NHL

Cullen: Notes on Blues, Pens, Giroux, Keith, Team USA, more

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Scott Cullen
1/2/2014 3:22:49 PM
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Big losses for the Blues, interesting times in Pittsburgh, some USA Olympic Team notes, the Liles-Gleason deal, Claude Giroux, Duncan Keith. Ryan Johansen and more in Scott Cullen's latest blog.

1. The St. Louis Blues have been one of the league's best teams to this point in the season, and a lot of that success has been due to the strong play of David Backes and Alexander Steen, both of whom are currently injured.

Steen, in the midst of a career year, is out with a concussion. Backes, who had missed three games in the previous five seasons, has missed the last couple games due to an upper-body injury.

Obviously, the Blues can't afford to roll without Steen and Backes long-term but, in the meantime, they've moved RW T.J. Oshie to play with C Vladimir Sobotka and LW Jaden Schwartz, both of whom are versatile productive forwards.

Sobotka has eight points (2 G, 6 A) in his past 12 games and puts up strong puck possession stats. Schwartz has strong possession stats too, but is showing a higher offensive ceiling, putting up 18 points (11 G, 9 A) in his past 18 games, including goals in each of the past six.

2. Penguins RW Pascal Dupuis suffered a season-ending knee injury December 23 against Ottawa and, even though he hasn't had his most productive season, Dupuis' absence does leave the Penguins short-staffed up front.

Of course, you can hardly tell right now, as the Penguins have shifted James Neal to join Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz on Pittsburgh's top line and the trio has been productive (Neal had three goals and five points Saturday night).

Once C Evgeni Malkin returns to the lineup, however, the Penguins aren't going to leave Malkin without support, so Neal would most likely return to that line with Malkin and Jussi Jokinen, once again leaving room on the right side with Crosby and Kunitz. It could be an ideal opportunity for Beau Bennett, who is recovering from a broken wrist and did get an audition with Crosby and Kunitz before he was injured. Bennett's time frame for return was 2-3 months after suffering his injury November 22.

If the Penguins are prepared to put Bennett in that spot, a lot of responsibility for a 22-year-old who has 17 points in 38 career games, then they may not be inclined to seek out trade alternatives. They can plug in Joe Vitale, Chuck Kobasew or Brian Gibbons. The Penguins have even claimed Taylor Pyatt on waivers from the Rangers, so he's another possibility to take up space on the right flank.

None of those are ideal choices but, really, the Penguins need someone that can help out, but also stay out of the way when Crosby and Kunitz are generating opportunities.

Anyway, if the Penguins want a more established scorer in that spot, then pending free agents like Ales Hemsky, Mike Cammalleri or Matt Moulson could have some appeal, but I'd bet on Bennett getting an opportunity to stick before other alternatives are explored.

3. Avalanche RW PA Parenteau is out for the next six weeks with a knee injury, forcing a shuffle of Colorado's scoring lines.

The main beneficiary appears to be Jamie McGinn, who joins Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly. McGinn's ice time is down this year, from 17:17 per game last season to 14:27 this season, and even with a couple goals in the past four games, has seven goals and 12 points in 36 games, giving him 47 points in 100 games with Colorado since he was acquired from San Jose.

4. Dallas' defence has taken a hit with Stephane Robidas and Trevor Daley out long-term, and Sergei Gonchar sidelined by a concussion. As a result, they've been giving ice time to Aaron Rome, who has been injured for a good portion of the season, Kevin Connauton and Cameron Gaunce; the latter two have combined to play a total of 32 career NHL games.

In very small samples, both Rome and Gaunce have put up solid possession numbers for the Stars this season, but if the Stars are going to be legit playoff contenders, they may need to bring in more proven blueline help.

5. Team USA announced their men's hockey roster for the 2014 Olympics and, as I noted on Twitter, Ben Bishop, Dustin Byfuglien, Kyle Okposo, Keith Yandle and Bobby Ryan were my highest-rated players excluded from the roster, while Dustin Brown, Jimmy Howard, Brooks Orpik and Derek Stepan were my lowest-rated inclusions.

Ryan has caused some fuss with his reaction to comments made about his play by Brian Burke during the evaluation process and it is notable, even if justified, that Jack Johnson didn't land a spot given that he's been pretty much automatic for international play.

