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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.

Flyers’ Giroux-Couturier duo is great, but they need help

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The Philadelphia Flyers may not have had much success as a team over the past few seasons but there have been two very important developments during that time.

The first is that Claude Giroux has re-emerged as one of the elite point producers in the league after a three-year decline. He has been so productive that since the start of the 2017-18 season only four players in the league (Nikita Kucherov, Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, and Sidney Crosby) have more total points than his 187.  Just looking at things strictly from an offensive perspective, this is the best two-year run of Giroux’s career.

The second big development is that Sean Couturier has gone from being a reliable, defensive-minded center to one of the most complete and best all-around players in the league, perfectly blending his shutdown defensive play to go with an emerging offensive game that has seen him produce consecutive 30-goal, 76-point seasons (only eight other players in the league matched that).

After finishing as the runner-up in the 2017-18 Selke Trophy voting, he finished sixth this past season and will enter this season as one of the favorites to win it.

[More: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

When the Flyers put them together they can be as good as any other duo in the league.

It is when one (or both) is sitting on the bench that things unravel for the Flyers and the team gets its doors blown off. The table below shows what the Flyers’ shot attempt, scoring chance, high-danger scoring chance, and goal differentials when both are on the ice, one is on the ice, and when neither is on the ice. This is all during 5-on-5 play.

(Data via Natural Stat Trick)

With both, the Flyers are as good as any team in the league. Without one or both they become one of the worst teams in the league. That is the look of a team that has no depth beyond its top few players, and that is simply not good enough to win in the NHL.

This is where Kevin Hayes and Nolan Patrick become so vital to the Flyers’ chances.

The Giroux-Couturier pairing obviously works, but it has left the team dangerously thin the past couple of seasons. The team has been so thin that when the Flyers tried to split them up and play them on different lines it ended up doing nothing but holding them both back because there was not enough talent around them. They work at their best when they are together, and that is the way it should remain.

For the Flyers to have a chance this season they will need Hayes to be able to provide a capable second-line presence down the middle and prove he was worth that seven-year, $50 million price tag, and for Patrick to continue to evolve and help drive the third line after struggling to breakout in his second year as the second-line center.

Without both of those things happening (and without Carter Hart solidifying the goaltending spot) the Flyers will once again struggle no matter how great Giroux and Couturier are.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Flyers could use breakout season from Nolan Patrick

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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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Philadelphia Flyers.

The success or failure of the 2019-20 Philadelphia Flyers will largely depend on the performance of starting goalie Carter Hart.

If he is good, the Flyers will probably be good. If he is not, there is a pretty good chance it will be more of the same from a year ago.

But for as important as Hart’s development is, the Flyers have another talented, highly touted young player on this roster that could help move them closer to a playoff sport with a big season. That player is 2017 No. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick.

Thanks to some lottery luck the Flyers were able to rocket up the draft board and land Patrick, adding a potential impact player to the organization at a time when it probably was not expected. Two years into his career and he has shown some flashes of the potential that made him such a promising draft prospect, especially during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs when he was one of the Flyers’ best players in their Round 1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. During that series he was always looking like he had a chance to do something spectacular on any given shift. It may not have resulted in big numbers, but you could easily see the talent.

He seemed to be a prime breakout candidate heading into 2018-19 based on that showing and progression throughout his rookie year. It did not quite happen as he pretty much duplicated his mostly solid but unspectacular rookie performance while also seeing a concerning dip in his possession and shot attempt numbers.

[More: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | Under Pressure]

A top draft pick not immediately becoming an All-Star level player isn’t necessarily a huge concern. Not everyone is going to step right into the NHL and be Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid. Those players are rare, and there is usually a pretty steep learning curve for players trying to break into the league at 18, 19, or 20. There are a lot of really accomplished forwards in the league today that were high first-round draft picks and whose first two years were comparable to Patrick’s at a similar age, including Aleksander Barkov, Phil Kessel, Bo Horvat, Elias Lindholm, Josh Bailey and even Patrick’s own teammate, Sean Couturier.

Most of those players (specifically Barkov and Kessel, also top-five picks) started to take significant steps in year three.

That has to be what the Flyers are looking for from Patrick this season.

He does not need to be an All-Star right now, but there should at least be some kind of sign in his production and performance that he can start to trend in that direction.

If it does not happen in year three, it will probably be time to start wondering just what type of player he is capable of becoming.

The Flyers still have a couple of All-Stars at the top of their lineup in Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Couturier, they still have some really good secondary players, and they might finally have the goalie they have been trying to find for decades. There are question marks and holes that still need to be filled for sure, but there is the basic framework of a potentially good team here at some key positions at the top of the roster. Patrick emerging as a top-line player would help them get a lot closer to actually being a good team once again.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Flyers’ Hayes under pressure to produce after big contract

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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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Philadelphia Flyers.

In his short time as general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers, Chuck Fletcher has already proven to be far more aggressive than his predecessor (Ron Hextall) in building the team’s roster and re-shaping the organization.

