2016 NHL Prospectus: Top 20 Forwards Right Now Heading Into 2016-2017 Season


2016 NHL Prospectus: Top 20 Forwards Right Now Heading Into 2016-2017 Season
M.D. Wright
8.5.2016

As we approach the World Cup of Hockey (September 17-October 1 on ESPN Networks), we will be dissecting teams and players, as we saw a bevy of moves involving big-name players — as some predicted would be the case before this offseason arrived. Therefore, it is a good time to assess who is the creme de la creme among National Hockey League players in advance of the World Cup, which will represent countries that are home to some of the best players in the NHL. Tonight’s lists will involve the Top 20 Forwards, Defencemen and Top 10 Goalies in the NHL heading into the 2016-2017 season.

  • – Note: Not a representation of cumulative career accomplishments; solely where players are in their careers at the moment, regardless of experience and compiled statistics.

TOP 20 FORWARDS IN THE NHL

20. Filip Forsberg, Nashville Predators.
Forsberg recently secured a long-term extension to remain with the Preds while he continues to establish himself as one of the best young snipers in the game. He came into his own in 2015-2016 with 33 goals and 31 assists for 64 points. His quick hands and ability to make plays both in the offensive zone, but in taking away the puck from the opposition were on display throughout last season, as he seeks to build upon his 0.80 point per game pace… at age 21.

19. Corey Perry, Anaheim Ducks.
Perry fell flat in the Ducks’ playoff loss last season, but he is still in the prime of his career. Though he did not compile much of a stat line in the seven-game series with Nashville, he did manage 34 goals during the regular season last year, and there will always be a goals available for a guy who lives in front and forces his way there  on the power play as much as Perry does.

18. Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils.
You can rank the wingers however you want, and statistics can only account for a certain amount, given all of the moving parts that go into compiling statistical data in hockey. Everyone knows the Edmonton Oilers are both extremely old and extremely young on defense. The guys who are in their primes are decidedly average. It is why the general manager Peter Chiarelli and the Oilers traded Hall to New Jersey — albeit for another decidedly average defenceman in Adam Larsson (he has upside, though!) For his own part, Hall is dynamic in the offensive zone, with lightning speed and quickness, and soft hands. He has improved in his own zone, and will have to continue to do so in order to crack the top 10. He still won’t 25 years of age until November, despite already putting in six years in the NHL.

17. Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets.
The Jets have not experienced much success during Wheeler’s time since — you guessed it — Peter Chiarelli traded him from Boston, but he was a point per game in 2015-2016, and toiled in relative obscurity as the Jets suffered from an identity crisis after trading Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian subsequent to making the playoffs the previous season. At 6’5″ 225 lbs, it is virtually impossible to take Wheeler off the puck; a skill that will always hold value in hockey.

16. Wayne Simmonds, Philadelphia Flyers.
Usually, you will have a player that excels in maybe one area, and decent in another. Simmonds does it all for the Flyers: he camps out in front on the power play (6th in the NHL with 13 in 2015-16), finishes his checks and is the team’s best fighter — serving the most penalty minutes on the team last season — all at a relative bargain, contractually speaking.

15. Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks.
“Jumbo” Joe may be getting along in years, but he is still getting the job done. Arguably one of the top 5 passers in the history of the NHL, he helped lead the Sharks to their first Stanley Cup Final last season before falling in six games to the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, to be a virtual point per game and not score 20 goals says something about his playmaking ability, even at age 37.

14. Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks.
The current captain of the Sharks isn’t as widely celebrated as some of the elite players on east coast/original six teams, as most of his games over the past decade have concluded while many are sawing logs, but hardcore hockey fans know of Pavelski’s second-to-none ability to redirect and deflect shots on goal while anchoring himself in front during power play situations, or one timing Thornton’s mesmerizing passes from literally everywhere within the offensive zone.

13. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames.
Gaudreau looks like someone’s 13 year old on the ice. It is not why he wears the #13, but at 5’9″ and 160 lbs, he may as well. To this date, we have not seen anyone hit Gaudreau squarely, and we all know that with how he beats their teams (78 points in 79 games), there are players who want tobut his high hockey IQ allow for him to see plays two sequences ahead and avoid those situations. They don’t call him “Johnny Hockey” for nothin’.

12. Artemi Panarin, Chicago Blackhawks.
Much was made of Panarin’s Calder Trophy win, as he is well into his 20s and had played professionally in Russia before coming to the NHL. Nevertheless, regardless of his previous professional experience and the benefit of playing opposite of Patrick Kane, Panarin still managed to put the puck in the net, as well as helping Kane just as much as Kane helped him (30 goals, 47 assists in 77 games).

11. Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals.
Backstrom may disappear as the playoffs progress every year, but while some suggest “Oh, he’s got an easy job: just feed Ovechkin”, you still must possess the puck skills to not only get the puck — either directly, or indirectly via an open passing lane to a defenceman who then gets it to Ovechkin — but evade oncoming defencemen yourself. At 210 lbs, Backstrom is strong enough on the puck to maneuver himself and his teammates to open areas on the ice for prime scoring opportunities. The only knock against Backstrom is that he does not unleash his sneaky-great shot, as he favors playmaking over shotmaking. Nevertheless, he still scored 20 goals (and 50 assists, for 70 points in 75 games) while feeding both Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie last season.

10. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins.
The best two-way centre in the game. Great on faceoffs, superb in his own zone, and a 30-goal scorer, despite just making the solid, if unspectacular plays game in and game out. Again, no major delineation between any of the guys 1-10 on this list, so you really could have had most of the following nine guys in any order within that range and not argue much, if at all.

9. Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings.
Kopitar is as big as a water buffalo. It is why he dominates on faceoffs, and why his lines — regardless of the mixture of line mates he has shuffled in and out of Los Angeles in the past decade — consistently have among the top five best possession numbers in the NHL year after year. When you have the puck more, you have more chances to score. Not rocket science.

8. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues.
His invisible act in the playoffs vs. San Jose notwithstanding (although the Sharks went out of their way to bottle him up all series), Tarasenko is a brute force. Some forget that he is 220 lbs with how agile and cat-quick he moves in the slot, and his sneaky shot-making ability is electrifying on its own merit. You don’t get an eight-year contract without having shown and proven (Show Me State joke fail) that you have the skills to demand the bills.

7. John Tavares, New York Islanders.
It should be noted that there is not much separation at all between the top 10 players on this list. It is all about what you value. Tavares has otherwordly hands, can force his way to anywhere within the offensive zone, and makes plays for his subpar teammates. If he ever played with an elite winger (and after this offseason’s moves, he still won’t next season), his numbers would be unrivaled. He still notched 70 points in 78 games last season and was the chief reason the Islanders made the playoffs and won* their first playoff series since Bill Clinton’s inauguration as President of the United States.

6. Tyler Seguin, Dallas Stars.
Seguin’s speed, elite hands, and ability to finish in tight are what make him one of the best centres in today’s game. Arguably top three. Yet another Peter Chiarelli trade gaffe.

5. Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks.
Kane is coming off a 106-point season and a Hart Trophy last season. He has unique skills, in that he’s barely 175 lbs, but goes into the “dirty” areas, holds the puck and moves like a jitterbug, despite being in the presence of guys 215+ lbs ready to take off his head in the slot. His ability to hold, hold, hold and snipe or set up teammates (i.e. Artemi Panarin’s Calder Trophy season) is virtually unmatched in today’s game.

4. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning.
Stamkos is only 26, despite having been in the NHL since 2008. Arguably the best pure sniper in the game (although Patrick Kane and Alexander Ovechkin have strong arguments), he mixes in the speed and occasional ability to play the body. Stamkos is lethal on the power play, and although he prefers to play centre, most would suggest that he is best playing off on the left wing to take advantage of his right handed shot for his lightning-quick one-time shots.

3. Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars.
Benn has been a point per game in the three seasons since being named captain of the Stars in 2013. His soft-spoken demeanor belies his power forward/sniper ability in games, although his peers are certainly not misled.

2. Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals.
Ovechkin is a force of nature, at 6’3″ and 230 lbs, he possesses top end skating speed and agility, with the dexterity of a smaller player. Additionally, he goes in search of hits and finishes as many checks as come his way, something most elite goal scorers avoid. While he does not make some of the video game moves that he once did, his one-timer from the left faceoff circle is the most feared in the league. And with good reason: he consistently leads the league in power play goals and overall goals scored ever since he entered the NHL in 2005.

1. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins.
Like his on-ice demeanor (whining, diving, dirty plays, cheating on faceoffs, etc.) or not, there is no discounting Crosby’s talent and ability. It is why so many teams clamored to position their teams for the rights to draft him in 2005 (and probably why some fans of other teams hate him and the Penguins to this day). Crosby possesses elite hands, passing creativity and owns the best backhand shot in the NHL. He’s been in the NHL for 11 seasons and still won’t be 30 until next year.

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