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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.

Three questions facing Los Angeles Kings

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Los Angeles Kings.

Want more on the Kings? Check these posts out:

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]

 1. Can Jonathan Quick do it again?

After a tough 2016-17 campaign where he was limited to just 17 games played, Jonathan Quick produced a very nice 2017-18 season. It was one of the American netminder’s best in the NHL; while his 33-28-3 record didn’t blow anyone away, Quick generated a nice .921 save percentage.

Such work was especially notable because, after hogging the puck under Darryl Sutter, the Kings opened things up – by their standards – thus making life a little tougher on their goalies. They were middle-of-the-pack in high-danger chances allowed (according to Natural Stat Trick), for instance. This isn’t to say that they turned into Swiss cheese, yet there was a give-and-take, and Quick handled the change well.

Can he do it again in 2018-19? And if he cannot – or if Quick gets hurt – will the Kings crumble?

For much of last season, the Kings enjoyed strong backup work from Darcy Kuemper, but the team traded him to Arizona before the deadline.

It’s plausible that there could be a bigger drop-off from Quick to everyone else, then.

If nothing else, though, the Kings have options behind him. Jack Campbell showed some of that first-round promise, albeit in a small sample size, so he might help here and there in a pinch. The Kings also brought back Peter Budaj. On one hand, the journeyman goalie is already 35. On the other, he’s not that far removed from success with Los Angeles, as he surprised with a .917 save percentage over 53 games in 2016-17.

2. Will veterans deliver or hit the wall?

Quick, 32, isn’t the only Kings player who’s accrued a lot of mileage, yet will be counted upon to carry them down the road in 2018-19.

Drew Doughty is still in his prime at 28, but any sign of decay would provide some concern with that eight-year, $88M extension not even kicking in until 2019-20.

Jeff Carter, Dion Phaneuf, and Dustin Brown are all 33. Anze Kopitar is 30, while we discussed the risk-reward scenario regarding 35-year-old addition Ilya Kovalchuk here. Alec Martinez is 31, and even Jake Muzzin could lose a step at 29.

The margin between victory and defeat can be pretty small in sports, so even moderate slippage can be a concern for the Kings.

3. More days of the new?

The Kings picked up the pace last season, and they also saw some young players emerge. Head coach John Stevens must continue to strive for the ideal balance between putting veterans in a position to continue to succeed, allowing young players to thrive, and adapting the team’s structure to be more modern than what was seen under Darryl Sutter.

(After all, it would be silly to throw out everything Sutter put in place, considering how effective the Kings previously were at hogging the puck.)

When it comes to seeing youthful talent ascend, some of that may come down to giving more ice time to someone like Adrian Kempe.

Training camp could also be crucial for the growth of Gabriel Vilardi, an intriguing forward who slipped – slightly – to the Kings at the 11th pick in the 2017 NHL Draft.

“Gabe, he’s got a big presence out there,” Kings front office member Mike O’Connell said, via NHL.com’s Dan Greenspan. “He sees the ice really well. He finds his teammates. He’s going to be a tough guy to stop. He still has work to do, as most players do when they first start, but it looks good. It’s a good foundation. I think he should fit right in.”

If the Kings can integrate Vilardi into the lineup, then they may finally get some supporting scoring to go with what has frequently been a top-heavy offensive approach. An injection of young talent could go from a nice luxury to a bare necessity if question 2 doesn’t work out so well for the Kings, too.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Under Pressure: Ilya Kovalchuk

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Los Angeles Kings.

Since 2013-14, Ilya Kovalchuk has been plying his trade in the KHL instead of the NHL. Really, with the year before including the abysmal, lockout-shortened campaign, we haven’t really seen much of Kovalchuk at this level since helping the Devils reach the 2012 Stanley Cup Final.

For fans of beautiful hockey, such thoughts are borderline offensive.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough]

That said, Kovalchuk gave fans a lot to enjoy over 816 NHL regular-season games, even if many of those contests happened on some crummy Atlanta Thrashers teams. While there’s a lot of “what could have been?” with Kovalchuk, it’s also fitting that he left the NHL with exactly as many points (816) as games played.

