This 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 what 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 Central Division X-Factors:
Chicago Blackhawks, D Duncan Keith- As far as giving your team all-out effort, Duncan Keith is tops in the league, posting an average of 26:54 time on ice, tied first in the NHL. Just to give that stat a little more perspective, Keith was ranked 21st in the league in total number of shifts, while missing eight regular season games. His ability to consistently be on the ice in crucial situations, while still having the energy to make a big impact in the scoring column (four goals, 36 assists), makes Keith one of the top blueliners in the league. Althouth typically considered an offensive defenseman (rightfully so, as he has compiled at least 40 points in the last four seasons), he is also an above average defender, whose willing to do the dirty work to help his team succeed. The alternate captain is a veteran presence on the back end for the Hawks, who surely need that leadership with their unreliable goalie play.The Blackhawks are clearly a better team when he is on the ice, as he posted a 15 +/-, and it is likely that his workload will not diminish this coming season, as Chicago did not add much help on the blueline.
Columbus Blue Jackets, the Goalie – Considered the strength of an extremely weak team, the Columbus defense showed signs of improvement throughout the 2011-2012 season, and got even better with the Rick Nash trade (acquired D Tim Erixon) and the draft (D Ryan Murray). Many have pointed out that in fact it was the poor goaltending, and not the defense, that caused the Jackets to be 28th in goals per game (3.1) and dead last in penalty kill percentage (76.6%). Columbus’ goaltending situation is pretty up in the air, with rookie Allen York (2.3 GAA) and veteran Curtis Sanford (2.6 GAA) vying for the starting spot. No matter which one enters the season as the starter, the Blue Jacket goalie play has to be far improved from last season, if Columbus has hopes of being in contention for a playoff spot. Even though their offensive numbers will not be great, they still have some playmakers in Brandon Dubinsky, Vinny Prospal, Derick Brassard, and Jeff Carter, and with their defense looking like a top-10 unit, the only thing holding this team in the 15th spot is the goalie.
Detroit Red Wings, RW Todd Bertuzzi- Bertuzzi is the perfect compliment to players like Pavel Datsyuk, Valtteri Filppula, and Jiri Hudler – a hardworking, physical forwards with an ability to both score goals and play defense, while still being the Wings’ enforcer. Bertuzzi is one of the most well-rounded players in the league, who has the ability to contribute in all facets of the game, on both ends of the ice. Despite being 37 years old, he tallied 38 (14 g, 24 a) points in only 71 games. He also led Detroit in penalty minutes with 64. Bertuzzi is the model of consistency, having scored at least 45 points in his 16 full NHL seasons. His work ethic on the ice is clear, and his benefit to the team is exemplified in his 23 +/-. Although he is 37, the Wings recently extended him for another two years, signaling both his importance to the organization, and his ability to make an impact and lead a team that is probably making its last run at a title.
Nashville Predators, D Hal Gill- Although Gill is going into his first full season as a Nashville Predator, he has the chance to be a difference maker on the blueline, along with newly resigned stud Shea Weber. He will surely be feeling the pressure of having to step into Ryan Suter’s skates, who departed for Minnesotta on a 13-year, 98 million dollar deal. The insane production of a Weber-Suter pairing probably can’t be duplicated by Weber-Gill, but Gill can soften the blow by having a career year while being matched up with a premier defenseman like Weber. Although he is 37, Gill is still a valuable asset on the blueline, as he is both an extremely physical, yet offensively capable defensman. He is an extremely important short-term asset for the Preds, and a lot of their success will hinge on their ability to prevent goals, as much of their offensive role players departed in free agency. Further, and perhaps most importantly, Gill is a veteran leader with a lot of playoff experience, who will be able to usher in a new wave of Nashville defensemen.
St. Louis Blues, C Andy McDonald- For any Blues fan, it is clear that St. Louis is an entirely different team when Andy McDonald is on the ice. Although he missed a majority of the season with a concussion, McDonald was still able to register 22 points in 25 games, and revitalized a stagnant St. Louis power play. He was even more of a difference maker in the playoffs, as he tallied 10 points (5 goals, 5 assists), six of which were on the power play. McDonald is a smooth skating winger who has great vision and the ability to finish in front of goal. He is without a doubt a pivotal, yet commonly overlooked, player for the Bluenotes, who at times struggle to create on the offensive end. His creativity on the offensive end and willingness to battle along the boards makes McDonald a leader on the ice, and an impact player who can change the course of a game with a quick deke or blueline pass.