The 15 best NHL players of 2018 (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 more as we remember 2018.

This week’s PHT Power Rankings wraps up our 2018 year in review by taking a look back at the best players of the past calendar year. Obviously that means taking into account just what happened from Jan. 1 through the end of the year.

It was a great year for some of the NHL’s best players, especially as goal-scoring has seen a spike around the league. That means players like Connor McDavid, Nikita Kucherov, Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby were able to put up some huge numbers.

They were not the only players that shined in 2018 so let’s take a look at the top-15 players from the past year.

To the rankings!

1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers. There isn’t a better offensive player in the world. In 2018 he completed his second straight 100-point season, won his second straight Art Ross Trophy, and probably had a strong argument to be the league ost Valuable Player if he had a better team around him. His 119 points in 80 games were the most in the NHL during the calendar year and he did it playing for a team where he literally had to create more than half of the offense. Imagine if he had more around him.

2. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning. The Tampa Bay Lightning have been one of the league’s best teams the past five years and Kucherov has become their best player. He is a remarkable offensive talent and can take over a game like few others in the league. He has surged to the top of the NHL’s points race this season in recent weeks with an absolutely mind-blowing run that has seen him record 46 points in 22 games. He has recorded at least one point in 20 of those games.

3. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals. He did not get enough Hart Trophy consideration last year considering he was once again the league’s leading goal-scorer on a contending team. It also turned out to be a huge year for him and the Capitals as they finally ended their Stanley Cup drought with Ovechkin playing a key role in that run. He is 33 years old and still the most dominant goal-scorer in the league, and there really are not many players that are close to him.

4-5. Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon. I am putting these two together because their production has been nearly identical, they typically play on the same line, and they are the driving force behind the Colorado Avalanche’s resurgence the past two seasons. They are both among the top-three point-producers in the NHL from 2018 and are usually good to team up for at least one goal in almost every game the Avalanche play. It’s not often that one line can turn a team into a playoff team, but this one does it.

6. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins. His days as an NHL scoring champion are probably over, but he is still one of the best all-around players in the league and a game-changing force every time he is on the ice. He had 100 points in 77 games in 2018 and is still one of the best in the world at dictating the pace of the game.

7. Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils. He almost single handedly carried the New Jersey Devils to a playoff spot during the 2017-18 season and won the Hart Trophy as a result. It was a well deserved honor. Unfortunately the Devils haven’t done enough to surround him with talent and he may now be having flashbacks to his days in Edmonton where he is the only player providing the offense.

8. John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks. He is trying to do the goaltending version of what Hall did a season ago and drag an otherwise mediocre a team to the playoffs on his back. There has not been a better goaltender in the NHL over the past year, and assuming he stays healthy and keeps playing at his current level he should be a front-runner for the Vezina Trophy at the end of this season.

9. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning. The most complete defender in the NHL. A workhorse in terms of the minutes he plays and a shutdown defender that also helps drive the offense.

AP Images

10. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs. If hadn’t missed so many games due to injury he would probably be even higher on the list. His 36 goals are 17th in the NHL for 2018, but he scored them in only 57 games. That is a 54-goal pace over a full 82-game season. He opened the 2018-19 season with 19 goals in his first 25 games.

11. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins. Like Crosby, his days as a potential scoring champion are probably behind him, but when he is playing at his best there are few players in the league that can match him. 

12. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators. He had a couple of down years that made it look like his career was starting to wind down, but over the past two Pekka Rinne has rebounded in a big way to once again play like one of the top goalies in the league. In 2018 his .926 save percentage was right there with Gibson for the best in the league and after a couple of seasons as a runner-up, he finally took home his first Vezina Trophy.

13. Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets. The second-best goal scorer in the NHL after Ovechkin, and probably the player that is going to take over his throne as the league’s goal-scoring champion whenever Ovechkin finally slows down (if he ever slows down). He scored 50 goals this past year in 77 games.

14. Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers. Because the team around him has been a bit of a mess it’s probably easy to overlook just how good Claude Giroux still is. He was one of seven players in the NHL to top 100 points during the 2018 calendar year and is still one of the league’s elite playmakers. After a couple of down years from a points perspective he has quickly rocketed back to the top the past two seasons.

15. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins. He is one of the league’s most hated players (unless you play for the Bruins or cheer for the Bruins) because of the way he plays and his attempts to annoy his opponents. But he is also one of the league’s best players when you combine his offense (94 points in 77 games during 2018), defensive play, and ability to drive possession. He has been one of the top offensive performers for a couple of years now and seemed to take his game to an even higher level in 2018. He is a remarkable all-around player.

More PHT Year in Review:
• Bloopers
• Moments

Saves
 Goals

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

The Buzzer: Kane’s hat trick; Staal’s milestone night

Patrick Kane #88 of the Chicago Blackhawks celebrates with Jonathan Toews
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Three Stars

1) Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks

Kane surpassed Sidney Crosby for the scoring lead this decade with 16 days left in the 2010s. Since Jan. 1, 2010, Kane has 791 points (311G, 480A), while Crosby has 788 points (296G, 492A). No. 88 recorded his sixth NHL hat trick in Chicago’s 5-3 victory over Minnesota. The Blackhawks have a long way to go if they want to have a realistic shot at the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but a victory against a surging division rival is a good place to start.

2) Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets

On a football Sunday, the Jets scored a touchdown in their 7-3 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. Scheifele played a huge part with his three-point performance featuring a goal and two assists as he extended his individual point streak to six games. Neal Pionk added three assists, including two power-play helpers. The top four teams in the Western Conference (Blues, Avalanche, Jets, Stars) currently reside in the Central Division and playoff positioning will be crucial as each team eyes a lengthy postseason run.

3) Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild

Staal became the 89th player in NHL history to have 1,000 career points when he tallied a power-play goal against Chicago Sunday. After a dreadful 4-9 start to the season, the Wild have climbed up the standings with a 12-4-5 record in their past 21 games. The alternate captain leads Minnesota with 26 points, including four goals in the previous three games.

Other notable performances from Sunday:

  • Anze Kopitar’s two-goal performance in the Kings’ 4-2 victory against the Red Wings helped him surpass the iconic Wayne Gretzky for fourth place on the franchise’s all-time scoring list. Kopitar picked up his 918th and 919th point in his 1038th game.
  • Blake Wheeler finished with three points, including a goal and an assist during a four-goal barrage spanning 4:17.

Highlights of the Night

Staal etched his name in the NHL record books with this one-time blast

William Karlsson won an important foot race before Reilly Smith slid a cross-ice pass over to Jonathan Marchessault

Factoids

  • A total of 33 goals were scored across four contests Sunday for an average of 8.25 per game [NHL PR].
  • The Jets scored four goals in a span of five minutes or less for the fourth time in franchise history [NHL PR].
  • The Jets’ four goals in a span of 4:17 are their second-fastest scored in a game in franchise history, behind the mark of 3:50 set on Nov. 18, 2017 [NHL PR].
  • Canucks’ Bo Horvat has won an NHL-high 414 faceoffs this season [Sportsnet Stats].

NHL Scores

Winnipeg Jets 7, Philadelphia Flyers 3

Chicago Blackhawks 5, Minnesota Wild 3

Los Angeles Kings 4, Detroit Red Wings 2

Vegas Golden Knights 6, Vancouver Canucks 3

Sabres demote under-performing center Mittelstadt to minors

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres have assigned under-performing second-year center Casey Mittelstadt to the minors.

The demotion to Rochester of the AHL was made Sunday, coming a day following a 3-2 overtime loss at the New York Islanders in which Mittelstadt was a healthy scratch for the third time in four games.

The 21-year-old has four goals and five assists in 31 games this season, and limited to just a goal and an assist in his past 21. Buffalo selected the play-making center with the eighth pick in the 2017 draft following his senior year in high school.

He then signed with Buffalo and jumped directly to the NHL in making his Sabres debut immediately following his freshman college season at Minnesota.

Mittelstadt has failed to play up to early projections of developing into Buffalo’s second-line center. He has 17 goals and 22 assists for 39 points in 114 career NHL games.

Players hope U.S.-Canada rivalry game helps spawn pro league

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HARTFORD, Conn. — The United States women’s hockey team beat Canada 4-1 on Saturday night, with players hoping the first in a series of five games between the international rivals will help kindle the public’s interest in both their sport and their fight off the ice for better professional opportunities.

