The NHL is experiencing an influx of exceptional once-in-a-generation talent. There's no doubt about that. Looking ahead to 2011, several teams, specifically Calgary and New Jersey, are searching for an identity, looking for a way to sneak into the playoffs, and if not, rebuild their team. Jarome Iginla and Martin Brodeur's best days are over, and with their impending retirements or departures within the next couple of years, the two franchises are looking for players to fill the void.
When finding that franchise player, it really depends on how you want to build your team. Some teams like to build from the net out, while others put more emphasis on a forward or defenseman. I've torn a couple hairs from my head trying to compile this list and with the amount of talent to pick from it's difficult after the first three picks. To make my life a little easier, I've split the list up into three sections: goaltenders, defensemen, and forwards.
To kick off the new year, let's look at the league's 30 best franchise players, with a major emphasis on age, leadership, and future potential, but keep in mind, this is not the current best 30 under 30, but the future best. Read on to find out which Canuck makes the list.
30. Steve Mason, Columbus (age: 22, drafted 3rd round, 69th overall in 2006)
Never a highly touted prospect until he won gold with Canada at the World Juniors, Mason was selected in the 11th round by the London Knights in the OHL draft. After compiling a 77-20-2 record over his final two seasons with London and Kitchener, Mason no longer had anything to prove at that level and signed with the Jackets, appearing in 3 games for AHL-affiliate Syracuse, posting an incredible 1.63 GAA and .937 SV%. It was a small sample size, but with starter Pascal Leclaire sidelined with injury (no surprises there) the Jackets called him up and haven't looked back. A fantastic rookie season, 33-20-7, 2.29 GAA, .916 SV%, led to a Vezina nomination and a Calder Trophy. Like most young players Mason has struggled in his second season. Regardless, Mason remains one of Canada's best upcoming netminders.
29. Cam Ward, Carolina (age: 26, drafted 1st round, 22nd overall in 2002)
The unassuming Saskatchewan-born goalie improved his win totals from 30 to 37 to 39 in his first three seasons as a starter before being sidelined by injuries last year, posting just 18 wins in 47 games. Like Hiller, Ward's a proven winner: he's the first rookie since Patrick Roy to win the Cup and the first rookie since Ron Hextall to claim Conn Smythe honours. If there's any knock against Ward, is that he's inconsistent and his save percentage - a career save percentage of .905 going into this season - is back-up material at best. However, there's enough past history and talent there to pick him as your franchise goalie.
28. Henrik Lundqvist, NY Rangers (age: 28, drafted 7th round, 205th overall in 2000)
That King Henrik was drafted in the 7th round tells you how unheralded he was until he led Sweden to a 4th place finish at the World Juniors in 2001, a tournament that rarely sees Sweden finish high (excluding the last 3 years in which the Swedes captured silver twice and bronze once, the last time the Swedes medaled was in 1996, and since the tournament's inception they've only captured gold once). Playing for Frolunda in the Elitserien, Lundqvist was named the league's MVP with record-setting statistics: a minuscule 1.05 GAA, .962 SV%, 6 shutouts, and a shutout streak of 172 minutes and 29 seconds. He became the first goalie to win 30 games in his first five seasons in the NHL and has single-handedly managed to keep the Rangers in playoff contention every year despite an often anemic offense pre-Marian Gaborik.
<img src="http://cmsimg.detnews.com/apps/pbcsi.dll/bilde?Site=C3&Date=20090513&Category=OPINION03&ArtNo=905130394&Ref=AR"class="imageFloatLeftFramed">27. Jonas Hiller, Anaheim (age: 28, undrafted)
Often overlooked because he plays in California under the shadow of four spectacular forwards (Getzlaf, Perry, Ryan, Selanne) and a defenseman on track for a career season (Visnovsky), Hiller is one of the league's most underrated goalies. He always has a save percentage hovering around .920, an incredible mark to maintain throughout a career. While his goals against has risen since his rookie season, it is more a reflection of Anaheim's porous defense, which makes him arguably their most valuable player. That's not mentioning that Hiller's a competitor and a proven winner, having won the Swiss league championship three times and the Spengler Cup twice. He's an outstanding big game goalie, having ousted the Presidents' Trophy-winning Sharks in the opening round in 2009 and stopped 44 shots in a 3-2 shootout loss to a heavily favoured Canada in the Olympic preliminaries. If age was not a factor, Hiller would be at the top of the list.
