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

One of the great things about Hockey Day in America is how it’s going to shine the spotlight on the greatest game on ice for a day. Just take a quick look at the four games lined up and hockey fans will see visions of superstars taking on superstars. You see Alexander Ovechkin cutting to the middle of the ice and firing a shot towards Ryan Miller. Maybe you think of Claude Giroux and Danny Briere coming down on a 2-on-1 against Marc Staal and Henrik Lundqvist. You think of Pavel Datsyuk dangling on Brent Burns in front of a crazy crowd in the State of Hockey. You may picture Duncan Keith trying to escape an intense forecheck from Jordan Staal. Pick a game and there’s plenty of star-power.

But for all the stars that will be in the spotlight on Sunday, there will be plenty of unsung heroes who will play in the shadowst. We’re talking about the guys who are valuable to their team on a nightly basis; the types of players fans passionately love, and opponents hate to deal with. Because for every Patrick Kane or Chris Pronger on a team, there’s a Dave Bolland or Ville Leino helping their team become a successful team.

Here are 5 players to keep an eye on during Hockey Day in America. They may not be the superstars who get all of the publicity, but they’re the guys every team needs if they want to win:

Niklas Hjalmarsson

The Blackhawks rode an absolutely stacked blueline to the Stanley Cup last year and Hjalmarsson was a huge part of it. Sure, there are guys like defending Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, $7 million man Brian Campbell, and pending free agent Brent Seabrook, but Hjalmarsson is the guy in the top 4 who manages to fly under the radar with many fans outside of Chicago.

Don’t forget, Sharks GM Doug Wilson knew how good he was when the Blackhawks ousted his team from the playoffs last year. He wasted no time signing Hjalmarsson to an offer-sheet forcing the Hawks to choose between him and the goaltender who helped them win their first Stanley Cup in 49 years. Let’s put it this way: Antti Niemi is wearing teal now and Hjalmarsson is in the first year of a deal that will pay him $14 million.

Drew Stafford

One of the best Americans playing on Hockey Day in America, Stafford has started to fulfill the potential that made him the Sabres’ first round pick in the 2004 entry draft. In fact, on the day America celebrates the sport, the former University of North Dakota standout is 3rd among American born players in goals scored. Last weekend he scored his 4th hat trick of the season. FOURTH. Not bad for a guy who averaged about 15 goals per season before this year.

Ryan Callahan

Ryan’s the two-way type player that every team wishes they had on their team. He’d be much higher on the league’s scoring list if it weren’t for a broken hand that caused him to miss 6 weeks of action. Extrapolate his scoring pace and he’d be right up there with his Rangers partner-in-crime Brandon Dubinsky had he been healthy all season (we are contractually obligated to mention Dubinsky whenever Callahan is referenced). His 30 points in 39 games is just a tip of what he can do though. Like Dubinsky, the two-way play and energy he brings to each shift makes him one of the more exciting players to watch. He’s a restricted free agent at the end of the season—so it won’t be long until Glen Sather and the Rangers management show how they really feel about him.

Todd Bertuzzi

It might be weird to see a player with such an infamous past on this list, but somewhere between the Steve Moore incident and Hockeytown, fans may have forgotten that he’s a good hockey player. Since the ugly incident that clearly taints his name every time it’s mentioned, he’s reengineered his game to be a completely different player. Gone are the days when he was flying high with Brendan Morrison andMarkus N aslund as an elite power forward. Instead, he’s become a valuable piece to the Detroit Red Wings machine. He doesn’t score a point-per-game anymore (it’s about half of that), but he still brings much needed grit and hands to an immensely talented team. If the Red Wings want to compete for a Stanley Cup, odds are Todd Bertuzzi will have to be a productive player in his new role.

Nick Schultz

Nick Schultz isn’t going to have the type of stats that jump off the page at you. He has 3 goals, 11 assists, 32 PIMs, and a +1 rating. So what? A guy like that is a dime-a-dozen, right? Wrong.

Watch him play a few games, and each time you’ll notice him more and more. He’s big and he’s nasty—both of which are compliments for a shutdown defenseman. He’s out there against the opponent’s best players—his job is to not screw things up. It’s not a sexy job, but his success this season is one of the big reasons the Minnesota Wild are competing for a playoff spot and not looking to sell off spare parts at the deadline.

