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Neutral Zone Wrap: Better Off Late

Evan Berofsky

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Fewer than 20 games remain for each team in the league, which doesn’t sound like much. But in fantasy speak, that’s pretty much an eternity. And while a lot of leagues are decided in the first two-thirds of the season, you’d be surprised to hear how many titles have been taken thanks to a couple late-season pickups. So let’s look at some worthy candidates.

We’ll set the cutoff for inclusion at anything below 50 percent ownership. Also, no one mentioned in last week’s trade deadline column or the previous mock awards rundown have been included to avoid repeating material. You’ll notice most of the following skate for clubs already out of playoff contention, but that’s only because those situations are easier to predict:

NOTE: No goalies are listed here because you should be familiar with the latest injury replacements and those in similar fill-in positions.

Ben Hutton, D, Vancouver (11 percent owned)

The 22-year-old’s gone from obscurity to top blue-line billing in two years. Sounds like a farfetched story, but it really happened to Hutton (one goal, 20 assists). He fought his way on the roster out of training camp as a rookie and has continued to shatter expectations throughout the season. With Alexander Edler shut down and Chris Tanev hobbling, the Brockville native has become a fixture on the Canucks’ top power-play unit (seven assists) and a monster of minutes (averaging over 23 the last 12 games).

Alex Killorn, F, Tampa Bay (38 percent)

Killorn, representing the top teams in this column, has excelled once again thanks to playing with familiar faces. Well, only one face really matters. Having Steven Stamkos as your center does not guarantee success, but it won’t hurt the stats. Over the last few weeks, the Harvard grad has posted some gaudy numbers (nine in 11), coinciding with Tampa’s sizzling run. I think it’s safe to say that line won’t be dismantled anytime soon.

Mathieu Perreault, F, Winnipeg (49 percent)

Even before Winnipeg’s latest round of forward injuries and defections, Perreault had seen regular duty on the man advantage (just under a three minute average). The former Cap worked well with Mark Scheifele, but has been dropped down and subsequently suffered (three in 13, minus-8). Even if the pair isn’t reunited, Perreault possesses too much talent (on pace to break his 43-point career high) and experience compared to most other Jets forwards to continue missing out on offensive opportunities.

Jaccob Slavin, D, Carolina (5 percent)

Justin Faulk may have missed 11 of the last 12 games and John-Michael Liles booked his escape to Boston, but Slavin had already progressed enough in his development to qualify as a solid pick regardless. The 21-year old freshman looks comfortable handling a heavy load (almost 24 minutes a night), and the numbers are progressing (four in eight) to the point where his name is being touted more often than American phenom Noah Hanifin (four in 23).

Mika Zibanejad, F, Ottawa (55 percent)

OK, this one’s a little above the threshold, but Kyle Turris probably won’t see action again until fall, which leaves Zibanejad (seven in 11, 24 shots) as the Sens’ top pivot. That’s not exactly the prized role it used to be, but it still allows for free rein in most situations. Granted, there are other centers higher on the fantasy wish list. But at least the Swede (at 40 points) offers a good chance of producing considerably better than those in the same ownership bracket.

(Honorable mentions: Martin Hanzal, F, Arizona (40 percent), Ryan Murray, D, Columbus (28 percent), Nino Niederreiter, F, Minnesota (28 percent), Dmitry Orlov, D, Washington (46 percent), Sam Reinhart, F, Buffalo (40 percent)

Key Matchups

The stretch run. The section of the season when we try to separate the contenders from the pretenders. Get pumped for the following:

Tuesday: Boston at Tampa Bay. The Bolts have vaulted to the top of the Atlantic, but the Bs aren’t too far behind. Expect some on-ice fireworks.

Thursday: Ottawa at Florida. Desperation has set in for Ottawa, where every outing becomes a must-win. The Panthers have faltered, but not enough to be worried about these visitors. (Trivia sidebar: The Senators and Panthers are two of three current NHL franchises whose only Cup Final appearance ended in defeat. Name the third.)

Friday: Anaheim at St. Louis. Remember when people wrote off the Ducks after that horrendous start? They’ve been beating everyone lately, so let’s see if Jake Allen and the Blues can stop their momentum.

Saturday: Washington at San Jose. A couple minor hiccups for the not-so-invincible Caps, yet they’re still miles ahead of the pack in the East. That won’t faze the Sharks, who enjoy punishing opponents at both ends of the ice.