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Neutral Zone Wrap: The 'Distant' Future

Evan Berofsky

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You may still be concentrating on this season, but thereís time to look ahead. You may have advanced to the semis of your staff keeper league playoffs for the first time in nine (maybe 10?) years, but you can also keep an eye on 2016-17.

A number of players fell below expectations this year. Others didnít even receive much of an opportunity to show their skills at the top level. Injuries, slumps or other circumstances may have made them forgettable, but there are reasons to keep them in mind when youíre drafting this fall.

NOTE: No one discussed the last few weeks can be covered here. Those are the rules. And the tradition of ignoring goalies continues.

Nathan Beaulieu, D, Montreal

Beaulieu hasnít had an easy go in his NHL career (13 points in 87 games heading into this season). With the Habs in free fall and most of their blueliners sidelined, the 17th selection from 2011 is finally getting an extended look (averaging around 22 minutes the last seven). The points may not be plentiful (18 in 59), but the improvement is encouraging. Just remember Andrei Markov is old (37) and Jeff Petry (97 in 365 lifetime) hardly qualifies as the offensive answer behind No. 76.

Ondrej Palat, LW, Tampa Bay

Itís remarkable how far Palat has fallen in less than a year. The middle sibling of the Triplets had improved on his breakout 2013-14 and sustained his success deep into his second campaign (increase from 59 to 63 in six fewer games). Each member of the line then succumbed to injury, but returned at a level resembling past performance Ė except for the Czech winger (nine in 19 after coming back). At least Palat has seen a recent upsurge (12 in 15), which bodes well for his future.

Ryan Strome, C/RW, NY Islanders

The 22-year old may have disappointed on separate circuits (a combined 28 in 68) but the Islesí coaches and management maintain their belief in him. Thatís the only explanation for why Strome remains with the Islanders and why they continue to stick a struggling scorer (one in 16) with John Tavares. He becomes a restricted free agent this summer, which hopefully motivates him to step up his effort. Or he may be provided a fresh start.

Jacob Trouba, D, Winnipeg

Like Strome, Trouba quickly shot out of the gate to start his career (10 goals and 19 assists as a rookie), but has leveled off (17 in 71 this year). Heís set to earn a major payday, but that may prove difficult in Winnipeg with his latest stats (one in 11) and Dustin Byfuglienís latest windfall (five year, $38 million extension signed in February). Trouba has already shown himself to be a workhorse; eventually, those minutes (just under 23 a night in 2016) will translate into decent fantasy numbers.

Frank Vatrano, F, Boston

No offense to AHL teammates Seth Griffith (the league leader with 43 assists) or Alexander Khokhlachev (tied for fifth with 54 points), but Vatrano is clearly the under-six-foot pony to bet on. The slick sniper has been lighting it up in Providence (AHL goal leader with 33 in 33) after a mainly uneventful stint with the Bruins (seven in 30, although three came in the form of a hat trick). Boston has recently had trouble putting the puck in the net (18 in 10), and Vatrano could certainly help solve that problem down the road.

Honorable mentions: Andreas Athanasiou, C/RW, Detroit; Darnell Nurse, D, Edmonton; Valeri Nichushkin, LW, Dallas; Mikko Rantanen, RW, Colorado; Daniel Sprong, RW, Pittsburgh

Key Matchups

As the days until the postseason dwindle, the number of injuries increase. Any recruits available to lace Ďem up?

Tuesday: St. Louis at San Jose. You wonít find any hotter Western clubs unless youíre walking through downtown Nashville. Hereís a fun drinking game: Do a shot every time a goal is scored.

Thursday: Philadelphia at Colorado. Philly is knocking on the door in the East. In their way into the top eight are the Avs, who are fighting their own battle to stay in the hunt out West.

Friday: NY Islanders at Tampa Bay. The boys from Brooklyn have slipped down the standings. The Bolts have lost some of their spark. Somebodyís gotta win.

Saturday: Minnesota at Colorado. A fight for the final wild-card berth. Minnesota has been able to take down some prime opponents the last few weeks, but Colorado can match that feat.