26. Carey Price, Montreal (age: 23, drafted 1st round, 5th overall in 2005)
The 2005 draft, which produced Sidney Crosby, Bobby Ryan, Anze Kopitar, Jack Johnson, Marc Staal, TJ Oshie, and Tuukka Rask in the first round alone, only three players from that draft have been made All-Stars. Crosby's the obvious choice, and if you guessed Kopitar as the second then pat yourself on the back. The third? None other than Price, the only Canadien whose play can easily sway Montreal into either another Richard Riot or an Eastern European all-night rave. (Granted, that All-Star game also featured Mike Komisarek, but still.) When Price is at his best, which admittedly isn't as often as anyone would like, he can arguably be the best goalie in the league. He's more talented than Mason and Ward and younger than Hiller and Lundqvist. Take him.
25. Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles (age: 24, drafted 3rd round, 72nd overall in 2005)
It's a shame that Connecticut native Quick plays out West, potentially killing any chance of a Price-Quick rivalry. Could you imagine? Both 2005 grads, an east coast American in a booming California hockey market and a western Canadian in an unforgiving hockey market. The future netminders of USA and Canada. The implications could be huge. The names themselves couldn't be any easier to make up headlines for. Price dwarfs Quick in terms of trophy case material, but it's tough to say which goalie's cupboard will fill up faster. I will concede that Price is the more talented goalie, but to make up for my homerism I will say that I would bank on Quick to give me more quality starts than Price over a full season. He just seems more level-headed.
24. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh (age: 26, drafted 1st round, 1st overall in 2003)
Before his diving, Championship-winning save on Nicklas Lidstrom in game seven, Fleury was a known choker. It wasn't because he wasn't good, but he had a penchant for losing big games in the worst way possible (think Bryan McCabe style). At the 2004 World Juniors, Fleury led Canada to the gold medal game for the second straight year, this time against USA. There was a lot at stake for both teams. Canada had not captured gold since 1997 and settled for silver after losing to Russia in front of a hometown crowd in Halifax. The Americans had not medaled since 1997 when they lost to Canada, so it was very much a redemption game, and tack on the fact that USA had yet to win gold in the tournament's history, there was a lot for them to prove. With five minutes remaining in a 3-3 tie, a cleared puck was rolling towards Fleury with Patrick O'Sullivan bearing down on him. Even though both Canadian defensemen (Braydon Coburn and Brent Seabrook) had already closed in on O'Sullivan, Fleury went on the offensive. His ill-advised attempt to clear the puck hit Coburn square on the chest and the puck bounced in, giving the Americans a 4-3 victory and their first World Junior gold. The second gut-wrenching came in 2008 Finals. With Henrik Zetterberg flying down the left wing, Fleury stopped the initial shot but lost the puck in his pads, which had snuck behind him and lay still in the blue paint. Fleury immediately leaned back into a snow angel in an attempt to cover the puck, only to end up sitting on it and propelling the puck into his own net. That goal was the eventual game-winner. But all bad memories were cleared after that big Lidstrom stop, and while Fleury may never be a great regular season goalie (his two winningest seasons saw him post sub .900 SV%), at least he's proven that he can get you to the big game and perhaps win one or two... if you can also stand losing one or two.
(For those who hate on the World Juniors, you're really missing out. The WJHC has recently gained an unfair reputation as a meaningless tournament and merely a chance for Canada to stroke its own ego on the international stage. That's not true. Before winning five straight golds, Canada was on a seven-year gold-less draught and their 15 total golds is followed closely behind by the Soviet Union/Russia's 12. That's not mentioning that if you want to get a head start on which prospects to watch for in the upcoming drafts and camps, the World Juniors is the tournament to watch. These teams regularly field NHL-calibre talent. Josh Gorges, Kevin Klein, Tim Brent, Dan Paille, Jeff Tambellini, Brent Burns, and Max Talbot are the forgotten players on that 2004 squad with Fleury. Even more fun is discussing which players look like busts, like O'Sullivan. My bust pick from last year's squad? Patrice Cormier. Willie Desjardins absolutely picked the wrong leadership group and it cost him. And any time you're picked by the Devils, unless you've got high end talent or a well-developed defensive game, you're going to see very limited NHL time before your 23rd birthday.)
