players to date.

That brings me to a point of consideration for fantasy pool managers, who may have seen their own teams decimated by injuries to key players. If you are in keeper leagues and find yourself well off the pace of your league leaders, it may be in your best interest to take realistic stock of your chances for recovery this year as opposed to the gains you could make, in setting up your team for next year. Take note that top contending clubs in your pools will be fighting one another the rest of the way this season. So you have the opportunity to play those teams off against one another for some of your players who could help them win now. By declaring yourself out of the running early, you set yourself up ahead of other low-ranking teams and may be the recipient of a nice windfall in this kind of an "auction" for your players.

Florida Panthers fired up by new coach

The Florida Panthers were one of the first teams to fire their head coach, early in this season. Such a move, in replacing Kevin Dineen with Peter Horacek, rarely makes a team significantly better in that same season. However, after taking over a club that was languishing among the leagues bottom dwellers with a 3-9-4 mark, Horacek has posted a respectable 10-8-1 record with that same roster.

What has caused this change? A new coach usually brings along new ideas, new hope and a chance for the players to buy into the idea of a fresh start, so it's not uncommon to have a short spurt of success with this type of change.

The conversion of fortune as in Florida seems like it is built to last, though. The makeup of this team is a likely reason for the possibility of this good fortune continuing here. GM Dale Tallon has carved out a nice reputation, owing to his role as the architect, as a key builder of the Chicago Blackhawks current roster and recent success. He brought that same formula to the Panthers situation, where he has sought to accumulate and protect the recent high draft picks his club has amassed and he has surrounded them with a mix of veteran players who may be looking at their lot in Florida as a chance to revive their careers. Players like Scottie Upshall, Brad Boyes and Tomas Fleischmann have all been known as scorers in previous NHL stops. Now they are being given the chance to be front liners again, working with recent drafts Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov in what should be a decent offense. That forward group, despite not delivering what might be expected offensively, has been party to a team-wide, defensively responsible approach.

A defense corps led by Bryan Campbell and Tom Gilbert has emerged as the backbone of this team's resurgence, as they have proven to be very dependable puck movers and have generally been able to free their mates from prolonged opposing pressure.

Behind all this, they have benefitted greatly from experience between the pipes, as Tim Thomas and Scott Clemmensen have been a source of confidence and stability as well.

You may find some short-term fill-ins for your needs with a team that you may have overlooked at your draft. It may be time to reconsider some of those options.

Shining the light on the Desert Dogs

Though the Phoenix Coyotes may toil in relative anonymity, in a location that is not one of the NHL's major centers, they merit some positive reviews because they are once again a competitive team in the more talent-rich Western Conference. Last year, in a season where the future of the franchise hung over the team like a long dark cloud, they narrowly missed the post-season. After some positive news with a new ownership commitment this offseason, they are again currently on the outside looking in as they hold ninth place in the West. This despite an impressive 18-10-5 mark through 33 games played.

Again fantasy owners may have overlooked this roster of lesser-known players, but we encourage you to take note of several players here. They have no fewer than seven players who have scored more than 20 points so far.

Leading that pack is Mike Ribeiro, who continues to show up as one of the best playmaking centers in the NHL, with seven goals and 19 assists. Radim Vrbata has similarly evolved into a consistent scoring option, who has produced at a 60+ points clips over the last two seasons and is continuing at that pace so far this year. Mikkel Boedker may be the best offensive surprise, as the former first round pick from 2008 is finally flashing that offensive skill and is one goal shy of a career-best total, with 10 goals in 33 games. The big worry around the Coyotes is the health of Shane Doan, who has missed the last six games with a mysterious illness after storming from the starting gate with 23 points I his first 27 games - a nice rebound from his 27 points in 48 games last year.

On defense, Keith Yandle (22 points) continues to rank among the league's top scoring defensemen, but the Coyotes are pleased with the fact that Oliver Ekman-Larsson has 21 points already in the bank for his fantasy owners. He's only one of 13 defensemen to top the 20-point plateau this season.

You can't overlook the options that you will find on some of the lesser-known teams in the NHL.