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Cullen: Notes on Red Wings, Jagr, Lecavalier, Muzzin, more

Scott Cullen
1/27/2014 6:15:46 PM
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It's a new generation in Detroit, an elder statesman keeps getting it done in New Jersey, Lecavalier struggling, Muzzin and Bartkowski playing bigger roles and more in Scott Cullen's latest NHL blog.

1. It's been a tough year for the Detroit Red Wings, not least of all because of injuries. Hey, all teams have injuries, but the Red Wings are heavily-dependent on veteran forwards Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, both of whom have missed time and, at the moment, are both out of the lineup.

But, necessity is the mother of invention and the Red Wings have pressed their young forwards into service. Riley Sheahan, Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Jurco (and even a returning-from-injury Darren Helm) have been crucial to keeping the Red Wings treading water as they wait for their star forwards to return.

There is an argument to be made that the ever-patient Red Wings might have opened doors sooner for their young players, rather than trot out the likes of Dan Cleary, Jordin Tootoo and Mikael Samuelsson right out of the gate.

Sheahan, Tatar, Nyquist and Jurco all played for Calder Cup-champion Grand Rapids in the AHL last season, and all four have made a successful adjustment to the NHL game. It's early in their careers, of course, but they are part of the reason the Red Wings are still within striking distance of a playoff berth, a position that was pretty much unthinkable for a team that hasn't missed the postseason since 1990 and was supposed to have an easier time with their move to the Eastern Conference.

2. Though the New Jersey Devils came up short in Sunday's Stadium Series game at Yankee Stadium, Devils RW Jaromir Jagr continued his brilliant season, adding two more assists to give him a team-leading 44 points in 53 games.

This is a far cry from Jagr in his peak years, when he was the most productive scorer in the game, by a healthy margin, for more than a decade, but no less remarkable. Jagr is 41-years-old and has a shot to surpass Mark Messier in 2000-2001 as the second-highest-scoring player in a 40-year-old plus season since 1980. (Teemu Selanne's 80 points in 2010-2011 seems safe.)

On top of those historical numbers, Jagr is also delivering strong possesion numbers, ranked 18th among forwards in Corsi% (minimum 500 minutes). Yes, his game is offensively-slanted, but he remains a beast on the puck in the offensive zone.

3. A veteran forward that is having a harder time of it is Flyers C Vincent Lecavalier, who has two goals and six points in his past 20 games, going back to late November and he's been getting destroyed in puck possession.

Most recently, he's been playing with Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn, but all of the Flyers' forwards have been faring better without Lecavalier, which is a precipitous decline for a 33-year-old forward, especially one that has four more years remaining on his deal.

Somehow, the Flyers are going to have to find a way to make Lecavalier a productive player, whether that means time on the wing, more sheltered minutes or different line combinations.

4. Lightning rookie C Tyler Johnson has been thrust into a more significant role in the absence of Steven Stamkos and, while he's not making anyone forget one of the game's premier goal-scorers, Johnson has been great.

In the past 25 games, Johnson has played more than 20 minutes per game, with Saturday's hat trick against Colorado giving him 10 goals and 21 points in those 25 games.

Johnson was the AHL MVP last season, scoring 65 points in 62 games with Syracuse, so he has the offensive pedigree, and he's moved into a tie with Nathan MacKinnon for the rookie scoring lead, with 34 points in 52 games.

The challenge will be figuring out where Johnson fits once Stamkos returns. At this rate, Johnson is going to give Valtteri Filppula plenty of competition for second-line centre minutes.

5. Kings D Jake Muzzin has taken a bigger role on the Los Angeles defence, as the Kings reduce the workload of veteran Robyn Regehr, who has been decidedly at the opposite end of the possession spectrum compared to Muzzin.

Regehr is averaging 16:28 ATOI per game in January, his lowest monthly average since February, 2002 (minimum three games) and while Muzzin has put up spectacular possession stats in his career, he's led a rather sheltered existence for the most part. Now, paired with Drew Doughty and taking on tougher assignments, it's an opportunity for Muzzin to prove he's worthy of the responsibility.

6. The Boston Bruins knew that they would have to deal with a major loss to their lineup when D Dennis Seidenber suffered a season-ending knee injury, and they are naturally looking for a replacement.

It's not easy to trade for top-four defencemen, but the Bruins have assets to move in order to facilitate a deal, if they can find the right match. Potential unrestricted free agents on teams on the outside of the playoff picture include Henrik Tallinder, Tom Gilbert, Andrew MacDonald, Nick Schultz, and ex-Bruins Derek Morris and Mark Stuart, all of whom come with some warts, but it's not like Seidenberg was universally-heralded when the Bruins acquired him from Florida in March, 2010.

