A Look at Each NHL Team's Franchise Centerpiece
Both the Canadian and American Thanksgiving have come and gone, meaning all festive household dining room centerpieces ought to be out of sight until next autumn.
Who knows? Some teams might have a new individual nucleus ready to assume that title in the coming campaign. Others may have one on the decline whose decline will only be unfairly sped up with every day of this season that is lost.
As they stand right now, the most critical difference-makers for each NHL franchise―whether it is an exemplary captain, a radiant scorer, an all-around performer, an otherworldly goalie or even an exceptionally influential front-office personality―are assessed as follows.
Anaheim: Teemu Selanne
The reigning top scorer’s position in this slide is, naturally, subject to change. If Selanne retires in the wake of the NHL lockout, then this distinction will belong to captain Ryan Getzlaf, whose playmaking has regularly set up the strikes of two radiant linemates in Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan.
Until further development, though, the veteran Selanne is the heart of the Ducks, especially after he tallied a team-best 66 points at the age of 41.
Boston: Zdeno Chara
Elite defense has always been an integral pillar for the Bruins, and Chara completes the franchise’s Mount Rushmore, opposite Eddie Shore, Bobby Orr and Ray Bourque.
In back-to-back finishes atop the Northeast Division for his team, Chara has matched his career high rating of plus-33. He is coming off new highs of 40 assists and 52 points along with 166 body-checks to co-pilot the league’s third-best offense and sixth-best defense.
Oh, and on a team that is still fairly mediocre on the power play, Chara was a generous help with eight goals and 10 assists on the man advantage.
Buffalo: Ryan Miller
Beforehand, he had gone 5-6-0 with the opposition scoring two goals or fewer in four of those five wins while tallying a 60-minute average of three or more in five of the six losses.
That general trend picked back up when Miller returned to the lineup. By season’s end, his inability to play for a three-week period combined with his underachievement on several nights in the first half blatantly brought on Buffalo’s eventual shortcoming in the playoff push.
Had he been healthy and performed the way he did from the All-Star break onward for a full six months, the Sabres could have had their second Northeast Division crown in three years.
Calgary: Miikka Kiprusoff
Carolina: Eric Staal
To his credit, anyway, Staal has been the lone Carolina player to crack the 70-point plateau in the three years in question. He most recently ran away with the team's lead, finishing 24 points ahead of Jussi Jokinen, his closest runner up.
Chicago: Jonathan Toews
With “Captain Serious” out of the lineup for the final 22 games of the 2011-12 regular season, the Blackhawks went an impressive 13-5-4, but still finished fourth in the Central Division and sixth in the Western Conference.
Given that there was only a two-point gap between Chicago and Nashville, a lack of input from Toews in the homestretch may have made the difference between road and home ice in the first round of the playoffs.
Colorado: Milan Hejduk
Rick Nash has been relinquished, and the Blue Jackets still have yet to play a game in the wake of their massive offseason overhaul.
Dallas: Jamie Benn
Detroit: Pavel Datsyuk
The Red Wings, who have sustained a top-echelon status for each of the past 15-plus years, face an ambiguous future now that Nicklas Lidstrom, the former captain and a member of their four championship teams dating back to 1997, has retired.
One thing is for sure. Datsyuk, the team’s best two-way performer and only active player with multiple Stanley Cup rings, will be pivotal in their drive to keep up their revered persona.
Edmonton: Ryan Smyth
The youth movement of Sam Gagner, Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov ought to fully burgeon in the not-too-distant future. Until then, the heart and soul of the Oilers is the second-term forward who inspires with his trademark penchant for parking himself on the porch of the opposing net.
Smyth might not be around for the culmination of Edmonton’s rise from the basement, but his leadership should be instrumental in the overall development of the various youngsters.
Florida: Jose Theodore
Last season’s Panthers finished 27th in the NHL in team offense but still mustered a Southeast Division title and their first playoff berth in a dozen years.
Put two and two together and much is naturally owed to the 36-year-old Theodore, who garnered 10 of his 22 wins by a one-goal margin and three more by way of a shutout.
Los Angeles: Jonathan Quick
Quick has won regular-season games in the 30-range for three consecutive years, exponentially trimming his goals-against average and swelling his save percentage with each successive season. He led the league with 10 shutouts and placed second on the GAA leaderboard (1.95) in the last regular season.
As a follow-up on all of that, he was a no-duh choice for the Conn Smythe Trophy upon posting a 16-4 record, coupled with a .946 save percentage and 1.41 GAA in the Kings’ remarkable run to the Cup.
Minnesota: Zach Parise and Ryan Suter
Montreal: Carey Price
Nashville: Shea Weber
The captain has quickly emerged as being to the Predators what Chara, his fellow Norris Trophy finalist, is to the Bruins.
Weber, who turned 27 and was snatched by the Preds from the jaws of the Flyers over the summer, is coming off of three straight seasons of goals in the teens, points in the 40s and hits and blocked shots each deep in the triple digits.
Last year, despite missing four games with a concussion, he led Nashville with a plus-21 rating and 10 power-play goals. He finished second only to the since-departed Suter with 22 points on the man advantage.
One might as well give an honorable mention here to goaltender Pekka Rinne, who will be Nashville’s Tim Thomas, if they can keep building on their past two seasons the same way Chara and the Bruins did post-2009.
New Jersey: Lou Lamoriello
In the wake of their championship loss last spring, the Devils are now tasked with finding a new captain and planning for an eventual future without Martin Brodeur. But their fanbase ought to trust their patriarch to earnestly tackle that task.
