By Allan Muir
Sidney Crosby may be the best player in hockey, but is he also the most irreplaceable?
Doesn’t seem like it.
Everyone expected Pittsburgh’s wheels to fly off last season when their captain was sidelined indefinitely with a broken jaw. Instead, the train picked up speed. Pittsburgh finished the season on a 9-2 run, outscoring its opponents 46-25 while Crosby sipped soup through a straw in the hospital.
Were the Pens a better team without him? Of course not. But they were, and are, in a better position to weather a long-term injury like his because of their enviable depth. Under GM Ray Shero, the organization has become like a shark — knock one tooth out, another just slides up and replaces it.
Every team has to face up to a Crosby-like injury eventually, but few have rows of teeth in reserve. Most would cobble something together and hope to make do. Others, like the injury-ravaged 2013 Ottawa Senators, might prove something to themselves and the league with their resilience.
But some players are so critical to the success of their teams that there’s no way to fill the void if they’re lost long-term.
Here are the players we think are next season’s most irreplaceable.
8. Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild
It’s one thing to ask Tom Gilbert to play 27 minutes a night out of necessity. It’s another entirely to have someone like Suter who can make something happen with that backbreaking workload. His 200-foot game was the biggest difference between the Minnesota teams that strung together four consecutive playoff DNQs and the one that clawed its way into the postseason in 2013.
No defenseman in franchise history has scored at a pace like his 32 points in 48 games, so it’s likely no coincidence that the Wild’s goals-per-game jumped from 30th in the NHL in 2012 (2.02) to 12th in 2013 (2.46).
Suter isn’t valuable simply for what he does, but for how he makes others around him better. No knock on Jonas Brodin, but it’s unlikely that he would have proved as reliable during his rookie season without the veteran’s steadying presence beside him.
7. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins
The talent gap between the starting goalie and the gate-opener has become a chasm of late, with most teams seeing the player they’ll use the least as the most obvious place to save a few bucks. There aren’t many, then, who can lose their No. 1 guy for an extended period and not suffer some kind of letdown. For some, like the Bruins, it could be borderline calamitous. If Rask goes down, Boston’s backup plan revolves around Chad Johnson, a 27-year-old with solid career numbers (1.97 GAA and .929 save percentage), but just 10 games of NHL experience; Niklas Svedberg, a 23-year-old with 48 AHL games on his resume; 2012 first rounder Malcolm Subban and maybe Gerry Cheevers.
The B’s managed to keep their heads above water when a similarly inexperienced Anton Khudobin was pressed into service, but that was also with a more experienced defense in place. Now that Boston is expected to rely more heavily on offensive-minded kids like Dougie Hamilton and Torey Krug instead of safer types like Andrew Ference, the keeper won’t be as well insulated.
6. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals
Take the reigning MVP out of the lineup and Washington’s next option at right wing is Troy Brouwer. At first glance, that’s not so bad. After all, Brouwer put up career numbers playing alongside Nicklas Backstrom last season, so he can step up his game when he sidles up to high-end talent. But that was with Ovechkin in the lineup and drawing the heavy defensive assignments that created breathing room for the second line. Without Ovi to draw the enemy fire, Brouwer likely returns to 20-goal territory, the league’s top power play slides back to the middle of the pack, and the Caps struggle to claim a top-four spot in the tough Metro Division.
5.Antti Niemi, San Jose Sharks
As bad as the situation might seem in Boston, it’s Niemi or bust in San Jose. The low-key Finn was a high-end workhorse last season, starting 43 of 48 games and earning his first Vezina Trophy nomination after tying for the league-lead in wins (24) and posting a 2.16 GAA and .924 save percentage.
If he goes down, the reins go to Alex Stalock and Harri Sateri, a pair of mid-round picks who have 72 minutes of NHL experience between them.
It seems inconceivable that the front office would be comfortable with this arrangement, but GM Doug Wilson is on record as saying those two will battle it out for the backup job. Clearly he knows something we don’t, right? Or maybe it’s just that the Sharks are over the cap right now and out of options.
Either way, they might want to throw an extra layer of bubble wrap around Niemi, just in case.
4. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks
Toews’ greatest assest is the way he generates possession opportunities for the Blackhawks. At 59.9 percent, he posted the NHL’s second-best winning percentage on the draw and tied Datsyuk for the league lead with 56 takeaways. There’s nobody in the league, let alone on that team, who can match his ability to just go out there and get the puck.
But the bigger issue facing the Blackhawks would be the black hole at the number two center position that leaves them with no obvious candidate for promotion. Patrick Kane isn’t the answer, so absent Toews, Chicago would have to pull offensively productive minutes from a group that includes Brandon Saad, Brandon Pirri, Michal Handzus and Marcus Kruger. Good luck with that.
3. Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit Red Wings
Forget for a moment that he led last season’s club in both scoring and highlight reel appearances. What makes Datsyuk so valuable is his ability to take control of the puck in all three zones, whether it’s in the circle or with his relentless defensive pursuit. He plays in all situations against the best the opposition cares to throw out against him and he epitomizes Detroit’s organizational style in a way that his teammates can only hope to emulate.
At least, that’s what the numbers suggest. Overall, the Red Wings have won about 56 percent of their games over the past three seasons. Datsyuk has missed 39 games during that span . .. and the Wings won just 35 percent of them.
2. Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets
It’s not that Bobrovsky was the only reason why the Jackets bolted from the Western Conference basement into playoff contention in 2013, but he may as well have been. The team’s defense was marginally tighter last season (29.9 shots allowed per game, down from 30.9), but its goals-against went from 30th (3.13) to 16th (2.40). Bobrovsky’s Vezina Trophy win wasn’t just about the numbers, though. It was about the way he altered how Columbus was perceived as an opponent.
Take him out of the equation and the Jackets pin their hopes on Curtis McElhinney, a 30-year-old career minor leaguer with two NHL appearances during the past two seasons . . . until Tim Thomas can be roused from his Colorado bunker.
1. John Tavares, New York Islanders
It’s not that the Islanders are John Tavares and a bunch of dancing bears . . . but it’s pretty close.
Tavares was in on 34.8 percent of New York’s goals last season. That’s not the league high, but it illustrates how critical he is to an offense that needs to keep firing in order to cover for a bottom-tier defense.
The Isles boast a wealth of young, promising talent whose day will come, but Tavares is fully realized, a legitimate franchise player, right here, right now. This is his team in a way that no other player can truly claim. Driven by his breakthrough season, New York made its first playoff appearance since 2007. Without him, Garth Snow would have been grinning uncomfortably at a desk while waiting for his team’s logo to be pulled from a giant envelope on live TV.