Here are 15 players, ranked in order, who are much better than you think.
March 26, 2015
1 of 15Ann Heisenfelt/AP
15. Blake Wheeler
It’s not often that a top-five draft selection flies under the radar, but that’s the downside to skating in Winnipeg. In another market, Wheeler would be celebrated as the winger who symbolizes the new game. He plays the game at top speed and with clear purpose, and is an excellent playmaker and finisher who is dogged at both ends of the ice. “He’s been our most consistent driver,” said coach Paul Maurice.
2 of 15Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images
14. Antoine Roussel
To casual observes, Roussel’s one of those “players you love to hate.” He’s an agitator, a chirper and a cheap-shot artist whose willingness to venture well over the line has him fifth in the NHL with 128 penalty minutes. But here’s what you’re missing: He’s a relentless defender, a premier penalty killer and an excellent playmaker and finisher. He’s also a player who fearlessly (and consistently) ventures to the most dangerous parts of the ice. “He really makes things happen,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff.
3 of 15Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images
13. Mikael Backlund
Another player whose reputation was snowed under by a slow start to his career, Backlund has finally emerged this season as a high-end two-way center who is capable of shutting down opposing forwards while generating his share of offense on the counterattack. “He’s someone who can handle tough minutes and always seems to be on the right side of the puck,” said coach Bob Hartley.
4 of 15Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images
12. Cory Schneider
Yes, everyone pretty much agrees that Schneider’s good. But that doesn’t mean the man is getting his due. He faces a higher shot volume than any other goalie (1,830), is top-five in both save percentage (.928) and GAA (2.17) and he’s second only to Carey Price in quality starts during the past three seasons. He won’t get the wins in New Jersey he needs to enter the mainstream conversation, but Schneider clearly is one of the very best in the game.
5 of 15Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images
11. Tyler Ennis
At 5' 9", Ennis is used to being overlooked, and playing on a historically bad team doesn’t exactly boost his profile. But he’s transformed his game this season, growing from a solid, if limited, player into someone who drives the offense and makes everyone around him better. While he’s putting up numbers that are as good as any in his career, he’s become a top-notch forechecker, a committed physical presence, a smarter defender and a more effective attacker, along with a power play QB. “He does so many things so well,” said coach Ted Nolan. “He's made himself into an impact player.”
6 of 15Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images
10. Corey Crawford
Despite backstopping a Stanley Cup winner, Crawford has been regarded by many as the weak link in Chicago’s armor, a beneficiary of reflected glory. That’s just not the case. Consider his play this season, wherein the absence of Patrick Kane has stalled the offense and put more pressure on the Hawks’ defense. Crawford responded with numbers that could top his career bests, including a .925 save percentage and 30 wins. “As the games get bigger,” said coach Joel Quenneville, “he gets bigger.”
7 of 15Mark J. Terrill/AP
9. Max Pacioretty
What’s an Olympian and an All-Star doing on this list? Simple—no one talks about MaxPac outside of Montreal. And that’s ridiculous. Sure, P.K. Subban’s big personality and the Ken Dryden-like excellence of Carey Price draw a lot of attention, but look at the numbers: Since the start of the 2012-13 season, just two players (Rick Nash and Corey Perry) have scored more goals at five-on-five than Pacioretty (55). He deserves to be recognized as an elite sniper.
8 of 15Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images
8. Derick Brassard
Brassard hasn’t yet shaken the reputation that he earned early in his career for being wildly inconsistent, and the truth is that it’ll probably haunt him for some time. But he’s proved this season that he can be a more reliable player. That’s earned him more ice time, career-high stats and high praise from teammates.
9 of 15Justin Berl/Icon Sportswire
7. Frans Nielsen
He’s the guy you want your kids watching when they’re learning how to play the game. Nielsen’s numbers will never dazzle, but his tireless work ethic and commitment to a high energy two-way game make him an invaluably part of the Islanders’ success at five-on-five and with the man advantage. “He’s a guy who always plays the right way,” teammate Kyle Okposo told The New York Times. “Never takes a short cut or the easy way out.”
10 of 15Patrick Smith/Getty Images
6. T.J. Brodie
Playing alongside Mark Giordano—another player who knows something about being under appreciated—Brodie’s matured into an outstanding top pairing defender for the Flames at just 24. “I’ve rarely seen a young defenseman progress at such a quick pace,” coach Bob Hartley raved to the Calgary Sun. “He has so many good details—his positioning, the way that he angles a player, his stick ... his skating.”
11 of 15Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
5. Chris Tanev
A classic late-bloomer who almost gave up the game as a teenager, Tanev has emerged as an excellent, if unlikely, top-pairing defender for the Canucks. Since being signed as a free agent out of RIT in 2010 he’s proved to be much more than the sum of his parts, and while the absence of one defining skill is likely to keep him under the national radar, he’s appreciated at home. “He’s a goalie’s best friend,” said teammate Eddie Lack.
12 of 15Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images
4. Ondrej Palat
While linemate Tyler Johnson is building some buzz after being selected to appear in the All-Star Game, Palat quietly goes about his business as the best all-around player on one of the league’s best teams. “He plays in every situation,” said coach Jon Cooper. “He plays on the power play. He kills penalty. He’s out there in the last minute whether we’re up or down a goal.”
13 of 15John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images
3. Bryan Little
First-line centers typically don’t fly under the radar, but Little has always played the game in stealth mode. Quiet and unassuming, he’s been overshadowed while larger personalities like Dustin Byfuglien and Evander Kane have dominated the conversation around the Jets. But there’s no denying that he’s the engine that powers Winnipeg’s attack, a crafty playmaker with an excellent shot who manages to generate offense despite matching up against the league’s largest and toughest checkers.
14 of 15Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire
2. Anton Stralman
Stralman will likely never get his due, but it won’t be for a lack of tire pumpers. “He’s a great player,” said former Rangers partner Marc Staal. “He doesn't get near the attention he deserves.” Former coach Alain Vigneault once said Stralman “Does so many things well for us. A very underrated player.” While it’s clear that he’s a defensive stalwart, he isn’t often hailed for his ability to impact Tampa Bay’s possession game. His 56.7% Corsi For ranks second among all defensemen despite a workload that features a preponderance of defensive zone starts.
15 of 15Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
1. Tyson Barrie
He’s the best offensive defenseman no one talks about. There are players who have put up more points than Barrie during the past two seasons, but only two—Victor Hedman and Erik Karlsson—have been more effective at generating offense during five-on-five play. Barrie scores an average of 1.3 points per 60 minutes played, making him more productive than Duncan Keith (1.15), P.K. Subban (1.04) and Shea Weber (0.99).
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