Ranking the 10 Most Underappreciated NHL Players for the 2013-14 Season

Al DanielCorrespondent IIAugust 22, 2013

Ranking the 10 Most Underappreciated NHL Players for the 2013-14 Season

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    Whether they have kept comparatively quiet in their own scoring column or stifled their opponents in a not-so-readily-noticed fashion, several solid NHL players are coming off one or more unheralded years as they approach 2013-14.

    Because hockey is the quintessential team game, it is somewhat paradoxical the way appreciation for individual efforts is handled. It might not matter much to the ideal team player himself, yet it often should be a little more proportionate in that very same player’s favor.

    Some of the league’s most underappreciated players have had their dazzling performances translate to the stat sheet. The problem is that they have the misfortune of having household names for teammates or playing in a market that draws less continental attention.

    In other cases, they are doing any number of the so-called “little things” and garnering publicity accordingly. It does not help when they are playing on a team that, deservingly or not, is pulling in more negative scrutiny than positive or hardly any scrutiny at all.

    Some of these athletes could still have better luck drawing the spotlight in the coming campaign. Others, by sheer virtue of their skill set, may need more cooperation from incisive observers for their impact to come into plainer view.

    Here are 10 NHLers who have hovered below the league’s canopy of household names, but will be worth monitoring this season.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this slideshow were found via nhl.com

10. Saku Koivu

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    Not to take anything away from Teemu Selanne, but whether or not the longtime Anaheim hero decides to play another year, the Ducks will have at least one Finnish forward giving them an indispensable veteran presence.

    At 38, and turning 39 in November, Saku Koivu may not have much more to give from a production perspective. His numbers have receded with each full-length season he has spent in Anaheim, from 52 points in 2009-10 to 45 in 2010-11 to 38 in 2011-12.

    But even if his input is not readily surfacing on the scoresheet, Koivu has proven that he can be an effective bottom-six forward helping a shutdown cause in the defensive end.

    One of 54 prospects for the Finnish Olympic team in 2014, Koivu could impact the Ducks in one of two ways depending on whether he makes his country’s final roster.

    If he does, he may feel personally motivated to build up to the tournament in Sochi and, in effect, do his part to sculpt early collateral in the win column for Anaheim. If he falls short, that would mean a two-week break early in the latter half of the regular season and therefore a rare chance to recharge and inhale a second wind for the homestretch and playoffs.

    But either way, regardless of what is left in his physical tank, Koivu should continue to serve as an inspiring specimen in the Ducks dressing room.

9. Alex Tanguay

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    The Colorado Avalanche’s reintroduction to members of the 2001 Stanley Cup championship team entails more than just former players entering the front office, such as goalie-turned-coach Patrick Roy.

    Alex Tanguay, who was 21 at the time of that title, made an intriguing pledge when the Avs acquired him from Calgary for a second playing stint this summer. As he told to Denver Post reporter Adrian Dater, “I haven’t had my best year yet in the NHL, I really feel that…I have a big chip on my shoulder about that, I realize. I feel I can still perform, and I’m so happy to be back in Denver where I have so many great memories.”

    This is coming from a player whose first of four seasons in the 70-point range was that 2000-01 banner campaign, but who has tapered off since 2007 and not seen postseason action since 2009.

    Assuming his active hunger matches his words, Tanguay is going to be a crucial addition to an atmosphere already permeated with specimens of Colorado’s glory days. He will be the one who not only joins the front office in speaking to organizational pride, but also putting that into practice as he skates through, well, practices and games.

    For a team that is about to phase in first overall draft pick Nathan MacKinnon as its latest layer of young talent, Tanguay looks primed to be the ideal example-setter. Even if his own production fails to skyrocket, his combination of winning experience, recent lack of fulfillment and years still ahead is not something to overlook.

8. Pascal Dupuis

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    Perhaps all that really matters for Pascal Dupuis is that his employer appreciates him enough to re-sign him to a much more lucrative deal, as the Pittsburgh Penguins did this past summer.

    Per capgeek.com, Dupuis was carrying a $1.5-million cap hit on his previous contract, but will now consume $3.75 million of space on Pittsburgh’s payroll.

