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Blue Line Buzz: Leddy, Set, Go

Jason Chen

Consistently fires muffins. Blue Line Buzz on Mondays, Daily Puck and DFS on Sundays.

This is it. The New Winter War.

Russia and Finland will renew hostilities in the gold-medal game at the World Juniors, a fitting matchup featuring two of the tournament’s best teams.

There are too many historical references to pull from, but the game will be an absolute barn burner. Remember that the game is going to be played in Finland, the culmination of a tournament that saw the retirement of Teemu Selanne’s iconic No. 8 in front of one of the best Finnish junior teams in years.

Junior games tend to be higher scoring because defense becomes more of an afterthought and the goaltending isn’t very polished, but you also can’t win if you don’t have good defensemen. When Finland won gold in Sweden in 2014, it was a huge “I’m f@$&%g here!” party for Rasmus Ristolainen, who showed all sorts of speed and skill to win the game in overtime, and look what he’s done for Buffalo this season.

This year’s defensemen to watch:

Olli Juolevi, Finland – He has nine assists in six games to lead all Finnish blueliners and could be named one of the tournament’s all-stars. Juolevi’s been an excellent puck mover for the OHL’s London Knights and might’ve pushed himself into the top 10 picks in 2016.

Vili Saarijarvi, Finland – The only other Finnish defenseman in the OHL, he’s plying his craft with the Flint Firebirds and was a third-round pick by Detroit this past summer.

Joni Tuulola, Finland – He’s the elder statesman of the group and a sixth-round pick by Chicago. Tuulola’s brother, Eetu, who did not make the junior team, is eligible for the 2016 draft.

Ivan Provorov, Russia – The Flyers’ first-round pick in 2015, No. 7 overall, Provorov’s tied for the team lead with six assists and could be the game-changer for Russia, whose blue line is weaker than Finland’s.

Damir Sharipzyanov, Russia – Undrafted in 2015, Sharipzyanov signed with the Kings this past August. He hasn’t had a good tournament so far, with zero points and a minus-3 rating, but has more upside than many of his teammates.

In other news, Chicago assigned David Rundblad to Zurich in the Swiss League, while Keith Aulie was released from a tryout with Arizona’s AHL affiliate and signed with HIFK in Helsinki. This might spell the end of the NHL careers for those two defensemen – both were highly touted coming into the league, and both failed to make much of an impression.

Rundblad was the 17th overall pick in 2009 by the Blues, a rare miss in a first round that has only seen five players not play an NHL game this year. He handled himself well as a 19-year-old in the Swedish pro league and was supposed to be a two-way defenseman, but Rundblad never quite adjusted to the pro game in North America. He had one good season with AHL Portland, and that was it. There’s a chance he’ll return to the NHL someday, but I believe he will more likely find success in Europe; if the rest of the season goes well for him, I don’t see why he would return. Interestingly enough, without Rundblad, the Blues wouldn’t have been able to draft Vladimir Tarasenko. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

Aulie was the opposite of Rundblad, a 6-foot-6 giant picked in the fourth round in 2007, a weaker draft year. He was paired with Tyler Myers at the 2009 World Juniors, where they led Canada to a gold medal, but could never use his size to the same effectiveness in the pros, where his lack of mobility and puck skills (as well as some injuries) impeded his development. Aulie’s size will always draw attention from teams, but it’s unlikely he’ll be anything more than a seventh defenseman in the NHL.

Last week’s top five performers:

Nick Leddy, NYI – With Johnny Boychuk (upper body) out 4-to-6 weeks, Leddy has picked up the slack, posting a goal and five assists over a five-game point streak. The Islanders have allowed 10 goals in their past two games, which is what happens when you lose a top-four defender in Boychuk, but if Leddy can chip in offensively, they’ll have a chance to outscore the opposition.

Matt Niskanen, WSH – The Caps have allowed nine goals in their past two games, both losses to underdog teams, but it could’ve been even worse without Niskanen. The veteran is on a three-game point streak and played 32:04 and 28:25 in the two losses, also recording six shots and five hits. His workload increased thanks to minor league call-ups Aaron Ness and Connor Carrick getting less than 10 minutes from Barry Trotz.

Jack Johnson, CLB – Johnson went plus-1 in an impressive 6-3 win over Dallas, then added two power-play goals and an assist in a 5-4 win over Washington on Saturday. Sergei Bobrovsky is back on injured reserve after again aggravating his groin injury, which likely spells the end of the Jackets’ playoff hopes and continued disastrous plus-minus for Johnson, but the 28-year-old should still be playing big minutes and contributing on the power play.

Mattias Ekholm, NSH – He had a stinker in a 5-1 loss to Dallas that saw him finish with a minus-3 rating, but Ekholm bounced right back the following game, picking up an assist and scoring the overtime winner against Carolina. He gets overlooked on a team that also has Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Seth Jones and Ryan Ellis, but Ekholm’s a very solid player in his own right who’s tallied 14 points on the season. It’s worth mentioning that the Predators’ defense has managed to stay astonishingly healthy – Ryan Ellis and Barret Jackman have missed one game each.

Jake Gardiner, TOR – He registered his 100th career point this past week, and picked up a goal and an assist in two statement wins against Pittsburgh and St. Louis. The Leafs have six wins in their past 10 games, but a playoff spot still seems out of reach and an upcoming road swing through California will be a tough test. Morgan Rielly remains the gem of the Toronto defense, but if Gardiner can continue to keep producing, they should keep him around as a solid No. 2 guy.

