Canadiens goaltender Carey Price is having a year for the history books. Almost singlehandedly, with unthinkable saves and stellar play, he’s guiding Montreal to the playoffs.
For his efforts, there’s talk of Price not only taking home the Vezina Trophy as the season’s best goaltender, but the potential for him to earn the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. That Price is being recognized for what he has done this season is only right – if Montreal makes it deep into the playoffs, it might be one of the greatest goaltending seasons in modern hockey history.
But for every Carey Price, there’s a role player who has done their part to perfection, making the difference that doesn’t necessarily show up on the score sheet, but translates to victories in the long run. These are the NHL’s unsung heroes, and here are the top five this season:
5. Roman Josi, Nashville Predators
Josi plays second fiddle to Shea Weber in Nashville, but he’s actually been an incredible replacement for Ryan Suter, who Predators fans thought would be near impossible to substitute. If there is anyone who could have stepped into that role, Josi may be it.
This season, Josi has smashed his previous career high by scoring 14 goals and 51 points while playing a career-high 26:30 per game. If he keeps his pace up, Josi will end the year with 16 goals and 58 points, surpassing Weber’s franchise record for points by a blueliner of 56 set back last season.
The Predators have been on a rough slide over the past three weeks, but Josi’s play has held up. In his last three games, he has three goals and four points.
4. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning
Kucherov’s the youngest player on this list, but that doesn’t mean his impact hasn’t been felt in the Lightning lineup. On a line with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, Kucherov has been dominant at even strength, scoring the fifth most goals and ninth most points. His season has been overshadowed by the play of Johnson, and any team with Steven Stamkos is going to have its fair share of underrated stars.
When it comes to puck possession, Kucherov has been great, too. He hasn’t been facing the toughest competition and he’s been getting a ton of offensive zone starts, but he’s been dominant in the minutes he gets.
3. Dennis Wideman, Calgary Flames
The story of the Flames season – outside of the obvious defiance of every statistic saying Calgary shouldn’t be achieving what they have been thus far – has been the continued rise of Mark Giordano and the emergence of T.J. Brodie. But, in that, the league may be sleeping on what Wideman has been able to do in Calgary this season.
Wideman, who signed a five-year, $26.25 million deal with the Flames in 2012, has been a solid second pairing guy for Calgary in the midst of a dream season. With Giordano on the shelf for the rest of the season, Wideman has had to step up and has played more than 30 minutes in a single night on three occasions in the last month.
To top it off, Wideman is on pace to set career highs in goals, assists and points, and may average the most ice time of his career by the time game 82 rolls around.
2. Frans Nielsen, New York Islanders
Nielsen is a defensive wonder for the Islanders and has been for years. But 12 goals and 40 points won’t get you as noticed as, say, being near the league lead in scoring like John Tavares has this season or being a big name acquisition that helps turn around the franchise like blueliners Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy.
Drafted by the Islanders in the third round, 87th overall, of the 2002 draft, Nielsen, 30, may finally be in the running for the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward. That he’s never finished higher than sixth in voting is unjust.
No matter how many offensive stars a team may have, if you don’t have players that excel at a full-ice game, the team will fall flat. Nielsen is the Islanders two-way gem.
1. Dougie Hamilton, Boston Bruins
In a season where the Bruins have faltered at times, it has been Hamilton – not Zdeno Chara – that has been the steadying force on the backend. Chara, 38, is getting close to the end of his career, and the transition to Hamilton, a 6-foot-5, 212-pound tower in his own right, has been just about seamless. Without Hamilton during Chara’s 19-game absence due to a knee injury, the Bruins season may have been even more of an uphill battle.
Patrice Bergeron, as always, is possibly the most unsung hero in the entire league, but when it comes to the Bruins, he is adored for his incredible talent and will undoubtedly be the team’s next captain. Hamilton, on the other hand, may have gone unnoticed at the start of the season but is turning heads now.
His stellar defensive play comes without even mentioning his 10 goals and 41 points – both career highs – in just his third full season in the NHL. Hamilton hasn’t had any AHL seasoning and has slid right into a big league job with relative ease. There were some initial growing pains, but if Hamilton is the heir to Chara’s throne on the Boston blueline, their future is in good hands.