Most undersung players of the 2015-16 NHL season... so far
What a year Justin Faulk is having. The 23-year-old blueliner has emerged as the league’s top power play weapon and leads the Carolina Hurricanes, and all NHL defenseman, with 12 goals. He also ranks first among defensemen in power play points (14) and shooting percentage (13.5%), third in shots (96) and 10th in time on ice (25:09).
If he were skating for almost any team other than Carolina, Faulk would rank among the league’s most celebrated stars. Instead, he’s one of a number of players whose efforts go largely unappreciated by fans around the league. With an eye on giving this holiday season, let’s take a look at nine others who are deserving of more attention.
Bobby Ryan, Senators
You don’t hear those old complaints about his lack of passion and intensity these days, do you? He’ll never be hell on wheels, but at 28, Ryan’s game has evolved in all the right ways. Although he can still tickle the twine (he scored his 10th of the season in Wednesday’s 2–1 loss to the Capitals), Ryan has become more of a playmaker this season with the Sens. He has 20 apples so far, and is on pace to top his career highs in helpers (37) and points (71), a trend that also speaks to a greater consistency in his game.
Cory Schneider, Devils
Where would the Devils be without their MVP? Schneider ranks sixth with 14 wins, which has him on pace for a career-best 40, and he sits 10th in goals-against per game (2.06). He’s allowed more than three in a game just three times this season, despite facing the fifth-most shots against, and he has yet to post back-to-back losses in regulation. He’s also one of the best in the game at stopping high-quality scoring chances. War-On-Ice.com ranks him second at blocking in-close opportunities at 88.15%.
Mark Stone, Senators
For years, Pavel Datsyuk has ranked as the NHL’s preeminent puck pilferer, his soft hands capable of picking any pocket. While he’s still up there, Stone now stands as the best. After tying for the league lead with 98 takeaways last season, the Sens winger is running away with this season’s race. Stone has 47 steals, with Carolina’s Jeff Skinner a distant second at 32. Superior hockey sense is a key to Stone’s success there, and it powers his burgeoning offensive game as well. While he’s finishing less frequently (just seven goals), his playmaking has keyed Ottawa’s attack. His 21 helpers are second on the team and he’s on pace to surpass his career highs in both assists (38) and points (64).
Brayden McNabb, Kings
McNabb’s season got off to a lousy start—he was a healthy scratch for the opener—but his game has shown marked improvement ever since, to the point that he’s now routinely paired with Drew Doughty on the top D pair for the Kings. He’s averaging about 21 minutes per game, roughly five minutes more than he did last season, and is being trusted by coach Darryl Sutter—a man of limited patience—to handle key minutes against the opposition’s most dangerous attackers. He’s also devoting nearly three minutes per game to a penalty kill that is ranked fifth in the league, about two minutes ahead of his contribution last season.
Rasmus Ristolainen, Sabres
The hat trick he scored just over a week ago certainly increased his notoriety, but Ristolainen’s still not getting the credit he deserves. The 21-year-old is experiencing a breakthrough season. Through 33 games, he’s on pace to score 19 goals and 59 points. If he gets there, he will be the first Sabres blueliner to reach the 50-point milestone since Garry Galley in 1995-96. But his real value lies in his own zone, where he’s emerged as a reliable shutdown defender. He plays it smart, physical and clean—he's the only defender among the league’s top-100 in minutes played who has yet to be called for a single penalty this season.
Adam Henrique, Devils
When Henrique fell to the third round in his draft season (2008), the knock on him was that he wasn’t particularly good in any one area. Now, Henrique is a player who can do pretty much everything well. A capable center who can handle heavy defensive responsibilities as well as ignite the offense, he leads the Devils in even-strength goals per 60 minutes (1.22) and sits second in points per 60 (2.29). He plays in all situations, and is a key presence on the power play and penalty kill, both of which are ranked in the top 10, well above last season’s standing.
Victor Rask, Hurricanes
There is little flash to Rask as a person or a player. Instead, he has a quiet maturity in his game that makes this sophomore Carolina’s most consistent forward. He’s a player who can move up or down as it suits the needs of coach Bill Peters, who knows he can count on Rask to match up defensively against top opponents or provide a spark for struggling linemates. His smooth playmaking—he has six assists in his past five games—has been the key to a power play that has recently come to life after struggling early.
Oscar Lindberg, Rangers
With no goals in his past six games, Lindberg is suffering through a slump like the rest of the Rangers. But the 24-year-old rookie has been one of the season’s best surprises in New York, scoring 10 goals—tied for third on the team with Rick Nash—and ranking first in goals per 60 minutes (1.31) and second on the team in points per 60 (2.13, according to War-On-Ice.com). His versatility—he can play center or wing—and defensive reliability have made him a valuable weapon for coach Alain Vingeault, who isn’t afraid to move him up and down the lineup or to use him to protect leads late in the game.
Michal Neuvirth, Flyers
His 8-4-2 record as the 1B netminder for a non-competitive Flyers team has pushed Neuvirth’s excellent start into the shadows. The eight-year vet, signed as free agent on July 1 to back up Steve Mason, quietly leads the NHL with a .937 save percentage. His numbers are even better at five-on-five, where he boasts a .948 save percentage (third best in the league), while facing the second-most shots at just over 32 per game at evens. He’s allowed more than three goals just once this season, while posting three shutouts.
Hat tip to Sam Page and Michael Blinn, who got this conversation rolling and contributed some material during our weekly NHL roundtable discussion.
The numbers game
• The Flames’ seven-game winning streak is three shy of their franchise record, set from Oct. 14 to Nov. 3, 1978 when they were based in Atlanta (10-0-0).
• Corey Crawford is now the first Blackhawks goaltender to record three or more shutouts in a span of four team games since franchise icon Tony Esposito in 1973-74.
• On Thursday vs. Arizona, seven different Blue Jackets scored in the same game for the first time in franchise history.
• Recent losses may hurt, but getting pulled back into the pack might be the best thing that could happen to contending teams like the Stars and Rangers.
• After reading an article online, Alex Burrows decided it was time to apologize for taunting an opponent several years ago. It's a nice first step, but what he really needs to do is offer that apology face-to-face.
• A former Division III goalie was watching Thursday’s game between the Wild and Rangers on TV when he got the call to suit up as an emergency backup to Henrik Lundqvist.
• An ugly brawl with fans has raised questions about the level of security at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
• Let's all celebrate the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens by listening to Noah Hanifin and Mitch Marner do their best Chewbacca impressions.