Honorary Mentions: Caps forward Brooks Laich, Wild Captain Mikko Koivu, Blackhawks center Dave Bolland, and Flyers defenseman Andrej Meszaros

In case you haven’t committed it to memory, here’s NBC’s schedule for Hockey Day In America.

Duchene trade talks quiet, but Avs will ‘listen to offers’

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To little surprise, not much is going on in the trade market. Just ask Colorado Avalanche GM Joe Sakic.

The Denver Post’s Mike Chambers did just that, and Sakic revealed that he would still consider trading the likes of Matt Duchene … although he didn’t mention him by name.

“I will be listening to offers. Right now it’s quiet on all fronts,” Sakic said. “But I’ll listen to offers on how we can get better. I’ll never name names but I’ll sit there and if something makes sense for the way we want to go, with our team, we’ll really look at that.”

Considering that it’s mid-August, it’s not too surprising that little is happening. One can imagine that several GMs are more interested in finding drinks with umbrellas in them than trying to land Duchene, at least since the Avalanche don’t seem interested in giving him up without some serious haggling.

(And, really, the Avs would be wise to pump up Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog‘s respective trade values, anyway.)

That Denver Post story features a semi-update on Nikita Zadorov. Sakic told Chambers that the two sides agreed that a two-year deal would be best, but the “numbers” aren’t there yet. He didn’t tip his hand about how big the gap was. For what it’s worth, Sakic didn’t sound too worried about the lure of the 2018 Winter Olympics swaying Zadorov to head overseas.

While a lot of the activity circles around what hasn’t happened, the Avalanche did realize that Will Butcher officially won’t sign with them, while Colorado added a college free agent (and former Maple Leafs prospect) Dominic Toninato to their own mix.

At the moment, it doesn’t seem like something big is brewing regarding Duchene and other prominent Avs, but at least Sakic isn’t slamming the door shut on such a possibility.

Logan Couture’s teeth are still sore from horrifying mouth injury

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Still jarring and gross: the image of Logan Couture‘s mouth after taking a puck to the mouth about five months ago.

Still sore: Couture’s mouth.

Yep, the San Jose Sharks star hasn’t totally gotten over that injury, which forced him to have false teeth up top and some painfully sore ones on his bottom row. NBC Sports California’s Kevin Kurz transcribed the unfortunate details Couture shared with NHL Network this week:

“There’s good days and bad days,” Couture said. “My bottom teeth are still my real teeth. They’ve tried to keep them so I don’t lose them. I don’t know if I’ll be able to, they’re still pretty sore. My top teeth are all fake now – my front six, I think. So, it’s different. It just feels different in my mouth.

“But everything else with my face and all that is healed. I’m lucky that it’s an injury that didn’t affect my training, and hopefully won’t affect me going forward.”

As someone who’s endured more than a few unpleasant trips to the dentist, stories like these always lead to queasiness. This classic PHT post about Keith Tkachuk’s agony always comes to mind in situations like these.

Speaking of queasy, this is footage of when things were really bad for Couture. That link is provided because some will inevitably want to look, but treat this like the other gross things on the Internet that you wish you never saw and just move on.

(Seriously, the healing process continues on this end.)

Anyway, about the only bit of good news is that Couture can still train more or less as usual. He endured that injury late in the regular season (March 25), and while he suited up for the Sharks’ first-round series, it sure seemed like both Couture and Joe Thornton were limited in those six games against the Edmonton Oilers.

As much as dental agony seems like a uniquely “hockey” problem, this situation sounds especially rough for Couture.

Sidney Crosby at 30

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This post is part of Penguins Day on PHT…

Much like with Lebron James, Sidney Crosby is at the point in his career where the question is no longer “Will he be one of the all-time greats?” After back-to-back Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe wins, the discussion is shifting to where he ranks among the best of all-time.

And, like, with Lebron, there are a number of factors – including era, which is probably an even tougher nut to crack in hockey – that can twist and turn the debate.

Mere moments after Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins repeated as champs, Mike Sullivan made the case for number 87’s greatness.

