By Allan Muir
From the end of the lockout in January to the end of December, it was a pretty good year to watch the NHL. There were many great performances, but these 13 players are our choices for the league's best of 2013. Some are well established stars who continued to impress or even improve while a couple emerged to join the pantheon.
(All stats current as of Dec. 21.)
13. Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks
Duncan Keith remains a cornerstone of Chicago's Stanley Cup-caliber defense. (Warren Wimmer/Icon SMI)
It's impossible to look at the Blackhawks' remarkable record without acknowledging Keith's impact, not just as a rock solid defenseman, but also as the player whose transitional skills fuel Chicago's explosive offense. He was Conn Smythe-worthy in the playoffs -- his 49-minute effort in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals is already the stuff of legend -- and he has maintained that level of excellence in the early going this season, setting himself up among the favorites to win the Norris Trophy.
12. Martin St. Louis, Tampa Bay Lightning
Still a prolific scorer, Martin St. Louis just keeps beating Father Time. (Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)
His 2013 Art Ross Trophy win was one for the ages ... and the aged. At 37, St. Louis became the oldest player ever to lead the league in scoring. Even more amazing? Playing the 48-game, lockout-shortened schedule, he was on pace for 103 points for an 82-game season, which would have been a personal best. He hasn't quite matched that level this season without Steven Stamkos, but with 33 points in 35 games, he has played himself into contention for a role on Team Canada.
11. P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens
P.K. Subban has his critics, but there is no denying his offensive skills. (Minas Panagiotakis/Icon SMI)
Maybe he wasn't the best possible choice to win the 2013 Norris Trophy. Maybe his coach raised eyebrows by not playing him in some high-pressure defensive situations earlier this season. And maybe there are some who think his high-risk/high-reward style makes him ill-suited for Team Canada. But there's no denying that Subban is a puck possession wizard who creates offensive opportunities like no other blueliner in the league. And when he's holding the puck in the offensive zone, he's keeping it 200 feet away from his own team's goal ... which seems like a pretty sound defensive strategy.
10. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
Steven Stamkos' relentless drive has made him one of the NHL's most feared sharpshooters. (Fred Kfoury/Icon SMI)
A sniper every bit the equal of Alex Ovechkin, Stamkos would be much higher on this list if not for the broken tibia that has cost him half of this season (so far). When healthy, he has been an MVP-caliber performer, with 43 goals and 80 points in his last 65 games. He was leading the league in goals (14) and points (23) when he was injured in early November. His explosive speed and ability to find space make him dangerous, but it is his consistency that makes him among the best players in the game. Since going without a goal in the first three games of 2013-14, he never went two in a row without lighting the lamp.
9. John Tavares, New York Islanders
John Tavares' great talent has often been overshadowed by his team's struggles. (Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images)
A finalist for the Hart Trophy last spring after a breakthrough season that saw him score a league-best 19 even-strength goals, Tavares has emerged as a player who can consistently drive possession, gain the zone and get to the dangerous areas. He carried the Isles into the playoffs last spring, and while New York hasn't lived up to expectations so far in 2013-14, Tavares hasn't disappointed. "He's an elite player, someone you have to game-plan for now," said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma.
8. Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim Ducks
Ryan Getzlaf is at the heart of what makes the Ducks a Stanley Cup contender. (Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)
He's the play-making, crease-crashing center of the best line on the best team outside of the Blackhawks, and the player Jaromir Jagr calls the MVP of the 2013-14 season. The fourth-leading scorer during the calendar year (trailing only Ovechkin, Kane and Crosby), Getzlaf is playing with fury and passion, using his 6-foot-4, 221-pound frame to full advantage. "He's pretty tough to handle when he's going like this," said Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau.
7. Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild
Defenseman Ryan Suter has become the Wild's Norris Trophy-worthy workhorse. (John Hefti/Icon SMI)
No disrespect to Subban, but Ryan Suter was flat-out robbed for the Norris last season. He might lack flash -- you won't find highlight footage of him going end-to-end or launching someone into the third row -- but Suter plays a smarter, more reliable game than any blueliner since Nick Lidstrom. And he maintains a consistent level of excellence while handling a workload that would buckle the knees of most NHLers. He's on pace to break Ray Bourque's league record for most minutes played in a single season (2,462:19, set in 1997-98) and the Wild are allowing the third-fewest shots of any team. No coincidence there.
6. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins
Tuukka Rask -- Tim Thomas' replacement -- backstopped the Bruins to the Cup finals. (Winslow Townson/AP)
A model of consistency, Rask has emerged as hockey's best stopper over the course of the year. He's allowed two goals or less in 44 of his 61 starts since the lockout ended, and has been a top-five fixture in goals-against average and save percentage. His .932 save percentage for 2013 is tops among goalies who have made at least 30 starts.
5. Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit Red Wings
Pavel Datsyuk's wizardry and versatility make him arguably the world's best player. (Steven King/Icon SMI)
He's not just a human highlight reel, the guy most likely to dance through an entire team before leaving the goalie's jockstrap hanging from the rafters. Datsyuk is the one superstar every other player admires, a perennial Selke Trophy candidate who plays the game hard and honest in all three zones. "I can’t do what Datsyuk does on the ice, but I can learn small stuff that I can learn for my game," said Red wings center Joakim Andersson, speaking for every other player in the NHL.
4. Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
Patrick Kane, the MVP of Chicago's Cup run, is now a Hart Trophy contender. (Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)
Kane might not have been the best player throughout the playoffs, but he was the best player when it mattered most, coming up with big efforts against the Kings and Bruins to guide the Blackhawks to their second Cup in four years and claim the Conn Smythe Trophy. But that was just the appetizer to what's now building into his best season yet, an MVP-worthy campaign that's seen him playing harder and more effectively than ever on both sides of the puck.
3. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
After enduring a wave of injuries, Sidney Crosby is playing better than ever. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
No doubt 2013 was the annus redemptio for Crosby who, one year earlier, was left to wonder if he'd ever play again. Fully recovered from the concussions that dogged him for more than two seasons, we saw the Penguins superstar at the height of his powers, not just as good as he used to be, but better. Even a broken jaw suffered in late March couldn't keep him out for long. "No one works harder at improving his game," said his coach, Dan Bylsma. "Working on his draws ... getting stronger on the puck ... it's why he's the best."
2. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks
Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews again proved that he is Chicago's bedrock. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Earlier this year, Gary Lawless of the Winnipeg Free Press wrote of Toews, "He has the knack of being able to do whatever his team needs him to do at the right moment. Durable, clutch and complete. He is The Franchise in Chicago and maybe Canada too." Well put. Toews is not, and never will be, an offensive trigger in the style of Ovechkin or Crosby, but there's a reason why he is probably the best candidate to wear the C for Team Canada in Sochi. He has proved time and again that he's the guy you want on the ice with the game on the line. A goal up or a goal down, he's the ultimate difference maker, the one player who can carry a team like no other.
1. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals
Alex Ovechkin's revival this year has been nothing less than stunning. (Alex Brandon/AP)
From "What's wrong with...?" features last February to an All-Star at two positions (left and right wing) in July. Ovechkin shook up his game (with help from coach Adam Oates) in 2013 and reestablished himself as the most explosive, most dynamic and most exciting player in the NHL. After finally getting the hang of his switch to the right side, his torrid goal-scoring pace earned him the third Hart Trophy of his career. And with 45 tallies in his last 50 games, he is on track for a fourth this season.