The NHL's Top 50 Players: Are Their Best Years Ahead of Them or Behind Them?

Matthew FairburnCorrespondent IAugust 1, 2011

The NHL's Top 50 Players: Are Their Best Years Ahead of Them or Behind Them?

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    For athletes, the fight to get to the top of the mountain beats deep within their soles. That competitiveness and drive is what got them to the game's highest level, and it's what gets them from being a professional athlete to being a superstar.

    It's also what keeps them there.

    These 50 NHL stars have done their time and proven countless critics wrong. Each one of them has fought through it all to get to the top and become one of the best players in the game.

    Now we get to see what each of them is made of. Are they going to keep pushing now that they are on top or fade into the sunset, satisfied with their work.

    Some of the younger stars on this list are just getting started, while plenty of aging veterans are living on borrowed time.

    So let's break it down player by player to find out if each of these men has his best years behind him or in front of him.

50. Mikko Koivu

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    Best Years: Ahead of Him

    Mikko Koivu is one of the great two-way forwards in the NHL today.

    Unfortunately, he has never had the chance to truly shine offensively without top level talent around him up front.

    Well, the times have changed. Now, the Wild have acquired top flight winger Dany Heatley to provide a kick in the pants to their sorry offense. Koivu and Heatley has the potential to be a dangerous combination and if nothing else, will do wonders for Koivu's point totals and career.

49. Ilya Bryzgalov

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    Best Years: Ahead of him

    Stuck in the hockey wasteland of Phoenix, Ariz., Ilya Bryzgalov has not really been given the chance to shine on the big stage in his tenure in the NHL.

    Well, now's his chance.

    The superstar netminder was traded to Philly and given a long term contract with the hope of being the team's franchise goaltender.

    Expect the same old Bryz, just on a bigger stage and with more goal support.

48. Tim Thomas

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    Best Years: Behind him 

    Tim Thomas is incredible and was one of the league's finest goaltenders this past season. That being said, I'm not sure he can sustain the same level of play next season.

    The Bruins' netminder will turn 38 next season, and his days of flailing about making acrobatic saves could be coming to an end.

    Also, Tuukka Rask will continue to emerge for the Bruins, preventing Thomas from putting up the same type of numbers while keeping him fresh for the entire season.

47. Ryan Suter

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    Best Years: Ahead of Him

    Ryan Suter and Shea Weber finally got some national attention for their superb run to the second round of the 2011 NHL Playoffs.

    Now, the best defensive team in hockey has to build on that going into next season.

    As long as Shea Weber is retained by the Preds, he and Suter will continue to enjoy the same old success.

46. Dan Boyle

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    Best Years: Behind Him

    After carrying the San Jose Sharks defensively this past season, Dan Boyle will have Brent Burns alongside him next season.

    Boyle isn't going to bear the responsibility of carrying the defensive load this season, which is good for him at this point in his career. His best days are behind him, but the Sharks' best days may be ahead of them.

45. John Tavares

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    Best Years: Ahead of Him

    With the New York Islanders on the brink of contention, John Tavares could be due for his breakout season in 2011-2012.

    The talented kid from Oakville, Ontario was made the first overall draft pick in 2009 and has been quietly improving throughout his NHL career.

    Could this be the year Tavares flashes that true star potential? I think so.

44. Thomas Vanek

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    Best Year: Behind Him

    Thomas Vanek is one of the most talented players in the NHL and if not for injury, could have five straight 60-point seasons under his belt.

    Vanek is set to be a productive players for many years to come, but I just don't see him returning to the 84-point form back in 06-07.

43. Jeff Carter

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    Best Years: Behind Him

    After what seemed like months of rumors surrounding the future of Jeff Carter, the talented sniper was finally shipped out of Philadelphia, landing comfortably next to Rick Nash in Columbus.

    Many have dubbed this a match made in heaven, and while the future certainly looks bright for the Blue Jackets, there is no counting on Jeff Carter to become anything more that what he has been in his career, an injury plagued sharp shooter who cannot handle the grind of the NHL season.

Patrick Marleau

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    Best Years: Behind Him

    There's no reason to expect a decline in production from one of the most consistently productive players in the NHL over the past five seasons.

