Sunday, August 17, 2008

Hockey News Top 50

The Hockey News annual top 50 players list has been released and can be found here. These are my comments on each player in the rankings.

1. Sidney Crosby (1st last year). The question of whether to rank Crosby or Ovechkin first is one that leads to debate. Ovechkin stayed healthy last year and outscored Crosby (in total points and points per game). Ovechkin scored significantly more goals - which correlates with winning better than assists. He did so with lesser teammates. There is little defensive edge, although Ovechkin plays the more physical game. But Crosby is Canadian and the magazine is marketed to Canada and not Russia, so it's a more popular pick to give Crosby number one.

2. Alexander Ovechkin (2nd last year). I think he should be number one, though it is close enough that this ordering can also be defended. Maybe they will settle the battle in 2008/09 and give us a definitive number one, but its very possible this debate could rage for a few years.

3. Henrik Zetterberg (up from 25th). One would think that a player would have needed an MVP nomination in order to climb this fast. Zetterberg did not have that. Sure he was the Conn Smythe winner, but he was sixth in scoring in the NHL (his highest finish ever) and that is not enough to justify this big a climb.

4. Pavel Datsyuk (up from 36th). Another huge climb. His 3rd Lady Byng and a Selke Trophy to go with a Stanley Cup win pushed him up the list. He was 4th in scoring in the NHL as well. Although I don't see him quite this high, I do see him ahead of Zetterberg.

5. Vincent LeCavalier (up from 7th). He posted a very good year on a very bad team. I would argue that again this is a bit high since LeCavalier has never been a Hart nominee in his life.

6. Nicklas Lidstrom (down from 4th). He deserved the MVP but was not even nominated. He won the Norris Trophy in convincing fashion. Yet, he drops on this list. That doesn't make much sense. I would have rated him the best Red Wing and third behind Ovechkin and Crosby, but apparently the Hockey News disagrees.

7. Roberto Luongo (down from 3rd). Since he wasn't a Vezina nominee it is hard to justify his rating as the best goalie in the NHL. That said, he probably would have been one had the Vancouver Canucks made the playoffs (Luongo is the main reason they came as close as they did). It's possible the Canucks would have made the playoffs were it not for Luongo's wife going through a tough pregnancy, which somewhat removed his mind from the race at the end of the season when it counted most. Luongo has been seen as the heir apparent to Brodeur as the best goalie in the league for a few years now, but Brodeur keeps topping him. Unless that changes, Brodeur should continue to be ranked ahead of him.

8. Jarome Iginla (down from 6th). He is a Hart Trophy nominee and dropped on this list. That is hard to reconcile. Although, one might argue he was ranked too high last year and didn't deserve his nomination (Lidstrom did).

9. Evgeni Malkin (up from 44th). A huge climb for a Hart nominee. I think he should have climbed even further. I would rank him ahead of several of the names he is behind.

10. Dany Heatley (down from 9th). While Ottawa may have failed last year, Heatley but up a very good points per game (missing 11 games drops him a bit in the overall scoring race) and a very good +/- rating. This rating is about right.

11. Chris Pronger (down from 5th). A late season stomping suspension eliminated him from the Norris race, but he is clearly a top defenceman in the NHL. Hard to argue with this ranking.

12. Daniel Alfredsson (up from 21st). Another player who put up a very good season, despite his team failing. I am surprised he was not ranked higher last year.

13. Marian Gaborik (up from 16th). It's hard to know how good offensively he could be if he was in less of a defensive system. We may find out if he leaves as a UFA. He can do better than point per game in Minnesota and that is impressive. Hard to fault this ranking.

14. Henrik Lundqvist (up from 43rd). A huge jump like this implies he had a huge Vezina type season. He didn't. Sure he was nominated (for the third time in a row!), but nobody seriously thought he could win it. It wasn't close. Brodeur was well ahead of him (and Nabokov too in the final voting). Strangely Lundqvist is ahead of both of them.

15. Brenden Morrow (debut). This is an extremely high debut. Morrow did put up his career best season, scoring 74 points. That is below a point per game. Even with Morrow's defence and physical abilities taken into account, this ranking is ridiculously high.

16. Evgeni Nabokov (debut). He was a first team all star goalie and an almost Vezina winner, though it is largely due to over valuing of is win total. Nabokov is a good goalie, but not this good. He is yet another goalie ranked ahead of Martin Brodeur.

17. Marian Hossa (up from 19th). He failed to score a point per game for the first time since 2002, but he finally had that big playoff everyone hoped he could get. That moves him up the list marginally.

