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.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

“It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

“Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

“I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

“On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

“It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

“(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

“It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.