The slate of meaningless NHL pre-season games comes to a close this Sunday.
And we couldn’t be happier.
Now, the fans in Montreal might have something to say about their team being 0-6 during the exhibition series, what with the calls for firing everyone on social media. Otherwise, no one puts too much stock in these contests, where many minor league and junior players get long looks.
The regular schedule kicks off on Oct. 4 with four pretty good games on tap, including two all-Canadian match-ups (Toronto/Winnipeg and Calgary/Edmonton) as well as defending champion Pittsburgh’s first contest.
The cream of the NHL will be on display, too, with Sidney Crosby, Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine and Connor McDavid all looking to out-do each other.
However, there will also be less-heralded players chipping in with key goals, good defence and outstanding netminding.
We have identified 15 under-rated players (seven forwards, five defencemen and three goalies) we think will have very positive impacts on their team’s fortunes in 2017-18. Starting from the net out.
15. Scott Darling, G – Carolina Hurricanes
After a long apprenticeship through four levels of minor league hockey from the Southern Professional Hockey League to the AHL and then backing up Corey Crawford in Chicago, this may be Darling’s moment in the sun. The 28-year-old 6’6″ giant was dealt to Carolina in the off-season and signs are pointing to him being the no. 1 ahead of Cam Ward on a ‘Canes team that may push for a playoff spot. Darling, whose story about addiction to alcohol and battles with anxiety are compelling, could become one of the better starting goalies in the league this year. He has a good young defence in front of him and an excellent coaching staff who will game plan well for opponents. A look at his stats in three big league seasons show a goalie on the rise. He’s gone from 14 to 32 games played since 2014-15 and improved his save percentage from .915 in 29 games during the 15-16 campaign to .924 last year when he also went 18-5-5 for the Hawks. A netminder to watch this year.
14. Andrei Vasilevskiy, G – Tampa Bay Lightning
Another goalie who has shed the yoke of back-up duties is fourth-year man Vasilevskiy. He was understudy the departed Ben Bishop for two seasons prior to the 2016-17 campaign, even though he could have started for at least a half dozen other teams. Last year, the Tyumen, Russia native came into his own, starting 50 games for the Bolts and finishing with a 23-17-7 record, two shutouts, a 2.61 goals against average and .917 save percentage. At 23, his best years should be yet to come and his $3.5 million cap hit for the next three seasons doesn’t break the bank. The lanky Russian showed an ability to overcome adversity last year, too, when he bounced back after a horrid mid-season stretch that saw him lose six games in a row and give up 24 goals. In the last eight games of the disappointing 2017-18 campaign (Tampa missed the playoffs) he was 6-1-1, surrendering just 18 goals and stopping 232 of 250 shots for a sterling .928 save percentage.
13. John Gibson, G – Anaheim Ducks
At just $2.3 million, the Ducks certainly have a bargain in 2015-16 Jennings Trophy winner John Gibson. He finished his best season yet in a Ducks uniform seventh in goals against average (2.22), tied for seventh with Scott Darling in save percentage (.924) and sixth in shutouts with six, despite playing far fewer games (52) than the goalies ahead of him. Like Andrei Vasilevskiy, Gibson is a young gun at 24 with his prime still a couple of years away. In each of his past three seasons, his games played have gone up and his save percentage has also steadily increased. What is most to like about the Pittsburgh native’s game is his steadiness, as he gave up five goals in a game just twice last season. He was pretty stellar in the Ducks deep playoff run last year too (his first post-season as a starter), posting a .918 save percentage and 2.59 goals against in 16 games.
12. Adam Larsson, D – Edmonton Oilers
Much was made of the 2016 trade Edmonton swung with New Jersey that sent popular Taylor Hall to the Devils in exchange for steady defenceman Adam Larsson. Much of it centered around the fact the Oilers gave up too much. However, we digress, saying the then-defensively inept Oilers needed a guy like Larsson and will continue to lean on him as they get better. Larsson, who is still just 24, is headed into his seventh big league season. In the last two seasons, his first full campaigns, the Skelleftea, Sweden born rearguard has been an efficient top-four guy who will only get better with a team on the rise. In 2015-16 with the Devils, he scored 18 points in 82 games and was +15. Last year, in 79 games with Edmonton, he had 19 points and was +21. He chipped in nearly a half-point per game in 13 playoff contests too, with six.
