With the NHL Lockout firmly underway and little progress shown between the owners and NHLPA, it’s time to re-evaluate who might make the biggest splash when and if the NHL resumes play this season. In part one of my upcoming series, I rank the NHL’s deadliest offensive weapons.
1) Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins Even while dominating defenders en route to his second Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer and Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP, the headlines in Pittsburgh and around the league seemed to be focused on Sidney Crosby’s activities off the ice more so than Malkin’s MVP caliber performance on the ice. While there is never going to be anybody that argues that the Pittsburgh Penguins are better off without “Sid the Kid,” the truth of the matter is that the Penguins are still a great team without him and that’s mostly due to the growth of Evgeni Malkin. Malkin is a rare breed. He has tremendous vision and can see the ice as well as anybody in the NHL. It’s his vision and ability to seamlessly feed the puck through traffic that turned James Neal, a perennial 20 goal scorer, into a 40 goal scorer. Malkin registered 59 helpers last season but the biggest piece of his arsenal is his own ability to create something out of nothing. Malkin has as good a shot as anybody in the league not named Steven Stamkos and can handle the puck with ease, possessing a rare ability to control the attack zone the way greats like Jaromir Jagr did years ago. It’s probably why Malkin broke the 50 goal plateau and coincidentally became the first player in the NHL to win two scoring titles since Jagr did years ago in the same city, before becoming Public Enemy Number 1 in Pittsburgh.
2) Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers They say the best players are the ones that are able to make those around them even better and that’s exactly what Claude Giroux did last season. Giroux has an ability to find an open man probably better than anyone in the league. There was a lot of questions about the Flyers attack last Summer following the departure of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter but Giroux stepped up to answer those questions. Playing in the middle of veterans Scott Hartnell and Jaromir Jagr, Giroux scored 28 goals (many of them of the highlight reel variety) and registered 93 points, ranking third in the NHL scoring race while anchoring one of the NHL’s deadliest line combinations. The gritty Hartnell had a career year scoring 37 goals while the 39 year old Jagr registered 53 points despite battling injuries. Giroux was forced to step up and take a leadership role in the “City of Brotherly Love” and by all accounts he succeeded.
3) Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning It might not be a popular opinion to rank the NHL’s first 60 goal scorer since Alexander Ovechkin third in any list in hockey. Despite being more dangerous individually than every player in the league, Stamkos has thus far not been able to translate his own individual success to team success the way the greats can. When Alexander Ovechkin became a scoring sensation, he rallied a lowly Capitals team that was dead last in the NHL at the All Star break to a playoff spot in the very same year as the Capitals steam rolled into the playoffs in 2008. Stamkos has not been able to similarly rally his troops in the “Sunshine State.” Stamkos is lightning quick, no pun intended. His skating ability, which seemed a little suspect when he first entered the league, is now one of his biggest attributes. He can stride down the wing faster than arguably anyone in the game. And if he does, watch out. There’s not a better shot in the league and I’m sure any goaltender who’s ever played against Stamkos would agree. Even if a goaltender is set, if Stamkos has the time and space to wind up, you’re not stopping him. Stamkos’s attack can seem somewhat one dimensional at times. Opposing defenders know when and where Stamkos is going to fire the puck and they still can’t do anything about it which is why Stamkos still ranks third despite his teams struggles in Tampa.
4) Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins Crosby may be the best player in the world when healthy, but thanks to battling concussions for the better part of the last two seasons, nobody knows if Crosby will be able to recover and dominate the NHL the way he seemed poised to or if he’s one hit away from becoming the current generation’s Eric Lindros. Over the last two seasons, Crosby has been arguably more dominant than ever before. He has scored 40 goals and 103 points in just 63 games. It seems absolutely scary to think about what Crosby may be able to do with a full season, but herein is where the question lies. Crosby has been brilliant in short bursts the last two seasons but he hasn’t played a full season since the 2009-2010 campaign and at that time, Crosby wasn’t head and shoulders above any of his competition whether it be Alexander Ovechkin, teammate Evgeni Malkin or the Sedin twins (Daniel and Henrik Sedin) in Vancouver. Still, even if Crosby can’t multiply his numbers that he’s registered the last two years across the grind of a full regular season schedule, there’s no denying his greatness… a Stanley Cup Championship and back to back years in the Cup finals proves it.
5) Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals There was a time about two years ago that Ovechkin being number 1 on this list would’ve been a foregone conclusion, but things have drastically changed for the “Great 8″ the last few years. After the Capitals dominated their way through the 2009-2010 regular season, they were upset by Montreal in the first round of the playoffs thanks to an unreal, superhuman performance by Canadiens net-minder Jaroslav Halak. Head coach Bruce Boudreau hit the panick button and changed the entire mindset of the Capitals attack. There was an identity crisis in Washington when the 2010-2011 regular season got underway and the transition into a more balanced attack, a transition that certainly didn’t benefit Alexander Ovechkin. Despite the Capitals new philosophy and more concerted effort at paying attention to details defensively, Ovechkin still ranked 7th in the NHL with 85 points. Last season, during the 2011-2012 campaign, Bruce Boudreau decided to shift to a defense first system and Ovechkin’s early season struggles led many to believe that the “Great 8′s” run was over. Ovechkin and Boudreau began to butt heads and with the Capitals becoming the biggest bunch of underachievers in the NHL, Boudreau was fired and the Capitals brought in long-time franchise great, Dale Hunter. Hunter, a coach at the amateur levels with the London Knights, brought in an even more defensive minded system than Boudreau tried implementing, but this didn’t stop Alex from turning his play around. In the second half of the season, only Malkin and Stamkos lit the lamp more than Ovechkin and “Ovie” wound up finishing the year ranking 5th in the league in goals scored with 38. All this despite not having number 1 center Nicklas Backstrom in the mix for roughly half the season. With the offensive minded Adam Oates taking over coaching duties in Washington this season the “Great 8″ could very well be great once again.
In Part Two I’ll examine the “Best of the Rest”. Agree or Disagree with any of the placements? Let’s hear about it in the comments section below.