The Cover 4 will feature a number of writers to cover a variety of topics. This article is by our very own Rick Davis, NHL insider.
Talks have picked up again between the NHL and the NHLPA in an attempt to salvage any season that they can. By no means do things looks good for the league but progress is progress. As fans, we are becoming numb to this whole process, but I am sure it is not much easier for some NHL players. With a sport as grueling as hockey, you have very limited time to begin with, and for many of the league’s players, this is the second long lockout of their career sucking precious time away from them.
Here is a look at the top 10 players affected by the lockout.
10. Evgeni Malkin – PIT
Ok, I know, Malkin is a Stanley Cup champion, Conn Smythe winner, reigning MVP and scoring champ, what more does he have to prove? Plenty! The big Russian is a proud player, and one of those players whose genuine love of the game exudes from him every time he laces the skates up. Malkin is currently tearing up the KHL right now, riding high off of his 50-goal, 109-point MVP season last year, but as with everything in Malkin’s NHL life, there comes the mention of Crosby. Crosby missed the majority of the season last year, and in his absence, Malkin flourished with a dominant season, but the Penguins suffered a humiliated series loss to arch rival Philadelphia in the playoffs with both Crosby and Malkin healthy in the lineup. The question that has hovered over Malkin his entire career; Can Malkin play at his top, MVP level WITH Sidney Crosby in the lineup. Playing the best hockey of his career right now (that has already seen him win a Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP) and with Crosby back, Malkin is primed to silence his critics for good, and truly enter the conversation for best player in the world, separate of Crosby.
9. Ilya Bryzgalov – PHI
Whoa, talk about pressure, there may not be a single player in the NHL under more pressure, and scrutiny than Bryzgalov. Philadelphia is vying with Toronto for the toughest home city in hockey, and may have even surpassed them (now that the expectations in Toronto for playoffs every year are lofty at best). Philadelphia is a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, make no mistake about that. In the 2010 playoffs, they rode Michael Leighton (who is now backstopping their AHL team, adequately at best) to the Finals before falling to an absurdly good Chicago Blackhawks team. The knock on the Flyers for years has been their lack of a franchise goalie, and have not had one since Ron Hextall. The Flyers signed Bryz to a 9-year, $51 million deal in the summer of 2011, and officially placed a gigantic target for the fans on his back, and a microscope in place of the overhead net cam. Every mistake this guy makes is magnified because, with the like of Giroux, Briere, Hartnell, the Schenn brothers, Talbot, and many more young talented players, the Flyers truly believe (as well they should) that each year could be their year. If you talk to anyone in the game of hockey, the number one thing they will tell you needed to win a Stanley Cup is goaltending, and the Flyers are going to lean on Bryzgalov for it. After an insane playoff series last season against Pittsburgh, in which everything you thought you knew about either team was thrown out the window, the Flyers fell quite easily to the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Devils. Bryzgavlov must be dying to get back in between the pipes at the Wells Fargo Center and prove that he was worth every penny they gave him.
8. Alexander Ovechkin – WSH
The Great 8. Without a doubt, in my mind the most raw skill and talent of any player in the league today. He is a large man, measuring in at 6’ 3”, 220 lbs. with blazing speed, quick hand, a nasty edge, and an other-worldly shot. He has shown it throughout his whole career what a once-in-a-lifetime type of player this kid it. For whatever reason over the past couple seasons, the Washington Capitals have tried to take focus off of Ovie, and focus more on their team AS a team. They have asked Alex to buy into a more defensive minded system which has seen his production “plummet” from 60-goal seasons to the 38-goal season he posted last year, still god enough for top 5 in the league. Since the Capitals heart-breaking 7-game series loss to Pittsburgh, on Pittsburgh’s route to their Stanley Cup victory in 2008-09, the Capitals have not been the same team. That series loss eliminated the swagger that the team, and namely Ovechkin had as the top young-guns team in the league. I feel losing head to head vs. Sidney Crosby and the Pens that season was a bit of a blow to the ego of Ovechkin and the whole Caps organization. They have put together some pretty good seasons since, but have not really put too much fear into the league as a top Cup contender, and with the talent of their team, it is only a matter of time before this Caps team is playing some serious hockey in early summer. The one thing missing that will be needed for them to do so is the reemergence of Ovechkin back in to his truly dominant form, in which everyone else in the league shoots for second in goals. Ovie is a proud player, and he knows this, and I doubt he will need much more motivation once a new CBA is signed. He is entering the prime of his career and with the past few “off seasons” and this work stoppage cutting into the early prime of his career, I would expect a scary version of Alex from the drop of the puck of the new NHL season, whenever that may be.
