The best players in the world reside in the NHL, but who are the most influential? The idea struck me last night and since I talk to NHL prospects quite often, I had a bit of data to go off. Whenever I interview a player for the first time, one of my go-to questions involves which NHLers the player tries to model his game after. While the occasional player will say they try to take parts of a lot of players’ game into their own, the answer is usually one or two stars from the league.
The fun part comes later when these kids start playing against their idols. Arizona prospect Dylan Strome, for example, got to take a 2015 pre-season faceoff against San Jose’s Joe Thornton – the type of big, dominating center Strome seeks to become.
But these interviews also offer an interesting snapshot of the sport at its highest level right now. I seem to recall getting a lot more Anze Kopitar responses in the past, while I didn’t find any Alex Ovechkin devotees this time around.
But let’s get to the list, shall we? These 10 active players were cited most often by prospects as b:
1. Carey Price
The Montreal superstar dominates the goaltender category, even though he had a “down” season with only three shutouts and a .923 save percentage (he’s practically mortal!). Nevertheless, Price is the most intimidating netminder in the game today, while maintaining a calm in his crease that young stoppers are eager to emulate.
2. Erik Karlsson
While Price rules in net, Karlsson is the undisputed king of the blueline. The fact the game now values a slick-skating puckmover helps the Ottawa Senators captain, but let’s face it: Karlsson is just killing it in the NHL right now. He’s one of the best players in the league and his style is influencing the next generation – including a young Swede named Rasmus Dahlin who is up for the draft in 2018.
3. Sidney Crosby
Probably no surprise here, Crosby was one of the top vote-getters, too. He was a leading forward and what’s most interesting is that it’s not just because of his elite two-way game, but also because of how he prepares himself and embodies the ideals of a pro athlete. Kids want to work like Crosby – not just put up points like he does.
4. John Tavares
Much like Crosby, Tavares is idolized for his intangibles as much as his skills on the ice. The New York Islanders captain has also served as a great model for prospects who aren’t great skaters – that was the only knock on Tavares during his sublime junior career, but he worked on it and no one even thinks about his speed now. Gabe Vilardi, a top-five prospect for 2017, cited Tavares for that specific reason, as well the NHLer’s vision and play in all three zones.
5. Evgeni Malkin
If you’re a bigger, skilled player coming up the ranks, chances are you like Malkin right now. The Penguins superstar has shown how he can dominate and that has drawn worship from youngsters around the globe. Sure, you’ve got Russians like 2017 pick Nikita Popugaev, but also Finland’s Kristian Vesalainen (2017) and high-end OHL pick Tag Bertuzzi (Todd’s son).
6. Jonathan Toews
A Blackhawks legend already, the captain of Chicago may have had an understated season, but he has already left his mark on the hockey world. Toews’ combination of skill, two-way play and leadership have made him a popular choice for years. In fact, he was a major reason Colorado’s Tyson Jost went to the University of North Dakota.
7. Patrick Kane
I’m actually a little surprised Kane wasn’t higher on the list, but it may have just been the sample size. For years now, Kane has been an inspiration for ultra-skilled kids who don’t have a ton of size. His hands are a case study in excellence and it’s not uncommon to hear fellow NHLers rave about what the Chicago superstar can do out there.
8. Braden Holtby
The Washington netminder may still be chasing a Stanley Cup, but he does have a Vezina and that tends to catch eyeballs. For big goaltenders who want to play a fundamentally solid game, Holtby is a great model. Other netminders getting votes included Jonathan Quick, Marc-Andre Fleury and Henrik Lundqvist.
9. Drew Doughty
The Kings blueliner already has two Stanley Cups and two Olympic gold medals, so it’s not hard to see why youngsters look up to him. Doughty’s skating prowess, two-way game and physicality are all calling cards, though it’s clear that Karlsson blew past him this season. Other blueliners receiving votes included Brent Burns, Shayne Gostisbehere and Ryan McDonagh.
10. The Future Present
For the last slot, I’m including a couple players who got a vote each that I’m sure will be more popular next season and the season after that: Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. They’re only a couple years older than the players I’m interviewing, so it’s no surprise their influence is still fleeting, but we all know that will change. Other forwards getting votes included Rick Nash, Ryan Getzlaf, Gabriel Landeskog and Brendan Gallagher.
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