    With that being said, publicity-wise, he is all but bound to remain in the shadows of Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz, Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, etc.

    Those players tend to speak for themselves with their celestial performances, but Dupuis warrants at least a little more attention for what he contributes. It doesn’t even begin or end with his league-high plus-31 rating or the 20 goals and 38 points that placed him third on the team this past season.

    Some of the latter was, in part, due to other key players missing time. But besides stepping up his scoring when necessary, Dupuis sets himself apart from his otherworldly teammates by being one of the team’s shorthanded ice-time leaders among forwards.

    How effective was he in that department in 2013? Well, in 95-plus minutes of shorthanded action, Dupuis saw nine pucks go into Pittsburgh’s net.

    Fellow forwards Matt Cooke and Craig Adams played 13 and 35 more minutes on the PK, respectively, but allowed 12 and six additional power-play goals. As a team, the Penguins allowed 34 strikes in 264 minutes and 52 seconds of playing down a man.

7. Jay McClement

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    Before they acquired Jay McClement in the summer of 2012, the Toronto Maple Leafs finished third-to-last on the NHL’s penalty-killing leaderboard with 77.3 percent success.

    With McClement, the league leader in shorthanded ice time (175:59), on their side, the Leafs improved by 10 percentage points and shot up to second overall by warding off the opponent’s power play 87.9 percent of the time.

    If this is any indication of how much penalty killing makes up his mold, McClement's shorthanded minutes constituted nearly 32 percent of his total ice time (552:58) in 2012-13. As vital as that is, it will still not garner much glamor for a forward without accompanying offensive flair.

    At least one local reporter, namely TSN Toronto's Jonas Siegel, has put this in the limelight, giving McClement a chance to discuss how he honed his specialty during his days as a St. Louis Blue. But it is probably not worth getting one's hopes up for his Selke Trophy chances given the bigger names that tend to win that honor.

    There may be additional factors in the Maple Leaf penalty kill's abrupt turnaround, such as Randy Carlyle supplanting Ron Wilson as head coach late in 2011-12. Still, it is on reliable players like McClement to come in and buy in for any coaching changes to take a substantive effect.

6-5. Andrew Ference and Boyd Gordon

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    It is a little surprising that Edmonton’s successful search for veteran defensive prowess has not garnered more ink in recent weeks. Nonetheless, in an early August interview with the Edmonton Journal, free-agent import Boyd Gordon assessed the best-case scenario of his arrangement with the Oilers as proficiently as anybody.

    As Gordon told author Joanne Ireland, “If you look at (Edmonton’s) lineup, I think their forwards are as good as anybody’s with their speed and their youth. But I think what I can do is maybe bring something a little bit different…If we play strong defensively, with the amount of skill that there is here, we can be one of the best teams in the league.”

    The presence of Gordon up front and fellow acquisition Andrew Ference on the blue line can by all means bring that potential to fruition. Edmonton likely will not blossom into a championship contender within a single season, but it can get a start by crashing the new Pacific Division’s presumptive playoff party of Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose and Vancouver.

    Ference has been through this situation once before. In 2007, he went to a perennial playoff no-show in Boston and helped the Bruins snap that drought in 2008 before soaring to 116 points in 2008-09 and then a Stanley Cup in 2011.

    Oilers fans should have a decent read on their situation, household names or not. More to the point, though, the Canucks and California teams may have a greater threat to their 2014 playoff membership than their fans think.

4. James Reimer

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    At this stage in his career, there is no harm in giving James Reimer healthy competition for crease time, which Toronto has done by importing Jonathan Bernier.

    Still, a lot is bound to be made of the rollercoaster Reimer rode through key points in the last Maple Leafs season, which had a most unhappy ending in Boston. Of the fact that he lost four out of seven in his first NHL playoff series, with all four of those losses featuring at least five goals against and two coming in overtime.

    Much will surely be made of the fact that the second of those two overtime losses came after the Leafs had safeguarded a 4-1 lead through the first 10-plus minutes of the third period in Game 7.

    This is Toronto, after all.

