Who's the Best of the Best Early in the 2013-14 NHL Season?
Earlier this week, I outlined the early contenders for the 2014 Hart Trophy. Traditionally, the "player judged to be most valuable to his team" almost always puts up a lot of points to warrant consideration from the Professional Hockey Writers' Association.
But hockey's a team game, and it takes more than just scorers to win games and championships. So here's a look at the top players in their respective roles so far in the early going.
Best Two-Way Forward: Dustin Penner
What is happening in Orange County?
We know the Anaheim Ducks are deep in net and have picked up where they left off last year, but how have they turned Dustin Penner back into a good player—especially a good defensive player?
In just 17 games, Penner has surpassed his point total from all of last year with four goals and 15 points. Even more impressively, the big winger is leading all forwards in the league in plus/minus at plus-16.
Penner hasn't been a plus player since he scored his career-high 63 points with the Edmonton Oilers back in 2009-10. If he can keep up his current production, he has a chance to beat that number this year as a 31-year-old who took a discounted $2 million contract to sign with the Ducks.
Best Playmaker: Joe Thornton
After several years of declining offensive numbers, Joe Thornton has experienced a rebirth this year with the San Jose Sharks.
Through the season's first 22 games, Thornton leads his team with 23 points, including 21 assists—tops in the NHL.
Whether it's on the power play, where he has seven points, or feeding his rookie linemate Tomas Hertl, Thornton has come back to life as a benevolent captain, setting up his teammates and making them look good.
Thornton also made quite the play in the media earlier this year with some off-colour comments. Planned or unplanned, he relieved the heat Hertl was experiencing after accusations of hot-dogging and pulled the focus of attention onto himself.
Best Rookie: Tomas Hertl
Plenty of first-year NHL players have made an impact in the early going this season, but the San Jose Sharks' Tomas Hertl leads the pack.
The affable Czech served notice that he was ready to play with the big boys with a four-goal outburst in just his third NHL game, and he has continued to produce consistently on a top line with Joe Thornton.
Through 22 games, Hertl leads all rookies with 12 goals and 18 points and has demonstrated a well-rounded game. In addition to his scoring prowess, the 20-year-old is defensively responsible and willing to use his big body to make plays in the corners.
The future is bright for Tomas Hertl and the Sharks.
Best Scorer: Alexander Steen
In 2011-12, the St. Louis Blues were a relatively anonymous bunch who battled for the Presidents' Trophy until the last game on the season thanks to strong goaltending by their tandem of Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak. The Blues ranked 22nd in goals that season.
This year, St. Louis is fourth in offense, thanks in large part to its dynamic first line of Alexander Steen, T.J. Oshie and David Backes. Seemingly out of nowhere, Steen has become the top sniper in the league through the quarter pole, with 17 goals in 21 games.
In the early going, no stick has been more dangerous than Steen's around the NHL. Goalies beware!
Best Defenseman: Oliver Ekman-Larsson
When it comes to combining the offensive and defensive aspects of an NHL blueliner's role, the Phoenix Coyotes' Oliver Ekman-Larsson is tops through the early part of the season.
With the struggling Ottawa Senators, Erik Karlsson leads all defensemen in scoring with 22 points, but he is a minus-2. Ekman-Larsson is tied for sixth with 16 points. The young Swede is also tied for fourth among defensemen in plus-minus, behind only Justin Braun, Francois Beauchemin and Jan Hejda. At just 22, Ekman-Larsson has become the No. 1 defenseman on a surprising Coyotes team that's neck-and-neck with the best in the West.
It's a breakout year for Ekman-Larsson, who has been as good as any of the big names in the early going this season and should be in the conversation for the Norris Trophy.
Best Forward: Sidney Crosby
Sidney Crosby had a 10-point lead in the NHL scoring race during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season before he was forced to miss the last 12 games of the year with a jaw injury. Had it not been for that puck to the face, Crosby could well have won the Art Ross and Hart Trophies last year.
After Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins suffered a humbling defeat by the Boston Bruins in the 2013 Eastern Conference Final, his team has a score to settle. Once again, Pittsburgh's captain is leading the way on and off the ice.
Through 22 games, Crosby leads the league with 28 points and has helped the Penguins claim top spot in the Metropolitan Division. Pittsburgh is ready to deliver a different result this year when playoffs roll around.
Best Goalie: Josh Harding
In 2013, Josh Harding won the Masterton Trophy for perseverance and dedication to hockey after battling back from his multiple sclerosis diagnosis to resume his hockey career.
According to the Hockey Hall of Fame website, no player has ever won the Masterton more than once. Harding could very well become the first. Not only has he taken over starting goaltender duties with the Minnesota Wild, his play has been among the best in the league as he has staked his team to a 14-5-4 start.
It was a feat for Harding to continue to play hockey despite his medical condition. It's jaw-dropping that he's now putting up the best numbers of his career.
So far this season, Harding has been both a great goalie and a great inspiration.
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