Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Chris Baud, Sam Fels and Jesse Spector
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Today we talk about underrated NHL dudes of the past 30 years. In a league that gets a distant fourth-billing in North America and rarely even attempts to market the game’s greatest stars, it’s a much easier task than coming up with overrated players.

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CHRIS BAUD: Let’s start with CLIFF RONNING.

That guy could skate like the wind, score goals at will, and knock over every player in the league with ease. I mean, that was just in EA Sports, but that should count for something.

JESSE SPECTOR: I don’t know if Ronning is underrated, just because he was so damn good in that video game.

SAM FELS: I will never say anything nice about a Canuck, so you’ll have to do this between the two of you.

CB: Yeah do you know the story behind that? He was friends with a guy at EA Sports and they just made him a god in the game.

 JS: Yeah... in real life, though, that guy was as terrifying to me as Pavel Bure in the 1994 Final.

SF: So how does that happen and yet every Canucks fan is convinced there’s a conspiracy against them?

JS: I don’t know, but as long as we’re on the Canucks, I don’t think he was on our preliminary list, but...

ROBERTO LUONGO?

SF: Luongo is a definite for me. He gets a ton of shit for the Canucks playoff dry-heaves, and he definitely contributed, but his longevity is truly something to behold.

He’s also an excellent example of a player who re-made his image through social media. He had a .929 save percentage just two years ago at 38.

JS: But I think that also hurt him a little because he became kind of seen as a goof. He put up a .919 career save percentage, but never won a Vezina.

SF: If being a goof is seen as a detriment, I’ll be fired any day now.

Illustration for article titled The Most Underrated NHL Players Since 1990
Photo: Getty

CB: I saw a poll on Twitter asking what’s the highest position among the all-time greats you would consider Luongo, and a lot of people put him in the Top 5. That kind of surprised me, so I guess I always underrated him.

JS: Well... Look at that 2011 Canucks team, though. It’s the Sedins and him. And he spent a lot of time in the years around that getting roasted because the Hawks lit him up. Of course they did! Who was on that defense?

SF: That defense was awful. He certainly didn’t help himself with his comments in ’11 about Tim Thomas and such, but they also didn’t score in Game 7. So there isn’t much he could have done.

It seems like he takes the fall for another you have on the list, which is the...

SEDIN TWINS

SF: We could have done them yesterday just as easily.

CB: I suppose there’s a fascinating question: How good would they have been had they not played together? But it’s weird because it’s hard to think of them NOT being together. It was just meant to be.

JS: The reason I think the Sedins are underrated is because they were both borderline — and I’m not even sure if it’s borderline — Hall-of-Fame players. But they get lumped together as “The Sedin Twins”, even in our discussion, because they’re twins. Sorry to twins everywhere.

SF: I think they’re unquestionably great players. As much as I like to, at least when it comes to Jagr, judge players on the playoffs, it can be iffy given the sample size and such. But there is a tainting of their record because they did go missing a lot when the Canucks needed them.

They were nowhere against the Bruins, and against the Hawks the two previous seasons.

At some point you have to chip in SOMETHING.

(Also I think Henrik would have been fine without Daniel. Not convinced the other way).

CB: There’s something to be said about Alain Vigneault’s system here.

Vigneault uses this “roll 4 lines” system and I think it’s very hard for individuals to put up big numbers. The 2013-14 Rangers were fourth in the league in goals but their leading scorer only had 59 points. You see that with the Sedins as well.

JS: The Bruins had Chara, the Hawks had Keith, and other excellent defensemen around them. The Canucks had nobody else who you’d think about putting your top D on. Obviously, in a cap league, you couldn’t have put the Sedins on the Penguins or whatever, but how much better would they have been in the playoffs with, say, 2002 Brett Hull types on lower lines?

I think there’s also some East Coast bias at play, because how much did most of the hockey world see those Canucks teams outside of the playoffs?

SF: Well Chris, Vigneault Is just about the most matchy-uppy coach in the league, so they weren’t always on the ice against Hall of Famers.

And yes, they did face all-time great d-men, but cue Ric Flair here...

JS: And speaking of that, and a guy just mentioned...

DUNCAN KEITH

SF: Keith has two Norrises, a Conn Smythe, and two gold medals so it’s hard to see how he’s underrated.

