NHL Player Rankings: Rising Stars, Aging Legends and Players at Their Peak

Al DanielCorrespondent IIApril 10, 2013

NHL Player Rankings: Rising Stars, Aging Legends and Players at Their Peak

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    Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Alexander Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Toews are a handful of those NHL players who have graduated from “rising stars” and should still, amazingly enough, have better years ahead of them.

    When they are in action and at their best, those players rightly garner the bulk of the spotlight. But they need not cast too vast a shadow on those who are at other points in their careers.

    Sandwiching that class on one side is a cluster of rookies and sophomores who likewise have a decisive majority of their best years still to come. On the other side is a more mature group of established elites who are still far from the autumn of their career, though unlikely to reach any greater heights at this point.

    Then there is an even less populous group of players who have been through all three of the stages described above. In that time, they have compiled Hall of Fame-caliber transcripts and, as they near retirement, are still letting their passion flicker in spite of their advanced athletic age.

    Based on their performances in recent years and in the first three quarters of the compressed 2013 season, here are the NHL’s 10 best rising, 10 best peaking and five best aging players.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics and player information for this report were found via nhl.com and are through games of Monday, April 8.

Top 10 Rising Stars (Nos. 10-8)

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    These are the players age 23 and under who are in their first or second NHL season, in which time they have percolated a promising vibe for the next decade-plus.


    10. Vladimir Tarasenko

    The St. Louis Blues rookie hit a speed bump with a late February injury that kept him out of commission for more than three weeks. Prior to that, a hot start had given way to a four-game scoreless skid in which Tarasenko brooked a minus-seven rating between Feb. 5 and Feb. 11.

    Both are among the bumpier parts of the young Russian’s initial transition to the intensity of the top North American league. Blues skipper Ken Hitchcock said as much to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch when Tarasenko was reactivated in mid-March.


    9. Justin Schultz

    There may not be many more outstanding beneficiaries of the lockout than Schultz, who was able to slow down his transition from college to pro with three-plus months in the AHL. There, he went on an 18-30-48 romp in 34 games.

    Since then, he has stepped up to the next level and charged up a respectable 39-game bushel of 20 points. Although, his game-to-game output could stand to adopt more consistency, and his effectiveness on the home front still needs sprucing up.


    8. Jonathan Huberdeau

    One of the few plus-points, if not the only bright spot for the cellar-dwelling Florida Panthers, Huberdeau led the team with 27 points through its first 39 games. Imagine how much he can produce once he is a little more seasoned and flanked by a better supporting cast.

Top 10 Rising Stars (Nos. 7-5)

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    7. Cory Conacher: Like Schultz, Conacher has not missed many strides transitioning from the AHL to The Show. Some of that may have been aided by the fact that he spent the first portion of the season with an offensively spoiled Lightning team that just traded him to Ottawa.

    But what he picked up from sharing a dressing room with Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos should prove valuable in the coming years as he matures and grows into an increased role with the Senators.


    6. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: With nearly twice his output on the year, Taylor Hall, Nugent-Hopkins’ teammate and successor as the top draft pick, has pretty much upgraded from “rising star” to “established star.”

    Assuming the Oilers stay the course on their return to relevance, Nugent-Hopkins should be next. All he needs at this moment is more confidence shooting the puck, having tuned the mesh only three times on 73 registered stabs for a 4.1 percent success rate.


    5. Adam Henrique: Right now, his output is suffering from what is likely a combination of a standard sophomore slump and a struggle to regain his full form after a November injury.

    Nevertheless, Henrique is tied for third on the New Jersey Devils with 10 goals on the year and has a still-relatively fresh, favorable foundation in the form of two playoff series overtime clinchers.

Top 10 Rising Stars (Nos. 4-2)

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    4. Gabriel Landeskog

    A combination of a three-week stint on injured reserve with a concussion and the Colorado Avalanche floundering in general has stunted Landeskog’s sophomore performance. Still, his Calder Trophy campaign last year was plenty to prove what he is capable of and what should be ahead of him so long as he stays healthy and his supporting cast improves. 

    Granted, the last seven games have constituted Landeskog’s longest pointless drought since breaking into the NHL. But before that, he had 64 points in his first 102 twirls with a wretched Colorado team.


    3. Oliver Ekman-Larsson

    If and when Keith Yandle ever gets traded, Ekman-Larsson is on the right track to replace him as the Phoenix Coyotes’ top two-way defenseman. His shot could stand to up its accuracy, but it is hard to gripe over an unmatched 18 assists and a plus-six rating that ties him with three others for tops on the team.

