1 Player Each NHL Team Can't Afford to Lose Down the Stretch
NHL teams, or at least the ones who keep their professionalism intact, resist resorting to excuses when an important player goes out of the active line chart and they plummet in the standings.
Still, the most ideal scenario is not to be placed in a position for potential excuses to begin with. That could be the result of an unfortunate injury beyond everyone’s control or even an ill-timed, lengthy suspension that the player in question brings on himself and his team.
Some players this season have already been conspicuous by their absence with stints on the sideline or through ill-advised penalties. The rest have made their impact speak for itself, leaving sufficient grounds to make an educated assertion that they are the last individual their team will want out of action.
Even for those who are not realistic postseason contenders, finishing the 2012-13 regular season with dignity is the least they can do to fill their priorities list. Losing a key cog could hinder that cause just as much as it could derail a better team’s endeavor to nab the best available seed in the playoffs.
Here is one player each team needs in the lineup to ensure a satisfying homestretch in 2013.
Unless otherwise indicated, all information for this slideshow was found via nhl.com.
Anaheim: Ryan Getzlaf
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Almost exactly a year ago, Orange County Register columnist Jeff Miller was among those making a warranted point of underscoring the Ducks’ struggles coupled with Ryan Getzlaf’s personal underachievement. That was after Anaheim had finished its worst campaign since 2003-04 and after Getzlaf had appeared in every game corporeally, but not always spiritually.
This year, the captain has been showing up and piloting the Ducks to a regal position in the Western Conference. The contrasting back-to-back storylines cement the notion that Anaheim could not possibly afford to even have Getzlaf off his game, let alone out of the lineup, for a protracted period.
Boston: Zdeno Chara
The Boston Bruins were leading their archrival and fellow bigwig Montreal Canadiens, 3-2, in the second period of a March 3 tilt when Zdeno Chara’s emotions got the better of him. Spotting a borderline check on teammate Tyler Seguin that went with no penalty, he promptly sought perpetrator Alexei Emelin and thus incurred a 17-minute penalty for instigating, fighting and a 10-minute misconduct.
Maybe not so coincidentally, while he served that sentence, Boston’s lead devolved into a 4-3 deficit in the third period. The Habs had usurped the momentum and preserved that 4-3 advantage for what may be a deciding factor in the Northeast Division derby.
Had Chara been available, Montreal may have seized the two-point package anyway. Then again, under altered circumstances, the Bruins’ exemplary leader and stingy, elite defenseman just might have made a difference by saving one of those goals and pushing the game beyond regulation.
Buffalo: Steve Ott
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Thomas Vanek, Cody Hodgson, Jason Pominville and Tyler Ennis have all chalked up irreproachable scoring stats. But scoring starts with possession and even though he does not play with all of those forwards on a regular basis, Steve Ott is one of the Buffalo Sabres’ keys to taking control of the puck.
The sizeable Ott has served his implicit purpose in his first season with Buffalo since an offseason trade, running away with the team lead in the hit department with 125. He is also the Sabres’ only qualified leader who has won the majority of his faceoffs, taking 58.6 percent through the first 29 games.
Calgary: Mark Giordano
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Believe it or not, the defensive situation could be worse for the Calgary Flames, who entered Tuesday night’s action second-to-last in team defense and with only two plus players in forwards Matt Stajan and Lee Stempniak.
On the flipside to those unsavory stats, Calgary was also tied for 11th in terms of opposing shots-against per game with only 28.1 reaching its net.
With 31 hits, 51 blocks (the most among Flames defensemen) and 20 takeaways (the most among all Flames skaters), Mark Giordano’s play is one way to stop the bleeding on the home front and get the puck to an offense that was tied for 10th in the league as of Tuesday.
Carolina: Eric Staal
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The Carolina Hurricanes’ resurgence this season has been a product of building a better supporting cast around Eric Staal. Look no further than the fact that he was the only player on the team to crack the 70-point plateau in each of the previous three years, all of them playoff no-shows.
