NHL Stars Not Getting Enough Credit for Stellar Play in 2013-14

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistNovember 5, 2013

NHL Stars Not Getting Enough Credit for Stellar Play in 2013-14

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    Joe Sargent/Getty Images

    A look at the top of the NHL's scoring leaders reveals some familiar names. Sidney Crosby is at the top with 23 points, and he's followed closely behind by Steven Stamkos and Henrik Sedin.

    However, there are a number of players who are not elite superstars but are playing substantial roles for their teams.

    These unheralded players deserve credit for how well they have played going into the start of the second month of the season. 

    Here's a look at these key contributors and what they have done to star for their team.

Center Paul Stastny, Colorado Avalanche

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    2013-14 stats: 13 games played; four goals, six assists; plus-10

    Best season: 2009-10—20 goals, 59 assists; plus-two

    Star characteristics: Paul Stastny centers Colorado's top line that has Gabriel Landeskog on the left wing and Nathan MacKinnon on the right wing (following Alex Tanguay's knee injury). Stastny is averaging 18:23 of ice time per game, and he is winning 54.9 percent of his faceoffs.

    Stastny is in the final season of a five-year, $33 million contract, and his play indicates that he would like to be with the Avs for several more seasons. He has already scored two game-winning goals, including one in overtime.

    Stastny plays on the power play, and he has scored on 19 percent of the 21 shots he has taken. That percentage is a career high, and he would like to maintain that pace.

    Head coach Patrick Roy has full confidence in Statstny's talent.

    "He will be a leader on this team, there's no doubt about it," Roy told Adrian Dater of the Denver Post. "One on one, he's shifty; you can see he's got skills. He's a fun player to watch."

Left Wing Chris Kunitz, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    2013-14 stats: 15 games played; eight goals, seven assists; plus-12

    Best season: 2011-12—26 goals, 35 assists; plus-16

    Star characteristics: Chris Kunitz plays left wing next to Sidney Crosby, so it seems obvious that he is going to get his scoring opportunities. However, don't make the mistake of thinking that's why Kunitz is a good player.

    Kunitz may help Crosby more than vice versa. Kunitz is a very hard worker who excels at forechecking, and he will sacrifice his body in order to win the puck for himself and his linemates. Kunitz is a smart offensive performer, and the angle he takes when delivering a check often results in the Penguins gaining possession of the puck. 

    Kunitz is 6'0", 193 pounds and even though he is of average size, he plays a hard-hitting, big man's game. That could be one of the reasons that he often wears down in the latter part of most seasons.

    Kunitz has good but not great offensive skills, but his work ethic makes him a star.

Right Wing T.J. Oshie, St. Louis Blues

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    2013-14 stats: 12 games played; two goals, nine assists; plus-10

    Best season: 2011-12—19 goals, 35 assists; plus-15

    Star characteristics: T.J. Oshie is an aggressive right wing who plays as if the outcome of every game is his responsibility.

    That means he sells out every game, and that's why he is respected by St. Louis head coach Ken Hitchcock as well as his teammates. Oshie is not big at 5'11", 188 pounds, but he plays as if he were three inches taller and 30 pounds heavier because his instincts are to hit first and put his imprint on his opponents.

    Oshie is a good scorer, but there is plenty of room for improvement in this part of his game. He is far more valuable than his scoring totals indicate, but his offensive output could improve.

Defenseman Justin Braun, San Jose Sharks

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    2013-14 stats: 14 games played; two goals, one assists; plus-12

    Best season: 2011-12—two goals, nine assists; minus-two

    Star characteristics: Justin Braun has never been a star in the NHL, but he is playing like one this season. San Jose head coach Todd McLellan has Braun on the ice during the most critical parts of the game, and Braun is coming through with big performances on an every-night basis.

    Braun is averaging 22:03 of ice time per game. Braun uses his 6'2", 200-pound frame very well, and while he used to make too many mistakes, the light seems to have gone on this season. He knows when to stay back, and he knows when to join the attack.

    Braun has an excellent shot from the point, so it would not be surprising if his goal total went up dramatically.