The one thing that stands out to me as not getting much reaction is the inclusion of Brown. Not a surprise, since he's recently captained a Stanley Cup winner and been a strong possession player for a while, but he's really having a tough season. It started early in the year, when Kings coach Darryl Sutter called out Brown for his lack of physical play.

Brown's possession numbers are still very good but a 4.0% on-ice shooting percentage leaves him with 13 points in 40 games. Bad luck or not, it's a relative free pass for a forward on pace for a 27-point season -- his 0.33 points per game is his lowest since his rookie year in 2003-2004 -- to not only be included on an Olympic roster, but to be there without question.

6. The easiest choice for USA Hockey would have been selecting Blackhawks RW Patrick Kane, who tied Sidney Crosby for the December scoring lead (23 points in 14 games). Kane, with 53 points, is six points behind Crosby for the overall scoring lead and since the U.S. left Okposo (and his 40 points) off the roster, Kane is 15 points ahead of the next-highest American scorer, Leafs RW Phil Kessel.

More intriguing, when it comes to Blackhawks wingers, is the case for Patrick Sharp on Team Canada. Sharp is making a strong push over the last month. In his last 11 games, he has scored 11 goals and six assists. His 4.3 shots on goal per game in December ranked fourth in the league. A versatile forward who plays both ends of the rink and is tied for fourth with 22 goals this season, Sharp is going to be an interesting decision. Has he done enough this season to unseat others that might have been ahead of him coming into 2013-2014?

7. The Philadelphia Flyers are turning their season around, with one regulation loss in the past nine games, and a large part of their resurgence can be attributed to C Claude Giroux and RW Jakub Voracek, getting back on track on the number one line.

Giroux started the year without a point in the first five games -- remember he had finger surgery late in the summer -- but has 37 points in 35 games since and had a 9-game point streak snapped New Year's Eve in Calgary.

Since the start of the 2010-2011 season, Giroux has 254 points, ranking fourth, behind Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos and Henrik Sedin. His shots per game (2.85) is back up to last year's level, so any early-season concerns about Giroux should be long buried.

Giroux's recovery has also helped lift RW Jakub Voracek, who started really slowly this year, with 12 points through the first 29 games, but 15 points in the past 11 games has Voracek climbing back towards more typical production.

Joining that pair on the Flyers' top line has been rookie Michael Raffl, who managed one point in his first 15 NHL games, but has 10 points in his past 13 games as he's obviously getting a pretty great opportunity.

8. It's no secret that Blackhawks D Duncan Keith is great, one of the best when he's on his game and, this year, he's on his game. Keith has 39 points in 42 games, his 0.93 points per game representing a career-high and he has the strongest possession numbers of his career, which has allowed him to post another double-digit plus rating (+16), despite mediocre goaltending in Chicago this year.

This is the sixth time in the past seven seasons that Keith has a double-digit plus rating. Zdeno Chara and Brent Seabrook (Keith's partner) are the only defencemen in the league to have double-digit plus ratings six times in the past seven seasons.

9. Blue Jackets C Ryan Johansen keeps improving and has tallied 19 points in the past 18 games. He has strong possession stats, plays tough minutes and starts more of his shifts in the defensive zone. He might have looked like a bit of a project last season, but the 21-year-old has quickly become a bona fide No. 1 centre.

10. The leading scorer for the New York Rangers has, surprisingly enough, been RW Mats Zuccarello, who has 18 points in his past 19 games, giving him 28 points in 40 games for the season. He's also been a puck possession ace, so there doesn't seem any reason to suspect that he'll lose significant ice time even when the Rangers are fully healthy.

LILES-GLEASON TRADE

While he was unceremoniously buried by Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle, 33-year-old D John-Michael Liles hasn't been very productive either. He scored 38 points in 104 games over the past three seasons for Toronto and, among defencemen to play at least 2500 5-on-5 minutes over that time, Liles' Corsi percentage of 48.0%, ranked 87th out of 111. At the same time, he's scored at least 20 power play points five times in his career and he's joining a Carolina defence that could use an upgrade in the puck-moving department.