    Patrick Marleau will still be surrounded by tons of talent, and I expect to see him produce at the same high level we are accustomed to seeing from him.

    That being said, improvement should not be counted on. He is in the middle of his best years.

41. Matt Duchene

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    Best Years: Ahead of Him

    It was a forgettable year for the Colorado Avalanche, who finished among the league's worst teams and will be drafting second in the upcoming NHL draft.

    However, the play of Matt Duchene is a definite bright spot. The 20-year-old center has over 50 points in each of his first two seasons in the league, including 67 this past season.

    Now, Duchene is the centerpiece of the rebuilding effort for the Avalanche. He hasn't even scratched the surface of what he is going to do in the NHL.

40. Mike Green

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    Best Years: Behind Him

    Battling through injuries, Mike Green had a relatively mediocre campaign statistically. After two straight 70-point seasons, Green put up just 24 for the Capitals this season.

    Granted, I did notice an improvement from Green in his own end. Once just a glorified left winger, Green has appeared to take his defensive responsibilities a bit more seriously. However, he still has a ways to go in that aspect of his game.

    This season is a turning point in Green's career. For now, it appears that his best years are behind him.

39. Nicklas Backstrom

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    Best Years: Ahead of Him

    Nicklas Backstrom had a bit of a disappointing season by his standards. After putting up 101 points a season ago, Backstrom was only able to muster 65 points this season.

    Of course, the Capitals focused more on a defensive-oriented game this past season, but Backstrom still failed to fill it up offensively like he's accustomed to.

    That being said, the Swedish winger has an incredible future in the NHL. He is one of the most dynamic young forwards in the league and should return to 80-plus-point form sooner rather than later.

38. Bobby Ryan

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    Best Years: Ahead of Him

    Bobby Ryan put up his third straight 50-plus-point season and his second straight season playing over 80 games in a season.

    Ryan certainly benefits from playing alongside Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, but his talent is undeniable. He is a steady dependable winger with a dynamic offensive skill set. In addition, he is a powerful forward willing to grind it out in the corners. Ryan is a perfect fit with the Anaheim Ducks.

    There's no reason to expect a decline from the American-born winger next season and going forward.

37. Cam Ward

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    Best Years: Behind Him

    2010-2011 was not an outstanding season statistically for the former Stanley Cup-winning goaltender, but Cam Ward was once again steady between the pipes for the Canes.

    What stands out is the fact that Ward started 74 games, more than any goaltender in the NHL. His fundamentals are as sound as any goaltender out there, and he nearly carried Carolina into the playoffs.

    Ward will be a dependable goaltender and a star for many years, but it's tough to imagine his best years being anywhere but behind him. 

36. Mike Richards

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    Best Years: Ahead of HIm

    Rarely are players in the prime of their career traded away from their teams, especially after dawning the "C" and signing what was essentially a life time contract. However, that's exactly what happened to Mike Richards, as he now calls the fine city of Los Angeles home.

    Meanwhile, Richards is in a much better situation for him to succeed. He may not longer be captain, but he didn't seem to be cut out for that role anyways. Now Richards can sit back and produce and leave the leadership role to the others.

35. Ryan Kesler

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    Best Years: Ahead of Him

    Ryan Kesler is one of the most valuable players on the Presidents Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks. He played over 80 games in five of the last six seasons for the Canucks.

    A terrific two-way forward, Kesler was also a plus-22 this season for Vancouver.

    After the promise he showed prior to getting injured in the postseason, there is little doubt that the best years are ahead of Ryan Kesler.

34. Dany Heatley

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    Best Years: Behind Him

    After piling up just over 60 points this past season for the Sharks, Dany Heatley has to find his game again this season.

    Heatley is traditionally an 80-point per season type of player, so 64 points is not going to cut it moving forward.

    However, being traded from the Sharks to the Wild does not bode well for Heatley's point totals. Besides, Heatley is 30 years old now. I think the prime of his career is in the rear view.

33. Jarome Iginla

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    Best Years: Behind Him

    Jaroma Iginla has to slow down at some point, doesn't he?

