At the halfway point of the 2008-09 season, there are some dreams that simply are not going to come true, some teams that have already played themselves out of playoff contention. Whether through injuries or incompetence (and often both), things just didn’t come together as expected.
If there is a silver lining for these teams, however, it is that certain young players have emerged out of otherwise lost seasons. Ice time is such a crucial part of a player’s development, but getting that experience when your team is constantly in high-stakes games (say, racing for a division title) can be difficult. Having the opportunity to grow during “meaningless” games can be just the tonic. It doesn’t always work, of course: Tampa Bay is terrible, but still hasn’t figured out how to utilize Steven Stamkos to the fullest. But the following players have taken a bad situation and made it work for both themselves and their team this year.
Bryan Little, Atlanta
Think Ilya Kovalchuk is leading the Thrashers in goals once again? Nope, it’s Little, who has 19 markers in 40 games. Plus, the former Barrie Colt has missed a few starts due to injury. Simply put, the opportunistic Little has carved out an important niche in the Atlanta lineup, which, outside of Kovalchuk, is really bereft of offensive beef. Todd White has gelled well with Kovy and Erik Christensen is great on shootouts, but their intimidation factor is slight. Slava Kozlov won’t be around for too much longer and Kovalchuk may not be, either, so the sharpshooting Little will be that much more important going forward.
James Neal and Loui Eriksson, Dallas
So the Stars aren’t exactly left for dead in the West anymore, but they’ll still need to hop over quite a few teams to clinch a post-season berth. In the meantime, injuries and the ending of the Sean Avery Experiment opened up ice time for both Neal and Eriksson. The big-bodied Neal has used his frame and puck skills to put up 13 goals to date, tying him for second on a team with some big offensive names. While he can’t make up for the loss of Brenden Morrow, his development can certainly soften the blow in the short-term.
Third-year Swede Eriksson, on the other hand, is already just one point off his NHL career best. In his case, Dallas used him as a sort of stand-in for the injured Jere Lehtinen and comparisons have been made, though Finns and Swedes tend not to like being grouped together. Nonetheless, Eriksson is third overall in Stars scoring (30 points in 40 games), right behind Brad Richards and Mike Ribeiro, and his plus-6 rating is exemplary on a team that has given up as many goals as Dallas has.
Patrik Berglund, St. Louis
There was certainly excitement about Berglund’s first NHL campaign, but the Swedish pivot has quietly exceeded expectations during another injury-plagued, expectation-imploding season in St. Louis. Confident and dangerous, Berglund is a miraculous plus-11 on the only team in the West to give up more goals than Dallas. No one on the Blues is even close to Berglund’s rating and the rookie is third in team scoring with 27 points in 36 games. If he can continue this pace, the only reason Berglund won’t get Calder consideration is the company he keeps at the Scottrade Center.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column – The Straight Edge – every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.
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