What's interesting about the Bruins' current situation is that the defenceman who is rising up to play bigger minutes in Seidenberg's absence is Matt Bartkowski, who was acquired from Florida with Seidenberg.

Bartkowski, 25, had played 20 career NHL games prior to this season and is making a modest $650,000 this season, so it was no surprise that he started the year seventh on the depth chart, dressing in four of the first 16 games. But, with Seidenberg out, Bartkowski has played 20:44 per game in January, ranking third on the Bruins behind Zdeno Chara and Johnny Boychuk, and while he's not a possession beast, Bartkowski has held in his own in that ice time, giving the Bruins some time to make a deal and giving them another option on the blueline going forward.

Between Bartkowski, Kevan Miller and Torey Krug, the Bruins are getting some mileage out of low picks/undrafted free agents on their blueline.

7. Sabres C Steve Ott is a versatile veteran forward who can play centre or wing and, on a Sabres team full of prospects and cast-offs, that has resulted in a surprisingly prominent role, playing 19:45 per game this season (up from last year's career-high 18:33 ATOI) to lead all Buffalo forwards.

Ott has spent his time lately on a line with Cody Hodgson, tallying eight points (2 G, 6 A) in the past nine games. Considering Ott is an unrestricted free agent at season's end, and one that plays the gritty style teams tend to covet going into the playoffs.

While Ott does, like all Sabres, tend to get beat up in possession game, and has a team-worst minus-20, some of that is a function of playing way too much, more than he would on a playoff contender.

8. Hurricanes LW Jiri Tlusty was one of the league's luckiest last season, scoring 23 goals in 48 games, while scoring on 19.7% of his shots while playing with Eric Staal and Alexander Semin on Carolina's number one line.

It was natural, then, to expect regression this season and Tlusty obliged, but to a ridiculous degree, scoring four goals and eight points in his first 35 games. Also, naturally, he was no longer skating on the Hurricanes' top line.

That has changed more recently, however, and Tlusty has seen his ice time head upwards (over 17 minutes per game) in the past four, during which he's scored five points (2 G, 3 A). Considering the Hurricanes' top line has a low on-ice shooting percentage, especially compared to last season, which could be regression at work, or could be some room for that trio to finish strong this year, which could make Tlusty surprisingly relevant for fantasy owners, at least as far as forwards with 15 points this season would rate.

9. He's not a big numbers guy, with one assist in 16 games, but there is reason to keep an eye on Oilers rookie D Martin Marincin, who is the one Edmonton defenceman (with more than 10 games played) to have positive possession numbers.

As a result, his ice time is going up, to 18:50 per game in the past seven, and over 19 minutes in each of the past three. For an Oilers team that desperately needs to tilt the ice in the other direction, with so much of it focused on blueline improvement, Marincin's development is a small positive.

10. An update on the move of Jets D-turned-RW Dustin Byfuglien, who has been skating at forward for eight games, scoring two goals and four assists, with 23 shots on goal. His ice time is down, as expected, to 19:20 per game, and his shots per game is actually down a bit, to 2.88 per game.

For fantasy owners, who get the benefit of Byfuglien's eligibility on defence, he's still super valuable. If he can continue to produce as a winger, it may not be as valuable as a 25-minute-per-game defenceman, but it's not likely going to get re-visited until the Jets run into trouble.

When a team is getting good results, they're not likely to make major changes. After all, it was practically Claude Noel's last gasp as head coach to move Byfuglien forward.

FIRST NHL GAMES

Joonas Nattinen, C, Montreal - A third-round pick of the Canadiens in 2009, Nattinen has decent size, but has produced middling results in the AHL, 42 points in 127 career games, so he got an opportunity due to injuries, but it was only a cup of coffee against Toronto, playing a total of 1:45 in his NHL debut.

Joe Whitney, LW, New Jersey - Listed at 5-foot-6, Whitney is another diminutive forward to come out of Boston College and he's been scoring in the AHL, putting up 88 points in 108 games over the past two seasons. He got a shot on the Devils' top line, with Travis Zajac and Jaromir Jagr in his debut, but the 25-year-old was returned to the minors after playing eight minutes against Washington.

Philip Varone, C, Buffalo - A fifth-round pick of the Sharks in 2009, Varone wasn't signed by the Sharks, but was signed as a free agent by the Sabres in 2012. He's put up 120 points in 176 career AHL games, earning his first taste of NHL action, getting more than 11 minutes per game on a line with Brian Flynn and Marcus Foligno.

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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