National Hockey League players can be divided into three categories: overrated, properly rated and underrated.
Overrated players, like Rick Nash, Dion Phaneuf and Jordan Staal are widely recognized as top-tier hockey players, even though (at least of late) their numbers do not reflect the lauding they receive from hockey pundits – nor do they justify the huge salaries they rake in on a yearly basis, nor the ice-time the receive on a nightly basis.
“Properly” rated players, assuredly the largest of the three groups, counts all the guys who simply “fit” their role, salary, and expectations. Sidney Crosby is the best player in the NHL, few will argue that. He’s expected to fill that role, and he does. On the opposite end of the spectrum, guys like Colton Orr and George Parros (when they were employed), were simply expected to drop the gloves and beat the snot out of each other – neither over or underrated as players, as they did exactly what they were expected to do.
Last but not least, the most coveted of them all (for general managers, anyway), the underrated player. The underrated player is the guy who flies under the radar, who doesn’t attract attention from opposing defences, who doesn’t get the respect he deserves, and is not revered the way superstars are by fans and media alike. The underrated player gets the job done – and then some. They usually don’t make the big salaries, but they perform well past the expectations bestowed upon them before the season begins.
The debate will be heated as to who belongs on this list, as there are plenty of candidates who are worthy. The top 20 will snub several underrated players who deserve to be recognized – but those guys are used to not getting the respect they deserve, so they won’t be too offended.
20. Wayne Simmonds, Philadelphia Flyers
Wayne Simmonds spent the first few years of his career tantalizing Kings fans with his talent, speed and size, but it never materialized into anything more than a 40-point season in 2010-2011. Last season, though, Simmonds finally broke out with 60 points and was a focal point of the Flyers offense – he even finished third in the league in powerplay goals with 15. Simmonds is often forgotten on a roster with bigger names like Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and even Vincent Lecavalier, but there’s no doubt Simmonds is an integral part of the Flyers lineup.
19. Ryan O’Reilly, Colorado Avalanche
Ryan O’Reilly has grabbed headlines over the past few seasons for his contract disputes with the Colorado Avalanche. On the ice, though, he’s been one of the Avs best players. Without the glitz and glam of a MacKinnon, Duchene, or Landeskog, O’Reilly seems to be an afterthought most of the time. A quick look at his numbers show his immense value to Patrick Roy’s squad. Last year, the 23-year old scored 28 goals and 64 points in 80 games, leaving egg on the face of Avs fans who were ready to ship him out of town for very little just a few short seasons ago.
18. Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers
While Sean Couturier was touted as an offensive force coming out of junior, he slipped to the Flyers as questions emerged about his ability to produce in the pro game. His numbers have reflected those worries, but it’s his defensive contributions that have made him one a valuable member of the Flyers. He’s a force on Philadelphia’s penalty-kill and is emerging as one of the best shutdown centers in the NHL. His offensive numbers increased last season (39 points), and in his fourth full season he may be ready to take the next step as a two-way force.
17. Andrew Cogliano, Anaheim Ducks
Andrew Cogliano’s early years in Edmonton were a major disappointment. After a solid rookie season, he never topped 38 points in Oil Town, prompting management to ship him out of town to Anaheim. Since he’s gone to California, his offensive numbers haven’t been much better (until last season), but Cogliano has been able to flourish as a complete and effective hockey player without the pressure of carrying the offensive load. Last season he finished the season with three shorthanded goals and five game-winners – it might not always be there, but at least Cogliano is bringing the offensive flair at the most important of times.
16. Brenden Dillon, Dallas Stars
No one will ever confuse Brenden Dillon for Shea Weber or Drew Doughty, but Dillon has turned into a pillar on a Dallas defense corps lacking star-power. He plays big minutes (averaged 21:05 last year) and he plays tough minutes, usually against the best offensive players of the opposing team. Despite the nightly challenge, he finished the year with an impressive +9 rating. He signed a new deal with Dallas last week and will be looking to prove he is worthy of a long-term deal.
15. Kyle Turris, Ottawa Senators
It took Kyle Turris a lot longer to develop into a bonafide offensive threat (and it probably felt even longer for him personally), but he’s finally found his niche with the Ottawa Senators. He finally broke out last year with the Sens, with 58 points, and will now be called upon to fill Jason Spezza’s shoes offensively as he takes over the Senators top line center spot. Turris has shown he can fill the void offensively, but it remains to be seen if he can do it as the focal point of an offense.
14. Valtteri Filppula, Tampa Bay Lightning
The Detroit Red Wings balked when Valtteri Filppula made his contract demands known a few summers ago. They let him walk into the welcoming arms of Steve Yzerman, who was happy to pay Filpulla $5 million a season. That deal is looking like a bargain after one season, as Filpulla has flourished with more ice-time and responsibilities in Tampa Bay. Filppula was a key cog in Tampa Bay’s offense while Steven Stamkos was out last season, and will be again called upon to put up big numbers alongside the NHL’s best goalscorer.
13. Jason Pominville, Minnesota Wild
Sabres fans will never forget Rick Jeanneret’s classic Jason Pominville goal calls:
“THE POPULATION OF POMINVILLE GOES UP BY ONE!!”
“Pommer” has continued to add to the aforementioned population with the Minnesota Wild, but is rarely mentioned among the ranks of the top offensive talents in the league. He finished last season with 30 goals (for the third time in his career) and 60 points, playing alongside Zach Parise. Pominville will probably lose his already small sliver of the offensive limelight in Minny with the arrival of Thomas Vanek, but don’t be surprised if he has a similar final goal tally (or even higher than Vanek’s, if the enigmatic Austrian is slow to get going).
