Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition
By Rob Aquino
This year’s NHL trading deadline (also known in previous seasons as “the day I get no work done”) is just about upon us – and very possibly by the time you read this, the deadline will have already passed (official deadline being Thursday at 3:00 PM, EST). Everyone sees how the deadline is a chance for contenders (or wannabe contenders) to get that extra body to help them in their playoff push, but it's also - or more so - a big opportunity for the lesser teams, or the "sellers" as much of the media will portray them. Yet it's often these lesser teams that get the better deal in the long-run; dealing the big-name (read: expensive) veteran for a mostly-unknown prospect for the plans of rebuilding the club over the next few years. The deadline could also have an impact on departed teammates, or have the effect of creating new lines. For a recent example, check out the St. Louis Blues since dealing Mike Sillinger and Doug Weight - guys like Lee Stempniak and Dennis Wideman have become less fringe players and more integral to the rebuilding of the Blues franchise.
While it's hard at this late juncture to find anyone who will shock you with offensive production over the final few weeks, let’s try to dig deep for some players who have either taken on a greater role in recent weeks or are likely to do so over the final month of the regular season.
Jay Bouwmeester, Defense, Florida Panthers
The Florida Panthers are truly enigmatic: 15-8-4 at home, 9-21-5 on the road. I really like the potential for this team’s future, especially if they today somehow have managed to hang on to Olli Jokinen or Roberto Luongo. They have some potentially great young players like Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss but most importantly a franchise defenseman in Jay Bouwmeester. Fans may not remember but in late 2001 it was a fait accompli that Bouwmeester was going to be the number one pick in the upcoming 2002 draft. He was in the middle of his fourth year on the Western Hockey League’s Medicine Hat Tigers and had already compiled an impressive résumé, representing Canada at the World Juniors three times, becoming one of the youngest players in tournament history.
However, as is often said: “a funny thing happened on the way” to the draft in Toronto. Forward Rick Nash put together a fantastic year in London and became the number one pick that year, taken by Columbus. At number two, the Atlanta Thrashers surprisingly took Finnish goaltender Kari Lehtonen, leaving Bouwmeester a bit in shock by the time the Panthers took him with the number three pick. Although it was more a case of the other two players having fantastic seasons and those two teams having specific needs for scoring and goaltending, it was nevertheless a bit of a surprise to those who had followed the draft class over the previous year. The point is this: by not being the number one pick as expected, Bouwmeester didn’t immediately become the household name (you know, like Patrick Stefan…) many expected. Over the next two seasons on a mostly lousy Panthers team he slowly and quietly developed his game, scoring just 36 points over those years while working on the finer aspects of defensive and physical play.
This year Bouwmeester has a career high 30 points (and all on assists! Look out Teppo Numminen…) and has lowered his efficiency rating to a -5, which looks bad except when you look at his progression: he has gone from -29 in his rookie year to -15 to this year’s rating. He has already set a personal best with 135 shots to date. He recently had a six-game point scoring streak, which points towards him putting together his offensive game. Every aspect of his play is improving, and he is only 22 years old. Within the next three or four years at most, I expect Jay Bouwmeester to be one of the top five overall defensemen in the entire league. For the sake of Florida fans, I hope the youthful core of the team remains intact so Bouwmeester can help lead them to the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference.
Jay McClement, Center, St. Louis Blues
You’re looking at the name, you’re looking at the numbers, you’re looking at the team…you’re thinking: why would I even consider him for a fantasy pickup? And ordinarily I’d agree, as 17 points in 45 games is not only nothing to shout about, it’s usually something to avoid in a center if you’re talking about fantasy leagues. In the opening of this column, I alluded to how trades can re-sculpt a team not just by adding players but by subtracting them. That may sound patronizingly obvious but recently Jay McClement of the St. Louis Blues has been putting up numbers to bolster that theory. Over the last few games the Blues have been juggling their lines but McClement has often found himself lined up with Keith Tkachuk and Lee Stempniak, which has no doubt helped with McClement’s productivity, to say nothing of his confidence.
After scoring 30 goals in his second year of junior with the Ontario League’s Brampton Battalion, Jay McClement was drafted in the second round of the NHL draft by St. Louis. He advanced his game the next season, scoring 55 points in 61 games while becoming the team’s most reliable two-way player, and earning a spot on Canada’s World Junior team that winter (earning a silver medal).
He spent the last two seasons in Worcester, Massachusetts with the Blues’ AHL farm team refining his game before getting called up to the parent club this season. As we’ve mentioned numerous times this season, a player’s raw point totals are rarely an accurate measure on their own as to the skill or potential skill of that player – having said that, let’s throw some numbers at you: in a span of 19 games in the middle of this season with St. Louis McClement played over ten minutes only five times; most of those games getting no more than six minutes. Over his past five games his ice time has steadily increased each game, from 14 minutes to nearly 23 last Tuesday against Colorado. In those five games McClement has nine points and has been a +5. Small sample size to be sure, but is some evidence that when given the opportunity, this is a player who can and will deliver. Watch for Jay McClement to use this last month to establish himself on a St Louis team searching for a new identity moving into the 2006-2007 season.
Colby Armstrong, Winger, Pittsburgh Penguins
For the very forgettable season the Penguins are going through, on and off the ice, if they play their cards right they can actually look forward to on-ice success in the not too distant future. Everyone knows Sidney Crosby and with the arrival of Evgeni Malkin next season, complimented by young players like Tomas Surovy, Michael Ouellet, and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury they should have an exciting and talented core of players to build upon. Another such player who has been breaking out of late is right wing Colby Armstrong. He is currently riding a six game point-scoring streak in which he’s scored nine points and even more remarkably been a +6 (while the team has lost four of those games).
Armstrong was selected in the first round of the 2001 draft by the Penguins after scoring 36 goals for the powerhouse Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League, with whom he won the Memorial Cup that season. He put together a quality junior resume which combined point-per-game scoring with an edge, as evidenced by his more than 270 penalty minutes earned over his final two seasons. He spent the last three-plus seasons with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre of the AHL, improving on his numbers each year until last season’s 55 points, earning him “most improved player” on the team.
Armstrong is a smaller player who likely benefits from the crackdown on obstruction this year. Of late he has been getting shifts with Crosby and Recchi, which will nearly guarantee him points. Averaging well over 20 minutes per game in the past month, Armstrong looks to have found a good fit on this Penguins team and – much like Jay McClement of St. Louis – will be showcasing his skills for a leading spot on next year’s team.
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