Top 10 Forwards in the Atlantic Division for 2012-2013
The Atlantic Division dominated the National Hockey League last season, as it saw four of its five teams—the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers and new Jersey Devils—finish the regular season among the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference to make the playoffs.
Arguments can be made that it was the defensive and goaltending prowess of the Atlantic Division's teams that drove this widespread success, but the true driving force was the immense offensive talent in quality and quantity that runs rampant throughout what is arguably the NHL’s most competitive division.
In light of recent acquisitions, mainly that of Rick Nash via trade by the New York Rangers, let’s take a look at the updated top 10 forwards in the Atlantic Division heading into the 2012-2013 season.
Ryan Callahan: The 27-year-old Rangers captain scored a career-high 54 points last season including 29 goals and 25 assists. However, Callahan’s contributions to his club stretch far beyond tangible numbers.
His consistent willingness to sacrifice his body by blocking the ferocious shots of opposing defensemen, including and especially those of hardest shot record-holder Zdeno Chara, is just one example of Callahan’s impassioned style of play and is the reason why he is widely regarded by the Rangers' faithful as the heart and soul of the Blueshirts.
Adam Henrique: Adam Henrique burst onto the NHL scene last season, as he posted 16 goals and 35 assists for 51 points. Henrique’s statistical contributions and exceptional penalty-killing ability earned him a Rookie of the Year nomination.
Based on the 2011-2012 regular season and playoffs, the 22-year-old Henrique, whose game is highlighted by an undeniable clutch gene and sound two-way hockey, has the potential to be one of the NHL’s next big stars.
James Neal: James Neal had himself a career year in 2011-2012, as he finished seventh in the NHL in total scoring with 81 points and fourth in goals scored with 40.
Neal needs at least one more season of this type of production before he cracks the top 10, but if Penguins coach Dan Bylsma decides to keep him on a line with Evgeni Malkin as his center, Neal certainly holds the potential to establish himself as a consistently dynamic offensive force in the Atlantic Division worthy of a higher ranking.
Daniel Briere: Danny Briere may have scored just 49 points last year, but the fact of the matter is that consistency counts for a lot—especially consistency regarding stellar playoff performance.
Briere is not a point-per-game player during the regular season in his career. However, when winter turns to spring and the grueling second season begins, Danny Briere finds another level. In 108 total playoff games played, he has scored 109 points, including a Philadelphia Flyers playoff record 30 points during the 2010 postseason.
10. Matt Moulson
One of the most underappreciated snipers in the NHL, Matt Moulson has netted 30 goals or more in the past three seasons playing for the perennially low-scoring New York Islanders. The 28-year-old winger recorded career highs in goals with 36 and points with 69 last season playing alongside young superstar John Tavares.
Moulson appears to be improving with each season he spends in the NHL and, as he enjoys the prime of his playing career, could very well continue to extend his streak of 30-goal seasons for the foreseeable future with the young Islanders.
9. Brad Richards
Brad Richards was the biggest free-agent signing of the 2011 offseason, as the New York Rangers inked him to a nine-year, $60 million contract. Richards’ first season donning the Broadway blue was an overall success, as he scored 66 points and led his team to the Eastern Conference finals.
Still, all who spent time watching Richards in Dallas, and even Tampa Bay before that, know that Richards has another level of production that he is more than capable of achieving.
The addition of Rick Nash should have a positive effect on Richards’ production during the upcoming season, as Nash’s presence gives Richards another top-level scoring target to feed passes to along with the oft-criticized but undeniably productive Marian Gaborik.
8. Patrik Elias
Patrik Elias was left off of this list prior to last season, but he sure made a fool out of me. The 36-year-old winger ended up notching 78 total points, good for the second-most on the New Jersey Devils and tenth-most in the entire league.
Elias has been flying under the radar since breaking onto the big stage in 1996-1997 season, which is why many would be surprised to learn that he is closing in on his 900th career point and will most likely surpass the 400-goal plateau by the time he is ready to hang up his skates.
This longtime Devil and two-time Stanley Cup champion has been one of the most consistently productive forwards of the last 15 years and looks to be unimpeded by age despite Father Time’s best efforts.
7. Marian Gaborik
Unfortunately for the Rangers, they will have to wait a while to see their three-headed monster of Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards and Rick Nash in action, as Gaborik is expected to be sidelined until December while recovering from surgery needed to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder.
However, Gaborik’s consistent point production over the course of his career is impressive and he continued this trend last season, as he finished the year fourth in the NHL in goal scoring with 41 goals.