12. David Desharnais, Montreal Canadiens
One of the Habs several “diminutive giants,” Desharnais has been undervalued and underrated his entire hockey career. After proving doubters wrong at every level, Desharnais still deals with constant criticism and uncertainty with regards to his ability to be a legitimate top-line center. He’s responded with seasons of 60, 28 (during the lockout-shortened season) and 52 points, and has been a catalyst in turning Max Pacioretty into a lethal sniper.
11. Mats Zuccarello, New York Rangers
Mats Zuccarello wasn’t even on the Rangers roster to start last season. He ended the season as a playoff hero and the Rangers leading postseason scorer with points. Like Desharnais, Zuccarello is a small player who’s battled the “size issue” his entire career – no one can question his blazing speed and impressive skill though. Zuccarello finished the regular season as the Rangers leading scorer, beating out much more celebrated names like Brad Richards and Rick Nash.
10. Gustav Nyquist, Detroit Red Wings
Gustav Nyquist took a while to get going in 2013-2014, but once he got going, there was no stopping him. Half of his 28 goals came over the final 24 games of the regular season. Nyquist was a solid contributor for the Wings even before the pucks started going in, though – and his call up alone sparked a Wings team that was slipping out of the playoff picture early in the season. Nyquist was a key part of the Wings squeaking into the dance, even though Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg will always get the initial credit.
9. Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues
Many remember the name Jaden Schwartz for his sister’s inspiring and tragic tale. Schwartz has always been an extremely talented hockey player, and while the memory of his sister will continue to spurn him forward, he’ll soon be recognized more for his offensive prowess. He quietly racked up 56 points on a stacked Blues team last season, and while most will point to big names like Backes, Statsny, Tarasenko and Berglund for the Blues to have success this season, don’t be shocked if Schwartz finishes as the Blues leading scorer.
8. Kyle Okposo, New York Islanders
It took a lot longer than the Islanders had expected for Kyle Opkoso to round into the kind of player they thought they we’re drafting when they took him 7th overall in 2006, but he’s finally arrived. Okposo broke out as an offensive force last season, finishing up his campaign with an impressive 69 points in 71 games. He did most of his damage without the help of elite center John Tavares, who was injured in Sochi. Okposo remains “under the radar” because he’s been buried on a bad Islanders team for years, but this might be the year that the Isles finally take a definitive step forward, which will make Okposo even more dangerous if the rest of the roster can carry it’s own weight for a change.
7. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
It’s beyond many hockey prognosticators why Victor Hedman is not held in higher regard across the NHL. Hedman plays a strong two-way game as the top rearguard of the Tampa Bay Lightning. He finished last year with 55 points and a +5 rating, while facing opponents top lines and playing nearly 23 minutes a night. Hedman still doesn’t get the respect guys like Alex Pietrangelo and P.K. Subban gets, but he’s put up numbers similar to theirs. Perhaps a second consecutive successful season will earn him the attention he deserves.
6. John Carlson, Washington Capitals
John Carlson, like Hedman, is one of those top-end defenseman that no one ever brings up when discussing the top defenceman in the league. Granted, no one is going around saying Carlson isn’t good, but many let him fly under the radar when the topic of stud defenseman is brought up. Carlson is far and away the best defenceman on the Capitals roster, proven once again by his 37 points and miraculous -3 rating on one of the worst defensive teams in the league the last few seasons.
5. Tommy Wingels, San Jose Sharks
Tommy Wingels is already on a mission to prove that last season was no fluke. He scored twice against the defending Stanley Cup Champion, Los Angeles Kings, on opening night of this season, a good way to start a year where he’ll be expected to back up his impressive 2013-2014. Wingels is relegated to lower lines thanks to the presence of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski is San Jose. He only scored 16 times last season, but that’s a lot more than expected from a guy who’s looked at more as a physical grinder.
4. Roman Josi, Nashville Predators
While Shea Weber and Seth Jones get most of the glory and attention (not that there’s much of either being heaped on them in the hockey hotbed of Nashville, Tennessee), Roman Josi has quietly established himself as one of the most dependable defenseman in the NHL. He finished last season with 40 points and averaged 26:25 minutes a game, good for 5th in the NHL last season in that category. A minute-eating machine, Josi is already on pace to increase that number this season.
3. Ben Bishop, Tampa Bay Lightning
Yes, Ben Bishop got some votes for the Vezina Trophy last season, which may leave some wondering how he can still be classified as underrated. Despite his solid season, you still won’t hear Bishop’s name mentioned alongside the names Quick, Lundqvist, Price, and Rask, even though he had similar, if not better, numbers than some of them last season. Bishop, in due time, will get his true “due credit” but for now he’s still on the “cusp” of greatness.
2. Radim Vrbata, Vancouver Canucks
In a similar vein to many players on this list before him, Vrbata just seems to be a victim of the fact that he is not a “sexy” name when it comes to pure goalscorers. Not that it’s ever bothered him – Vrbata has been a consistent goalscorer throughout his career, even though he was never well surrounded with the Coyotes. Don’t expect him to stay “underrated” for much longer – he’ll flourish alongside the Sedin twins, and finally solidify himself as a legitimate NHL sniper.
1. Jonas Brodin, Minnesota Wild
Jonas Brodin has already quietly established himself as one of the best defenseman in the league, even though most might not even know who he is. Brodin impressed as a rookie with the Wild a few seasons ago, and while he stalled a bit in his sophomore season, Brodin is ready to re-establish himself as an up-and-coming star in the NHL. It helps to play on the same defensive corps as Ryan Suter, but Brodin will make his own name before long.
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