The Los Angeles Kings make a lot of sense as the team he’ll return to the NHL with, too.

Most obviously, and also the point of most pressure, is that the Kings need Kovalchuk. They really need a shot in the arm, so landing arguably the most lethal shooter of his generation might just do that.

Yes, the Kings surprised many by making the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, even with Jeff Carter – the closest player they had to a Kovalchukian sniper – mostly on the shelf in 2017-18.

That’s great, but it only does so much to mask recent struggles. After all, the Kings were swept from the first round, have only won one playoff game since winning the 2014 Stanley Cup, and have missed the postseason altogether in two of the last four seasons.

Kovalchuk and the Kings are bonded by a scary question: “How much do they have left?”

The good news is that Kovalchuk performed well during his KHL sojourn, and seemed to be his usual self in international competition. Still, the aging curve can be especially unkind to snipers, and Kovalchuk’s a 35-year-old who’s been playing a lot of hockey considering he jumped straight from being the top pick of the 2001 NHL Draft to full-time duty with Atlanta in 2001-02.

At least his confidence hasn’t wavered all that much, as PHT’s Sean Leahy noted after Kovalchuk came to terms with the Kings.

“When I was making my decision, it was all about hockey because I have three or four years left in my tank where I can really play at a high level,” Kovalchuk said. “L.A. has a great group of guys. Like I said, great goaltending, great defense, and they have one of the best centers in the league. I never had a chance to play with those kinds of guys, so it’s really exciting for me. It’s great.”

The situation he’ll be in with the Kings could make a big impact on how seamless his transition back to the NHL might be.

During Kovalchuk’s days with the Devils, he’d log a jaw-dropping amount of ice time (we’re talking “deployment usually reserved for top defensemen”-type stuff), and that would often mean spending tons of time playing the point on the power play. Los Angeles seems to have a simple-and-wise plan for Kovalchuk, considering his age and world-class shot: put him in Alex Ovechkin‘s “office.”

“We just want him to do exactly what [Alex] Ovechkin does,” Luc Robitaille said to The Athletic’s Lisa Dillman during draft weekend (sub required).

While we’ll have to see if it works in practice, this is a really bright idea on paper.

Speaking of things that make sense, at least in our minds, Kovalchuk and Anze Kopitar could form a symbiotic relationship that could pay big dividends for the Kings.

Kopitar would rank as Kovalchuk’s best center in ages, if ever, at the NHL level. Meanwhile, Kovalchuk presents a dramatic skill boost for Kopitar, who put up an incredible effort lugging Dustin Brown and Alex Iafallo last season.

(All due respect to Brown’s bounce-back efforts and Iafallo’s scrappy work, but Kovalchuk presents a tantalizing upgrade. Ideally.)

Kovalchuk’s contract is another interesting element to this situation.

He could very well be a huge bargain, considering his skills at a fairly modest $6.25 million cap hit. Kovalchuk surely could have held out for more dollars, particularly on a shorter contract, but he made it clear that he wanted to compete too. (Granted, the sunny climes of Los Angeles probably didn’t hurt, either.)

On the other hand, Kovalchuk counts as a 35+ contract, so this could get ugly if it’s clear that the NHL game passed him by in a stark way.

If onlookers give Kovalchuk a fair shake as a talented player whose age will probably limit his all-around abilities, and maybe open the door for the normally-sturdy winger to maybe deal with the occasional injury, then this could be a happy marriage.

Talented players like Kovalchuk often open the door for out-sized expectations, and harsh criticisms, however, so this one could go either way.

Whatever happens, Kovalchuk makes this Kings team a lot more intriguing in 2018-19.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Building off a breakthrough: Adrian Kempe

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Los Angeles Kings.

When people think of the Los Angeles Kings, they often think of an aging team.

