Ramblings: Looking back on fun players to watch
Well, here we are.
The NHL has shut down, along with basically everything else in North America, and it doesn't look like that situation is going to change in the near-term. In fact, the restrictions are probably only going to get more severe. The CDC said they're recommending two months with gatherings of no more than 250 people. As of right now, that's the optimistic timeline I'm assuming for NHL hockey to return. Even then…
Anyway, that leaves a lot of time to talk hockey. Unfortunately, there's no news, trades, signings, drafting, injuries, and literally anything else we'd normally talk about in these spaces. I'm assuming Jeff Skinner is still on Buffalo's top line, but who knows. I guess K'Andre Miller signed an entry-level deal. So, we have that.
I thought I'd talk about just hockey in general, and more specifically individual players we enjoy watching. Having this much time on my hands allows me to live inside my own head more than usual, so I wanted to talk about some guys I just loved watching over the years. This goes all the way back to when I was a kid and will move through present day.
The reason for this is I grew up a Habs fan. Outside of Patrick Roy (and we all know how that ended), there weren't a lot of players in the 1990s that made it super exciting to watch the Canadiens. Don't get me wrong, there were a lot of good players, but how many high-end gamebreakers were there? Guys like Vincent Damphousse, Kirk Muller, and Mark Recchi were all fine players (one is even a Hall of Famer). But, again, outside of Roy, Saku Koivu is probably the guy most people would look up to, and he was a very good player, but certainly no Pavel Bure, Eric Lindros, or Teemu Selanne. In that sense, I grew up watching other players, so let's talk about a few of them.
When I was about seven or eight years old, I asked my dad to put me in power skating lessons because I wanted to be able to skate like Niedermayer. Watching him play, even through to the end of his career in Anaheim, that's what always stood out about him: his skating. When I look at the young stars in the game today on the blue line, it's hard not to see Niedermayer in a few of them.
There's a nice video the NHL put out for its top-100 players and it included a lot of very good Niedermayer highlights. I recommend just taking a few minutes to watch it. It's a nice reminder that whenever he felt like it, he could rush the puck with near impunity.
For offensive defensemen, there's no better template from the last 25 years. He could control a game from the blue line, and that's something very few players have been able to do since. Truly a pleasure to watch whenever he stepped on the ice.
Living in New Brunswick, the exploits of this Hobey Baker winner that played for the University of Maine were well-known. By the time he got to the NHL, hockey fans in my area were already well aware of who he was, so his career was followed with great interest.
When discussing great wrist shots from the era, the first name that usually comes up is Joe Sakic, and it's hard to argue with that sentiment. All the same, when I envision great wrist shots that I've watched in my life, all I can see is Kariya streaking down the right wing, cutting a bit two the middle, drawing the puck back, and ripping it over the glove. It's burned in my memory.
Kariya was more or less carrying an entire Anaheim franchise from its appearance in the NHL through their Cup run of 2003 when they lost in Game 7 of the Final. Though he wasn't able to get a Stanley Cup, he was a big reason that team was put on the map in the early stages of the franchise, which led to their post-Lockout glory years.
I was very happy to see him get to the Hall of Fame because I think if he was healthy and drafted to a successful franchise, he would have put up video-game numbers year after year. (He already did, to an extent.) What a special, special player.
I have an affinity for players left on an island. That perfectly describes Gaborik in his Minnesota career. I've written in years gone by about how bad those teams were offensively which makes his five 30-goal seasons in eight seasons with Minnesota (two that he didn't were his rookie year, and a year he played 17 games due to injury) all the more impressive.
Thinking back to the early 2000s, I can't imagine I watched a lot of Minnesota Wild games. There was no NHL Network, no Centre Ice, no sports packages of any severity. We got Canadian teams on TV, and every once in a while, you'd see Minnesota playing Calgary or Vancouver on Saturday nights. It seems my affinity for Gaborik may have been borne, at least to some degree, from video games. If I'm not mistaken, he was near-unstoppable in NHL 2005.
Regardless, when he was in full flight, there was no hope for the opposition. What separated him from other speedsters is that he could pull up on a rush and just rip it home. His wrist/snap shot was something to behold, even later in his career. A truly special player who reminds me a lot of Kariya, though I doubt he'll get the same HOF consideration.
As a Habs fan, it was awesome to see Kovalchuk in a Canadiens jersey, even at this stage of his career, even if it was just for a month or whatever. Back in his days with Atlanta and New Jersey, there were few players more electric. When I think back to the one year that he, Marc Savard, and Marian Hossa all played on a line together, it makes me nostalgic. One of the best trios I've ever watched skate together.
I think it's with New Jersey that he came to the forefront of the hockey world's mind, even though by that point he already had three 40-goal seasons and two 50-goal seasons. He helped carry the Devils to the Cup Final in 2012, doing so while playing nearly 23 minutes a night.
What made him different is he could do it all offensively. Rush the puck and beat the defenceman one-on-one? Yep. Pull up and rip a wrist shot? Sure. Post up at a face-off dot and wait for a one-timer? Not quite Ovechkin-esque, but yeah. Be a distributor if he had no room? Well, he had five 40-assist seasons in his career. Over-commit to him, and he found an open teammate. Under-commit to him, and he'd have no problem doing it all himself. Just one of the most special players of his millennium.
This is probably a bit out of left field but I absolutely loved watching him play defence in the NHL. This is a guy who is (was) officially listed at 5'10", 180 lbs and I think that's a bit generous. He was a small defenceman who was great defensively and managed two separate 50-point seasons. That's remarkable.
One thing that stood out to me about him: he used a very long stick and would slide his top hand down from the top in order to stick-handle or strip the puck in tight, while also having the length for poke checking. I think that's what made him so tough defensively. Most players don't expect a poke check from a 5'10" defenceman you'd normally get from a 6'4" defenceman.
I have a lot of respect for players that have to find out how to play in the best league in the world because of their size, and Enstrom is a poster boy for defencemen that fit that exact mould.
I don't think I'm alone here in saying that when Malkin is on his game, whether it be 10 years ago or now (well, not NOW now, given, you know), there is no offensive player more terrifying. When he was determined, and had a head of steam, no one could stop him. It's why he's performed so well in the times that Crosby has missed significant games.
Some people might say "why doesn't he do that all the time" but playing at 100 percent all the time at the NHL level while skating 20-22 minutes a night is, uh, very hard.
Regardless, he's a through-and-through Hall of Famer and like Kovalchuk, he could do it in any number of ways.
Sometimes I wonder what his legacy would be if he were not on Sidney Crosby's team his whole career. Obviously, he's still considered as a great player, but something like the snub from the NHL top-100 is something that sticks out. What if he ended up in Washington and Alex Ovechkin in Pittsburgh? It's funny how things work out sometimes.
Who are some players that you didn’t grow up watching (i.e. not your favourite team) but you loved to watch? Hit up the Facebook comments.
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