11. Nikita Zaitsev, D – Toronto Maple Leafs
Once he figures out his own end a little better, Toronto’s Nikita Zaitsev has the potential to be one of the better two-way defencemen in the whole league, never mind on his own team. The Moscow native was quite a find for the Leafs, who plucked the late bloomer off the powerful CSKA squad after seven seasons in the KHL. He’s still just 25 and performed admirably in a whirlwind season in Toronto, scoring 36 points (four goals) in all 82 games, while logging a -22 (we did say he had to improve his defensive game). Zaitsev didn’t shy away from the grind last year, either, dishing out more than two hits a game with 176, along with 136 blocked shots. Zaitsev signed a seven-year, $31.5 million contract extension that keeps him in blue and white until 2024, with a what we think is a fairly friendly cap hit of $4.5 million.
10. Shea Theodore, D – Vegas Golden Knights
On a Ducks team that included good to great defenders in Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm, it wasn’t hard for former first round pick Theodore to get lost in the shuffle. Enter the expansion Golden Knights, who will breathe new life into the offensive defenceman’s career. Drafted 26th overall in 2013, Theodore has always been a gifted playmaker from the back-end. he scored 212 points in 257 games with Seattle of the WHL and then 68 points in 89 AHL games split between Norfolk and San Diego. At the NHL level, the 22-year-old has scored five goals and 14 assists in 53 games, along with a plus-minus of +1. Theodore also chipped in eight points in 14 playoff games this past spring while playing just over 17 minutes a game, just one point less that Cam Fowler, who was on the ice for an average 26:30. The Ducks may end up regretting the expansion day trade that sent Theodore to Vegas.
9. John Carlson, D – Washington Capitals
With deadline rental Kevin Shattenkirk gone to Broadway, it’s time for young veteran John Carlson to be “da man” in D.C. The steady, if unspectacular, blueliner is in his prime at 27 and has already played seven full seasons in the NHL and one part season. More of a load will be placed on Carlson this season, as Karl Alzner also exited and is now playing in Montreal. If the Natick, Mass. native had a NHL nickname, it would have to be “Steady Eddie.” He has scored at over a half-point per game clip (265 in 526 games) and logging a +59. He has soaked up average ice time of just under 23 minutes and has shown a knack for shot-blocking with 1,084 career blocks. His playoff totals, too, are near identical to his regular season averages, making him a valuable commodity come the post-season.
8. Jaccob Slavin, D – Carolina Hurricanes
There might not be a better young defensive corps in the NHL than that in Carolina. Sure, there might be better, and older, D, but with a projected top six that ranges in age from youngest (Noah Hanifin, 20) to oldest (Trevor van Riemsdyk, 26) the ‘Canes are set for years to come. One who falls in the middle is Slavin (23) who hails from Denver and put himself in the Norris Trophy conversation last year with 34 points and a +12 in 82 games last year. Slavin is a big part of a near All-American defence and is paired so far this year on the top duo with Minnesota born veteran Justin Faulk. Slavin is already one of the more complete defencemen in his age group and with the core that the ‘Canes have, he can continue to shine.
7. Artem Anisimov, C – Chicago Blackhawks
The winds of change have blown into the Windy City and one player who will benefit is veteran centerman Artem Anisimov. The second line center is the lone Russian forward remaining on the active roster, as Artemi Panarin is now in Columbus. He took his game to another level since coming to Chicago in 2015, scoring 42 and 45 points (42 goals) in his first two seasons, while logging a respectable +17. He’s a proven two-way pivot, who, if he gets closer to 50 percent in the face-off dot will be one of the better ones (he is 46 percent efficient, lifetime). Anisimov is also an adept penalty killer and a solid second unit powerplay man who had nine goals and nine assists with the man advantage over the past two seasons.
6. Mikael Backlund, C – Calgary Flames
All the talk in Calgary, where it pertains to centerman, usually revolves around high first round picks Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett. Lost in all the noise is fellow first rounder (24th overall 2007) Mikael Backlund. The Vasteras, Sweden born pivot has quietly edged his way up the depth chart to no. 2 in the middle, sandwiched between first liner Monahan and third liner Bennett. In his last two campaigns, Backlund has pushed his game to another level, starting with 47 points and a +10 in 82 games during the 2015-16 season and increasing to 53 points in 81 games last year (+9). He takes great pride in his overall game, too and finished fourth in Selke voting last year. In his 461 games, all with Calgary, the 28-year-old has taken the puck away 340 times, versus just 248 giveaways, while maintaining a respectable 47.8 percent efficiency on face-offs.
