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Neutral Zone Wrap: Handing Out the Hardware

Evan Berofsky

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We've entered the heart of awards season, so let's do our own version. But instead of covering the standard trophies, let's focus on a few less obvious fantasy hockey achievements. Only the winners will be listed, since there's a limited amount of writing space and reader patience.

The Jonathan Cheechoo Memorial Award

Sorry to confuse everyone, but the native of Moose Factory, Ontario, has not passed away. But if you happened upon this sport after 2009, then Cheechoo's existence may be a mystery. In 2005-06, he led the league with 56 goals. That feat would never be duplicated; in fact, the totals declined to the point where he toiled in the AHL and eventually found his way to the KHL. If you're looking for the next NHL runaway, then here's a guy whose face is destined to be plastered on missing notices in five years.

Winner: Nick Foligno, Columbus*

This selection is obvious based on his current figures (53 points in 55 games) and modest track record (averaging mid-30s), but the analysis goes deeper than that. The elder Foligno, 27, has already notched a career high (previous peak was 47) and has been buoyed by injuries (Boone Jenner for a while, Scott Hartnell briefly) and inconsistent performances (Matt Calvert, Alexander Wennberg) from competing left-wingers. One cannot dispute Foligno's effort or desire, but those traits will be of little consequence once everyone is back in the fold and developing at a consistent rate.

The Brian Elliott Award

A goaltender who seemingly comes out of nowhere to take over a starting job and dominate.

Winner: Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota

His abbreviated stint on a horrible Arizona squad could be considered impressive in itself (9-5-2, 2.72 GAA, .916 SV%), but Dubnyk ultimately deserves recognition for his masterful job in The Hockey State. Not only are his new numbers incredible (13-2-1, 1.63 GAA, .936 SV%, five shutouts), but the 6-foot-6 behemoth has started all 17 games for the Wild since arriving.

The David Backes Legacy Award

Captain America has been known to drop the gloves, deliver the hits and block a few shots over the years while concurrently maintaining a decent point total. So which fresh face (i.e. younger than 25) is poised to continue this trend?

Winner: Patrick Maroon, Anaheim

The third-year Duck may have been hampered by a knee injury in October, but he's recovered to post some solid overall stats (28 points, 55 PIM, 88 hits, eight blocked shots), continuing on the strength of his freshman season (29 points, 101 PIM, 124 hits, 16 blocked shots). Not only is Maroon skilled and feisty like Backes, but he is better equipped to carry the truculence torch as he pledges allegiance to the same flag.

(* I really hope I'm wrong on this one. Just couldn't think of anyone else this season who could be a better example to fit the criteria.)

And now, let's switch back and take a look at these five clubs:

New York Rangers

If it wasn't for their bumbling defense, the Rangers could easily be leading the East. The most consistent of all Blueshirts has to be Derek Stepan (nine points in five games, 43 in 44 in total). So is the usually supplementary scorer Carl Hagelin (seven in eight). Even rookie and former NCAA ace Kevin Hayes (eight in nine, including four goals in seven) is positively working his way into the lineup. Not a heckuva lot was expected from Kevin Klein, so he's pleasantly surprised (25 points, plus-21). Dan Girardi (four in five) may not be a main target, but he can earn enough in deeper formats. It's uncertain as to when Henrik Lundqvist (puck to the throat) will suit up again, but it's not as if Cam Talbot (6-1-2 since Feb. 4, but allowed three or more in seven of those) has burned the castle during the King's absence.

St. Louis Blues

Is it time to start worrying about the Blues? The first couple months were trying times for T.J. Oshie (six in 19), but he's been on fire since (33 in 32). A downturn was predicted for Jori Lehtera but at least the drop isn't too steep (three in 10). Russian phenom Dmitrij Jaskin (three goals in six) sits in a favorable position, though more minutes would help. With no Kevin Shattenkirk (abdominal surgery, probably another couple weeks) for the last 10, Jay Bouwmeester (two in 15) hasn't taken advantage. After a nice run in the AHL (17 in 41), Petteri Lindbohm is up to intimidate opposing forwards (a goal and a fight in his return). Everyone assumes Jake Allen (17-5-2, 2.39 GAA, .909 SV% in 27) is the future in St. Louis, so how long can Brian Elliott (18-9-2, 2.26 GAA, .919 SV% in 31) hold on to No. 1?

Washington Capitals

The Capitals are flying high but would be doing better if they could avoid the Flyers. Marcus Johansson (four in seven) is the latest beneficiary of a bump up to the league's second-best man-advantage. Just when it was safe to endorse Evgeny Kuznetsov, he goes out and lays a few additional eggs (like five straight). While the goal haul is respectable (14), there are too many holes (five in 16) in Joel Ward's portfolio. The same goes for Eric Fehr (two in 10), though his contributions (tied for third on the club with 17) amount to a bonus. Things have improved for Matt Niskanen (three in five), but nowhere close (20 in 61) to justify a $40.25 million contract. And don't be fooled by the sudden scoring spurt from Karl Alzner (two in three), as the former Canadian WJHC standout is pushing against his ceiling (only three away from hitting his best of 18).

Vancouver Canucks

It's amazing what Vancouver has squeezed out with one above-average forward unit and a brittle blueline. Good news for those who had faith in Zack Kassian (three goals in two since the switch, six in his last eight), as he's the new caddy for the Sedins in all situations. The ninth overall pick in 2013, Bo Horvat remains a work-in-progress but looks to be ahead of the curve (points in 10 of 13). Shawn Matthias (seven in nine, including a hat-trick vs. Boston) is finally living up to his end of the bargain. It's amazing how Linden Vey can remain on the first PP (five in 19, which includes one PPP). Out goes Alexander Edler (unknown upper-body situation) and Kevin Bieksa (hand surgery), in comes veteran Dan Hamhuis (only one in seven, but posting 25-plus minutes the last five) and Chicago castoff Adam Clendening (only two in 11 since the trade).

Ottawa Senators

Ottawa may be mediocre, but at least it takes care of business against the lesser likes. It's as if the mid-2000s have returned for Milan Michalek (seven in four with 17 SOG). The lower levels couldn't contain Mike Hoffman (30 goals, 37 assists with Binghamton last season) and now the rest of the NHL is discovering the same (11 in 12). Last year's postseason revelation Jean-Gabriel Pageau (21 in 27) and 2011 first-rounder Matt Puempel (32 in 51) have also graduated from the "A" and are being thrown into advanced roles. That leaves another young stud, Curtis Lazar (two in 16), clutching for opportunities. Meanwhile, the prospects in net appear shaky since Bowling Green grad Andrew Hammond (winner of his last two, owner of four career NHL appearances) has been installed as the starter due to attrition.

And that concludes our team reviews for 2014-15. The next five weeks will cover a fantasy review of recent trades, late-season waiver additions, who to look out for in the future and an NHL-related recipe exchange. (Can't wait to tell everyone how to prepare Steak on a Dekeyser with Potato Skinners.)