(What!? No Ryan Miller? You must be crazy! That statement depends on who you ask, but Miller is 30. He has one more Olympics left in him and by then he may not even start. By all means his 2009-10 season ranks among the best of all-time in the modern era, but it was the first time he entered 'elite' status, and as quickly as he claimed it he has lost it. I would take all the other guys I've listed over him for future potential.)
23. Dion Phaneuf, Toronto (age: 25, drafted 1st round, 9th overall in 2003)
Even though Phaneuf has not played as well as anyone in Leaf Nation would like, he still hasn't the potential to become a franchise blueliner. He's a hotheaded, Type-A personality player, which is great when things are going good and not so great when things are going bad, and those swings are exaggerated and magnified in Toronto. He's everything you'd want in a game-breaking player: a big shot, big hits, and attitude. But he's also everything you don't want in a tight game: a short fuse and a tendency to lose focus, resulting in missed assignments and bad giveaways. You could roll the dice with him, as Brian Burke obviously has by trading for him and naming him captain, but just knock on wood every game.
22. Erik Johnson, St. Louis (age: 22, drafted 1st round, 1st overall in 2006)
Often heralded as the better of the two Johnsons on the American blueline, you can't help but wonder how much better he would've been had he not missed an entire season to injury. Johnson played just one season at Minnesota before making the jump and his transition was seamless, scoring 33 points in 69 games in his rookie season. Already part of the young leadership core moving forward, Johnson follows a line of big impact St. Louis defensemen, which has featured Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger in the past. He has neither MacInnis' big shot nor Pronger's nastiness, but he's a defenseman that does all things very well. But this season, with injuries to the offensive front (TJ Oshie, David Perron, Andy McDonald), EJ's played has seemingly regressed, with just two goals thus far. I felt he was outplayed by Jack Johnson in the Olympics and Alex Pietrangelo this season.
<img src="http://kingscast.net/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/johnsonx.jpg"class="imageFloatRightFramed">21. Jack Johnson, Los Angeles (age: 23, drafted 1st round, 3rd overall in 2005)
I wasn't sold on him at first - I saw him as a Phaneuf-like clone, a big kid with immense talent and punishing checks but zero intelligence - but after watching him in the Olympics, he changed my mind. He drew criticism from Terry Murray for his penchant for getting out of position, a tendency Murray felt Johnson had developed because Michigan coach Red Berenson had allowed him to play as a rover. But he's been much better since, no doubt aided by the presence of some savvy veterans (Jarrett Stoll, Rob Scuderi) and humbled by more talented players (Drew Doughty). He was great offensively with Michigan, but it was an underdeveloped part of his game that didn't show until last year when he broke out with 36 points. His best days are still to come.
20. Duncan Keith, Chicago (age: 27, drafted 2nd round, 54th overall in 2002)
It took three years for Keith to crack the Hawks roster, even after moving from Michigan State to Kelowna to accelerate his development (he wasn't getting as many minutes as the Hawks would like, as the Spartans had John-Michael Liles ahead on the depth chart). He spent two more years in Norfolk (one due to the lockout), accumulating 51 points over two seasons. By the time Keith broke into the league, he was 22 years old, but he was ready. He averaged over 23 minutes a game in his rookie season, almost unheard of these days. His transition to the NHL has been slow and steady and should serve as a shining example of how to develop players taken after the first round. A player like Keith has at least another 10 years in the tank (his extension was for 13 years) so his age isn't as big of a factor as someone like Phaneuf, who plays a very physical game and has quite a bit of NHL mileage for a 25-year old.
