We all love the blockbuster free agent moves and trades in the summer, but there are only so many Paul Kariyas and Daniel Brieres to go around.
Once the big names are gone, there are still a lot of important players who can turn a team’s fortunes (and their own) around with a solid season.
Let’s call these guys ‘puzzle pieces.’ When they arrive on your favorite squad, you start doing the mental gymnastics: New guy plus returning star equals big points. Or, new guy plus returning struggling guy equals resurrection. Whatever the case, it’s sure fun to speculate.
But we’re in the thick of it now. So how are a couple of these puzzle pieces doing?
Petr Sykora, RW, Pittsburgh – The original thought was simple: Finally, a legitimate winger for Sidney Crosby. Sykora once put up 81 points for the Devils and had 53 last season for a swooning Oilers squad.
Result: After an initial honeymoon, the Sykora-Crosby connection faded. Eventually the Czech was dropped to a line with Jarkko Ruutu and Erik Christensen. But with Evgeni Malkin going nuclear lately (in part to Sid’s absence), Sykora has blossomed on Geno’s wing, notching 12 points of his own in the past 10 games.
Viktor Kozlov, C, Washington – Technically brought in to play wing with Alex Ovechkin, Kozlov gelled with Ovie in training camp and became his pivot, while marquee free agent center Michael Nylander played on a second line with Swedish rookie Nicklas Backstrom.
Result: When Nylander went down with a season-ending injury, Backstrom upped his game and is now centering Ovechkin, with Kozlov on the right wing. The veteran has been a steady, if not unremarkable contributor, with 38 points in 58 games.
Robert Lang, C, Chicago – The Hawks signed Lang hoping the ex-Wing had something left in the tank and could add some veteran scoring to what promised to be a young lineup.
Result: With Jonathan Toews back from injury, Lang must “settle” for playing on a second line with Martin Havlat and Tuomo Ruutu. What a chore. Lang sits third in team scoring, just behind Patrick Sharp and rookie sensation Patrick Kane. The veteran is also plus-13, which on a team currently sitting 14th in the West, is pretty admirable. January was a bit of an abomination for Lang, though; he only had six points all month.
Jiri Novotny, C, Columbus – The Logic: Heavens to Murgatroyd, we have the worst collection of centers in the league.
Result: Novotny seems to have played with just about every forward on the Jackets roster, though Nik Zherdev is his most consistent running mate and the pair has been occasionally joined by Rick Nash. Novotny had one point (an assist) in January and has one point (another assist) so far in February. Though Columbus is better than last year, making the playoffs is still touch-and-go.
Manny Fernandez, G, Boston – Fernandez was brought in because Boston wasn’t quite sure how Tim Thomas would fare this year and Tuukka Rask wasn’t quite ready for prime time.
Result: Fernandez was shelled in three of four starts before knee surgery put him on the long-term injury list. Thomas went to his first All-Star Game and Rask looked good in four starts.
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 Wednesdays and his features, The Hot List and Year of the Ram, appears Tuesday and Thursday, respectively.
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