Friday, April 04, 2008

NHL's Most Unsung Hero

As the regular season is soon ending, teams will be giving away awards to players on their team. Most teams have an award for the unsung hero. A player who is very valuable to his team, plays very well, but is generally unknown to hockey fans. The best example of one such player is Johnny Oduya of the New Jersey Devils. He is the unsung hero of the NHL.

Oduya is a member of the Devils defence and plays very well. His 26 points make him the second highest scorer on the New Jersey defence. His +27 +/- rating leads his team and is tied for eighth best in the league. Despite these numbers, he is largely unknown by many NHL fans. He is a very successful hard working defenceman.

Oduya was drafted by the Washington Capitals in 2001 (he was picked 221st overall). The Capitals never signed him. After spending his draft year in the QMJHL, he returned to his homeland of Sweden where he developed into a rugged solid defenceman. New Jersey signed him in 2006. The Devils have always done a good job of finding relatively unknown unsigned free agents, Oduya is no exception. He was moderately successful in his first NHL season, putting up eleven points as he learned the NHL game. This season, he has matured into a very good stay at home defenceman.

It is often argued that Martin Brodeur's NHL success (he deserves the Vezina this year) has been due to having a good defence in front of him. However, now that Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer are gone from the Devils, people have started to argue that Brodeur is the key ingredient to the team. He is the reason the Devils have been a good team for so long. This assumes that the Devils no longer have a top level defence, which is not true. They no longer have a couple future Hall of Famers manning the blueline (and they have some good defensively minded forwards as well), but they have a good defence. Johnny Oduya is a key part of that defence.

You're right about Oduya being unsung....I certainly don't think of him when I think "high rated defenseman" but then, it's no surprise when someone comes out of nowhere in NJ; let's face it, the best GM in the NHL ISN'T Brian Burke, it's "Big Lou" in NJ who's managed to find the talent to keep the Devils competitive year after year, when so many pundits have called the Jersey "dynasty" dead, only to see it rise again!
(And no, I'm not a Devils fan, but, you can't argue with the Devils success, can you?)
I would say that dynasty is the wrong word for the Devils, Mikado. They have the Cups, but they also have a good share of first-round outs. They are an excellent franchise with a lot of success and a top-notch GM. They also lost Brian Rafalski and Scott Gomez, but are chugging along at their usual pace. Great team, but not a dynasty.

As an Isles fan, I often hear laments that we didn't grab up Zach Parise instead of Robert Nilsson - in fact, I agree with that - but the Isles are a poor organization right now. Parise wouldn't have back-to-back 30 goal campaigns if he had been an Islander instead of a Devil. He would have had neither the supporting cast nor the excellent coaching and training. The list of guys the Isles gave up on who have gone on to greater accomplishment is almost disheartening: Bertuzzi, Jokinen, Luongo, Straka, Schneider, even Nilsson (10 G, 31 A for the Oil at last check). Heck, Eric Brewer is at least as good as anyone they have now on defense; not really a top-two guy but other than Brendan Witt (when healthy) and Radek Martinek, the Isles rely on worse for major minutes every night.
Well, I've often heard the Devils refered to by the TSN hockey pundits as a dynasty...and I'd say that under today's 1-30 chance of winning the cup, 3 cups in 9 years could be called a at least a minor dynasty.
Go Johnny O! Definitely an unsung hero.

I think of Stephane Robidas as an unsung hero in the Dallas Stars organization. He plays like a man seven inches and forty pounds heavier than he is, never shying away from giving or receiving a hit. Furthermore, since Zubov and Boucher both sat down on the IR, he has elevated his offensive output to levels never seen before in his career. Definitely a "big effort, big heart, small body" type of player.
Another unsung hero kudo should go to that little speedster, my distant cousin Steve Begin, of my Montreal Canadiens. He's small and gets injured a lot but, his determination and never quit attitude has been a big boost to the team and it's run for first in the east, all season. It's no wonder the team went into it's late season overdrive, after he returned from his long injury layoff.
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