19. Shea Weber, Nashville (age: 25, drafted 2nd round, 49th overall in 2003)
If Nashville's jettison of Tomas Vokoun, Scott Hartnell, and Kimmo Timonen sent the franchise back three years, losing Weber alone this summer could send them back five. Of all the defensemen listed here, Weber is the one with the most leadership potential. He's steady, logs big minutes, plays in all situations, shoots the puck from the blueline better than anyone in the West not named Lidstrom, and strong enough to clear anybody from the net. He's a guy I would love to see the Canucks go after, even if that means having to cut a forward, Kevin Bieksa, and Christian Ehrhoff loose. Weber may not be the guy who makes the game-winning play, but he certainly is a guy who can prevent it.
18. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles (age: 21, drafted 1st round, 2nd overall in 2008)
There's no question Doughty is the most likely player after Lidstrom to win consecutive Norris Trophies (if not for his defensive play, then certainly his offensive). He's not overly big or particularly intimidating in the defensive zone, but once the puck's on his stick, watch out. Nobody has better offensive instincts for a defenseman than him. There's really no telling what his ceiling is, because whenever he's written off as the spare part he surprises everyone by earning MVP honours. He has the most upside out of any player in this group and while he doesn't have that galvanizing leadership aura, it doesn't matter, because neither did Bobby Orr.
17. Jason Spezza, Ottawa (age: 27, drafted 1st round, 2nd overall in 2001)
I struggled putting Spezza on this list because if you named the top 15 centres in the league right now, it's hard to figure Spezza into the conversation without someone telling you how many costly turnovers he makes in a game. But the fact remains: Jason Spezza is one of the best playmakers in this league. Only Joe Thornton has arguably better hands for a player bigger than 6'3". What sold me? 90 points in 68 games in 2006, 87 points in 67 games in 2007, and 92 points in 76 games in 2008. Playoffs? 14 points in 10 games and 22 points in 20 games in playoff runs past the first round. Those are elite numbers. His talent is there, and he's a remarkable goal scorer when he wants to be, and that comes with a good linemate. Losing Heatley hurt him, but in this league it's much easier to find a player who's willing to shoot the puck than a player who can really dish it (ask Rick Nash or Phil Kessel). His play is lackadaisical at times and he'll try the same spin-o-rama backhand pass at the side of the net enough times that you wonder why defensemen haven't picked up on it already, but he's a legitimate number one centre.
16. Rick Nash, Columbus (age: 26, drafted 1st round, 1st overall in 2002)
Nash is a player with the reputation of a prolific scorer who may never score 50 in a season. As an offensive player, Nash is the prototypical power forward, big, strong on his skates, soft hands, but by that token Nash is quite a one-dimensional offensive player. Charging to the net works for Nash because few defensemen in the league can handle his size, speed, and skill while skating backwards, but ask Nash to be a playmaker or stand-still shooter and his game falls apart. It's hard to see Nash's game develop any further, but he is the league's best power forward and will give you a chance to win games. He's a player that can get you into the playoffs but not necessarily be the Conn Smythe performer.
15. Paul Stastny, Colorado (age: 25, drafted 2nd round, 44th overall in 2005)
Statsny may never put up 100 points in a season, but he's a player that doesn't have to score a whole bunch to have an impact on the game. My pick as the next captain of the Avalanche after Adam Foote's retirement, he's a player that, like Mike Richards, has a galvanizing ability. He's very easy to like and follows in the footsteps of Joe Sakic, who was mentored by Paul's father, Peter, back in the Quebec Nordiques days. You couldn't ask for two better mentors. He's remarkably consistent, a factor that must be taken into consideration for a franchise player.
14. Nicklas Backstrom, Washington (age: 23, drafted 1st round, 4th overall in 2006)
Because the Caps are so rotten defensively some nights and in the playoffs, I think Backstrom is unfairly grouped with players like Mike Green, Alex Semin, and Alex Ovechkin as guys who can't play defense. Bruce Boudreau has the luxury of sitting Backstrom in key defensive situations because he's got such a wealth of veteran depth players that can do the job (Brooks Laich, Mike Knuble, Jason Chimera, Dave Steckel, Matt Bradley) but that doesn't mean Backstrom's a slouch. He's one of the few Swedish forwards that is unusually fearless when it comes to blocking shots and my number one centre better be able to play both ways.
