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Cullen: Crosby returns; what are reasonable expectations?

Scott Cullen
11/21/2011 1:24:59 PM
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Sidney Crosby returns, Keith and the Blackhawks collapse in Alberta, Iggy struggling, some Jets taking flight and more.

After more than ten months, Sidney Crosby is going to return to the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup and the hockey world will sit and watch, holding their collective breath, as he takes his first hits against the New York Islanders tonight.

Considering how long he's been sidelined, it's asking a lot for Crosby to pick up right where he left off, in January 2011, when he was the best player in the game, averaging 1.60 points per game.

While the tendency might be to expect a player of Crosby's calibre to return in elite form, there have been obvious effects to some other skilled forwards that missed long periods with concussions.

Consider Boston's Patrice Bergeron, who had two 70-point seasons before he was 22-years-old and before he was crunched into the boards by Flyers defenceman Randy Jones in the 10th game of the 2007-2008 season.

Bergeron didn't play another game that year and managed 39 points in 64 games the following season. It's been more than three years and Bergeron is still not the scorer that he was prior to the concussion. He's a tremendous all-around player, so that can't be discounted, but it took time for Bergeron to return to form, as a two-way performer, if not as a top scorer.

Minnesota's Pierre-Marc Bouchard suffered a concussion late in the 2008-2009 season and was sidelined after the first game of the 2009-2010 season, not returning until December, 2010. Prior to suffering the concussion, Bouchard had 46 points in 71 games, in what was effectively a down year, compared to the previous three seasons when he scored at least 55 points.

Since returning last season, Bouchard has 48 points in 77 games, so he's not so far off his previous pace, but even then, he managed one goal and six points in his first 14 games last year before coming around to more typical offensive form.

One of the lessons of concussions has been that they don't necessarily affect everybody equally, so the experiences of Bergeron and Bouchard won't necessarily mean anything when it comes to Crosby's production when he returns. At the very least, though, they present a cautionary tale, that it's possible Crosby won't immediately be the best player in the world upon his return.

PENGUIN SHUFFLE
With Crosby returning, how does it shake out for other Pens lines? Evgeni Malkin is going to centre Steve Sullivan and James Neal on another scoring line, leaving Jordan Staal to play with Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke. Staal has had some wonderful two-way success with Cooke and Kennedy on his wings, but it could be challenging to maintain his early offensive pace (10 goals, six assists in 18 games) with those linemates.

SLICK OIL
Saturday's drubbing of the Chicago Blackhawks was a big night for many Edmonton Oilers, not least of all, their ballyhooed youngsters, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Though the trio didn't play together -- Hall was with Ales Hemsky and Sam Gagner while Ryan Smyth joined Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins -- they combined for a dozen points, with Hall netting a hat trick, Nugent-Hopkins dishing five assists and Eberle tallying a goal and three helpers.

BLACKHAWKS DOWN
After a big win in Vancouver last Wednesday, the Blackhawks were destroyed in Calgary and Edmonton on Friday and Saturday, losing by a combined score of 14-4. Nothing stood out more than back-to-back minus-4 performances from D Duncan Keith, who was plus-9 through the first 16 games of the season.

FLICKERING FLAME
While the Flames impressive dispatched the Blackhawks, they did so without much from RW Jarome Iginla, who remains mired in a slump that has seen him put up two points and a minus-8 rating in the last seven games.

As a 34-year-old that entered the season with back problems, it's not a shock that Iginla's production has dipped from last year's exceptional (43 goals, 89 points) pace, but the 19:56 per game he's playing is his lowest since 1999-2000 and his 2.67 shots on goal per game is his lowest since 1998-1999.

Sure, Iginla is likely to improve on nine points and a minus-10 rating in his first 18 games, but he may be hard-pressed to reach 67 points this year, a total he's hit in each of the last ten seasons.

BENN
With no points in the last three games, Stars LW Jamie Benn played 16:08 Saturday against San Jose. It's the first time since a six-game drought last December that Benn has gone three games without a point and that ice time was his third-lowest of the season.

