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Auditing the Top 25 Under 25

10/9/2012
Sam Gagner was just one player NHL GMs and execs thought was overrated. Andy Devlin/NHLI/Getty Images

One NHL team executive took a look at the list of Top 25 players under 25 years old compiled by statistical analyst Neil Greenberg and made a quick conclusion.

"The first thing you've got to get is a new stat guy," he said.

He immediately noticed the absence of Claude Giroux, and since the criteria for the list hadn't been thoroughly explained, the exec thought it was an inexcusable oversight. Giroux is 24 years old but would turn 25 during this season, if it's ever played. So he was ineligible.

The call for Greenberg's head was rescinded.

But it wouldn't be the first time somebody seriously questioned Greenberg's sanity. Last year, his list excluded Islanders forward John Tavares in an omission that was very much noticed inside the Islanders organization.

Tavares jumped to No. 5 this year, and it wasn't a makeup call. Tavares made serious improvements as a player last season, according to former Islanders assistant coach Dean Chynoweth, who is now the coach of the AHL's Lake Erie Monsters.

"He took a huge, huge stride last year," Chynoweth said during a Monday afternoon phone conversation. "He is such a focused and driven guy. He was a treat to coach."

At times during his rookie season, Tavares was overmatched by the sheer size of opponents and the physical nature of the NHL. That's no longer happening. Tavares had a career-high 81 points and 31 goals last season.

"The biggest improvement was the strength in his skating and his quickness," Chynoweth said. "He's become a man. He's mature. The inner competitiveness and inner drive is phenomenal."

Jonathan Toews was No. 1 for the second consecutive year, and while there's a strong argument to be made for Steven Stamkos (ranked second), nobody I spoke with had any issue with putting Toews at the top.

When asked for his top five, an assistant GM also listed Toews first. His list: Toews, Stamkos, Drew Doughty (No. 5 on Greenberg's list), Patrick Kane (No. 6), Logan Couture (No. 3).

"I love Stamkos. To a certain extent, he does make guys better, but for the most part, Steven is a goal-scorer," the assistant GM explained. "Toews -- he can provide offense. He plays in every situation. On the power play, he's the first one over the boards. On the penalty kill, he's the first one over the boards. His leadership puts him to the top of the list. He just touches a little bit more of the game."

Said another exec: "I would goes Toews, Stamkos, [Jordan] Staal -- but I could easily go Stamkos, Toews, Staal. That's just a debate as to what you want."

The St. Louis Blues were well-represented on the list, with four players in the Top 25 -- Alex Pietrangelo (No. 11), David Perron (No. 14), Kevin Shattenkirk (No. 20) and Patrik Berglund (No. 22). It bodes well for the immediate future of the Blues that they've already experienced a high level of success with a core group of young players.

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock credited those who suffered through the growing pains before he arrived in St. Louis.

"The Blues made a decision four years ago that they were going to bite the bullet and put all the young guys in the lineup. Very similar to what Edmonton is doing now, and then live with it," Hitchcock said on Monday evening. "When I came here, a lot of suffering had been done. A lot of the growth had already taken place."

A couple of sources thought David Perron was too high and would have placed Jeff Skinner and Milan Lucic ahead of him. But Hitchcock said Perron's place on the list is well-earned, and he expects Perron to justify the spot with a big season.

"He had a heck of a year last year for a guy who never once went through the summer doing any training," Hitchcock said. "He didn't get the green light in St. Louis until the end of September. He went through nine, almost 10 months of doing almost nothing."

He's made up for it with a full offseason of training this year.

"That's why I think he's going to have a hell of a year. This is the first time in two years that he's had a summer of conditionings and of workouts," Hitchcock said. "People don't recognize how big and strong he is. He's over 200 pounds. Of all the players on our team, he has a chance to make the biggest step. By far."

While there wasn't a glaring omission on this year's list, there was plenty of nitpicking to be done by NHL executives who audited Greenberg's Top 25. Including:

• Jeff Skinner was No. 15 on the list, which was much too low for the taste of at least one exec who thought Skinner should be a lock in the Top 10. Skinner has 51 goals in 146 career games and is still just 20 years old.

"I don't know how Skinner can't be right behind Kane [No. 6 overall]," he said. "He's certainly a better player than Marchand. For what he does, Marchand is a great player. But Skinner? What he did as an 18-year-old ... are you kidding?"

• One of the executives was read the list of defensemen in the Top 25 and noticed the exclusion of Ryan McDonagh. "McDonagh for me would be well up there. Just his maturity alone," he said. "I didn't hear Michael Del Zotto either." He felt that Kevin Shattenkirk (No. 20) and Victor Hedman (No. 16) were too high and would have found room for both Rangers defensemen in the top 25.

"They put them in great position to succeed because they took their time with them," he said. "As only the Rangers can do, they put guys into a position and say, 'Here it is. This is the way it's going to be, and go do it.'"

Hitchcock said Shattenkirk's growth defensively earns him his spot. "What's impressive about Shatty is that he is now a player you can play in any situation," Hitchcock said. "You don't have to hide or protect him on the ice. His growth in the last year has been really significant because he has become a trusted player."

• There was a split opinion on whether omitted defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson deserved to be in the Top 25. One executive wanted to see him play more than a season and a half before including him. "I don't think he's had the proof in the pudding," he said. Another has seen more than enough and thinks Ekman-Larsson should be there. He pointed out that at such a young age, he's already made his defensive partners better players.

"Just look at the minutes he plays already," he said. "It's not a forward or center [where] you can easily identify what he does in terms of production or to make things better for those he plays with. But he's big time, in all the areas of the game he touches."

Sam Gagner's inclusion at No. 18 was questioned. "He's not seeing a top defense pairing every night. You don't go into Edmonton thinking, 'I've got to stop Sam Gagner,'" said one exec. Another would have instead given Matt Duchene that spot. "I love [Duchene]," he said. "It's his two-way game. I watched him in junior; I thought he could have went No. 1 instead of Tavares. Look at Duchene's production: 55 points in 81 games, 67 points in 80 games. Last year it falls off, but injuries meant he missed 24 games."

• Finally, it was suggested that extra weight should be factored in for certain positions in future editions of the rankings. "If you're doing it the right way, it should be centermen and right-handed defensemen -- there should be a value weighted in there," said one source. "It's like comparing a quarterback versus an offensive lineman. Both are very important, but you win with a quarterback."