Every year, before the NHL season starts, tons of articles are released about which players are expected to make a splash in the upcoming year. It’s generally the same type of list every time: Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, Henrik Lundqvist, and players of that caliber. But what about the ”other” players? What about the guys who truly shine, but aren’t recognized by the public? Maybe they’re playing in a weak market, or the team around them isn’t that great, or they’ve had an off year. Either way, they deserve some proper recognition. That being said, let’s get started with the top five most underrated players in the NHL. Or, alternatively, the top five players you can draft in your fantasy league and annoy your friends with once they perform phenomenally.
5. Phil Kessel, Right Wing, Pittsburgh Penguins
Putting a Penguin on this list does feel a little wrong, because of the whole back-to-back Stanley Cups thing, but Kessel has been one of the most underrated players on the team. Before being traded to the Penguins, the Wisconsin native had played nine NHL seasons (three for the Boston Bruins and six for the Toronto Maple Leafs). In three seasons with the Bruins, he fulfilled the “warrior” role, playing 70 games in two seasons and all 82 games in the third. In fact, Kessel is known for playing this role on every team he has been on this far. He has played 11 full NHL seasons, with all 82 games played in seven of them. Not one season has gone by with the right wing playing in less than 48 games, and he just finished his fourth consecutive 82 game season.
Now, playing games is one thing, but he also puts up points! Last season, he notched 70 points (23 goals and 47 assists) in 82 games, his highest point total with Pittsburgh thus far. He even reached 82 points in 82 games during the 2011-2012 season with Toronto. To top it all off, the three-time (2011, 2012 and 2015) All Star has faced criticism for his body type and weight throughout his whole career, and the fat jokes are still fired at him today. How did he battle that? He literally ate hot dogs out of the Stanley Cup after he won it in 2017. Seriously. Although sometimes overshadowed by teammates Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel is a very talented player with obvious determination, who also has a sense of humor and heart of gold. Definitely a good pick up for your fantasy team, and your life as a hockey fan!
4. Alex Galchenyuk, Center, Montreal Canadiens
Known as “the other Gally” on the Canadiens (besides Brendan Gallagher), Alex Galchenyuk has a lot more skill than people give him credit for. At only 23 years old, the center already has five full NHL seasons under his belt, not playing any less than 48 games. He has one 82-game season, in which he scored his career high of 56 points. Of course, having Max Pacioretty as a linemate helps, but it’s obvious that the forward is very talented. He was the third overall pick in the 2012 draft and has since lived up to the hype surrounding him. Before getting injured during the 2015-2016 season, he was having one of the best years of his career thus far. He had 23 points over the first 24 games of the season and had just finished a 30-goal season.
While he was on the ice, the Habs had 54.3% of scoring chances, and his relative Corsi-for percentage was at 52.5%. Galchenyuk was averaging about 2.26 points per 60 minutes, the best points-per-game average on the team. Unfortunately, a knee injury sent his season in a totally different direction, and he didn’t have much more time to prove himself. Since the injury, he was shuffled throughout the lineup, making it hard for consistent production to occur. However, despite obstacles, Galchenyuk has still managed to make his way into trade talks, and many fans can’t wait for their team to try to acquire him. These numbers, as well as his experience show at least a star in the making, if not a true contender.
3. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Defenseman, Arizona Coyotes
The Arizona Coyotes have definitely struggled in recent years. In fact, they haven’t qualified for the playoffs as the “Arizona” Coyotes; their last appearance in the playoffs was in 2012, and that was the first time that the franchise as a whole had won a playoff series. But as with every “bad” team, there were some huge bright spots. From the potential in prospects like Dylan Strome and Clayton Keller to younger players starting to mature like Max Domi and Anthony Duclair, the team has a lot to look forward to in the coming years. But Oliver Ekman-Larsson has definitely been the most consistent positive force for the ‘Yotes. The d-man has not played less than 75 games since the 2012-2013 season and has had at least 39 points in each of the following four seasons. His highest scoring campaign came during the 2015-2016 season, with 55 points (21 points and 34 assists in 75 games).
