Ryan Miller

Hockey Day Preview: Top 5 Americans who will play in Sunday’s games

The 2011 Hockey Day in America special will cover four hockey games that spotlight the growth of the sport in the United States. As February 20th approaches, we’ll share some of the most interesting (and sometimes unexpected) stories heading into the great event.

To kick things off, we thought: what better way to begin our coverage than to discuss the best American hockey players who will compete in the four games? Here are the top five U.S.-born players who will appear in Hockey Day in America’s contests.

(Note: players were chosen from a pool of eight teams: Washington, Buffalo, Philadelphia, NY Rangers, Detroit, Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Chicago. All stats were compiled before Thursday night’s games.)

1. Ryan Miller (Buffalo Sabres goalie)

How could it be anyone other than the goalie who almost won a gold medal for Team USA? Sure, it seems like his 2010-11 season is observing the laws of gravity after an otherworldly 09-10 campaign and Olympic run, but he’s still the heart and backbone of the Buffalo Sabres. If the Sabres manage to put together a sprint into the top eight in the Eastern Conference, it will be in large part due to the work of last season’s Vezina Trophy winner.

2. Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks right wing)

If there’s any other American player who can compete with Miller’s clout, it would be this captivating Chicago Blackhawks forward. Kane was the first overall pick of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft thanks to his phenomenal puck skills and elite playmaking ability. Kane became the cover star for NHL ’10, starred as one of the most dangerous U.S. forwards in the Vancouver Olympics and scored that wacky Stanley Cup winning goal in overtime.

That’s not bad for a 22-year-old guy from Buffalo, New York.

3. Brian Rafalski (Detroit Red Wings defenseman)

If you wanted to find the Scottie Pippen of NHL defensemen, it might just be Rafalski. Despite producing great hockey as a key member of championship teams in New Jersey and Detroit, the offensive defenseman has been overshadowed by Hall of Famers (or soon to be HoFers) such as Nicklas Lidstrom, Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer.

It wasn’t until the Vancouver Olympics that Rafalski received the opportunity to prove that he could be the go-to guy at the highest level of competition. He might be 37 years old, but Rafalski remains an outstanding blueliner for the Red Wings. He produced 36 points and a +15 rating in 45 games this season.

4. Brandon Dubinsky (New York Rangers center)

Consider this pick a (slight) leap of faith, as the two-way center seems to be making a leap toward near-elite status this season. He’s consistently been an asset in his own zone for the Rangers during his young career, but his 19 goals and 42 points in 53 games this season indicate that he’s primed to become an all-around threat. Some might even call him the Rangers’ version of another outstanding two-way American center: Ryan Kesler.

5. Jimmy Howard (Detroit Red Wings goalie)

Things have been a little rocky for the Syracuse, New York native this season, but in many ways Howard saved Detroit’s season in 09-10. It also must be said that the Red Wings’ defense has been a bit lacking lately, so it’s far too early to write-off Howard.

Howard has 28 wins so far this season. If he regains the confidence that helped him go 37-15-10 with a 92.4 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average last season, he might be the Red Wings’ goalie of the present and future.

Honorable mentions: Drew Stafford (Buffalo Sabres winger), Paul Martin (Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman) and Tim Connolly (Buffalo Sabres center).

Ducks name Kesler alternate captain

Ryan Kesler
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For the second time in his career, Ryan Kesler is wearing an “A.”

On Thursday, the Anaheim Ducks announced that Kesler would serve as one of the club’s alternate captains this season, taking over for Francois Beauchemin, who signed in Colorado this summer.

With the move, Kesler joins Anaheim’s existing leadership group of captain Ryan Getzlaf, and alternate Corey Perry.

“It’s an honor,” Kesler said, per the Ducks. “It’s special. I’m going to wear it with pride and lead by example.”

As mentioned earlier, Kesler has some experience as an alternate — he wore an “A” in Vancouver from 2008-13, but had it removed prior to the start of the ’13-14 campaign.

It’s not surprising Anaheim went in this direction. GM Bob Murray made a huge investment in Kesler this summer by inking the 31-year-old to a six-year, $41.25M extension.

Diaz could leave Rangers for Europe

Raphael Diaz, Mike Sislo
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Could Raphael Diaz be on his way back to Switzerland?

We’ll know in a month.

Diaz, who lost out on the Rangers’ final blueline spot in training camp, has reported to the club’s AHL affiliate in Hartford but doesn’t seem pleased with his current situation, per the Post:

The 29-year-old Diaz, who cleared waivers last Saturday after the Blueshirts opted to keep rookie Dylan McIlrath as the club’s seventh on the blue line, is interested in the European option if he is not in the NHL.

The Blueshirts have told Diaz they will revisit the situation at the end of October, but have not promised to release him or assign him to a European team at that point.

If Diaz, a Swiss native who represented Switzerland in the 2014 Olympics, does play in Europe during the season, he would have to go through waivers in order to return to the NHL.

Diaz’s agent, Ritch Winter, told the Post that Diaz signed a one-year, $700,000 deal with the Rangers “to play with the Rangers.”

And it’s understandable if Diaz — a journeyman offensive defenseman — isn’t happy with this situation.

While some believe McIlrath earned his roster spot on merit, some think it’s because of his contract status. McIlrath, who’s only 23 and a former first-round pick, would’ve needed to clear waivers to go back to Hartford, and it’s believed he would’ve been claimed by another club.