Staal has stronger company now, particularly brother Jordan Staal and free-agent acquisition Alexander Semin. But his vital leadership is still showing in every conceivable facet, including his position atop the scoring chart.
Based on sheer aptitude, a deeper strike force might keep Carolina afloat for a while if Staal were to miss a stretch of action. But his lack of active input and presence on the bench would likely catch up to the Canes later on.
Chicago: Virtually Anybody
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Through their otherworldly unbeaten streak to start the season and surge to first place with a 23-2-3 record through 28 games, the Chicago Blackhawks have established that they are bigger than one player. Even more so than the average hockey team.
Lose multiple key players of any position at a time, though, and then there could be cause for concern.
Colorado: John Mitchell
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The Avs are last in the Western Conference and on the bottom one-third of the league leaderboard in offensive output (2.5 goals for per night) and team defense (3.14 goals against). Their cumulative minus-18 differential is second-to-last with only Florida looking worse.
But in that context, there is one specimen of stability on the third line in John Mitchell, who is putting forth a refreshing two-way performance and lending Colorado some invaluable depth.
He is hitting with reasonable regularity, creating more favorable turnovers than not, harboring a team-best plus-eight rating and trailing only Matt Duchene and PA Parenteau in the goal-scoring column with nine.
Columbus: Sergei Bobrovsky
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Entering Tuesday’s action on an 8-1-2 hot streak and unbeaten in his last nine outings, Sergei Bobrovsky is the topmost reason why the Blue Jackets are in the playoff hunt.
Columbus has scored three regulation goals in only two of the first nine games in March, but has gone 6-0-3 in that offensively famished stretch thanks to Bobrovsky’s breakout performance.
Dallas: Derek Roy
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The Dallas Stars went 1-4-0 when Derek Roy was out of the lineup for two weeks between Jan. 26 and Feb. 2. If not for that missed time, Roy would surely be the team’s most prolific playmaker rather than tied with Alex Goligoski with 13 helpers apiece.
Detroit: Pavel Datsyuk
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Yet another Selke Trophy nomination could be taking shape for the crafty veteran pivot. As of Monday, Pavel Datsyuk led all NHL forwards with 35 takeaways, led all Red Wings forwards with a plus-11 rating and was tied with Henrik Zetterberg for the team lead with 30 points.
In addition, he trails only two other Detroit regulars on the shooting percentage leaderboard (Joakim Andersson, Valtteri Filppula) and has been on the ice for a 60-minute average of 2.32 opposing goals.
Edmonton: Sam Gagner
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One of the Edmonton Oilers’ saving graces is their power play, which has supplied 24 goals in 28 games to create an exact 2-to-3 ratio with the team’s 36 five-on-five strikes.
Besides being the de facto elder statesman of Edmonton’s youth movement, the 23-year-old Sam Gagner is an exemplary special teams leader with a 3-8-11 output on the man advantage.
David Staples of the Edmonton Journal recently delved into the chemistry of Gagner, Ales Hemsky and Nail Yakupov, which has been eclipsing some of the usual suspects on their bench. Without that option, the Oilers’ underachievers would be a more visible liability, the team’s collective bushel of goals would be shallower and playoff contention would be far less realistic.
Florida: Shawn Matthias
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Third on the Panthers with eight goals through the first 29 games, Shawn Matthias was also the only plus player to have seen substantial action on the team with the league’s worst goals for goals-against differential. (Might we add, a team with three goaltenders who all have played at least 365 minutes and are nursing sub-.900 save percentages and swollen GAAs.)
That plus-one rating would be even better if not for one off-night against the Islanders on March 16, when Matthias went minus-three. Aside from that, he has been playing a refreshing all-around game this calendar month, with five goals, six points and 12 hits in the first nine games.
With the direction Florida has taken (1-1-7) in that span, though, losing Matthias would not be good, but it is more imperative that the majority of the roster change the status quo. The Panthers need Matthias in body almost as much as they need everyone else in spirit and top form.
