NHL

Ranking the Best Playmakers in the 2013-14 NHL Season so Far

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistDecember 1, 2013

Ranking the Best Playmakers in the 2013-14 NHL Season so Far

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    When you see a goal scored in the NHL, the attention normally goes to the player who puts the puck in the back of the net.

    But in most cases, the player who scored the goal didn't do it on his own. At least one or two passes have to be made to give the shooter a chance to score. In order to make that happen, a playmaker has to be involved.

    In most cases, it's a playmaker who sets up the goal. In this piece, we look at the top playmakers in the 2013-14 season so far.

8. Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals

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    Graig Abel/Getty Images

    2013-14 stats: Five goals, 19 assists, 24 points

     

    Analysis

    Nicklas Backstrom is one of the top playmakers in the league. If he weren't, head coach Adam Oates would not have him playing center with Alex Ovechkin on his right wing.

    Ovechkin is certainly going to get his share of goals no matter who is playing next to him, but Backstrom is the ideal linemate because he's such an accurate passer and he knows where Ovechkin likes to go to fire off his one-timers.

    Backstrom specializes in no-look passes from his forehand to the tape of his teammates, but he's nearly as accurate with his backhand.

    A linemate like Ovechkin is going to finish off more of his delicious feeds than most players, but Backstrom has the accuracy, touch and vision to make any linemate a more productive player.

7. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators

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    James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 stats: Seven goals, 19 assists, 26 points

     

    Analysis

    Erik Karlsson is the most gifted offensive defenseman in the league. While there are some questions about his defense from time to time, he has sensational offensive instincts that pay off in numerous offensive opportunities for himself and his teammates.

    It starts with Karlsson's skating ability. He has excellent speed and a smooth stride, and he is a confident puck carrier. That means he can skate with his head up at all times and put the puck on his teammate's stick without breaking stride.

    Another aspect of Karlsson's playmaking is his skill at making the slap pass. When he has the puck at the point—whether it's the power play or not—Karlsson can wind up as if he is taking a hard slap shot and then direct a pass to his teammate. This often leads directly to goals or top scoring opportunities that set up rebound goals.

    As long as Karlsson stays healthy, he should be a dynamic playmaker for the Ottawa Senators throughout the season.

6. Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit Red Wings

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    Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 stats: 11 goals, 19 assists, 30 points

     

    Analysis

    Henrik Zetterberg is taking the leadership role for the Detroit Red Wings. It's only natural that the veteran center would fill that void for the Red Wings along with Pavel Datsyuk and Niklas Kronwall since Nicklas Lidstrom retired at the end of the 2011-12 season.

    Zetterberg handles his off-ice duties with as much skill as he does his on-ice responsibilities. Zetterberg is a brilliant passer who sets up his teammates with crisp passes on an every-night basis. One of the reasons that Zetterberg is so proficient is that he reads the play quite well and is almost always in the right position to complete the play.

    Few players seem to have Zetterberg's vision. His ability to put himself in the proper position and then wait before passing causes a lot of problems for opposing goalies. His passes arrive at the perfect time for his teammates to launch hard shots that result in ideal scoring opportunities.

5. Henrik Sedin, Vancouver Canucks

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    USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 stats: Seven goals, 20 assists, 27 points

     

    Analysis

    Henrik Sedin has been one of the game's best playmakers since he was drafted in 1999, and he has not lost any of that skill in the interim.

    Sedin's gift is his ability to play the game with patience and then turn on his speed. That allows him to get away from nearly every defender. With a step on the defender, Sedin can capitalize on that opening by putting butter-soft passes directly on the money.

    Sedin's brother, Daniel, is nearly as good a passer, but Henrik's accuracy with both the forehand and the backhand gives him a slight advantage.

4. Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks

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    Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 stats: One goal, 23 assists, 24 points

     

    Analysis

    Perhaps Duncan Keith wants to give Erik Karlsson a run for his money as the best offensive defenseman in the game. He certainly has been up to the task this season.

    Keith has been the Chicago Blackhawks' best defenseman since their first championship season in 2009-10. However, every time Keith has the puck on his stick in the offensive zone, he seems to make the proper play with the puck. He is an accurate passer, but what makes Keith so dangerous is that he will walk the blue line with the puck an extra split second, and that throws the defense off balance.

    Then Keith throws the puck directly to a teammate to set up a scoring opportunity. That has made him one of the best playmakers in the league this season.

3. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 stats: 13 goals, 23 assists, 36 points

     

    Analysis

    No surprise seeing Sidney Crosby on this list. While the Pittsburgh Penguins have had some painful playoff experiences recently, there is little argument that Crosby is the best player in the NHL. His offensive skills are not quite at the level that Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were at in the prime of their careers, but they're not far behind.

    The skill level manifests itself in accurate passing and shooting, but it's so much more than that. Crosby gets ahead of the game with fakes and feints that would make a boxer like Manny Pacquiao proud. One quick fake gets the opposing defense out of position, and that allows Crosby to deliver passes to wide-open teammates who then deposit the puck into the net.

    Whether it's with his backhand or forehand, Crosby delivers picture-perfect passes night in and night out.

2. Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks

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    Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 stats: Four goals, 24 assists, 28 points

     

    Analysis

    Joe Thornton has been one of the game's best passers since the Boston Bruins drafted him in 1997.

    He has tremendous size and strength, and those gifts have allowed him to keep opponents at bay. Thornton is frustrating to play against because he does not fly through the offensive zone and doesn't fire bullet passes.

    Instead, he waits until the last instant and threads the needle, often with backdoor passes that lead to sure goals.

    Thornton is having a wonderful season as the leadership role on the San Jose Sharks transfers to Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski. Thornton does not have to take charge; he just has to go out and play.

    He's thriving in that role, and his playmaking has been first-rate.

1. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 stats: Seven goals, 28 assists, 35 points

     

    Analysis

    Evgeni Malkin is the only player in the league who can rival Sidney Crosby in all-around talent.

    Malkin seemed to get off to a slow start because he only had five goals through his first 22 games. But while he was struggling to score goals, Malkin has been piling up assists. Malkin has been especially hot lately, with 13 assists in his last eight games.

    Malkin is an explosive player who is riding a hot streak. In the past, he has been able to soar to the top of the league's scoring leaders when he gets on a roll, and this one may not be any different.

    Malkin's speed, touch and accurate passing give him a major advantage over nearly every other player in the league.

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