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The Unheralded: Metropolitan Division

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Part one of a four-part series, in which we brought together writers from all 30 NHL teams to discuss a player from each one, who is their 'unheralded,' or one not getting the love or credit they deserve for their play this season.

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Mike Fail

Unheralded. Overlooked. Unhyped. Underrated. All popular words that are thrown around in regard to a small group of hockey players who aren't given the credit they deserve or are appreciated for.

Even casual hockey fans could likely pick out one star player from each team. They are the ones who get the NHL.com headlines, the SportsCenter Top 10 Plays on the highlight reels, they make the flashy and ridiculously skilled plays that we see GIFs of and Vine videos on loop.

But the unheralded players are a vital key to the success of each team. The support players. Those who won't be on the highlight reel very often, but they're still out there making solid plays night in and night out, quietly doing their job, and not being recognized for their importance to their team's success.

To highlight one of these unheralded players from each team, MikeFAIL and I decided to put together a little project. We reached out a writer for each NHL team, and asked them to give us their unheralded player and explain why. The results are as follows, with the Metropolitan Division being first.

Carolina Hurricanes

Andrew Hirsh, who has covered hockey since 2010 and spent three years as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes media. He’s currently working for the The Atlanta Falcons as a beat reporter and still writes about hockey when he can.

The Carolina Hurricanes have made an unexpected rise into playoff contention, and a big reason why is their youthful, extremely American defense. Led by All-Star Justin Faulk, Carolina’s blue line is doing a better job suppressing shots and scoring chances than almost every other unit in the NHL.

Fifth-overall pick Noah Hanifin is undoubtedly a crucial member of this group. But an argument can be made that Brett Pesce, a 2013 third-round pick out of UNH, has been even more effective.  Pesce, 21, has a big frame, skates well and, thanks to his ability to learn Carolina’s analytics-friendly system, has made a smooth transition to the professional level. (He also understands a relationship exists between winning and puck possession.

Brett Pesce skates with the puck against the Pittsburgh Penguins, January 2016. (USA Today)

Heading into last Friday’s slate of games, the Canes had surrendered the eighth-fewest Scoring Chances Against/60 at even strength, and the only regular D-man who has a better rate than Pesce is Ron Hainsey. Moreover, Pesce’s High-Danger Scoring Chances For/60 (12.58) and High-Danger Scoring Chances Against/60 (9.34) are tops among Carolina rearguards.  And he’s doing all this without the luxury of being sheltered.  As a duo, Pesce and veteran John-Michael Liles have been superb of late. Prior to Friday’s contests, just eight pairings who have played at least 350 minutes together had lower Scoring Chances Against/60s, and only six had lower Corsi Against/60s.

Pesce also has 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in 39 regular season appearances. His five individual high-danger scoring chances are second on Carolina’s D; his Points/60 in all situations (1.02) is second, as well. Although he’s still adjusting to NHL competition, Pesce isn’t afraid to get aggressive when the moment’s right.

Indeed, Pesce is a big reason why the Hurricanes are good enough to clinch a postseason berth for the first time since 2009-10. More importantly, though, he’s established himself as a long-term fixture on a young, talented club—one that’s a few pieces away from being a major threat in the Eastern Conference.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Alison is a frustrated (i.e. bad) defenseman, whose captain keeps trying to put her on the wing. She’s better at watching hockey than playing it. Alison covered the Jackets for two years with Foxsports Ohio and is now a freelance writer. You can find her work on BlueJackets.com and BuckeyeStateHockey.com. You can find all of her very bad puns on Twitter at @AlisonL