Andrej Sekera leads Hurricanes defencemen with 10 power play points (23 points overall) and is followed by Justin Faulk (5 of 16 point on the PP), so there ought to be opportunity for Liles to play on the Carolina power play right away. Will that make it more palatable to deal with a $3.875-million cap hit? Maybe. The final year of Liles' contract, 2015-2016, only costs $2.75-million., but what the Hurricanes need is Liles to handle a regular turn on their blueline and contribute some with the man advantage. If he can do that, at even a mediocre level, that's okay.

Liles struggled in six games with the Leafs this season, but had 13 points and a plus-9 rating in 16 AHL games, a reasonable indication that he is ready for another chance in the NHL.

Gleason, 30, has declined noticeably in the last couple seasons, so if he's going to help the Maple Leafs, he will have to reverse the trend. Gleason's had Corsi deficits as a standard, but it's dramatically worse since the start of last season and he's not playing the same minutes, nor facing the same level of competition that he has in past seasons.

A stay-at-home defenceman whose career-high in scoring was 21 points with Los Angeles in 2005-2006, Gleason won't be asked to work the power play or anything of the sort in Toronto, but don't be surprised if the Maple Leafs give Gleason a chance to play 20 minutes a night, either as a veteran complement to a young puck-movers Jake Gardiner or Morgan Rielly or, potentially, alongside Dion Phaneuf on the top shutdown pair.

There isn't anything to suggest that Gleason is up to the latter challenge, which is fine since the Leafs are giving up a player that they were barely using anyway, but it's unrealistic to expect Gleason to suddenly become a difference-maker on the Toronto blueline when he was entirely mediocre while playing 15:54 per game in Carolina this year. To be fair, injuries have been part of Gleason's problem this year, as he's been limited to just 17 games.

The Leafs also sent D Dennis Robertson to Carolina as part of the deal. Robertson, 22, was a sixth-round pick in 2011, has decent size and had 61 points in 110 games at Brown University. He's not expected to make a major difference.

FIRST NHL GAMES
David Warsofsky, D, Boston - With injuries wreaking havoc on the Bruins' blueline, 23-year-old Warsofsky has been pressed into action. The former Boston University Terrier is 5-foot-8, which helps explain the uphill battle that he's fought to reach the NHL, but the fourth-round pick of the Blues in 2008 has acquitted himself well enough in his first four games.

Tomas Jurco, RW, Detroit - A second-round pick of the Red Wings in 2011, Jurco has already made a reputation for slick puckhandling, but after scoring 28 points in 74 games as an AHL rookie last season, he's taken a leap forward this year, putting up a point-per-game in 27 games with Grand Rapids. Injuries in Detroit opened the door for Jurco and he's impressed in his first seven games, scoring a couple goals and putting up strong possession numbers.

Brian Dumoulin, D, Pittsburgh - Injuries ravaged the Penguins' blueline, creating an opportunity for 22-year-old Dumoulin, a second-round pick of Carolina in 2009 who was acquired as part of the Jordan Staal trade. He saw some significant ice time, but maybe more than he's ready for at this point in his development.

Ryan Strome, C, N.Y. Islanders - The fifth overall pick in 2011, Strome had 40 points in 33 AHL games, including late last season, before getting the call to the Island, where he's had some trouble, managing two points with lacklustre possession stats in eight games. Expectations are definitely high for the 20-year-old to produce, but he needs to generate more than a shot per game if he's going to be a consistent offensive contributor.

Cody Ceci, D, Ottawa - Taken 15th overall in 2012, Ceci is an Ottawa native who played junior for the 67's. In 27 career AHL games, he had 19 points and a plus-10 rating and he's played 18:38 per game in his first 10 NHL games, putting up four points and a plus-4 rating, though his puck possession stats indicate room for improvement.

Zach Trotman, D, Boston - A 23-year-old who doesn't lack size, at 6-foot-4, Trotman played three seasons for Lake Superior State and has talled 28 points wit ha plus-12 rating in 81 career AHL games since leaving school. He played 16:41 against Ottawa in his NHL debut, but may have been a stopgap as the Bruins appear to be getting healthier on defence.

Eric O'Dell, C, Winnipeg - Acquired from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Erik Christensen in 2009, when he was still a junior in Sudbury, 23-year-old O'Dell has developed offensively over the last couple seasons, putting up 41 goals and 84 points in 87 AHL games. His reward was six minutes per game for four games on the Jets' fourth line, but it was a first taste of NHL action for the 2008 second-round pick.

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.

Backes, Blues celebrate (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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