As sports fans, there may not be a more overrated thing we do than underrating the perpetually rated.
Let me explain. There's this guy Loui Eriksson. You might remember him from his recent healthy scratch for the Vancouver Canucks. Well, before he became a contractual albatross, his claim to fame was as the most criminally underrated player in the NHL. He was voted so in 2012 as a member of the Dallas Stars. He was still getting labeled underrated in 2015. The running joke became that Eriksson was so celebrated as an underrated player that he became overrated, like a band getting so much love from the indie press that they're pushed over the wall into a pool of overexposure, and then the snobs shun them for the next thing.
But for the most part, Eriksson remains a symbolic player for a phenomenon in hockey -- and other sports -- in which we send valentines to admittedly great players by referring to them as underrated or underappreciated. Now, there may be external factors that could dampen the love for them, but in most cases it's the Eriksson factor: They've been called underrated to the point where they're actually quite properly rated.
Here are eight NHL players who are consistently lauded as being underappreciated when, in fact, it's well-established that they're incredible.
Let's start with the inspiration for this list. In "31 Thoughts" this week, Elliotte Friedman wondered if it's "possible he is the most underappreciated great player ever," because Bergeron has never received a first-place vote for the Hart Trophy.
There's obviously a lot to unpack here, if that's the barometer. The Hart has ended up in one of three places for the past 30 years: with a forward who played at a 93-point pace or better; with a goaltender who was demonstrably the reason his team made the playoffs; or with Chris Pronger.
Bergeron crested over 70 points twice in his career back in 2005-07, when the Bruins weren't a playoff team. He never had the numbers to enter the Hart conversation. This is less an indictment of "Bergeron is underappreciated" than "the Hart Trophy voting criteria is heavily biased against defensive players, outside of Chris Pronger."
It's the siloing of postseason awards that happens everywhere except basketball: Pitchers have "their" award in baseball, and goalies have "their" trophy in hockey. Do you know why Nicklas Lidstrom, who was more valuable to the Red Wings during his career than Bergeron has been to the Bruins, was never a Hart finalist? Because the same writers made him a Norris Trophy finalist nine times. Do you know why Bergeron hasn't been better than fifth for the Hart? Because he's been a Selke finalist for the past seven years, including a season where he missed 18 games.
I'm not even buying the "we don't appreciate Patrice Bergeron's offensive prowess" argument. He was a top-line player with Sidney Crosby at the World Cup of Hockey and had seven points in six games -- not exactly a defensive anchor dragging down that line.
So, yes, Bergeron is appreciated. The Boston Bruins even ran an article last month called "Patrice Bergeron: An Appreciation." The only thing surprising here is that some Boston sportswriter hasn't tossed at least one first-place vote to Bergeron like they did for, say, Brad Marchand two years ago when Connor McDavid ran away with it.
Speaking of defensive prowess, the reason Giordano is going to win the Norris this season is because the voters would have already given him one had it not been for injuries derailing two seasons. He has 65 points in 68 games, has the "old guy having career year" narrative, and has broken through the Alberta firewall that sometimes prevents Flames and Oilers players from truly getting their due from the rest of the league (McDavid and Jarome Iginla notwithstanding).
Malkin hit 1,000 points this week, becoming the 88th NHL player to do so. But that list is full of compilers, so let's look at points-per-game rate, where Malkin is 14th (!) in NHL history, ahead of Pat Lafontaine and right behind Dale Hawerchuk, with a 1.179 average.
You'd think the "Malkin is underappreciated" thing would have subsided around his third 100-point season or his third Stanley Cup, the latter of which was captured in a playoff run of 28 points in 25 games for him. But the NHL had to go and (quite idiotically) leave him off their Top 100 Players of All-Time list, lending near-permanence to the notion that Malkin is underrated.
The only argument I'll hear for Malkin maybe not getting his due are that people are swayed by the fact that he's Russian -- because if this was Geno Macklin from Kitchener, Ontario, they'd already have his Hall of Fame plaque etched -- and because he plays in the shadow of Sidney Crosby, even if he doesn't actually play with Sidney Crosby most of the time. Which brings us to ...
This is the current guy who's been called underrated so long that he's very much "rated." The NHL Players Association's poll in 2017-18 named him the league's most underrated player, and from that point on, any notion of him being underappreciated should be wiped away -- unlike some of us, he has the respect of his peers!
Then the Capitals won the Stanley Cup; Backstrom had 23 points in 20 games and anchored a scoring line that didn't have Alex Ovechkin on it. But he played with Ovechkin for so long that, like Malkin and Crosby, it's understandable that one guy stole the spotlight from the other guy. But at this point, if you don't consider Backstrom one of the elite two-way centers in hockey, what are you even doing?
And I've seen people note that Backstrom has only appeared in one All-Star Game, which is an indication that he's not appreciated. No, again: It's an indication that the All-Star Game format demands that if Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby go, there's probably not a third Capital on the roster; and that Backstrom, for all his incredible play, doesn't exactly play to the cheap seats with his skill set like some All-Star selections do.
This is the most recent addition to the list. I'll concede that it's entirely possible that Stone was an unknown commodity before the walk year of his contract, despite four straight seasons of 20 goals and every analytics geek chatting up his defensive prowess.
But after a 30-goal season, a trade deadline derby, a blockbuster trade to the Golden Knights and an immediate long-term contract from Vegas, I'd say it's gospel that he's a pretty darn good player. And that's even before he (hopefully) becomes the first winger to win the Selke in over 15 years!
"Oliver Ekman-Larsson is the best defenseman nobody knows. He belongs in the same grouping as Ryan Suter and Duncan Keith, Shea Weber and Zdeno Chara, Drew Doughty and Alex Pietrangelo. But the Coyotes blueliner toils in one of the NHL's outposts in Phoenix, not in Toronto, New York, Montreal or Chicago, where almost nobody sees him on national TV."
