Every NHL Team's Most Underrated Player of 2013-14
Each NHL team has its share of star players whose talent and skills stand out from the rest of the roster. It can be a dazzling offensive forward, a gifted two-way defenseman or a goaltender who can carry a team to victory.
On every roster there's also a player whose contributions are no less important but is often overlooked by the fans. In many cases these players aren't as flashy or as naturally skilled. However, their work ethic and shrewd hockey sense make them invaluable.
Sometimes they're checking line forwards whose efforts containing a rival club's scorers makes the difference between winning and losing. It can be a defenseman willing to sacrifice his body for a big hit or a blocked shot with the game on the line. Sometimes it's a goaltender whose efforts are overshadowed by the performance of his superstar teammates.
At times a truly skilled player's obvious strengths can overshadow their other talents. A player who would be a standout on a lesser team can be outshone on a star-studded roster. A highly paid player on a bad team can be singled out for his salary instead of praised for his skills.
Here's a look at the most underrated player on every NHL team this season.
Note: All stats effective March 25, 2014.
Andrew Cogliano, Anaheim Ducks
Overshadowed by teammates Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, Cogliano ranks among the Ducks' key players. The 26-year-old two-way winger is swift and versatile. He can play all three forward positions, which comes in handy during short-handed situations or when injuries strike the lineup.
Despite playing on the third line, Cogliano reached the 20-goal mark this season, making him the Ducks' third-highest goal scorer. He leads the Ducks in short-handed goals (three) and is tied for third in game-wining goals (four). Cogliano is also the Ducks' most durable player. This season he became only the 20th player in NHL history to play 500 consecutive games.
Johnny Boychuk, Boston Bruins
Boychuk is sometimes overlooked on a Bruins defense that features superstar Zdeno Chara along with promising youngsters Dougie Hamilton and Torey Krug. Since joining the Bruins six years ago, the 30-year-old defender is an important part of their blue line.
Despite his average speed, Boychuk plays a smart game, possesses a heavy shot and and is rarely caught out of position. He's the only Bruins defenseman with over 100 hits (131) and blocked shots (130) this season, and he leads all Boston defenders this season in plus-minus (plus-30). He's also second in shifts per game (26.7), short-handed ice time per game (2:58) and third in ice time (21.11).
Christian Ehrhoff, Buffalo Sabres
Ehrhoff's 10-year, $40 million contract made him the subject of frequent trade speculation this season. It also eclipsed the good numbers he's put up this season with the moribund Sabres. He's been among the few bright spots in an otherwise miserable season for the Sabres.
The 31-year-old German blueliner is tied for third in team scoring (31 points) and power-play points (11). Ehrhoff also leads the Sabres in ice time (23:57) and short-handed points (third). He is second in game-winning goals (two) and blocked shots (102).
Mikael Backlund, Calgary Flames
Earlier this season the Calgary Sun's Wes Gilbertson reported Backlund was the subject of trade speculation. After managing only two goals and seven assists in his first 22 games, the 25-year-old Swedish center has significantly improved. He is finally blossoming into a skilled two-way center.
Backlund is now third in Flames scoring with 38 points in 71 games. He leads the Flames in short-handed goals (four). He is also second in game-winning goals (three) and tied for third in power-play points (11). CBC.ca's Elliotte Friedman suggests Backlund could grow into the role of two-way center comparable to Philadelphia's Sean Couturier.
Andrej Sekera, Carolina Hurricanes
If Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford does step down at season's end, his acquisition of Sekera will rank among his best moves. The Hurricanes' disappointing season masks the fact the 27-year-old Slovak emerged as their best all-around defenseman.
Sekera's 44 points this season are a career best, ranking him third in team scoring. He leads the Hurricanes in ice time (23.39), power-play assists (11) and blocked shots (120). He is also second overall in assists (33) and power-play points (15), plus he's third in power-play goals (four).
Brent Seabrook, Chicago Blackhawks
On any other team, Seabrook would be a standout defenseman. On the star-studded Blackhawks roster, he doesn't earn the same plaudits as defense partner Duncan Keith. Nevertheless, the 28-year-old blueliner is just as valuable to their defense corps.
The 6'-3", 220-pound Seabrook plays a terrific all-around game, logging big minutes at even strength and special teams. He leads the Blackhawks in plus-minus (plus-30), is second in blocked shots (123) and ice time (22:09) and third in hits (150). He's the only 'Hawks defenseman with over 100 hits and 100 blocked shots. Seabrook is also on pace to reach 40 points for the second time in his career.