    Despite the fact that he turns 34 this summer, Jarome Iginla has shown no signs of slowing down just yet for the Calgary Flames.

    While I'm not expecting another 80-point season out of Iginla, 70 points is not out of the question, and he's a near lock for 60 points if healthy.

    Needless to say, Iginla is never going to be what he once was.

32. Pekka Rinne

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    Best Years: Ahead of Him

    Pekka Rinne came into his own this season for the Nashville Predators. The Preds' backstop has been nominated for the Vezina Trophy—and for good reason.

    He was between the pipes for 64 games this season and is a big reason for Nashville's playoff run.

    Rinne certainly has the benefit of playing behind an elite defense and an even better system. However, there is no denying the work Rinne did holding the entire operation together.

    Rinne should be even better next season. He has just scratched the surface of what he is going to do in the NHL.

31. Claude Giroux

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    Best Years: Ahead of Him

    The 2010 NHL Playoffs were a coming out party for Claude Giroux. The Canadian-born center managed to parlay his success in the postseason into a breakout regular season.

    Now, Giroux hopes that carries over into the 2011-2012 campaign, as he continues to emerge as the Flyers' most dangerous offensive weapon.

    With Mike Richards and Jeff Carter gone, it's going to be the Claude Giroux show moving forward.

30. Patrick Kane

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    Best Years: Ahead of Him

    Patrick Kane has four straight seasons of 70-plus points for the Chicago Blackhawks. He plays an underrated two-way game at winger and is a terrific playmaker in the offensive zone.

    The Blackhawks will continue to improve as a team next season, and Patrick Kane should be a big beneficiary of that improvement.

    It's hard to imagine things getting better for Kane, who scored the game-winning goal in the 2010 Stanley Cup, but he is still a budding star in the NHL.

29. Anze Kopitar

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    Best Years: Ahead of Him

    Anze Kopitar has truly come into his own as an elite player in the NHL. Kopitar was the most valuable player for the L.A. Kings, as evident by the fact that the Kings weren't able to escape the first round of the playoffs after Kopitar went down with injury.

    He has become the face of this Kings team and is the perfect piece for the Kings to build around. Los Angeles has plenty of talented prospects in their system that will soon surround Kopitar and make this team one of the best in the Western Conference. 

    Kopitar has not tapped into his full potential just yet.

28. Eric Staal

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    Best Years: Ahead of Him

    Eric Staal steadily manages to compile 70-point seasons year in and year out. The Carolina captain piles up points despite not being surrounded by the elite talent as some of the league leaders.

    The continued improvement of the players around him will only help Staal's already solid point totals.

    Plus, he's only 26 years old. The sky is the limit.

27. Marc-Andre Fleury

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    Best Years: Ahead of Him

    After Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin went down with injury, Fleury was forced to carry the Penguins and did so effectively, earning the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

    For a number of seasons, critics were quick to point out Fleury's flaws and say that he was not worthy of the No. 1 overall selection that Pittsburgh spent on him in 2003.

    However, after winning the Stanley Cup and proving that he can carry the team on his own, Fleury has established himself as one of the top goaltenders in the NHL and a crucial part of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

    Next season, Fleury will have Crosby and Malkin back to take the pressure off him and allow him to thrive.

    It took him awhile, but Marc-Andre Fleury is finally blossoming into a superstar netminder.

26. Drew Doughty

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    Best Years: Ahead of Him

    After his breakout season a year ago, Drew Doughty came back down to earth in 2010-2011, declining in all major statistical categories.

    That being said, Doughty is still rock solid on the back end for the Kings. He had a shaky start to the season but managed to pick up his play late in the season, especially in the playoffs against the Sharks.

    Doughty clearly picked up his play once Kopitar went down, which is a terrific sign for the Kings moving forward.

    As soon as he is under contract, the Kings are going to get a better Doughty than they ever have before.

25. Carey Price

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    Best Years: Ahead of Him

    After being written off a year ago due to the white hot play of Jaroslav Halak, Carey Price bounced back in a big way. Halak was traded during the offseason, clearing the way for Price to play in 72 games this season.

