As the curtain gets ready to close on another NHL regular season most of the media focus continues to be on the games superstars. Players like Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Martin Brodeur scoop up the lion’s share of the headlines, and rightly so. Their incredible level of play puts fans in the seats and money in NHL coffers, and hockey fans everywhere continue to be mesmerized by the on-ice (and sometimes off-ice adventures of these talented stars). But skating in the shadows of these giants there is a second tier of stars, their contributions nearly forgotten as they labor in relative obscurity. With this article I will attempt to shine a little light on these often ignored warriors, and give them the kudos they deserve. Here are some of this season’s silent stars:
Shane Doan – Phoenix Coyotes – The captain of the Phoenix Coyotes is the very model of consistency. Game in and game out he seems to bring his A game, and so far this season has put up a respectable 30 goals and 69 points. Coach Wayne Gretzky absolutely loves this guy, and for good reason. Doan is reliable in any situation, and is the definition of an all-around player, scoring, hitting, fighting, killing penalties – basically doing whatever is asked of him. However, though the media and the fans might not give Doan the credit he deserves, he certainly doesn’t go unnoticed by hockey brass around the league. Don’t be surprised to see Steve Yzerman name this guy to Team Canada’s 2010 Vancouver Olympic Team.
Jamie Langenbrunner – New Jersey Devils – Unless your name is Martin Brodeur it is pretty tough to get any media recognition as a player for the New Jersey Devils. For years the Devils have made a name for themselves as one of the most balanced teams in the league, a team without a bona fide superstar (beyond their goalie) and one that gains success by getting contributions from all 4 lines every night. Players like Patrick Elias and Travis Zajac could easily have made this list, but my pick is yet another unheralded team captain: Jamie Langenbrunner. Langenbrunner, at the age of 33, is having the best offensive season of his career, and so far has picked up 64 points in 76 games. His +24 rating isn’t too shabby either, and he has proven his leadership abilities beyond dispute. Though the Devils have been on a slide lately, with Langenbrunner’s leadership and his penchant for scoring clutch goals Brent Sutter’s Devils should be poised to do some damage in this spring’s NHL playoffs.
Nicklas Backstrom – Washinton Capitals – Though Alexander Ovechkin, Mike Green, and even Alexander Semin dominate the headlines in Washington, Swedish center Nicklas Backstrom has quietly had a brilliant sophomore season, and currently sits 11th in the league in scoring with 82 points. Now, critics might argue that his point total is so high because he plays on a line with Alex Ovechkin – a fair argument. However, I would counter by saying that Ovechkin’s numbers are as good as they are because he is playing with Backstrom. Backstrom’s slick passing ability the shot-happy Ovechkin finds the puck on his stick in prime scoring areas on a regular basis. Yes, Backstrom will always dwell in the Great 8’s shadow, but don’t be surprised to see this guy put up a few 100+ point seasons along the way.
Todd White – Atlanta Thrashers – Yes, there are NHL players in Atlanta not named Ilya Kovalchuk, and despite the Thrashers miserable record, a few of those players are having pretty darn good seasons. One guy who is dwelling in obscurity in Georgia this year is another 33 year old having a breakout year – centerman Todd White. Though no one has seemed to notice White has put up an impressive 70 points so far this season, the highest total of his career. White, always known as a solid 2-way player during his time with the Senators and the Wild has definitely found the offensive side of his game, and his outstanding effort on a mess of a team like the Thrashers deserves to be applauded.
Ray Whitney – Carolina Hurricanes – This guy has spent his entire career overlooked and under-appreciated. Whether it was with the San Jose Sharks, Florida Panthers, Detroit Red Wings, Edmonton Oilers, Columbus Blue Jackets or the Carolina Hurricane, most seasons this talented winger scores at nearly a point a game clip, but few seem to notice or care. This season, at 36 years of age, Whitney is doing the same, with 71 points in 78 games. Those 71 points rank him first on the Carolina Hurricanes, ahead of team superstar Eric Staal. Whitney fits the mold of players like Marc Savard and former teammate Cory Stillman, who’ve put up points consistently throughout their career, but never seem to get the respect they deserve.
Loui Eriksson – Dallas Stars – Talk about a guy having a breakout season. Loui Eriksson, after rookie and sophomore campaigns that saw him score 6 and 14 goals respectively, has really come into his own this season, and his 34 goals have been a pleasant surprise to everyone in the Dallas Stars organization. Though many of his Dallas teammates have underachieved and the team is poised to miss the playoffs, Eriksson’s breakout year will give him valuable confidence going forward. If Eriksson and rookie teammate James Neal can continue to improve look for the Dallas Stars to show a dramatic turnaround next season.
These are but a few of the NHL’s underrated players. Feel free to leave your own list of unheralded hockey stars in comments.