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Cullen: Observations from the NHL's opening weekend

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Scott Cullen
1/21/2013 4:16:21 PM
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Vancouver's goaltending situation should be fun, Hossa returns in fine form, the Panthers have a fascinating second line, the Oilers are giving their young guns lots of ice and more in Scott Cullen's weekend wrap up.

CANUCKS GOALIE SITUATION
It may not be a big deal for Vancouver, but pulling Cory Schneider after he allowed five goals on 14 shots (in 27 minutes) against Anaheim Saturday turned up the heat in terms of media coverage. The goaltending situation was already a prominent concern with perennial starter Roberto Luongo set to backup Schneider this year -- a changing of the guard -- for at least as long as Luongo remained in Vancouver. But, with Luongo forced to relieve Schneider in Game One, then stopping 30 of 32 shots against Edmonton Sunday before losing in the shootout, there does seem to be more pressure on Schneider to perform and live up to his role.

Worth mentioning here is that Schneider has a .926 save percentage in 69 career games, so it's certinly time to see if he can handle the starting role.

BLACKHAWK UP
After suffering a concussion in last year's playoffs, thanks to Coyotes LW Raffi Torres, Blackhawks LW Marian Hossa showed zero ill-effects (4 G, 1 A, +3, 9 SOG in 2 GP) during the opening weekend.

Hossa has been such a consistently productive player throughout his career and it is encouraging to see a successful comeback from what appeared to be a serious concussion.

Dan Carcillo started the season in an enviable spot on Chicago's top line, but suffered a knee injury that could cost him a month of playing time. With Carcillo out, rookie LW Brandon Saad got to see quality time on the wing with Jonathan Toews and Hossa against Phoenix Sunday.

Saad had eight goals and 20 points in 31 games with Rockford of the AHL this season, not bad for a 20-year-old rookie, but also not yet enough to put high expectations on his offensive output this season. Nevertheless, if he sticks alongside Toews and Hossa, that's a great place to pick up points.

PANTHER MIX
Florida's second line is a fantastic mixture of talent, and they combined for seven points against Carolina Saturday, but forecasting their long-term success still takes on an assumption of risk. Highly-touted rookie Jonathan Huberdeau (1 G, 2 A vs. Carolina) may have been good enough to play for the Panthers last season and has been biding his time in the QMJHL, where he has scored 273 points in 168 games (regular season plus playoffs) over the last two-and-a-half seasons. He has a chance to be one of the more productive rookies in the league.

Peter Mueller (1 A vs. Carolina) was the eighth overall pick in 2006, and has enjoyed some success in the NHL (a 54-point rookie season, 20 points in 15 games when he first joined Colorado after a trade from Phoenix), but concussions have ravaged Mueller in recent seasons, limiting him to 32 games over the last two seasons. If he's healthy, the 24-year-old with good size still has time to take advantage of his skills and is getting a good chance right now in Florida.

Universally described as the most talented practice player on the planet, Alex Kovalev struggled in the KHL last season, scoring one goal, six points and gonig minus-13 in 22 games with Moscow Oblast Atlant. Just over a month away from his 40th birthday, Kovalev not only returned to the NHL, but excelled (1 G, 2 A vs. Carolina) in a scoring role. Kovalev has been so up and down throughout his career that it's difficult to trust his production, but if Panthers coach Kevin Dineen can keep him engaged, he could be an upgrade among Florida's skilled forwards.

As a side note, for the Panthers, with Kris Versteeg sidelined (due to an undisclosed injury suffered in practice late last week), Scottie Upshall is getting a chance at right wing on the top line with Stephen Weiss and Tomas Fleischmann.

MORE ICE FOR OILERS' RISING STARS
Jordan Eberle (1 G, 5 SOG, 22:13 TOI) Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (21:56) and Taylor Hall (21:20) all played big minutes in Sunday's shootout win over Vancouver. Certainly, overtime provided opportunity for those totals to rise, but Hall played the most of that trio last season, averaging 18:13 TOI, on a per-game basis.

My forecast for Eberle was not popular in Edmonton in the preseason because my projection was based on Eberle not likely matching his 18.9% shooting percentage from last season. If Eberle fell back to, say, 12% shooting, that would cost him a dozen goals (based on last year's 180 shots on goal), but the ways to avoid falling back will be two-fold -- more ice time and more shots on goal -- both of which occurred Sunday. Additionally, Eberle's backhand goal, to get the Oilers on the board and start their comeback, was a beauty.

BLUE NOTES
St. Louis dominated Detroit from start to finish Saturday, with a couple of promising offensive signs to go with their shutdown defensive play.

