In the third installment of NHL Power Rankings by position, I'm taking a look at the 10 best left wings in the NHL today. But first, a few ground rules: In order to qualify as a "left wing," the player must be listed on NHL.com's 2010-11 regular season statistics page as a LW and have played a minimum of one full NHL season (80-plus career NHL games).
Beyond that, I've taken into account a number of factors when crafting this list: offensive skill and production, defensive play, intangibles (face-offs, blocked shots, etc.), clutch play and leadership, to name a few.
And without further ado, here they are: the 10 best left wings in the NHL today. Enjoy
The "Best in the NHL" Series:
The Top 10 begins with the Winnipeg Jets' captain, Andrew Ladd—a jack-of-all-trades, master-of -none kind of left winger.
Offensively, Ladd is a solid, but not spectacular performer. Over the past three seasons, Ladd has averaged just under 50 points per season—a respectable total, but nothing special. During the 2010-2011 season, Ladd found his groove on the powerplay, recording a career-high 9 PPGs.
On the defensive end, Ladd is a hardworking, sound positional defender who isn't afraid to get dirty in the corners. He blocks shots, he forces turnovers and he kills penalties with impunity. He's the type of player who is willing to sacrifice his body to make a play. While Ladd isn't the best defensive LW in hockey, he is up there.
The strongest part of Ladd's game, however, is one that never shows up on stat sheets: his leadership and experience. At just 25, Ladd is the Captain of the "new" Jets' franchise, a Stanley Cup winner and the on-and-off ice leader for his team. As I alluded to above, Ladd leads by example, comes to play every night and leaves it all on the ice every night. He's a player just about every GM in hockey would love to have.
Loui Eriksson has quietly come into his own playing alongside Brad Richards for the Dallas Stars. He's a tremendously skilled offensive playmaker with a natural goal-scorer's touch and a knack for making the big play. Over the past two seasons, Eriksson has averaged 72 points (28G, 44A) and certainly has the potential to top those numbers if his development continues.
Defensively, Eriksson is a responsible defender who understands his role and plays it well. Despite his relatively large size, he tends to play a passive game and prefers to use his stick, rather than his body, to separate opponents from the puck.
The major reason Eriksson is not higher on this list is his lack of intangibles. He's not a physical presence on the ice, he hasn't demonstrated strong leadership ability and he has shown a tendency to be a "streaky" player who needs to get into an offensive rhythm for the rest of his game to fall into place. If Eriksson can fill out the rest of his frame, become a more consistent all-around player, and step up and replace Brad Richards' leadership, he'll move up on this list next year.
Dany Heatley might be the NHL's version of Randy Moss. Physically, he's as talented as just about any player in the league today. He owns one of the best shots in the world. He has tremendous playmaking and passing ability. He's big and strong enough to outmuscle most defenders, yet can skate like the wind.
Despite all of his talent, Heatley has never quite managed to put it all together. He does have a pair of 50-goal seasons from his time in Ottawa, but those are merely a taste of what his career might have been had he gotten it together, put in the effort night in and night out and worked to make good on his potential.
It's true that when Heatley retires, he'll likely be a Hall of Famer, just like Randy Moss will be a Hall of Famer. The good news for Heatley is that he still has time to put in the effort, turn his career around and remind the hockey world just how talented he really is.
It says something about Ilya Kovalchuk's level of talent when 31 goals is considered a "bad" year. Since the NHL lockout, the Devils' LW has averaged nearly 44 goals per season—one of the highest totals among all players over that span. Beyond his obvious scoring prowess, Kovalchuk is a phenomenal offensive playmaker, capable of successfully going one-on-one with just about anyone.
However, Kovalchuk does struggle to distribute the puck to his teammates, maintain his composure and focus if he isn't in an offensive groove, and to play anything that remotely resembles defense. While he does wear an "A" for the Devils, Kovalchuk is not exactly an on-ice leader for the team.
In spite of those shortcomings, Kovalchuk cracks this list because he is among the most dangerous offensive weapons in the league. He is certainly capable of scoring from anywhere on the ice every time he touches the puck. The fact that a player with this level of talent is this low on the list speaks volumes about his performance in other aspects of the game.
When healthy, Zach Parise is among the most dangerous wingers in the NHL. He has the speed to skate past most defenders one-on-one, the stick-handling and vision to create his own shot in traffic, and a world-class shot. Parise combines those talents with a nonstop motor and an off-the-charts hockey IQ to make him one of the more complete LWs in the game today.
Defensively, Parise is a savvy player who understands his role and performs it well. He is not overly physical, preferring to use his stick and speed, rather than his body, to break up plays in the defensive zone. He anticipates the play very well and is often able to turn a would-be scoring chance into an odd-man rush for the Devils in transition.
Despite his talent and work ethic, Parise is held back by injury concerns, a lack of physicality and less-than-stellar playmaking ability. If he is able to stay healthy, improve his strength and conditioning and work on his playmaking, he'll crack the Top 5 without a problem next season.