JETS TAKING OFF
While it was considered trouble for Winnipeg's defence corps to have lost stalwart D Tobias Enstrom to a broken collarbone, expectations weren't particularly high for D Dustin Byfuglien, who was already off to a mediocre start with four points in 11 games at the time of Enstrom's injury.

Since then, however, Byfuglien has scored three goals and 10 points in nine games, while leading all defencemen with 3.65 shots on goal per game.

Jets C Bryan Little was off to a slow start as well, not scoring a goal until the 15th game of the season but, going back to that game,
Little has six points and is plus-2 in the last six games. He's playing 20 minutes per game, so the opportunity is there for Little to be a productive part of the Winnipeg offence.

Of course, Little might be more productive if his right winger, Blake Wheeler scored more than one goal per 20 games, but Wheeler can't possibly continue to score every 47 shots, as he has thus far and with three points in the last two games, Wheeler may finally be ready to contribute to the Jets' offence.

MOTOR CITY SMITTY
D Brendan Smith, fresh off suspension, and some time in the AHL, has been called up to play for the Detroit Red Wings. While Smith was minus-2 while playing 19:18 against San Jose in his debut last week, he's put up assists in each of the last two games, while playing a modest 12:42 per game.

ISLE OF WOE
While Islanders D Mark Streit took an unsightly minus-5 in a 6-0 loss against Boston, it really isn't an indication of how Streit has played this season. He's one of two Islanders defencemen with a positive shot differential (per www.behindthenet.ca), but he is in a slump now, managing three points and a minus-9 rating in the last eight games.

G Rick DiPietro was pulled from that game for the Islanders, leaving Anders Nilsson to play his first game, since Evgeni Nabokov and Al Montoya are injured.

Nilsson surrendered three goals on 17 shots against Boston and will make his first NHL start Monday against Pittsburgh. The 21-year-old was a third-round pick of the Islanders in 2009 and had a 2.86 goals against average and .908 save percentage in seven games with Bridgeport of the AHL.

DOWNIE UP?
Lightning RW Steve Downie has points in back-to-back games and played a season-high 19:04 against New Jersey Saturday, including first-unit power play time (per www.dobberhockey.com).

OVIE SLUMP
Capitals LW Alexander Ovechkin hasn't scored a point in four consecutive games, registering a minus-6 rating in the process. While it's hardly reflective of the team's play against Toronto Saturday night, when Ovechkin was minus-3, Ovechkin had a season-high eight shots on goal in the 7-1 loss.

HEY JOE
With Mikhail Grabovski out, the Maple Leafs have called up C Joe Colborne, who had 19 points and was plus-8 in 13 AHL games with the Marlies. Colborne has averaged 11:34 in his first two games, and does have an assist, but he's not getting enough time yet to get serious fantasy consideration.
 
NICE THROW-IN
When the Maple Leafs acquired LW Joffrey Lupul from Anaheim last season, in a deal that also netted D Jake Gardiner, it appeared that the Leafs were taking on Lupul's $4.25-million cap hit as a bit of a tax for getting a top prospect in the deal. Not any more.

Finally healthy, 28-year-old Lupul has 25 points in 21 games, easily the most productive rate of his career, and is doing it on such a consistent basis - not going more than one game in a row without a point this season.

MARVELOUS MARLEAU
With a hat trick against Colroado on Sunday, Sharks LW Patrick Marleau now has six goals and ten points in his last six games. Sharks D Marc-Edourd Vlasic also registered three assists Sunday, giving him seven points in the last three games. He had four points in the first 15 games of the season.
 Vlasic Sunday

BIG LINE PLAYING SMALL
Anaheim's top line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan came into the season as contenders, if not outright title holders, as the best line in hockey, but they're not playing up to that level thus far. After the trio combined for a pair of points and a minus-9 rating against Detroit, they are now left with 35 points and a minus-20 rating between them in 20 games this season.

With relatively low shooting percentages, they are all good buy-low candidates right now.

DESPERATE TIMES
As the Capitals slide continues, they've called up D Dmitri Orlov, their top defence prospect who had four goals and nine points in 15 games with Hershey. Orlov, a 20-year-old who was a second-round pick in 2009, is an intriguing talent, who could get significant minutes soon if the Capitals don't start playing much better than they have in recent weeks.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.




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