LCS Hockey Top Rated Right Wings
By Michael Dell, editor-in-chief
1. Jaromir Jagr, Pittsburgh Penguins: Not only is Jagr the best right winger in the game, he's also the best player. Period.
The Czech Wonder Kid finished last season with 47 goals and 95 points in 63 games. Those are amazing numbers, but they would have been even more unbelievable if it weren't for a chronic groin injury that reduced Jagr to a one-legged skater after the All-Star break. Before the injury hit, Jagr had bagged 41 goals in his first 44 games. This in a year when Keith Tkachuk led the league with a rather paltry 52 goals. If Jagr doesn't get hurt, a 70-goal season was a distinct possibility.
Some who didn't get to see many Penguin games last season will try and write off Jagr's success as a result of playing on the same line with Mario Lemieux. Well, don't believe the hype. Lemieux was a shell of his old self last year. It was Jagr that was carrying him, not the other way around.
When healthy, Jagr is virtually unstoppable. Not only is he the strongest skater in the game, he's also the best stickhandler. Once he gets command of the puck, forget about it. All defensemen can do is hold on and hope for the best. Jagr's game has also matured to the point that he doesn't try and beat the whole team every time he touches the rock. He'll still go buckwild on occasion, but Jaromir knows how to use his linemates now and isn't scared to give up the puck. His tremendous hands always gave him the potential to be a great passer. Thanks to some hard work and dedication, he's become one.
Speaking of hard work, Jagr's put in a ton of it to improve his shot. When he first broke into the league he'd seldom shoot, preferring instead to carry the puck the whole way and score with a nifty deke. Now, thanks to years of extra practice with assistant coach Rick Kehoe, Jagr has one of the hardest wrist shots in the league. He can beat goalies clean from the top of the circles with it. And his wrist shot needs to be a cannon because he's all but allergic to slap shots. Jagr's probably taken five in his whole NHL career.
Defensively, Jagr is much better than most people think. He doesn't have the natural defensive instincts of a guy like Peter Forsberg, but Jagr is sound in his own end and can crank it up defensively when needed. The only real knock on Jagr's game is that he isn't a physical player. That doesn't mean he shies away from contact. This guy lives in traffic and is the best board man in the game. It's just he's not going to punish the opposition with checks or initiate a physical confrontation. While some might hold this against him, and he could stand some improvement in this area, it's really just not his game. Jagr prefers to quietly go about his business of being the best offensive player in the world. When someone else can do the things that Jagr can do with the puck and play a bruising physical game on top of it, then there's some real cause for concern. But for now he should just be enjoyed for what he is: the greatest offensive talent in the NHL.
2. Teemu Selanne, Anaheim Mighty Ducks: With each passing game it gets harder and harder to imagine that the Jets traded Selanne. Oleg Tverdovsky is a swell kid and all, but we're talkin' about the Finnish Flash! You just don't trade the Finnish Flash.
Teemu's arrival in Anaheim immediately turned the Ducks into a playoff contender. He's got the full arsenal of offensive skills. Whether it's skating, shooting, stickhandling, or passing, Selanne is among the league's elite. But he's not just all flash. He doesn't pack it in when things get rough. He loves to hit. The guy's a complete player.
Which brings up one of hockey's more interesting "who's better" discussions. There are three big ones floating around at the moment. They involve Colorado teammates Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg, Philly's Eric Lindros and John LeClair, and Selanne and his good buddy Paul Kariya. So which Duck is the mightiest? Well, Kariya is the slightly more explosive scorer, but Selanne is the more complete player. Everyone hyped up Kariya last year because the Ducks got off to such a horrible start without him, but if it was Selanne who was out of the lineup and Kariya who was healthy the results wouldn't have been any different. It takes both superstars together to power the club. Kariya may get more headlines, but don't for one second let that overshadow Selanne.