This past year, OEL did not have a great season, putting up 39 points (12 goals and 27 assists) in 79 games. However, throughout the season, he was one of the players on his team who had to work the hardest. He played the most minutes on the Coyotes, and had to face some of the best players in the league. The 2015 All Star is generally known as Arizona’s best defenseman, consistently playing on the top pair. He was on pace to play all 82 games but missed three games. Ekman-Larsson had been playing the entire season knowing that his mother back in Sweden was battling breast cancer. When she passed away, he took a leave of absence and missed the last few games. According to the blue-liner’s former teammate and captain, Shane Doan, “he’s been stronger than pretty much anyone else I know could have been in the situation that he was in for a long time… his character, his strength, was pretty impressive, and, so yeah; it’s just a game.” Most fans agree with Doan on that. Oliver Ekman-Larsson has been a light at the end of the tunnel for the Arizona Coyotes, and if the team goes through with their decision to appoint him as captain this season, he may finally get the league-wide recognition he deserves.
2. Anders Lee, Center, New York Islanders
Unfortunately, Anders Lee suffers from the “…wait, he’s on THAT team?” curse. The NHL clearly covers some teams more than others, and the New York Islanders are, unfortunately, not on the better side of that. They just missed the playoffs last year after playing in an extremely competitive Metropolitan Division but made quite a bit of progress during the 2016-2017 season. Lee was one of the main reasons for that growth. He missed only one game and still managed to notch 52 points (34 goals and 18 assists), with a +9 rating. Nine of his goals came on the power play as well as 14 of his assists. Six of his goals were game winners, matching a career high.
Despite having only two full NHL seasons on his résumé, Lee showed quite a bit of experience and leadership on the ice. At the end of 2016, his 12 goals from November 23rd – December 29th was second to only Sidney Crosby. The most amazing thing about Lee is that this great season is considered a comeback. This was his first season with over 50 points, his previous career high being 41. The 27-year-old could be bumped down to the second-line center with the addition of Jordan Eberle and subtraction of Ryan Strome, but there is definitely still room for him to make his mark on the struggling team, and hopefully help them to the playoffs.
1. Frans Nielsen, Center, Detroit Red Wings
The lone member on this list over 30 years old, Frans Nielsen has pretty much already proved his worth; it has just gone unnoticed by the majority of the NHL for so long. He had been a career New York Islander until July 2016 when the Detroit Red Wings picked him up in free agency. His success is best measured in career numbers; in 685 games, he has scored 136 goals and 254 assists for a total of 390 points. 160 of those were power play points (30 being goals and 100 being assists). 23 of those were shorthanded points (17 coming as goals and 6 as assists). He has scored 13 game-winning goals and just one overtime goal.
Those numbers alone show years of scoring and experience, but there’s even more reason to pay more attention to this forward. He appeals to the “loyalty first” crowd since he has only ever been on two teams, one of them for 10 seasons. The Denmark native is also seen as a very versatile player, killing penalties and getting power play time as well. He often played against opposing team’s top lines and still managed to drive puck possession while on the ice. While the Red Wings were sixth worst in the NHL for Corsi-for percentage, Nielsen had the fourth-best percentage on the team. He managed to stand out and excel over the 2016-2017 season even on a team that basically had their worst season in recent history. Now, other players on this list are probably better than him. The reason why “The Great Dane” is first on this list is that he has played 11 seasons in the league, and still doesn’t get nearly the amount of praise that he should. He has been named an All Star only once, and this was after moving to Detroit. Hopefully he will have another phenomenal season this year, and will get the recognition that he deserves.
Do you agree with this list? Is there anyone that we missed? Anyone that you would take out? Tweet us: @PuckItUpBlog.