Ryan O'Reilly, Colorado Avalanche
O'Reilly is often cited for not drawing a penalty thus far this season. Before that he garnered headlines last season for his testy contract standoff. What's overlooked is the fact O'Reilly is among the Avalanche's best forwards. With the Avalanche a rising power in the Western Conference, O'Reilly could soon emerge from the shadow of his better-known teammates.
The 23-year-old leads the Avalanche in goals (26) and power-play points (20). He is tied for the team lead in power-play goals with Nathan MacKinnon (eight). O'Reilly is also tied for the lead in power-play assists (12) and game-winning goals (six) with Matt Duchene. He is third in the team scoring lead with 57 points.
Ryan Johansen, Columbus Blue Jackets
In only his third NHL season, the 21-year-old Johansen is emerging as a star. Playing in a lesser-known hockey market, he has yet to receive his just due. As he and the Blue Jackets improve, Johansen won't stay underrated for long. His best years remain ahead of him.
This season Johansen has become the Blue Jackets' top offensive player. He leads them in goals (29), points (54) and shots (201). Johansen is also second in power-play assists (nine), power-play points (14) and faceoff percentage (53.8).
Brenden Dillon, Dallas Stars
When Dillon began his NHL career he was seen a depth defenseman. In only his second season, the 23-year-old has become the Stars' best defensive blueliner. At 6'3" and 228 pounds, he uses his size well in a shutdown role. He has the tools to become a solid NHL rearguard.
Dillon leads the Stars this season in hits (152) and blocked shots (137). He's second in ice time (averaging 21:22 minutes per game) and in short-handed minutes (2:28 per game). Dillon has also chipped in offensively, leading the Stars with two short-handed goals.
Gustav Nyquist, Detroit Red Wings
Nyquist gave flashes of his offensive brilliance during last season's playoffs, with five points in 14 games. Salary-cap concerns earlier this season kept him in the minors for nearly two months. Since his call-up in late November, the 24-year-old right wing wasted little time making his mark.
Injuries to several Red Wings stars has Nyquist pulling second-line duty, and he's making the most of it. In only 47 games he has 42 points, 32 of those coming on even-strength. He also leads the Wings in goal scoring with 25 and in game-winning goals with five. Nyquist may be underrated now, but he's poised to become a star in his own right.
Jeff Petry, Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers' lousy season has dominated the headline in Edmonton. It's also overshadowed a solid effort by Petry, who has moved onto the Oilers' top defense pairing. Though the 26-year-old blueliner's offensive numbers are down this season (17 points) compared to last, he has improved other areas of his game.
On a deeper club Petry could be a good second-pairing defenseman. Still, he's doing his best in his current role. He leads the Oilers this season in hits (158) and blocked shots (114). He also logs the second-most average ice time (21:23) and leads them in short-handed ice time (2:54)
Tom Gilbert, Florida Panthers
The 31-year-old Gilbert's career appeared to be on the downside last fall. Coming off a multiyear deal paying him over $4 million per season, he had to accept a one-year, $900,000 contract with the Panthers. He only earned that following a training-camp tryout.
Gilbert resurrected his NHL career with a solid performance for the struggling Panthers. The puck-moving defenseman is fifth in team scoring with 28 points, all but six coming at even strength. He's also second in ice time (21:20) and in blocked shots (95). SunSentinel.com's Harvey Fialkov recently reported the Panthers hope to re-sign Gilbert following this season.
Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings
Why is Kopitar, the Kings' leading scorer and an established NHL star, on this list of underrated players? While the 26-year-old center is better known for his offensive skills, his defensive ability is often overlooked. There's more to Kopitar than his scoring touch.
While leading the Kings in most offensive categories this season (assists, points, game-winning goals), Kopitar also logs big minutes in short-handed situations. Of the Kings' forwards, he leads them in ice time (21:02) and is second in short-handed ice time (2:07) and faceoff percentage (53.6). He's become a solid two-way center. The Los Angeles Times recommended him earlier this season for the Selke Trophy.
Jonas Brodin, Minnesota Wild
Only 20 years old and in his second NHL season, Brodin has already had a positive effect upon the Wild defense. After a solid rookie performance last year, the young Swede continues to display poise and skills beyond his experience.
Brodin is currently second to Ryan Suter in ice time (24:21) and blocked shots (101). He's also second to Suter among Wild defensemen in short-handed ice time (2:16), plus he's now on the Wild's second power- play unit. That's considerable responsibility for a sophomore defenseman. At his present rate of development, it won't be long until Brodin's a top-pairing blueliner.
Josh Gorges, Montreal Canadiens
Gorges is usually overshadowed by teammates P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov. His defensive skills, however, make him an invaluable part of the Canadiens blue line. Sidelined with a broken hand since March 10, Gorges still leads the Canadiens in blocked shots (173), and his 21:14 minutes of ice time ranks third behind Subban and Markov.