His biggest player move to date might just be the sequence of events that saw him acquire the unrestricted free agent rights to forward Kevin Hayes, and then promptly sign him to a massive seven-year, $50 million contract.

The $7.1 million cap hit per season places him third on the team (behind only Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek) and among the top-50 players in the entire league. That sort of contract is going to bring some serious expectations regardless of what we already know about the player.

What we know about Hayes is this: He is a pretty good player and would be a fine complementary piece for a Stanley Cup contender. He will help the Flyers and probably make them marginally better.

But when you are one of the highest paid players in the league, taking up 9 percent of your team’s allotted salary cap space, and signed for seven years the expectation is going to be a lot higher than “pretty good player” and simply making the team a little better. For that price and that commitment you need to be getting an impact player that is going to dramatically change the outlook of your team.

For as solid as Hayes has been throughout his career he has never really come close to being that sort of player.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | Patrick the X-factor]

He has never scored fewer than 14 goals in a season, but has scored more than 17 just once (this past season).

He has failed to top the 40-point mark just once in five years, but has only topped the 50 point mark in a season one time (again, this past season).

He is not a player that dramatically drives possession and flips the ice territorially in his team’s favor (career 48 percent Corsi player; only twice over 50 percent in a single season).

You can pretty much pencil him in for 15 goals and 45 points every year and probably never miss the mark on him. He is consistently good, but never really takes a step above that. Now that he is entering his age 27 season it is fair to wonder if he will ever do that.

The question that has to be asked is if he continues to produce and play like he has over the first five years of his career how much patience will Flyers fans have for that? More importantly, how much patience will the Flyers themselves have for that?

Every dollar a team spends in a salary capped league is a dollar they can not spend on someone else, and tying up more than $7 million per season in a player that is only giving second-or third-line production without dramatically impacting the game in other areas is something that can quickly turn out to be problematic for a team that has hopes of building a contender. There is a reason most long-term free agent contracts end in either a trade or a buyout; teams have to pay a premium for a player that has probably already played their best hockey for someone else.

Hayes is a fine NHL player, but for the price the Flyers paid to get him they will probably need him to be more than that if they want to avoid buying out his contract or frantically trying to trade it in a couple of years.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Is Carter Hart the real deal?

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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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Philadelphia Flyers.

Let’s take a look three questions facing the 2019-20 Flyers:

1. Is Carter Hart the real deal? 

This is the same sort of question that’s being posed about Jordan Binnington this offseason.

Both Hart and Binnington began their seasons, loosely, around the holidays. That meant they didn’t play full campaigns and weren’t exposed to the rigors that a full NHL season can bring.

But if you’re a Philly fan, you have to like the sample size you were given. Hart didn’t exactly fold under pressure. If anything, he seemed to thrive in the environment and fans certainly got behind him.

That being said, the expectations have been turned up to max at this point. And that’s where the real challenge for the 21-year-old begins.

And given his tender age, one could question whether or not he’s being rushed — even with his breakout performance in the second half.

For him to build off last year, the team in front of him has to follow. The Flyers allowed the second-most five-on-five goals last season. Team defense was flat-out atrocious at times, yet Hart put up a respectable .917 save percentage.

Hart may very well be the real deal. It’s up to the Flyers not to ruin that.

2. What impact will Kevin Hayes have? 

On paper, $50 million over seven years is a lot for a guy who has reached 50 points just once in his five-year NHL career.

But let’s put the money aside for a second and look at where Hayes may help the squad.

As the team’s de-facto second-center, Hayes now allows Claude Giroux to move out to the wing, where he scored 102 points two seasons ago. Giroux is a point-per-game player at center, surely, but diversifying and adding 20-ish more points isn’t a bad thing, and Hayes allows for that.

[MORE: 2018-19 summary | Under Pressure | Patrick the X-factor]

As the team’s second-line center, Hayes’ presence also allows Nolan Patrick to move to the third-line role where the former No. 2 overall pick can develop his game further while facing lesser competition. Patrick, despite his high draft position, could have used a year in the American Hockey League. He wasn’t afforded that chance.

Hayes can also bring solid contributions to the penalty kill, a real sore spot for the Flyers last season. He should complement Sean Couturier well in that regard and it should boost the teams 26th ranking at the same time.

3. Are the Flyers reverting to old ways? 

It’s a question I asked back in June after the Hayes signing and I think it still is worth pondering now.

Ron Hextall tried to do what has made other teams successful in the long run — a slow build, through the draft, developing talent in house and building up an asset base. His patient approach clearly wore on the impatient higher-ups in Philly.

Enter Chuck Fletcher. He’s the exact opposite of Hextall, preferring a win-now-style approach that has included trips to the bargain bin while casting a large contract to a middle-of-the-road centerman.

Methodical rebuilds aren’t a Philly thing. But maybe they should start, especially is Hart shows to be a legitimate No. 1 this season. That’s something you can build around, however enticing it might be to think you can just win now.

The last thing the Flyers need is to heap so much pressure on a young Hart that he implodes because of it. There’s been enough of that sort of thing with goalies in Philly over the years.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck