Under-The-Radar Standouts

Marquee teams and telegenic stars hog the limelight in the NHL. And they should; any successful league knows that not all teams are created equal from a marketing standpoint. But this can result in some great individual seasons being overshadowed. In some cases there are bigger storylines on that same team or the player competes for a franchise in a sunny climate that fails to attract the same fanfare as the East Coast and Midwest teams. So let’s celebrate some impressive performances from players who are excelling this season but have received subdued praise.

Center: Sean Monahan
By definition a player cannot fly too far under the radar if he plays for a Canadian team. However, when the subject of the Calgary Flames comes up, at least three other narratives are discussed before arriving at the play of Sean Monahan: a) Johnny Hockey b) Mark Giordano, and c) how Bob Hartley has the team overachieving. Therefore, Monahan makes the cut for under-the-radar standouts.

The numbers speak for themselves. Seventeen goals and 17 assists. Monahan is used against the top opponents every night and starts only 42.4 percent of draws in the offensive zone. He is 50.1 percent on faceoffs despite taking 744 more faceoffs than the center who is second in faceoffs on the Flames. Monahan is playing legitimate No. 1 center minutes as a 20-year-old.

What stands out about Monahan’s play is that he executes an uncomplicated game. His stick is always on the ice. His positioning and ability to read the play are well beyond his years. If he sees a shooting lane, he will let it rip. Even his release is understated. With a subtle flick of the wrists, the puck is in the back of the net.

Monahan has a strong grasp of what route to take to the net in order to collect the best scoring chance. Additionally, he is sturdy and does very well in high-traffic areas on both sides of the rink. Fortunately, Monahan is such an asset he that should not fly under the radar too much longer.

Wing: Jason Zucker
Jason Zucker started the season in a fourth-line role getting limited minutes. On October 17th against the Anaheim Ducks, he saw 7:49 time on ice. But before breaking his clavicle against Vancouver on Monday, Zucker was getting top-six forward minutes for Minnesota.

The bad news is that the injury is expected to keep him out for three months; the good news is that, unlike in seasons past, the Newport Beach, California native doesn’t have to worry about his job security as an NHL player. Although the speedy winger is on a two-year contract, he has become an integral scoring forward for Minnesota. His quickness, skill, and ability to tilt the ice despite being matched against difficult competition fit the style of play that Minnesota wants to accomplish.

Unlike Monahan, who seemingly had success the minute he stepped on the NHL ice, it took Zucker awhile to finally find his footing as an everyday player. This season is the first time Zucker, at 23, has played more than 21 games in the regular season. He helped Minnesota find scoring despite a wave of injuries to key players that left the team perilously thin at forward. In 48 games, Zucker has accrued 18 goals, second best on the Wild, and his unceasing efforts to attack the net and find open space have him fifth on the team in shots, one shot behind reputed sniper Thomas Vanek despite playing five less games!

Zucker took longer to develop than expected, which is a big reason why his injury is so disheartening. But his boxcar stats, and where he is succeeding on the ice – Zucker collects a very high number of shots from the slot, per war-on-ice – signal that his arrival is legitimate and that he has a bright NHL future.

Wing: Matt Beleskey
Timing is important in every aspect of life. For an athlete, delivering your best work when your contract is expiring can help a player collect a handsome payday. Matt Beleskey will be a UFA at the end of the season, and currently the left winger has a career-high 20 goals in 54 games. His shooting percentage is a robust 16.5 despite a career shooting percentage of 10.0. True, he has outperformed his previous season totals by a significant margin, but this article is intended to celebrate the timely outlier season in a contract year, not degrade it. Right now, while Beleskey is experiencing tremendous puck luck, he is playing very good hockey.

Beleskey has a 54.0 Corsi percentage, the best on his team, and most importantly, he is going to the right areas of the ice to succeed. He has decent puck skills, and is doing a good job of getting to the region between the circles to collect scoring chances. Additionally, Beleskey demonstrates an edge that Anaheim wants to incorporate; he supplies a big body to check and can do some of the gritty work along the half-wall or in the corners.

Beleskey is overachieving, but part of his success stems from his work ethic and expanding knowledge of what he needs to do in order to prosper.

Defenseman: Calvin de Haan
The Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk acquisitions get the credit for turning the Islanders’ defense around, and their robust possession stats do not dispel that sentiment. But it is de Haan and his partner Travis Hamonic who are pitted against the top opponents each night — and de Haan has evolved into a legitimate top-four blueliner. With only 52 NHL games to his name leading into this season, de Haan’s transformation into such a valuable defenseman has been a huge boost to the Islanders’ back end.

One of the coolest aspects of de Haan’s evolution is that he mirrors what the Islanders want to accomplish. He skates very well, is a strong passer, and protects the puck proficiently; at the same time, he can be physical and is skilled at separating the opponent from the puck. As a team, the Islanders’ success is predicated on those strengths. The former first-round pick helps the Islanders achieve a skill and speed game on the transition and bang on the forecheck, but he also provides a fortifying presence on the back end that helps New York prevent too many scoring chances.

Defenseman: Anton Stralman
When Anton Stralman was signed by the Tampa Bay Lightning, it seemed like another shrewd move by GM Steve Yzerman. With seven months hindsight, the move looks brilliant, and possessing Stralman for a cap number of $4.5 million is a bargain. Stralman is thriving in his role as a top-pair defenseman, and his mobility and passing help cultivate the tempo the Bolts seek.

Victor Hedman is the ace of the defensive group, but even Hedman benefits from playing with Stralman. Together, the two have controlled 58.4 percent of the shot attempts at even strength. However, it gets really interesting when the two are apart. The Bolts command 55.5 percent of the shot attempts at even strength when Stralman is not playing with Hedman, while the team controls 54.1 percent of shot attempts when Hedman is not playing with Stralman. No one would argue that Stralman is a better defenseman than Hedman, but what has become clear is that Stralman can play top-pair minutes and be deployed against the top competition and still prosper.

There is a valid “buyer beware” when teams dole out big contracts during free agency. Many of the worst contracts in the NHL were handed out during the annual summer spending frenzy. But the Bolts made several crucial offseason additions that have helped them become a serious Cup contender, and Stralman has proven to be an immensely valuable part of their championship blueprint.

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