Los Angeles: Jonathan Bernier
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On the one hand, Jonathan Bernier probably does not give the Los Angeles Kings the most enviable backup in the NHL. On the other hand, there has to be something to the repeat mention of his name in trade talk.
Eric Duhatshek of the Globe and Mail had it right recently when he opined that L.A. should stick with its insurance policy in the cage. Bernier has already twice relieved Jonathan Quick, who continues to turn in a sparse distribution of subpar outings.
Whether it were to lose him voluntarily or involuntarily this season, a Bernier-less Kings team would be prone to uncertainty if Quick does not permanently regain his winning form.
Minnesota: Devin Setoguchi
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He did not score his first goal of 2013 until after the Minnesota Wild got off to an iffy 4-5-1 start. But beginning with his winning strike on Feb. 9 against Nashville, Devin Setoguchi has since posted a 9-7-16 scoring log and the team a 12-5-1, initiating an intense footrace with Vancouver for first in the Northwest Division.
During Minnesota’s defining stretch of improvement, Setoguchi has cracked out of his chrysalis and flexed a solid balance of scoring, playmaking and physicality (55 hits). All of those elements are crucial to sustaining the Wild’s position in the playoff picture, let alone their shot at the divisional title.
Montreal: Carey Price
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A balanced bench of skaters has fostered a symbiotic relationship with the No. 1 netminder to help the Habs to first place in the Northeast Division. Unspectacular save percentage aside (.913 entering Tuesday), Carey Price has gone 15-4-3 in 22 out of 28 games, plenty of action to gauge his value to the team.
Although backup Peter Budaj has cultivated a comparable record of 4-1-1, he is nowhere near the same workhorse breed that Price is. Only once this season has Budaj waited a week or less between starts, let alone played consecutive games, which happened on Feb. 16 and 18.
Neither a cold, perennially so-so journeyman like Budaj or an unripe AHLer like Dustin Tokarski can be expected to step up at this time. In turn, the Canadiens need to hope that such a move will not be necessary this year.
Nashville: Shea Weber
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The Nashville Predators entered Tuesday’s tilt with the Columbus Blue Jackets bearing the second-fewest goals per game (2.24) in the league. Yet they have tallied four, four, three and two goals over their last four outings for a nightly average of 3.25 despite missing top point-getter Colin Wilson for that entire stretch.
Part of the reason for that is because of Weber’s two-way proficiency. In addition, Nashville’s defensive captain has spearheaded a blue-line corps that, as of Tuesday morning, had helped itself to the eighth-best team GAA (2.24) and the fifth-stingiest output in terms of shots against with a nightly average of 26.7.
Although their last three losses have seen them surrender 16 goals, that will likely blow over as a fluke. With or without Wilson, the real long-term concern will be continuing to limit the opposition’s chances and aggressively countering with an increased offensive threat.
That starts with the likes of Weber continuing to flex characteristic stinginess on the home front and sending the puck off on an onslaught the other way. That is how Gabriel Bourque, Mike Fisher, Matt Halischuk, Roman Josi, David Legwand, Nick Spaling and Weber himself have each cultivated multiple points over Wilson’s four-game absence.
New Jersey: Ilya Kovalchuk
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It is not often that a forward leads a team in cumulative ice time and average playing time per night, but Ilya Kovalchuk has earned that distinction with the New Jersey Devils. He is a threat in every scenario regardless of the distribution of manpower between the contesting teams.
With 10 points at even strength, 11 on the power play and four short-handed goals through 29 games, Kovalchuk is achieving his task of making the New Jersey faithful forget about Zach Parise. His contribution to the team’s sustained stability is proof that the ex-captain was replaceable after all.
But his average nightly minutes, which prior to Tuesday's faceoff amounted to a combined 25:36 in all situations, would be hard for the rest of the Devils’ ensemble to replace.
