Ranking the 10 Craftiest Players in the NHL Today

Ryan Boulding@rbouldingFeatured ColumnistFebruary 18, 2014

Ranking the 10 Craftiest Players in the NHL Today

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    Jaromir Jagr protects the puck.
    Jaromir Jagr protects the puck.Andy Marlin/Getty Images

    When it comes to the game of hockey, there are a handful of players who are a head above the rest as far as talent. Able to seemingly influence the outcome of a game at will, these skaters have a bag of tricks so deep, there may not actually be a limit to what they can do.

    Whether it is deking a defender out of his socks with a nifty dangle, connecting with a puck in midair to score a goal, winning every faceoff ever taken, shutting down the best in the league or essentially disappearing out on the ice while still producing, these guys are the game changers on which their clubs rely.

    They are sly, wily, tricky and yet also reliable. Players like these add flashes of brilliance to the sport, making highlight reels while bringing an infusion of excitement to the game. Some also go about their work silently and consistently, happy to get a win while giving their all to accomplish it without the flair of an action-worthy ESPN’s Top 10.

    Masters of art, the top of their trade, the following 10 players are craftiest in the NHL today.

10. Patrice Bergeron

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    Patrice Bergeron takes an important defensive faceoff.
    Patrice Bergeron takes an important defensive faceoff.Glenn James/Getty Images

    You don’t earn the reputation as the league’s best defensive forward without having a few tricks up your sleeve. Consistently paired against the best of the best when it comes to opponents, Patrice Bergeron is tasked with shutting down guys like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Claude Giroux on a nightly basis.

    A master of the draw, Bergeron is no slouch in the faceoff circle with 739 wins on 1,238 chances (59.7%) this season. His work begins with the drop of the puck and ends when the whistle blows. Despite the heavy defensive workload, the 28-year-old center for the Boston Bruins also manages to find the scoresheet regularly.

    He has 16 goals and 22 assists through 57 games this year, a number that helped him earn a spot on the top line for Team Canada at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

9. Jaromir Jagr

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    Jaromir Jagr goes backhand on Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
    Jaromir Jagr goes backhand on Jean-Sebastien Giguere.Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

    Many might think that because aged New Jersey Devils forward Jaromir Jagr is older than most in the league, that he doesn’t have much to offer anymore. Tell that to the Philadelphia Flyers, Boston Bruins, Dallas Stars and Devils, who have all paid for his services over the last few seasons.

    A mercenary for hire, the 42-year-old Czech winger can clearly still play in the NHL—as evidenced by his 17 goals and 32 assists through 59 games with the 13th place Devils. Jagr still has the ability to dazzle, speeding up or slowing down to dictate the pace of the game, while using his soft hands and veteran wiles to make a play that will surprise many a younger skater.

    He’s also deceptively strong—meaning he’s hard to knock off of the puck—and even harder to defend against.

8. Erik Karlsson

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    Erik Karlsson brings a scoring touch to the Ottawa Senators.
    Erik Karlsson brings a scoring touch to the Ottawa Senators.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    It seems that nearly every club in the NHL looks to have at least one puck-moving defenseman on the roster. Contributions from all areas from the ice is a necessity with the game getting faster, and Erik Karlsson certainly provides that for the Ottawa Senators.

    Karlsson expertly combines speed and skill in his transitional game, jumping into the play to pitch in when called upon—and even when he isn’t—while still performing his defensive duties. Not one to shy away from taking a risk, Karlsson can be lethal with the puck, as seen most recently with three goals and two assists during the prelims of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

    It’s Karlsson’s propensity for joining the rush, especially at times when many foes least expect it, that adds to his intrigue as well as his success. He can be sneaky and yet powerful at the same time—something that’s helped him scoop up 15 goals and 40 assists through 59 games this season.

7. Matt Duchene

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    Matt Duchene is rising up the ranks.
    Matt Duchene is rising up the ranks.Tom Mihalek/Associated Press

    Already in his fifth year in the National Hockey League, Colorado Avalanche center Matt Duchene is well on his way to becoming a preeminent superstar among the elite. Following a dismal third season, the 23-year-old Duchene went out and retooled his conditioning and diet, a tactic that has shown immediate gains.

    Duchene is surprisingly solid on his feet—a fact that goes unnoticed when looking at his 5'11" frame—and can often be difficult to knock off of the puck. Add blazing speed and a creative mind to the equation, and you have someone that has been instrumental in the success of his team.

    Duchene figures out ways to score, whether it’s faking a move with his stick to get a defender to bite or spinning backwards towards the crease to protect the puck before a shot, and he isn’t afraid to pepper in a little pizazz to get on the board.

