Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Criminally Underappreciated No More

ryane clowe sharks
The playoffs are a time when relatively unheralded players elevate their play and become household names. Throughout the regular season many of these players receive attention within their local cities and are probably recognized throughout the league, but not many people around the league know how truly good some of these players really are. These are the underrated and underappreciated.

After a successful post-season many of these players will no longer suffer from a lack of appreciation. Praise is nice, but it can sometimes become a curse. With accolades come expectations; with expectations come pressure. Players can quickly turn from underrated to overrated.

Let’s take a look at a list of players who elevated their game during the playoffs and helped turn more than a few heads. Whether these players continue to play at this level will become evident over the next few seasons. In the meantime, they should enjoy the increased coverage.

F – Ryane Clowe

In 2011, Clowe steadily improved on last season’s decent post-season (10 points in 15 games). Clowe finished second in points among Shark forwards, finishing with 15 (only two behind Joe Thornton). This added to career highs in both goals (24) and points (62) during the regular season.

Clowe assumed a major leadership role on the Sharks during the season that became well documented during the playoffs. In the midst of the Sharks’ sluggish start to the season Clowe delivered an impassioned speech in the dressing room that coincided with San Jose’s dramatic ascension to second in the Western Conference.

It was also discovered that Clowe played most of the playoffs with a shoulder injury that will require off-season surgery. Nails. Plus, Clowe returned after missing one game with an upper-body injury that was likely a concussion. Before people would say nails here, but now the concussion word is quite taboo, so I'll just solemnly nod my head.

F – Brad Marchand

The Brad Marchand love-in (hate-in?) began during the season as he enjoyed a break-out year; however, it wasn’t until the increased exposure of the playoffs introduced the world to Marchand’s finer qualities. By finer qualities I mean his irascible ability to drive the opposition absolutely bonkers. Sure, people discussed it on occasion, but now it’s on full display.

After every whistle and behind every play you can catch Marchand giving someone an extra shot, a little slash, or a ‘hello, there’ hook. It just makes you want to shake your head. Because of these antics, Marchand is the prototypical ‘hate him, but would love to have him on my team’ player.

In addition to his irritable qualities, Marchand is having a nice offensive post-season. He has 12 points in 17 games, after scoring 41 during the regular season.

You know you’ve made it when people hate you with a passion.

F - Dave Bolland

Bolland’s return to the Hawks' line-up sparked Chicago’s would-be comeback against the Canucks in the opening round, which made everyone realize what a great player he really is. Scoring four points in your opening game after missing the previous 17 games will do that.

Before sustaining a concussion earlier in the year, Bolland was on pace to surpass career highs in both goals and assists. He already has 34 points in 43 career playoff games and has made himself a nice home under the Sedins’ skin.

Bolland also gives the Hawks tremendous flexibility. Without Bolland in the line-up the Hawks must play Jonathan Toews against the opposition’s best forwards, which limits the offensive damage Toews can do. With Bolland, the Hawks are free to use Toews in a pure scoring role, which is a better fit for their team, especially during this season's shell of their championship team.

D - Ryan Suter

Suter is somewhat overshadowed in Nashville by his Norris Trophy nominated defence partner, Shea Weber, who received a great deal of attention playing for Canada at the Vancouver Olympics. Plus, Suter plays for the Nashville Predators, a team that is criminally underrated themselves.

However, Suter received plenty of attention during the Predators’ second round series against the Canucks. Prior to the series the media focused heavily on the pivotal match-up between Suter and Weber against the Sedin twins. After disposing of Getzlaf, Perry, and Ryan, would the two towers on defence be able to contain the reigning Art Ross winners? In short: yes.

Suter played a major role in limiting both Sedins to only seven total points during the six game series. Unfortunately for the Predators, Suter and Weber couldn’t face Ryan Kesler as well.

Suter will become an unrestricted free agent after next season and will receive plenty of attention if the Predators aren’t able to sign him to an extension in the meantime. Over the past three seasons Suter has averaged 40 points a season and was a career high +20 this season.

D - Kevin Bieksa

Bieksa’s inclusion on this list is surprising considering his name continually surfaced in trade rumours over the past few seasons. It looked almost certain the Canucks would trade Bieksa at the beginning of the season due to the influx of defenceman on the roster and limited cap space, but the Canucks had enough foresight to realize that Sami Salo would spend at least 20 games on the IR (good call because he only played in 27).

Bieksa scored 43 points a few seasons ago, which raised expectations (at least offensively) that Bieksa hasn’t fulfilled in the following seasons. However, this season Bieksa filled the void left by Willie Mitchell and provided a gritty, sandpaper quality that was lacking on the Vancouver blueline. Bieksa has continued to play with an edge during the playoffs, but has increased his offensive production as well, scoring 9 points in 18 games, including the series winning goal in the Western Conference Final.

Everything is cresting at the right time for Bieksa as he becomes a UFA at the end of this season. The Canucks also have Christian Ehrhoff to re-sign, so bringing back Bieksa will prove troublesome unless he accepts a team-friendly deal.

G – Dwayne Roloson

Roloson made a name for himself during the Oilers’ stunning run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006. Roloson endeared himself to Edmonton’s citizens by posting a .927 SV% and 2.33 GAA. Roloson played a huge role in upsetting the Wings, Sharks, and Ducks before suffering an injury in game one of the Stanley Cup Final.

However, after that improbable run the Oilers reverted back to their losing ways and Roloson was eventually exiled to hockey Siberia: The New York Islanders. Luckily for Roloson, the Lightning were desperate for a goalie and the Islanders were desperate to parlay any aging talent into future assets.

This post-season, Roloson has proved that not only is he still a viable starting goalie despite being north of 40 (I think that was also a low-budget Canadian TV series, too), but that he still has some leftover magic in his pads from the 2006 Cup run.

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