Top five trending up:

Calvin de Haan, NYI – With Boychuk sidelined, a lot of the duties will fall on Leddy’s shoulders, but don’t forget about de Haan, a first-round pick from 2009 who is in the midst of his third full NHL season, meaning that he’s close to breaking out and entering his prime. Although de Haan doesn’t have the same offensive upside as Leddy, he’s a very physical top-four defenseman who could put up a few more points with some extra ice time. He has seven points in 40 games this year, but leads the Isles’ blue line with a plus-11 rating and is third on the team with 79 hits. Who else can Jack Capuano give the extra ice time? Marek Zidlicky?

Anton Stralman, TB – Count me among those who think this season for the Lightning is a write-off. With the ongoing Steven Stamkos drama, injuries to the Triplets line, Jonathan Drouin’s trade request and an off year for some of its key players, there just isn’t very much to look forward to. This isn’t nearly as good a team as last year’s despite little turnover. But that hasn’t dampened Stralman’s production recently – he has eight points in his last 10 games, accounting for half of his season total.

Kris Letang, PIT – There’s been an awakening… have you felt it? Perhaps it’s the injection of new blood behind the bench with Mike Sullivan, or perhaps it was simply a matter of getting healthy, but whatever the case, Letang is coming off three games in four nights with six points scored. The Pens may be turning it around with four wins in their past six, and it bodes well that Sidney Crosby is scoring again. Another strong game, and the buy-low opportunity for Letang might just be slammed shut.

Tyler Myers, WPG – I’m a big fan of the big pterodactyl and I firmly believe he has much more upside than Zach Bogosian, but points have been hard to come by for the big guy despite his generally solid play. He’s a big minute eater for Paul Maurice and plays in all situations, but has just 15 points this season. The Jets have a good chance of making the playoffs, but impending free agent Dustin Byfuglien can fetch quite the haul in a trade; should Big Buff get dealt, Myers could be in line for some extra duty.

Connor Carrick, WAS – The impending return of John Carlson (undisclosed) will likely end Carrick’s NHL stint at three games. After dressing in 34 games with the Caps two years ago, the fifth-round pick and former Plymouth Whalers standout became a forgotten prospect, spending the entire year last year with AHL Hershey, where he scored 42 points in 73 games. The Caps gave Carrick just 30 minutes of total ice time in those three games, and while it would be surprising to see him play any role bigger than that this season, he’s a name to watch for the future, along with Dmitry Orlov. Tuck this one away until next season, folks.

Top five trending down:

Keith Yandle, NYR – At what point do you cut loose? Yandle was one of the most sought-after power-play quarterbacks in fantasy drafts, but has managed just one goal this season. He’s shooting a career-low 1.2 percent, a quarter of his 4.8 percent career average, and has not reached double-digits in goals since 2012-13. Yandle’s still a very good puck mover with some room to improve, but I just don’t think this is his year.

Victor Hedman, TB – The biggest story line in the Eastern Conference this year will be that the Rangers and Lightning don’t make it to the conference finals. If they make the playoffs as higher seeds – which they should – it’s just too easy to see an upset. Neither of the teams is playing well, and there are just too many question marks going into the second half. This is all paving the way for the Capitals to make the finals, the first time they’ll do so in the Alex Ovechkin era. Hedman is on pace to match last season’s total of 38 points, but may struggle to achieve that unless the Lightning get it going.

Niklas Kronwall, DET – You don’t get him for the points, so it’s even worse when he goes minus-6 in a little over a week. The grizzled veteran can’t be counted on to do everything for Detroit anymore, and fantasy owners should realize that he’s good for peripherals, but not much else.
Cam Fowler, ANA – His knee injury could cost him six weeks of action, so the good news is that he’ll return before the end of the season. The bad news is that this injury comes at a bad time for the Ducks, who will miss one of their better performers this season. For those debating about stashing Fowler on bench or injured reserve, keep in mind that the 24-year-old blueliner will be returning from a lengthy injury and that the Ducks may find themselves out of the playoff picture.

Christian Ehrhoff, LA – He had a solid game against Philadelphia, notching two hits and two shots, but still didn’t do quite enough to warrant a spot back in the Kings’ top four. A few more strong games might help, but it seems as though Darryl Sutter will rotate “The Hoff” with Jamie McBain, who’s likely destined to be a journeyman despite being a second-round pick.

This week’s top five recommended pickups:

Matt Niskanen, WAS – Maybe Trotz will ease Carlson back into the lineup and maybe he won’t, but Niskanen should still see a lot of minutes and has four games on the slate this week.

Ryan Murray, CLM – He’s actually second among Jackets defensemen with 13 points and has two games against Carolina this week. There’s a good chance he manages to score a few, and if he gets the hot hand, it won’t be a fluke.

Anton Stralman, TB – Because I can’t say he’s trending up, then not endorse him. The Lightning go on a three-game road trip through Western Canada this week.

Colin Miller, BOS – The Bruins have tough matchups against Braden Holtby and Cory Schneider this week, but Miller is capable of scoring. He was recalled Saturday from AHL Providence.

Brendan Smith, DET – Smith has two goals and three assists in his past five games and may continue that hot streak against San Jose and Anaheim. He’s been surprisingly productive against them, with six assists in 17 career games.