7. Sidney Crosby – PIT
The easiest choice to put on this list, Sidney Crosby is ready for training camp for the first time in the longest time. Perhaps in the eyes of Pens fans, Crosby is benefitting from this lockout in the sense that he has more time to put his last concussion and next hit further away from each other. The golden boy of the National Hockey League may be one of the most seriously competitive players the game has ever seen, and I can assure you that the Penguins’ Stanley Cup victory in 2009 is a distant, distant memory for him. Since that victory, the Penguins lost a tough 2nd round series to the Canadiens the following year, dropped a 7-game opening round series to the Lightning the next year (without Crosby or Malkin), and dropped a redonkulous opening round series to the Flyers last season, that may have sucked every last molecular drop of confidence from both goalies involved in that series. Sidney Crosby IS the Penguins, no doubt about that, and the Penguins have gone from darling child of the league to underperforming playoff team year-after-year lately. Couple the pressure of trying to get the Pens back to the promised land with the uncertainty of Crosby’s recent concussion history, and the pressure to stay healthy, the 25-year old mega star has a lot facing him the next time the pucks drops on an NHL season. If there is one thing that fans and detractors know all too well about Crosby, is that he brings it night in and night out, and I’m sure is the most eager player to get back to his pre-concussion form in which he was on a scoring streak for the ages, and one of the most dominant streaks the league had seen in decades. If Sid can stay healthy, the Penguins will be one of a handful of teams along with their archrival Flyers, expected to challenge for the Stanley Cup.
6. Roberto Luongo – VAN
There is probably not another player whose future is being held up by this lockout more than Roberto Luongo. Bobby Lu is currently situated as one of the most expensive back ups in the league. Luongo has 10 years remaining on his huge 12-year, nearly $64 million contract with the Vancouver Canucks, but his inconsistent play has opened the door for Cory Schneider, and Schneider has taken control of the crease in Vancouver. The Canucks have all but said publically that Schneider is, and will be their starting goaltender moving forward, so an obvious move would be to move Luongo to not only avoid distraction, but to clear cap space as well. During the work stoppage, no trades can be made, and Luongo has already come out in the media and telling them about his time in Vancouver “I had 6 great years”, but “It’s time to move on”, so from the outside it appears that his departure is all but certain. Toronto and Florida are rumored to be pursing his services, but until a new CBA is reached, Luongo is in Limbo.
5. Rick Nash – NYR
Free at last, free at last, thank god almighty he’s free at last. Rick Nash has been put out of his misery brought on by his commitment to being a team player when the Blue Jackets traded him this offseason to the New York Rangers. The 28-year old is just entering the prime of his career, and has toiled dedicatedly and honorably in Columbus since being drafted first overall in 2002, with ZERO playoff wins to show for his hard work. Even when it was clear he wanted to play on a competitive team, he was very professional in the public eye, and let the Jackets get what they could for him. His reward: A top line role on an extremely talented and dangerous New York Ranger squad. If Nash can smoothly transition from playing in the relative obscurity of Nationwide Arena, to the unblinking eye and bright lights of Madison Square Garden, he may begin to reap the rewards he deserves sooner rather than later.
4. Alex Semin – CAR
Perhaps the most enigmatic player of the past few years, Alex Semin possesses the most intriguing skill set of any player on this list. He just oozes with talent, has a shot that rivals former teammate Ovechkin, has the hands to compete with Malkin, and skating sleeker than Crosby, but Semin had a tough time finding ANYONE to take him in the NHL this season. After the Capitals declined to resign the winger, he made it clear that he would not sign a 1-year contract or a contract that paid him less than his previous $5.5 million per season contract with the Caps. After no offers late into July and with the lockout looming, the rejuvenated Carolina Hurricanes took a chance of Semin, signing him to a 1-year, $7 million contract. That sharpshooting Russian’s work ethic is constantly in question and his desire to be a factor on a nightly basis is lacking at best. Semin’s production also varies drastically; starting with the 2006-07 season through last, Semin’s goal totals fluctuated from 38,26,34,40,28,21. Of the 21 goals he scored last season, 12 of them were scored in 4 different games, meaning Semin scored only 9 goals over 73 games. With a fresh start in Carolina with a vastly improved team in a relatively weak division, Semin will look to silence his detractors, and post a huge year, after all, it will be a contract season.
