Nine Players Set to Steal Ovechkin'S Spot as NHL's Second Best Player
Since Sidney Crosby went down with a concussion in early January, hockey fans across the country have been deprived of seeing the game's undisputed best player, save for Crosby's eight game comeback in the last month.
Interestingly, in Crosby's absence, it hasn't been Alex Ovechkin, the consensus second-best player in the world, who has picked up the torch and stepped up into the spotlight, as Ovechkin's play has been uninspiring and unspectacular at best for the last 18 months.
There are a number of theories that have been proposed to explain Ovechkin's disappearing act, including weight gain, unwillingness to adapt as a player and even a far fetched rumor accusing him of steroid use.
Whatever the explanation may be, the former two-time league MVP has been far from the dominant force he once was. And in the absence of both he and Crosby, a number of other players have flourished, each making their own cases for why they should be mentioned in the same breath as Crosby.
With that in mind, here's a look at nine players who appear poised to take Ovechkin's spot as the consensus second-best player in the NHL.
9. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
Yeah, the kid is only 33 games into his NHL career, but so far, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has been everything the Edmonton Oilers could have hoped for, and then some.
Since being selected with the top pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, Nugent-Hopkins has been an offensive dynamo for a team in dire need of offense, as he's put up 13 goals and 34 points before the first half of the season's even ended.
Though there are many gifted young playmakers in the game, Nugent-Hopkins skill with the puck and vision in the offensive zone is virtually unrivaled, and he's already developed dangerously lethal partnerships with both Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle.
Nugent-Hopkins will have to continue to prove that he has the ability to produce at a high level with consistency, especially considering his slight frame, but that will come with time.
If he and the Oilers can turn things around in the second half of the season, an 80-point campaign to go along with the 2012 Calder Trophy wouldn't be out of the question.
8. Phil Kessel
At one point, Phil Kessel was regarded almost as highly as Sidney Crosby, as he was considered by far the best prospect in his draft class roughly a year before he was eligible to be selected.
However, Kessel's game fell of a bit in the ensuing months and he slipped all the way to the fifth spot in the 2006 NHL Draft, where the Boston Bruins happily grabbed the gifted goal scorer.
After a couple of promising seasons with the Bruins, the Toronto Maple Leafs took a chance on Kessel, dealing a hefty package of draft picks in exchange for a player that had just one 30-goal season to his name.
Two years later, the deal is beginning to pay dividends for the Leafs, as Kessel is blossoming into the superstar that scouts once projected him to be. Sitting tied for the lead in goals and among the league leaders in points, Kessel is also playing the two-way style of hockey that people once questioned whether he was capable of.
While he has a long ways to go before he can be put in the same class as players like Ovechkin and Crosby, leading the Leafs to their first Playoff berth in five seasons would give him a strong case for a Hart Trophy nomination.
7. Corey Perry
Anytime a player wins a Hart Trophy and a Rocket Richard Trophy in the same season they're making a strong case to be considered one of the very best in the world.
Last season, Corey Perry did just that by notching a 50-goal, 98-point season, even though he was without Ryan Getzlaf, his primary set-up man, for a good portion of the season.
Though he's still just 26, Perry has won everything a player can dream of. He won a Stanley Cup with the Ducks in only his second season and was among Canada's best players on the Gold Medal-winning team at the 2010 Olympics.
In addition to being one of the most lethal scorers in the game, Perry is also among the best agitators and makes his presence felt in more ways than one on a nightly basis.
After being slightly overshadowed by Getzlaf through his first couple of seasons, Corey Perry has established himself as one of the most prolific offensive threats in the league, and if he continues to produce at the level he did in 2010-11, people will quickly run out of superlatives to describe his game.
6. Steven Stamkos
In 2009-10, Steven Stamkos showed the hockey world why he was the First Overall Pick of the 2008 NHL Draft by capturing the Rocket Richard Trophy in only his second season.
Stamkos is one of the best pure goal scorers in the game, using his lightning-quick release and deadly accuracy to beat goaltenders. Having former Hart and Art Ross winner Martin St. Louis on his line hasn't hurt either, as the two have combined to form one of the best potent one-two punches in the NHL.
Though Stamkos' Bolts are in the midst of a trying season, the 21-year old is still among the league leaders in goals and points and he's still growing as a player.
Stamkos is already considered one of the best players in the world, but in order to be in the discussion for the most dominant force in hockey he'll need to add to his trophy case and demonstrate that he's capable of maintaining consistency in his game for longer periods of time.