18. Ilya Kovalchuk (up 48th). Kovalchuk was ranked ridiculously low last season. He and Hossa were teammates for much of the season in Atlanta and Kovalchuk was the better of the two. Kovalchuk's 52 goals were second in the NHL. Being in Atlanta he didn't get the exposure and didn't get a playoff run, so he is rated below where he should be.

19. Eric Staal (down from 18th). Staal had a good year putting up 82 points, but when he scored 100 and was part of a Stanley Cup win in Carolina in 2006 didn't you expect he'd be further along by now? He's only 23 and the best is probably yet to come, but I think this ranking is a bit high.

20. Zdeno Chara (up from 39th). Last year's ranking was lower than it should have been. This year is more reasonable. Chara is one of the defenders who might win the Norris Trophy next year, should Lidstrom fail.

21. Joe Thornton (down from 8th). He is two years removed from the Hart Trophy and scored 96 points last year. The drop in his ranking is wrong. San Jose may not have had the playoff success we had hoped for, but Thornton is a top 10 player.

22. Dion Phaneuf (down from 17th). A Norris nominee and he drops in the rankings? I think that shows he was rankled too high last season. Phaneuf is one of the best defenders in the game. This ranking seems about right.

23. Martin Brodeur (down from 10th). I have no idea why he dropped in the rankings despite winning the Vezina. I have no idea why there are goalies rated ahead of Brodeur. This ranking makes little sense to me.

24. Jean-Sebastien Giguere (up from 33rd). He had a season worthy of a Vezina nomination (which he didn't receive). I think the reason for his rise in the rankings was that Anaheim's goaltending situation was unclear with he and Ilya Bryzgalov in the mix. Now that Bryzgalov is in Phoenix, Giguere is the clear number one. This ranking is about right, but it looks bad that he is ranked almost the same as Martin Brodeur, when Brodeur is the better of the two.

25. Martin St Louis (down from 15th). A reasonable ranking for a good player on a bad team. I think St Louis could have had a Hall of Fame career if he had to do things over again. It took him a long time to be given a serious NHL chance (he was 27 when he first got a regular first line shift). When he won the Hart Trophy, the league promptly shut down for a season killing any momentum and now he finds himself stuck on a last place team.

26. Scott Niedermayer (debut). He was not ranked last year due to his sabbatical. I would rank him higher than 26th. Niedermayer's return was one of the reasons the Ducks season turned around last year. I think it's possible he could win another Norris Trophy this year should Lidstrom not run away with it.

27. Brian Rafalski (debut). He was last year's best free agent signing and a bit overlooked at the time. A Stanley Cup in Detroit goes a long way to make it look like he had an improved season, but his 55 points matched his total in 2006/07 with New Jersey.

28. Sergei Gonchar (up from 42). Last year, Gonchar began to shed his reputation as an offensive defenceman who is a bit lacking in his own zone. He played very well defensively. This ranking is about right. He has an outside shot at a Norris Trophy in the future.

29. Marty Turco (down from 23). Turco is a good goalie worthy of a top 50 position, but not one this high in the list. Despite a good defence in Dallas keeps his numbers looking good, he put up a .909 saves percentage last year, which isn't among the league leaders.

30. Ryan Getzlaf (debut). Getzlaf had 82 points and a very good +/- rating last year. He took over as Anaheim's top offensive weapon when Teemu Selanne was away for most of the season. This ranking is about right.

31. Andrei Markov (debut). Markov had a good year and was a key to Montreal's league leading power play. I think this ranking is about right.

32. Zach Parise (up from 45th). I don't see what makes Parise a top 50 player. He scored a career best 65 points last year. There are other 65 point men who did not make this list at all.

33. Ales Hemsky (debut). Hemsky is the most dazzling member of the Edmonton Oilers to watch and that is why he is ranked here. I think Shawn Horcoff is actually their best player, but he makes less highlight reel plays. That is why I think Hemsky does not deserve this ranking.

34. Jason Spezza (down from 24th). Spezza was the 8th highest scorer in the NHL last year. His drop is not due to anything that happened on the ice. The Ottawa Senators fell apart in the stretch and he was one of the player's blamed for his off ice activities. I think if he produces on the ice he shouldn't drop in the rankings. I think his drop reflects a team failure and not a personal one.

35. Vesa Toskala (debut). This seems to be a token ranking to keep Toronto fans happy. Vesa Toskala is a pretty good goalie, and one of their few players with significant value, but he doesn't belong on this list.