13. Zach Parise, New Jersey (age: 26, drafted 1st round, 17th overall in 2003)
It's a shame that Parise's season is essentially over, because I was really looking forward to how he would respond with Ilya Kovalchuk under the fold for an entire season. He's a player that rarely, if ever, complains, and it would be such a blow to the Devils if they can't re-sign him this summer. Very few wingers are franchise players (currently and in history), in part because of their position, but Parise certainly bucks that trend. We saw Parise score 45 and notch 94 points and that range is probably his ceiling, but it's certainly a very good one and he's entering his prime.
<img src="http://assets.nydailynews.com/img/2009/10/30/alg_gaborik.jpg"class="imageFloatLeftFramed">12. Marian Gaborik, NY Rangers (age: 28, drafted 1st round, 3rd overall in 2000)
With two Rangers making the list, you'd think they'd have an easier time making the playoffs and winning games, but then you remember that Gaborik's made of glass. When you talk about the league's most dangerous goalscorers, Gaborik is frequently left out of the conversation, but when healthy, this guy could take a good run at Ovechkin and the Richard. If you can score 42 in the Wild's system and then 42 with the Rangers with no legitimate playmaker, you're good in my books. And for all his goal-scoring glory, asides from his rookie season, Gaborik has never finished a season with a minus rating. If you can stomach at least one of three seasons in which he plays less than 50 games, he's your franchise player.
11. Alexander Ovechkin, Washington (age: 25, drafted 1st round, 1st overall in 2004)
Yes, a former 65-goal scorer, Art Ross, Pearson, Hart, Calder, and Richard winner doesn't crack the top 10 in my list. Like I said, if this was a list on the 30 best players in the league, you'd have to be a major Pittsburgh homer to not have this guy in your top 5. But despite all the highlight reels and hardware, ask yourself this question: since Ovechkin's rookie season, has he improved, at all? The answer's no. He's just as adept at picking corners and shooting pucks as he was since his rookie season, and given his production this year (a lot of bad luck, really) you might even say his play has regressed. He's not very versatile in that you can't use him on the PK or on the right wing where he struggles because he can't cut across to his forehand. He certainly doesn't make his teammates any better, at least not on a Henrik Sedin/Crosby/Toews level, and that's a major drawback. His individual play is unmatched, but his teams have never fared well in the playoffs and has as many golds ('03 WJC, '08 WC) as 6th place finishes ('04 World Cup, '10 Olympics). He's a very, very marketable player and absolutely electrifying, but you just can't picture him winning the Cup.
10. Eric Staal, Carolina (age: 26, drafted 1st round, 2nd overall in 2003)
The second pick in a star-studded draft, Staal's just one of many big power forward centres Canada has to offer. But even with a Cup ring, I was never sold on him. First, he's an incredibly streaky scorer. He has 8 points in December, but 21 in November, including a 5-point effort. Second, he still can't win face-offs to save his life. Brandon Sutter struggles in the circle due to his inexperience and Jeff Skinner is too undersized to play the middle, so the majority of the draws are taken by Staal, and his 753 draws taken ranks 5th in the league, but he wins just 44.5% of them. He's lost 418 face-offs, a league high, and to put that in perspective, Crosby has lost only 4 less but taken 181 more draws. That's a major red flag - that Staal can enter his sixth NHL season but see no improvement at all in the circle. Third, while Staal has put up good numbers in the playoffs, he never would've won that Cup had it not been for Ward's play and Rod Brind'Amour's presence. However, like Nash and Getzlaf, Staal has that rare blend of size and skill that you can build a team around.
9. Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim (age: 25, drafted 1st round, 19th overall in 2003)
Like Eric Staal, Getzlaf still hasn't figured out to win in the circle. I don't know what's with this big 6'4", 220 lbs. forwards but they can be so weak on the draws. They just can't figure it out. Some of the league's better face-off men, Nicklas Backstrom, Paul Stastny, Rich Peverley, and Manny Malhotra, aren't very big. For a big guy with such soft hands it still perplexes me how Getzlaf still doesn't have a single 30-goal season. His career high in the WHL? 29. His NHL high? 25. With a long-term stint on the IR coming up with nasal fractures, he's unlikely to crack those numbers this year. With assist totals like 58 and 66 you'd think he was trying to make a run at the Joe Thornton's title for "big man with softest hands." But Getzlaf's not a perimeter player - he was an absolute wrecking ball for Canada with Perry and Nash, and a willingness to take whatever role's given to him makes a good captain and franchise player.
8. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh (age: 24, drafted 1st round, 2nd overall in 2004)
What does Malkin have that Ovechkin doesn't? Face-off ability and a stronger work ethic. If you could really pinpoint the Canucks' success this year, it's their dramatic improvement in the circle and one of the best transition games I've seen in quite awhile. Ovechkin certainly has the better pedigree, but we saw how Malkin carried the team without Crosby. He has a Cup and a Conn Smythe, two things that will always trump whatever individual award Ovechkin gets his hands on. The thing with Malkin is that he's easily distracted and takes some really bad penalties, but that's something that always gets better with more experience and maturity. If there's another reason to pick Malkin ahead of Ovechkin, it's that Ovechkin's stock seems to have stalled while Malkin's at least trending up, albeit slightly.
7. Mike Richards, Philadelphia (age: 25, drafted 1st round, 24th overall in 2003)
How fitting that one of the league's most soft-spoken yet hard-working players plays for Philadelphia? Of all the comparisons that these young players have drawn, Crosby-Gretzky, Ovechkin-Bure, Doughty-Orr/Bourque, Richards-Clarke makes the most sense. Once Richards put that orange jersey on, you just can't see him in any other uniform. A two-way forward who doesn't have high-end offensive or defensive skill, but what he lacks in talent he makes up for with a tireless work ethic and a relentless drive to win. He's extremely versatile in that he can score goals or be a shut-down centre depending on the task, and with such a deep Flyers team, no matter what the situation, Peter Laviolette is going to go to Richards every single time. He probably won't lead your team in scoring but when the playoffs start he's a sure-fire bet to be in Conn Smythe talks.
<img src="http://www.dobberhockey.com/dobberpics/ryan_kesler.jpg"class="imageFloatRightFramed">6. Ryan Kesler, Vancouver (age: 26, drafted 1st round, 23rd overall in 2003)
With the way he's playing right now, you wonder what his ceiling is. 35 goals? 40 goals? Kesler's a player that you constantly have to re-evaluate every year because every year it seems like he makes a marked improvement in one area or another. Originally thought to be a third-line checking centre, then a second-line centre with limited offensive upside, he's now a worthy franchise player. His ranking may be high, but he's outplaying Richards, Getzlaf, and Staal. It's amazing what a little smartening up will do to a player, and Kesler's just that. He works harder than anybody else on the ice, much like another former fan favourite here, and he has a developed a tendency to come through in the clutch with some real blue-collar plays. You can tell he's really enjoying his time here as a Canuck and while Hank may one day hoist Lord Stanley Kesler's the one that will claim Conn Smythe honours. Is his ranking high? Maybe, because no player is as good as he seems on a hot streak and as bad as he seems on a cold streak. But really, is there anything Kesler's doing right now that makes you think he's a fluke?
5. Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles (age: 23, drafted 1st round, 11th overall in 2005)
Between him and Doughty, the Kings have at least half a dozen long playoff runs in the future. Mixed with the right veterans and an equally young supporting cast (Dustin Brown, Wayne Simmonds), the Kings may topple the Canucks and Red Wings one day as the West powerhouse. He had a good showing in his first ever playoff appearance with 5 points before bowing out in the first round. Like Staal and Getzlaf he's not particularly strong in the circle, but he's not as weak as the other two. It helps that Stoll wins 60% (!!!!) of his face-offs and puts a little less pressure on Kopitar. Of all the big forwards he may be the most skillful goal scorer and the smoothest skater, two things that really work for him in the new NHL.
