Tomas Kaberle inked a free agent deal with the Hurricanes only to be moved to the Montreal Canadiens. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)
The end of the calendar year always brings with it the temptation to write best-of type lists and this year I’m offering no defense when facing that temptation. Here are a few top-five-in-2011 rankings, some with explanations and others just straight-ahead lists:
Tim Thomas. Unpredictable to the point his style can’t be taught. In a sport filled with giant goalies with robotic form, Thomas is a thrill unto himself – and still the biggest driver of Boston’s success.
Jonathan Toews. With Sidney Crosby sidelined indefinitely, the Hawks captain is the most complete player in the game. His personality is much more Sphinx than Shaq, but his on-ice dominance is so thorough – he’s on pace for new career highs in goals and points – it’s hard to believe he’s just 23 and continuing to improve.
Nicklas Lidstrom. With his 42nd birthday looming in April, he’s still the defenseman most NHL people would want on the ice for them in the last minute of a game. And if he continues his current standard of play the rest of the year he’ll have my vote for the Norris Trophy, just as he got it last season.
Dwayne Roloson. Now, I haven’t enjoyed him during the 2011-12 campaign (in which he’s been abysmal), but during Tampa’s improbable playoff run last spring, Roloson was a force to behold. Here’s hoping he can recapture the magic one more time.
Sheldon Souray. There’s not much that’s better than a good comeback story and nobody had a better one than the Stars blueliner. The confidence on his face night in and night out was created out of American League bus rides last season – and it’s been a pleasure watching him enjoying the fruits of fighting his way back.
2. New collective bargaining agreement.
3. Downward trajectory of overall goals-per-game average.
4. Hard-shell player equipment.
5. Speed of the game.
1. Ron Wilson. He gives some local media members conniption fits, but I’ve found the Leafs head coach to be nothing but engaging, humorous and insightful since he’s been in Toronto. His new contract extension and the team’s drastically improved talent base will give him a chance to show what he can really do.
2. David Perron. I’ve talked to the young Blues star a couple times in 2011 and he’s always been one of the smartest, most outspoken NHLers when it comes to player safety. Like Mike Bossy, Serge Savard, Ken Dryden, Mario Lemieux and others before him, Perron thinks the game can be better in many regards and has bravely used his platform to question establishment dogma. That’s something clingers-to-the-status-quo and hockey exceptionalists should consider before attempting to shout down and arrogantly dismiss those who don’t share their views on the game.
3. Jaromir Jagr. When I had 20 minutes with the Czech legend in Buffalo in December, he was as contemplative with each question as anyone I’ve ever interviewed. Part of that was because he was searching for the words in his second tongue, but also he gave me the impression he wanted to give me a considerate answer. And he did. Small wonder he’s become the Flyers’ most requested interview in short order.
4. Aaron Ward/Bobby Holik (tie). These two former NHLers, multiple-time Stanley Cup winners and TV analysts aren’t beholden to either the league or NHLPA and care deeply about the sport and those who play it. The jury isn’t out on either guy – they’re both going to be important voices in the hockey world for a long time to come.
5. Jay Baruchel. The Montreal native and actor/writer was a blast to chat with in December regarding his new hockey movie “Goon.” Many movie stars before him have used the sport to boost their own fortunes, but it’s clear Baruchel wanted to make his film as a tribute to the sport he adores. And you needn’t be a media person to talk to him – he’s one of the most personable celebrities on Twitter.
1. Virtually Anything Pierre Gauthier Did. Whether it was firing assistant coach Perry Pearn and then head coach Jacques Martin or trading an expiring contract in Jaroslav Spacek for Tomas Kaberle, nothing the Canadiens GM did seemed like part of a bigger blueprint for success. He most likely will be dismissed in the off-season, after which time he can pursue his dream of a career in the media. (Just seeing if you’re paying attention.)
2. Darryl Sutter, new Kings coach. The optics of Sutter’s sullen demeanor in sunny Los Angeles were odd enough, but the idea his coaching chops are what a young team like the Kings needs is even odder. Let’s see how modern and “good” he is with the players after a five-game losing skid.
3. Tomas Kaberle’s contract with the Hurricanes. How many times has an NHL GM ever publicly stated he made a huge mistake on a free agent signing the way Jim Rutherford did after he found a sucker…er, I mean, willing trade partner for Kaberle? I can’t think of any, but nobody was arguing with the Hurricanes GM when he said it. More evidence a team just can’t help itself, internal budget constraints or no internal budget constraints.
4. The Wild’s move up the Western Conference standings (well, at least for a while there). Few people I spoke with thought the Wild would be a playoff contender, let alone literally in the West’s top position as they were for a short stretch. They’ve been in a tailspin with seven straight losses since mid-December, but maybe Minnesota isn’t as far away from being a post-season franchise as we/I thought.
5. Brian Elliott, world-beater. He appeared destined for lifelong backup status after bouncing between Ottawa and Colorado the past two seasons, but Elliott’s fortunes have completely reversed this season: He’s first among all goalies in shutouts (four) and goals-against average (1.55) and is tied for first in save percentage (.943). Best of all for him, he’s an unrestricted free agent this summer. If he continues to play well, watch for either (a) Philly to sign him to a nine-year, $51-million contract; or (b) Columbus to sign him by giving him half-ownership in the franchise.
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