When you’re talking about the last place team in the league, "overrated" is unfortunately a word you hear more than "unheralded." But there is a player that not a lot of people are talking about who deserves a deeper look as a legit NHL player: 26-year-old defenseman, Cody Goloubef. Why Cody? He has had a quiet career. He was drafted 37th overall by the Jackets in 2008, followed by three quiet years at the University of Wisconsin. After that, it was the AHL and the occasional call-up before starting to cement a spot on an NHL roster, a bit a la Johnny Boychuk. So now, with Seth Jones’ arrival in Columbus, solidifying a legitimate top defensive pairing, Goloubef’s performance begs a good look for a spot in the lineup in one of the remaining spots. Goloubef is someone who was "really coming on" according to head coach John Tortorella before a puck to the face broke his jaw on Nov 20. His harrowing recovery caused him to miss 19 games. Now, Goloubef needs to be on a mission to return to pre-injury form, get more ice time,  and, as Torts said, grab one of the remaining spots in the defensive lineup for this team.

This year, Goloubef is second only to Jones in Points/60 (1.27) among Jackets defensemen, and third only to Jones and Brandon Saad in Relative High-Danger Scoring Chance % for at 6.84 (score adjusted). He has the highest Goals +/- on the Jackets’ blue line at +5.

Plus, if this hockey thing doesn’t work out, it does seem Goloubef has a future in broadcasting.

All stats from War on Ice unless otherwise noted. While Seth Jones’ stats are included, they are based on only eight games with Columbus.

New Jersey Devils

Here to give us some Devils insight is a friend of the site, HellBlazerVice. He used to write for All About the Jersey when it was known as In Lou We Trust. He currently drops his hot takes at  Brick City Smashingas well as on Twitter, where he also tweets about funny TV shows and wrestling.

Andy Greene doesn't get the same attention that other defensemen get because he's not flashy, he's not very big, he's not a big point producer and he plays for a team that isn't heavily covered. He was a key cog in the Devils 2012 cup finals run, shutting down the likes of Claude Giroux and Marian Gaborik.

Andy Greene looks on before facing the Carolina Hurricanes, December 2015. (USA Today)

Unfortunately he was overshadowed by Bryce Salvador's inexplicable run of luck in the playoffs. Outside of Cory Schneider, he's probably the most important player on the Devils because he can do so much. He's averaged over 23 minutes a night playing against the other team's best players and killing penalties. He's also been named the captain of the Devils after serving as an alternate captain for the past 3 seasons. While he has been getting more praise lately, he still remains one of the NHL's most underrated players.

New York Islanders

Garik, noted Ross Cockrell fan, whose work can be found on Hockey Graphs as well as Lighthouse Hockey

Frans Nielsen is the longest tenured player on the New York Islanders and unsurprisingly, the most unheralded.  For the first 4 years of his career, Nielsen was a little known (outside the Island) forward known mainly for his elite shootout skills - his standard backhand move became known to Islander fans as the Danish Backhand of Judgment and enabled him to top the league (or nearly so) in shootout success.  For those who were into analytics, Nielsen was known more as an elite defensive forward, regularly putting up the team's best possession numbers year after year - even managing to break 50% on a couple of pretty bad Islander teams.  If Nielsen was on a team with any media coverage, he would've been a Selke Trophy contender.  Nielsen's possession numbers would dip after the lockout before rising back with a vengeance this year.  My own neutral zone tracking has suggested for years that Nielsen was an elite neutral zone player offensively and defensively, and that bad luck in the other two zones was the cause of his post-lockout2 (Editor's note: isn't a shame that we have to denote which lockout we're referencing?) possession numbers.  This year, that appears to be true.

Frans Nielsen controls the puck against the Anaheim Ducks, December 2015. (USA Today)

What makes Nielsen truly unheralded however - since his defensive prowess has actually become pretty well known - is that he's actually become a pretty damn good scorer.  For 6 straight seasons he has hovered around .6 PPG, which makes him easily a top notch 2nd liner in terms of scoring - not that people realize that's the case in the current NHL (people still think about the days where 100 point scorers were common).  He put up 25 goals two years ago (albeit with some shooting percentage help) and is likely to break 20 goals again this year.  So what Nielsen is is a top notch defensive forward, who is elite in the neutral zone, who puts up very solid point totals.  Do you hear about him as a big free agent this upcoming season?  Nope - because he's truly that unheralded player on the Islanders.

