Inside the NHL (cont.)
Jamming The Crease
Much has been made of the resurgence of Patrick Marleau and the impact he's had on the Sharks' success, but San Jose's true MIP (Most Improved Player) might be Marc-Edouard Vlasic. The young defender's game has rebounded spectacularly from last season, when his diminished panic threshold led to too many rushed plays and too many mistakes. This season, perhaps buoyed by the veteran presence of Rob Blake and Dan Boyle and the absence of abrasive coach Ron Wilson, he's more relaxed with the puck. He's not just making smarter plays, he's shooting more often -- both of San Jose's goals Thursday against the Ducks were initiated by a Vlasic point blast.
Less than a third of the way into the season, he already has more assists than he had points all of last year, but more important, he's gained the complete trust of coach Todd MacLellan who has handed him a team-leading workload (24:27). As the Sharks cruise toward a President's Trophy, watch for a Vlasic-for-Norris campaign to slowly build steam.
If Capitals fans are willing to look for the silver lining -- and what else can you do when you've had half the team simultaneously on Inured Reserve? -- they have to appreciate the opportunity to break some of the organization's wealth of young talent into the lineup. Already, the Caps have called up 10 different players from Hershey of the AHL. Some are bodies filling sweaters on a temp basis. Others? Well, in Wednesday night's 3-1 win over Boston, the team got its first look at a nasty piece of work who may be the answer to their longstanding need for a down-low presence: 6-4, 230-pound winger Oskar Osala.
The 2008 rookie of the year in the Finnish Elitserien, Osala is adjusting nicely to his first season in North America (16 goals and a plus-17 rating with the Bears), and plays a robust style that one day should make him very popular with the denizens of the Phone Booth. "He's a highly skilled player, but that's not his ticket [to the NHL]," an Eastern Conference scout told SI.com. "He's got the size and the [courage] to plant himself out front, and he's got soft hands. It's easy to see him becoming a big part of their power play."
Even though the Caps are starting to get healthy up front, Osala should get at least two more games to make an impression. Salary cap considerations will likely send him back to the minors after that, but they won't be able to keep this big hoss on the farm for long.
The Russian entry for the upcoming World Junior Championship got a boost Thursday when the Columbus Blue Jackets agreed to release top prospects Nikita Filatov (sixth overall, 2008) and Maxim Mayorov (94th, 2007). The duo, currently skating for Syracuse of the AHL, were allowed to skip the team's training camp, which runs through the 17th in Novogorsk. Wasn't that long ago that anyone playing in North America was blacklisted from the Russian squad. Now they can't put together a competitive squad without them.