Friday, September 5, 2008

Who's the best young forward?

When it comes right down to it, creating this list of the top young forwards for the 2008-09 season was fairly straightforward. In fact, the top four are hockey household names.

But rather than complain about the lack of movement within the list, and, really, that shouldn't be a complaint, why not embrace the talent that these top-shelf players bring to the game?

Are there some surprises? Certainly. It raised my eyebrows when my research and rating formula left off Chicago's twin young stars, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Sure, they're talented and have restored credibility to the moribund Blackhawks franchise. But, there are players who are simply better. In time, I suspect they'll climb up the ratings.

You'll also note that, once again, Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk didn't make a the top-five list. Now, if this was a list of the NHL's most exciting players, well, then, that's a different story. But until he remembers that hockey is a two-way game, and improves his minus-12, he falls far short of having an all-around game.

Rather than dwell on that, let's take a look at who are the top five young forwards, defined as being 25 years old or under as of Oct. 4, in the NHL:

No. 5: Paul Stastny, center
Colorado Avalanche
22 years old (12.27.85)
Drafted 44th overall in 2005
The skinny: Coming from famous hockey bloodlines, there's no doubt about his abilities. He averaged more than a point-per-game (71 points, including 24 goals in 66 games) last season and is aware of his defensive responsibilities (plus-22). He's the Avs' go-to guy.
Last season's ranking: n/a

No. 4: Jason Spezza, center
Ottawa Senators
25 years old (6.13.83)
Drafted second overall in 2001
The skinny: The only reason he dropped a spot from last year's rankings is the trio of players in front of him. Logging 92 points, including 34 goals, in 76 games reaffirms his status as one of the NHL's elite players, no matter his age. At plus-26, his defense is only getting better.
Last season's ranking: No. 3

No. 3: Evgeni Malkin, center
Pittsburgh Penguins
22 years old (7.31.86)
Drafted second overall in 2004
The skinny: Welcome to the first of three no-brainer picks. Simply put, on any given night during the season, Malkin, who had 106 points in 82 games, has the skills and growing experience to be the best player in the game. His play last season when teammate Sidney Crosby was injured is the stuff of legends.
Last season's ranking: No. 5

No. 2: Sidney Crosby, center
Pittsburgh Penguins
21 years old (8.7.87)
Drafted first overall in 2005
The skinny: Only a high ankle sprain kept Sid the Kid from providing Washington's Alex Ovechkin with some competition for postseason hockey hardware. Still, though, he posted 72 points, including 24 goals, in only 53 games. Had he played a full 82-game season, there's no doubt he would have posted a 110-plus-point campaign.
Last season's ranking: No. 4

No. 1: Alex Ovechkin, left wing
Washington Capitals
23 years old (9.17.85)
Drafted first overall in 2004
The skinny: Let's see, he won the Art Ross Trophy (112 points), the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy (65 goals), the Hart Memorial Trophy (league MVP) and the Lester B. Pearson Award (most outstanding player, as voted on by NHL players). What I found most impressive was a commitment to defense, evidence by his plus-28. Though I'd still build a team around Crosby, Ovechkin keeps making that decision more difficult.
Last season's ranking: n/a

Ones to watch

C'mon, now, did you really believe that Kovalchuk, Kane and/or Toews wouldn't make some Hound Central 4.0 list of the game's top young forwards? I may be stupid, but I'm not an idiot. Again, the names are presented in alphabetical order:

Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals, center
20 years old (11.23.87) / fourth overall in 2006 Draft
The skinny: With Ovechkin as a linemate, there's no reason why No. 8's abilities and passion for the game won't rub off on Backstrom. He can score and remembers that hockey is a two-way game. In time, he's likely to move up the list.

Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks, right wing
18 years old (11.19.88) / first overall in 2007 Draft
The skinny: Last season's Calder Cup winner will have to prove that last season's offensive efforts (72 points, including 21 goals, in 82 games) were no fluke. His defense (minus-5), however, needs a little work. still, though, he's a bright young talent. Extra points, too, for being a Buffalo kid.

Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings, center
21 years old (8.24.87) / Drafted 11th overall in 2005
The skinny: It's too bad that Kopitar doesn't play for a stronger team. That way, his glaring minus-15, after two straight minus-12 seasons, wouldn't be held against him, in terms of favorable all-around play. Still, though, 77 points, including 32 goals, in 82 games isn't anything to sneeze at. As the Kings' mature, Kopitar's game will only get better.

Ilya Kovalchuk, Atlanta Thrashers, left wing
25 years old (4.15.83) / first overall in 2001 Draft
The skinny: It's like I keep saying: Kovie is one exciting player -- when he's in the offensive zone. In the Thrashers' defensive zone, well, that's another story. Until he commits to improving his defense, he'll be viewed as a one-dimensional player. That's a shame, too.

Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim Ducks, center
23 years old (5.10.85) / 19th overall in 2003 Draft
The skinny: In hockey terms, this guy's a stud: 82 points, including 24 goals, in 72 games and a plus-32. He's big, strong and should define the NHL's power forward position for many, many years. Teammate Corey Perry isn't too bad, either.

Peter Mueller, Phoenix Coyotes, center
20 years old (4.14.88) / eighth overall in 2006 Draft
The skinny: His rookie-season numbers (54 points in 81 games) were pretty good, all expect one -- a minus 13. Once he works on that, there's no stopping his rise to among the elite players.

Tomas Plekanic, Montreal Canadiens, left wing
25 years old (10.31.82) / 71st overall in 2001 Draft
The skinny: A sleeper pick, it's my guess that most folks here in the states couldn't tell you much about Plekanic. Solid scoring (69 points, including 29 goals, in 81 games) and defense (plus-15) should raise his profile around the league.

Jason Pominville, Buffalo Sabres, right wing
25 years old (11.30.82) / 55th overall in 2001 Draft
The skinny: Here's a kid who truly picked up the pace last season, finishing with 80 points, including 27 goals. Though his plus-minus fell from the 2006-07 season, he still finished a plus-16. And, no, I'm not playing favorites here. This kid, like teammate Derek Roy, are certainly worthy of inclusion.

Derek Roy, Buffalo Sabres, center
25 years old (5.4.83) / 32nd overall in 2001 Draft
The skinny: Last year was Roy's coming-out party, picking up 81 points, including a career-high 32 goals, in 78 games, and finishing with a plus-13. He's not the tallest player (5-foot-9) in the NHL, but he's got one of the biggest hearts.

Eric Staal, Carolina Hurricanes, center
23 years old (10.29.84) / second overall in 2003 Draft
The skinny: Bottom line, the Hurricanes live or die with Staal. It's hard to believe that at 23, he's been in the NHL for four seasons. He rebounded nicely, posting 82 points in as many games, from his Stanley Cup hangover season in 2006-07. Although he was a minus-2, it was his best showing yet.

Jonathan Toews (pronounced TAYVES), Chicago Blackhawks, center
20 years old (4.29.88) / third overall in 2006 Draft
The skinny: Just like his buddy Patrick Kane, expectations are running high for Toews. Fifty-four points in an injury-shortened 64-game season shows he has the offensive skills to become a big star. A plus-11 is surprising, too, given his tender years. He, too, is destined for the top-five list.

Feel free to check out last season's top young forwards.

1 comment:

Rob Quick said...

Suprised Perry only got a "isn't too bad either". I hate the guy but he is certainly one of the best when it comes to under 25. Though you put a large emphasis on defense so that pretty much eliminates him.

Rob Quick