Hockey is the ultimate team sport.
You win together. You lose together. But for a team to be successful, one player usually stands out. They are the most important player to their team and its success.
My colleague Andrew Bensch recently wrote a piece illustrating who he thought were the most “untouchable” players. These are players that were deemed most important to the future of their franchise. These players would not be traded under any circumstance.
We are going to take a slightly different approach. Starting with the Eastern Conference, we will go team-by-team and outline who we think the most “important” players are to their team and its success. If your team is going to be successful, this player must be the reason why.
Couple of notes before we begin. First, we will only look at those currently on rosters and that have played at least 1 game with their team. Sorry, Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid are not mentioned here. Second, we are defining “important” as the player who is most instrumental in their team’s success. We will select one player from each team. We will also include an “also considered” section. Let’s get to our Eastern Conference list of most important players.
Eastern Conference Most Important Players
Boston Bruins – Tuukka Rask
By his standards, Rask had a down season. He finished 34-21-13, but only 3-9 in shootouts. Given the Bruins missed the playoffs by 2 points, Rask’s down season especially in the shootout was a major factor in the Bruins missing out on the dance. The Bruins issues go way beyond Rask (an aging defense for one.) If Rask returns to form, the Bruins should return to the playoffs. Also considered Bergeron, Lucic, and Chara.
Buffalo Sabres – Tyler Ennis
This would go to Evander Kane, except he hasn’t played a game as a Sabre yet. Ennis got noticed during the World Championships as a major contributor to Team Canada. Sabres fans know how dynamic he is. He finished with 20 goals on a team that had a terrible year. In terms of the current roster, Ennis gives this team energy. He will look to continue his great play. Also considered Girgensons and Moulson.
Carolina Hurricanes – Eric Staal
It seems like Staal has been in the league for 20 years. He is just 30 years old. Injuries were a major factor in the Hurricanes struggling last season. Even still, the captain scored 23 goals, and had a nice season for himself. For this team to make noise, Eric Staal must be their best player. Also considered Skinner, Faulk, and Ward.
Columbus Blue Jackets – Sergei Bobrovsky
Did you know Sergei Bobrovsky finished 32nd in GAA last season? Even he couldn’t overcome the 500+ man-games lost to injury and the porous defense of the Blue Jackets. Even still, Bobrovsky finished the season 16-4-1, leading Columbus to a nice comeback. If the Blue Jackets want to return to the playoffs, Bobrovsky must return to his normal form. Also considered Johansen, Foligno, and Dubinsky.
Detroit Red Wings – Pavel Datsyuk
Even at 36 years of age, Datsyuk is still an amazing talent. When the Red Wings are flying, Datsyuk is usually in the middle of it. The Red Wings are getting younger, so players like Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar will need to start taking the team over. But as for now, Datsyuk has plenty left to give. His play will help lead Detroit to yet another playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. Also considered Zetterberg, Nyquist, and Tatar.
Florida Panthers – Roberto Luongo
As soon as it was announced that Roberto Luongo was traded back to Florida, many pegged the Panthers to make a serious run at the playoffs. They were in it until the end, thanks to Luongo. This will be a team to continue to watch. The young talent is gaining more experience. Luongo is still a good goaltender. As long as he backstops this team, the Panthers will be in the conversation to make the playoffs. Also considered Ekblad, Huberdeau, and Bjugstad.
Montreal Canadiens – Carey Price
Do we need to say anymore about this one? This was the easiest choice to make in the Eastern Conference. He should be the MVP of the league. Does Montreal even make the playoffs without Carey Price? He has single-handedly made the Canadiens a threat in the East. Also considered Pacioretty, Subban, and Gallagher.
New Jersey Devils – Cory Schneider
Speaking of underrated, I present to you Corey Schneider. All he did was help the Devils stay afloat this season. He finished jus 26-31-9, but had a 2.26 GAA and .925 save%. If the Devils ever get anything in front of him, they can be a contender in the East. Also considered Henrique, Elias, and Cammalleri.
New York Islanders – John Tavares
He finished as one of the very few point per game players this season, recording 86 points in 82 games. He is one of the top players in the game today, and is only getting better. He helped lead the Islanders back to the playoffs. As long as he thrives, so will the Islanders. Also considered Okposo and Halak.
New York Rangers – Henrik Lundqvist
When you think New York Rangers, you think of King Henrik. When he is on, very few teams can beat the Rangers. As demonstrated in the Tampa Bay series, when he is off (giving up 6 goals in back-to-back games), the Rangers have trouble bridging that gap. If they hope to win this series in Game 7, Henrik Lundqvist must be the Rangers best player. Also considered Nash, St. Louis, Kreider.
Ottawa Senators – Erik Karlsson
Karlsson is arguably the best defenseman in the game today. When he is on, the Senators play at a different level. The team feeds off of his energy. When Karlsson is held in check, the rest of the team follows. He is very offensively gifted, and slowly improving at the other end as well. He is also the only defenseman to make this list. Also considered Hammond, Stone, and Ryan.
Philadelphia Flyers – Claude Giroux
This one I went back and forth one. Giroux is a sniper, especially on the power play. When he is playing at the top of his game, the Flyers are hard to beat. But all too often, he was held in check, and the team suffered. Even still, he scored 73 points, but finished with a -3 rating. The player I thought about putting here was Steve Mason. For all the flack goaltending gets in Philadelphia, Mason has been outstanding. Slight edge in importance goes to Giroux. Also considered Mason, Voracek, and Couturier.
Pittsburgh Penguins – Evgeni Malkin
This might be my most controversial choice. I don’t think it is. You’re probably thinking it’s Sidney Crosby hands down. He is the best player in the world. But in terms of importance to their team, my choice is Evgeni Malkin. He was often injured this season. The Penguins were never quite the same without him. Teams could focus on Crosby. When Malkin is on, the Penguins are a legitimate threat. Teams can’t focus on just Crosby with Malkin’s presence. That’s what makes him the most important player to the Penguins. Also considered Crosby, Letang, and Fleury.
Tampa Bay Lightning – Steven Stamkos
This is best demonstrated by his play in the Rangers series. He now has 7 goals in the playoffs, after being held off the score sheet. His resurgence has the Lightning on the cusp of reaching the Stanley Cup Final. Tyler Johnson was able to help lead Tampa past Detroit. Now Stamkos is leading them over the top. As he goes, so goes the Lightning. Also considered Johnson and Bishop.
Toronto Maple Leafs – Phil Kessel
For all the attention he gets, Phil Kessel is still one of the better players in the Eastern Conference. It was a forgettable season in Toronto. Now that Mike Babcock is in town, Kessel could reemerge as one of the top point producers in the league. The road ahead for Toronto will be long. But if Kessel finds his form, that will be a good 1st step. Also considered Bozak and JVR.
Washington Capitals – Alexander Ovechkin
This is no contest. He is one the best left-wingers in the history of the game. He vastly improved his overall game this season under new coach Barry Trotz. The result was arguably his best season as a pro. Also considered Backstrom and Holtby.
Do you agree with my list? Feel free to leave your comments below. You can also check out our Western Conference list here.