Kukla's Korner Hockey
by Greg Thomson on 08/03/11 at 03:55 PM ET
Yahoo! Sports NHL Editor Sam McCaig released his rankings for the top players at each position last week. As a respected writer and a knowledgeable hockey mind, I expected McCaig’s rankings to align with many of the other major outlets in Canada, namely TSN Rogers Sportsnet. Instead, I found his rankings to be misleading, specifically at the defence and goaltending positions. These rankings have generated tremendous debate amongst fans, especially with the lack of hockey coverage at this point in the summer.
Although there can be arguments made for other players to crack the top 25 or criticisms against players who were ranked higher than expected, I would rather focus on the Leafs presence (or lack thereof) in the rankings. McCaig listed three Leafs amongst the top 125 players; Phil Kessel the 22nd best right winger, Nikolai Kulemin the 18th best left winger, and Dion Phaneuf the 15th best defenseman.
At right wing, Kessel slides in at 22, one spot ahead of Montreal’s Brian Gionta and right behind the likes of Teemu Selanne, Nathan Horton and Dustin Brown. It’s safe to say that based on the consistency and playoff experience of these players, Kessel deserves to be slotted where he is. However, Kessel has the potential to be a 40-plus goal-scorer and is still a few years away from entering his prime.
What puzzles me is McCaig’s decision to rank Chris Stewart 16th overall. Stewart has a promising future, with back-to-back identical 28-goal seasons, and only entering his four season, but is not even comparable to Kessel at the same age. Kessel is one month older than Stewart and has already recorded three straight 30-goal seasons, played in last year’s All Star Game, and represented his country at the 2010 Winter Olympics. I’m not suggesting that Kessel should be in the top 16; rather Stewart shouldn’t be ranked above Kessel.
The article states that “Rankings are based solely on players’ projected performances in 2011-12”. I don’t know about you, but I see Kessel maximizing his potential playing with a skilled centre in Tim Conolly over Stewart, who will likely suit up alongside Andy McDonald or Jason Arnott, both aging veterans.
The Toronto media often turns a blind eye and refuses to give credit to a player who has a breakout performance, so it is a refreshing change to see McCaig list Nikolai Kulemin as the 18th best left winger in the NHL. After recording the first 30-goal season of his career, McCaig expects Kulemin to improve on his point totals and continue to evolve as a gifted two-way player. He was slotted higher than I anticipated, even above the likes of Evander Kane, James Neal and Taylor Hall, but hats off to McCaig for acknowledging a Leaf who is showing tremendous promise heading into the fall.
Rounding out the list of Leafs in the top 125 is Dion Phaneuf, declared the 15th best defenseman, ahead of Dan Boyle, Mike Green, and Dustin Byfuglien… huh? I’m all for supporting Toronto players, but wow is this a bold prediction. Phaneuf’s career has followed a downward ascent since he posted 60 points in the 2007-08 season and he is only starting to regain form as a punishing, physical defenseman.
At 26, there isn’t a whole lot of room for Phaneuf to grow as a defenseman, whereas, at 21, Luke Schenn deserves to be on the list based on the potential for him to join the elite group of blue liners next season. He is a more important part of the Leafs core for the future because of his shutdown abilities and maturity on and off the ice.
I’m no expert (wait, did Andy Sutton crack this list?), but the Yahoo! Rankings caught me somewhat off guard and forced me to question McCaig’s understanding of the Leafs roster entering next season. Why wasn’t James Reimer listed? Does Mikhail Grabovski deserve a honourable mention at the centre position? Is Clarke MacArthur a one-hit wonder or top six stunner?
Chime in with your thoughts and predictions for next season.
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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.
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