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NBC Sports NHL Player Survey: Most underrated player

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NHL players love Aleksander Barkov.

That’s what we learned during the NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago earlier this month. When we asked a number of the attendees who, in their eyes, is a player who deserves more love and attention, the Florida Panthers star was a popular choice. (Does this no longer make him underrated?)

We tried to push the players to give us an underrated choice away from their own teams, but a few broke the rules, and that’s OK. 

Here’s who we were told is most underrated around the league when we asked, “Who’s an NHL player who deserves more recognition?”

Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes: “He’s starting to come into that light but Aleksander Barkov — a lot of guys would probably say him. His skill is unbelievable. I remember last year he battled one out of the air against us on his backhand, puck was probably going three, four feet wide but somehow he came across and tipped it in. He’s just an all-around solid player.”

Derek Stepan, Arizona Coyotes: “There’s more and more undercover guys that are starting to get recognition. I think a guy like Blake Wheeler in Winnipeg, Barkov. These guys are getting more but I believe that they should be getting more than that. On the other side of it, a guy on my own team that I’m a little biased with that doesn’t get as much is Nik Hjalmarsson. He’s a very underrated defensive defenseman that maybe doesn’t as much credit because his stats don’t really show up on a gamesheet afterwards other than blocked shots.”

Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks: “I like Barkov. He had a great season, doesn’t really get talked about that much. I don’t know if it’s the Florida market or whatever, but he was one of the best players in the league last year and you don’t really hear about him too much.”

Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche: “My answer to this is usually Mark Giordano, but now he’s won the Norris so he’s not underrated anymore.”

Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders: “Jordan Staal is a pretty underrated player in the league. Playing against him in the playoffs and playing against him in the Metro, I don’t think I’ve beat him on a faceoff in two years. He’s tough to play against and has got a great skillset for a big guy. He’s a really good player.”

Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames: “A player that jumps out at me is Josh Anderson on Columbus. He’s a guy that battles hard, plays hard, is tough, but can score goals as well.”

Max Domi, Montreal Canadiens: “Barkov in Florida. He’s very, very good.”

Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers: “Brayden Point. He’s a really good player and he deserves to be talked about.”

John Klingberg, Dallas Stars: “Probably this guy [pointing to Jonathan Marchessault]. He’s kind of a sick player, eh? I would say him or Nick Backstrom.”

Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights: “Obviously Barkov, Huberdeau, I think you don’t hear [about] them enough. They’re super good in Florida.”

Kevin Hayes, Philadelphia Flyers: “Probably Kyle Connor. I was with him in Winnipeg and he’s an elite player. He’s really good.”

Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs: “I think Roman Josi. We only play against them twice a year so we don’t see much of them. I was able to skate with him a couple weeks ago for four or five days in Florida. He’s a guy that probably doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves even being the captain for Nashville. Just being on the ice against him, being on the ice with him, he’s a really special player and he does it all out there.”

Matt Duchene, Nashville Predators: “One guy I’ll talk about and I think he’s going to get there is Thomas Chabot. I think he’s got a Norris Trophy in his future. Because of the way things finished in Ottawa last he kind of flew under the radar. Start of the season he was top-two in scoring for defenseman for the first third of the year. I think he’s a guy we’re going to hear a lot about coming up.”

Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators: “Mark Stone. People know he’s good but I think people don’t realize how good he is because maybe he’s not as silky as Matthews and those guys. When you look at everything he does out there it’s special. The takeaways he does. The way he plays in his own zone, the way he plays in the offensive zone. Those are the special things that not many players have in this league.”

Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets: “He’s got it now, but a guy that I thought was a good player but I didn’t know he was this good was Ryan O’Reilly. He’s put up numbers, for sure. This year he took himself and the team to a whole new level and he’s a big part of what they did last season. He’s doing well.”

Matt Dumba, Minnesota Wild: “Probably my boy Mikael Granlund. I definitely know his skill and how talented he is. Obviously you have to earn that and earn that ability to play more and have that new trust with a new team. I think they’ll see, they’ll understand in Nashville what they got this year. This guy’s got vision. It’s fun to talk hockey with him.”

Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars: “I’ll stay in-house and look at a guy like Miro [Heiskanen]. I think playing in a small market he didn’t get the respect that he deserved. He’s going to be a tremendous player.”

Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks: “It’s Barkov from Florida. He’s always underrated and I love how he plays.”

P.K. Subban, New Jersey Devils: “Now he’s getting more, but Nathan MacKinnon is a very, very good hockey player. In my opinion, he’s been in the top five forwards in the league for a little while. I’d like to see him get a little bit more. I just appreciate his work ethic, how he plays the game, and the way he impacts the game. It’s very difficult to do it the way he does it, with the speed, the skill, his power, [the way] he protects the puck, his ability to make guys around him better. There’s only a few players in the league like that that have that big of an impact. We know about [Connor] McDavid, we know about [Sidney] Crosby, but MacKinnon makes everybody on the ice better. I’d like to see him get some more love.”