    However, Price once again failed to carry the Canadiens through the postseason. While he was brilliant in the first portion of the series, he was increasingly average as the games wore on.

    Price still hasn't reached his prime. He has fluid lateral movement and picture-perfect fundamentals. Occasionally, Price lacks a killer instinct.

    However, as he matures, the Canadian netminder should develop into one of the best in the NHL.  

24. Joe Thornton

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    Best Years: Behind Him

    By Joe Thornton's standards, 2010-2011 was quite the off year. After five straight 86-plus point seasons, Thornton amassed just 70 points this year. Meanwhile, Jumbo Joe was just a plus-four for the season.

    So is the Sharks' captain beginning to decline? Well, he certainly isn't getting any better.

23. Rick Nash

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    Best Years: Ahead of Him

    It was another solid year for Columbus's franchise player. Rick Nash piled up points and ate up ice time for the Jackets, while doing his best to earn Columbus a playoff berth.

    Nash might be the best power forward in the NHL, which limits his productivity but certainly not his value. Power forwards are rare in the NHL, but they are certainly not useless.

    Plus, things are about to get better for Nash. He will now have his first legitimate center in the recently acquire Jeff Carter. Productivity figures to soar.

22. Marion Gaborik

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    Best Years: Ahead of Him

    Gaborik has always been supremely talented but has never truly put it all together to his full potential.

    Now, Brad Richards will be centering his line. An elite goal scorer, the kid will now have one of the game's best playmakers by his side. If Gaborik can't put it all together now, it's unlikely that he ever will.

21. Roberto Luongo

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    Best Years: Behind Him

    This is an easy one. After the meltdown that ensued in the Stanley Cup Finals, how can anyone think that Roberto Luongo has the mental strength to rebound and continue to be one of the NHL's best goalies for the rest of his career?

    I'll believe it when I see it, but this guy has a lot to prove.

20. Chris Pronger

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    Best Years: Behind Him

    Normally a reliable and durable defenseman, Chris Pronger spent nearly half of the season out of the lineup for the Flyers.

    Despite missing 30-plus games, Pronger displayed his value to the team. The power play struggled mightily without his service, and even though Philly has a deep defensive core, it was not the same without his services.

    Is Pronger's age starting to show?

19. Ryan Miller

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    Best Years: Ahead of Him

    Ryan Miller had an up-and-down season, riddled with injuries and inconsistent play. He started the season off horribly but turned things around to post respectable numbers.

    America's goaltender fared well in the postseason, nearly carrying Buffalo to an upset over second-seeded Philadelphia.

    Miller will take home the Stanley Cup before his career is over, so it's safe to say that his finest days loom on the horizon.

18. Zach Parise

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    Best Years: Ahead of Him

    Zach Parise's presence in New Jersey's lineup was undoubtedly missed by everyone involved. Kovalchuk and Zajac were unable to reach their full potential without Parise accumulating his usual 80-plus points.

    The Devils have hammered out a one-year deal with Parise, and the superstar should regain form in the 2011-2012 season for New Jersey.

    New Jersey certainly hopes Parise's best years are in front of him.

17. Corey Perry

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    Best Years: Ahead of Him

    2010-2011 was a breakout season for the Ducks' Corey Perry. Anaheim's winger led the NHL with 50 goals and was third in the league with 98 total points.

    Perry is just 26 years old and entering the prime of his career. Make sure to target this stud in the early portion of your fantasy hockey drafts next season because we haven't seen any thing yet.

16. Ryan Getzlaf

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    Best Years: Ahead of Him

    Despite playing in just 67 games due to injury, Ryan Getzlaf managed to collect 76 points for Anaheim.

    Getzlaf is a rare power forward at the center position, and he is one of the best in the NHL. The trio of Getzlaf, Ryan and Perry is the meanest line in the NHL. Meanwhile, they are all still young and just hitting the prime of their careers.

    The Anaheim Ducks and Ryan Getzlaf should enjoy plenty of postseason success by the time it's all said and done.

15. Brad Richards

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    Best Years: Behind Him

    Does it get any better than hoisting the Stanley Cup and winning the Conn Smythe Trophy? Not really and for Brad Richards, things haven't gotten better since winning the Cup with the Lightning.

