Blog Dudes First Annual NHL All-Underrated Team
This article has absolutely nothing to do with Tim Tebow, but simply by mentioning his name I can tag him and therefore increase my number of hits by approximately 400,000,000.
That being said, I am going to use Mr. Tebow as a metaphor. Although I fully respect the man’s heart and ability to win games, I think the amount of press he has been getting makes him pretty much the inverse of the term “underrated”. In every sport, there are players whose play is spectacular, but because of whatever reason, whether it be playing in a small market or being soft-spoken and uncontroversial, they slip under the radar and do not receive the attention they deserve.
I am writing this column to give some incredible athletes, in this case hockey players, some well-deserved attention. You, the sports fan, can use this to improve your fantasy team — if a player is better than he is credited for, you can use an over-hyped big name to acquire him. Or, you can use it to tune in the next time they play on television or in your hometown — because if you have not seen any of the following players yet, it is you who is missing out.
Jonathan Quick, G, Los Angeles Kings
Quick is the NHL’s stealth superstar, always slipping just below the radar of appreciation for how great he truly is. A 3rd round pick out of the University of Massachusetts in 2005, he was overlooked by many scouts and considered a depth selection for the Kings’ system. Between 2005 and 2008, he improved and pleasantly surprised at every level he played at, from the NCAA, to the ECHL, to the AHL, and finally with the NHL squad in Los Angeles. By the latter half of the 2008-09 season he had taken over as the Kings’ starting goalie and performed spectacularly. Over the following two seasons he has raised his play to the level of the top echelon of NHL netminders statistically, but many hockey pundits still discuss him as no more than a placeholder for LA uber-prospect Jonathan Bernier. This season, with recently-deposed coach Terry Murray’s defensive system running the team into the ground, Quick has been the only thing keeping them in contention, posting an incredible .931 save percentage and tremendous 2.10 goals-against average with four shutouts in just 23 games. Possessing perhaps the quickest reflexes and feet of all NHL puckstoppers and a constant air of cool, I would rank Quick just behind the NHL-elite of Tim Thomas and Henrik Lundqvist, and far ahead of the over-hyped Roberto Luongo and Pekka Rinne.
Also considered: Jimmy Howard, Al Montoya
Dan Girardi, D, New York Rangers
When hearing a list of Norris Trophy candidates, certainly deserving candidates always come up: Nicklas Lidstrom, Zdeno Chara, Shea Weber. I think it may be time to add the unheralded Dan Girardi to that list. Quick (not Jonathan) quiz: who is leading the NHL in ice time this season? Also, who is leading the league in blocked shots? Also, who is the shut-down defenseman for the second-best defensive team in the Eastern Conference, with a +6 rating despite constantly being matched up against elite forwards like Evgeni Malkin and Claude Giroux in arguably the toughest division in hockey? The answer to all of these questions is Dan Girardi. While solid offensively and a decent open-ice hitter, those are the qualities which land a defenseman on the front pages of hockey headlines. What Mr. Girardi does, perhaps better than any defenseman in the NHL, is the little things which coaches and teammates appreciate but do not garner as much media attention — blocking shots, playing sound positionally, making a slick outlet pass under forec hecking pressure, win in the corners. He is not just good, Girardi is elite.
John Carlson, D, Washington Capitals
Just 21 years old, Carlson has been bar none the best player on a high-profile Capitals squad this year, but for some bizarre reason nobody seems to notice it. If you asked most hockey fans and writers who the best young blueliner in the NHL is, you would hear names like Drew Doughty, P.K. Subban, Erik Karlsson, Tyler Myers. Taking nothing away from those wonderful players, I am stating with authority that Carlson is better than all of them. An elite skater with a howitzer shot from the point, Carlson is on a 14-goal, 57-point pace this season while emerging as the best defensive defenseman in the Southeast Division. The New Jersey-born rearguard seems to be getting better every day, and playing on an Ovechkin-led team which television adores, he will not be underrated for long. He will likely be a top pairing fixture (with Ryan Suter) on the next USA Olympic team, and will certainly be a candidate for the Norris in the near future.
Also considered: Mark Streit, Alex Edler
Loui Eriksson, RW, Dallas Stars
What does this dynamic-skating, high-scoring winger have to do to get some love from the hockey world? Over the past three seasons his point totals have improved from 63 to 71 to 73. He is the forward opposing coaches game-plan against when they prepare for Dallas. He is one of the quickest players in the NHL, with a sniper-quality wrist shot. Eriksson has the wheels, brains and puck-handling ability to create nightmares for defensemen in one-on-one scenarios. His speed and smarts make him not only a tremendous offensive force, but also a force while his team is shorthanded. His game is reminiscent of a Hall-of-Famer I grew up watching in Mike Gartner, and that is no small praise for the still-improving, 26-year old winger from Gothenburg, Sweden.
Also considered: Jason Pominville, Derek Stepan
Evander Kane, LW, Winnipeg Jets
With the incredible popularity of the newly re-born Jets, rest assured that Kane will likely to be the first of these players to graduate from “underrated” to “desevedly appreciated”. Five games into the season, new coach Claude Noel was still getting to know his players and Kane was not getting top-line minutes, and the Jets struggled. Noel then put Kane on the top line, and how did he respond? With 15 goals in the next 23 games. Kane’s game can only be described as “electrifying” — he is lightning on skates, possessing a laser-beam shot, and tough as nails. Named after boxer Evander Holyfield, his one-punch knockout of quite possibly the most hated man in the NHL, Matt Cooke, is near legendary: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b6zKd50N9ck&feature=related Only 20 years old, Kane is emerging as an elite power forward, with 40-50 goal upside and, a generation from now, I predict there will be many children in Manitoba named Evander, but they will be named after Kane, not Holyfield.
Also considered: Ryan Clowe, Dustin Brown
David Backes, C, St. Louis Blues
I cannot describe Backes’ game without using the word “beast”. 6’3″ and 225 lbs., there are plenty of players who look to make a hit more than Backes. The difference is, Backes hits harder than any forward in the NHL. When he freight-trains a foe, the victim is usually seen immediately afterwards, struggling to get up off the ice and/or remember where exactly they are, fixing their helmet on their head and/or their head on their neck. An impossible physical match-up at center, it would be easier to describe what Backes can not do than what he can, for there is quigte simply no weakness in his game. Defense? He can shut-down the top centers in his division, whether it be Jonathan Toews or Pavel Datsyuk. Face-offs? He is dominant in the circle. Scoring? Toughness? He was the only player in the NHL last season with 30+ goals, 30+ assists and 90+ penalty minutes. He is a better version of Keith Primeau or Jason Arnott in their primes, and those were two tremendous players, a fact which has somehow gone barely noticed in the NHL media.
Also considered: Stephen Weiss, Craig Smith
Author’s Note: When compiling this list, I enlisted the help of probably the best fantasy hockey writer I have ever read (including myself) in Ian Gooding. His list also includes Jamie Benn and James Neal, two other highly deserving wingers. You can read his stellar column here: http://www.kuklaskorner.com/index.php/fantasy