    One key, appreciable discrepancy from Yandle is shorthanded ice time. Ekman-Larsson’s nightly average of 3:06 minutes spent killing penalties tips the scale to make him Phoenix’s leader in overall nightly minutes.

    Phoenix, by the way, ranks No. 10 in penalty killing with a respectable 83.1 percent success rate.


    2. Brendan Gallagher

    Like Nugent-Hopkins with Hall in Edmonton, Gallagher is putting himself in a prime position to follow Max Pacioretty as part of the Montreal Canadiens’ resurgence. This past Saturday marked only the second time the rookie has been kept pointless for three consecutive games.

    Prior to that mini-slump, Gallagher missed a cumulative four contests but when healthy has hardly missed a beat in the endeavor to contribute consistently. He is also verifying what he has learned from early experiences and demonstrating timely poise based on his trend in critical divisional games.

    The Habs currently lead the Northeast Division with rivals Boston, Ottawa and Toronto all but bound to join them in the playoffs. In his initial combined exposure to those matchups, Gallagher was scoreless for four straight games but has since gone 3-2-5 in the last five, including three points on the road against the Bruins.

    And the No. 1 rising star at this moment...

Nazem Kadri

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    In his first season as a Maple Leafs regular, the 22-year-old Nazem Kadri leads the team with 17 goals and 40 points. Seven of those goals and 11 of those points have come against Boston, Montreal and Ottawa, the three teams that have joined Toronto in making the Northeast arguably the league’s most competitive division.

    On only three occasions has he gone consecutive games without a point and only one of those skids lasted three games.

    One may be surprised by how quickly Kadri has broken out, but it won’t be surprising if he stays at this elite level for years to come. He is a product of the proud London Knights program and has smoothly translated an appreciable productivity rate from his two-plus seasons with the AHL Marlies.

    Would Toronto finally be a likely playoff-bound team with Kadri out of the equation? Good question, but it’s safe to assume they will have a better chance to stay in a more savory position if he continues to fulfill his potential.

Top 10 Players at Their Peak (Nos. 10-8)

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    These are the top performing thirty-somethings who may not match or exceed their career highs in the production or hardware department but will not necessarily recede to less-than-celestial output right away.


    10. Martin St. Louis

    He is not quite at the start of his decline yet but likely not far away from it. The 37-year-old is still capable of hovering around a point-per-game average for a full NHL season and has been remarkably ablaze in the playmaking department in 2013.

    Can it last much longer? Realistically, it will be one or two more seasons at best before St. Louis’ production pace begins to wither.


    9. Brian Campbell

    In his first season with Florida last year, Campbell had his second-most prolific NHL campaign with 49 assists and 53 points. That season is up there with his 52-point output in 2008-09 and his 62 points the preceding year.

    Since then, Campbell’s productivity rate has plummeted to 22 points in his first 37 games of 2013.

    That can be blamed primarily on the fact that his Panthers have plummeted as well, going from Southeast Division leaders to Eastern Conference bottom-feeders. Even so, it is hard to envision the 33-year-old, 14-year professional veteran reaching any height above the lower 50-point range.


    8. Jarome Iginla

    Through thick and thin, Iginla has consistently led the Calgary Flames in scoring since the turn of the century. Lately, times have been thin for the southern Alberta franchise, which can partially explain why he hasn’t hit the 90-point plateau since 2007-08.

    Now that he is on a championship contender in Pittsburgh, the dynamic 35-year-old can unveil a little more of his scoring touch, even if an adjustment and gelling period is required first.

Top 10 Players at Their Peak (Nos. 7-5)

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    7. Joe Thornton

    Due to how much time has passed and how much new talent has risen and established itself in the interim, the 2006 winner of the Hart Trophy is unlikely to win it again. Ditto the Art Ross.

    But the gifted playmaker, who finished six seasons out of seven between 2002-03 and 2009-10 with at least 60 assists, came up one short of doing it a seventh time in 2011-12.

    Were this a full-length 82-game season, he would be on pace to hit 60 again with a 7-28-35 scoring log through 38 outings in 2013. And this is despite playing through a bit of an off-year for the San Jose Sharks’ offense in general.


    6. Ryan Miller

    Somebody do this masked man a favor and put a genuine championship caliber team in front of him.

    Miller’s competence and compete level has not come through quite the same way as it did in 2010. Then again, that was the most recent Olympic year and his Buffalo Sabres have been playoff no-shows or low-seeded first-round exits since then.

    Assuming the NHL commits to Sochi, at least one of those problems is guaranteed a solution in 2014. At age 32 going on 33, Miller can still turn in a few more Vezina-caliber campaigns, but he is beginning to run out of time for any trophies.


