Ranking the 10 Most Influential Players in the NHL Ahead of 2015-16 Season

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistSeptember 9, 2015

Ranking the 10 Most Influential Players in the NHL Ahead of 2015-16 Season

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Influence is a tricky thing to measure in the world of hockey.

    Certainly, it starts with talent. A player who's not recognizable or making an impact on the scoreboard is going to have a tough time moving the influence meter.

    Once a player hits the highlight reels on a semi-regular basis, he can be influential on a number of different dimensions. It might be for his on-ice work, but it could also be for his appeal as a spokesperson for advertisers, his strong personality—especially in social media—or his unprecedented career path through the hockey world—which can be good or bad, as you'll see.

    Heading into the 2015-16 season, here are the NHL's top 10 most influential players. Who else do you think is changing the way hockey's being played and watched?

10. Ben Bishop: Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    His Sphere of Influence: Big goalies who fill the goal crease.

    Why He's Influential

    The trend toward big goalies was well underway by the time 6'7" Ben Bishop took over the starter's job with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2013. At 6'5", Pekka Rinne had already earned two Vezina Trophy nominations with the Nashville Predators before Bishop came along.

    But Bishop was bigger and, with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, has now surpassed Rinne in playoff achievements.

    Becoming More or Less Influential? 

    More influential.

    Though Bishop has been prone to injury during his time in Tampa Bay, NHL teams are seeing the benefits of putting big, agile athletes who can cover the net between the pipes.

    The days of sprightly goaltenders such as the 5'8" Arturs Irbe are long gone. Expect most emerging goaltenders to now be 6'3" or taller.

9. Jaromir Jagr: Florida Panthers

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    Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

    His Sphere of Influence: Ageless excellence.

    Why He's Influential

    Now 43 years old, Jaromir Jagr was playing in his seventh NHL season when Connor McDavid was born on January 13, 1997.

    Even after three years away in the KHL between 2008 and 2011, Jagr now ranks 11th in all-time NHL games played, according to QuantHockey.com, but could move up to No. 8 if he plays close to a full season in 2015-16.

    Jagr's also fourth in history with 1,802 points and could pass Gordie Howe to move into third place if he scores 49 more points. Barring injury, that should be achievable this season.

    Becoming More or Less Influential? 

    More influential.

    Jagr's desire to win and his famous commitment to fitness make him an inspiration for players who wish to extend their NHL careers.

    When Jagr joined the Florida Panthers at the 2015 trade deadline, he showed he can still be an offensive force as well as provide excellent mentoring and leadership. 

    Jagr's return to North America after his three-year stint in the KHL also serves as a reminder to Europe's top players that the National Hockey League remains the top hockey league in the world.

8. Tyler Seguin: Dallas Stars

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    Jason Merritt/Getty Images

    His Sphere of Influence: Social media star and high-level scoring machine.

    Why He's Influential

    When the Boston Bruins decided to trade 21-year-old Tyler Seguin during the summer of 2013, his father, Paul, told Curtis Rush of the Toronto Star that the team had issues with Seguin's off-ice lifestyle—particularly, going out to bars.

    Seguin continues to get painted as a party boy and was called out on Twitter by former Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment CEO Richard Peddie for all-night parties at his condo in Toronto during the 2015 offseason.

    Becoming More or Less Influential? 

    More influential.

    Whatever Seguin's getting up to off the ice, it's not hurting his hockey performance. He posted back-to-back 37-goal seasons during his first two years with the Dallas Stars and is now one of the biggest offensive threats in the NHL.

    Seguin also had an outstanding tournament as part of Canada's gold medal-winning team at the 2015 World Championships.

    Seguin's edgy personal style helped get him selected to represent the NHL in ESPN The Magazine's annual Body Issue in 2015. He also grabs headlines through social media thanks to spontaneous moments—like agreeing to have a fan bring him a hamburger during a charity sled hockey game.

    In the conservative hockey world, Seguin's willingness to show his personality while still performing at the highest level is a breath of fresh air.

