Thursday, September 1, 2011
Under-the-radar players set to make impact
By Scott Burnside
The spotlight shines brightly even in the offseason around the NHL. Christian Ehrhoff, James Wisniewski and the entire Florida Panthers roster have all enjoyed some moments in the sun as they prepare to try to make the best of new environs. But what about the under-the-radar guys, the players who may have quietly assumed new addresses but who may be ready to make a significant impact? Here's a look at 10 such players:
OK, so the big former Leafs winger has scored just seven times in his past 77 regular-season games and was a bit of a bust in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles. But Ponikarovsky should find a comfort zone with head coach Paul Maurice, for whom he played for in Toronto. And Ponikarovsky has scored 20 or more goals (and once scored 19) three times in his career, so he has something to bring to a Carolina team that will take all the production it can get.
Given his injury history and uneven play the last couple of seasons, it's easy to forget that Giguere has collected at least 30 wins in four seasons since the lockout. He was, lest people forget, the goaltender of record when the Anaheim Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007. At age 34, there should still be lots left in the tank, and, given the lack of durability for young netminder Semyon Varlamov -- the man tabbed by the Avs as their goaltender of the future -- Giguere could be asked to do a whole lot more than just offer mentoring and open the gate at the end of the bench.
It's easy to overlook the arrival of the big (6-foot-2, 214 lbs.) winger, given all the other moves made by the Flyers this offseason. But if Paul Holmgren is right, people won't be overlooking the contributions of the former seventh overall pick in the 2007 entry draft. Yes, Voracek didn't become the player the Columbus Blue Jackets thought he would be -- has anyone in Columbus outside of Rick Nash become the player they hoped he would be? -- as he topped out at 16 goals in his three years as a Blue Jacket. But guess what? He's going to play with top-end talent in Philadelphia and get a chance to put that big body to use.
We must admit being a bit mystified that the Winnipeg Jets didn't bother to make a qualifying offer to keep the big winger in the fold, and we wonder whether they'll regret playing against him six times a year now that he's landed in Carolina. Admittedly, Stewart -- the 25th overall pick in 2003 -- has been slow to develop, but he did show some good net presence in Atlanta last season, scoring 14 times and finishing with 39 points. Five of those goals were on the power play and, like Ponikarovsky, the 26-year-old Stewart should get many opportunities to improve on those numbers in Carolina.
Another first-round draft pick that didn't show enough promise for the Edmonton Oilers, Cogliano may find Anaheim more to his liking. Right now, he's likely a third-line center behind Ryan Getzlaf and Saku Koivu but he can also play the wing. With a more talented cast around him, the 24-year-old may finally blossom after twice scoring 18 goals for the Oilers. He had just 11 goals a year ago but has never missed a game in four seasons in Edmonton, something the injury-plagued Ducks will be pleased about.
No one is suggesting that White will replace the retired Brian Rafalski in the Red Wings' lineup, but White has more tools than he's given credit for possessing; watch for head coach Mike Babcock to take full advantage of them. White had nine points in 17 postseason games for the Sharks last spring -- the Sharks dispatched Detroit in a thrilling seven-game set in the second round -- and will be a nice addition to a Red Wings team that still has plenty of game left.
Will Sidney Crosby be back? How hungry is Evgeni Malkin? What does Steve Sullivan have left? In a city hungering for a return to contender status after two disappointing playoff seasons, it's a little bit easy to overlook James Neal. The big winger was acquired before the trade deadline from Dallas for Alex Goligoski, but, with both Malkin and Crosby injured, Neal never really found a groove for the Pens. He scored just once in 20 regular-season games and then added one more in a seven-game first-round playoff loss to Tampa. Look for a lot more this season from the big winger, who will turn 24 over Labor Day weekend.
Every year, Nashville GM David Poile and head coach Barry Trotz conspire to pull a rabbit out of the proverbial scoring hat. Two years ago it was Patric Hornqvist; last year it was Sergei Kostitsyn. Could it be Bergfors this season? The former first-round pick (25th overall by New Jersey in 2005) went to Atlanta as part of the Ilya Kovalchuk trade and was shipped to Florida at the trade deadline last season before signing with the Preds as a free agent this summer. Bergfors had 21 goals between New Jersey and Atlanta in his first full NHL season in 2009-10, including nine power-play markers. Look for him to get lots of opportunity in Nashville to make good on his potential.
Although there were lots of goalies whose profiles might have been higher, Tampa GM Steve Yzerman went after journeyman Garon as his backup to Dwayne Roloson, who signed a one-year deal with the Lightning after a superlative effort in leading the Bolts to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals. Roloson will turn 42 before the regular season is a week old, and the Lightning will want to make sure he has plenty left in the tank for what most expect will be another playoff run next spring. That means Garon will have to shoulder the load for, what, 30, 35 games? The two netminders played together in Edmonton, and head coach Guy Boucher said in an interview that he expects them to form a strong tandem.
Talk to Washington GM George McPhee and he'll tell you that one of the main reasons the Caps folded against Tampa in the second round of the playoffs had more to do with the health along the blue line than it did players' efforts. With Tom Poti looking like he won't be able to play anytime soon and with Scott Hannan departed for Calgary, the Caps added some veteran insurance in the form of Roman Hamrlik. Although he is 37, Hamrlik can still log heavy minutes, as he averaged 22:16 a night during the regular season and then saw that number increase in the Canadiens' first-round loss to Boston. Hamrlik was particularly impressive the previous spring as the Canadiens advanced to the Eastern Conference finals in spite of a badly depleted defensive corps. As for a mentor for rising defensive stars John Carlson and Karl Alzner, you couldn't ask for a better guy than the classy Hamrlik.