MORE NHL PLAYER SURVEYS:
Commissioner for the day
2019-20 sleeper team
Change or keep current playoff format?

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

What’s the right contract for Tom Wilson, Capitals?

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What kind of price to put on grit, agitation, intimidation?

In the NHL, it’s something of a Rorschach Test for GMs. It’s easier to gauge the value of elite players and middle-of-the-pack guys when scoring is their calling card, but when it comes to “intangibles,” prices can vary.

Even with that in mind, Tom Wilson stands as a tricky test case.

You can tie yourself in knots examining the agitating winger, especially if you’re a Washington Capitals fan nervously hoping that the RFA signs a deal soon. Relief won’t come from the latest update, either; the Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan reports that Wilson’s agent Mark Guy said that the two sides aren’t “done or close.”

Khurshudyan provides some interesting ranges for a possible contract: Guy told her that a new deal could be “north of four years,” while Washington also indicated a preference for a long-term agreement. The salary cap could fall somewhere in the $3.5-$4.5 million range, according to Khurshudyan.

With Wilson (probably wisely) opting against salary arbitration, it’s a lot tougher to guess when something will formulate.

But, hey, that gives hockey people plenty of time to bicker about his value. Back when Wilson was suspended during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Puck Daddy’s Ryan Lambert summarized the debate regarding the 24-year-old’s value.

” … He is more accurately described a middle-six forward who has been thrust into a bigger role because Barry Trotz is trying to spread the offense across the first two lines more evenly. A lot is made of the fact that Wilson finished with 32 points at 5-on-5 this season, because that was fourth on the Capitals behind only Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, and Nick Backstrom. But look at the guys who had that many 5-on-5 points this year: Alex DeBrincat, Dustin Brown, Gabe Landeskog, Gus Nyquist, Josh Bailey, Kevin Fiala, and Vince Trocheck. These are guys for whom a pretty reasonable evaluation is “They’re mostly pretty good,” but not much more than that, and with the exception of Landeskog and Brown, none of them played with guys who, like Ovechkin, were legit MVP candidates.

The remarkable thing about Wilson is that various debates can swing both ways.

From an “intangibles” perspective, you could argue that he can be something of a poor man’s Todd Bertuzzi, “opening up space” for forwards such as Alex Ovechkin, and maybe get opponents off their game with a violent hit or a fight. Conversely, someone could argue that his tendency to take penalties could put his team in a bad position, or perhaps that players looking to deliver crushing checks may find themselves out of position.

The pure numbers get more complicated as you burrow deeper.

On one hand, his career-high came this season, with a modest 14 goals and 35 points. While he rode shotgun with Ovechkin for significant chunks of time, he also didn’t get a lot of reps on the Capitals’ deadly power play.

Wilson’s possession stats were pretty good for a player of his style … yet again, that sometimes came with high-end players, and he also enjoyed some cushy offensive zone starts in some cases, too.

Still, a guy who can score a bit, hit a lot, and kill a ton of penalties brings quite a bit of value. As a former first-rounder (16th overall in 2012), few would doubt that the Caps hold Wilson in high regard.

The Capitals also boast a pretty robust $8.26M in cap space, according to Cap Friendly, so even though they’ve been prudent when it comes to bringing back members of their championship squad, they’d struggle to say that they can’t afford to pay Wilson at full value.

*Phew*

Is your head spinning yet? That would be understandable, and maybe that explains why contract negotiations seem stilted. What kind of deal would make sense for Wilson?

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.

The long Stanley Cup Final wait is finally over for Alex Ovechkin, Capitals

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The celebrations continued around them as Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin, the two longest-tenured Washington Capitals, embraced. “One more,” Backstrom said to Ovechkin.

It’s been a journey to this point for the Capitals’ two star players. They’ve experienced the numerous disappointments and been reminded of them every spring. Those three seasons that ended with a Presidents’ Trophy, and an early-round playoff exit. Those six series eliminations at the hands of the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins. The high expectations that were never met.

But this year was different. This is not the best Capitals team of the Ovechkin/Backstrom era. Even with an eighth division title since 2007-08, there were plenty of other favorites ahead of them on the list of 2018 Stanley Cup favorites. Why? Well, for starters, we’d seen that movie before and we all knew the ending.

So when the Capitals fell behind 0-2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round, it was surprising, but not too surprising. Same old Capitals, we all said. But then head coach Barry Trotz went back to his horse in Braden Holtby beginning with Game 3 and the turnaround began. Holtby would help the Capitals win 12 of his 17 starts, post a .935 even strength save percentage and two shutouts — with both coming in the final two games of the Eastern Conferenece Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It was a second consecutive all-around effort for the Capitals after they lost control of the best-of-seven matchup with three straight losses following two wins at AMALIE Arena to begin the series.

