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The 20 best NHL players of 2017 (PHT Year In Review)

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(Pro Hockey Talk is taking a look back at the year in hockey. We’ll be presenting you with the best goals, saves, moments, players and much more as we bring you the best of 2017.)

The new year is on its way so we at PHT have decided to take a look back at the year that was in hockey, from the best bloopers, to the top plays, to the best players.

Come join us.

Today, we take a look at the 20 best players in the NHL in 2017. Keep in mind this ranking only takes into consideration what happened from Jan. 1 until the present. You might agree with the players we have on it, you might disagree. You might yell. In the end, we hope you enjoy it.

So let us start the countdown.

1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — Since the start of the new year McDavid is one of just two players to top 100 points in the calendar year, he took home his first MVP award, his first scoring title, and masked an awful lot of flaws on the Edmonton Oilers’ roster. The flu slowed him down earlier this season but he is still making a push for another scoring crown and you probably should not bet against him winning it.

2. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning — He has become a truly special player. He is not only starting to pull away in the NHL scoring race this season, he leads the league in total goals (51) and total points (101) since Jan. 1. He has six more goals than any other player in the league during that stretch and is one of just two players (McDavid being the other) to top 90 points.

3. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins — His point totals do not look the way they used to, and given that he is not 25 anymore they probably never will, but he is still a dominant player. In 2017 he secured his second goal-scoring crown and his second consecutive Conn Smythe Trophy, helping lead the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cups.

4. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators — Karlsson is one of the generational talents in the NHL right now and was the driving force behind Ottawa’s stunning run to the Eastern Conference Finals. And he did it while basically playing on one foot for a large part of it. He is one the most impactful defensemen the league has seen in decades.

5. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins — If he didn’t do so many borderline (or just plain dirty) things that make so many people hate him he would rightly be viewed as the top player that he has become. Over the past calendar year he is second in the league in goals scored, is a dominant possession player, and with an increased workload has become one of the best all-around players in the NHL.

6. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning — He is sometimes the overlooked superstar on the Tampa Bay roster, usually getting overshadowed by Kucherov and Steven Stamkos. Hedman is a workhorse that plays huge minutes and is a rare combination of shutdown defensive play with gamebreaking offensive ability.

7. Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — The Blackhawks’ depth has been decimated the past couple of years and they are not really the powerhouse franchise they were when they were winning the Stanley Cup every other year. Kane has been the driving force behind their offense the past two seasons and is the one constant they have when it comes to production.

8. Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets — The Jets have dynamic offense with some outstanding players at the top of their lineup, and Scheifele is becoming one of their best and important ones. He has been one of the NHL’s most productive players for a year now and is just entering what should be his statistical peak for offense.

9. Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals — A devastating mix of Selke caliber defense (even if he does not get anywhere near enough attention for it) and elite offensive makes Backstrom one of the game’s best two-way centers and all-around players. Only McDavid has more assists than Backstrom’s 63 since Jan. 1.

10. Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets — Arguably the most underrated and underappreciated player currently in the NHL. Like his teammate, Scheifele, Wheeler has been one of the top point producers in the NHL over the past year. He has been a 70-point player for pretty much the past five years and you would never know it given how little attention he gets across the league. Maybe now that the Jets are looking like an improved team he — and Scheifele — will start to get noticed a little more.

11. Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks — The Sharks seem to funnel pretty much all of their offense through Burns when he is on the ice, resulting in him being one of the top players in the league when it comes to generating shots on goal. He ended up taking home the Norris Trophy a year ago thanks to his huge season offensively. Like Karlsson, he produces points like a top-line forward from the blue line. A rare talent.

12. John Tavares, New York Islanders — He is one of the most intriguing players in hockey right now given his contract situation and the possibility of him becoming an unrestricted free agent this summer. It is a perfect time for him because he is playing some of the best hockey of his career right now.

13. Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets — His playoff struggles are a concern and they have to be rectified if the Blue Jackets are going to be a true Stanley Cup contender, but you also can not ignore what he has done in the regular season where he has been, arguably, the top goaltender in the league.

14. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs — The focal point of the Maple Leafs’ rebuild, Matthews burst onto the NHL scene as a rookie with 40 goals as a 19-year-old and led the NHL in even-strength goals. So far this season he has followed it up by averaging more than a point per game while also posting strong possession numbers. He is going to be a superstar for a long time.

15. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals — He had a down year in 2016-17 and that made it easy for people to give up on him as an elite player once again. Fast forward to the first three months of this season and he is scoring goals at a pace like few other players in their early 30s ever have. Still one of the NHL’s must-see players and the owner of one of the most unstoppable shots in the league.

16. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning — If he had not missed the first part of 2017 due to injury he almost certainly would have been higher on this list. But what he has done so far this season is remarkable as it is probably some of the best all-around hockey he has ever played in the league.

17. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues — The Blues have proven to be an incredibly deep team so far this season, overcoming a rash of injuries to have one of the best records in the league. Tarasenko is still the straw that stirs the drink in St. Louis. One of the best goal-scorers in the league, Tarasenko is a threat to score 40 every season and is capable of putting the team on his back and single-handedly carrying it when he gets on a roll.

18. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames — The argument for ignoring size and just looking at talent and production. Gaudreau was the 2017 Lady Byng winner, his first hardware in the NHL, and has come back this season to be one of the top point producers in the league. On the list of the NHL’s most exciting players Gaudreau is high on the list.

19. Phil Kessel, Pittsburgh Penguins — He has been the one constant bright spot on the 2017-18 Penguins roster and arguably their best player. That comes after another fantastic playoff run in 2017 that helped the Penguins win their second consecutive Stanley Cup. Whatever negative things were said about him in Toronto he has proven to be a classic big-game player.

20. Filip Forsberg, Nashville Predators — Forsberg had a slow start to the 2016-17 season, only scoring seven goals through his first 36 games into the new year. Once the calendar rolled over everything started to click for him with 25 goals over the next 46 games to end the regular season, another nine in 22 playoff games to help lead the Predators to the Stanley Cup Final, and already 13 this season in his first 35 games.

Previously:
The top hockey bloopers of 2017
The best hockey moments of 2017

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Lured out of retirement, Preds’ Mike Fisher chasing 1st Cup

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Losing the Stanley Cup last June wasn’t what hurt Nashville Predators forward Filip Forsberg the most. Seeing how painful the loss was for veteran center Mike Fisher proved even more agonizing.

”That was probably the worst feeling for me personally,” Forsberg said. ”Seeing the look on Fish’s face, how close it was and obviously didn’t know then if he had another chance. And yeah, he’s definitely one of the guys that I would love to win for.”

One final shot at the Stanley Cup that’s eluded Fisher throughout his 17-year career wasn’t the priority last August when the 37-year-old center announced his retirement . The Predators, who always wanted him back, persuaded him to return late in the season with some help from Fisher’s wife, country star Carrie Underwood.

Fisher says the support means a lot to him.

”It also means you’re getting old too,” Fisher quipped.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

”You don’t have too many chances. But part of this coming back too wasn’t just about me, it was about the guys too and you figure try to help a group and do it together,” Fisher said. ”That’s the thing about team sports and hockey is just having that fun together. There’s nothing like it. So it’s definitely more than just about me the old guy winning. It’s so much greater than that for sure.”

Nashville wanted Fisher back for his skills on the ice and his experience.

Fisher can play both ends of the ice and can win face-off battles in the defensive zone. He also has played 1,104 regular-season games in his career. In this postseason, only Toronto’s Patrick Marleau (182) and San Jose’s Joe Thornton (160) have played more postseason games than Fisher (140) without winning a Stanley Cup.

The 6-foot-1 center now is in the playoffs with a Presidents’ Trophy winner. After finishing off Colorado in six games Sunday night, Nashville awaits a showdown with the Winnipeg Jets in the second round.

Knowing the Predators had a great team was only part of why Fisher came out of retirement. Spending time with good friends added to the attraction.

”You look at your career and playoffs are what you do and so much fun,” Fisher said. ”I’ve had the opportunity to have some pretty good runs. But you look back and those are really fun times that you enjoy and you remember with guys. And so it’s good memories.”

Fisher helped the Predators win their first Western Conference title last spring to reach the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final. Then they lost in six games to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Fisher didn’t make a decision on retirement until August.

The Predators made sure to protect themselves while waiting.

General manager David Poile signed Nick Bonino as a free agent away from Pittsburgh. In November, Poile acquired center Kyle Turris away from Ottawa as part of a three-team trade giving Nashville plenty of depth at the position.

The Predators kept the door open to their former captain. They started talking more in December, knowing the depth needed to play into June. Underwood also kept asking Fisher what he wanted to do. The husband and father who had focused on building a house and a hunting show finally said yes.

A chance to win the Cup was too good to pass on, then again Underwood could have just decided to kick Fisher out of the house.

”That might’ve been part of it,” Fisher said with a laugh. ”But yeah, definitely it’s good to be back. She’s a big fan. She’s going to be at all the games she can.”

