Tonight, I am undertaking what I deem to be quite a daunting task.
Considering my reputation as an extremely biased, often close-minded, relentless supporter of the Pittsburgh Penguins, this article comes as just as much of a shock to me as it does to all of you reading it.
For some reason, I am now going to give you a list of 29 NHL players from around the league that I have developed a deeper respect for this season.
Maybe it's because the 2008-09 season was the first season that I found myself involved in numerous fantasy hockey leagues.
It could be that my passion for the sport of hockey has matured to a level which can look beyond the logo on the front of the jersey and focus on a name on the back of one.
Or it could be because I wanted to find another way to exclude the Philadelphia Flyers from an article that praises gifted hockey players. Come on now, you didn't think I could really write a completely unbiased article did you?
Due to the re-vamped schedule in the NHL, fans of every team in the league now get to see their team match up against each of the other 29 in the league on at least one occasion during the season.
This might be the only good thing Gary Bettman has ever done in his lifetime. I heard he picked up a gum wrapper on a sidewalk in New Jersey and threw it in the garbage can, but forgot where he was and was told to stop throwing trash into peoples' living rooms.
So, here are the 29 NHL players I have developed respect for during the 2008-09 season.
Anaheim Ducks—Ryan Getzlaf
With over 80 points, 100 penalty minutes and 120 hits, this kid is the definition of nasty. At just 23 years of age, Getzy has one hell of a career in his future. The Ducks would probably like to see him put the puck in the net a little more often, but if Bobby Ryan continues to fill the net at a 30 goal per season pace, some of the pressure might be lifted from Getzlaf, which should elevate his level of play even more.
Atlanta Thrashers—Todd White
I'll be honest, I had never heard of Todd White before this season. The guy has racked up 49 assists and 70 points for the lowly Atlanta Thrashers this season and has been eating up 16-19 minutes of ice time on a consistent basis.
White has great patience with the puck and has turned in a solid 12 goals on the power play. He also gets brownie points for being able to be in the same room with Illya Kovaljoke's ego for seven months out of the year and not killing himself.
Boston Bruins—David Krejci
Krejci is another one of those guys who flew under the radar this season and turned in very solid numbers. After just 27 points a year ago, Krejci rebounded by racking up 69 points so far this season, as well as being among the NHL's leaders in plus/minus with a plus-36.
Krejci isn't a flashy player, which is probably why I like him, but he can do some great things with the puck. The fact that he has a "j" followed by a "c" in his last name might be one of the coolest things I've ever seen.
Buffalo Sabres—Tim Connolly
Connolly is one of those guys who seems like he has to fight his critics day in and day out during every season. He has 39 points this season, appearing in just 41 games due to injuries, so I think he's done a pretty good job of silencing the jokes that call themselves the professional media.
Carolina Hurricanes—Tuomo Ruutu
Some people thought Jarkko's baby brother would never score 20 goals in the National Hockey League. Ruutu has potted 24 this season, to go along with a hit total of 216 that is among the best for forwards.
Ruutu is a guy who works hard every shift, can score the big goal with the game on the line, or will go out and pound a guy's mouth guard down his throat to get his bench energized. What more could you ask for from a hockey player?
Calgary Flames—Rene Bourque
Whether or not he is related to the Old Two-Niner Phil Bourque doesn't even matter any more. Before an injury sidelined him for the remainder of the season, Bourque was scoring goals at a career best pace. He racked up 21 in 58 games, to go along with 80 hits and 70 penalty minutes. The 27 year old looks to be a sure bet top-six forward for Calgary for the next couple of years.
Chicago Blackhawks—Jonathan Toews
He's 20 years old, he's the Captain of an Original Six club, and he's on pace to best last year's point totals by about 20 points. He is a quiet, lead by example type of player, and he has the shot of a 40-goal scorer. What else can you say about this kid, besides that he is leaps and bounds ahead of Patrick Kane in the hockey talent department.
