In the spirit of welcoming in the NHL’s 32nd team in Seattle, I want to open the question of which current NHL-ers would be worthy of building an entire team around.
There is endless debate over which NHL players are the most impactful, the best leaders, the best “team guys,” and the takes go on and on. It boils down to one question: how many guys are there that you would choose to build around? This short list isn’t what you would get from most pundits or “hockey insiders”; in fact, some on this list — some not on this list — are sure to be controversial.
There is no singular “super-captain” mold because players of this ilk are elite and valuable for very different reasons. But they do have something in common: they are all catalysts; they have all demonstrated the ability to galvanize their squads and raise their collective efficacy, even if some have a smaller sample size.
Finally, this list is based not only on the players as they are today, but for the potential they have over the next couple years. These are the 10 players who make my short list, in order that I would pick them if I were building a new franchise.
Sidney Crosby: Duh. Crosby makes his team better just by the expectations he brings into the dressing room and onto the ice. Some say the Penguins have been lucky to continually find wingers who “fit” well with Sid, but at some point, after so many “fits,” you have to wonder if it’s just that Crosby fits with any winger and turns them into scoring threats.
You never count the Penguins out of contention simply because of Crosby. No other team receives that level of deference. We have all seen Crosby carry an under-performing team on his back and win, and we have all seen him will himself to greatness and his team to success well beyond what they deserved. Betting against Crosby is a fool’s errand, which makes betting on him plain good sense.
Patrice Bergeron: In his first game back from a 16-game injury absence, Patrice Bergeron scored two goals and two assists, which gives you some idea of what he means to his team. The consummate leader, captain, clutch finisher, responsible defender and ultimate warrior, Bergeron is precisely the kind of guy you build around.
Nathan MacKinnon: Watching the Sharks get up 5-1 on the avalanche last night, only to barely hang on to a 5-4 win confirmed everything I had thought about this team. Nathan McKinnon is a beast. On several occasions during this game, watching McKinnon attack the defense through the middle, I had to ask myself, why does he even dish it off, as he so often does? His chances have to be improved by blasting forward on his own — he is that unstoppable, that fast, that powerful, and he makes it look fairly easy.
The impression I’m always left with is that this guy doesn’t know how dominant he actually is, and the rest of the league is pretty lucky he hasn’t figured that out yet. He is in some ways more dangerous than McDavid, mainly through his sheer power and physicality, and coupled with his speed and stick-handling, he could be asserting far more control than he already is upon shifts and games. Building block? Don’t be ridiculous. My number one, if it weren’t for a couple all-time greats above him.
Alex Ovechkin: Now that Ovi has beaten the Pens and captured the ultimate prize, he’s about winning and fun together. His sheer joy in scoring and winning coupled with his durability ink him near the top of my list. Everyone wants to be part of what Ovi has bottled, which would come in handy when building from scratch.
Matthews is truly special, no question, but he’s not a builder himself. He clearly would rather avoid taking center stage, and that’s not a criticism. And I have no doubt he will always be a quiet leader on his teams; he just doesn’t strike me as the type of catalyst we’re talking about here.
Tavares did indeed carry a franchise of his own for some years in New York, and to be honest, I wouldn’t fight anyone who insists he belongs here. However, he too prefers to lead by example, and if I’m building a franchise, I want more than that — more extroversion even. And let’s face it, when he dragged the Islanders through a playoff round, he did it largely on his own rather than by elevating the team as a whole. To be even more honest, if he were still an Islander and not sharing space with Marner, I’d probably have included him.
But Mitch Marner is a whole ‘nother story. Yes, he is unproven, and one could certainly argue that his diminutive stature make him an unlikely physical force to inspire teams. But that’s before you consider the way Marner sees the ice, sees plays develop, makes lightning fast calculations that draw multiple opponents to him as he creates space for himself and others in order to dish the puck to the perfect spot for a teammate to score.
To any aware observer, it is immediately clear that Marner is not only dangerous when he has the puck, but he’s the only player who consistently makes his teammates more dangerous too. Every shift, he is doing something nobody expects or can think fast enough to prepare for; nobody can hit him or neutralize him simply because nobody can think as fast, skate well enough to compensate for the thinking lag or anticipate his creative approaches.
Yes, at 160-something pounds, it would see that somebody will eventually just cream him one day, but there are reasons that this hasn’t already happened, and you have to wonder if it ever will. Above all, it’s Marner’s absence that would be felt more than Matthews’ or Tavares’.
I wrote the above assessment about Marner before the Jan. 3 game vs. the Wild. The Leafs were coming in with their third-string goalie, both Anderson and Sparks out on IR, so the Wild had a nice little opportunity. By seven seconds in, Marner had his first goal . . . Seven seconds after taking the face-off. Later in the first period, he had his second goal. For those who think he’s only a passing threat and not a shooter — enough said.
