BY JEFF ANGUS
The words overrated and underrated are often tossed around by fans and media when they are evaluating professional athletes. And that is no different for hockey players. Ever since the salary cap was implemented back in 2005, player evaluations have been tied very closely to what a player is paid (as they should). However, that has led to some slightly overpaid players getting underrated in terms of what they bring to a team on the ice, and it has also led to some players who outperform their contract get more credit than they may deserve.
Saying a player is overrated or underrated is a very subjective thing. In a sport like hockey, there are so many factors that go into the success of a player (and a team): ice time, opportunity, linemate talent, opposition talent, and health, among other things. We all have our biases for and against certain players and teams, and that also is a significant factor when it comes to making these evaluations.
Sports Illustrated published their most underrated NHL players list last year (as voted on by NHL players). But, that was last year. Here are my five NHL players who don’t get the due they deserve:
Ryan O’Reilly – Colorado Avalanche
Colorado Avalanche at Vancouver Canucks (-188, 5.5)
Currently without a contract, O’Reilly was Colorado’s best forward by a significant margin last season. Along with linemates Gabriel Landeskog and Steve Downie, O’Reilly anchored one of the best two-way lines in hockey, and he leapfrogged both Matt Duchene and Paul Stastny on the Colorado depth chart.
O’Reilly finished the season with 18 goals and 55 points (and only 12 PIM). Impressive totals on their own, but his season was even better when you consider the fact that he is only 21 years old and was matched up against the top opposing forwards every night.
O’Reilly has the upside to become a 70+ point center while playing on the penalty kill and in a checking role, and there are only a handful of players in hockey who you can say that about.
Loui Eriksson – Dallas Stars
Dallas Stars to Win the Stanley Cup +4400
Eriksson has been tabbed as the most underrated NHL player for a few years now, but he still continues to fly under the radar around the league. Eriksson’s game is all about consistency – Dallas knows what it is going to get every single night from number 21 on the wing. Eriksson is one of those players who is good at everything, and because of that he gets overlooked when compared to players with one or two defining attributes.
He is big and strong, and is almost impossible to knock off the puck. He has a deadly wrist shot and he sees the ice like a playmaker. He is also capable of shadowing the best forwards in the game, and he can anchor a forward group defensively. I am very excited to see what he can do alongside Jamie Benn and Jaromir Jagr this season.
Over the last four seasons, Eriksson has averaged close to 30 goals and 70 points, and he has recorded over 14 PIM only once. A low PIM total may be bad for your fantasy hockey pool, but it is great for Dallas, as they wouldn’t want one of their best players sitting in the box every night.
Brian Campbell – Florida Panthers
Florida Panthers to Win Southeast Division +1100
As I alluded to in the introduction, so much of what shapes our perception of players relates to their salaries. In Campbell’s case, he is overpaid with an annual price tag north of $7 million. However, there is no denying his impact on the ice. Chicago has really missed him since they traded him to Florida almost two years ago, and only now thanks to Nick Leddy’s development do they have a defenseman other than Duncan Keith capable of rushing the puck up the ice and creating offensively.
Campbell’s impact in Florida has been tremendous – he was the catalyst behind Jason Garrison’s 16-goal campaign in 2011-12, and he anchors Florida’s defense at even strength and on the power play. Campbell recorded 53 points last season for the Panthers, and he is off to a terrific start offensively in 2013.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson – Phoenix Coyotes
Edmonton Oilers at Phoenix Coyotes (-150, 5.5)
If you aren’t yet familiar with Ekman-Larsson, it won’t take long for him to become a household hockey name. He is one of those defensemen capable of doing it all – he is tremendously skilled with the puck, he can eat up the most difficult of minutes, and he doesn’t mind playing with a physical edge when the situation calls for it. His rapid ascension up the Phoenix depth chart may make Keith Yandle expendable, and Phoenix could likely snag a young top-six forward in exchange for him.
Ekman-Larsson will be in contention for more than a few Norris’s over the course of his career. If he played in Vancouver or Toronto, he’d already be mentioned alongside Erik Karlsson and Alex Pietrangelo when discussing the best young blue liners in the game.
Drew Doughty – LA Kings
LA Kings to Win the Western Conference +900
Before you call me crazy for this selection, I’d like a chance to explain myself. Doughty is far from a diamond in the rough. He was a high draft pick, he has starred internationally for Canada (including a sensational 2010 Olympic tournament), and he is widely regarded as one of the better defensemen in hockey. But are we selling his defensive play short?
Doughty burst on to the NHL scene as a talented 18-year-old back in 2008. And he followed that up by recording a 59-point season as a sophomore, but he hasn’t topped the 40-point mark in the two subsequent seasons. And he is off to a slow start offensively this season. There is a reason for the decline in production, though.
Doughty has quietly developed into one of the best defensive defensemen in the game. He isn’t the prototypical shutdown defenseman – for one, he is a tremendous skater. Doughty is the best defenseman in the league at skating the puck out of trouble (and it isn’t really close), and he uses his size and skating ability to control gaps and play really strong positional hockey. The Kings have been giving him the top shutdown minutes in recent years, and that is the major reason for his offensive decline.
If he were placed in a powerplay quarterback/offensively-oriented role, I have no doubts that Doughty would rank among the scoring leaders for NHL defensemen. However, he brings more value to the Kings as a minute-eating, do-it-all defenseman.
And it is time that the hockey world recognizes him for what he is – a dominant defensive defenseman with offense to give if required.