NHL All-Underrated Team: The Most Overlooked Player at Every Position
It's easy to identify the NHL's brightest stars. Look for players with top-level skill sets on the teams in hockey's most passionate markets. A bit of razzle-dazzle and plenty of playoff exposure complete the picture.
Underrated players tend to toil on less visible clubs, sometimes in the shadow of more highly acclaimed teammates. A player without a five-star pedigree who rises from relative obscurity will have to work extra hard to earn a spot among the league's elite.
As preseason winds on, here's a lineup of players who deserve more of your attention than they receive. During the 2017-18 season, some will keep being quietly excellent; others are poised to step into the brightest spotlights of their careers.
Mikael Backlund, C, Calgary Flames
2017-18 Salary-Cap Hit: $3.575 million
What He Provides: A dependable two-way center, the Calgary Flames' Mikael Backlund can be relied upon to provide a defensive conscience while also contributing offensively in a top-six role. Good on special teams as well as at five-on-five, the 28-year-old also proved to be an excellent mentor for promising rookie Matthew Tkachuk last season.
In 2016-17, Backlund hit career highs with 22 goals and 53 points—third on the Flames. He tied for second on their top-10 power play with 16 points and led all forwards with an average of 2:14 per game on the penalty kill.
Why He Is Underrated: Drafted 24th overall out of Sweden in 2007, Backlund didn't establish himself in the NHL until the 2010-11 season. Once he became a Flames regular, frequent injuries derailed his development.
But Backlund has missed just one game in the past two seasons and has continued to get better. At his $3.575 million cap hit, his back-to-back 20-plus goal seasons make him one of the best-value signings in the NHL.
Scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year, Backlund will likely receive plenty of positive press this season as he positions himself for a big raise when he signs his next contract—in Calgary or elsewhere.
Blake Wheeler, RW, Winnipeg Jets
2017-18 Salary-Cap Hit: $5.6 million
What He Provides: Blake Wheeler was traded to the Atlanta Thrashers four months before they became the Winnipeg Jets during the summer of 2011.
Through his six seasons in Winnipeg, he is tied with Joe Pavelski for 13th overall in NHL scoring, with 387 points. That ranks him third among right wings, behind only Patrick Kane (449 points) and Phil Kessel (404 points).
Wheeler has missed just five games during those six seasons and has been a reliable goal scorer, contributing 28, 26, 26 and 26 goals in the Jets' past four campaigns. He skates well for a player who's 6'5", and he has strong leadership skills. He's going into his second year as the Jets captain.
Why He Is Underrated: The Jets have plenty of talent on their roster but are still struggling to put it all together. They have made the playoffs just once in six years and were swept in that series against the Anaheim Ducks in 2014-15, so Wheeler hasn't had a chance to establish himself as a big-game player.
Wheeler was also stigmatized as a young player when he failed to come to terms with the then-Phoenix Coyotes, who had drafted him fifth overall in 2004.
He chose to sign with the Boston Bruins as a 22-year-old free agent in 2008. The Bruins dealt him to the Thrashers in February 2011 in a package that brought back utility center Rich Peverley and minor league defenseman Boris Valabik.
Wheeler and the Jets get limited TV coverage outside Canada, so he continues to fly under the radar despite being one of the NHL's most consistent power forwards.
Jamie Benn, LW, Dallas Stars
2017-18 Salary-Cap Hit: $9.5 million
What He Provides: Jamie Benn brings leadership, toughness and scoring to the Dallas Stars. He's going into his fifth year as the team's captain and stands up for his teammates—he's never afraid to dish out a big hit or drop the gloves.
Benn won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's leading scorer in 2014-15 and followed up as a finalist for the Hart Trophy as MVP the following season. Drafted by Dallas in the fifth round back in 2007, Benn has since proved himself to be one of the top stars in the game.
Why He Is Underrated: It's a tough sell to say a player who's starting a new contract that carries a cap hit of $9.5 million per season for the next eight years is underrated.
There are stats that show Benn doesn't get the respect he deserves, though. Since the 2011-12 season, he has amassed 420 points in 434 games. He has just one point less than the top left winger, Alex Ovechkin—and has played 12 fewer games than the Washington Capitals superstar. Benn's 0.97 points-per-game average is higher than Ovechkin's 0.94.