3. Jarome Iginla – CGY
One of the most well respected and admired players in the NHL, Jarome Iginla is a fading star. A personal favorite of mine, Iginla personifies everything you want in a hockey player. He has toughness, grit, a laser beam for a shot, pretty good wheels, pin point precision, and some of the best leadership skills in the game. One thing Jarome Iginla does not have is a Stanley Cup ring. He came within 60 minutes of one, but has been nowhere close since. He is beloved in Calgary and respected in nearly every city he plays in, but at the age of 35, his time for being THE GUY on a team is extremely limited, and his career is beginning to slowly wind down. Offensively he is a consistent force, but he cannot do everything himself. Calgary has made a few moves this offseason bringing in a proven commodity in Jiri Hudler, along with Mike Cammeleri, a noted sniper who was acquired last season in a trade with Montreal. Iginla loves Calgary and if he had his way, he would finish his career there with a few championships, but rest assured, if the Flames start of slow or begin to fall apart during their next season, the front office will move Iginla, and begin to rebuild. Hopefully, if that happens, he will be moved to a legitimate contender a la Rick Nash.
2. Corey Perry – ANA
The pesky Perry has one of the best silent resumes in the league. Making up part of Anaheim’s big 3 alongside Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan, Perry has put together a pretty good career. Picked 28th overall by the Ducks in 2003, Perry has a Memorial Cup championship in the CHL to his credit, along with a 2007 Stanley Cup Championship with the Ducks, and a Hart Trophy for MVP on record as well. Now it is time for Perry to get PAID, thus why he is ranked second on our list. With Anaheim being moderately competitive on the ice, and posting $32 million in losses last season, logically thinking I would say Perry will be taking his talents elsewhere, as he is an Unrestricted Free Agent after the next hockey season. Perry must be on pins and needles waiting for the lockout to end to add to his body of work, which also includes a 50-goal season. Perry’s current contract is a 5-year $26.625 million deal, and with his resume, he could expect a significant pay bump from a contending team looking to add his skill set and sand-paper style of play to their team.
1.The Old Guard of the NHL
When the last lockout wiped out an entire season, when the league came back, they featured a mix of some of the top players of the past generation and the stars of tomorrow (today). Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby played together on a team with Mark Recchi, Sergei Fedorov and Alex Ovechkin were teammates. At the age of 24, and being a lifelong hockey fan, there are few players left playing still that have been playing as long as I can remember. In addition to Rick Nash and Jarome Iginla, the likes of Jaromir Jagr, Martin Brodeur, Teemu Selanne, Shane Doan, Chris Pronger, and Ray Whitney are all former (and some still current) All-Stars , pushing 40 and in the twilights of their careers, some of which may never play another second in the NHL if this current lockout takes the whole season. In addition to the stars, the character guys that have forged commendable NHL careers like Dwayne Roloson, Sean O’Donnell, and Mike Knuble may also never play again. This as an avid-lifelong fan, is the saddest part of this lockout. While some of the “old-guard” are surely not household names, and others are sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famers, they have all built a career upon personal sacrifice, dedication, and hard work. It would be a shame if they do not get one more shot to play the game they love because of the dispute about money.
Jordan Eberle – EDM – Eberle is poised for a breakout year. Perhaps one of the best young players in the game today, Eberle, surrounded by an embarrassment of young talent and #1 picks, Eberle is emerging as THE GUY in Edmonton. In my opinion (feel free to write this down now) Eberle will give Crosby, Malkin, Stamkos, and Ovechkin in the conversation for best player in the world in the next 2-3 years.
Joe Thornton – SJ – Playing on a contending team with a good mix of young players and veteran leaders, Thornton’s time to reach hockey’s highest point is running out. The former MVP is clearly on the downslope of his career, but still has some top tier hockey left in him, and a good team around him.
Patrick Kane – CHI – Two years removed from scoring the Stanley Cup winning goal, Kane has had a couple rough, injury and inconsistency-plagued seasons. The speedster has tons of talent but some may argue he hasn’t reached expectations (seeing a Chicago had to tear apart their cup team because of the salary cap, so the likes of Byfuglien, Ladd, Campbell and others were moved to keep Kane a Hawk). Kane is a great talent and I would bet he has a bounce back season.
Marc-Andre Fleury – PIT – Fleury is coming off a complete meltdown of a playoff performance with the Penguins last season. After a solid regular season that saw him post 42 wins, one win short of tops in the NHL, Fleury gave up 30 goals in 6 games and for the most part, looked lost at BEST. The Penguins rode the former number 1 overall pick to back to back Stanley Cup Finals, and one victory, in 2007-08 and 08-09, but since then, a woefully inconsistent “flower” has factored heavily into poor playoff performances by the Penguins. Despite having Malkin, Crosby, Neal and company, the Pens will only go as far as Fleury takes them.
The Cover 4 Featured Sports Writer