Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Kane’s Streak Ends, Did it Propel Him to Best Player?

By Louie Centanni

After 26 consecutive games with a point, Patrick Kane was finally shut out. And if you ask him, that's a good thing.

"I can just focus on playing hockey and it'll be nice not talking about it anymore," Kane said in a postgame interview. "When you have to talk about it every day, it gets a little taxing."

While displaying the stereotypical humility of a sport filled with an abundance of team-first stars, Kane's words evoke the exhaustion that must come with such an extended period of success. The little things that don't show up on paper probably began to wear on him as his streak continued: the extra shifts late in games, the additional passes that went his way from teammates who were cognizant of the history in front of them, and more attention from defensive players who wanted to be the dragon slayers. All of these things make what Kane accomplished even more impressive.

But did this streak finally vault Kane to the top of the "best hockey player in the league" conversation? For years, he has been called the "most skilled" or the "most fun to watch," but rarely have players and fans alike referred to him as the "best." And obviously, he has no Hart Trophy. But at last, these compliments are being lobbed his way. Are they true? Is the hardware coming his way to prove it?

With a question of such subjectivity, it's hard for me to definitively proclaim him as the best player in the league right now. Like those old polls on ESPN.com asking whether Tiger Woods or "the field" would win the Master's, it's so much safer to take the other 99.9%. And let's be clear, only one hockey player has ever been at the level of Tiger Woods: the Great One.

So instead of outright proclaiming Kane as the current best, I have compiled a list of the top five Hart Trophy candidates, the highest echelon in the league at present. With a few words to echo why they merit such a ranking, I will leave it to the reader to decide who is the best and, perhaps looking forward, who may overtake Kane for the Hart Memorial Trophy by season's end.

First, let's start with the obvious:

Patrick Kane - RW - Chicago Blackhawks
Stats: 19 G, 27 A, 46 PTS, +10

There's not much else to say about Kane, who has had one of the most dominant first halves in league memory. Without dwelling too much on the scandal that surrounded him all summer, it's impressive to see an athlete put adversity behind him and perform at such a consistently high level. And boy, can he stickhandle...

Tyler Seguin - C - Dallas Stars
Stats: 17 G, 25 A, 42 PTS, +12

One of the main reasons that Dallas has been playing at an otherworldly level this season, the 23 year-old centerman is skating at a level that has to make Boston fans cringe. To think that they unloaded the then-20 year-old immediately after the 2013 Cup Finals. His speed, smarts, and versatility (he is playing RW often, too) have put him into the conversation for the Art Ross this season in addition to the Hart. What a year so far.

Jamie Benn - LW - Dallas Stars
Stats: 20 G, 21 A, 41 PTS, +13

The current Art Ross Trophy holder. There's not much else to say when a team has two of the top three candidates for such an award other than: DOMINATION. This line has been a nightmare for opposing defenses. They simply don't know where to start, and it shows. Benn, who has seemingly gotten better each year in the league, seems poised to destroy his career-high 35 goals (set in 2014-15) and potentially fight for his first scoring title. It's hard to leave such a contender off the list of best NHL players.

Erik Karlsson - D - Ottawa Senators
Stats: 7 G, 28 A, 35 PTS, +5

While a lot of talking heads don't even have Karlsson winning the Norris Trophy (best defenseman, which is supposedly going to John Klingberg of the ubiquitous Dallas Stars), Karlsson's season has arguably been the better all around performance. For starters, his team isn't running away with the President's Trophy (though, neither is Dallas at this moment, with Washington only one win behind), but beyond that, Ottawa simply hasn't had the offensive output that Dallas has had. Yet Karlsson is still putting up excellent numbers for a blueliner. I wouldn't be surprised to see Klingberg take the Norris home this year, but if there's a defenseman taking home the Hart, Karlsson would be my first choice at this juncture.

Braden Holtby - G - Washington Capitals
Stats: 1.83 GAA, 93.5% SV

Okay, this is a long-shot, but I didn't simply want to go by points (which, admittedly, was my guiding resource — more on that in a bit). Truth be told, Holtby is playing out of his mind, allowing fewer than 2 goals per game and winning every single shootout he's been a part of. This allows him to earn those additional points that other teams miss out on, which may add up to quite a bit of help (and home-ice advantage) come Stanley Cup playoff time.

As I stated above, I've left out many of the obvious two-way players who are in this conversation yearly: Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, and reigning champ Carey Price, to name a few. This is not entirely out of ignorance, but rather because the offensive numbers are so down league-wide in 2015-16 (the league is even thinking about ways to increase scoring) that the players who are finding ways to create goals are simply more valuable right now.

So to answer the initial question: is Kane currently the best player in hockey? I'll go with the safe answer: no. But I'll throw in this addition: ... yet. If he can follow up his 26 game dominance with another run of excellence, the Hart Trophy — and the distinction of best hockey player alive — will fall to Kane. Get back to me in a few months.

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