He may take a lot of flack from fans and media alike for his occasionally lackadaisical play, but the fact remains that Gaborik’s flair for scoring goals in droves is rare in today’s NHL and invaluable to the Rangers’ success as an elite contender in the Eastern Conference.
6. Rick Nash
The first overall pick in the 2002 NHL Draft, Rick Nash spent the first nine years of his playing career in a dismal Columbus organization. With a minimally talented supporting cast, Nash still managed to score 30 goals in a single season seven times in his career.
He has had but a taste of playoff action, which came in the form of a four-game sweep in the first round of the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the hands and sticks of the defending cup champion Detroit Red Wings.
However, expect Nash to improve his meager playoff experience as he joins a Rangers squad fresh off of an Eastern Conference final berth. We will finally find out just how high Nash’s ceiling is now that he has left a floundering Columbus Blue Jackets team and joins other world-class players such as Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards to form what could be the most intimidating crop of offensive talent in Manhattan in recent memory.
5. John Tavares
John Tavares was the drafted by the New York Islanders with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NHL Draft. Since his debut in the league three years ago, Tavares has improved with each passing season and finished the 2011-2012 regular season seventh in the NHL in total scoring with 81 points, including 30 goals and 51 assists.
The sky is truly the limit for this immensely talented 21-year-old and we have certainly not seen the best that John Tavares has to offer the hockey world just yet. The bottom line is that Tavares has finally given the Islanders' faithful not just something to cheer for, but something far more profoundly positive: hope.
4. Sidney Crosby
Let’s not avoid the obvious here. If Crosby were as healthy as most of the other players on this ranking, he would be No. 1. No arguments, no debates.
Unfortunately, though, Crosby has played just 63 games over the last two seasons. As unfair as it may seem, you simply cannot be No. 1 if you are only at work 38 percent of the time.
I could sit here all day and lay out Crosby’s unrivaled statistics and countless awards, but that would be missing the point. The point is that No. 4 on this ranking is not a celebration of Sidney Crosby’s illustrious career, but rather, a lesson that no matter how dominant a player may be, if they are physically unable to perform consistently, they are not worth all that much.
On a positive note, though, for 38 percent of the Penguins' games, they have the uncontestable best player on the planet in their lineup.
3. Claude Giroux
Claude Giroux had his best statistical season to date, as he finished the year with 28 goals and 65 assists for 93 total points, good for third in the entire NHL in scoring. The 24-year-old former first-round draft pick will have to provide the majority of the Flyers' offense in the upcoming season, as he and the Flyers organization said goodbye to Jaromir Jagr.
Giroux has the ability to shoulder the offensive load and then some while he and the Flyers brass await the maturation of a superb crop of young forwards including Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek.
Giroux is the Flyers’ leader in more ways than one, and expect him to terrorize the Atlantic Division wearing the orange and black sweater for years to come.
2. Ilya Kovalchuk
Ilya Kovalchuk had something of a bounce-back year last season after a disappointing 2010-2011 campaign a year before. Kovalchuk finished the 2011-2012 season fifth in the NHL in scoring with 83 total points, including 37 goals and 46 assists.
He also carried the New Jersey Devils to the Stanley Cup finals with a severely herniated disc in his lower back, leading the team in playoff scoring with 19 points.
The reason that Kovalchuk got the nod over Giroux is that Kovalchuk brings a physical dimension to the game that Giroux simply cannot offer. The two superstars score at fairly similar rates, but what Kovalchuk lacks in production, he makes up for with hitting, fighting and overall physical intimidation. Just ask Giroux’s teammate, Brayden Schenn, after his chin met intimately with Kovalchuk’s right-hand knuckles during a regular-season game this past winter.
As the lone centerpiece in the New Jersey offense now that Zach Parise has jumped ship to Minnesota, Kovalchuk could put up big numbers in the upcoming season.
1. Evgeni Malkin
Not only is Evgeni Malkin the top forward in the Atlantic Division, he is likely the top forward in the entire league. He blew away any competition for the Art Ross trophy last season as the most productive forward, tallying 50 goals and 59 assists for 109 total points.
Malkin has an uncanny combination of superior size and incredible precision when it comes to passing and shooting the puck that allows him to do things on the ice that other players simply cannot do.
He was simply dominant last season, a year in which he had little help from an injured Sidney Crosby. Therefore, Evgeni Malkin has earned the title as the indisputable best forward in an offensively loaded Atlantic Division.