4. Matt Duchene, Colorado (age: 19, drafted 1st round, 3rd overall in 2009)
Duchene and the Avs were a match made in heaven - a young player who idolized Joe Sakic and the Avs growing up and enough optimism to not get the title of first overall pick get to him. If that 2009 draft was re-done, Hedman, Tavares, and John Moore probably would've been the guys whose stocked have dropped the most. He's fast, speedy, competitive, and a player who has his head screwed on right. He's in a good hockey market with a good coach and a great core of players with Stastny, Ryan O'Reilly, Chris Stewart, Peter Mueller (when he regains his form), JM Liles, and Kevin Shattenkirk. He doesn't need to rejuvenate a jaded fan base on Long Island or spark interest in Tampa Bay. He's a great player in a great position to succeed. It goes a long way when a franchise has a history and tradition of winning the right way.
3. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay (age: 20, drafted 1st round, 1st overall in 2008)
In retrospect, perhaps the Lightning's ill-advised hiring of Barry Melrose as coach was good for Stamkos, but it showed that this was a player who wouldn't get beat up physically or mentally. Good for the Lightning to cut him loose soon after realizing their mistake and Stamkos has made some incredible strides in his third year, even after 51 goals and 95 points. His ceiling? Potentially 60 goals, the first to do so since Ovechkin, and 110 points, easily accomplished if his assist totals match his goals. He's smart enough to the play PK in the future and he's already a force on the PP, possibly even more dangerous than Ovechkin because his shot's more accurate. He's a sure-fire captain and eventual Cup winner.
2. Jonathan Toews, Chicago (age: 22, drafted 1st round, 3rd overall in 2006)
Again, like the 2009 draft in which the best player went third overall, if the 2006 draft we re-done, Erik Johnson and Jordan Staal wouldn't have gone 1-2 (a cautionary tale - when going with a franchise forward or defenseman, always go with the forward). At age 22 Toews has won just about everything that's there to be won. He won't have another year like 2010 when he captured every single significant trophy because it takes a lot of luck for those opportunities just to present themselves. However, like Pavel Datsyuk, Toews may never be a prolific goal scorer (but he will have the reels to make you think he does) but he plays the strongest two-way game in the league. He's excellent in the circle and is already on the way to becoming one of the greatest captains in NHL history.
<img src="http://www.hockeyhermit.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/sidney-crosby.jpg"class="imageFloatLeftFramed">1. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh (age: 23, drafted 1st round, 1st overall in 2005)
What can be said about the greatest player of our generation? He's improved every year, like Kesler, but by an exponentially greater scale. He whined too much in his rookie season and aside from a string of f-bombs on HBO's recent 24/7 episode (great series, by the way) he's now more level-headed. He passed too much and so he scored 51 goals. He wasn't great in the circle but now he's one of the league's best. He had some bad turnovers but now he's one of the hardest players to knock off the puck. There was talk not too long ago where people wondered if Stamkos was in Ovechkin and Crosby's class. That question was poorly phrased. It should be whether or not Ovechkin and Stamkos were in Crosby's class.
Before you poo-poo on my list (at the very least, I think these picks are defensible) there were a ton of players that weren't quite franchise material, but certainly very, very good player material. Here's the list of players who couldn't quite make it, for various reasons.
Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan, Patrick Kane, Evander Kane, Lucic, Eberle, Taylor Hall, Seguin, Vanek, Tyler Myers, Brandon Sutter, Tavares, Okposo, Seabrook, Chris Stewart, Voracek, Brassard, Loui Eriksson, James Neal, Niklas Kronwall, Jimmy Howard, Sam Gagner, Hemsky, David Booth, Mikko Koivu, Brent Burns, PK Subban, Pekka Rinne, Zajac, Erik Karlsson, Jeff Carter, Claude Giroux, Kyle Turris, Kris Letang, Pavelski, Backes, Hedman, Alex Semin, Varlamov, Neuvirth, Kovalchuk, Rask, Derek Roy, Bogosian, Kessel, Halak, Dustin Brown.