RW Chris Stewart, prime for a bounceback season after scoring 15 goals in 79 games last year, (2 G, 5 SOG, 15:58) scored both of his goals on the power play and is skating on a promising line with Patrik Berglund and Jaden Schwartz at even strength.

Rookie RW Vladimir Tarasenko announced his presence (2 G, 5 SOG, 13:52 TOI) against Detroit, with one goal on a breakaway and another on a tuck-and-drag move to split the Red Wings defence. Tarasenko was scoring a point-per-game (14 G, 17 A ni 31 GP) in the KHL this season and was my highest-forecasted rookie scorer this year, so this could just be the beginning for the talented 21-year-old winger.

SABRE RATTLING
Buffalo LW Thomas Vanek enjoyed the monster game (2 G, 3 A, +1, 9 SOG, 19:17 TOI vs. Philadelphia) of the opening weekend, shredding the Flyers defence and contributing on every one of the Sabres' goals in a 5-2 win. Vanek's a skilled player and has scored at least 60 points in five of the last six seasons, but consistency (and ice time) haven't always been easy to come by, so while this is a promising start, let's see how his ice time and production go from here before going over the moon.

Another Sabre, C Cody Hodgson (1 G, 7 SOG, 19:44 TOI vs. Philadelphia) saw an increased role, playing 17:16 per game, last year when he was acquired from Vancouver, but Hodgson still only managed eight points in 20 games with Buffalo, leaving room for doubt about roles down the middle for the Sabres. That season debut is a promising start and offers some hope that Hodgson will capably fill an offensive role this season.

RARE YANK FOR HANK
Rangers G Henrik Lundqvist was pulled after allowing four goals on 18 shots against Pittsburgh Sunday. It was a difficult weekend for last year's Vezina finalists, as Jonathan Quick (five goals on 22 shots vs. Chicago) and Mike Smith (5.05 GAA, .825 SV% in 2 GP) also had a tough start to the season.

While the Rangers did lose their first two games of the season, they need not get overly concerned about the results. The Rangers were ranked second in my preseason Power Rankings, but they faced Boston (ranked third) and Pittsburgh (ranked first) in their first two games; tough to face a more challenging opening weekend.

COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
Much was made about the age of Dallas' free-agent acquisitions in the offseason. RW Jaromir Jagr (2 G, 2 A, +1, 16:04 TOI vs. Phoenix) and LW Ray Whitney (1 G, 1 A, 20:16 TOI vs. Phoenix) both excelled in their first games with Big D. The Stars were shut out in the second game of their back-to-back on the weekend, at Minnesota.

Jagr was decent in Philadelphia last season, scoring 54 points in 75 games, but was annihilating the Czech League during the lockout, tallying 57 points in 34 games, playing with Montreal's Tomas Plekanec and Carolina's Jiri Tlusty. Fatigue set in with Jagr last year, so that bears watching, but it's possible that the shortened NHL schedule could be more to his liking.

FEED THE WILD LIFE
Minnesota's numbers one line is getting a heavy workload right off the bat. RW Dany Heatley (2 G, 1 A, 10 SOG, 20:02 TOI per game), C Mikko Koivu (2 A, 21.:09), and LW Zach Parise (1 G, 2 A, 20:52) have been productive and, in particular, the consistency and all-around effort from Koivu and Parise combined could help Heatley resurrect a career that has been fading in recent seasons -- his 53 points in 82 games last year reprsented a career-low in points per game (0.65).

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER
Toronto's defence corps is due for some remodeling, so it presents an opportuntiy for 27-year-old D Mike Kostka who performed well in his first NHL game (1 A, 22:59 TOI at Montreal). Kostka played for UMass-Amherst in college and has toiled for four seasons in the AHL. After scoring 34 points in 34 games with the Marlies this year, Kostka not only earned a chance to play in the NHL, but earn significant minutes, including power play time, for the Maple Leafs.

CON JOB
Another first-year NHLer coming from a less-than-storied collegiate program, Lightning LW Cory Conacher played at Canisius University, scoring 130 points in 109 games over this final three seasons, before earning an AHL contract last season, where he scored 80 points and added 114 penalty minutes in 75 games to force the NHL to take notice. Conacher may only be 5-foot-8 but, amid multi-point games for the usual suspects (Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Teddy Purcell), Conacher had a goal and an assist in his NHL debut and is playing on Lecavalier's wing, so a prime position for the rookie to remain productive (note: he added two more points Monday afternoon).

ERIK THE GREAT
Senators D Erik Karlsson picked up right where he left off last season (1 G, 2 A, +2, 6 SOG, 25:35 TOI at Winnipeg). Being paired with stay-at-home defender Marc Methot allows Karlsson to roam free offensively, which is crucial to the Ottawa attack.