New York Rangers

Nick Mercadante, the only Rangers fan I know who isn't a mouth breather, who writes both for Blueshirt Banter as well as Hockey Graphs. But for real, he is fantastic and his personal goalie stat that he has developed is amazing. Check it out.

It sounds ridiculous to say that a player like Keith Yandle is unheralded, but he appears to be just that. In the eyes of Alain Vigneault. In the eyes of management. Maybe even in the eyes of fans. I don’t think that each of the aforementioned quite understand, nor appreciate, the substantial skill set he brings to his team, or his improvements in the defensive zone this season. If unheralded isn’t the right term, then it is underappreciated or misunderstood.

Yandle ranks 5th on the team in 5v5 TOI per game, behind noted disasters Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, and career 3rd-pairing defenseman Kevin Klein. Meanwhile, his 5v5 Points per 60 are 1.29, good for first amongst Rangers defensemen and t-8th in the NHL. Yandle has made his career on the powerplay, where from 2010-15 his 105 points are only second to Erik Karlsson’s 113. Erik Karlsson!!! Despite this, Vigneault has basically split his PP time between the first and second unit, and equally between Ryan McDonagh and Dan Boyle.

Keith Yandle passes a puck against the Tampa Bay Lightning, December 2015. (USA Today)
Why doesn’t Yandle play more? Because his reputation as a poor defender precedes him. Yandle has historically been considered something of an offensive specialist. The problem with this lazy analysis of his game, is that it ignores the strides he has made to address it. He discusses defensive responsibility in just about every interview, and it appears it isn’t lip service. His Score Adjusted Corsi Against Per 60 is lowest amongst NYR defense at 49.08. Meanwhile his 54.31 Score Adjusted Corsi For Per 60 leads regular defensemen on NYR, only trailing the equally unheralded Dylan McIlrath. Given the team’s well-tread on defensive deficiencies, the fact that Yandle is the only defensemen in the top 40 amonst NHL defensement in Corsi For% speaks volumes. Maybe more telling, his score adjusted high danger scoring chances against per 60 relative to his teammates (SA HDSC 60 Rel) is 5.81, easily leading all NYR defensemen. The Rangers have been sloppy in their own zone and made Henrik Lundqvist’s life difficult. However, it appears Yandle isn’t nearly the main culprit.

Oh and he is an Unrestricted Free Agent at the end of the season. The Rangers have given no indication that they are interested in resigning him.

Philadelphia Flyers

Charlie O'Connor is here with us from Broad Street Hockey. He has been writing there since 2013, and focuses primarily on stat-based analysis. Now, he is covering the Philadelphia Flyers with full credentials, while also manually tracking zone entries and exits to better understand the team’s performance. Then, he asks the players about the stats he tracked! You can imagine how well that turns out.

Matt Read hasn’t just been an unheralded NHL player. He’s been doubted and underrated during his entire hockey career. Ignored by major junior scouts during his teens, Read ended up at small Bemidji State University at age-21, where he led his team to two NCAA Tournament appearances and a surprise run to the Frozen Four in 2009. That caught the attention of Philadelphia, who signed the 24-year old in 2011. Since then, Read has been a mainstay in the Flyers’ forward corps. Viewed as the team’s "Swiss Army Knife", Read has played at every position, in every situation, and on every line for Philadelphia.

Matt Read makes a play against the Dallas Stars, December 2015. (USA Today)
Read was a fan favorite to start his NHL career, staying on a 20-goal pace in his first three seasons. But sentiment has turned recently. And while last year was undeniably a disappointment, Read’s underwhelming point production this year masks stellar underlying statistics. His five-on-five Corsi For percentage of 53.04% is right in line with stars Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek. Befitting his underrated status, Read’s best work occurs in the neutral zone and the penalty kill. Read’s Neutral Zone Score – a measure of on-ice entries into the offensive zone versus entries allowed – is a team-high 52.99%, implying that no player on the team does a better job of pushing play in the right direction in the middle of the ice. And Read is one of the league’s best shot suppression forwards while shorthanded, ranking 10th in the entire NHL since 2012 in on-ice shots allowed per 60.

