The Straight Edge: Flattening the playing field

Parity has never been greater in the NHL. Not just among teams, but also in the distribution of the game’s best players.
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Putting together player rankings for this issue and our Yearbook (the top 50 players in the NHL) is a challenging task that gets more daunting every season. While several high-end veterans – Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, to name two – are still on top of their games, every year a new crop of elite performers makes a statement, forcing its way onto the list. It killed me to leave off Miro Heiskanen and Brady Tkachuk, though I know both will crack the top 25 for their respective positions next season.

In formulating the names and orders for the top 25 centers, left wingers, right wingers, defensemen and goalies, it got me thinking about how talent is dispersed in the NHL right now. Frankly, almost every team has an elite player or two to call its own, and even some of the best and brightest still find themselves struggling to make the playoffs these days. Connor McDavid, for example, is the best player in his cohort – the definition of a generational talent. But through four seasons, the young Edmonton captain has been to the post-season just once. That’s one more time than the excellent player who was drafted immediately after him in 2015 – Buffalo’s Jack Eichel has never been to the round of 16. And as dazzling as the young Toronto Maple Leafs trio of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander has been, there isn’t a single playoff series victory to celebrate yet.

All this could change in 2019-20, of course, but it goes to show just how much parity there is in the NHL’s star system. The days of the Wayne Gretzky/Mark Messier Oilers powerhouse, or the Mario Lemieux/Jaromir Jagr era of Penguins hockey are gone, replaced by a more competitive but much more unpredictable open field.

If you’re seeking a flag-bearer for the trend, go straight to the parade route in St. Louis, where the Blues won their first Stanley Cup. As the well-known narrative reminds us, the Blues were dead last in the NHL on Jan. 3, yet thanks to the leadership of interim coach Craig Berube and upstart rookie goalie Jordan Binnington, they turned the ship around in dramatic fashion.

While it has been widely noted St. Louis won thanks to a roster that played heavy, effective, two-way hockey (as did its final opponent, Boston), I’m less interested in that than I am in the construction of the victor’s roster. Because for the first time in NHL history, the Cup-winning team did not have a surefire Hall of Famer in its lineup.

Go back to the beginning of the NHL’s exclusive time with the Cup in 1927 and every champion boasts a Hall of Famer, starting with Cy Denneny in Ottawa and Frank Boucher on the New York Rangers. The 2006 Carolina Hurricanes are seen as one of the more unlikely champions ever, but even they had Mark Recchi (and Rod Brind’Amour could still get in). Recent winners all had players who will be locks down the road: Crosby for Pittsburgh, Ovechkin for Washington, but also Jonathan Toews in Chicago, Drew Doughty in Los Angeles and Zdeno Chara in Boston.

The Blues on the other hand, may not have a Hall of Famer in their midst. Ryan O’Reilly is a very good player, and Alex Pietrangelo is solid on the back end, but neither is a lock at this point. Both would have to increase their production in the second half of their careers – not a common occurrence.

Another thing St. Louis lacks? Huge contracts. No Blue makes more than a $7.5-million AAV, putting O’Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko outside the NHL’s top 40. That does not take away from what the Blues accomplished. Rather, it makes it pretty remarkable in the grand scheme of things.

It also throws down the gauntlet for all the stars in the NHL’s very-full galaxy: being exceptional does not guarantee success these days, especially when so many of your foes also have exceptional players. You have to play as a team and even then, you have to hope for the best.

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