5. Pavel Datsyuk
Depending on who you ask, Pavel Datsyuk is already considered the second best player in hockey, but he's even more widely regarded as the best two-way forward of the last decade.
Datsyuk's dekes, goals and puckhandling exploits have been legends on YouTube since the NHL Lockout, but many also forget that his defensive game is just as, if not more impressive than his skill set.
He's been the Red Wings' best player for a number of deep playoff runs and is a three-time Selke Trophy Winner as the league's top defensive forward. Though Datsyuk is beginning to enter the latter stages of his legendary career he remains the unquestioned most complete player in the game and is capable of helping the Wings orchestrate one more Stanley Cup Finals appearance before his time in Detroit is up.
4. Evgeni Malkin
Sidney Crosby's continued absence has opened the door for a number of star players to step into the spotlight, but no one feels the pressure to replace the 24-year old superstar's skates quite like Evgeni Malkin.
After an injury-plagued 2010-11 Season, Malkin has taken the league by storm, posting an otherworldly 39 points in just 27 games for the severely undermanned Penguins.
Malkin's ability to control a game is virtually unmatched as he possesses the size, skill, creativity and speed to do almost anything he chooses with the puck. Though the Penguins are obviously Crosby's team, with number 87 out of the lineup Pittsburgh looks to their "other superstar," in Malkin, to lead the way offensively.
If Malkin can continue to score at a rate that can only be described as 'Crosby-esqe', and lead the Penguins on a deep Playoff run, he'll regain his spot among the game's top three players.
3. Claude Giroux
In May of 2011, when the Philadelphia Flyers opted to trade two of their best forwards, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, many questioned how the team would compensate for the sheer volume of goals they'd be losing, as Carter and Richards combined for five 30-goal performances in Flyers uniforms since the NHL lockout.
However, it appears that General Manager Paul Holmgren knew what he was doing, as he had a star-in-waiting in Claude Giroux waiting to assume an even larger role within the Flyers' offense. So far, Giroux has been a revelation since the departures of Carter and Richards, as he has a league-leading 43 points in just 29 games.
Giroux was the catalyst of the Flyers' offense last season, but 2011-12 may prove to be his true breakout campaign as he's established himself as one of the top playmakers in the game already at 23.
His five game-winning goals are indicative of how the young Quebec-born center rises to the occasion for the Flyers, and if team captain Chris Pronger remains out with post-concussion syndrome beyond this season, he's a good bet to take over wearing the 'C' in Philadelphia.
2. Henrik Lundqvist
Already seven seasons into his NHL career, Henrik Lundqvist made a name for himself by carrying a couple of generally weak New York Rangers squads into the Postseason.
However, with the Rangers' roster now stocked with talent from top-to-bottom, the 2011-12 campaign holds the potential to be a true coming-out party for the 29-year old Swedish stopper.
All eyes will be on Lundqvist as the Rangers take on the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2012 Winter Classic, and HBO's television series documenting the weeks leading up to the event will only help the soft-spoken goaltender's star grow.
As the clear-cut face of the New York Rangers' franchise, one of the most popular hockey teams on the planet, Lundqvist's successes will be trumpeted loudly if he can lead the Blueshirts to their first Stanley Cup since 1994.
After winning an Olympic Gold Medal during his rookie season, Lundqvist demonstrated his ability to win games on a big stage. Now with the Winter Classic coming up and a vastly talented Rangers team by his side, he has the chance to play his way into the discussion of best hockey player in the world.
1. Jonathan Toews
Though Sidney Crosby has widely been considered the best player in the world for the better part of the last three seasons, Jonathan Toews' reputation as a leader and winner has been growing at almost an equal rate during that span.
In 2009-10, Toews captured the Conn Smythe and captained the Chicago Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup, but four months prior, also played a key role in Team Canada's victory at the 2010 Olympics, winning the award for the tournament's top forward along the way.
Since breaking into the NHL in 2007-08, Toews has established himself as one of the sport's premier two-way players, demonstrating his ability to dominate a game at both ends of the rink.
After notching a career-high 76 points in 2010-11, Toews has picked up his game offensively even more this year, as he currently sits first among all players in goals with 20 through 35 games.
Though it appears unlikely that Toews will continue to score at a Rocket Richard Trophy-winning clip, if he consistently puts up 80 points a season, he has a chance to solidify his spot among the top five players in the game.