This new series will profile the player on each team who has the ability to make a profound impact on every game in numerous ways. This is not a countdown of the best players, but instead a look at the team’s most important player, not just from a statistical standpoint, but how he brings to the table that no one else does. Here are some criteria that into the determination:
- Output- Obviously, it is necessary to at least analyze the stats of each player, but low points or defensive totals do not eliminate a player from contention.
- Leadership Ability- Is this player the emotional leader of the team? Does he lead by example?
- Hustle- We all love to see a player with limited skill beat out a superstar. Hustle is an integral part of hockey, and having a great motor has to be factored in.
- Physicality- A player who changes momentum with a big hit or strong run at the net can have a profound impact in an intense contest.
Most importantly, their play must generally dictate the flow and direction of the team. These players are critical to the success, or underperform in their downfall, but all have huge impacts in each and every contest.
Here are the Northeast Divison X-Factors:
Boston Bruins, D Zdeno Chara-
Chara is a mammoth man on the ice, at over seven feet tall with skates and over 255 lbs, he is clearly a force to be reckoned with. Yet, for all his height and bulk, Chara is adept with his stick, making passes that some top line forwards can’t. He is the quintessential all-around defenseman – he plays great team defense, is physical at the point of attack, has a “wicked hard” slap-shot, great vision on the power play, and can make two-line passes with ease. The only knocks against Chara are his skating and his hard time defending one-on-one, but thats to be expected from a guy his size. “Big Z” is clearly the leader on the defensive end, especially with the loss of former Vezina award winner Tim Thomas, now surrounded with much younger players. In 2011, Chara had a staggering +/- of 33, while registering 40 assists and 52 points (both career highs) at the age of 35. As of yet, his skill has not begun to decline, and if he stays healthy, I imagine Chara could be a top-flight defensemen and Boston’s captain for another half decade. Big Z is the perfect example for an “X-Factor”, because what you see is definitely NOT what you get from him, as he continues to lead a perennial tough and talented Bruins team.
Buffalo Sabres, G Ryan Miller-
Ryan Miller had his best season in 2009-2010, registering a 2.22 GAA, winning the Vezina Award, and leading the Sabres to a Northeast division title. Then, the US goaltender carried the squad to a silver medal at the 2010 olympics. Since then, however, it has all been downhill for Miller, and Buffalo for that matter. The Sabres made the playoffs in 2010, but were ousted Philly in the first round. In 2011, Buffalo fell three points outside a playoff birth, with many blaming Miller for his slow start, hamstringing the rest of the season. To be honest, some of the criticism is undeserved, as Buffalo had a mediocre defense which forced Miller to make save after save. But, after showing that he could do just that in 2009, why wouldn’t he be expected to continue his impressive play. As Ryan Miller goes, so do the Sabres, which makes him the ultimate X-Factor. When he is playing well, Buffalo is almost unbeatable. But when he allows soft goals or loses his bearings between the pipes (which happened quite often last season), they are an easy three points. To be sure, the loss of center Derek Roy will put further reliance on Miller, who will either carry the Sabres on his back, or let them squash him against the ice.
Montreal Canadiens, D P.K. Subban-
The 23-year old RFA D man has shown flashes of brilliance during his brief time in Montreal. Subban has begun to develop into a stellar top-four defensemen, with both firepower on the offensive end and tenacious physicality on the defensive. He led the Habs with 119 penalty minutes, was 4th in assists with 29, had 14 power play points, and averaged two more minutes on the ice than the number two player. Clearly, this kid can do it all, and he is still in the beginning stages of his development. By matching him up with 27-year old Josh Gorges, the Canadiens are beginning to the see the future of their defense become the present, with both players improving immensely last season. Although Subban had a lower goal total, he bumped his +/- by 17, increasing from -8 to 9, as well as developing more consistency on special teams. Subban has the speed and explosiveness not commonly found in a defensemen, and has the ability to change a game on both ends of the ice. To be sure, it would be wise for the Habs to lock him up for many years to come.
Ottawa Senators, RW Chris Neil
The 10-year veteran has spent a decade in Ottawa after being drafted in the 6th round in 1998, and has been the model of consistency for an extremely inconsistent team. Neal has posted at least 10 points and 145 penalty minutes in every season, but what he does goes beyond the statistics. Neil is the definition of scrappy, a player who was not blessed with ridiculous skill, but with an inherent toughness and never-stop motor. He is a garbage goal kind of player who will occasionally throw in a pretty (second-line) power play goal. The physical play of Neil clearly inspired a young Ottawa team that was able to slip into the playoffs and give the New York Rangers a hell of a series. In that series, Neil posted three points, two of which were on the powerplay, and racked up 22 penalty minutes as the Senators clearly out-hustled and out-worked the top seeded Rangers. The Senators began to embody the character of Neil, a guy that comes to work everyday and puts in 100% effort.
Toronto Maple Leafs, LW Mikhail Grabovski-
Grabovski has spent all six of his NHL seasons north of the border, the last four of which in Toronto. The 28-year old center has been great since becoming a Maple Leaf, registering at least 35 points each season and over 50 in two, not to mention he was one of only five Toronto players last year to have a non-negative +/- rating. Clearly, the team is significantly improved when he is on the ice, whether it be on the offensive end or the penalty kill, Grabovski seems capable of being a perennial all-star two-way forward. Although generally unheralded outside of Canada, he is one of the most efficient forwards in the NHL, with an average shooting percentage just over 13% his last two seasons, he makes the most of his time on the ice. Even though he is not a top-line center, mostly due to his solid, yet not elite faceoff percentage (51%), Grabovski creates incredible momentum for his squad, scoring two game winning goals (keep in mind Toronto only won 35 games all season), and ranking 5th in penalty minutes. Grabovski is definitely the kind of character and work ethic player to build a team around, and Toronto needs players like him if they are to escape from being continuously in the bottom third of the NHL standings.