Most NHL pundits, journalists, coaches and players all agree there are a couple of things you need to make a deep playoff run and a legitimate attempt to win Lord Stanley's hardware. A dynamic top scoring line, a goaltender capable of stealing games when your offense takes the night off, shutdown defensemen and penalty killers—all of these aspects are given, and as the NHL trade deadline has now since come and gone, we have seen more and more GMs making moves to solidify one or more of these positions.
An often overlooked aspect of a championship team, however, are the guys whose jerseys you won't see kids wearing in the stands—players who make you say "he's not supposed to be able to do that" as they deke the goalie and score or players that simply stay under the radar because of their play style or small market.
Chicago Blackhawks role players Kris Versteeg, Ben Eager, Andrew Ladd, and John Madden all provided this type of secondary scoring that helped Chicago secure the Stanley Cup last year.
So here they are—the 10 best under-appreciated Forwards in the NHL this year.
Through their early season slump, the Calgary Flames were relying too heavily on their top line feauturing Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay to provide all the offense while at the same time shuffling who would center that line. Matt Stajan, Olli Jokinen, and Brendan Morrison all took turns and for a while it seemed the Flames would remain in the Western Conference basement.
Since Jay Feaster stepped in as GM however, the Flames are on an absolute tear, with stability on the top line and Olli Jokinen moved down to the second line where he has found chemistry with Curtis Glencross.
Glencross has 21 goals and 36 points on the season and has taken some of the pressure off of Jarome Iginla to lead the Flames offensively, allowing the team to succeed even when opposing defenses strive to keep the Flames captain off the scoresheet.
He's also found ways to score in different game situations—he has three power play goals, two short-handed goals, and three game-winning tallies.
Tuomo Ruutu is typically known for his big hits more than his offensive presence, but for the playoff-hungry Carolina Hurricanes, he is providing both. He currently sits at second in the league in hits with 253, and has recorded 15 goals and 30 assists so far this season, which is good for fourth in points on the Hurricanes.
While recording 3:04 of power-play ice time per game, he has managed to contribute 14 points with the man advantage (six goals, eight assists), but this accounts for less than one-third of his overall point-production as he continues to help out offensively at even-strength as well.
While combining his physical presence with improved offensive play, Ruutu is also starting to develop an ability to score goals at key moments—10 of his 15 goals this year have come with the Hurricanes either down by one goal or with the game tied.
Ville Leino is not a top-six forward, and he plays on a traditionally checking/defensive oriented line for the high-flying Philadelphia Flyers. But for the Eastern Conference-leading guys in the orange sweaters, all lines are expected to contribute offensively, and Leino has held up his end of the bargain with 14 goals and 28 assists. He's also a remarkable plus-14.
The recent acquisition of Kris Versteeg has put a question mark on whether Leino will return to the Flyers next year, and has slightly affected his production as he has seen less time on the ice, but his production overall this season warrants his mention here.
For a Nashville Predators squad that preaches defense first and sports most of its talent on back end of the ice or in the pipes with stars such as Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, and Pekka Rinne, Sergei Kostitsyn is quietly having a very nice season offensively.
He currently leads the league in shooting percentage at 23.5%—while averaging just about one shot on goal per game, he scores on almost one out of every four shots. He's also found ways to contribute on the road, where has has scored 10 of his 16 goals and 20 of his 34 points. In the logjam that is the Western Conference playoff race, his ability to find the back of the net, especially on the road, will be a big part of where the Nashville Predators end up.
He skated away, quite literally, with the Fastest Skater award at the 2011 All-Star Game Super Skills Competition in Raleigh, North Carolina.
He's also thrust himself into Calder Trophy consideration. What has been considered a three-horse race between rookie scorers Jeff Skinner and Logan Couture and blossoming number one net minder Corey Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks has seen Grabner charging in late as a dark horse candidate.
His speed is a big part of his game, but he has a nose for the net and great finishing ability. He has 26 goals on the year, good for 18th in the league and first among rookies.
Not bad for a guy waived by the Florida Panthers in October 2010.
After the departure of center forward Olli Jokinen in the off-season and injuries to other centers including top guy Brandon Dubinsky and captain Chris Drury, the Rangers have struggled this year to find scoring from the middle of the ice.
Enter Brian Boyle.
The hulking 6' 7" center has been an impressive net presence for the Rangers and has filled in admirably with notable scorers out at different times. Boyle has played in all 68 of the Rangers' games this year—something more high-profile players such as Marion Gaborik, Ryan Callahan, Marc Staal, Vaclav Prospal, and Brandon Dubinsky cannot boast. He has provided the type of secondary scoring they will need to win in the playoffs.
The rookie sensation is one of the favorites to win the Calder Trophy this year.
He has shown a ton of promise and will be an offensive star in the years to come, but for now, he still qualifies in my book as under-appreciated for a few reasons.
Firstly, Couture has 25 goals and 19 assists on the year, good for second in rookie overall scoring and goal scoring.
In spite of playing with super stars Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, and Patrick Marleau, Couture leads the Sharks in plus/minus as plus-17. The aforementioned stars are minus-7, plus-4, and minus-11 respectively. Couture has proven to be responsible in his own end as well as dynamic on offense, which explains his terrific plus/minus rating.
In addition, he's 11th in the league with 31 points (including 19 goals) on the road, so he's not merely capable of scoring in front of a friendly crowd.
He's also third in faceoffs taken for the Sharks, with 654, and is winning a superb 52% of them.
After the Atlanta Thrashers elected not to sign Clarke MacArthur following his arbitration hearing which awarded him a steeper contract than they were willing to pay, MacArthur walked and elected to sign for nearly half what the arbitration had awarded him with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
MacArthur has 19 goals and 31 assists this year, good for 50 points. At 1.1 million dollars per year, he comes at a great discount of about $22,000 per point scored. (Especially compared to such high-paid, slumping players like Scott Gomez, at $250,000 per point).
As the Maple Leafs continue an improbable late-season run into the playoffs, they will need MacArthur to continue scoring the way he has all year.
He's often compared to Justin Bieber, but ignoring that odd analogy this 18-year old kid has provided some desperately needed offensive support to Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal as the Hurricanes push to remain competitive in the Eastern Conference.
His skating ability is one of his greatest strengths. He won a bronze medal at the Canadian Junior National Figure Skating Championships in 2004 and uses his speed and agility to outmaneuver larger, less mobile defenders.
If the Hurricanes want to stay in the top eight and not fall out of the playoffs, they'll need Skinner, who has 23 goals and 26 assists this year to lead all rookies in scoring, to keep it up.
Drew Stafford has been an offensive force for the Buffalo Sabres this year.
His ability to score in spurts has really shown itself—he leads the league with four hat tricks in the 2010-2011 season, despite only playing in 46 games so far. For those of you keeping track, thats one hat trick every 12 games. Over a full NHL season, that's a pace for seven hat tricks in 82 games.
He can score from just about anywhere on the ice—he has good hands, uses his body well, gets to dirty areas, and buries the chances he gets.
He's proven to be a dominant player when he's on, and only needs to find a bit more consistency to his game in order for the Sabres to make their final push into the playoffs. With Derek Roy sidelined for the rest of the year due to a quadriceps injury, they will need Stafford to step up and continue his high level of play if they want to make it in to the playoffs at all, let alone go deep into them.