JS: And he’s going to the Hall of Fame. The reason he’s underrated is because you can make a case that he’s the most important player to a team that won three Cups, yet most people can name Kane and Toews and not him.

SF: As a local I will back you up on that. He was definitely the most important player on those teams.

When he was good or great, the Hawks were, too. When he wasn’t, they weren’t.

CB: Keith absolutely deserved that Conn Smythe.

SF: You could also say he opened up the game for defenders his size. He’s not the most talented guy offensively, but teams have been less afraid to use guys like Klingberg or Karlsson or Josi as No. 1 d-men now.

JS: Him, Scott Niedermayer, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Scott Stevens are the only defensemen to win the Conn Smythe this century. All HOF material, but Keith also doesn’t get talked about like those other three.

SF: Well, where I used to work, we compared him with Niedermayer all the time, as that’s who his style most resembles.

As long as we’re here, I would throw JOHN KLINGBERG on this underrated list. He’s had a hard time staying on the ice of late but he’s a dynamic possession-driver when healthy.

And he plays in a hockey outpost.

CB: I think there’s this phenomenon where defensemen who score points are thought of as “offensive defensemen”, and get underrated for their defense.

Illustration for article titled The Most Underrated NHL Players Since 1990
Photo: Getty

JS: I think he’s rated properly as a guy who doesn’t get enough respect because he’s on a team that’s been pretty blah for most of his career, and could easily transition to being overrated in his 30s, especially if his body is breaking down.

SF: Well luckily then he’s got a teammate in Miro Heiskanen who will probably be better.

CB: I think ERIK KARLSSON is actually a good example of that. Because he’s so good offensively, people overlook the fact that he has been downright dominant defensively for most of his career. Look at how Ottawa’s goals against exploded without him.

JS: Getting rid of all of their players with any shred of talent was a big problem.

Who could’ve guessed?

SF: That gets into the whole discussion of – if keeping the puck for yourself makes you a good defensive player.

Karlsson’s unique talents just meant the Sens had the puck all the time when he was out there, so they didn’t have to play much defense.

CB: That’s part of it, but he was actually also really good defensively.

JS: I think that really came across in the playoff run. The Penguins had no idea what to do against him.

SF: Karlsson, maybe even more so than Keith, could be underrated in that he changed how the game is viewed, played, and teams are built.

Now every team wants and needs a player that can wheel out of the zone on their own.

JS: Do we think defensemen tend to be underrated more just because it’s harder for the average person to get around the stats?

SF: Stats are one part of it, burgeoning metrics is another, and the change in style. The hulking, road-grader type is just going to be out of the league in the next couple years.

JS: Let’s pour one out for Big Hal Gill.

CB: I think the advent of advanced metrics in hockey has played a big part, too. You’re better off with guys who deny easy entries at the blue line and get the puck into the offensive zone. JARED SPURGEON is possibly the most underrated. His metrics are fantastic but he doesn’t put up huge points, and he’s a small guy who plays in Minnesota.

JS: If you want proof that the best defense is having the puck, look at the Hurricanes in the David Ayres game.

SF: I love Spurgeon just about as much as anyone outside of Minnesota can, which doesn’t make me feel good about where I’m at in life.

JS: Sorry about this.

SF: Spector, go sit in the corner and think about what you’ve done.

But he’s criminally underrated. He’s kind of like hockey’s Ben Zobrist, during his Rays days.

JS: Zobrist heated up right when WAR was taking off. I remember writing a piece at the Daily News that was like, “Do you know who this guy is that this stat says is the second best player in the league?”

SF: Let’s not fall down too far into the Zobrist hole because I’m just going to go watch Game 7 (of the 2016 World Series) again and cry for a day.

CB: I want to get back to my point about Vigneault. Because I really just want to talk about how great SEAN COUTURIER is.

JS: Let’s do it.

SF: I can’t argue with Couturier.

Illustration for article titled The Most Underrated NHL Players Since 1990
Photo: Getty

JS: I’ve been a huge Couturier fan since that 2012 Penguins series.

CB: He’s never going to put up HUGE numbers, but he’s become a consistent 30-goal, 70-point scorer. But every night he matches up against the other team’s best line and dominates them in shots for/against. Sometimes the numbers are just silly. And he hasn’t won a Selke yet, which is sort of criminal. He might win it this year though.

SF: Some of the highest relative Corsi in the league the past couple seasons.

