NHL players reach an unusually admirable status when they set their compete levels apart from those of their peers. Appropriately, they achieve that by performing to unusually admirable effects, the definition of which can vary from player to player and team to team.
A young, celestial talent may play beyond his years or a shorter, less physically gifted player beyond his size. A presupposed grinder may start producing steady flurries of top-six scoring.
An aging veteran may make his skills stave off the suffocation of Father Time. A player may positively jut out despite being marooned on an unspectacular team.
All of them, though, fall into the melting pot of being difficult to beat and generally making their team as tough to beat as any individual can. They all fit into that description as a result of stoking a constant competitive flame.
Speaking of difficulty, the competitive description applies to too vast a multitude of NHLers to acknowledge all at once. But here are 20 who have stood out in the early going of 2012-13 as well as in prior seasons by filling their holes in size, skill or support, or taking bonus strides to amplify their elite status.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistical information for this slideshow was found via NHL.com
After defying his age of 40 in an inspiring run to within two wins of another Stanley Cup last spring, Martin Brodeur garnered a much-craved two-year contract. Since then, in continued defiance of age on top of rust brought on by the lockout, he has followed through on his implicit fervor with a 7-2-3 start to 2013.
Translation: Brodeur said he wanted to keep competing for the New Jersey Devils at the start of the last offseason and is now showing as much irreproachably at the start of this season and his new contract.
Like New Jersey Devils teammate Brodeur, David Clarkson stepped up his game during the team’s run to the 2012 championship round and has hardly receded since then. He has used his 6’1", 200-pound frame to create space and that space to charge up an exact point-per-game pace through the first 16 games of 2013.
It is not often that a player legitimately impels an observer to take notice of his output in a relatively short window. Sidney Crosby, though, has done just that habitually.
The Pittsburgh Penguins captain charged up 29 assists and 37 points in a mere 22 appearances last season. He is already up to 17 helpers and 24 points through his first 16 outings this season, thus sustaining an otherworldly formidability with the puck that contributed to his “Next One” moniker in the first place.
Hall was hampered in his first two seasons by injuries and by being on a team that was poor enough to bring him two new teammates each in the form of fellow No. 1 overall draft picks. But now his flair is translating more smoothly to the stat sheet, which had a 3-12-15 scoring log in 14 games going into the Edmonton Oilers’ home date with Los Angeles Tuesday night.
In the same vein as Brodeur, per the rules of nature, the 41-year-old Jaromir Jagr is hardly the same electric force that he was in the 1990s when he started paving his road that will surely lead to the Hall of Fame. Nonetheless, he is letting his undying drive amount to an 11-point start that has him sitting at the top of the Dallas Stars scoring chart.
He was averaging an incredible 27 minutes and three seconds of ice time per night and doing one of the better jobs in both ends among the league’s top minute-munching defensemen.
Karlsson had used his frequent shifts to charge up a team-leading six goals and plus-six rating along with four assists for 10 points, which remains the second-most among the Ottawa Senators. Two of his strikes were game-clinchers.
The Chicago Blackhawks’ ice-time leader this season and in each of the seven other years he has spent in the NHL, Duncan Keith is helping to limit opposing offensive output while chipping in at the other end. This season is shaping up to be no different than the previous three in that he is a go-to playmaking point patroller with eight assists already.
Miikka Kiprusoff is the only NHL goaltender to have played 70 games or more in each of the last two regular seasons, let alone each of the last seven.
Dating back to 2005-06, Kiprusoff has consistently finished among the top three in terms of cumulative starts in a single season.
Only a shortened schedule like the one this season can cut off the former streak. Only an injury, which unfortunately has hit the veteran Calgary Flames netminder, can snap the latter.
Although he was off to a losing start this year (2-3-2) before his knee sidelined him, Kiprusoff has generally earned every start and every minute. In each of the previous three seasons, all playoff no-shows for Calgary, he personally finished seven, 13 and 13 games above .500, while other goalies combined for 5-4-0, 4-5-6 and 2-7-5 records.
Karlsson’s fellow reigning hardware recipient appears to have better fortune as he seeks to follow up on his 2011-12 season.
Gabriel Landeskog, the sophomore Colorado Avalanche captain and Calder Trophy winner, is back in practice after being sidelined for a little more than three weeks. The Denver Post noted that he was slated to, if nothing else, skate in warm-ups for the Avs' next game Wednesday.
His return to full-throttle action and to form will be nothing short of a booming boon. His carbonated yet concentrated passion last year translated to team-best numbers in the goal (22), plus/minus (plus-20) and hit (219) columns, and he only had four games on his log in 2013 before he went down.