6. Joe Pavelski

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    Joe Pavelski looks to make a play.
    Joe Pavelski looks to make a play.Mike Carlson/Getty Images

    Dependability is a word that comes to mind when talking about San Jose Sharks center Joe Pavelski. The 29-year-old has put up 30 or more points every season since his second in the league, many of which have come during key moments for the Sharks.

    Pavelski is a silent killer out on the ice. He isn’t flashy and doesn’t stand out the way superstars like Sidney Crosby do. He isn’t the fastest guy on the ice either, but he is just as important to his team. His hockey IQ is his biggest asset, allowing him to find gaps in coverage that often work to his advantage. In the right place at the right time, Pavelski works hard for his spoils.

    A deserving choice for Team USA, Pavelski played a role in three of America’s wins during the preliminary round at the 2014 Winter Olympics with one goal and three assists in the process.

5. Martin St. Louis

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    Martin St. Louis uses his size to his advantage.
    Martin St. Louis uses his size to his advantage.Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

    Much is made of the efforts of Steven Stamkos for the the Tampa Bay Lightning, but his teammate Martin St. Louis deserves a lot of credit for his own hard work. Undrafted and undersized by NHL standards, St. Louis has honed the areas of his game that have brought him the most success.

    St. Louis uses speed as a weapon and his small size to his advantage. He is able to wheel around the ice, which makes him a threat at full speed even at 39 years old. Add to this the ability to see the entire ice and the velocity at which he can dish off a pass, and that makes for some interesting plays.

    The veteran has gone on to lofty success in the NHL with 10 seasons of 60 or more points, and an 11th isn’t far away. He is hard to defend against, which is part of the reason for Tampa’s rise in the standings this season.

4. Sidney Crosby

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    Sidney Crosby takes a shot.
    Sidney Crosby takes a shot.Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    What is there to say about Sidney Crosby that hasn’t already been said? A solid leader that doesn’t shy away from criticism, Crosby’s strength and work ethic have set him among the upper echelon of talent in the NHL. He is a competitor through and through and that translates out on the ice.

    Master of the puck, Crosby can work wonders with the rubber, but he also commands the respect of many in the league. His athleticism and determination to win are often more than required to will his Pittsburgh Penguins to the winning side of many a hockey game.

    Crosby is as clever as it gets both on and off of the pond and will use whatever means necessary to win. There’s a reason why he is one of the best in the NHL, and craftiness is a part of it.

3. Patrick Kane

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    Patrick Kane is a different guy on and off the ice.
    Patrick Kane is a different guy on and off the ice.Gregg Forwerck/Getty Images

    Very little about Chicago Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane’s off-ice demeanor speaks to his ability to work with the puck. Calling him adept at stickhandling would be an insult to his abilities, which only improve in the playoffs. A clutch player, the 25-year-old superstar knows he is gifted and uses that to his advantage.

    Often criticized for his behavior away from the rink, Kane revels in the question marks about his fitness and decision making, which clearly don’t impact his point production. Kane has six seasons of 60 or more points and the only time that he fell short was during the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign.

    Kane is a force when on the ice. He can make a move if needs be, he can blast a shot if that’s the right decision and he isn’t afraid to spread the scoring out to those around him. He is a multifunction forward with a variety of lethal tools in the toolbox.

2. Phil Kessel

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    Phil Kessel burns a defender before shooting on net.
    Phil Kessel burns a defender before shooting on net.Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

    Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel is the closest thing to a walking contradiction that the hockey world has. That’s part of his deception. He doesn’t appear to be an athletic, strong gladiator like those he competes against, yet he’s able to hold his own in a league of finely tuned fitness machines.

    Kessel uses the perception of him to his advantage, breaking out a surprising amount of speed when necessary and finding the back of the net like few in the league can. Kessel has been a point-per-game player for the Leafs over the last three seasons and that triumph has carried over into the postseason as well, something that hasn’t gone unnoticed for most of his opponents.

    A master of his craft, Kessel has become a dependable staple of the Leafs system and is a key contributor to its triumph.

1. Pavel Datsyuk

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    Pavel Datsyuk is always dangerous with the puck.
    Pavel Datsyuk is always dangerous with the puck.Al Bello/Getty Images

    Pavel Datysuk is known as the Magic Man for a reason. A wizard with the puck, Datsyuk certainly manages to make magic happen when he is out on the ice. His hands are as silky as it gets and his shot is as accurate as can be.

    Helping to cast off the “enigmatic” label for Russian players, Datsyuk’s hard work and tireless ethic have made him one of the premiere players in the NHL. A staple for the Detroit Red Wings, he’s a player that enchants—both fans and defenders alike—when out on the ice.

    Datsyuk has all of the moves and can run through his grab bag of goodies in a matter of seconds, choosing what will work in the moment and then executing it with grace and perfection.

    The definition of crafty, Daysuk is the golden standard for skill players and continues to exert his dominance in an NHL that is increasingly younger each year.