“I think we’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time,” said Ovechkin. “We understand what it has to take to be in the final. You can see the effort right now. This game was unbelievable. Everybody was all in, and we get the result.”

“It only took us 11 years, but now we’re there,” said Backstrom. “It’s a great feeling, especially the way we did it, too. The way we played the game, I thought it was outstanding from everybody. Right now, I’m just happy. I’m just going to enjoy this for a couple of days.”

[Full Schedule: 2018 Stanley Cup Final]

The journey continues Monday at T-Mobile Arena for Game 1 of the Final (8 p.m. ET, NBC) when the Capitals visit the Vegas Golden Knights, who employ Washington’s old general manager, George McPhee, and old defenseman, Nate Schmidt. The series will certainly not be short of storylines.

Ovechkin, who is probably still holding on to the Prince of Wales Trophy as you read this, called Game 7 “probably” the biggest game of his life and of the franchise’s. He delivered by scoring 62 seconds into the game, and after the final buzzer went off the emotions of the moment rendered him unable to finish thoughts during his post-game press conference.

Years of disappointment are being wiped away with each series victory. The Capitals exorcised the ghosts of the Pittsburgh Penguins that had haunted them for years and finally got over the hump of advancing to the conference final. Now, for the first time since 1998, they’ll be playing in a series with the Stanley Cup on the line.

“Every series is tough. We just played our game, stick to the system and we deserved to win,” Ovechkin told NBCSN after Game 7. “[There] were hard moments in all series, against Tampa, against [Pittsburgh], against Columbus. but we fight through it and we’re right now four wins away from [being] Stanley Cup champions.”

MORE:
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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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.

WATCH LIVE: Nashville Predators vs. Washington Capitals

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Watch Live On NBCSN

Nashville Predators

Forwards

Filip ForsbergRyan JohansenViktor Arvidsson

Kevin FialaKyle TurrisCraig Smith

Colton SissonsNick BoninoRyan Hartman

Miikka SalomakiMike FisherAustin Watson

Defense

Roman JosiRyan Ellis

Mattias EkholmP.K. Subban

Alexei EmelinAnthony Bitetto / Matt Irwin

Goaltender: Juuse Saros

NHL On NBCSN: Predators can clinch Central Division, Western Conference

Washington Capitals

Forwards

Alex OvechkinEvgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson

Andre BurakovskyNick BackstromTJ Oshie

Brett ConnollyLars EllerDevante Smith-Pelly

Chandler Stephenson-Travis Boyd- Alex Chiasson

Defense

Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen

Michal KempnyJohn Carlson

Brooks OrpikChristian Djoos

Goalie: Philip Grubauer

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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.

On the importance of an active defense

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The next time you hear somebody complain about the Norris Trophy going to high-scoring defensemen like Erik Karlsson and P.K. Subban, feel free to refer them to Capitals assistant coach Todd Reirden.

Reirden was hired in the summer of 2014 to help turn Washington’s blue line into an attacking force.

Per CSN Washington, here’s how Reirden sees it:

“If you’re (an opposing) defenseman, because the game is so fast, if they’re seeing four players come at them instead of three, it causes them to defend differently. You might back up a step to assess and now all of a sudden Nick Backstrom gets an extra second when he enters the zone because of the appearance of four guys on the attack.”

Even Karl Alzner, the prototypical stay-at-home blue-liner, knows that defensemen can’t solely worry about their own end. Not in a league where scoring has become so difficult. The more passing options, the better.

“You need to have the attack from all five guys,” said Alzner. “You can’t just let your forwards do it.”

Meanwhile, in Nashville, here’s what Predators coach Peter Laviolette said the other day:

“Anytime your defensemen can activate in the offensive zone on cycles and down the wall or down the middle, in zone plays, it presents a different set of challenges. The coverage becomes less simple. It creates more holes not only for them but for others.”

Look, nobody’s saying that defensemen don’t have to play defense. They obviously have to play defense. That’s why teams with two-way forces like Drew Doughty and Zdeno Chara have won Stanley Cups. The fact Doughty has yet to win the Norris is unfortunate, because he’s a far better player now than he was in 2009-10 when he racked up a career-best 59 points.

So no, points aren’t everything.

But remember, this was the goal that won the Cup last year:

If Duncan Keith doesn’t jump into the attack and provide a passing option, Patrick Kane probably just throws it down into the corner, lest he turn it over at the blue line.

Keith was the Blackhawks’ most important player in the playoffs. He was the undisputed pick for the Conn Smythe Trophy.

“The teams with the best records are the ones with defensemen getting up in the play and contributing to the offense,” Alzner said.

Related: Nobody’s got a better blue line than Nashville