Thomas Vanek is a natural goal scorer who plays with the edge of a power forward. He is exceptionally adept at finding soft spots in the defense around the net, getting into a scoring position and using his excellent shot to turn a pass or rebound into a Sabres' goal. Vanek possesses the size and strength to successfully fight for position in the dirty areas of the ice and protect the puck from defenders. Once he has established his position, he is difficult for defenders to move.
Defensively, Vanek plays a physical game, relying on his size and strength to take opposing forwards off the puck. He does use his stick to effectively disrupt the play and alter shots, but he could stand to improve that aspect of his game.
The biggest flaw in Vanek's overall game is his mediocre skating ability. He can struggle against bigger, stronger defenseman capable of legally moving him from an established position. He also isn't an overly aggressive or abrasive player, which tends to work against him against quicker and better-skating defenders.
The Sharks' Patrick Marleau is a savvy veteran playmaker with big-time scoring ability. Over the past three seasons, Marleau is fourth among all NHL players in goals scored, trailing only Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos. He also possesses a rare combination of size and skating ability, which allows him to effectively play either the wing or center position.
Marleau's savvy extends into the defensive end of the ice, where he frequently uses his high hockey IQ and defensive acumen to disrupt plays. He is certainly capable of engaging in the more physical aspects of the game, but he tends to use his speed and intelligence over brute force.
Marleau's biggest flaw is still his inability to elevate his game in pressure situations. He still struggles with consistency issues and is prone to fairly long scoring droughts. He frequently fails to use his size effectively, especially against smaller players.
Despite those shortcomings, Marleau is still one of the best LWs in the league. He possesses top-notch offensive skill, a very high hockey IQ and superb skating ability—a deadly combination.
Allow me to explain, Canucks fans. I know Daniel Sedin won the most recent Art Ross Trophy. I know he was a finalist for the Hart Trophy. I know he's an incredibly skilled two-way player. However, for all of Daniel Sedin's talents, he's still a very soft player. He has a knack for finding open ice, but won't fight for it if challenged. He's stellar with the puck on his stick, but folds and looks to pass as soon as a defender takes the body.
The most vivid example of this was on display for the entire hockey world to see during the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals. As soon as the Bruins would check him, Daniel would look to pass to Henrik or Kessler or anyone else he could find. As this continued, Daniel would get more and more frustrated, to the point where he would take stupid penalties or blow defensive assignments.
Despite all of that, Daniel Sedin is still one of the most dangerous open-ice players in the NHL. He has a cerebral connection with his teammate/twin brother that is flat-out deadly. He owns a high-end offensive skill set that allows him to score from anywhere on the ice. He simply lacks the assertiveness and the physicality to be the best LW in hockey.
There is no denying that Alex Ovechkin is a scary combination of size, speed and skill. On the ice, he's as likely to put an opposing player out for the count as he is to put a puck in the back of the net. He owns possibly the best shot in the entire NHL and isn't afraid to use it...from anywhere on the ice. Ovechkin also boasts solid, if not spectacular, passing ability and a flair for making the "big play" in the offensive zone.
Defensively, Ovechkin is capable, but not stellar. He understands his role, but tends to slack off a bit in his own zone. He doesn't have the defensive acumen of players like Henrik Zetterberg or Patrick Marleau, but is certainly a few cuts above players like Kovalchuk.
The biggest flaws in Ovechkin's game have been there since he entered the league following the lockout: (1) consistency issues; (2) frustration and retaliation issues; and (3) leadership ability. While there is no denying that Ovechkin's passion for the game can be a tremendous asset, there is also no denying that it sometimes gets him into quite a bit of trouble.
Ovechkin struggles to maintain his energy and passion over longer stretches, which tends to result in "streaky" play. While he certainly has the ability to "snap" out of said funks with a single shot, he does need to work on improving his game-to-game and shift-to-shift consistency. Ovechkin also needs to work on controlling his temper and frustration on the ice—he tends to allow his emotions to get the best of him when opponents constantly shadow him.
Its Official: The Red Wings' Henrik Zetterberg is the best left wing in the NHL today.
He combines world-class offensive skill with a phenomenal defensive game, and superb on- and off-ice leadership. He possesses the hands, skating ability and vision to score any time he touches the puck, an unmatched level of defensive prowess for a winger and an off-the-charts hockey sense. He is a natural playmaker in every area of the ice.
Zetterberg is an exceptional face-off man (better than most centers), a solid leader and a surprisingly physical player for his size. He is prone to the occasional scoring slump, but he does not allow it to impact his contributions in other aspects of the game—a key difference between Zetterberg and other players on this list.
These five guys didn't quite make the cut, but they still deserve to be mentioned among the best in the NHL at the LW position:
1. Alex Semin, Washington Capitals
2. Milan Lucic, Boston Bruins
3. Ryan Clowe, San Jose Sharks
4. Alex Tanguay, Calgary Flames
5. Patrik Elias, New Jersey Devils