Barely two years ago, Brad Marchand was turning heads as a Boston Bruins rookie by earning a spot on one of the top two lines with Patrice Bergeron and Mark Recchi. He polished off both his rookie and sophomore seasons in the 20-goal range and, even with a shortened schedule, is on pace to easily do so again in 2013.
Rick Nash was the top scorer on a lowly Columbus Blue Jackets team five years running from 2007-08 to 2011-12. He has since been traded to a team with decidedly higher expectations, the New York Rangers, whom he led with 12 points entering Tuesday night’s home bout with Montreal.
If there were any doubts about Nash transitioning between the organizations without fail, he has muted them through his first month in Manhattan. He has proven he can stand out without an adequate supporting cast and mesh favorably with one.
The majority of James Neal’s first full season with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2011-12 was low-lighted by Crosby’s off-and-on concussion symptoms that ultimately made the captain miss 60 games.
In Crosby’s absence, Pens fans should have expected nothing less of Evgeni Malkin than his career-high 50-goal campaign. But they had a right to be pleasantly surprised when Neal stepped up his production to 40 tallies after he logged 73 over his first three NHL campaigns.
So far this year, Neal is hardly a fortress on defense, as evidenced by his minus-six rating. However, when Pittsburgh controls the puck, nothing has bothered him yet and he has not stepped down even with Crosby back, leading the team with 11 goals, including seven power-play tallies and four game-winners.
The prized offensive offseason acquisition, Zach Parise, leads the Minnesota Wild in ice time among forwards and has a team-best seven goals and 12 points along with an even rating in spite of the team’s 7-6-2 stumble through 15 games.
Coming off a Vezina-nominated year where he eclipsed the aforementioned Kiprusoff with 73 appearances in his team’s crease, Pekka Rinne entered Tuesday’s action with a league-leading 1.58 goals-against average and three shutouts.
His .938 save percentage was fourth-best among qualified leaders at that point, while the Nashville Predators were in company with Chicago and Ottawa as the lone teams to have allowed fewer than two goals per night. The team is 1-1-1 when he has not started and claimed the decision, including a 6-5 Monday loss to Colorado in which Rinne stopped 10 of 10 shots in relief of Chris Mason.
Like Brodeur out East in New Jersey, Teemu Selanne has a blatant disregard for his age and an unbreakable loyalty to his Anaheim Ducks that is hardly kept a secret in his performance.
Hard to blame the Ducks for granting that salary before or after the fact. All Selanne did the year prior at age 41 was lead the team with 66 points in 82 games played. All he has done to start this season is lead the team with 15 points in as many games played.
Hard to believe this seasoned blueliner was plugging with the AHL’s Hershey Bears two short seasons ago.
At age 34, Sheldon Souray’s NHL viability was in question, at best. But he rapidly answered when opportunity approached his welcome mat again and turned in a respectable season with the Dallas Stars in 2011-12.
Upon transferring to the Anaheim Ducks over the summer, he has built on that redress with a 4-4-8 scoring log and plus-13 rating (tied for second-highest among league defensemen going into Tuesday) through 15 games.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have a most fitting representative of their nickname in Steven Stamkos, who has hardly ceased to be a force at any time in recent memory.
With nine goals and 12 helpers, Stamkos is the best-rounded constituent on what has been the most prolific strike force in the league. This is coming after he soared to new heights with 60 goals on a much more plebeian club in 2011-12.
Earlier this week, a national television audience saw one glimpse of the grit Jonathan Toews will show when needed to amplify his contributions to the Chicago Blackhawks. His effort to muscle home a power-play conversion on Sunday helped “Captain Serious” to 15 points in as many games to start his sixth professional campaign.
In a similar vein, Toews has been rewarded for his efforts to pry the puck from the opposition with 19 takeaways so far.
The Buffalo Sabres' Thomas Vanek has quite literally been taking his chances in the first month of this season. Through his first 15 games, he led the NHL with 22 takeaways to go with the leading 12 goals and 25 points on his budding 2013 transcript.
The Detroit Red Wings are hovering around the bottom third of the league in team defense and around the playoff/non-playoff borderline. Both trends are doubtlessly a byproduct of the offseason losses of Nicklas Lidstrom and Brad Stuart.
Nonetheless, with his offensive consistency and especially with his playmaking initiative (15 assists and 20 points in 15 games), Henrik Zetterberg has given Detroit a reasonable chance to win on most nights. That kind of creativity is not easy to elicit when one’s defense is not reliable enough to bring about regular puck possession.