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Cullen: Caps struggling; Habs rookies, Frattin and Franson

Scott Cullen
1/30/2013 2:23:12 PM
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Trouble in D.C., the Leafs get scoring from the supporting staff, the Habs have a pair of rookies contributing offensively and more.

CAPS BIG GUNS NOT FIRING
When the Washington Capitals replaced defensively-oriented coach Dale Hunter with Adam Oates, one of the league's all-time great setup men, the expectation was that Washington would open up more offensively and make the most of their skilled players, most notably Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.

Coming out of training camp, such as it was, the Capitals were looking at a first line of Ovechkin, Backstrom and Marcus Johansson, but Johansson is minus-5 in four games and has already been a healthy scratch.

While Ovechkin is getting more ice time (21:48 per game takes him back to 2009-2010 levels), he has one goal and 20 shots on goal in six games. The 3.3 shots on goal per game is down from last season's career-low of 3.89 per game and especially jarring since he's played an extra couple minutes per game. There have been times when Ovechkin has played with Backstrom, but he's spent more time lately with Jay Beagle and Joey Crabb, two checking forwards with limited (to no) offensive upside.

These may simply be growing pains, adjusting to a new coach and a new plan of attack, but when Ovechkin's not even getting the quantity of shots on goal, despite playing more than six minutes per game on the power play, his inability to finish stands out even more.

In Backstrom's case, he isn't the goal-scorer that Ovechkin was, but he hasn't scored a goal and has three assists in six games. What raises concern is that he has just 10 shots on goal through the first six games (1.67 per game), down from the 2.58 per game he's registered over the previous three seasons.

When he's not paired with Ovechkin, Backstrom has mostly played with Wojtek Wolski and Troy Brouwer, not necessarily the most dynamic finishers.

There's no great secret to what ails the Capitals; as with most struggling clubs, more production from their best players would naturally help, but it's fair to wonder if those players are currently being put in the best position to succeed.

FRATTIN & FRANSON
The sky was falling around Toronto after back-to-back losses to the New York teams, but the Maple Leafs got some positives out of Monday night's overtime win at Buffalo.

Matt Frattin, the 25-year-old winger who didn't make the team out of camp, despite playing 56 NHL games last season, returned to the Leafs lineup when LW Joffrey Lupul suffered a broken forearm. Frattin notched a pair of goals Monday, including the winner, giving him three goals and five points in three games since returning to The Show.

Frattin has been playing on an effective unit with Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov but, long-term, if he doesn't get more power play time (1:50 total through three games), it's not going to be easy to remain notably productive in 13 minutes a night.

At least Frattin is playing. Maple Leafs D Cody Franson has already been a healthy scratch three times this season, this on a defence corps sorely needs stability throughout, but especially in the bottom half, where Franson would seem a natural fit.

Franson had a goal and an assist against the Sabres Monday, but played a modest 13:03, giving him three points and a plus-3 rating in three games this season. Though Franson isn't physical, particularly considering his size, he has good puck skills, a hard shot and moves well enough to fit, consistently, on the Leafs' third pairing.

GALLAGHER & GALCHENYUK
It's been a positive start to the season for the Montreal Canadiens, winning four of their first five games and now getting contributions from a couple of rookie forwards.

Alex Galchenyuk, the third overall pick in last summer's draft, has been told that he will be spending the season with the Canadiens and has moved to his more customary centre spot after starting the year on left wing Tomas Plekanec.

Galchenyuk is being spotted into the lineup, not yet playing more than the 13:06 he played on opening night, but he has two assists in back-to-back games, giving him five points in five games to start his NHL career.

Skating on Galchenyuk's wing, along with tough guy Brandon Prust, has been fellow rookie Brendan Gallagher. A smallish 20-year-old that the Canadiens picked in the fifth round in 2010, Gallagher nearly made the team last year and was in the AHL during the lockout, playing a prominent role (10 G, 10 A, even in 36 GP) with a young Hamilton squad.

Gallagher didn't play in the season opener, but has made the most of his opportunities to play since. A goal and an assist against Winnipeg Monday lifted Gallagher's season totals to four points and a plus-4 rating in four games. Like Galchenyuk, Gallagher isn't playing a lot right now (11:09 per game), but both rookies are valuable in their current depth roles, with room to grow as they get stronger and accustomed to the demands of the NHL.

CALLAHAN INJURY
New York Rangers captain Ryan Callahan scored the game-winning goal against Philadelphia Monday, but then left the game with a shoulder injury. While the Blueshirts await further word, there is the possibility that the shoulder is dislocated and could keep Callahan out of the lineup for a significant period of time.

With rookie winger Chris Kreider already out with an ankle injury, the Rangers are getting thin up front. Beyond their first line (Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards and Rick Nash), they have to come up with four viable wingers for the next couple lines from a group that includes Taylor Pyatt, Carl Hagelin and recent acquisition Benn Ferriero. That could mean either Mike Rupp or Arron Asham has to move up to make room for a fourth-line forward; maybe a veteran like Kris Newbury.

In any case, that leaves the Rangers thin on the supporting cast, so Hagelin and Pyatt, in particular, need to provide secondary scoring.

NO MORROW
For the better part of the last decade, Dallas Stars captain Brenden Morrow has been a valuable fantasy player, providing a rare mix of goals and penalty minutes. Since 2002-2003, Scott Hartnell is the only player in the league to better Morrow's totals of 186 goals and 867 penalty minutes, but that hard-driving style has taken its toll.

Injuries limited Morrow to 57 games last season and his 0.46 points per game (26 points in 57 games) was a career-low and his role has only diminished this season. Through the first seven games, Morrow has played only 12:31 per game on depth lines, has two assists and is minus-2, but the most troubling part is that, even in limited time, Morrow has a total of two shots on goal.

There's a cliche in hockey about scorers feeling okay as long as they are still getting chances; well, Morrow's not getting chances and isn't doing enough to think that, barring injuries to others, his situation will get significantly better in Dallas.

GOING DOWNHILL
Coming off a season in which he finished with 53 points in 79 games, for a career-low 0.67 points per game, Avalanche C Paul Stastny is struggling early this season, putting up just one assist in five games, even though he ranks second among Colorado forwards with 19:51 average time on ice per game.

While Stastny isn't generating a lot of shots himself (nine in five games equals 1.8 per game), linemates Jamie McGinn and David Jones are doing okay (23 combined shots in five games), but they just haven't found the mark. Jones has one power play goal, but the line has not found the net at even strength.

It's safe to set lower expectations for Stastny -- he doesn't appear to be the 78 or 79-point scorer that he was in his best years but, right now, the 27-year-old may be a decent buy-low option because his line will eventually start finding the net, at least a little.

PLUM POSITION
Ever since Canucks RW Zack Kassian took over on the right wing with the Sedins, the question has been, "How long will he last?"

Line status can change at any time, particularly once the Canucks get Ryan Kesler back in the fold, but Kassian is showing that he's worthy of inclusion on a scoring line. He has four goals in the last five games and played a career-high 19:20 against Los Angeles on Monday, so the big winger is worth riding at least as long as he's in that sweet spot.

NO DOUGHTY ABOUT IT
Kings D Drew Doughty leads all NHLers with an average of time on ice of 29:10 through the first five games (Nicklas Lidstrom was the last player to average more for a full season, 29:20 in 2002-2003), but Doughty has struggled early.

It's not as though Doughty is the only King off to a slow start, perhaps feeling a little Stanley Cup hangover, but Doughty at his best is the type of player that can dictate the pace of the game, having the kind of impact that would help the Kings get through a slump but, right now, Doughty (no points, minus-3 in five games) is mired in one of his own.

BRIERE'S BACK
For the first couple of games when he returned to the Flyers lineup, C/RW Danny Briere managed no points and a total of four shots on goal, but even though he remained scoreless in Monday's loss to the Rangers, Briere played 23:26 and registered 10 shots on goal, playing mostly with Brayden Schenn and veteran Mike Knuble on the other wing.

Briere surpassed that ice time mark twice last season, but the last time that he had as many as 10 shots on goal was March 9, 2007, with Buffalo (vs. Minnesota). That he could handle that workload is reason to hold some optimism that Briere will be a productive part of the Flyers lineup and they need his offence as soon as possible.

NICE START
With Jason Spezza out thanks to an upper body injury, the Senators called up Mika Zibanejad from the AHL and he fared well in his season debut, playing mostly with Jim O'Brien and Erik Condra.

Zibanejad went through a difficult stretch in the AHL, having wisdom teeth removed, followed by an infection and then the flu, but once he returned to action, he had three goals, four points and a plus-6 rating in seven games before his recall.

He didn't look out of place Monday, playing 14:26 and picking up an assist along with four shots on goal. It's too soon to place serious offensive expectations on the 19 year-old, drafted sixth overall in 2011, but he could earn his way into a regular top nine role.

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.




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