Read is the ideal glue player – a forward who may lack elite scoring touch, but gives his linemates more opportunities to score and keeps the score tight courtesy of excellent penalty killing. The term "unheralded" was invented for guys like Matt Read.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Pensburgh's own MG, here to kill it with some Penguins knowledge, as she always does.

Selected with the final pick of the 2005 NHL draft, even playing just a single NHL game would have exceeded most expectations for Patric Hörnqvist. But so far, his career production ranks 32nd among all Swedish forwards to ever play in the NHL. Among active players, only six rank ahead of him (among them the Sedin brothers, Zetterberg, and Nicklas Backstrom).

Patric Hornqvist skates with the puck against the Philadelphia Flyers, January 2016. (USA Today)

Before he had been traded to the Penguins, Nashville fans have long called him one of the most underrated players in the NHL. He has been described as a Tomas Holmström-lite, a guy who lives in the crease and makes the goaltender’s life hard. But there is one big difference between Hörnqvist and Holmström: shot volume. While Holmström usually had somewhere between 70 and 130 shots each season, Hörnqvist ends up with 260 shots and more. And not only is he better at generating shots than Holmström was - he is better than almost every other player in the league.

Between 2009 and 2015, only one player has produced shots at a higher rate than Hörnqvist: that man is Alexander Ovechkin.

Even going further back to 2005, he is one of the handful of players to have 14 shots in a single game - a feat he accomplished in 2010. Only Ovechkin (15 shots in a single game) and Hossa (16 shots) had more between 2005 and now. Getting shots on net his biggest talent, and the main reason for why his point production has rivaled that of players like Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Zach Parise, Milan Lucic, and others.

There are some people who ignore his shooting talent, and call him an unskilled forward. Yet his primary assist rate between the years of 2009 to 2015 is close to or higher than that of Justin Williams, Patrick Marleau, Max Pacioretty, Jeff Skinner, and Ryan O’Reilly.  Like other Penguins players, his performance had suffered under coach Mike Johnston this season. He was shooting less than at any point in his career. But since the coaching change, he is shooting twice as much, and at a higher rate than his career average. With that, the points have followed, and he has become one of the most productive players for the Penguins.

Washington Capitals

Becca Hco-managing editor of Japers Rink, who also is a lifelong Capitals fan. She accepts that the insanity required to be a Caps fan almost has to start from the womb. They keep serving up the heartbreak, and she keeps paying for the opportunity to experience it.

Two summers ago, the Caps brought in a couple of free-agent defensemen on big money, long-term deals… and Matt Niskanen was the one people weren’t laughing at.

It’s okay. We get it. Feel free to laugh.

Matt Niskanen attempts to shoot a puck towards the net against the Ottawa Senators, January 2016. (USA Today)

If he was a bit overshadowed by Brooks Orpik at the time, and he’s since played second fiddle to John Carlson - and yet he’s had almost as much of a hand in the team’s improved defense since his arrival while getting much less credit for it. He always seems to have his stick in the right place, and has the ability to contribute offensively, both at even strength and on the power play. Perhaps more surprisingly (at least to those of us relatively new to watching him on a nightly basis), Niskanen has a really physical, almost nasty side to him - he has the ability to jolt the team with one of his bone-rattling checks.

With both Carlson and Orpik having missed significant time over the last month or two with injuries, Niskanen has had to take on even more responsibility, logging major minutes in all situations, and hasn’t really gotten the credit he deserves for keeping the Caps on the path they’ve been on.

Be sure to check in with us tomorrow for our next divisional breakdown, in which we head to the Western Conference.

Editor's note: Some stats listed may be outdated at the time of reading, as write-ups were submitted over the last 7 to 10 days.