Ryan O Reilly, St. Louis Blues
You could argue that this is a recent addition, too. O'Reilly existed in that Lady Byng/Selke world for years, never exactly an offensive dynamo but always considered a complete player. I think the fact that he played for awful teams -- O'Reilly has only 13 playoff games to his credit -- and had his reputation dinged by outside-the-rink things (like the offer sheet, the Tim Horton's drive-thru thing and the exit interview in Buffalo) overshadowed him.
He made the top five on that NHLPA list last season, and I'm not sure if he would have this season, what with a near point-per-game season in a top-line role with a playoff team. Congrats on your promotion to "properly rated," Ryan!
Finally, this guy.He's No. 4 in the NHLPA poll for underrated players. And he's No. 1 in the ESPN anonymous player roundtable poll, with one player saying, "He's like really, really good, but he plays in Florida, so he gets no credit." No. 1 by a country mile in The Athletic player poll, with one player saying, "If he wasn't in Florida, he'd be a superstar. He is, but he doesn't get the credit he should. He's that good."
The recognition is growing, for sure. He's been an awards finalist, albeit for the Lady Byng, and was fourth for the Selke last season. His two-way game is mentioned in the same breath as that of Bergeron and others. But we're going to go ahead and apply the Loui Eriksson Rule here: If enough people, in multiple seasons, claim you're criminally underappreciated, then you've been appreciated.
We appreciate you, Sasha.
The Week in Gritty
The South by Southwest festival is ongoing in Austin, Texas, featuring incredible music, cutting-edge film, long waits for BBQ and, of course, Gritty.
Our favorite tangerine lint ball was at the Comcast NBCUniversal House for the creatively titled "Get a Photo With Gritty" event, and legions of SXSW attendees did just that.
Meanwhile, we published a "tiny oral history" of Gritty's debut, including this nugget from the monster himself:
"It all comes down to being a quadruple threat: good looks (360-degree vision provides optimal peripheral vision angles), advanced street magic (not that fake Criss Angel stuff), impeccable BMI (brilliant mascot intuition) and a heart that beats only for the Philadelphia Flyers. They set me free, and now I can't be tamed."
Just like Miley Cyrus. The "can't be tamed" part, not the "set free by the Flyers" part.
Honoring the greatest Shark of all time
Remember when Mike Hoffman was a member of the San Jose Sharks for, like, a few minutes last June? The Ottawa Senators traded him to the Sharks after that rather bizarre cyberbullying scandal (that we never quite got resolution on, come to think of it). The Sharks then flipped him to the Florida Panthers and arguably got a better return than the Senators did on the initial trade. Such is life for Sens GM Pierre Dorion.
You know who didn't forget Mike Hoffman's tenure with the Sharks? The Teal City Crew supporters' group, who decided to "honor" Hoffman with his own banner as the Florida Panthers visited the Shark Tank:
Now that's hilarious.
Even better: Hoffman was asked about the banner after the Panthers' 4-2 win -- in which he scored a goal against, um, his former team -- and was cool about it. "I saw that. I appreciate the respect for the fans there. I'll try to reach out and contact the fan to get that from him," he said, via the AP.
The Panthers have indicated that they'll have the person who made the banner present it to Hoffman at practice on Friday.
Alas, as far as we can tell, there was no tribute video to 'ole No. 68 (assuming Melker Karlsson would have abandoned the number).
The fact that someone spent that money and that time to create a "TRASH 43" jersey in honor of the Washington Capitals bad boy is ... well, it's proof that both of these fan bases have way too much disposable income, with the number of "CRYSBY 87" Penguins Protest Jerseys we've witnessed in DC.
Best Player in the World of the Week
Greg Meireles, Kitchener Rangers. The 20-year-old center had two goals and seven assists in three games last week, helping the Rangers clinch a playoff spot and extending his points streak to 17 games. Also, his mom is on Twitter and only tweets about her son's accomplishments, which is pretty much the most "player's mom on Twitter" thing we've ever seen.
Listen to ESPN on Ice
We were honored to have Shannon Szabados of the Buffalo Beauts on the show to discuss the Isobel Cup Final this weekend in the NWHL, and my never-ending dread when I see her suiting up for Team Canada against the Americans. Plus, The Athletic's Alison Lukan offers her thoughts on the Columbus Blue Jackets and whether player tracking tech is really going to change the game for the analytics movement. Stream here or grab on iTunes.
Sam Cosentino makes the aggressive move and ranks Kaapo Kakko over Jack Hughes on the big draft board.
Fascinating story about a fan protest of a sponsor of the Minnesota state hockey championships.
Craig Custance ($) on whether there should be a limit on the number of times a team can win the draft lottery, and the general managers who seem keen on a rule preventing it.
There's been a GoFundMe established to help with the medical bills of former Detroit Red Wings star defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov, in particular "extra and supplemental care, comfort, support, maintenance and education, including vocational, rehabilitation or technical training, as well as for his healthcare insurance and transportation not otherwise available to him or covered by insurance or governmental assistance."
Ryan Lambert offers a word of caution on NCAA free agents.
Eh, everyone else is doing "green" this time of year, so kudos to Hockey by Design for the swerve and the top five orange jerseys in hockey history.
Finally, a stick lift by Zdeno Chara that looks exactly like what you'd figure a stick lift by Zdeno Chara would look like. Check out the hang time on that thing, wow!
I can't stop laughing at how long it takes the stick to come back down to the ice pic.twitter.com/6VBltBqelw - Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) March 15, 2019
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn't read)
Interesting story on 16-year-old Tyrel Bauer and his path to becoming an NHL prospect.
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
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