Friday April 4th, 2008

With just five days remaining before balloting ends, the tall foreheads who will determine the season's award winners are focused on the game's biggest stars. Not your humble scribe. The way I see it, Alexander Ovechkin, Martin Brodeur, Pavel Datsyuk and their ilk already get enough attention. Today, it's time to shine a little light on the NHL's unsung heroes.

You know who I mean. Your local little guys whose nightly efforts aren't documented in the highlights. The grunts who find a way to make a worthy contribution, but somehow manage to slip beneath the national radar. Every team has one -- and chances are you have your own favorite -- so whittling this group down to a manageable list of the season's most noteworthy means a couple dozen deserving souls will remain unheralded.

Here then are my 10 players who completely blew expectations out of the water, but have yet to garner the attention they deserve.

1. Toby Enstrom, Thrashers: All things being equal, the name of Atlanta's rookie defenseman should be getting considerably more play in Calder Trophy discussions. Although the Thrashers' defense was the league's most generous, the undersized Swede asserted himself as their most reliable blueline option with his calm demeanor and ability to trigger a transition game that brought out the best in superstar Ilya Kovalchuk. Enstrom was a horse, averaging more than 24 minutes per game for a team that desperately needed someone to step up into that role.

2. Mike Green, Capitals: Confidence issues led him to spend much of his rookie campaign inventing new ways to turn over the puck, usually at the most inopportune moment. But this season, under the patient tutelage of coach Bruce Boudreau, Green emerged as one of the game's elite offensive-minded defenders. Like Enstrom, it was his ability to deftly dish the puck that became his most obvious contribution, but he wasn't afraid to take the shot himself, either. His 18 goals were the most scored by a defender this season.

3. Dan Ellis, Predators: While Ty Conklin's emergence from the chorus line to a starring role in Pittsburgh earned rave reviews, Ellis' act has gone largely unnoticed. When Chris Mason struggled to hold down the starter's job after the departure of Tomas Vokoun, free agent acquisition Ellis stepped into the breech, going 23-10-3, with a 2.34 GAA and a league-leading .924 save percentage. His six shutouts tied him for third in that category. With the Preds fighting for their playoff lives, he established himself as the go-to guy. He recently ran off a shutout streak of 233:39, the fifth longest of the modern era. Not bad for a guy who had just one NHL appearance prior to this season.

4. David Booth, Panthers: At first blush, the idea that this young power forward never scored more than 22 goals in a season in the AHL, college, NAHL or with the U.S. Junior National Team might suggest a rather limited pro upside. But when you consider that his career-best 22 came this season in the NHL, the prospectus looks considerably brighter. After spending much of his rookie season trying to use his speed to make plays on the perimeter, Booth changed his approach for 2007-08. Though his speed remains his biggest asset, he began going hard to the net, paying the price down low to finish off his chances. It's worth noting that 21 of his goals came at even strength, and six were game-winners. Both stats led the team.

5. Matt Niskanen, Stars: The Stars always believed they had a player in Niskanen, 21. They just didn't know it would be this soon -- or that he had the mental toughness to step up into such a critical role. Surprising observers simply by making the team out of camp, he proved that he belonged with his fearless creativity with the puck and strong positional play in his own zone. But it was Niskanen's ability to understand how a play was unfolding that earned him the shotgun role alongside Sergei Zubov on Dallas' top pairing and allowed him to assume a larger role when both Zubov and Philippe Boucher were lost for extended periods. He's begun to show signs of fatigue over the past few weeks, but those rough patches can't negate his early contributions.

6. Brent Burns, Wild: For a while, it looked as though the Wild weren't quite sure what they had in Burns. But the decision to utilize the lifelong defenseman as a forward early in his career began to pay significant dividends this season. The 23-year-old asserted himself as one of hockey's most promising two-way blueliners. His growing confidence with the puck earned him 43 points, tops among Wild defenders, and he began using his 6-5, 220-pound frame to manhandle some of the game's most dominant forwards. That coach Jacques Lemaire upped Burns' ice time by nearly eight minutes over last season demonstrates the leap that the kid's game took.

7. Jan Hejda, Blue Jackets: He's not a big name now, but the 29-year-old pending UFA could prove to be one of the offseason's most wanted men. Fitting comfortably into Ken Hitchcock's smothering system after joining the Jackets from Edmonton last summer, Hejda emerged as the team's most sturdy defender. He led the team with 143 hits and was third with 87 blocks. But here's a number that really stands out: Hejda was a plus-20 for a team that was minus-10 while playing five on five.

8. Alex Burrows. Canucks: Though Ryan Kesler soaks up much of the attention for his defensive work in Vancouver, his penalty-kill running mate is ready to emerge from his shadow. Burrows has perfected the art of agitation, turning himself into one of the game's top pests But he's not just another mouth that roared. Burrows has a decent set of hands, and the willingness to get them dirty in the trenches. As a kid who couldn't even stick with a junior team until he was 19, he epitomizes the values of perseverance and hard work.

9. Dennis Wideman, Bruins: Has to be tough knowing you're the guy the Bruins dealt straight up for 40-goal man Brad Boyes. But after an opening night scratch, Wideman slowly clawed his way back into the lineup and eventually onto Boston's top pairing, averaging more than 25 minutes a night alongside Zdeno Chara. Although he still makes his share of mistakes, Wideman has relieved himself of bad habits. He makes solid decisions both with and without the puck, and has become the key to Boston's transition game. He'll never be the most physical player, but his positioning makes him a reliable presence in his own zone.

10. Daniel Winnik, Coyotes: With just 11 goals, Winnik's not the sort of player you'll notice if you're just skimming the box scores. But the 22-year-old left winger, one year removed from a stint in the ECHL, has asserted himself as one of the new breed of Coyotes. What he lacks in flash he makes up for by being smart, strong and diligent on the puck. He makes his presence felt every shift.

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