    But as much as Reimer should be raring to improve his performance at the season’s most decisive stages, he also has plenty of plus points to build upon that warrant equal attention. Although many of his losses have featured swollen goal counts, they were few and far between during the 2012-13 regular season, with only two sets of consecutive “non-wins” over 33 total appearances.

    True, he has played no more than 37 games in any of his first three NHL seasons, but he is growing increasingly battle-tested and has every chance to thrive under the pressure brought on by Bernier’s presence. He indicated as much when he spoke to the QMI Agency’s Mike Zeisberger about the acquisition.

3. Matt Moulson

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    A playoff contender cannot live on its prized No. 1 overall draft pick and franchise face alone.

    Even when the New York Islanders were struggling circa 2009-2012, they were getting gratifying input from players other than John Tavares. One jutting example is Matt Moulson, who has been with the team for the same amount of time and turned in three straight seasons in the 30-goal range.

    With 15 strikes in 47 appearances in the shorter 2012-13 campaign, Moulson’s pace fell barely short of that. There were times when his stick went cold last winter, but he picked up his playmaking in those stretches and ultimately ensured that no production slump lasted longer than two games.

    That could be what the Hockey News has in mind when it lists among Moulson’s strengths, “He works hard to improve his all-around game.” His role reversal from finisher to playmaker was his latest reward for that effort.

    His team-leading 29 assists were a testament to the way he complements his more attention-grabbing linemate. Had this been a normal, full-length season, he would have been flirting with a 50-assist pace, accelerating his exponential climb from 18 to 22 to 33.

    Likewise, Moulson’s power-play scoring log of eight goals, seven helpers and 15 points nearly matched Tavares’ transcript of 9-7-16 with the man advantage.

2. Christian Ehrhoff

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    Bright spots in Buffalo have been hard to come by in recent years, but they do exist.

    One of them, at least within the last year, has been Sabres newcomer Steve Ott, a prolific hitter (187 checks for third in the league) and reliable faceoff man (55.7 percent success). But someone else came to the team one season prior and has been remarkably efficient despite his team’s circumstances.

    That would be defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, who may not be a spectacular shutdown machine by nature, but is remarkably stingy, which is all that matters.

    In 2011-12, despite missing 16 games, he led Buffalo in nightly average ice time and logged a total of 1,521:49. With 67 opposing goals occurring in those minutes, he had a personal 60-minute average of 2.64 while playing for a non-playoff club with a collective 2.72 GAA.

    The state of the Sabres did anything but change for the better in 2012-13, but Ehrhoff held his own. He followed up on his previous campaign by placing eighth in the NHL with an even 1,184 minutes on the ice.

    When he was in action, Buffalo allowed 46 goals, which translates to an individual 2.33 GAA. This despite playing in front of a top goaltender in Ryan Miller, who ranked No. 38 among his peers with a 2.81 goals-against average and on a team whose 2.90 GAA tied it with Philadelphia for No. 22 in defense.

    Conversely, among the league’s top 20 minute-munching blueliners, only Boston’s Zdeno Chara and Chicago’s Duncan Keith let the opposition score at a lower rate than Ehrhoff.

1. Antti Niemi

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    His numbers from previous playoffs are hardly spectacular, including his 2010 run with Chicago, where he retained a .910 save percentage and 2.63 GAA. His three-round ride with the Sharks the next year was even less savory, amounting to a 3.22 GAA and .896 save percentage.

    But all of that is deep in the past, and if 2013 indicated anything, it is that Antti Niemi has grown from that mixed bag of big-game experience. His regular season, featuring only two pair of consecutive regulation losses, was arguably the most consistent of any player in any position.

    Unfortunately for Niemi, Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky picked up traction in the homestretch and overshadowed him in the eyes of Vezina voters. But whereas Bobrovsky could not help the Blue Jackets to the playoffs, Niemi kept backstopping San Jose until he had the misfortune of blinking one time too many in a seven-game, second-round staring contest with Jonathan Quick.

    Now 29 years of age and entering his fifth full NHL campaign, Niemi will need to go out and prove that his new-and-improved 2012-13 edition is authentic and long-lasting. But who is to say he cannot duplicate, if not improve upon that performance?