Fisher announced his return at a news conference Jan. 31 . He spent February working his way back into shape and signed a one-year, $1 million deal for the rest of the season Feb. 26 when NHL rosters expanded at the trade deadline. Fisher, who had 18 goals and 24 assists last season, scored in his first game back , a 4-3 win in Vancouver on March 2.

Against Colorado, Fisher centered Nashville’s fourth line. He averaged 11 minutes, 16 seconds per game in the first round while winning 75.5 percent of his face-offs.

Forsberg said Fisher looked like himself from his first game back and obviously is more comfortable with each game.

”Really good guy to have around the team,” Forsberg said, ”and he’s been awesome.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Follow Teresa M. Walker at http://www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

How should Blue Jackets feel about their season?

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The Columbus Blue Jackets are a team with a relatively young core. Even though they were the “underdogs” in their first-round series against the Washington Capitals, they have to be disappointed a with the way things ended, and there’s a few reasons for that.

The Jackets caught the league by storm last season, as they went from a 76-point season in 2015-16 to a 108-point season in 2016-17. John Tortorella’s team went from being 15th in East to third in the Metropolitan Division, but they eventually lost to Pittsburgh in five games last spring. At the time, that outcome was widely accepted as being successful (by people outside the organization) because of the quick turnaround from one year to the next. This year’s playoff loss is a different story.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Before we dive into what went wrong during the postseason, let’s take a look at the 82 games of the regular season first.

Columbus won eight of 12 games in October. They followed that up by dropping four games in a row early in November, but they responded by rattling off six consecutive wins. Even though they got off to a good start, Tortorella made it clear that their stars weren’t playing well. A lot of their early-season success came from Sergei Bobrovsky‘s stellar play.

Their play fell apart in the middle of the year, but even though it looked like they were in trouble, they managed to get their season back on the rails.

Artemi Panarin eventually got comfortable and he became the offensive catalyst the Blue Jackets expected him to be. Pierre-Luc Dubois, who’s still just a teenager, also grew up quite a bit during the season. He looked more confident down the stretch. It took some time, but Cam Atkinson also picked up his play in the second half of the year. Combine all that with Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and company on defense and Bobrovsky, and you have a team that ended up finishing in a Wild Card spot. For whatever reason, it simply didn’t end up working out in the postseason.

Things were looking good early on, especially because they found a way to win Games 1 and 2 in Washington. Going back home with a 2-0 lead should have resulted in the Jackets eventually punching their ticket to the second round. Instead, they’ll be hitting the golf course earlier than they wanted to.

That’s not to say that the Blue Jackets totally fell apart. Four of the six games against Washington ended in overtime. In Game 5, they completely dominated the Capitals, outshooting them 16-1 over the final 20 minutes of regulation. Unfortunately for them, they ended up losing in overtime on a perfect deflection from Nicklas Backstrom. Washington ended up taking a 3-2 lead in the series and they never looked back.

“We learned a lot about ourselves, but I’ve got to be honest with you, I’m tired of learning,” Nick Foligno said after being eliminated, per beat reporter Steve Gorten. I want to continue to get better, and continue to move on. I hope we understand that now’s the time for this team.

“We had a real good opportunity being up 2-0 and didn’t make the most of it. That’s how fine it is to win. It’s hard in the postseason to close out things. I hope guys understand and realize the window you have to win. This is a hell of a team. Now’s the time to start winning.”

The quote above says it all. They may have put together back-to-back solid campaigns, but they’re a team that has legitimate expectations when it comes to making a run. As well as they’ve played at different times over the last two years, it doesn’t mean much if they don’t take the next step when it counts.

The Blue Jackets aren’t just a good story anymore, they’re a team that people expect to see in the playoffs every year. But simply getting into the postseason isn’t good enough by the fans’ standards or the team’s standards.

There’s some solid building blocks in place, now it’s just about gaining the confidence necessary to overcome adversity in the playoffs. The next two or three seasons should be interesting for this organization. Still, you can’t help but feel that they didn’t take a step forward in 2017-18.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: King Clancy nominees; Rutherford mad at Flyers fans

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Each team unveiled their nominee for the King Clancy Award, which is given “to the player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution in his community.” Ryan Getzlaf, Zdeno Chara, Tyler Seguin, P.K. Subban, the Sedin twins are all on the list. (NHL.com)

• Winning three Stanley Cup titles in a row would be a great accomplishment for the Pittsburgh Penguins, but a successful year would be making it out of the Metropolitan Division bracket. Anything beyond that is gravy. (Pittsburgh Hockey Now)

