Ask an NHL fan who their standout performers are for the 2015-16 season and a few names are certain to come to mind.
Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Patrick Kane, Alex Ovechkin — those players bubble up to the surface first.
But who are the players that are languishing in the backs of our minds? We may know their names well — or maybe not — but which players have performed under the radar this year so far?
Here are six suggestions. Fans of these teams: I’m here to help, not hurt.
1. Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild
We have an idea of what Ryan Suter is. Big minutes, reliable, intangibles.
But did you know he has 20 points in 22 games?
Suter has reached peaks of 46 points with the Nashville Predators and 43 points with the Wild but this year’s output has seemingly gone unnoticed by many.
The 2014 Olympian was indirectly called out by Dean Lombardi who will manage the American team at the 2016 World Cup.
“Some of our top players, in that mid-range group in the last Olympics, probably didn’t realize it was their team now,” Lombardi told reporters in November.
With Suter’s output so far, he’s sure to be front of mind for Lombardi these days.
2. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
There’s a dark cloud over the Rocky Mountains and MacKinnon’s production has unfortunately been obscured.
With whispers about Patrick Roy’s abilities behind the bench, trade rumours surrounding Matt Duchene, and the team’s current 28th-place standing, it’s understandable why the other Cole Harbour kid goes somewhat unnoticed.
The fact is, MacKinnon has 10 goals, 24 points, eight power play points and four game-winning goals in 24 games.
Besides serving up coffee at Tim Horton’s with Sidney Crosby this summer, the two stars took part in some off-season training with Pittsburgh Penguins director of sports science and performance Andy O’Brien. (Segment starts at 9:30 of video).
MacKinnon may have similarly fallen off our collective radar when he put up just 38 points in 64 games last season, but playing at a point-per-game pace on a struggling team at 20 years old is something to take note of.
3. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals
Outside of the World Junior championships, the hockey world came to know the name Kuznetsov when he scored the Game 7 winner to eliminate the New York Islanders in last year’s playoffs. That season, he scored 37 points in 80 games.
But if you’ve seen the 23-year-old play this season, you’ll have seen a kid who at times has skated in Nick Backstrom’s place on a line with Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie, a power play quarterback controlling the flow of play, and a player who already has seven multi-point games.
All of that adds up to 26 points in 23 games. And a heaping of praise from his team.
Braden Holtby said this on-air last month: “He has the ability to be a top-five player in this league.”
Head coach Barry Trotz to reporters: “We always knew he had the skill, but his pro game – his North American game – has really come along. He’s not afraid of the big moments. He’s not afraid of the top players in the league. He wants to be one of the best guys in the game, and I think he can be.”
4. David Krejci, Boston Bruins
Right behind MacKinnon in league scoring is Krejci, also with 24 points, but in 22 games – he leads the Bruins.
No, it’s not as if we don’t know who Krejci is — he’s put up four 60-plus point seasons, the last as recent as 2013-14. But with last year’s injury and dip in production (31 points in 47 games) combined with the Boston Bruins’ early struggles under new management, it’s all the more remarkable that Krejci is not talked about more as a stud in this league.
“People always say in your late-20s, you’re in your prime,” Krejci told ESPN in November. “I felt like I was there last year, started the season really well but got hurt right away.”
He leads all Bruins forwards in ice time, has three game-winning goals, and is second to Patrice Bergeron in power play points with nine.
5. Michal Neuvirth, Philadelphia Flyers
Wait, the Flyers have decent goaltending?
In fact, they lead the league in shutouts, and Neuvirth has three of them, which is tied for first among all goalies.
Flyers GM Ron Hextall spoke to si.com on signing Neuvirth:
“We were very comfortable with Michal. I thought we were fortunate to get him … I’ve always felt, and our staff’s always felt, like he’s kind of under the radar.”
God, I love symmetry.
Philadelphia sits 22nd in the NHL while Neuvirth’s partner Steve Mason has struggled to consistently put good performances together.
6. Justin Faulk, Carolina Hurricanes
As mentioned above, Faulk is one of three defenceman in the league to lead his team in points. He also leads the Hurricanes in ice time (25:02) and shots on goal (76).
“When he shoots it he’s dangerous,” teammate Kris Versteeg said last month. “He just shoots it so hard and he’s a smart player. ”
Faulk, also a 2014 Olympian with Team USA, is making his already hard shot even harder. He went to former NHLer Scott Bjugstad’s shooting school last year before camp and now all eight of his goals have come on the power play.
Faulk: “(Bjugstad) showed me easier ways to put the puck where you want it to go.”
Bjugstad: “He hadn’t changed his stick since high school. But his strength was different. He needed a stronger shaft. Everything was going to the right.”
Now they all seem to be going right in. Faulk has seen steady offensive improvement in each of his first three seasons, and now in his fourth, he already has 18 points in 24 games.