36. Rick Nash (up from 37th). Nash has all the tools to be an NHL superstar. He tied for the goal scoring lead in 2003/04. His 2007/08 season's 69 points was a career best, yet he seems capable of so much more. Nash has never been among the top point scorers in the NHL and I think he has the ability to do that. Nevertheless, this ranking is about right. On talent alone, Nash should be well ahead of this point.

37. Joe Sakic (down from 12th). It seems Sakic is going to take a sabbatical this season. As such, I wouldn't rank him in the top 50 at all. A full year of Sakic may deserve this ranking, but the partial year that Colorado will likely get doesn't.

38. Scott Gomez (up from 41st). Gomez makes this list for being the likely top scorer on the Rangers in the upcoming season. He doesn't score enough goals to deserve his position. Gomez's 16 goals last year is actually the third best of his career.

39. Ryan Miller (down from 20th). Miller played a lot of games in Buffalo and thus had a decent win total. Even though they were a non-playoff team, Buffalo played a good defensive system and kept the goals and quality shots down. Nevertheless, Miller only managed a .906 saves percentage, which means this ranking is higher than it should be.

40. Jonathan Toews (debut). Toews had a good rookie season scoring 54 points in 64 games, but I would like to see more than that before ranking him this high. Let's seem if he can play a full season on Chicago's number one line with defences trying to shut him down before he earns this ranking.

41. Daniel Sedin (down from 32nd). I find it interesting that Daniel Sedin has made this list two years running and Henrik hasn't. Daniel is the better goal scorer, so it is the right choice, but it is hard to separate the two in my mind. I don't see either of them as top 50 talents, they are a little back of that.

42. Daniel Briere (down from 27th). Briere is the softest scorer in the NHL today. His -22 +/- rating on a playoff team in Philadelphia last year is troubling. He can score and he does well on the power play, but defensively he is very susceptible to being pushed off the puck and not making an impact on the play. I would not rank him this high.

43. Anze Kopitar (debut). He is the future of the Los Angeles Kings. The best player of a bad bunch. This ranking is about right.

44. Miikka Kiprusoff (down from 13th). He put up a relatively poor .906 saves percentage which held back the Calgary Flames last year, but he is two years removed from a Vezina Trophy and one year removed from a nomination. Although I have been down on players with relatively low saves percentages ranked ahead of Kiprusoff (Turco and Miller), Kiprusoff has a more successful recent track record and I think should bounce back and give Calgary a top season. I would rank him higher than this.

45. Paul Stastny (debut). He is a better than point per game player with 71 points in 66 games last year and a team leading +22 +/- rating. He is a better player than this ranking shows. I think Colorado will do better than most people expect when Joe Sakic is not around because Stastny will pick up the slack.

46. Shane Doan (debut). He had a career best 78 points last year and is a very defensively responsible forward, but I don't think 78 points is a reasonable expectation. He has scored 49-68 points consistently each year since 1999/2000 and those numbers are more reasonable. Without the almost point per game scoring, I don't think he belongs and I don't believe he can do that reliably.

47. Derek Roy (debut). He has a remarkable goals for average last year and scored at better than a point per game, but as a small player he has defensive problems and I would hesitate to rank him this high.

48. Marc Savard (debut). He has scored at a better than point per game rate for the last four years running. His 78 points in 74 games was actually a low for the post-lockout period. Savard has been treated poorly by the Hockey News rankings for a few years. He should be ranked ahead of this point and should not be debuting on the list.

49. Mike Richards (debut) He had a very good season last year, with better than a point per game and a good defensive performance. It was a breakout performance. His previous best was 34 points. I would like to see him repeat last season before giving him a top 50 position, but he is not too far from deserving this position.

50. Patrick Kane (debut). The rookie of the year, though I would have picked Nicklas Backstrom. I'm not convinced he is quite top 50 material yet. Kane's defence is a concern. He is another small forward who can easily get pushed off the puck. He may be exploitable now that he is a key part of the Chicago offence and teams will concentrate on him more. I would like to give him another season before giving him a top 50 ranking.

Here is last season's rankings and my rankings from last season.

Comments:
The sole purpose of lists like this is to start arguments, I'm convinced.

However the list isn't too bad. One thing that would change my opinion of some of the rankings is the intended purpose for them. Are they trying to reflect on last season or are they trying to be predictive of the upcoming campaign. If they are trying to be predictive, then it might be easier to explain some of the debuts such as Kane. Chances are his game will grow rapidly in the coming season.

In any event, it's like when Rolling Stone puts out their list of 100 greatest guitarists of all time. It's purely an argument starter. At least if one predicts the final standings like THN's yearbook does, then they can be proven either right or wrong.
 
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