At 28, Benn should be hitting his prime. The Stars have made big changes during the offseason in the hopes they'll be able to maximize his potential.
A successful season and a long playoff run in Dallas would earn Benn the respect he deserves as one of the game's best players.
Jaccob Slavin, LD, Carolina Hurricanes
2017-18 Salary-Cap Hit: $742,500
What He Provides: An under-the-radar fourth-round draft pick from the Chicago Steel of the USHL in 2012, Jaccob Slavin has developed an ideal frame for an NHL defenseman at 6'2" and 205 pounds.
Last year, in just his second NHL season, he surpassed higher-profile teammates such as Noah Hanifin and Justin Faulk to become the Carolina Hurricanes' top shutdown defenseman. Slavin finished the season at an impressive plus-23 and also chipped in 34 points despite receiving minimal power-play time.
Why He Is Underrated: The Hurricanes have been a non-factor in the tough Metropolitan Division for the better part of a decade. They played in front of the smallest crowds in the NHL last season, according to ESPN, and rarely earn any TV time.
This year, Carolina is coming. Scott Darling's goaltending should make the Hurricanes a stingy team behind an impressive young defense, while forwards such as Jeff Skinner and emerging star Sebastian Aho chip in the goals.
The Hurricanes could replicate what the Columbus Blue Jackets pulled off last season, coming out of nowhere to challenge for top spot in the Metro—and the league.
If that happens, Slavin will gain a reputation as one of the NHL's best bargains before his $5.3 million-per-season contract extension kicks in next year.
Anton Stralman, RD, Tampa Bay Lightning
2017-18 Salary-Cap Hit: $4.5 million
What He Provides: Victor Hedman gets the Norris Trophy love, but he's well-supported by frequent partner Anton Stralman on the Tampa Bay Lightning blue line.
Stralman's a well-rounded defenseman who makes great outlet passes and can chip in offensively when required. He's a workhorse whose average ice time increased to a career-high 22:54 per game last season.
Why He Is Underrated: Undersized for an NHL blueliner at 5'11" and 190 pounds, Stralman has had to work to earn respect after he was drafted in the seventh round by the Toronto Maple Leafs back in 2005.
Early in his career, the Calgary Flames didn't even keep him on their roster long enough to play in one game, acquiring him from the Leafs in July 2009 before flipping him to the Columbus Blue Jackets that September.
After two seasons, the Blue Jackets chose not to give him a qualifying offer at the end of the 2010-11 season. That fall, he was cut from the New Jersey Devils' training camp before catching on with the New York Rangers in November on a one-year deal worth $900,000.
During his three seasons with the Rangers, Stralman established himself as a reliable NHL regular, but salary-cap limitations caused him to walk away after a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2013-14. The Swede signed a five-year deal with Tampa Bay and returned to the Final with the Lightning the following season.
Stralman and Hedman showed their partnership transcends borders and playing styles when they combined to help earn a gold medal for Sweden at the 2017 IIHF World Championship.
Philipp Grubauer, G, Washington Capitals
2017-18 Salary-Cap Hit: $1.5 million
What He Provides: In a career-high 24 games played last season, Philipp Grubauer matched and slightly exceeded the stats of the Washington Capitals' star starter, Braden Holtby.
The German's goals-against average was 2.04 compared to Holtby's 2.07, his save percentage was .926 compared to Holtby's .925 and in about one-third of Holtby's minutes played Grubauer tallied three shutouts compared to Holtby's nine.
Why He Is Underrated: When you play behind a Vezina-winning workhorse such as Holtby, it's tough to prove your worth.
After Holtby played a league-high 73 games in 2014-15, he dropped to 63 last season as coach Barry Trotz showed more and more confidence in his backup.
Like Cam Talbot and Martin Jones a couple of years back, Grubauer has done enough to deserve a shot at a starter's role. It's surprising the Vegas Golden Knights didn't take advantage of his availability when they chose their team in the expansion draft.
Originally selected in the fourth round out of the OHL back in 2010, Grubauer doubled his salary when he signed a one-year deal this summer to return to the Caps at $1.5 million.
If he can deliver another solid season in Washington, he should see that number spike significantly on his next deal—perhaps in a bigger role on a different team.