Joe Pavelski: A late addition to my list, in part because of his recent leadership and personal performance. I don’t know how many years “Pavs” has left, but if we’re talking the next three here, I can build with him as my leader.
Johnny Gaudreau: Another late addition to my list, his very recent play clinched it for me. Johnny Hockey plays bigger than his size, he is dangerous literally every time he touches the puck and he simply does not lose puck battles. His creativity is off the charts and he fires his team up — what else can you ask for?
Marc-Andre Fleury: A controversial pick, no doubt. We’ve all seen the Flower’s acrobatic displays and elite play that won cups in Pittsburgh, but I believe it’s his season with the expansion Golden Knights that cements his legacy as one of the game’s rare galvanizers. In this case, he won a city’s hearts and then through his sheer love of the game and infectious playfulness, he kept his teammates loose and committed to playing for each other better than any other squad in the league. Flower gave them the confidence and engendered camaraderie that brought out the best in every player on that roster — so that the whole was far greater than the sum of its parts. That is the ultimate measure of team unity and cohesion, and it’s arguably traceable back to Fleury.
He preceded Gallant, the coach, and accepted the role as the face of the franchise, and then went out and backed it up with stellar play all season long. He recognizes the moments that impact games and seasons. And in those moments, he dominates. When you have a goalie that guys will fight for and come together for, block shots for and play far above their skill sets, then you have a galvanizing goal-tender.
The only question is if the Flower has it in him to do it again for yet another team. I would bet yes.
Jonathan Toews: To see Toews’ body language after the Winter Classic defeat, this has to be killing him. This guy is the ultimate warrior; his intensity is unrivaled, he is the gold standard of work ethic and commitment, and he does not accept losing, which raises the question of just how he is handling the day-to-day over these past couple seasons.
To those who will argue for players I have omitted and point to Toews as a bad pick, I’ll ask you two questions: 1. How many current players have led — and I mean directly led — their teams to three Stanley Cups? Go on, I’ll wait while you count. And 2. Do you know — or even strongly believe — that Toews no longer has that in him? Those two factors mean much to me, and because I believe Toews would also do anything it takes to prove he’s still a winner, I would bet on him as a GM.
Evgeni Malkin: Trust me, I am not a Penguins fan — far from it — but I don’t see how we can leave Evgeni Malkin off this list. If Crosby’s various injuries over the years have had any positives, it’s what the absences have allowed us to see in Malkin. During these stretches, Malkin has elevated his game consistently. I’m no stats-master, but Sports Illustrated and others have well-chronicled Malkin’s elevated production in Crosby’s absences, while the inverse has not been shown.
As a sheer one-man force with the puck, Malkin is unrivaled. If you need a player to skate through an entire squad and eventually get off an unstoppable shot, there’s no player you would select above Malkin. As a puck-possessing hitter who can bull through opponents, Malkin reminds us of Forsberg with an even better shot; he’s got more finesse than Hossa, is wilier and more apt to shoot across the grain than Kovalchuk, Ovechkin or Brent Burns.
The only argument one might offer against Malkin’s inclusion here is that he’s not the type of “leader” for such a list. And it is true that he doesn’t lead overtly like Crosby or Toews, but it’s also clear that in Crosby’s absence, teams have rallied around Malkin. His passion and uncompromising expectations drag his teammates into their best efforts.
The obvious omission is sure to cause some readers to lose their minds — that of course being Connor McDavid — so I’ll take a moment to explain why he makes my “runner-up” rather than top 10 builder list. First of all, remember that this list is based on who and what the player is right now and maybe in the next couple years — not what he will likely become five to seven years from now. And if this and last season have shown us anything, it’s that while Connor McDavid is certainly a generational phenom, he is not yet the guy who can drive a team in the way guys like Crosby can.
McDavid can excel when others are lackluster, but he has not figured out how to take control of a game or a team and direct their efforts toward a focused goal. I am willing to bet that if Crosby has Milan Lucic on his team, 87 is getting more out of of him than McDavid has. And yes, I would bet on Gaudreau for this as well: his guys stand up for him and each other — consistently, throughout the line-up. In Edmonton, we simply haven’t seen that.
In fact, we’ve seen McDavid get roughly treated, even beat up on at times, and it often goes unanswered. This says a lot to me, and until he becomes the player and the man that commands something more, I pay him for his skill but not his leadership to build a franchise.
My runner-up list also goes in order of top pick on down: Connor McDavid, Ryan Getzlaf, Mark Scheifele, Brendan Gallagher, Mathew Barzal, P.K. Subban, Drew Doughty, Elias Pettersson, Brady Tkachuk, and last but I suspect not least for long, Jamie Benn.