In an offseason article we promoted Florida's unheralded back-up goaltender as the perfect man to address the problems the Colorado Avalanche were having in net. Coincidentally they signed the young man weeks later, and Craig Anderson has since lifted the Colorado Avalanche into the playoff picture. Team USA GM Brian Burke may have missed the memo, snubbing Andy for Jonathan Quick, but thanks to GVT there's no reason why you need to overlook any of today's unsung heroes again.
I have put together an all-star team of players that have played major roles in their teams' success, and yet without much fanfare and media coverage. Given the long list of players from which to choose, it was very difficult to select just one player per position. However, I feel confident that the next Craig Andersons can be found below.
Goalie: Jimmy Howard
On a team laden with Norris, Selke and Hart Trophy winners and finalists like Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Lidstrom and Henrik Zetterberg, it might come as a huge surprise that Detroit's GVT leader is rookie goalie Jimmy Howard. His 19.0 GVT is almost 5 goals higher than 2nd place Datsyuk, and good enough for 8th among netminders, tucked in nicely between Vezina winners Miikka Kiprusoff and Roberto Luongo.
Given his solid AHL performance in Grand Rapids, and his NCAA record-setting teenage performance in 2003-04 where he had a microscopic 1.19 goals-against average to go with his .956 save percentage, his amazing results this season in Detroit shouldn't come as too much of a shock. The surprise isn't that Howard has enjoyed such tremendous success, but rather that he went on to enjoy it so quickly.
Defense: Keith Yandle and Mark Giordano
Keith Yandle tops all skaters in Phoenix with a 9.3 GVT, which currently ranks 16th among all defenseman, right in line with Brian Rafalski, Tomas Kaberle and Brent Seabrook. This really shouldn't be too much of a surprise to anyone watching the 23-year-old last season, when he earned a GVT of 6.8.
Yandle is quietly getting it done at both ends of the ice, currently ranked 16th defensively with a 4.5 GVT, right in line with Jay Bouwmeester and Sean O'Donnell. Up and down the line his stats are incredible, allowing just 1.39 goals against while on the ice at even-strength, compared with 2.50 when he's not.
No one expected the Coyotes to be in the playoff picture, but thanks to unsung heroes like Keith Yandle, they could go from a team that almost moved to a team that could win their first playoff series since 1986-87 as the Winnipeg Jets.
The pre-Olympic headlines read that the Calgary Flames had dealt their top defenseman to the Toronto Maple Leafs, but the last time I checked he was still there. Mark Giordano leads Flames defensemen with a 8.2 GVT, which is 2.6 goals higher than Dion Phaneuf's GVT. Defensively he is almost dead even with his esteemed colleagues Jay Bouwmeester and Robyn Regehr, but his offensive game dwarfs theirs, and he earns only a fraction of both the money and the press. Indeed, the outstanding play of the 26-year-old blue liner is probably the very reason why Calgary GM Darryl Sutter felt it was possible to move Phaneuf.
Left Wing: Jussi Jokinen
The most bizarre roster snub in the recent Vancouver Olympic games was when Carolina's Jussi Jokinen was left off Finland's roster. Didn't they notice that his 13.0 GVT leads Eric Staal and the rest of the Hurricanes by 3.5 goals? As the 20th overall forward in the league his inclusion at the Olympics should have been almost guaranteed regardless of nationality, but as the #1 Finn in the NHL his exclusion is that much more puzzling.
Center: Tim Connolly
The Buffalo Sabres are currently leading the Northeast division, surprising many pundits including us, who placed them 18th overall. An outstanding performance from goalie Ryan Miller and an unexpected star in rookie Tyler Myers tell half the story, but what about Tim Connolly, who leads all Sabre skaters with a 9.6 GVT? Injuries may have limited Connolly to just 48 games in each of the last two seasons, but with a GVT of 10.1 last season he's proven that he's the real deal, and the league's next big two-way center.
Right Wing: Chris Stewart
Chris Stewart played below replacement level as a rookie last season, but now the 22-year-old leads all Colorado Avalanche skaters with a GVT of 10.4. Colorado's other young stars like Matt Duchene may be getting their share of the press, but Chris Stewart is quietly leading the team in both goals and plus/minus, and his 7.9 offensive GVT makes him the bookmark between Anaheim's vaunted stars Bobby Ryan (8.0) and Corey Perry (7.8), and Chicago's duo of Marian Hossa (8.1) and Jonathan Toews (7.8) -- not a bad page in which to be stuck. If the Avalanche are in the playoff picture it's not just because of their star netminder, but also the result of having surprise breakout players like Chris Stewart on the team.
Despite all of the different tv shows, web sites and publications, it's easy for a star hockey player to toil away for years before people realized their greatness. Everyone on our staff could probably put together a list of unsung heroes without using any duplicates, but these are mine. I'd love to read your unsung hero teams, so please email them to me, and stay tuned for Andrew Rothstein's twin piece on the most overrated players coming later in the week.
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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