Gorges' greatest value to the Canadiens is on the penalty kill. His team-leading short-handed ice time (3:23) also ranks 10th overall in the league. The Canadiens hope Gorges returns in time for the playoffs, when his defensive skills will be particularly invaluable.
Roman Josi, Nashville Predators
Josi is the latest in a long line of skilled defensemen the Predators have produced over the years. On a Predators blue line containing superstar Shea Weber and promising Seth Jones, the native of Bern, Switzerland is often overlooked. In only his third NHL season, Josi is coming into his own.
A poised and skilled puck-moving defenseman, Josi's 31 points this season are a career best. He is second in blocked shots (126), ice time (26:26) and short-handed ice time (2:34) behind Weber, and he's third in power-play assists (10). His average ice time this season also ranks among the league leaders. Only 23 years old, Josi's best seasons are still ahead of him.
Andy Greene, New Jersey Devils
At 5'11” and 190 pounds, Greene isn't a big, flashy defenseman. In recent years, however, he's become the quiet workhorse of the Devils blue line. The 31-year-old rearguard possesses underrated skills at both ends of the ice.
This season Greene leads the Devils in ice time (24:20) and blocked shots (108), and he is third in game-winning goals (three). He also leads all Devils defensemen in games-played this season (72), points (32) and shots (114). He's third in short-handed ice time (3:30). With only one season remaining on his contract, Devils management shouldn't waste time re-signing him.
Frans Nielsen, New York Islanders
Nielsen is a reliable two-way forward who's an asset on the power play and penalty kill. That's often unnoticed because he plays in the shadow of superstar John Tavares. Lost amid the hubbub of the Islanders circus-like season is the fact Nielsen is having a career year.
The 29-year-old Danish center has 22 goals and 50 points exceeds his previous career highs, ranking him third overall in Islanders scoring. He is also second in power-play points (17) and short-handed goals (two). Among Islanders forwards, Nielsen is second in short-handed ice time (2:07). Nielsen's a disciplined player who takes few penalties. His eight penalty minutes rank among the league's lowest this season.
Mats Zuccarello, New York Rangers
While New York pundits and fans focus upon the performances of stars Rick Nash, Brad Richards and recently acquired Martin St. Louis, Zuccarello quietly became a reliable offensive contributor. Over the past three seasons the diminutive Norwegian (5'7", 179 pounds) struggled to earn a regular spot with the Rangers. Under coach Alain Vigneault, Zuccarello finally achieved his breakout season.
Zuccarello has career-high in goals (15), assists (35) and points (50). He is currently tied for first with Derek Stepan in team scoring, and tied with Ryan McDonagh for second in plus-minus (plus-10). A restricted free agent this summer, Zuccarello should earn a nice raise over his current $1.15 million from the Rangers.
Kyle Turris, Ottawa Senators
Turris' performance is among the few highlights in an otherwise miserable season for the Senators. Centering the second line, the 24-year-old displayed steady improvement, becoming one of the Senators' better offensive players.
Through 72 games this season Turris achieved career highs in goals (22), assists (29) and points (51). He's second on the team in goals and third in points, plus he leads the Senators in short-handed goals (two) and plus-minus (plus-16). He's tied for second in game-winning goals with four. Turris also leads all Senators forwards in ice time (18:40).
Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers
Flyers fans awaiting Couturier to break out offensively tend to underrate his strong defensive contributions. He's emerged as the Flyers best shutdown forward, often tasked with shadowing their opponents' top players. His average short-handed minutes (3:29) ranks fourth overall on the Flyers, and it's second among their forwards.
Couturier's offensive numbers meanwhile have shown signs of improvement this season. He's on pace for a career-best 40 points. He also leads the Flyers in short-handed points (one goal, four assists). Only 21, his play this season has drawn praise from this teammates. Earlier this month Vincent Lecavalier claimed not many players do as well in a shutdown role as Couturier.
Radim Vrbata, Phoenix Coyotes
Throughout his current tenure with the Coyotes the 32-year-old Vrbata has regularly ranked among their top five scorers. He rarely gets the recognition he deserves as a steady, reliable offensive presence. Not a big, physical forward, Vrbata's skills and finesse make him a valuable part of the Coyotes offensive attack.
Through 71 games this season Vrbata was second in points (48) and tied for second in goals (20) and power-play points (21). He's also tied for the lead in power-play goals (10) and leads the team in shots with 236. He's an unrestricted free agent this summer but could be willing to re-sign with the Coyotes. They would be wise to keep him.