That’s fair, but the Kings have been able to unearth some solid young talent, too. Adrian Kempe is one of those key players, and the hope is that the best is yet to come for the 21-year-old Swede.

[Looking back at 2017-18]

After going without a point in his first five games of 2017-18, Kempe exploded against the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 18, generating his first NHL hat trick and adding an assist.

That began a run of nine points over five games, signaling to the NHL that Kempe was a player you’d need to game plan for, and not just because of his speed. As Curtis Zupke reported for the Los Angeles Times in November, Kings management was taking notice of his leap forward.

“He has the trust of the coaches, but we’re starting to see, to be honest with you, I can start to see some plays that we haven’t even seen,” Kings assistant general manager Mike Futa said. “It’s a testimony to how hard he’s working. … If we can start to mix in some North American muddy goals with that, that’s when your stats start to look different.”

Kempe brings things to the table that the Kings crave: youth, speed, and swagger.

Still, to tweak Futa’s phrase, the Kings would like to see certain stats look different.

Despite the considerable advantage of beginning 68.3 percent of his shifts in the attacking zone, Kempe’s possession stats were still pretty ugly. While analytics types will be disappointed in those numbers, old-school hockey people would be unhappy to see that he only won 38.5 percent of his draws.

So, yes, it’s promising that Kempe scored 16 goals and 37 points in 81 games last season, particularly since he only averaged 13:20 TOI. You can’t really blame a Kings fan for imagining the former first-rounder (29th overall in 2014) reaching even greater heights.

At minimum, Kempe could conceivably be given more reps on the power play. He averaged 1:07 PP TOI per game, far behind quite a few other Los Angeles forwards (injuries to Jeff Carter and Michael Cammalleri’s brief time in Los Angeles skew things a bit). Kempe rode some high percentages at times in 2017-18, yet getting more shifts on the man advantage could help him at least achieve similar stats, even if his luck levels out.

Of course, more ice time tends to come with better all-around play, so Kempe needs to clean up his two-way game if he hopes to see a significant increase in shifts. There also could be some challenges in getting those “offensive specialist” nods with the addition of Ilya Kovalchuk and possibly a healthier season for Carter.

Either way, Kempe’s a player to watch for the Kings, and possibly a crucial one when it comes to the team’s ability to remain viable as core players age.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Ryan Ellis earns eight-year, $50 million extension from Predators

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The Nashville Predators locked up another defenseman long-term as they agreed to an eight-year, $50 million extension with Ryan Ellis.

“Ryan is a huge part of our team on and off the ice and we are happy to have his leadership remain in our locker room for the foreseeable future,” said Predators general manager David Poile. “We have talked about wanting to keep the core of our team together, and this is another opportunity to help us do so while continuing to compete for a Stanley Cup. Ryan is entering his prime and is one of the reasons why we feel this team has a chance to win every time we step on the ice.”

As TSN’s Bob McKenzie notes, the extension lacks any no-movement or no-trade clause, which is kind of what happens — if you’re not Pekka Rinne — when you work a deal with Poile.

Ellis is entering the final year of his current contract, which means he’s now tied to the Predators through the end of the 2026-27 NHL season. He’s now one of three defensemen on the team signed beyond the 2020-21 season.

That’s a pretty picture right there if you’re Poile, Peter Laviolette or a Predators fan. Arguably the best top-four in the league are signed for the next two seasons, which will again see the team on the short-list of Stanley Cup contenders. When you’re able to retain core pieces on very team-friendly deals, that’s how you build a group that can keep its elite status on an annual basis.

After returning from off-season knee surgery, Ellis was terrific over the final 44 games of the season. He scored nine goals and recorded 32 points while averaging over 23 minutes a night. He was Nashville’s best defenseman possession-wise with a 55 percent Corsi and was only behind Mattias Eklholm in Relative Corsi (4.63), per Corsica. He is dependable and productive and showed no ill effects from the injury.

The Predators will likely be among the leagues stingiest defenses in 2018-19 and Ellis plays a big part in that.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.