7. Steven Stamkos: Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

    His Sphere of Influence: The latest arbiter of free-agent riches in a salary-cap world. Also, scoring goals.

    Why He's Influential

    With one year left on his contract before becoming an unrestricted free agent and after taking on a diminished role with the Tampa Bay Lightning during the 2015 playoffs, Toronto-area native Steven Stamkos has been flirting with his hometown hockey market during the offseason, particularly with his visible support of baseball's Toronto Blue Jays.

    Becoming More or Less Influential? 

    More influential.

    Michael Long of Sports Pro ranked Stamkos at No. 37 on his list of the world's most marketable athletes during the summer of 2014—the only hockey player to earn a mention for the past two seasons.

    Stamkos already has solid endorsement deals in place with Nike, Bauer, Tissot and Sport Chek.

    At this point, there's no concrete reason to assume Stamkos will be leaving Tampa Bay, but if he did decide to sign on with Toronto next season, he'd instantly become Canada's most recognizable athlete.

    No matter where Stamkos lands, the two-time Maurice Richard Trophy winner will continue to exert influence as one of the NHL's highest-paid, top-echelon stars.

6. Dougie Hamilton: Calgary Flames

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    Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

    His Sphere of Influence: Forging a new path for restricted free agents.

    Why He's Influential

    NHL teams have granted increased freedom to older players over the years—decreasing the age of unrestricted free agency and giving players an increased opportunity to choose where they want to play and dictate the terms of their contracts.

    That freedom typically comes at the expense of younger players, especially those who are coming out of their entry-level contracts and don't have arbitration rights. 

    During the summer of 2015, defenseman Dougie Hamilton bucked the trend—engineering a trade away from the cap-strapped Boston Bruins and cashing in with a lucrative new six-year contract with the Calgary Flames with a cap hit of $5.75 million per season, according to General Fanager.

    Becoming More or Less Influential? 

    More influential.

    A few days after Hamilton inked his new deal, Brandon Saad signed a similar contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets after being traded from the Chicago Blackhawks—signalling, perhaps, the beginning of a new trend for restricted free agents.

    Salary-cap constraints may not be as tight in future seasons as they were during the summer of 2015, but Hamilton's trade and subsequent contract open up the possibility that more young players will be traded going forward when teams can't re-sign them—a significant operational change from years gone by.

5. Alex Ovechkin: Washington Capitals

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    His Sphere of Influence: The NHL's greatest active goal scorer—and an icon of Russian hockey.

    Why He's Influential

    In North America, Alex Ovechkin has to settle for being known as the player who has captured five goal-scoring titles in 10 NHL seasons.

    In Russia, Ovechkin consorts with power players such as president Vladimir Putin at events like pickup hockey games against young students. Team Putin prevailed, inevitably enough, according to Allan Muir of SI.com

    Last February, Ovechkin told TMZ Sports that Putin is a "nice guy."

    Ovechkin's scoring mastery and his dedication to his homeland continue to make him, along with players such as Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk, one of the most revered stars in Russia.

    Becoming More or Less Influential? 

    Less influential.

    Ovechkin's turning 30 in mid-September, and despite his great individual talent, he has yet to capture an Olympic medal of any color or get past the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

    Ovi needs a couple of big wins in order to cement his legacy as one of the greatest Russian hockey players of all time.

4. Connor McDavid: Edmonton Oilers

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    Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

    His Sphere of Influence: He's The Next One—the NHL's next generational player.

    Why He's Influential

    Before he has played his first NHL game, 18-year-old Connor McDavid reportedly become the first teenager ever to sign a deal worth $1 million per year when he re-upped with CCM before the draft, according to Ken Campbell of The Hockey News.

    That deal presumably plays into McDavid's new status as brand ambassador for CCM's parent company, Adidas, as reported by Josh Cooper of Yahoo's Puck Daddy.

    The South Okanagan Events Centre also credits McDavid for an early sellout at this year's edition of the Western Canadian Young Stars Tournament in Penticton, B.C., according to Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal.