3. Peter Bondra, Washington Capitals: Bondra continues to rise in our rankings. There's just no stopping the Slovakian speedster. He played through some nagging injuries last season to put up 46 goals in 77 games. That's down a bit from the 52 he bagged in 67 games the previous year, but scoring was just a rumor last season in the pathetically mediocre NHL, so those numbers are still mighty impressive.
Bondra is just a pleasure to watch play. If you like speed, Bondra's got it. He's explosive even from a dead stop. Defensemen just don't know how to handle him. If they lay back Petey can cut loose with a 100mph slap shot and score from the line. If they step up, Bondra's got the skills to just waltz right around them. And once he gets a step it's all over. His speed is so overwhelming that even forcing him wide is almost sure suicide. And once he gets in on the goaltender you can put it on the board. No one is more lethal than Bondra on a breakaway. He comes with so much speed and his shot is so quick, that netminders just don't have a chance. All this adds up to a guy that's pretty much 50 goals in the bank. If he plays full time with Adam Oates, even 70 goals isn't out of the question.
When he's not scoring, Bondra still contributes. He's excellent defensively and is Washington's top penalty killer. It's also worth noting that he has a bit of a mean streak. He's not above throwin' a cheap shot to send a message. Bondra's tricky like that.
4. Brett Hull, St. Louis Blues: The guy's a living legend. There are a lot of young snipers in the league, but Hull is still the fastest gun in the West. At 33, Hull is starting to get up there, but he's actually a better all around player now than he was a few years ago. He's much more sound defensively, even killing penalties and leading the hit parade on occasion. Now that the Mike Keenan era is over in St. Louis, Hull could be set for another goal bonanza. Pierre Turgeon isn't the setup man that Adam Oates was, but he's a whole lot better than what Hull has been playing with since Oates' departure. The duo had their moments late last season and should find their stride much more quickly the second time around. Even if they don't, Hull is still capable of the individual effort. He scored a goal in the first round last season against Detroit that brought a tear to the eye.
5. Tony Amonte, Chicago Blackhawks: Talk about a star on the rise. In the past Amonte was usually written off as a one-dimensional, 30-goal role player. That's one of the reasons why Chicago's future looked so bleak when Jeremy Roenick, Bernie Nicholls, and Joe Murphy jumped ship before the 1996-97 season. Chris Chelios was still around to provide guidance from the blue line, but the team was in desperate need of a leader up front. Amonte came through like a champ.
With all eyes on him, Amonte tore through the league to the tune of 41 goals and 77 points, even capturing LCS MVP Honors along the way. Like most of the premier right wingers, Amonte's game is all about speed. He has tremendous acceleration and can leave even the most fleet-footed defenders in his wake. Once he gets into the open he can score with a heavy slap shot or a deceptively quick wrister.
Amonte always had the top-flight skills, his problem came in finishing the plays that his skating created. It used to be a common scene in the past to see him bust behind the defense only to bury his shot in the goalie's pads or snap it wide. That's where his game improved the most in 1996-97. Amonte finished his plays on a consistent basis and made opponents pay for their mistakes. This could really be seen on breakaways, where he even developed a nifty backhand-forehand move that was pure gold. It's all just a sign of his improved confidence as a player.
His game also matured in other areas. Amonte was a force all over the ice, backchecking like a demon and finishing every check in sight. His attention to defense paid off in a team high +35. He's just emerged as one of the game's most complete players. And he did it all under some serious pressure. He knew if he didn't get the job done no one else on the Chicago roster would. A lot of guys would have folded or just kept doing what they had done in the past. But not Amonte. He elevated his game to new heights and carried his team into the playoffs. And once they were there he didn't disappear, scoring four goals and two assists while giving the far superior Colorado Avalanche all they could handle in a surprising six-game series.