JS: And with his defense... I know there was a whole, “is Connor McDavid really a complete player?” thing, and I’m not at all saying Couturier is on McDavid’s level, but his offense gets overlooked because of his defense, which is indeed Selke level.

CB: And the Flyers have been so mediocre for years, it’s a shame. Couturier has three career hat tricks, two in the playoffs against Pittsburgh. One when he was 19 and matched against Evgeni Malkin. The other when he was matched against Sid Crosby and he had one leg.

SF: Couturier consistently runs relative xG% at 5.00 or higher.

CB: Watch a game, you nerd.

SF: He definitely doesn’t get the attention he should. Being in a division with Crosby and Ovechkin probably doesn’t help.

JS: Except that he’s routinely making his bones by being the guy who can slow down those guys.

SF: Right. But when those two teams are at the top of the division and Philly has barely scraped in at the bottom of the playoffs at best, this is what you get.

CB: I suspect he will get his due eventually, as the Flyers presumably go on playoff runs and he gets recognized for being a Bergeron type.

SF: So that playoff run is just a given now?

CB: I said presumably.

JS: I want to make a Bruce Bowen parallel, but he’s better than Bruce Bowen.

SF: And not as dirty. And I think his teammates actually like him.

JS: Yeah... anyway, the Flyers will make that playoff run with Carter Hart. That will happen. Eventually.

CB: OK I’m satisfied with the “glorify Couturier” segment.

SF: Glad we could help.

JS: But since you mentioned him in connection with Couturier, how about EVGENI MALKIN?

Illustration for article titled The Most Underrated NHL Players Since 1990
Photo: Getty

CB: I despise Malkin, but secretly love him, also.

SF: This is one of those where it depends on where you think he’s rated to begin with. This is where we have to mention he wasn’t in the NHL Top 100 all time or whatever, right?

JS: Including the year he won it, Malkin has only gotten Hart votes in four seasons.

CB: He is very dirty and easy to hate. But an incredible player.

SF: Also has a Calder and a Conn Smythe. Malkin definitely can get the ass easily, but he also might be the most gifted player in the league.

CB: Mostly it’s the playing with Crosby factor I think, but I also believe Russian players are still underrated to a degree. And he probably isn’t the most well-liked guy in the NHL.

JS: It doesn’t help that he’s missed a lot of time in regular seasons, but he’s going to be over 500 goals in his career, maybe reach 600, and he’s constantly overshadowed by Crosby.

SF: Also he’s uglier than sin. He seriously might be the goofiest looking person in sports.

JS: That’s an entirely different list. Which we should absolutely do.

SF: Beat you to it: https://faxesfromuncledale.com/the-all-ugly-team/

CB: He looks like Shrek. Do people call him that, or is it just Flyers fans?

CB: Since I mentioned the Russian factor, I’d like to run down a few more Russians I think are underrated. PETER BONDRA… who no one today really remembers, he was a tremendous player. But I think the role of “high-scoring Russian/Soviet winger on the Caps” just got utterly subsumed by Ovechkin, and rightfully so. (Note: Sam points out that Bondra, born in Ukraine when it was part of the USSR, is actually Slovak).

JS: I remember Peter Bondra! He was very good.

SF: He’s got 500 goals, but yeah you don’t hear that much about him.

CB: ILYA KOVALCHUK … is kind of a similar player, he was ridiculously great, and I don’t feel like he gets into the Hall of Fame. He lost a lot of time to work stoppages and obviously playing overseas.

Illustration for article titled The Most Underrated NHL Players Since 1990
Photo: Getty

JS: The overseas was his own choice... if he didn’t leave for six years, he’d have had 600 goals in the NHL.

SF: But some will always see that as being something of a “deserter.” It’s not like he left to finish out his career. He was 30.

JS: That said, it’s the Hockey Hall of Fame, and it’s not like he wasn’t playing.

SF: Well, try explaining that to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

JS: His KHL numbers are... not that impressive?

SF: It’s hard to know what KHL numbers even mean.

JS: I think his mean that he was cashing checks.

CB: I think Pavel Datsyuk was probably underrated, but I’m not sure. When the Players Tribune had a series of NHL players talking about their toughest opponents, he was mentioned numerous times. it’s probably more like fans underrated him. His offensive numbers are very good, but not astonishing. He was one of the greatest two-way players I’ve ever seen.

