Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition
By Rob Aquino
As we progress further into this season, it becomes harder to find that “diamond in the rough” for your teams. One of the better ways to uncover late-season help is by keeping your eyes on teams in transition - it can reveal players getting better opportunities or simply more ice-time, which may translate into better numbers. I’m specifically referring to teams either changing their philosophy of team-building (as in trading of veterans to free up money and begin rebuilding with youth – see Pittsburgh, Boston, St. Louis) or inadvertently having to look elsewhere due to circumstance, i.e. injuries.
Today we’ll take a look at a few players who unquestionably have risks associated with them – earlier in the year they wouldn’t be players I would flat-out recommend for long term pickup – yet at this point if you’re looking for a pickup, then you’re probably struggling to contend in your league. It’s time to start taking some chances and to make some risky pickups – there are major question marks regarding all of these, mostly in terms of “how much of an opportunity will they actually get?” Yet in following these players closely over the next week, you might be first to grab them if/when it becomes apparent that they have been fully worked into their team’s lineups…
Seeing as much of this column has focused on forwards over the year - as that obviously tends to be where the more offensive oriented players play - we’ll dedicate the bulk of the column to the back end of the ice; at defense and goaltending.
Dennis Wideman, Defense, St. Louis Blues
We'll dispense with all the "fire-sale" analogies surrounding the St. Louis Blues and focus on the potential opportunity that has opened up for virtually everyone in the organization. One player that I've had my eye on for years is the Blues' rookie defenseman Dennis Wideman. By all possible measures, he had a highly successful five-year junior career - he began in Sudbury then really elevated his game upon a trade to the London Knights where he helped to lead them from a bad squad in 2001 to the top of the league three years later. Wideman is a highly skilled offensive defenseman, with a keen awareness of everyone on the ice around him. In London he became the quarterback of the power play and on-ice leader on a team loaded with junior stars - his final season was marked by leading the Ontario League in efficiency with a +51.
Wideman was drafted by Buffalo in 2002 in the eighth round but was never signed by the Sabres. He was inked to a free agent deal by the Blues in 2004 and plied his trade in the AHL until this year, when he got the opportunity with the big club.
With being a point-per-game defenseman (in both the regular season and playoffs) throughout his three years in London, what's been the impediment to his ascent to the NHL? As much as big numbers look flashy on a defenseman's scoresheet, his primary role is of course defense. And rightly or wrongly, that had been the knock on Wideman for years by scouts - his defense was not "NHL-caliber" – combined with a perception that he wasn't big enough to have an impact.
Breaking into the NHL with St. Louis this season might have been the perfect situation for Wideman. This year he has been getting a shot on a bad club that very possibly could get even worse before getting better. Wideman has increased his ice-time to where he's getting over 20 minutes a game (with a season-high of over 28 minutes Monday night against Calgary, and a shootout goal to boot). Overall he has 17 points in 36 games but with nine in the last month and increased responsibilities I'd expect those numbers to rise. Don't expect anything out of his plus-minus; on this team only one semi-regular (Matt Walker) is NOT a minus. If you're looking for points from defense, Wideman could be a nice surprise for the rest of the season.
Tim Thomas, Goaltender, Boston Bruins
If you live in New England, you're no doubt quite familiar with what 31-year old “rookie” Tim Thomas has been doing this past month, but others may be late in coming to the party. The Bruins overall have had a fairly miserable season; considered in some corners to be a division contender this year, they had a horrible start and then they further alienated much of their dwindling fan base by dealing their captain Joe Thornton to San Jose. What was supposed to be a strong point - their goaltending - with reigning Calder Trophy winner Andrew Raycroft and top rookie prospect Hannu Toivonen backing him up - became a huge problem. Raycroft suffered from poor play and injury, then when Toivonen seemed to settle the problem with decent play he severely sprained his ankle early last month against Ottawa and is out indefinitely. At that point Boston fans were thinking their team was closer to Phil Kessel, Erik Johnson, or Jonathan Toews in the June draft than the playoffs.
Ah...enter the savior: Tim Thomas. Thomas certainly hasn't taken the direct route to the NHL. A member of the outstanding University of Vermont teams of the mid-90s (and teammate of reigning Hart winner Martin St. Louis) he's played in Finland, the ECHL, IHL, and AHL - on no less than nine teams before getting called up to Boston on January 10th. So the expectations - if there were any - were fairly minimal at best.
Fast forward to this Wednesday - Thomas had played in nine straight games, the most for a Boston goaltender this season, and won six of the seven decided in regulation (and in that loss he still managed 47 saves while only letting in four in a barrage from the Islanders). On Tuesday night he earned his first NHL shutout against what many people feel is the best team in the league, the Ottawa Senators. More importantly, the Bruins have moved squarely into the playoff discussion in the East, having maneuvered to within two points of the eighth and final playoff spot.
And now the ultimate question: who is the Bruins' number one goaltender? GM Mike O'Connell has said that they will go with whoever is playing the best - considering nobody else is currently playing at all, that would be Thomas. With Raycroft back from injury (and the subject of trade rumours all year) we shall see, but if you're struggling with goaltending Thomas is worthy of an immediate pickup and may end the season as Boston's top man.
Ilya Bryzgalov, Goaltender, Anaheim Ducks
(Seeing as Anaheim is planning on dropping "Mighty" from their name next year, I'll happily play along early. I only wish they could take the old moniker California Golden Seals...)
How long ago does it seem that the Ducks made their storybook run to game seven of the Cup finals? Jean-Sebastien Giguere was the talk of the league, as his two-month-long dominance nearly single-handedly got the title of a Disney movie engraved on Lord Stanley's Cup <
Where does Giguere fit in all of this? He should be the centerpiece of the youth movement but that now appears to be in some question. Following his classic freak-out last week against Edmonton the Ducks have at least temporarily turned to rookie Ilya Bryzgalov - he has played and won the last three games for Anaheim, putting them on a parallel with the Bruins in the West as they have moved into ninth place, three points out of the final spot.
Even without the recent streak, Bryzgalov's important season numbers (goals against and save percentage) are better than Giguere's. With Giguere making about four million dollars this year, it is conceivable that he could be shopped around if the club has confidence in Bryzgalov to carry the load for the next few years. After four full seasons in Cincinnati of the AHL, Bryzgalov is probably in the NHL to stay for a while, whether it is as starter or backup. A team like Anaheim doesn't have much to lose seeing if the younger (and cheaper) Bryzgalov can do the job for them - he's another goalie worth taking a chance on with a pickup. You're likely to know within a few games whether he'll remain as the main man in Anaheim.
Other early-February Players of Note
Buffalo: watch for captain Chris Drury and rookie Thomas Vanek, currently linemates (with winger Mike Grier). With the injury to top center Tim Connolly and JP Dumont not yet fully effective upon his return, Drury has had to take on an even bigger offensive role and he is responding. He has a reputation of being a clutch performer and his recent play hasn't changed that perception with 11 points in his last nine games. Vanek has had a streaky rookie season and is on a mini one now, with four goals in his last three games.
Columbus: Columbus is still a team that will end up far out of the playoffs but they've figured something out, having won seven of their last ten - winger David Vyborny has led the way in January. He's been on fire with 16 points in his last 11 games, including six multiple-point games.
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