Columbus Blue Jackets—Steve Mason
This year's front runner for the Calder Trophy, Steve Mason has surpassed the 30 win plateau and leads the league in shutouts with a handful of games remaining. He's got the Blue Jackets' hopes of making the playoffs for the first time in their history running higher than usual, and he's got the talent to get the job done.
This guy is going to be a Vezina contender for the next decade.
Colorado Avalanche—Ryan Smyth
In a season that was littered by snow blower accidents and Paul Stastny roasting marshmallows on the injured reserve campground, one player remained steadfast for the Avs: Ryan Smyth. He has bested last season's goals, assists, and points totals and has played through the adversity of a lack of a supporting cast. He's a hard nosed player, and a real class act.
Dallas Stars—Steve Ott
Who? Yeah, Steve Ott. I love when muckers and grinders come out of their shells and show some offensive upside. Ott did just that this season. In the absence of their most physical player, and their captain, Brendan Morrow, Ott elevated his game to the level of a potential 20-goal scorer by season's end. He'll likely finish the season with over 150 penalty minutes and over 200 hits and looks to be coming into the prime of his career at age 26.
Detroit Red Wings—Valtteri Filppula
Edmonton Oilers—Zack Stortini
I had hoped I would be able to pick Sam Gagner for this one, but he decided to get worse instead of better after his rookie year. Stortini is one of the toughest S.O.B's in the league right now, and that's good for me.
Florida Panthers—Michael Frolik
This 21-year-old Czech, drafted 10th overall in 2006, started his career with a bang by potting 19 goals with six games remaining on the Panthers' schedule. With more experience and increased ice time, Frolik will only get better from here.
Los Angeles Kings—Kyle Quincey
After playing just 13 total games in the previous three seasons with Detroit, Quincey became a stalwart on the Kings' blue line this year. He registered 38 points, and at 23years old, this Ontario native looks to have a promising career ahead of him, let's hope, for his sake, he doesn't have to spend it in the City of Angels.
Minnesota Wild—Cal Clutterbuck
After playing in just two games with the Wild last season, Clutterbuck was slated to spend another season in the minors this year. However, he got a call up early in the season and made an impact. Last week, he set a new NHL record by registering 313 hits this season (breaking Dustin Brown's record of 311 from 2007-08).
Clutterbuck is a scrappy guy who loves to throw his body around and will be a name I suspect everyone hears more about in the future.
Montreal Canadiens—Andrei Markov
Markov set career highs in assists (50) and points (60) this season and currently leads the Habs in scoring. He's been a steadfast performer in a lineup that has been riddled with inconsistency from first line center to backup goaltender. It's hard to believe Markov, who is still only 30 years old, was a previous 6th round draft pick. While his days in Montreal may be numbered, his days at the top of the defensemen's scoring leaderboard are not.
New Jersey Devils—Jamie Langenbrunner
After a lot of waiting and a lot of wondering about Langenbrunner, he finally showed opposing fans why he is the captain of the New Jersey Devils. Langenbrunner has set career highs in goals, assists, points, and plus/minus this season and has finally provided the Devils with the kind of production they've been longing for out of this guy.
This is the last positively connotated paragraph about the New Jersey Devils you will ever read in one of my articles, at least I hope so.
Nashville Predators—Shea Weber
One word comes to mind when I think about Shea Weber: wow. More physical than Mike Green, with a better shot than Nicklas Lidstrom, Weber is going to be a front runner for the Norris Trophy multiple times before his young career comes to a close.
Second to only Jason Arnott in goal scoring for the Preds, Weber bounced back from an injury-plagued sophomore season with a bang, surpassing the 50-point plateau for the first time in his three-year career. Watch out for this kid, he's one hell of a hockey player.
New York Islanders—Kyle Okposo
With 17 goals and 36 points, Okposo has put together an impressive sophomore season and seems to be the lone bright spot on Long Island. After playing just nine games as a rookie, Okposo found a home among the Isles' top six forwards and responded well. He's still young at the tender age of 20, but if he stays healthy next season, he could blossom into a solid NHL forward.
