By Darryl Dobbs
The Atlanta Thrashers, Columbus
Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild have very lucrative jobs up for grabs
– both in reality as well as in fantasy hockey. The job available?
No.1 center. It’s anyone’s guess who will line up at center ice
when the puck drops to start the season for those teams, but if you
managed to secure him late in your draft…hoping…then you will likely
hit the jackpot.
This is the second straight
season for those teams in that position, but it seems as if the options
are even more intriguing this time around. As an aside - you could also
add the Edmonton Oilers and Phoenix Coyotes to this list, but it is
quite clear at this point that they are going with Shawn Horcoff and
Peter Mueller respectively.
In Atlanta, the solution
last year was to throw Niko Kapanen, Steve Rucchin, Bobby Holik, Jason
Krog and Glen Metropolit out there and hope that one of them winds up
clicking with Ilya Kovalchuk while another one clicks with Marian Hossa.
The result? Kapanen played himself onto the first flight to Phoenix,
Rucchin missed most of the season with a concussion, Holik played the
Holik plays (i.e. like a third liner), while Krog and Metropolit proved
to be a little too inconsistent to warrant even second-line ice time.
Slava Kozlov was moved to center where he worked even more magic with
Hossa, but Kovalchuk suffered through a miserable season by his standards.
This year, the Thrashers landed
Todd White, who will play with his old Ottawa linemate Hossa, while
Kozlov moves back to the left wing, where the team is more comfortable
with him. Kovalchuk, however, is still in the same boat. The sniper
needs a setup man. The candidates are Holik (again), Rucchin (again),
Eric Perrin and Bryan Little.
Dobber’s Take: The
Holik thing has been tried time and again. It didn’t work before and
it won’t work now. Rucchin will probably retire from his concussion
problems, but even if he doesn’t he is too fragile to hold the No.1
spot for long. Perrin has shown offensive talent at other levels and
in Tampa Bay last season he had more than a point every two games in
the second half. If he lands the plum role, he could potentially surprise
with his big numbers. However, I see a lot of Metropolit in him –
as in, he will win the job and put up points in spurts, but will be
yanked off it too frequently to mount any significant momentum. Little
is close to being ready for the NHL this year. He is also signed to
an entry-level deal, which doesn’t necessarily mean he has a job locked
up, but it helps. Give Little the inside track for the role and if he
does get it you can expect him to contend for the Calder Trophy.
In Columbus, the options
are Sergei Fedorov (again), Gilbert Brule, Dan Fritsche, Geoff Platt
and Kris Beech (believe it or not).
Dobber’s Take: Fedorov’s
42 points just doesn’t cut it for the job. Besides, he’s been moonlighting
as a defenseman lately. Pencil him in on the second line. Fritsche excelled
last year under Ken Hitchcock, but as a right winger. Don’t expect
that to change this season. Brule showed tremendous improvement over
the last 25 games of the season, but he’s probably not ready to take
the leap necessary. Beech got off to a great start in Washington and
he has already proven to be better than the AHL. But much like my Metropolit
example, he is too inconsistent and at the age of 26 it may be too late
to hope for great things from the former centerpiece of a Jaromir Jagr
trade. That leaves Platt, my pick for the job. A dark horse to say the
least, in that he has been all over the depth chart according to different
experts, ranging from fifth-line left winger to third line right winger.
He can line up at any forward position, he has improved with every NHL
game and he was recalled on February 27 and was on the team to stay
from that point on. He makes a high-risk/high-reward selection.
In Minnesota, there
are three options. The first one is the status quo – keep Pavol Demitra
at center with Marion Gaborik on the right side and Branko Radivojevic
on the left. The second option is to insert newly acquired Eric Belanger
into center and push Radivojevic to the third line where he belongs.
The final option is to throw 19-year-old James Sheppard into the fire.
Dobber’s Take: A fourth
option, Mikko Koivu, is best suited on the second or third line…but
so is Belanger. Both would be an upgrade to Radivojevic, but I don’t
think the Wild will go with any of the three. I think they will give
Sheppard a long look in camp. He has already played extremely well in
development camp and the team is already penciling him onto the roster.
If he makes the team and gets that opportunity, he will join what is
becoming a long list of players who will compete for the rookie-of-the-year
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