NY Islanders: John Tavares
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Besides being the scoring leader and face of the franchise, John Tavares boasts the New York Islanders’ most balanced scoring log of note at 17-14-31 along with their most accurate shooting percentage at 16.3. It’s hard enough to replace a player of that caliber boasting proficiency in merely one of those facets, let alone all three.
NY Rangers: Rick Nash
On the whole, Rick Nash has given the New York Rangers exactly what they should have expected when they traded for him, and his X-factor status has shown in both the up and down periods of the last two months.
In a vein similar to Getzlaf with the Ducks, Blueshirt buffs have seen two stretches of struggle that demonstrate the team’s need to have Nash available and on top of his game.
In the latter half of February, Nash was out of the lineup for four games. The Rangers went 0-3-1 with a cumulative six goals in that stretch. In the last four outings leading up to Tuesday’s tilt in New Jersey, Nash has dressed but has been held pointless while his team has gone 1-3-0 with only three regulation goals.
Conversely, when Nash has suited up and produced, the Rangers have gone 12-3-1. Theoretically, if they had more from him, they would be safely in the middle of the playoff pack as opposed to hovering around the borderline at 14-12-2.
Ottawa: Sergei Gonchar
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Tuesday night’s visit to Long Island marked 16 straight games without the services of Erik Karlsson. But lately, particularly in the last seven, the Ottawa Senators have recompensed the loss of one productive point patroller with the searing pace of another.
Sergei Gonchar entered the bout with the Islanders having notched at least one assist in each of the preceding seven outings for a total of 10. Ottawa went 3-1-3 along the way.
Rookie Patrick Wiercioch has made a substantial contribution in this regard as well, but his experiential discrepancy with Gonchar, he of 1,158 NHL career games, makes the difference in importance.
Like any team, the Senators need a dense mix of two-way and stay-at-home talent and a mix of youthful vigor and veteran presence on their blue line. If they had to simultaneously go without Karlsson and Gonchar for an extended period, they would be missing too many integral elements of that formula.
Philadelphia: Luke Schenn
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A collectively bottom-tier team on defense with an average of 3.03 opposing goals per game, Philadelphia needs the hit-happy Luke Schenn to give it any realistic chance of wearing down attacking adversaries.
Schenn’s physicality has amounted to a team-high 115 body checks and has him tied with Kimmo Timonen and Kurtis Foster for the lead among Flyers defensemen with a plus-one rating apiece. His 2.69 goals-against average, calculated based on 26 setbacks in 580 minutes and seven seconds of playing time, is not bad by this club’s standards, either, and is a fitting reward for his approach.
Phoenix: Shane Doan
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Having thawed out in over the last 17 games (7-5-12 scoring log) after a slow 12-game start (2-2-4), Shane Doan is once again in a position to carry the Phoenix Coyotes the same way he did a year ago.
Meeting the lofty task of following up on a pleasantly surprising spring of 2012 is not out of the question. Phoenix currently sits in a virtual tie with divisional rival San Jose for the last playoff spot, though the Sharks have a game in hand.
But Doan’s veteran presence and exemplary compete level are a must-have, particularly in a compressed season and congested derby with a slimmer margin for error.
Pittsburgh: Kris Letang
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The Pittsburgh Penguins offense did not suffer last season when Sidney Crosby sat out half of the 82-game schedule. On the contrary, their depth came through and posted a league-high average of 3.33 goals per night.
Ditto this season with Evgeni Malkin missing time. Pittsburgh is merely averaging a league-best (3.53) goals per game.
Conversely, what will happen to their defense if Letang is out for too long after leaving Sunday’s game against Boston early?
We know this much. Taking out Kris Letang means taking out a minute-muncher who, through 27 appearances, was averaging only 2.7 opposing goals per 60 minutes played.
Brooks Orpik and Deryk Engelland can hit and block opposing shots like Letang, but they should not be overworked. Nor would be it be ideal to bestow too many minutes to an unripe blueliner.
St. Louis: Alexander Steen
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True, Alexander Steen missed 39 out of 82 games last season, but the balanced St. Louis Blues still compensated for his absence well enough.