Amonte became a true superstar last season, not only accepting the spotlight in Chicago but thriving in it. Now the real test will be if he can do it two years in a row. We think he will. Although he'll have to start things off without the flowing locks of hair that have become his trademark. Amonte got sheared in order to attend an off-season wedding. I guess there was a rule that no one in attendance could have longer hair than the bride. That's odd. No word on where Amonte got his hair cut, but there were reports of Darren Pang following him around with a net.
6. Ziggy Palffy, New York Islanders: "Who can turn the red light on with a smile? Who can take a nothing game, and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile? Well, it's you, Ziggy, and you should know it. With each stride and every little deke you show it. Skills are all around, no need to fake it. You could have the league, Ziggy, why don't you take it? Ziggy's gonna make it after all."
That's the theme song to a new sitcom we're working on called "The Ziggy Tyler Moore Show". It's about a young man who moves on his own from Slovakia to Long Island in hopes of making it big in the NHL. We're hoping to get it on the Fall schedule at the WB network. Keep your fingers crossed.
Aside from being a potential sitcom star, Ziggy Palffy has become one of the league's most dangerous goal scorers during his short time in the NHL. The 25-year-old has only been in the league for three seasons and has already eclipsed the 40-goal mark twice, bagging a career high 48 last year with the Fish Stick Boys.
Ziggy's just crafty. He isn't blessed with great size (5'10, 169), so he relies on his quickness and agility to create scoring chances. Palffy has good speed, but he's not in the same class as the Fedorovs and Kariyas of the world. Instead he uses short quick bursts and lateral movements to spring into the open. He doesn't own an overpowering shot, but he does have a quick release and he knows how to beat a goaltender. It's not always how hard you shoot, but where you shoot it. And Ziggy just has a knack for finding the holes. He's a natural. He's also a wizard with the puck on his stick. He can hypnotize defenders with his dazzling stickhandling displays. In fact, on one occasion after playing against Palffy last season, Bruce Driver actually thought he was a chicken. It was weeks before he could have eggs for breakfast. But back to Ziggy, all his skills add up to make him a threat to score every time he touches the puck. And he's more than capable of closing the deal all by himself. Ziggy led the NHL last season with nine unassisted goals.
7. Daniel Alfredsson, Ottawa Senators: Some people might be surprised to see Alfredsson rated so high, but they shouldn't be. He belongs with the big boys. The 24-year- old Swede followed up his Calder-Trophy-winning rookie season with another strong showing, racking up 24 goals and 71 points for the no longer lowly Ottawa Senators.
But numbers alone don't tell the whole story. Alfredsson is just a brilliant overall talent. Peter Forsberg is the most complete player in the NHL, but Alfredsson isn't too far behind his fellow countryman. What makes the two Swedes so great is their intelligence on the ice. Whether creating offense or clamping down defensively, both men have natural instincts for the game and seldom make a wrong move with or without the puck. They played on the same line together at the World Cup and conducted a clinic on how hockey should be played.
And he isn't just all smarts, either. Alfredsson has so many skills they're falling out of his pockets. He's been an All-Star in each of his first two seasons and has competed in both the Fastest Skater and Hardest Shot competitions. Yet his intelligence as a player just can't be underestimated. Unlike many scorers, Alfredsson knows when to try the individual play and when to get the puck deep. If something isn't there he won't force it. He'll make the smart play and just take what the defense is giving him. He'll gladly dump the puck in and go to work along the boards, where he excels like few others. Basically, Alfredsson plays playoff hockey all year long. Which could be why he made such an effortless transition to the postseason last year, leading the Senators with five goals and seven points in their seven-game thriller with Buffalo.
At the moment the Senators still haven't re-signed Alfredsson to a new contract. He made an average of $325,000 in each of his first two seasons. And that was Canadian. So in US money that's like what? $42.60... $43.00 tops. How can Alfredsson live on that? He's reportedly asking for a three-year deal worth about $2.5 million a season. With the way salaries have been going lately, that's a bargain. Good ol' Pierre Gauthier better quit foolin' around and get Alfredsson signed up before it's too late.