    5. Pavel Datsyuk

    Although Datsyuk has not met his career high of 97 points from 2007-08 and 2008-09, that is easily explained by multiple factors. In 2009-10, he and the rest of the corps of his Detroit Red Wings were worn down by back-to-back finals appearances the two previous years, and he himself missed substantial slivers of time in both 2010-11 and 2011-12.

    In addition, the Wings as a team are not as mighty as they were before the turn of the decade. Yet he is still hovering around the point-per-game mark at age 34 and should have a few more Selke Trophy nominations ahead of him, if not at least one more win.

Top 10 Players at Their Peak (Nos. 4-2)

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    4. Henrik Sedin

    Beginning with a career high of 112 in 2009-10, Henrik Sedin had three straight seasons on or above the point-per-game plateau.

    Although his production rate has slightly receded in the year-plus since, he is still too young and too skilled to be written off as approaching his decline. It would not be a surprise to see him reach the 90-point range in 2013-14 and maybe one or two more times after that.


    3. Daniel Sedin

    As long as his twin brother is skating around his summit, the same ought to hold true for Daniel Sedin. Plain and simple.


    2. Zdeno Chara

    The Boston Bruins captain, who recently turned 36, was a Norris nominee and matched his career-high plus-33 rating in each of the previous two seasons. In addition, 2011-12 saw him post a career-best 52 points, marking the third time he broke the 50 plateau, all within a span of five years. 

    He should still be an elite hardware-caliber blueliner for up to a handful of more years but likely won’t post any single-season numbers much higher than what he had a year ago.

    And the No. 1 NHL player currently at the height of his accomplishments is...

Henrik Lundqvist

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    The 32-year-old New York Rangers backstop arrived stateside five years after he was drafted. In his seventh NHL season last year, he finally won a Vezina Trophy thanks to a career-high 39 wins, 1.97 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.

    It will not and should not be downhill from there. Lundqvist should pick up a few more hunks of hardware with similar season-ending numbers, though he probably will not push his ceiling any higher than he did in 2012.

    All that is missing is a little more team success to reward individual excellence.

Top 5 Aging Legends (Nos. 5 and 4)

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    This is the exceptional 40-and-over club, namely a collection of players with elite resumes and not many more games ahead of them but still some admirable flashes of valiance coming in clear as late as 2013.


    5. Teemu Selanne

    The 42-year-old Selanne is one of the few Anaheim Ducks with a minus rating on the year, an indication that he has grown naturally slow on the backcheck. In addition, the long-time prolific producer got off to a 4-11-15 start in his first 13 games of the 2012-13 campaign, only to chalk up a sparse 6-1-7 log over his next 25.


    4. Martin Brodeur

    His legacy as arguably the best goalie in league history secured long ago, Brodeur is slowly fading, particularly in the save percentage department.

    On his current pace, he will finish his third consecutive season with a stop rate between .900 and .910. In addition, his goals-against average of 2010-11 and 2011-12 were the second- and third-highest of his career.

Top 5 Aging Legends (Nos. 3 and 2)

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    3. Jaromir Jagr

    For five days, Jagr remained the Dallas Stars’ top point-getter with 26 on the year even after he was traded to Boston last Tuesday. His team-best 14 goals still stand at the top of the Stars’ 2013 season stat chart.

    Since turning 41 on Feb. 15, Jagr has had two goal-getting streaks each lasting four games. One may point to that and intermittent dry spells as a symptom of streakiness, but a player of Jagr’s age can be forgiven for that.

    The fact that he has had any productive spurts at all this year is an accomplishment on its own.


    2. Daniel Alfredsson

    Tasked with leading an injury-ravaged Ottawa team, the 40-year-old captain is tied with Jakob Silfverberg and Kyle Turris for first on the Senators’ charts with eight goals. His 12 assists make him third on the squad with 20 points on the year.

    That certainly does not have him on the same production pace that he had regularly fostered before the turn of the decade in 2010. It is not even the same pace he followed one season ago.

    Although, to be fair, Alfredsson’s 20 points and minus-four rating would likely be a little better if he only had a healthy Milan Michalek and Jason Spezza to click with.

    And the most impressive aging legend in the NHL right now...

Ray Whitney

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    An injury kept Ray Whitney out of action between Feb. 1 and March 12 but did not stop him from tallying five goals and five assists for 10 points in as many games as soon as he returned.

    That was followed by a three-game scoreless skid, but all three of those outings were against the division-leading Ducks, who confined Whitney’s Stars as a whole to five strikes in that span. He perked back up the next game with a pair of assists against San Jose.

    Before any of that happened, the 42-year-old, who was coming off an incredible 77-point thrill ride with Phoenix and a longer-than-expected offseason, began 2013 with an irreproachable six points in eight outings.