    Becoming More or Less Influential? 

    More influential.

    McDavid's already big news. Imagine the attention he's going to draw when he hits the ice for a regular-season NHL game?

3. Sidney Crosby: Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    His Sphere of Influence: The NHL's highest-profile player for the last 10 years—on and off the ice.

    Why He's Influential

    Sidney Crosby helped turn around a moribund Pittsburgh Penguins franchise when he arrived as a draft lottery prize in 2005. He also has a trophy case full of awards.

    On the team front, Crosby has earned one Stanley Cup, two Olympic gold medals, a World Junior gold from 2005 and a new World Championships gold medal from 2015.

    Individually, Crosby has received two Hart Trophies, three Ted Lindsay Awards, two Art Ross Trophies, one Rocket Richard Trophy and one Mark Messier Leadership Award over the course of his 10-year NHL career.

    In November of 2014, Kurt Badenhausen of Forbes said, "Crosby has long been the exception to the rule" when it comes to off-ice endorsement deals for hockey players, leading the NHL last season with $4.5 million in endorsement earnings. 

    Crosby's high-level talent and boyish humility have made him an attractive partner for advertisers throughout his NHL career.

    Becoming More or Less Influential? 

    Less influential.

    Now 28, Crosby's growing a bit long in the tooth in the hockey world.

    He should still have some good years left on the ice, and his endorsements won't dry up overnight. But expect to see some younger faces—most notably, Connor McDavid—begin to home in on Crosby's territory as the wholesome face of Canadian hockey.

2. Slava Voynov and Mike Richards: Los Angeles Kings

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Their Sphere of Influence: Long-term legal trouble.

    Why They're Influential

    After two triumphant Stanley Cup wins with the Los Angeles Kings, both defenseman Slava Voynov and center Mike Richards have found themselves in the midst of legal quagmires that might not go away easily.

    After pleading no contest to domestic violence charges related to an October 2014 incident with his wife, Voynov is currently being held in custody by U.S. Immigration officials and is at risk of being deported back to Russia, according to Nathan Fenno of the Los Angeles Times.

    Meanwhile, Richards had his 12-year contract voided by the Kings after seven seasons on June 29 due to a "material breach" of the terms, according to the Canadian Press (via the Globe and Mail). Richards was later charged with possession of a controlled substance on August 27 in connection with an incident on June 17, also per the Canadian Press (via the Globe and Mail).

    Becoming More or Less Influential? 

    More influential.

    Both these situations will likely set precedents in the NHL's modern salary cap-based world. Right now, there are only questions.

    If Voynov receives a deportation order, will it be permanent? Will Voynov's contract be voided if he's no longer allowed to stay in North America? 

    As for Richards, a grievance against his termination was filed by the NHL Players' Association on August 10. A hearing should reveal the reasons for the Kings' move and will ultimately go a long way toward setting a precedent for whether other teams will be able to find clauses to terminate guaranteed contracts of players in the future. 

    A win for the Kings could significantly alter the NHL's salary-cap landscape in the years to come.

1. Jonathan Toews: Chicago Blackhawks

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    Claus Andersen/Getty Images

    His Sphere of Influence: Leadership and big-game scoring.

    Why He's Influential

    Just 27 years old, Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews is one of hockey's preeminent two-way centers who has proved himself to be a winner wherever he goes.

    Toews has accumulated three Stanley Cups in eight NHL seasons to go along with two Olympic gold medals, two golds from the World Junior Championships and a gold from the World Championships in 2007—before he'd even played his first NHL game.

    Becoming More or Less Influential? 

    More influential.

    Captain Serious turned heads with his early-career achievements but consolidated his reputation as one of the game's best players and leaders with his clutch play in the 2015 playoffs—especially his two goals in the Blackhawks' Game 7 win over the Anaheim Ducks to capture the Western Conference championship.

    In 2014-15, Toews also beat out Ryan Getzlaf and Andrew Ladd to capture his first Mark Messier Leadership Award.

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