April is here again. Sure, it’s got Easter, springtime, pretty blooming flowers and all that nonsense. But what sports fans really care about is the annual arrival of the beginning of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Because they know they’ll be treated to over two months of sweet skating, gritty play and sudden death overtimes that can go on almost forever. Plus, they’ll get to watch some of the most talented players in the NHL view for the league’s most coveted prize.
Unfortunately, there’s one truism that becomes apparent every April or every year: some of the best NHL players won’t be on the ice at all for the postseason.
We’re talking about the players who are the lonely points of light in a sea of darkness that envelops a mediocre (or worse) hockey club. The ones who are overachievers on the ice, but receive so little support from teammates that opponents are able to focus their energies on stopping these standouts. The people who are little known outside their cities where they play (or even inside them, in some cases).
The athletes who fight and claw and score and check and save without having any guarantee that their Herculean efforts will be rewarded on the scoreboard at the end of the game. The only certainty for them is that they won’t have their names inscribed on the Stanley Cup in 2014.
These are the few people in the hockey world who probably despise April – because they know they won’t be part of the spectacle of the NHL playoffs, but instead will have to watch it unfold just like the couch potatoes in American homes do. All that these players can do is rest up, begin their offseason training regimens, and focus on the eternal hope that comes with a new season-opener in October.
Out of all these gifted players in the league, here are the top ten NHLers who will be staying home this postseason.
10. Keith Yandle, Phoenix Coyotes defenseman
Yandle is another one of those invaluable skaters to have when the opponent has a man in the penalty box. The Coyotes’ alternate captain was in the top five in power play points with 31 this past season, and he also tied for 13th in the NHL in overall assists with 45. He also was Phoenix’s top offensive player with 53 points despite having a D next to his name in the position column. But his play tapered off a bit in the latter part of the year, scoring just a single goal in the final 24 games. Still, Yandle is a stalwart on the Coyotes’ blue line, and he’s in the middle of a five-year, $26.25 million contract extension.
9. Phil Kessel, Toronto Maple Leafs winger
What do Sidney Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf, Claude Giroux, Tyler Seguin, and Corey Perry have in common? They are the only five players to record more points this season than Kessel. In addition to those 80 points, Kessel’s 37 goals exceeded the output of all but four other players (one of whom is on this list). Despite those impressive numbers, the 26-year old Wisconsin native publicly took responsibility for the Leafs’ cratering during that last 14 games of the season, during which they only won three games and Kessel only netted three goals and notched four assists. But when your club only has one exceptional line, it’s probably not going to go very far – no matter how productive Kessel may be.
8. Cory Schneider, New Jersey Devils goalie
Sometimes, a club with a hot netminder can make a deep run into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But since the Devils finished five points out of the postseason, Schneider won’t get that chance despite being the best starting goalie in the NHL this season. A ludicrous statement, given that he shares a locker room with one of the all-time greats in Martin Brodeur? Try this: among all goaltenders who started at least half of their team’s games in 2013-14, only Schneider had a goals-against-average lower than 2 (to be precise, it was 1.97 in 43 starts). With all the speculation that Brodeur has played his final game as a Devil, it appears that Schneider may be able to write his own ticket next season (the final year of his contract).
7. Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals center
Backstrom played the entire 2013-14 campaign in a Capitals sweater. And even though Washington missed the playoffs by three points, Backstrom helmed the club’s second line and finished in the top ten in points in the NHL with 79. More importantly, Backstrom led the entire league in power play points with 44, and 38 of those points were assists (also tops in the NHL). Over his seven-year career, the Swede has amassed more than 200 points on the power play for Washington. If any playoff team gets eliminated in large part because of their lack of success with a man advantage, they’ll wish they had a special teamer like Backstrom in their lineup.
6. Eric Staal, Carolina Hurricanes center
The Carolina captain might just be the poster boy for “elite player on a bad team.” The Hurricanes haven’t made the playoffs in the last five seasons, including seven of the last eight, but Staal continues to post superb numbers nonetheless. Hurricanes fans know they can count on a minimum of 50 points a season (he had 61 in 2013-14), and that he’ll be out on the ice; the Thunder Bay, Ontario native has missed a grand total of 14 games in the last nine seasons. The franchise has awarded his performance with a seven-year, $57.75 million contract, but given the club’s recent woes, even the 29-year old Staal is being rumored to be on the trading block this offseason.
5. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators defenseman
It’s a bit of a travesty that the defenseman with the most points in the NHL this season won’t be skating for a chance to play for the Stanley Cup. Karlsson recorded 54 assists to go with 20 goals, and those 74 points are more than all but 13 other players in the league in 2013-14. In fact, the Swede was the first defenseman to achieve 20 goals and 50 assists in the NHL this century. He was also tied for fifth in power play points with 31. And Karlsson managed to do all this while recovering from a severed Achilles tendon that occurred in February of last year. That devastating injury came in the season after he won the NHL’s Norris Trophy for the league’s best blue-liner. Despite his strong performance, Karlsson insists that he’s not yet back to 100% healthy, so he’s determined to remedy that by September.
4. John Tavares, New York Islanders center
Someday, Tavares might be up there with many of hockey’s greats. But right now, the 23-year old Mississauga, Ontario native is the biggest argument against letting NHL players compete in the Olympics. Back in February, Tavares was skating with Team Canada in Sochi when he tore his meniscus and his medial collateral ligament in his knee in a game, forcing him out of the Winter Games and onto the bench for the remainder of the Isles’ regular season. At the time of the Olympic break, Tavares was third in the NHL with 66 points and was on a 91-point pace for the full 82 games. He also contributed 22 power play points and five game-winning goals, which was good for 22.7% of the Islanders’ victories before he got hurt.
3. Taylor Hall, Edmonton Oilers winger
As many accolades as the aforementioned Phil Kessel has, Hall equaled him in points this season with 80. But this feat is all the more remarkable given that the 22-year old Calgary native played on a club that finished in the Western Conference cellar. Hall also broke one of Wayne Gretzky‘s records by scoring two goals just eight seconds apart in October. And although Hall was able to earn a seven-year, $42 million contract extension in Edmonton in 2012, he has still yet to skate in a Stanley Cup playoff game. Of course, a lot may have to do with the Oilers’ carousel of five head coaches in six seasons. That said, Hall has expressed optimism that next season will be better for his club. We hope he’s right.
2. Shea Weber, Nashville Predators defenseman
In over 600 games in a Predators sweater, Weber has recorded 347 points, making him the all-time active leader in franchise history for points for a defenseman. This past season, he tied or set career highs with 23 goals and 33 assists, and he was the third-leading defenseman in offense in the entire league. The club rewarded him in 2012 by paying him a mind-boggling signing bonus of $68 million as part of a 14-year, $110 million contract. Nashville had to match an offer sheet from Philadelphia in order to keep Weber on its roster, but even now there are rumblings that the Flyers may want to woo Weber again following this season.
1. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals winger
It’s truly a sad day when the top-scorer in the NHL won’t have a chance to inscribe his name on Lord Stanley’s cup. The 28-year old Russian found the back of the net 51 times this season, 24 of those on the power play (undoubtedly with help from teammate Backstrom). It’s the fourth time that Ovechkin has led the NHL in goals and the fifth time he achieved the half-a-hundred mark. That last fact is significant, since the ten other players in NHL history who recorded 50 or more goals in at least five seasons are now in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Despite scoring his 400th career goal in December, the Caps missed the postseason for the first time since 2007. And coupled with Russia’s poor showing at this year’s Winter Olympics, Ovechkin will probably not have much of a sunny disposition this summer.