Matt Niskanen, Pittsburgh Penguins
Niskanen was among the key reasons the Penguins remained among the NHL's best teams despite leading the league in man-games lost to injury. He did an admirable job regularly replacing Kris Letang on the top defense pairing during his frequent absences to injury and illness.
The 27-year-old blueliner reached career highs in goals (10), assists (31) and points (41). Niskanen also leads the Penguins in plus-minus (plus-31), ranking second overall among NHL defensemen. He's eligible for unrestricted free agency at season's end. This performance could help him land a lucrative long-term deal.
Tommy Wingels, San Jose Sharks
In his first full non-lockout season Wingels has become a valuable energy forward for the Sharks. In only his third NHL season, he's on pace for a career-best 40 points. Though not a big winger, the 6'0", 195-pound Wingels doesn't shy away from physical play, leading the Sharks in hits with 196.
The 25-year-old has also proven to be a clutch performer this season. On a Sharks team with notable scorers like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski, Wingels leads the Sharks in game-winning goals (seven). He's also tied with Marleau and Couture for the team lead in short-handed goals (two).
Vladimir Sobotka, St. Louis Blues
Sobotka's long been known as a versatile defensive forward with the Blues. This season his solid all-around skills earned him second-line minutes. He has already matched his career best in points with 29. Had he not missed 12 games to a knee injury, he would be on pace for over 40 points.
The 26-year-old Czech is also strong in the faceoff circle (61.6), making him invaluable in power-play and penalty-killing situations. He also doesn't shy away from the physical play, as he's currently fourth in hits (100). That number would undoubtedly be higher had he not been sidelined earlier in the season.
Ben Bishop, Tampa Bay Lightning
Bishop's outstanding performance this season was overshadowed by Steven Stamkos' recovery from a broken leg and the trading of Martin St. Louis to the New York Rangers. While the Lightning deserve credit as a team for overcoming these distractions, Bishop is the main reason they're poised to clinch a playoff berth.
His acquisition from Ottawa was considered the steal of last season's trade deadline. The 27-year-old's stats this season—34 wins, 2.18 goals-against average, .927 save percentage and five shutouts, while facing the eighth-most shots against—put him among the league's best goalies. NHL.com's Corey Masisak recently ranked Bishop the leading contender for the Vezina Trophy.
Carl Gunnarsson, Toronto Maple Leafs
Gunnarsson rarely seems to get his due from the demanding denizens of Leafs Nation. One reason could be the Leafs lead the league in shots against per game this season. On a club with more depth, Gunnarsson would be an effective second-pairing defenseman. Toronto's thin blue line forces him to play above his skill level.
Give the 27-year-old Swede credit; he's held his own this season. He leads the Leafs in plus-minus (plus-14) and blocked shots (166). He also sits third in hits with 149. Though he's fourth among Leafs defensemen in average ice time (19:37), he leads them in short-handed ice time (3:04).
Chris Tanev, Vancouver Canucks
Due to the Canucks second-half collapse, Tanev's improvement this season has been largely ignored. Having finally established himself on the Canucks roster, his strong skating and hockey sense has made him an invaluable part of Vancouver's blue line.
The 24-year-old leads the Canucks in plus-minus (plus-12) and blocked shots (136). He's also chipped in a bit offensively, with two game-wining goals and a short-handed tally. Though fifth among Canucks defensemen in ice time (20:44), he's second in short-handed ice time (3:00). Tanev appears to have a bright future on what could be a rebuilding Canucks team.
John Carlson, Washington Capitals
The Capitals defense has struggled this season, but that can't be blamed on Carlson. The 24-year-old has been their best defenseman, which is often overlooked amid the criticism of the overall blue-line corps.
Carlson's achieved a career-high 10 goals and is on pace for 35 points. That would be just shy of his career-high 37 points from 2010-11. Nearly half his points (17) came on the power play. Carlson leads the Capitals in ice time (24:30), average short-handed ice time (3:51) and blocked shots (160). He's also second in shots on goal with 187.
Mark Stuart, Winnipeg Jets
On a team where a number of players are considered overrated, Stuart stands out as the Jets' most underrated. He's a solid stay-at-home defenseman who has also emerged as a team leader. Management certainly appreciates the hard-working Stuart's efforts. He was recently re-signed to a four-year, $10.5 million contract extension.
The 29-year-old leads the Jets in plus-minus (plus-10), hits (205) and blocked shots (145). Of the Jets top six defensemen, Stuart averages the lowest ice time (18:26). It's on the penalty kill where his skills best come into play. He leads the team in short-handed average ice time (3:13).