New York Rangers—Brandon Dubinsky/Ryan Callahan
I couldn't pick just one of these youngsters because both of them have impressed me this year. Dubinsky is filthy—the good kind—in the face off circle and is one of the hardest hitting, hardest working forwards in the league.
Callahan has poured in 20 goals to go along with over 240 hits. This duo was by far the most impressive tandem for the New York Rangers and offer the Blue Shirts a promising future as they both mature as hockey players.
Ottawa Senators—Brian Elliot
Besides still having the best line in hockey, the Sens had a rough go of it this season. Goaltender Brian Elliot has posted a 16-6-3 record with a 2.64 GAA and a .906 save percentage for the Sens. He has been the biggest reason for the Sens' late season push toward the playoffs.
While it looks like the Sens are going to fall short of the top eight in the East, Elliot has made some big strides toward solidifying his spot as the Sens' number one goaltender heading into next season, although newly acquired Pascal Leclaire will likely have something to say about that.
Phoenix Coyotes—Enver Lisin
Lisin has racked up just 10 goals and 17 points in 44 games this season in the desert, but he has shown signs of becoming a top six forward. At 22 years old, the young Russian bounced back and forth between the AHL and NHL this season, but should solidify himself a permanent spot on the 'Yotes roster come next year.
There isn't much to feel good about in Phoenix, but Lisin might be the lone rainstorm in the drought capital of the hockey world.
San Jose Sharks—Devin Setoguchi
With 30 goals and 63 points thus far in 2008-09, Setoguchi obliterated his rookie scoring totals. It probably helps a little, or a hell of a lot, that he plays on arguably the best offensive team in the league, but Setoguchi's stellar season just can't be overlooked. You don't score 30 goals in the NHL if you don't have big time talent, and Setoguchi has exactly that.
Sharks fans need to hope that Setoguchi doesn't follow in his teammate Jonathan Cheechoo's foot steps and disappear after having an excellent season.
St. Louis Blues—David Backes
Another guy that can hit, fight, and score with the best of them, David Backes became the first NHL player since Scott Mellanby (2002-03) to score 25 goals and record 155 penalty minutes in the same season. The 24-year-old native of Minneapolis, Minn. has seen an increase in every major offensive statistic in each of his first three NHL seasons, so judging by that, next year should be another great one for D. Backes.
Tampa Bay Lightning—Ryan "Bugsy" Malone
The transition out of his hometown of Pittsburgh to the much less favorable hockey market in South Florida couldn't have been easy for Bugsy.
He is on pace for about the same goal total he posted playing with Evgeni Malkin last season in Pittsburgh, but his hit totals have increased. Bugsy has spent time on the Bolts' first and second lines this season and continues to be one of the best power forwards in the game.
Toronto Maple Leafs—Jason Blake
Blake hit the 60-point mark for just the second time in his career this season in Toronto. He got back to playing the scrappy, aggressive style of hockey he needs to play in order to be an effective player.
His 25 goals lead the Leafs and his even plus/minus rating displays how dependable he has been when he's been on the ice. Not bad for a guy who was diagnosed with cancer a couple of years ago, eh?
Vancouver Canucks—Alexandre Burrows
Where did this guy come from? Burrows' 26 goals are second to only Daniel Sedin, and he has been one of the hottest players in the league since the All-Star break. He has recently been elevated to the top line, where he plays alongside Henrik and Daniel Sedin, and has shown some offensive upside that hardly anyone knew he had.
Washington Capitals—Mike Green
So far this season, Green has played in 20 fewer games than he did a year ago. He has also racked up 11 more points than he did last season.
The leading scorer among NHL defensemen, Green has continued to build upon his massive amounts of talent and blossom into one of the best offensive defensemen the NHL has seen in a long time. He has a legitimate shot at a 30 goal, 70 point season, a welcomed addition to any blue line in the world.