8. Alexander Mogilny, Vancouver Canucks: The long-awaited Alexander Mogilny-Pavel Bure reunion was about as exciting as those old Brady Bunch reunion specials. Bobby a racecar driver? Yeah, whatever. That kid had "30-year-old paper boy" written all over him. Instead of leading the Canucks on a rampage through the Western Conference, Mogilny and Bure combined for just 54 goals, one fewer than Mogilny's 1995-96 total, and the Canucks sputtered to a ninth place finish and missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years. If this was kick ball somebody would be screaming for a "do over".
Mogilny caught most of the grief for Vancouver's woes. He did lead the team with 31 goals and 73 points in 76 games, but that was a hefty drop from the 55 goals and 102 points he put up the previous year. In the sake of fairness, though, it should be pointed out that offense was down all over the league. There were plenty of other stars that had off years. Hell, even Mario Lemieux only had 122 points. And having Bure and Trevor Linden both out of the lineup for lengthy stretches certainly didn't help Mogilny's offensive production. One somewhat disappointing season doesn't change the fact that he's still one of the game's most talented offensive players. He'll snap out of it. He's a driver, he's a winner... things are gonna change, I can feel it.
The acquisition of Mark Messier should help Mogilny immensely, on and off the ice. Messier's mere presence in town will likely have a calming influence on the whole team, allowing Mogilny to just go out and play his game. That is if he's still in Vancouver. Mogilny recently said that he'd like to be traded. That's silly...
9. Theo Fleury, Calgary Flames: Li'l Theo is still trying to forget last season. It was a nightmare. With Gary Roberts retired, Fleury was the last bastion of the Calgary glory days. He was left alone to shepherd a group of young, unproven talent. Despite his best efforts, Fleury couldn't bear the burden of the "C" on his jersey or the weight of his teammates on his back. He could muster only 29 goals and 67 points while constantly squabbling with head coach Pierre Page. Now Page is gone and so his Fleury's "C". He decided to turn it in following the season.
Despite the woes, Theo makes our list for one simple reason. He's just too damn cool to not make it. If Fleury was on any other team last season he would have likely had another banner year. The situation up in Calgary is just a mess. Right now the only difference between the Flames and an expansion team is, well, they're still in Canada.
Fleury is a marvelous skater, has a quick shot, and loves to mix it up. He can dominate a game at either end of the ice and is still one of the best penalty killers around. He'd be a welcome addition to any roster. Come to think of it, that's probably not a bad idea. Somebody should really rescue Theo. Please?
10. Owen Nolan, San Jose Sharks: Nolan is back in the ten spot for the second straight year. He put up some decent numbers with the Sharks last season (31-32-63), but he's capable of much more. The problem is he's not really the type of guy who can create his own chances. He's a big power forward that needs to have a good setup man to reach his full potential. If he were still in Colorado playing with Peter Forsberg he'd be a lock for 50 goals every time out. Until the Sharks can find a center to play with him, 30-35 goals might be his ceiling.
Nolan's best asset is his shot. Both his wrist and slap shots are absolute cannons. He can score from anywhere with them and he doesn't really sacrifice accuracy for power. He can pick the corners. Nolan has a powerful stride and good hands, but he's not real comfortable lugging the puck. That's why it helps if he has a center that can get things started. One aspect of Nolan's game that always gets overlooked is his passing. He's one of the best playmaking big men in the game.
The knock on Nolan continues to be that he's inconsistent. When he's on his game there are few better. He scores goals, he leads with emotion, and he'll play an unmatched physical game. However, when things go bad, they tend to go real bad. He's an extremely streaky scorer. It's not uncommon for Nolan to go four or five games without a goal and then rattle off five in two nights. That could be acceptable if it weren't for the fact that when he isn't scoring Nolan also has a tendency to stop doing everything else. It's this drastic rise and fall in intensity that drives folks in San Jose crazy. But let's face it, it's gotta be kind of hard to get up for every game when you're playing with the Sharks. I mean, Nolan's not exactly out there with the Western Conference All-Stars. Although who can forget the last time he was? Dominik Hasek certainly won't. The Dominator is still trying to find the wrist shot that Nolan buried under the bar for his hat trick goal. Remember how Nolan pointed to his spot before he shot it? Aw, that was great, that was fun.
