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.
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.
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).