Defenseman Niklas Kronwall, Detroit Red Wings

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    2013-14 stats: 14 games played; one goal, nine assists; plus-nine

    Best season: 2008-09—two goals, six goals, 45 assists; plus-15

    Star characteristics: A year ago, Niklas Kronwall had a daunting task in front of him. He had to take over as the Red Wings' No. 1 defenseman because of the great Nicklas Lidstrom's retirement. Kronwall played well all season, and he grew into his leadership position.

    That has continued this season. The security factor when Kronwall is on the ice may not be what it was when Lidstrom was in top form, but it is still quite high. Kronwall is a dominating and hard-hitting physical player who is averaging 22:26 of ice time per game.

    Lidstrom is not huge at 6'0", 190 pounds, but he is among the hardest hitters in the league.

    Red Wings defenseman Brendan Smith is currently out of action with a shoulder injury. He plans on using his time to study Kronwall.

    “I can watch Kronwall play the whole game," Kronwall told Ansar Khan of MLive.com. "He’s so fantastic, that’s a guy I’m going to try to imitate; how he makes plays in the corner, how he makes his passes, how he relaxes with the puck, simple things that I can pick up."

    All attributes that make Kronwall a star.

Right Wing Martin St. Louis, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    2013-14 stats: 14 games played; seven goals, nine assists; plus-10

    Best season: 2006-07—43 goals, 59 assists; plus-seven

    Star characteristics: Just another excellent start for Martin St. Louis, who is often overlooked because young teammate Steven Stamkos has so much firepower.

    However, it appears that St. Louis is going through a second prime of his career. Even though he is 38 years old, St. Louis still has eye-catching quickness, and he combines his speed with sensational hands that allow him to put the puck in the top corner from close quarters or make the perfect pass to his teammates.

    In addition to his physical gifts, there is a relentlessness to St. Louis' game that gives him the ability to embarrass any opponent that is not playing at his highest level.

    St. Louis has been a consistent player throughout his career, and perhaps that's why he doesn't get recognized as much as he should. He has spoiled observers with his talent, and he remains one of the game's brightest stars.

Center Antoine Vermette, Phoenix Coyotes

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    2013-14 stats: 15 games played; five goals, four assists; plus-nine

    Best season: 2009-10—27 goals, 38 assists; plus-two

    Star characteristics: Antoine Vermette does not have a star's profile. He centers the Phoenix Coyotes' third line, and that's normally a ticket to oblivion.

    However, Vermette is playing sensational hockey to this point in the year. In addition to his scoring totals and his plus-minus rating, Vermette is a whiz in the faceoff circle. He is winning 59.2 percent of his draws, and that allows him to rank with the best centers in the league.

    He has won the confidence of head coach Dave Tippett, who plays him an average of 19:02 per game. Vermette is an excellent skater, and he is dedicated to playing at both ends of the ice.

    In the past, he has been inconsistent when it comes to taking advantage of his scoring opportunities. While that's not his best attribute, he appears to be improving in that part of the game, as he is connecting on 15.2 percent of his shots on goal.

Defenseman Dion Phaneuf, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    2013-14 stats: 15 games played; two goals, five assists; plus-10

    Best season: 2007-08—17 goals, 43 assists; plus-12

    Star characteristics: It's been a long time since Dion Phaneuf played at a star level in the NHL, but his performance this season indicates he is ready to get back to that level.

    He has a long way to go to prove that he really belongs with the best players of the game, and he was as culpable as any player on the Leafs for their Game 7 collapse against the Boston Bruins in last season's playoffs as anyone.

    He has played this year as if he is motivated by that embarrassment. Head coach Randy Carlyle is putting Phaneuf on the ice for 24:04 a game, and that figure indicates how well the defenseman is playing.

    Phaneuf has always had a big shot and has long been known for his hitting ability. However, it's his positional play and work on the defensive end that has allowed him to play better this year.

    Phaneuf chalks it up to maturing on the ice. “I’m a lot more responsible there,” Phaneuf told the Toronto Globe and Mail, “and that’s a learning curve that a lot of young D-men have when they come in." 

    Now it's up to Phaneuf to prove he can stay at that level for the rest of the regular season.