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Central: Hudler becoming more reliable offensively

by Dan Rosen
Going strictly by the numbers, it's fair to say Detroit Red Wings forward Jiri Hudler is emerging as a legitimate threat this season.

Detroit coach Mike Babcock tells a different story.

"I don't think the emergence has been this year; it's been over a period of time," Babcock told this week. "It's just that his opportunity is consistent on the power play this year. He didn't play on the power play every game in the past, so that's why he's got the points he does."

Hudler had 12 goals, including 4 on the power play, and 12 assists through 27 games this season heading into Friday night's game in Dallas. He's only averaging 13 minutes of ice time per game, though, and just 2:41 on the power play.

He's on pace for 36 goals this season, a major step from the 13 he had last season and the 15 he had as a rookie in 2006-07. He had only 6 power-play goals in his first two full seasons.

Babcock, though, praised his hockey sense instead of his scoring ability.

"Hudler is an elite, elite thinker," Babcock said. "I think he's one of the offensive puck hounds from the top of the circle. He's a great passer, he can shoot the puck, he's competitive and he's brave. That makes him a great player."

According to Babcock, all that's holding Hudler from becoming an elite top-six forward is his skating ability.

"He's got to work on his 200-foot game, because to play in today's game and be a top-six forward, you have to fly up and down the rink," Babcock said. "If he had the dimension of skating, he'd be like (Patrick) Kane, but he doesn't have that. But he's that good of a player and he's that competitive."

He's also been an excellent playoff performer.

Hudler had 14 points while playing in all 22 Stanley Cup Playoff games last season. He had 22 points in 16 playoff games while with the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins in 2005-06.

Hudler joined the Red Wings the following season.

"The year that I thought he was a real player was his last year in the American League at playoff time," Babcock said. "That's when I knew he was going to be a player, because if you can be a dominant player at playoff time, you've got something."

Sophomore what? -- After going his first 12 games without a goal and scoring twice in his first 19 games, Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews began to field the inevitable questions about the dreaded sophomore slump.

He wasn't buying it.

"I didn't want to believe in that," Toews said. "I personally don't believe in the sophomore slump. I just believe it's a mental thing that a player goes through and that sometimes maybe other people convince him that that's what he's going through.

"I had a slow start."

It's water under the bridge now. Toews busted out with 2 goals at San Jose on Nov. 26, and was the NHL's Second Star of the Week last week with 4 goals and 2 assists in three games. He had 8 goals and 14 assists going into Friday's game at Colorado.

"Maybe I put a little too much pressure on myself and a lot of people maybe associated that with the captaincy," said Toews, 20, who was named captain this summer. "Obviously, I denied that. It's not easy to come in as a second-year player and expect, when everything's so exciting your first year, everything to go easy and smooth.

"Last year I got all the opportunities. This year you just expect it to be the same thing, but really you've got to earn every little bit of success that you have. So that first little period was tough. It's great to finally get through that."

Kariya still out -- It's been more than a month since Paul Kariya, who has been bothered by a hip-flexor injury, skated in a game for the St. Louis Blues. There is no timetable for his return even to practice. Kariya previously had played in 301 straight games.

This week, Blues President John Davidson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Kariya's injury is not serious, "it just needs time." That time is taking a lot longer than the Blues initially anticipated, but there is nothing anyone can do about it.

Kariya still hasn't skated, but he told the Post-Dispatch that he's doing light off-ice workouts. He had 2 goals and 13 assists in 11 games, but he hasn't played since Nov. 5.

The injury bug struck the Blues again this week when Manny Legace went out with a concussion after being kneed in the head by Anaheim's Ryan Carter. Legace was put on injured reserve Thursday and will sit at least a week.

Rookie report --
Sticking with the Blues' injury theme, forward T.J. Oshie returned last week after missing 13 games with a high ankle sprain, but he's back on the IR after experiencing pain in his left ankle during last Saturday's game against Phoenix.

According to the Post-Dispatch, the scar tissue in Oshie's ankle "released." Blues coach Andy Murray told the newspaper that Oshie needed therapy on the ankle, which is why he didn't make the trip with the Blues out west. Murray was hoping Oshie would skate this weekend.

On a more positive note for St. Louis fans, there's the emergence of Patrik Berglund as a Calder Trophy candidate. He was shut out Thursday night, but had 7 points in his previous four games and now has 9 goals and 10 assists with a plus-10 rating.

Berglund is climbing the rookie scoring list and was third entering Friday. Fellow rookie teammate B.J. Crombeen scored his first career hat trick this past Monday night and now has 5 goals in his last four games.

It appears Columbus center Derick Brassard has snapped out of his recent funk.

Brassard broke a nine-game goal drought by netting one in last Sunday's game at Anaheim. It was his first goal since Nov. 14. He added an assist against Anaheim, another one against Nashville on Thursday and now has 4 points in his last four games.

Brassard entered Friday leading all rookies with 23 points.

The Blackhawks hope Kris Versteeg has only hit a bump in the road. Versteeg, who has 22 points, had only 2 assists in his last six games before Friday's game in Colorado. He was suspended for Wednesday's game after being assessed an instigating penalty Sunday night for his role in a late-game altercation with Phoenix rookie Kyle Turris.

This and that --
Blackhawks defenseman James Wisniewski is close to making his season debut. Wisniewski, who has been on injured reserve all season with a knee injury, was sent on a conditioning assignment to AHL Rockford Thursday. He's expected to play two games for the IceHogs, and could play for the Blackhawks on Sunday night. … In more positive news for Hawks fans, they also got goalie Nikolai Khabibulin back for Friday's game. Khabibulin had missed six games with a lower-body injury. … How about this for surprises: The Columbus Blue Jackets entered Friday with a slightly better defense -- statistically speaking -- than the Detroit Red Wings. The Wings were allowing 3.07 goals per game before playing in Dallas on Friday. The Jackets are allowing 3.04 goals per game after holding Nashville to only one Thursday. … According to The Tennessean, Predators forward Steve Sullivan is close to returning to practice. Back problems have kept him out since Feb. 22, 2007. He has resumed skating, and the word is he's close to practicing, which is good news for the Preds. Sullivan had been a point-per-game player in the first two seasons coming out of the lockout.

He said it -- "You know what? I'm probably more surprised about our record than anything. I didn't know we'd have a record like this. I thought it was going to be more of a struggle than it has been record-wise. We haven't been perfect by any means lots of nights." -- Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock

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