By Allan Muir
It's no wonder the hockey world went bananas over that amazing goal scored by the Sharks' Tomas Hertl last week. What with suffocating systems and chip-and-chase ruling the day, conservative play rather than creativity, is the widest path to the NHL. And anything that veers from the straight and narrow, whether it's a between-the-legs shot, a rules-testing spin-o-rama or some shootout parlor trick, is bound to generate some buzz.
But as curmudgeons from Adam Oates to Don Cherry proved, there's always someone waiting to drop a "respect for the game" anvil on any player who has the skills, creativity and guts to try something truly special.
Shame on them for that.
Honestly, is a little extra personality and style really so bad? Of course not. That's why we shouldn't just encourage the sort of flash that Hertl displayed, but celebrate it . . . even if it means suffering through a little hotdogging every now and then.
Let's free up the next generation of potential stars like Hertl to be as bold and original as they want to be. And let's recognize the guys who've already proved that they're more than worth the price of admission. I mean the players who can pull you out of your seat with a stunning burst of speed, a sweet dangle and a dazzling how'd-he-do-that? finish . . . or maybe something else that's uniquely their own.
With those factors in mind, here are the 10 most exciting players in the NHL today.
10. Brent Burns, Sharks
Burns is the outlier here, in that his forte is neither skill nor speed but chaos. He's a true wild card who creates opportunity out of havoc. "I don't know how you defend against him, because he doesn't know what he's doing, so how do they know?" Sharks GM Doug Wilson told the San Jose Mercury News. "As soon as he climbs off the bench, it's full blast," As Joe Thornton said of his linemate, "You don't want to tell somebody like that to slow down, because it's just so much fun to watch."
9. Taylor Hall, Oilers
Hall's game is all speed and power and reckless abandon -- hockey's most intoxicating mix. "It's the way he gets to full gallop once he gets the puck and heads directly to the net," a scout said during Hall's draft year (2010). "If someone is in his way, he can turn on the jets and blow by them or put his shoulder down and run over them. Either way, he's getting where he wants to go." It's a dangerous style to play -- evidenced by the series of injuries that Hall has already suffered during his short career -- but it makes him thrilling to watch.
And he's starting to do some special things, like breaking a record held by Wayne Gretzky since 1981.
A couple of years ago, Ovi might have been No. 1 on this list. A year from now, he could be No. 1 again. Some of the joy left his game during the past couple seasons, replaced by frustration or boredom. But now that he's figured out what coach Oates wants from him, you can see that old fire twinkling in his eyes and the magic is back in his stick. Ovechkin has 28 goals in his past 28 contests and there's a sense that he can change any game with one big play.
"He might have gotten a little stale on the left side," Caps GM George McPhee said last season. "But he looks good on the right side now. He changed things up. He's more effective . . . and he's having fun out there." Yeah. It shows.
Sid doesn't thrill in the same way that most of the guys on this do. Instead of the big flashy play, his ability to turn the smaller moments into something unexpected makes him so exciting. It's his strength and ability to battle down low. His knack for threading the needle to a teammate. The way he can extricate himself from a crowd to find a split second of open space. His cobra-quick release and the ability to take advantage of any opening a goalie allows him. And, of course, his impeccable sense of timing:
Dutch has always had it in him to be a thriller -- the blazing wheels, the courage, the creativity, the sick hands -- but he's finally putting it all together on a consistent basis under Colorado's new Colorado, Patrick Roy. He's at his most exciting when he winds it up in the neutral zone and then slingshots around a mud-footed defender on his way to the net, as he did during this beauty against Washington's top blueliner, Karl Alzner:
5. PK Subban, Canadiens
A robotic adherence to systems has strangled much of the excitement out of today's game, which is why the always enthusiastic Subban is such a breath of fresh air. He's hockey's ultimate high-risk/high-reward player. He likes to yap. He takes terrible penalties at the worst possible moment. He puts pucks into dangerous areas. He'll pull himself out of position while chasing a hit. But just when he has you ready to pull your hair out, he can change the tide of a game with a bonecrushing check, a thrilling end-to-end rush or a seeing-eye blast from the point.
Both sides were on display when the Habs played Calgary last week. Subban dazzled with three coast-to-coast dashes, but also took two undisciplined penalties that helped the Flames seal the win. "Never a dull game with P.K., but that's what makes him so entertaining," a scout said. "He's one of the game's great characters. He's larger than life."
Game-breaking speed is a common denominator on this list, but what Kane does at top velocity really makes him stand out. "Quick feet, quicker hands," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "There aren't too many guys who are as dangerous with the puck as he is."
"He’s one of those guys -- you see him, you don’t see him. We have picture-in-screens: he’s in the picture, no he’s not, where the hell is he, oh, he’s on the breakaway," said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock.
Kane's playmaking ability is off the charts. He has an uncanny knack for knowing exactly where his teammates will be and a flair for getting the puck to them in spectacular fashion:
He's also a pretty deft stickhandler. This might not be game action, but it's still amazing:
3. Tim Thomas, Florida Panthers
A few years back, a scout compared Thomas not to another goalie, but to a comedian. "You know how some guys will do anything for a laugh? Like Jim Carrey? Doesn't matter what it is, he'll do it. That's [Thomas]. He doesn't care [about style]. He'll do anything for a stop." Even this season, when the effectiveness of his circus act has been diminished by his year away from the game (and a porous Florida defense), Thomas remains thrilling to watch. He still has that intense focus and ultra-elevated compete level that reveal themselves as he flings himself around in an effort to get anything in front of the puck. There's no more entertaining keeper in the game.
The moment that Karlsson touches the puck is like a home run masher stepping up to the plate. Maybe nothing happens, but the potential for something special leaves crowds holding their breath in anticipation. "There's no defenseman in the league who can do as much with the puck as he can," said Boston Bruins analyst Andy Brickley. "He has world-class speed and . . . hands, but it's his vision that sets him apart. He can find openings that nobody else sees and create big plays out of nothing. If you give him any time at all, watch out. He'll beat you."
How jaw-droppingly crazy are Datsyuk's skills? Even Siri recognizes him as the Magic Man and it ain't because he Ann Wilson's young girl heart.
"He's far and away the most skilled player I've ever seen," Ottawa's Bobby Ryan told TSN. "Every time he touches the puck, you know something good's going to come of it."
"It's mind-boggling what he can do with the puck," Brett Hull said back during Datsyuk's rookie season of 2001-02. "He actually does things most guys couldn't even think of."
Hit the mute button and marvel at some of these highlights:
Here's another classic. While Datsyuk is pulling fans out of their seats, he's putting Logan Couture on his butt: