BY JEFF ANGUS
Yesterday, I outlined my top-five most underrated players in the NHL, and today I present you with five players who get more praise and acclaim than they probably should.
In no particular order:
Alex Ovechkin – Washington Capitals
Washington Capitals at Toronto Maple Leafs (-138, 5.5)
It seems as if Ovechkin’s days as a dominant force in the hockey world were a decade ago. He is set to make $9.5 million per season through 2020-21, and right now he is playing like a $3.5 million per season player. What is wrong with Alex the (once) Great?
For starters, the Capitals have undergone a few radical philosophical shifts over the past 18 months. Bruce Boudreau tried unsuccessfully to get Ovechkin to buy in and commit to a team game, and he lost his job because of it (also, some believe that the run-and-gun style he implemented wouldn’t be successful in the playoffs). In came Dale Hunter, who brought with him a focus to defensive hockey, grit, and tenacity.
Ovechkin struggled under Hunter, leading some to speculate that Ovechkin’s chilly personality was a contributing factor for Hunter’s return back to coach in the OHL with the London Knights. New head coach Adam Oates had great success in New Jersey getting star Russian Ilya Kovalchuk to buy in to the team system, and he was optimistic he could do the same with Ovechkin before the 2013 season began.
So far, not so good. Ovechkin struggled to adapt to the right wing, where was moved to from his natural position of left wing in hopes of generating more offense. Ovechkin’s game has become stagnant – he has a few moves he goes to regardless of the situation, and teams have learned how to defend against him with success.
On the move to right wing:
“In theory, it was a brilliant move that should have forced Ovechkin out of his comfort zone and into a place where he would rely on his natural creativity to keep defenses off balance.
Instead, it turned every shift into a potential episode of the Keystone Cops, with Ovechkin crashing into teammates or floating around aimlessly. Whether he was confused or simply pouting is tough to tell.
What was clear was that it didn’t work…and that Ovechkin seemed disinterested in committing to the approach. So Oates went to plan B: installing OV alongside Jay Beagle and Joey Crabb, a pair of ham-fisted grinders who don’t possess a lick of Ovechkin’s natural gifts between them.”
Ovechkin is still relatively young and he has a lot of hockey left in him, but he hasn’t been a top 10 player for three years now. And it is time we started to value him accordingly.
Jack Johnson – Columbus Blue Jackets
St. Louis Blues at Columbus Blue Jackets (+138, 5)
The Kings made out like bandits last season when they flipped Johnson for Jeff Carter. Johnson is a dynamic defenseman who can rush the puck up the ice and work the point on the power play, but he has been a significant defensive liability throughout his NHL career. He did turn things around after the trade in 2011-12, though. In 21 games with Columbus last season, he was a plus-5 (he still finished the season with a minus-7 rating, though). Plus/minus is far from a perfect measure for a player’s defensive prowess, but Johnson has been so far in the red for his entire career that it is an impossible statistic to ignore.
Kings GM Dean Lombardi was critical of Johnson’s defensive play as a prospect:
“At times, he was playing forward at Michigan. You had no idea what position he was playing. But he had always been the star and he always got his numbers. Then he turns pro and for the first time, we’re telling him ‘whoa, just make the first pass and learn to play in your own end.’ How about making a read in your own end about the right guy to pick up? He was awful
He had some solid offensive seasons in Los Angeles (36 points in 2009-10 and 42 points the year after), but he is too much of a defensive liability to play 20-plus minutes a night for a contending team, and the Kings recognized that before trading him.
He does look comfortable in Columbus and likely relishes the increased leadership role and on-ice responsibility, but it remains to be seen if he can shore up his defensive deficiencies. Unless he is contributing at a 40-50-point pace, he isn’t doing a whole lot of good for his team.
Dustin Brown – LA Kings
Nashville Predators at LA Kings (-175, 5)
Brown led the Kings to the Stanley Cup in 2012 with an inspired performance down the stretch and through the four rounds of postseason hockey. He dominated with his physical play, his ability to shoot the puck, and his leadership. However, many forgot that his name was brought up in several trade rumours only a few months previous to him hoisting the Stanley Cup.
Brown has struggled with consistency throughout his NHL career, especially from an offensive production standpoint. And it isn’t a surprise that he has suddenly become so highly valued in the hockey world – he did shine on the biggest possible stage. However, his career high in points in the NHL is 60 (from back in 2007-08), and he has scored over 30 goals only once.
Brown is a really good player who does a lot of things well – hit, shoot, skate, and dive (yes, he is the best embellisher in the game). However, he isn’t a superstar or a game-breaking player (although he has a few teammates who are).
Rick Nash – NY Rangers
Pittsburgh Penguins at NY Rangers (-138, 5.5)
Nash has teased hockey fans with his skill over the years, and now that he is playing for a team with a legitimate shot at the Stanley Cup, we are all hoping he delivers on a more consistent basis. He has often been the best forward for Canada at various international tournaments, but he largely loafed his way through the first part of his career in Columbus.
He isn’t entirely to blame of course, as the Blue Jackets didn’t really give him the right linemates to play with, and he was expected to carry so much of the load offensively. However, Nash didn’t help his cause with inconsistent effort and a penchant to cherry pick offensively. Neither of those will fly in New York under coach John Tortorella, as Nash will have more people to answer to than he did in Columbus. He turns 29 this summer and we have likely seen the best from him – it is very rare for players to have career years in their 30’s.
And for all of the praise and hype he gets as a dominant offensive force, Nash has never once topped the 80-point mark in the NHL. He is almost impossible to defend against with his combination of size, speed, and skill, but will he bring his ‘A’ game to the table every night in the Big Apple?
Rangers fans are hoping for a lot of this:
Phoenix Coyotes Goaltenders
Phoenix Coyotes to Win the Stanley Cup +5900
The Phoenix Coyotes play a stifling defensive brand of hockey. Head coach Dave Tippett is one of the best tacticians in the game, and regardless of his roster makeup, his teams always rank near the top of the league in defensive stinginess.
Phoenix snagged Ilya Bryzgalov off of waivers from the Anaheim Ducks back in 2007, and over the next five seasons he emerged as one of the most consistent and dependable starting goaltenders in the league. In his three full seasons in the desert, Bryzgalov started an average of 67 games, and his peripheral statistics were very impressive.
Bryzgalov became too rich for the Coyotes to re-sign, and he inked a massive free agent contract with the Flyers back in 2011. Since going to Philadelphia, his play has been erratic and inconsistent, especially compared to what he showed in Phoenix.
The Coyotes signed Mike Smith that very same summer to replace Bryzgalov. Many in the hockey world were questioning the move, as Smith had played himself out of the NHL in Tampa Bay. His career high for appearances at the NHL level was 42, but he smashed that number last season in Phoenix, appearing in 67 games as the Coyotes starting goaltender.
Smith’s strong play carried Phoenix all the way to the Western Conference Final. He finished last season with 38 wins, a ridiculous .930 save percentage, and a GAA (goals-against-average) of 2.21. Will Smith price himself out of Phoenix this summer, as he is slated to become a free agent? It may not matter to Phoenix, as long as they have Tippett running things.
Smith may go on to be a star goaltender for the foreseeable future, but his sample size as a star NHL goalie is very small. And if Bryzgalov has taught us anything, it is that Phoenix tends to make its goaltenders look very good.
- Washington Capitals at Toronto Maple Leafs (-138, 5.5)
- St. Louis Blues at Columbus Blue Jackets (+138, 5)
- Nashville Predators at LA Kings (-175, 5)
- Pittsburgh Penguins at NY Rangers (-138, 5.5)
- Phoenix Coyotes to Win the Stanley Cup +5900
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