• Pens GM Jim Rutherford wasn’t happy with Flyers fans after they threw beer can on the ice following their team’s Game 6 loss to Pittsburgh on Sunday. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

• Bolts goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy sat down for a Q&A with Sports Express. He talked about Nikita Kucherov‘s ability to torment goalies, Evgeni Nabokov’s influence on him, and much more. (Raw Charge)

• Paul Maurice’s playing career came to an abrupt ending, but he managed to transition into coaching pretty quickly. Even though he had doubts early on, everything worked out. (Featurd)

• After a great season, the Avalanche decided to give Jared Bednar a one-year contract extension. Also, don’t be surprised if the team becomes even younger than they were this year. (Denver Post)

• There’s been rumblings about Erik Karlsson being on the trade market. Most teams would jump at the opportunity to acquire a player like that, but here’s three reasons why the Rangers should stay away. (Blue Seat Blogs)

• The Minnesota Wild decided to part ways with GM Chuck Fletcher for a few reasons. Cap management, the losses in the expansion draft and the struggles they’ve had in the entry draft are three of the reasons he got let go. (Hockey Wilderness)

• This gay ECHL referee hasn’t had it easy during his time in the hockey, but he keeps pushing forward with his sights set on the NHL. (New York Times)

Jim Howard of Puck Junk recently came across an audio yearbook on the 1979-1980 New York Islanders. The record touched on the Isles’ journey from an expansion team to Stanley Cup Champs. (Puck Junk)

• The Vancouver Canucks need a lot of help on defense heading into next season. They can either hope to win the right to draft Rasmus Dahlin, or they can go after John Carlson in free agency. (TSN)

• Northeastern’s Dylan Sikura was back on campus after spending some time with the Chicago Blackhawks down the stretch. (College Hockey News)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: We have a Game 7; Bobrovsky’s playoff struggles continue

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Two games on Monday night

Washington Capitals 6, Columbus Blue Jackets 3 (Capitals win series 4-2)

Sergei Bobrovsky is one of the NHL’s best goalies. He is a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, a claim that only 22 goalies in league history can make. He has consistently been one of the most productive goalies in the league since arriving in Columbus. For whatever reason, that regular season success has not translated over to the playoffs.

After giving up five goals on Monday night in an elimination game against the Washington Capitals, Bobrovsky’s career postseason numbers now fall to a 5-14 record and an .891 save percentage in 24 appearances.

That is not great. He ended this series with a .900 save percentage as the Blue Jackets dropped four games in a row to the Washington Capitals.

In his defense his only real postseason appearances have come against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Capitals, two teams that get the best of a lot of goalies. On the other hand, when you are a two-time Vezina Trophy winner and get paid the way Bobrovsky does there at some point has to be an expectation for more no matter who the opponent is. The Capitals win the series 4-2, will now play the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second-round for the third year in a row and the fourth time since 2009. It will be the 10th postseason series meeting between the two franchises.

Toronto Maple Leafs 3, Boston Bruins 1 (Series tied 3-3)

There will be one Game 7 in the first-round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and it will be played on Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. ET puck drop on NBCSN) in Boston.

The Maple Leafs were able to force a Game 7 thanks to their 3-1 win over the Bruins on Monday night thanks to another great performance from Frederik Andersen in net.

You might remember the previous postseason series involving these two teams also went to a Game 7 when the Maple Leafs allowed a 4-1 third period lead to slip away. They forced a Game 7 in that series by also fighting off elimination with close wins in Games 5 and 6.

This group has a chance to change the script.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Three Stars

1. Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs needed a huge game from their goalie on Monday night and they got just that in their 3-1 win. Andersen turned aside 32 shots in the Maple Leafs’ 3-1 win and has been the difference in all three of Toronto’s wins in the series. Without him this series might already be finished. They are going to need one more big performance from him in Boston on Monday night.

2. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

Two more goals for Ovechkin Monday as he helped the Capitals top the Blue Jackets. He finished the first-round with five goals, three assists, and four two-point games. Do not ever let anybody tell you he does not produce in the playoffs.

3. Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs

Frederik Andersen was not the only player to come through for the Maple Leafs on Monday, they also received a couple of huge goals from two of their young stars in William Nylander and Mitch Marner. Marner’s goal, his second of the playoffs, ended up being the game-winner and the result of a rare mistake from Bruins forward Brad Marchand.

Factoid of the Night

This is probably why the Columbus Blue Jackets are now 0-4 in playoff series since entering the league.

Upcoming schedule

No games on Tuesday.

Game 7 for the Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs is on Wednesday.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.