JS: I never had a sense that Datsyuk wasn’t getting his due.

SF: I feel like any player nowadays that can stick handle and comes back on defense at all gets compared to him.

CB: Yeah, that’s true. He’s pretty iconic.

JS: For a while, if you asked Siri, “Who is the Magic Man?” it would answer Datsyuk.

CB: That’s great.

SF: I saw him do things to Cam Barker at the Winter Classic that no one should have to witness.

CB: He’s the closest thing to a Harlem Globetrotter that the NHL has ever had.

JS: So, how about one of the guys Datsyuk and the Wings made sad for so many years... PATRICK MARLEAU

SF: I don’t think you’re allowed to say anything bad about a guy who had Jeremy Fucking Roenick come and berate him at his house in the middle of the night.

He’s been through enough.

JS: The fucking balls on Roenick to go after someone for not winning enough.

CB: Marleau is probably going to set the league record for games played, which is astonishing.

JS: But the thing that’s amazing is Roenick’s criticism stuck for a lot of people, and Marleau got dinged through his career as some kind of loser.

CB: I loved Roenick most of his career, but fuck that guy.

SF: That flamingo in Calgary in ’08, never really lived it down. Even though the Sharks never, ever had a goalie. Evgeny Nabokov was the definition of “just good enough to break your heart.”

CB: Let’s acknowledge... CONNOR HELLEBUYCK … who is somehow the best goalie in the league ... and underrated.

Illustration for article titled The Most Underrated NHL Players Since 1990
Photo: Getty

SF: Hellebuyck should probably win the Hart this year, because that Jets team is a mess. Especially on the back end.

CB: He didn’t make the top 3 goalies in the players’ pool if i recall correctly

JS: That they were even close to the playoffs is entirely about him.

SF: There’s one more guy that I definitely want to get to, and that’s DOUGIE HAMILTON. He’s been traded twice, clearly because he seems to have a brain. And yet all he does is push the play the right way.

CB: But he likes museums!

JS: That’s easy. Hockey people don’t like Dougie Hamilton because he cares about more in life than hockey. I hope his injury isn’t career-changing.

SF: They seem to know what they have in Carolina. They moved Faulk instead of him, though some of that was contract based.

CB: He’s a 6-foot-6 guy who doesn’t play like Derian Hatcher so he’s regarded as soft.

SF: Can we get Derian Hatcher to take out Roenick now?

JS: Am I the only one who thinks Derian Hatcher looked like Triple H? What I’m saying is, hit Jeremy Roenick with the Pedigree.

SF: A young HHH? I could see it a bit.

JS: Then crotch chop. Yeah, I mean, certain things had an effect on HHH’s looks over the years.

I’ve got one more, and I’m not sure if he’s underrated, but I want to know what you think: PAUL KARIYA

SF: I. hate. Paul. Kariya.

JS: Okay, but he was an excellent player... is he rated properly?

SF: I think so. One of the greatest NCAA players of all time too, right? Maybe the best.

But he also would tie the strings on the collar of his jersey into a bow, so it’s all negated.

CB: I can see the argument. If you want to talk about somewhat forgotten 1990s stars, I’d say ALEXANDER MOGILNY is right up there. He was one of my favorite players, and I forgot to mention him.

Illustration for article titled The Most Underrated NHL Players Since 1990
Image: Getty

SF: That 76-goal season seems so random. Only Lemieux has even come close since.

CB: Kariya is in the Hall of Fame though and Mogilny is not.

SF: Well, Mogilny only has that one season essentially. One other 50-goal campaign.

Not even 500 career goals. He doesn’t strike me as a Hall of Famer.

JS: Obviously because Kariya had two Lady Byngs to Mogilny’s one.

SF: Hall of Very Good. Kariya could at least make the argument that injuries robbed him of numbers.

CB: There’s a good case to be made that Mogilny is the best player from that era not in the Hall of Fame though. Whether that means he should be in is another question.

Mogilny, Fleury, Turgeon.

JS: Mogilny lost a season and a half to work stoppages and wound up at 473.

SF: True. So did everyone though.

JS: I’m just saying, if 500 is what you’re talking about, he kinda got screwed out of 500.

SF: Kariya also had a 100-point season in college, which is just unheard of.

CB: Will never be matched, because college hockey is all about defense now.

JS: Yeah, nobody’s scored a goal in a month.

CB: Good point.

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