Canada’s Victoria Bach and the Megan Keller of the U.S. traded power-play goals in the first period, before Amanda Kessel put the U.S. on top for good with a player advantage in the second. Abbe Roque’s backhand in the period gave the US a 3-1 lead and Alex Carpenter beat Genevieve Lacasse for the final goal 1:15 seconds later.

More than 7,000 fans showed up for the international competition, which comes after more than 200 members of what has since become the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association announced in May they would not play professionally in North America during the 2019-2020 season.

“I think it’s important for people to watch us play and see the level of talent and entertainment that’s out there,” Kessel said. “It’s getting that understanding that we need to help get us a place to play year-round so that people can see us more than five times a year.”

The women are seeking a professional league that provides a living wage, health insurance, infrastructure and support for training. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League shut down in the spring after 12 years of operation, leaving only the five-team National Women’s Hockey League, where most players make less than $10,000 a season.

“The product is there,” Kessel said. “The people to watch it are there. We just need a structure set in place.”

Sarah Nurse, a forward for Team Canada, whose cousin Kia Nurse plays for New York in the WNBA, said players are hoping to get support from the NHL, which has, so far, expressed little interest in investing in a women’s league.

“We can look at (the WNBA) and see that women’s sports have value and they have a place in this world,” said Nurse, who made $2,000 last season playing in the CWHL. “That is definitely a model that we look to.”

The rivalry series was created after the Four Nations Cup in Sweden was canceled when top Swedish players pulled out of national team events due to concerns over their salary and working conditions.

Without a viable pro league, players who are out of college have been training on their own at random rinks across North America in between gatherings of the national teams or training sessions and exhibitions sponsored by the players association.

Canada won two of those over the US in Pittsburgh last month.

But the lack of consistent competition can stunt the players’ development, especially when it comes to be being prepared for world and Olympic competitions, the players said.

“It’s very unfortunate,” Nurse said. “Games are when we truly get better and test out our skills, so it’s unfortunate that we don’t have more games to play.”

Cayla Barnes, who plays defense for the U.S. team and Boston College, said she and the other college players on the national teams understand what is going on and appreciate what the older players are doing.

“They are putting so much on the line for the younger generations,” she said. “Not just for us college kids who are coming up, but for U-8, U-10 girls who are coming up so they have opportunities later on. So I think all of us who are younger are trying to support them in whatever way we can.”

Hundreds of girls wearing their youth hockey jerseys attended the game, chanting “U-S-A” as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

“I want to be like them, like in the Olympics when I get older,” said 14-year-old Leila Espirito Santo, of Glastonbury “I started playing when I was in fourth grade and I wasn’t the best, but watching them play made me want to be better. It showed me I could do it.”

The teams will meet again on Tuesday in Moncton, New Brunswick. Other games part of the 2019-20 Rivalry Series are slated for Feb. 3 and Feb. 5 in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Feb. 8 in Anaheim, California.

The Buzzer: Hats off to Duclair; Staal one point away from 1,000

NHL Scores Eric Staal Minnesota Wild
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Three Stars

1. Anthony Duclair, Ottawa Senators. This had to be a satisfying game for Duclair. He showed John Tortorella and the Columbus Blue Jackets that he does, in fact, know how to play the game by scoring three goals in a 4-3 win for the Ottawa Senators. That performance includes the game-winning goal in overtime. The 24-year-old Duclair now has 18 goals in 33 games this season and is on pace for more than 40 goals this season. Read all about his day here.

2. Bryan Rust, Pittsburgh Penguins. With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Brian Dumoulin, Nick Bjugstad, and Patric Hornqvist out of the lineup the Penguins have more than $35 million in salary cap space sitting in the press box at the moment. They still keep finding ways to win. They picked up a 5-4 shootout win over the Los Angeles Kings in Saturday thanks to another huge game from Rust. He scored two goals and picked up an assist in regulation, then scored the game-winning goal in the shootout. Rust now has 12 goals and 22 total points in only 19 games this season for the Penguins. He has always been one of their most versatile — and valuable — players, and he is showing why this season.

3. Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild. Staal has been on a roll for the Wild and thanks to his two-goal effort in Saturday’s 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, he now has six points in his past five games and is up to 999 for his career. That means with one more point he would become only the 89th player in NHL history to hit the 1,000 point milestone. The Wild are one of the league’s hottest teams since the start of November with a 12-3-5 record in their past 20 games. They were 4-9-0 before in October.

Other notable performances from Saturday

  • David Pastrnak extended his lead in the NHL goal-scoring race with a pair of goals in the Boston Bruins’ 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers. He now has 28 goals on the season and is five ahead of Jack Eichel.
  • Warren Foegele scored two goals for the Carolina Hurricanes, James Reimer stopped all 32 shots he faced and Dougie Hamilton scored against his former team in a 4-0 win over the Calgary Flames.
  • Anthony Beauvillier was the overtime hero for the New York Islanders as they topped the Buffalo Sabres.
  • The New Jersey Devils gave Alain Nasreddine his first NHL win as a head coach while the Taylor Hall watch continues. Read all about it here.
  • Frederik Andersen stopped 36 out of 37 shots as the Toronto Maple Leafs sent the fading Edmonton Oilers to their fourth consecutive defeat. It is the 200th win of Andersen’s career.
  • Jonathan Bernier backstopped the Detroit Red Wings to their second consecutive win as they hold off the Montreal Canadiens.
  • Mika Zibanejad‘s two goals are not enough for the New York Rangers as they drop a 4-3 shootout decision to the Anaheim Ducks.
  • Ben Bishop turned aside 37 out of 38 shots to help the Dallas Stars crush the Nashville Predators.
  • Evander Kane and Logan Couture both record two points as the San Jose Sharks get a much-needed win over the Vancouver Canucks. It is the first win for Bob Boughner as head coach of the Sharks.
  • Tyler Bozak scored two goals as the St. Louis Blues stunned the Chicago Blackhawks. Read all about it here.

Highlights of the Night

Timo Meier finishes a great passing play for the San Jose Sharks with an absolute rocket of a shot to beat Jacob Markstrom.

Jonathan Quick has really struggled the past two years, and it came in a losing effort in Pittsburgh on Saturday, but this series of saves in overtime is pretty ridiculous.

Garnet Hathaway score with some style for the Capitals.

Give this fan a contract

This is a $50,000 shot between periods in Montreal.

Factoids

  • The Blues’ comeback is just the second time in franchise history they erased a three-goal third period deficit to win. [NHL PR]
  • Zibanejad’s first goal for the Rangers came just 10 seconds into the game, the fastest goal for the Rangers since the 1985 season. [NHL PR]
  • Jack Eichel extended his point streak to 16 consecutive games, making it the fourth longest in Buffalo Sabres franchise history. [NHL PR]
  • The Wild have earned a point in 12 consecutive home games, the second-longest streak in franchise history. [NHL PR]
  • Brad Marchand hit the 50-point mark for the season, the first Bruins player since Adam Oates during the 1995-96 season to reach that mark in 34 or fewer games. [NHL PR]
  • Marc-Edouard Vlasic played in his 1,000th career game on Saturday night, making him the 340th player in NHL history to reach that milestone. [San Jose Sharks]
  • Foegele’s two goals for the Hurricanes both came while shorthanded, making him the fifth Hurricanes player to ever accomplish that in a game. [NHL PR]

Scores

Ottawa Senators 4, Columbus Blue Jackets 3 (OT)
New York Islanders 3, Buffalo Sabres 2 (OT)
Anaheim Ducks 4, New York Rangers 3 (SO)
Carolina Hurricanes 4, Calgary Flames 0
Dallas Stars 4, Nashville Predators 1
Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Edmonton Oilers 1
Minnesota Wild 4, Philadelphia Flyers 1
Detroit Red Wings 2, Montreal Canadiens 1
Washington Capitals 5, Tampa Bay Lightning 2
Boston Bruins 4, Florida Panthers 2
Pittsburgh Penguins 5, Los Angeles Kings 4 (SO)
New Jersey Devils 2, Arizona Coyotes 1
St. Louis Blues 4, Chicago Blackhawks 3
San Jose Sharks 4, Vancouver Canucks 2

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.