EARNING HIS KEEP
Canucks D Alexander Edler signed a six-year, $30-million contract and opened the season strong (2 G, 1 A, 22:52 ATOI in 2 GP). He can't count on scoring on 40% of shots all season, but Edler is Vancouver's best offensive defenceman, coming off a career-high 49 points last season.

SHORT CELEBRATION
The Los Angeles Kings finally got to raise their Stanley Cup banner in the season opener on Saturday, but missing top centre Anze Kopitar, they took their lumps against the Blackhawks, with the Kings' top line -- Simon Gagne, Dustin Brown and Mike Richards -- each taking a minus-3 in the first game of the season.

CHANCE FOR HANSEN
Three Canucks forwards have played more than 19 minutes per game through the first two, both losses. The Sedin Twins, not surprisingly, are the first two. The third is Jannik Hansen (2 A, 19:01 ATOI in 2 GP) who has played mostly with Maxim Lapierre and Chris Higgins, but has obviously been moving around the lineup to get significantly more ice time.

HURRICANE WARNING
Hurricanes LW Drayson Bowman led Carolina with five shots on goal at Florida, in only 9:30 of ice time; Zach Boychuk registered no shots on goal in 10:13, apparently costing him his spot on the top line.

PHOENIX RISING
Through the first two games of the season, Coyotes LW Mikkel Boedker has played 18:38 per game, tied with Antoine Vermette for most among the team's forwards. Boedker, one of my preseason breakthrough candidates, has five shots on goal, an assist and a plus-2 rating through two games, both losses.

ROMAN WASN'T BUILT IN A DAY
Predators D Roman Josi, taking on a bigger role now that Ryan Suter has moved on to Minnesota, led the Predators with 27:30 TOI against Columbus (partner Shea Weber played 25:07, but also took seven minutes in penalties thanks to a scrap with Jared Boll).

BOUCHARD IS BACK
Over the last three seasons, Wild LW Pierre-Marc Bouchard has played 97 of a possible 246 games, as concussions have left him on the sidelines for extended periods, but he's been medically cleared to start this season and has a goal, an assist and a plus-2 rating through the first two games. A healthy Bouchard gives Minnesota a much more skilled second scoring line.

FLICKERING FLAMES
LW Mike Cammalleri (0 SOG, 14:44 TOI) didn't see a great deal of ice time against San Jose, while C Matt Stajan played 18:05, maybe getting a bit of a fresh start under a new coaching staff in Calgary.

BEWARE THE PENGUIN
Easily overlooked with more produtive players in Pittsburgh, D Paul Martin (3 A, 23:48 per game in first two games) is off to a good start. Trouble is, Martin has never scored more than 37 points in a season and has 51 points in 150 games over the last two seasons in Pittsburgh. Without great production otherwise (ie. hits, blocked shots), his appeal is still limited.

STAR GOALIE
Dallas' Christopher Nihlstorp, a 28-year-old from Sweden, earned the backup job behind Kari Lehtonen and impressed (allowing one goal on 32 shots at Minnesota) in his NHL debut. The 6-foot-4 'tender had a 2.13 goals against average and .916 save percentage in 28 AHL games this year after posting a .923 SV% in 67 games over the last two seasons in Sweden.

HARD LIFE
Minnesota G Josh Harding was diagnosed with MS in the offseason, so it was extra heart-warming to see him turn in a 24-save shutout against the Stars in his first start. For a guy who missed the entire 2010-2011 season with a torn ACL, Harding has had to overcome more than his share of adversity, but has been among the game's better backups, posting a .916 SV% in 118 career games.

DEVIL OF A DEAL
An interesting note on the new contract for Devils C Travis Zajac, who signed an eight-year, $46-million contract extension. Zajac's salary in the first year of the deal (2013-2014) is $3.5-million, the lowest value over the life of the contract. If there is going to be any negative impact on league revenues from the lockout, it could be mitigated for Zajac because his deal starts lower than his current $4.8-million salary and is $5.0-million in the second year before hitting $6.5-million over the next four seasons.

Say, for example, the players would have to put 10% into escrow, that would cost Zajac $350,000 next year. If his average contract value ($5.75-million) was used, that would mean $575,000 into escrow so, in that example, it would save Zajac $225,000. It could be even more if the escrow percentage goes higher or, obviously, less if there isn't really an economic impact to the league's latest lockout. (Stick tap to Scott Lennox, TSN stats ace, as we discussed this Saturday night).

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.

Roberto Luongo Cory Schneider (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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