Pavel Bure, Vancouver Canucks: The Russian Rocket falls from the charts simply because his return was so disappointing. But it usually takes guys one full season to recover from serious knee injuries. So Bure should be good to go this year in Vancouver, or wherever the hell he's playing. If he's healthy, he's one of the most dominating offensive forces in the game.
Claude Lemieux, Colorado Avalanche: Abdominal surgery pretty much washed out Pepe's 1996-97 regular season, but he proved once again what kind of player he is by cranking it up in the playoffs. Good ol' Claude rang up 13 goals in 17 postseason games, reminding everyone that he's still a money player. And now that Mario has retired, Claude can finally say he's the best Lemieux in the league. So that's pretty cool. Maybe he'll get t-shirts made.
Mark Recchi, Montreal Canadiens: Recchi had a nice year with the Canadiens (34-46-80) and did some nice work in the playoffs, so he deserves mentioning. The only problem is that he still isn't a leader or a guy that can carry a team by himself. He's a second-tier star that can compliment others well, just don't expect him to be the cornerstone of a championship team.
MOVIN' ON UP
Sergei Berezin, Toronto Maple Leafs: Keep an eye on this kid. If there's a talent shortage this year it'll be because Berezin has it all. This guy is exciting to watch. he notched 25 goals last season as a 25-year-old rookie. That goal total is only going to rise this year. With Berezin doin' his thing, and Mats Sundin and Steve Sullivan also workin' some magic, the Leafs should actually be a cool team this year.
Jere Lehtinen, Dallas Stars: The 24-year-old Finnish winger had a swell year in Dallas playing mainly on Mike Modano's right side. Lehtinen put up 16 goals and 43 points in 63 games. The scoring was nice, but he also finished at a +26 and earned a Selke nomination for his defensive vigilance. Lehtinen also has enough offensive talent to be a consistent 30- goal guy. This past season was just the tip of the iceberg... that doesn't necessarily mean there's more to come, just that it was unseasonably cold in Dallas.
NOW I GOT WORRY
Pat Verbeek, Dallas Stars: What the hell happened to Verbeek? He goes buckwild his final season in New York to snag some of that mad free agent scratch and then he just tanked it last year in Dallas. Oh sure, they said he added veteran leadership and was a fierce competitor, but that and 50 cents will buy you a fund-raiser size package of M&Ms. And I know, because some little kid just came to my door and soaked me two bucks for four small packs of 'em. The odd thing is that I don't even eat M&Ms. I just like to stare at all the pretty colors. Reminds me of the circus. But I digress. The point is that Verbeek's 17 regular-season goals weren't exactly what the Stars had in mind when they signed him to a hefty $3-million-a- year contract last summer. And his one playoff goal in seven games hardly slowed the Stars' early exit from the postseason. You know, Dallas could have bought a lot of M&Ms for $3 million...
WHICH WAY DO I GO, GEORGE?
Mikael Renberg, Tampa Bay Lightning: Yes, it's true. Renberg now has lightning bolts on his pants. Having been traded to the Land of Cullen, Renberg is going to have to prove that he can survive on his own without the other members of the Legion of Doom. Last season he notched just 22 goals in 77 games, but he posted those numbers while still trying to recover from off-season hernia surgery. He should be back to full strength for the 1997-98 campaign. Renberg is a smooth skater with great hands and will be able to produce some goals in Tampa, especially if he's paired with Mr. Lightning, Brian Bradley. But the pressure is definitely going to be on Renberg to prove that he can hack it on his own.
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