Now, however, might be his turn to help pitch in to plug a hole in the depth chart, depending especially on how long the recently injured T.J. Oshie is out.
Perhaps most tellingly, the loss of Oshie practically overlapped with Steen’s return from another injury of his own that spanned Feb. 24 through March 13. He missed eight games with a shoulder ailment and St. Louis was an even .500 at 4-4-0 in his absence, whereas it has gone a more characteristic 12-6-2 when Steen has played this season.
San Jose: Antti Niemi
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Playing behind a shallow, underachieving offense―only Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski have amassed more than five goals―Antti Niemi has assumed the bulk of the workload in net. His performance has compensated for that modicum of support at the other end well enough to amass 27 of the 30 points the San Jose Sharks have collected in the standings, good for eighth in the West.
When Niemi hasn’t played, the same basic task has been handed to Thomas Greiss or Alex Stalock. Greiss has logged 42 NHL appearances in six North American seasons while Stalock has played mere portions of three different San Jose games in three years.
Tampa Bay: Martin St. Louis
Although Steven Stamkos accounts for the most goals and most points, Martin St. Louis is setting up the most scoring plays for the young star as well as other Bolts.
Furthermore, Tampa just lost its captain and perennial sympathetic figure, Vincent Lecavalier, to another injury. That will inevitably make three straight seasons in which Lecavalier, one of only two holdovers from the Lightning’s 2004 championship run, has missed substantive time.
The last thing the Bolts need, therefore, is to lose the other half of their up-front veteran tag team.
Toronto: James Reimer and Ben Scrivens
Their output is hardly the most impressive, but the near 50-50 split between the two goaltenders has worked well enough for the Toronto Maple Leafs to hold a steady position in the playoff picture.
But if Ben Scrivens, and especially if James Reimer goes down, that will most likely mean placing a heavier burden on the other masked man or resorting to an unknown (e.g. Jussi Rynnas). To say nothing of where Toronto’s options would be left after April 3, the market for a goaltending import leading up to the trade deadline is anything but promising.
Reimer and Scrivens need to be kept healthy and kept fresh to keep a stable last time of defense for the Leafs.
Vancouver: Henrik Sedin
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The Vancouver Canucks are already down one of their top two centers with Ryan Kesler missing since the end of February with a foot injury. The fact that he went to the injured reserve less than two weeks after making his season debut on Feb. 15 compounds the need for insurance up the middle.
Regardless of whether Vancouver can successfully pick up another pivot at the trade deadline, the last thing it needs is to have another top-six forward out of action, much less Henrik Sedin.
Washington: Mike Ribeiro
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Power-play conversions have accounted for 22 of the Washington Capitals’ first 78 goals and Mike Ribeiro has had a hand in 16 of those conversions, including assists on half of those 22.
For all that begs for improvement among the Caps, a third-ranked power play (24.5 percent) is not one of them. That, along with Ribeiro’s continued presence and production, needs to be a positive foundation.
Winnipeg: Andrew Ladd
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One of the most exemplary captains in the league this season, Andrew Ladd entered Tuesday night’s game against Boston with shared or sole possession of the Winnipeg Jets lead in several key columns.
A 9-4-1 hot streak between visits from the Bruins has made the Jets instantaneously reckonable and Ladd’s influence is not lost on head coach Claude Noel.
Per a March 1 report by the Associated Press (via Yahoo! Sports), Noel remarked, “I think right now our team is certainly driven by him and it shows…It doesn't matter whether he scores or doesn't or gets points, but he's a hard-driving guy and he expects a lot from himself.”
It seems the leader and the followers have met expectations of late. Entering Tuesday’s action, Ladd had logged a point per game on the year with 29 in 29, balanced between 14 goals and 15 helpers and coupled with a plus-nine rating (tied with Bryan Little).
Beyond that, Ladd has pitched in his share of grunt work, including a nightly average of 62 short-handed seconds on a penalty-killing ensemble that recently blinked after a protracted shutout streak.