Neutral Zone Wrap: Don't sleep on these guys
We're roughly 60 percent to 65 percent of the way through the schedule and you're looking to improve your chances of winning and/or securing a playoff position. You can sit around and wait for the right player(s) to fall into your lap. Or you can be proactive and seek out that last skater or two to help round out your roster.
Before the season, this column discussed projected sleepers. The ones who had either endured an off-year, returned from significant injury, had been forgotten about, or gained status through opportunity. Through the magic of topicality and redundancy, we can repeat the same topic but (of course) look ahead at similar ventures for the remainder of the schedule.
Many players have definitely underachieved to date, while others literally haven't had a leg to stand on. The benefit of sucking for a while would be that the resulting expectations are lower than normal. So when others have given up on these downtrodden folks, then that's your cue to pick up the pieces. (WARNING: Like I have to mention this, but not everyone who has performed poorly would be worthy of being acquired. And yes, also remember not to ingest tickets.)
Who should you target for the final block to make that glorious climb to the top (or safe standing)? Who will show enough signs of improvement or what notable names have been recalled/returned to warrant ditching others? Here's the short list. No goalies, but that's usually the case at this stage when the available choices are few and the stakes -- for both you and the actual organizations -- are high:
(Stats through Thursday, March 21)
Zach Bogosian , D, Jets: Tobias Enstrom (shoulder strain, gone since mid-February) may have resumed skating with the club but that won't stop Bogosian from enjoying the super Swede's spot for a little while longer. Bogosian went through extensive rehab after offseason wrist surgery, so it's a small miracle he can contribute in any way. It wasn't as if he was lacking in opportunities but the last few have allowed more meaningful minutes (three-game point streak, including one where he racked up 17 PIM) and bonus duty on the power play.
Lars Eller , F, Canadiens: When the Habs were essentially forced to deal Jaroslav Halak a couple years ago, they received two young forwards from St. Louis. One of them was Eller, a 2007 first-round selection with a solid defensive reputation. While the Dane has been key in keeping top opponents at bay, he has recently displayed some sweet stats (seven in 10). Eller's hard work in all areas has earned him increased activity and a prime position in Montreal's surprisingly state-of-the-art system.
Jake Gardiner , D, Maple Leafs: Jake Gardiner has been released into the general population and Fantasy owners could not be happier. While the 22-year old defenseman has only notched one point since being called up (but did skate over 43 minutes over the two), it won't be long until the Minnesota native makes a sizable dent on the Leafs' scoresheet. After suffering a concussion in December, it took Gardiner a couple months to step back on the ice but he continued where he left off in 2011-12 (31 in 43 in the AHL after 30 in 75 with the big boys). His propensity for risk-taking may not be popular with the coaches, but it'll do just fine for those of you in Roto leagues.
Scott Gomez , F, Sharks: Remember when people were making jokes about Gomez's goal-scoring drought last year? Well, this Alaskan may never have served as a sniper in his NHL career, but he's definitely earning more respect since being signed by San Jose in late January. Currently centering the third line but sporting a five-game point streak (eight overall this month, including three PPAs). The other areas may be lacking (minus-10, low in physical categories) but he's still a serviceable forward in a standard 12-team setup.
Tyler Johnson , F, Lightning: Nothing against either Ondrej Palat or the still-relegated Brett Connolly , but Johnson is clearly the one the Lightning were itching to insert into the lineup. Based on their track record with skilled short forwards who just happen to be undrafted ( Martin St. Louis , Cory Conacher ), it was only a matter of time before the ex-Spokane star got the call-up. When he left for Tampa, Johnson's AHL numbers were staggering (58 in 59, including a league-leading 32 goals). He has extended this run with the Bolts (four in four), even as he's not being implemented in most situations and centers the fourth line.
Magnus Paajarvi , F, Oilers: The 10th pick of the 2009 draft has endured several speed bumps since arriving on the North American scene. And while the team ended up cutting his minutes or demoting him, Paajarvi has maintained his professionalism. The first half wasn't much to talk about (two in 15) but in the last few weeks, MPS has been allowed to shine. Those slick moves and smooth hands now have a purpose and the latest results prove that (six in nine, plus-4, with the latest a 21:35 appearance). The youngster is still only 21, so his talent could take him in either direction. For now, let's hope for the upside.
Tyler Toffoli , F, Kings: Like the other Tyler in this column, Toffoli's offensive skills have only been nurtured in lower leagues to date. So there's no rushing the former OHL scoring champ into a regular role with the Kings. The kid's first professional campaign should be deemed a success (48 in 55 with Manchester) but there's so much more room to grow (two in three to start in LA, including his first goal - but also benched Thursday night). With the Cup holders deep down the middle, Toffoli should be able to find the net a few more times before the regular season concludes.
Honorable mention: Josh Bailey , F, Islanders; Marcus Johansson , F, Capitals; Joni Pitkanen , D, Hurricanes; Andrew Shaw , F, Blackhawks; Jakob Silfverberg , F, Senators; Jared Spurgeon , D, Wild; Ryan Whitney , D, Oilers.