” … You know, he’s arguably the best player of his generation, and he’s a guy that just knows how to win,” Sullivan said. “And so he’s done it in all different venues, whether it be the NHL and Stanley Cups to the World Cup to the Olympics. And he’s a player that — and I believe this, what separates him from others is his work ethic and his willingness to do what it takes to be the very best.”

It’s mind-blowing to consider the very real possibility that Crosby will be viewed as the best player to skate for the Penguins, edging Evgeni Malkin, Jaromir Jagr, and even Mario Lemieux.

It’s also mind-blowing that he just turned 30 on Aug. 7.

When it comes to the Mario vs. Sid debate that may eventually pick up steam, Crosby has some advantages. He matched “The Magnificent One” by getting those back-to-back titles and playoff MVP nods, while he already has three Stanley Cup rings to Lemieux’s two (and four Stanley Cup Final appearances to two).

Crosby already has an iconic moment to his name. Along with Paul Henderson’s goal and “Gretzky to Lemieux,” Crosby’s golden goal in the 2010 Winter Olympics will endear him to Canadian hockey fans for ages.

This list of accolades is honestly dizzying:

But, again, things get tougher when you try to really drill down to Crosby vs. The Greats. Most obviously since he’s far from done right now.

Circling back to the debate that might divide Penguins fans in particular, Crosby might also edge Lemieux if you correct for our modern era, which is so tough on scoring. NHL.com’s Rob Vollman explains Crosby’s place among the most impressive runs before 30:

From this perspective, Crosby is no longer in a block of a dozen players but in more select company. He ranks third at age 30 with an era-adjusted 998 points (377 goals, 622 assists), well ahead of Lemieux, who is in fourth with 899 points (365 goals, 534 assists). Gretzky is in first with 1,479 points (495 goals, 984 assists) in 896 games, followed by Jagr with 1,018 points (414 goals, 604 assists) in 858 games. (Adding to the distinction of being in the top four with Gretzky, Jagr and Lemieux: Those are the only three players to win the Art Ross Trophy as the League’s top scorer in the 21 seasons from 1980-81 to 2000-01.)  

Interesting. (This quick document has a bit more to chew on.)

Vollman also makes the point that even the all-timers tend to stop locking down the biggest awards once they turn 30. There’s an obvious barrier in Connor McDavid (just check the Hart Trophy odds) and possibly some other bright young players, so for all we know, most of our peak memories of Crosby may already be in the past.

That said, much like Lemieux, injuries have limited some of the stats Crosby’s been able to put up.

Crosby’s concussion history could conceivably prompt him to retire agonizingly early, but what if he instead gets better luck? We’ve seen cases, such as Patrice Bergeron, in which such issues become less of a concern over time. For all we know, Crosby might defy expectations and actually play until he’s 40.

(Hey, he already emulates Jaromir Jagr in being an inanely good puck protector.)

It’s been a special run already for Crosby, who’s already a no-brainer for the Hall of Fame. At this point, it’s about padding that resume.

Though, to Crosby’s credit, it’s still probably all about winning.

Sabres sign Zemgus Girgensons: two years, $3.2M

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The Buffalo Sabres basically wrapped up their mandatory summer moves by signing RFA Zemgus Girgensons to a two-year, $3.2 million contract on Thursday.

That translates to a cap hit of $1.6M per year; the team confirmed those terms.

The 23-year-old was selected 14th overall in the 2012 NHL Draft by the Sabres. He went two picks after the Sabres selected Mikhail Grigorenko, whose claim to fame is being part of the package that helped them nab Ryan O'Reilly. (Feel free to cringe at who went next, though hindsight seems especially convenient considering how long it takes to get to some of the whoppers.)

In Girgensons’ case, it’s still been a work in progress. His best years actually came early, particularly a sophomore season where he posted career-highs in goals (15) and points (30) despite being limited to 61 games. He enjoyed significantly higher ice time (19:05 per game) during that 2014-15, then came right back down.

If nothing else, Girgensons already has ample NHL experience, as he’s already played in 277 regular-season games.

Buffalo has about $7 million in cap space left, according to Cap Friendly, so there’s theoretically room to make more moves. Girgensons was their last remaining loose end of note, however.