After all, New Jersey’s run to the 2012 final occurred only one year after the team had missed the playoffs, proof that this franchise can exhibit resilience under Lamoriello’s guidance.
NY Islanders: John Tavares
The patience of the Long Island puck faithful will be rewarded once the team is in its pristine new home in Brooklyn and once the on-ice foundation built around Tavares amounts to regular playoff runs.
NY Rangers: Henrik Lundqvist
Ottawa: Jason Spezza
Philadelphia: Scott Hartnell
Hartnell’s game has evolved to the point where he looks less like a minimally skilled thug and more like someone who delivers fruitful physicality, which has been the hallmark of the Flyers for the better part of their existence.
On the cusp of turning 30 this past April, he brought everything to a new height with 188 hits and 37 goals last year, including 16 on the power play.
Granted, he is still logging substantial penalty minutes, but he is at least making genuine use of his time when he is permitted to play.
Phoenix: Shane Doan
The Coyotes captain was the team’s top producer in every season following the 2004-05 lockout until Ray Whitney temporarily took that title this past year.
Now, that Whitney has left, along with a host of other key contributors to last year’s playoff run, it is again on the likes of Doan to step to the forefront and try to salvage Phoenix’s foundation for success.
Pittsburgh: Sidney Crosby
Here is a simple breakdown for those needing even a few ice chips of evidence that Crosby’s recurrent concussion problems drastically affected the Penguins’ push for an Atlantic Division title the past two years.
In 2010-11, the Penguins tied the Flyers with 106 points, but lost the tiebreaker. They were 49-25-8 overall, going 26-12-3 for a .671 winning percentage when Crosby played and 23-13-5 (.622) without him.
In both cases, Pittsburgh settled for fourth place and lost in the first round, including a seven-game sputter against Tampa Bay that devolved from an initial 3-1 advantage, all in Crosby’s absence.
St. Louis: Ken Hitchcock
No padded personnel on the latest installment of the Blues, which promises to be largely unruffled when the NHL returns, stood out over their colleagues in any position.
Brian Elliott and Jaraslav Halak constitute one of the most balanced Jennings Trophy-winning tandems in recent memory. No skaters finished with any more than 24 goals, 39 assists or 54 points.
The one major contrast anywhere in recent memory was in the results two different coaches cultivated out of this group. Davis Payne lost his job security after a 6-7-0 start, but Hitchcock neutralized the tempest and orchestrated a 43-15-11 finish en route to a Central Division title and the Jack Adams Award.
San Jose: Logan Couture
There will come a day (and that day is likely closer than many realize) when Couture is the Sharks’ most leaned-on veteran. He signaled that he ought to be more than ready to answer that eventual call with a couple of breakout years in his first two full NHL seasons.
Couture’s most impressive change in 2011-12 was his output on special teams. He tallied an 11-15-26 scoring log on the power play and inserted a pair of shorthanded goals.
For the moment, though, Couture has helpful company in Joe Thornton, the team’s perennial playmaking specialist who narrowly missed claiming the title on this slide. The fact that Couture is a decade younger, and his game is still evolving gives him the edge.
Tampa Bay: Steven Stamkos
A depleted blue-line brigade and a past-his-prime netminder doomed the Lightning’s playoff hopes last year. But it is safe to assume they would have finished much lower than 10th place in the Eastern Conference and more than eight points out of the top eight if not for Stamkos’ contributions.
Stamkos single-handedly accounted for more than one quarter of Tampa’s 232 goals with 60 coming off of his twig. He also demonstrated some irreproachable defensive prowess in the form of 109 hits―more than all but three of his teammates―and 37 blocked shots.
Toronto: Dion Phaneuf
Phaneuf’s wretched minus-10 rating last year was probably more a reflection of a team-wide defensive deficiency. Colleagues Luke Schenn and Carl Gunnarsson didn’t fare much better while fellow veterans John-Michael Liles and Mike Komisarek were worse.
Furthermore, if you calculate a goals-against average for each Maple Leafs defenseman the same way you would for a goalie, Phaneuf’s is the only one below three (2.95, specifically).
But the captain need not be given too many excuses. Especially now that Schenn has been dealt to Philadelphia, Phaneuf will doubtlessly be banked on to take charge of the Leafs’ push for improvement on both sides of the puck.
Vancouver: Ryan Kesler
The Canucks have the Sedin twins to saturate the scoresheet, and Kevin Bieksa to provide exemplary defense. But Kesler, their gritty second-line center, brings a game that might be deemed a hybrid of both.
The 2011-12 campaign might have been a bit of an off-year as Kesler managed only 49 points after tallying 59, 75 and 73 in the previous three. But he still brought enough of his two-way game to put up decent numbers in every conceivable category.
Washington: Alexander Ovechkin
What can be said about Ovechkin’s importance to the Capitals that would not be considered obvious by any partially educated hockey fan?
Not only has he led the team in scoring in each of his seven years in the NHL, Ovechkin also saw the Caps end their four-year reign atop the Southeast Division when his output dropped from the previous year by 20 points to a new career low in 2011-12.
Winnipeg: Evander Kane
While he is not yet on the exact same par as Hartnell, Kane has made a gratifying impact for the Jets on both the dasher boards and the scoreboard. He led the team through its inaugural season in Winnipeg with 30 goals and 173 hits and was rewarded for his two-way proficiency with a plus-11 rating.