    He has remained a productive playmaker, but injuries have me concerned going forward. He can't stay healthy enough to reach the absolute top.

14. Zdeno Chara

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    Best Years: Behind Him

    If there was any doubt about how hard Zdeno Chara worked to bring the Stanley Cup to Boston, those doubts couldn't possibly have been heard over the primal scream Chara unleashed upon raising the heavy hardware.

    Chara poured his heart and sole into that Cup run, but he continues to train as hard as ever. Unfortunately, things can only go down from here.

13. Duncan Keith

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    Best Years: Ahead of Him

    2011 was not quite the same for Duncan Keith and the Chicago Blackhawks. However, despite coming down to earth, Keith and the Blackhawks still played quite well and showed promise for the future.

    Keith once again had over 40 points during the regular season and followed it up by leading the Blackhawks in playoff goals.

    Chicago may have lost leadership and depth to free agency, but new leaders are emerging on the roster. Duncan Keith is one of those leaders.

    In his new role, Keith will have a chance to take his game to the next level.

12. Jonathan Toews

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    Best Years: Ahead of Him

    With all of the offensive talent the Blackhawks lost in the offseason, the pressure was on Jonathan Toews to pick up the slack on the offensive end for Chicago.

    Unfortunately, Toews managed just eight more points than last season and scored just one single goal in the postseason series against the Canucks.

    I expect next season to be a true gem for Toews. He has to start truly carrying the Blackhawks, and I expect him to rise to the occasion.

11. Evgeni Malkin

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    Best Years: Behind Him

    Evgeni Malkin's season was off to a pedestrian start before a knee injury forced him to miss the entire second half of the season.

    The Penguins will eye the rehab of Malkin and Crosby closely this offseason, especially after Pittsburgh got unseated by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

    I'm not fully confident Malkin will completely return to form just a year after that nasty knee injury. We'll monitor his progress and temper our expectations.

    Malkin was damn good before the injury, so I'm not exactly going out on a limb in saying that those years were as good as it is going to get for Evgeni Malkin.

10. Daniel Sedin

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    Best Years: Behind Him

    Daniel Sedin has plenty of accolades. He has put up big point totals year in and year out and is not likely to increase on those totals in future years.

    What Sedin can do, however, is get it done in the postseason. I refuse to believe that the Vancouver Canucks have that in them as long as they are led by Daniel and Henrik.

9. Ilya Kovalchuk

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    Best Years: Ahead of Him

    Jeff Skinner, David Backes and Milan Lucic all scored the same amount of goals as Kovalchuk this past season, give or take a few. No disrespect to any of those players, but the Russian superstar has to bring more to the table if New Jersey is going to turn things around this season.

    With a healthy Zach Parise and a renewed sense of focus, Kovalchuk should bounce back to form in 2011-2012.

    Postseason success is the missing piece of Kovalchuk's career. The future is bright in New Jersey, so perhaps his best years are ahead of him.

8. Martin St. Louis

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    Best Years: Behind Him

    Martin St. Louis has been defying the odds and silencing his critics since he entered the NHL back in the late 1990s. At just 5'9'', St. Louis was considered too small by most scouts which caused him to go undrafted.

    However, size has not been an issue, as St. Louis has missed just two games in the last eight seasons, while reaching at least 60 points in each of those years.

    At 35 years of age, St. Louis still has it. Tampa's winger collected the second-most points in the league with 99. He has aided the development and production of superstar Steven Stamkos and been an intricate aspect of the Lighting's success. 

    St. Louis will continue to make magic with Steven Stamkos, but he won't make quite the impact he once did.

7. Henrik Zetterberg

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    Best Days: Behind Him

    Believe it or not, there was a time when Henrik Zetterberg was in the discussion as the best player in the NHL. Of course, the influx of young talent such as Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin has caused him to slide down the list a bit.

    However, the former seventh-round draft choice is still one of the league's elite forwards, as evidenced by the fact that he once again finished in the top 10 in scoring with 80 points.

    He'll never be what he once was, though. Not with Crosby and Ovechkin stealing the show.

6. Henrik Sedin

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    Best Years: Behind Him

    In what has come to be expected of him, Henrik Sedin led the Canucks to the league's best record this season with his 94 points and terrific two-way play.

    Much like his twin brother Daniel, his career will be defined by Vancouver's ability to win the Stanley Cup.

    His postseason play has been less than stellar, and that is often what defines a player's career.

5B. Shea Weber

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    Best Years: Ahead of Him

    Shea Weber has been absolutely phenomenal on the back end for a disciplined Nashville Predators team. He continually shut down opposing scorers and is able to make significant contributions in the offensive zone.

    Between the Preds' brilliant system, the top pairing of Suter and Weber, and Rinne's play between the pipes, they are the best defensive team in hockey.

    A new contract with breathe even more life into one of the game's most dominant blueliners.

5A. Nicklas Lidstrom

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    Best Years: Behind Him

    For those who think Nicklas Lidstrom is finished, think again. Lidstrom is still the best all-around defenseman in the world, even at the age of 41.

    Detroit's captain finished the season with 62 points, his highest total since '07-'08. However, his influence cannot be felt on the stats alone. The Swedish blueliner still provides quality play on both ends of the ice and is a tremendous leader for Detroit.

    That being said, there is little doubt that his best years are in the past. Of course, that doesn't mean the Swede doesn't have some excellent seasons left in the tank.

4. Henrik Lundqvist

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    Best Years: Ahead of Him

    Henrik Lundvist has established himself as the world's best goaltender. Despite playing on a less than average team, Lundvist always manages to keep the Rangers in every single game.

    In addition, New York is always in the playoff hunt due at large to King Henrik's services.

    With the Rangers bringing in Brad Richards, Henrik Lundqvist might be able to will the team to a Stanley Cup championship. His finest hour is still to come.

3B. Steven Stamkos

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    Best Years: Ahead of Him

    Steven Stamkos has entered the discussion as the league's most dynamic offensive player. The 21-year-old center has already completed two 90-plus point seasons in his young career.

    His astonishingly quick release and outstanding skating ability are rare, to say the very least. Stamkos has the ability to take over a game from start to finish and simply dominate.

    The scary thing is that Stamkos is only going to get better.

3A. Alexander Ovechkin

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    Best Years: Ahead of Him

    Say what you want about Ovechkin focusing more on his defensive game, but the Washington captain did not put up the numbers we are accustomed to seeing from him in 2010-2011.

    Granted his plus/minus (plus-24) was excellent, but his defensive improvement was not substantial enough to warrant that large of a drop off in his offensive production. Eighty-eight points is nothing to be ashamed of, but Ovechkin has set different standards for himself based on his ridiculous production recently.

    Ovechkin cannot be considered the best player in the league if his two-way game isn't near what Crosby's is, and he does not put up the mind boggling offensive numbers.

    Ovechkin has to regain offensive form in the future, right?

2. Pavel Datsyuk

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    Best Years: Behind Him

    Unfortunately for Pavel Datsyuk and the Detroit Red Wings, the stud winger had his season abbreviated by injuries this past year. The alternate captain was on a better than a point-a-game pace before falling victim to the injury bug.

    Expect a huge bounce-back season for Pavel Datsyuk.

    Datsyuk is simply one of the most gifted playmakers in all of hockey. His hands are the best in the league, and he has a sixth sense when it comes to creating magic in the offensive zone.

    However, Datsyuk appears to have hit his peak. I mean, there is no way this guy could actually get better, is there?

1. Sidney Crosby

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    Best Years: Ahead of Him

    Provided he returns to the ice healthy in 2011-2012, Sidney Crosby will continue his reign as the NHL's best player.

    Crosby was on pace for a 120-point season before being knocked out with a concussion at midseason.

    Come October, we should see the Penguins' franchise player pick up where he left off. Sid the Kid will likely challenge for the Hart Trophy, Art Ross Trophy and the Stanley Cup.

    He isn't even fully blossomed yet, and we are already be treated to an amazing early career from Sidney Crosby.

    We have not seen the best of Crosby as a player, a leader or an ambassador for the game. Get your popcorn ready folks, this kid is just getting started.