5. J.T. Miller, C – New York Rangers
A look at the Rangers formidable line-up sees a sneaky good third line, according to the folks at Daily Face Off. And on the right wing of a line that includes Kevin Hayes and Michael Grabner is natural center J.T. Miller. The sixth-year man made the most of just over 16 minutes of playing time in the Big Apple last year, recording career highs in goals (22), assists (34) and points (56), while maintaining a +17. He was a force on the penalty kill, too, scoring three of his 22 markers when a man down. That he finished second in scoring for the Blueshirts was no mean feat either. The 15th overall pick in the 2011 draft has evolved slowly, and nicely, since breaking in during the 2012-13 campaign. Expect the Ohio native to take another step to being an all-star soon.
4. Viktor Arvidsson, RW – Nashville Predators
Not many announced his presence louder during the 2016-17 season than Nashville’s Viktor Arvidsson. The 2014 fourth rounder (112th overall) had played in 62 games over the two seasons previous, scoring eight goals and eight assists, while spending the bulk of his time in the AHL. Last year, the 24-year-old exploded, scoring 31 goals and 30 assists in 80 games, averaging a shade over 17 minutes of playing time. The compact Swede excelled in all areas, scoring four times on the powerplay and leading all NHLers in shorthanded goals with five. Arvidsson also figured huge in Smashville’s run to the Stanley Cup finals, chipping in three goals and 10 assists in 22 playoff games. This season he should benefit from playing on a second line now centered by newly acquired Nick Bonino.
3. Nikolaj Ehlers, LW – Winnipeg Jets
Few second year players don’t succumb to a sophomore jinx of sorts, much less nearly double their production from a rookie season. Nikolaj Ehlers laid to rest any doubt about his ability during a superb second NHL season. The Jets first round pick in 2014 (ninth overall), scored 25 goals and 39 assists last year for 64 points, 26 more than his freshman 2015-16 season. The arrival of Patrik Laine no doubt took some of the pressure off the speedy Danish second liner, but he didn’t just mail it in, doing his level best in just over 17 minutes of ice time per game. The top two lines on an improving Jets team look pretty ferocious, with Ehlers manning his off wing alongside Bryan Little and Mathieu Perreault. He is also on the first powerplay unit with Little, Laine, Blake Wheeler and Dustin Byfuglien. Wow.
2. Josh Bailey, RW – New York Islanders
Josh Bailey has seen few ups, and more downs, in nine NHL seasons with the Islanders and through it all has come out looking good. Never the first name out of anyone’s mouth when referring to the team’s elite players, Bailey has quietly brought his game to the level the team expected when they drafted him ninth overall in 2008. The pride of Bowmanville, Ontario, established career marks in all offensive categories in 2016-17, scoring 13 goals and 43 assists (second in scoring to John Tavares) and logging a +5. What makes Bailey even more tantalizing as a second liner is the fact he’s eighth highest paid forward on the team, with a cap hit of just $3.3 million. The Islanders problem, then, will be finding the right figure to keep him happy at the conclusion of the coming season, when he becomes a UFA.
1. Mikael Granlund, C – Minnesota Wild
The Wild made great strides in 2016-17, only to lose in the first round of the playoffs to St. Louis. However, the emergence of team leading scorer Granlund was nothing short of surprising. Having averaged 41 points in the previous three seasons, the Wild’s first rounder from 2010 (ninth overall), put his foot on the gas and didn’t let it off. The Oulu, Finland native doubled his previous best goal total of 13 to 26, while adding a career high 43 assists for 69 points, along with a +23 rating. A natural center, the move to left wing seemed to be the tonic. Not only is Granlund adept at scoring, but he is a pretty good penalty killer, scoring three times in shorthanded situations, as well as being good at stealing the puck (43 takeaways) while giving it away less (33 giveaways). The second line, which also features veterans Mikko Koivu and Jason Zucker, will again be key to how the Wild fare this year.