Rich Kane/Icon SMI)
For successful teams like the Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues, it can be hard for the so called role players to grab some of the attention away from their high profile teammates. While the star players receive a majority of the press for good reason, those teams would not be as successful without receiving solid performances from some of the lesser known players.
Here are five players from the Central Division that have flown under the radar but have made some excellent contributions to their respective teams this season.
Marcus Kruger, C, Chicago Blackhawks – As a 21-year-old rookie, it is not often that Marcus Kruger is mentioned among the top first year players. But there are few rookies who have been more important to their team this season. With the injury to Jonathan Toews, Kruger has been promoted to the club’s second line and has also been given some power play time, but what has been most impressive has been his strong two-way play. Very much an undersized center, Kruger leads all Chicago forwards not named Hossa, Sharp, Kane or Toews with a +8 rating and has not been afraid to get his nose dirty at both ends of the ice. He also ranks 12th in rookie scoring with 23 points in 66 games.
Derek Dorsett, RW, Columbus Blue Jackets – Known mostly for his ability as a physical player who is no stranger to dropping the gloves, Dorsett has become a surprise offensive contributor for the Blue Jackets this season. The NHL’s leader in penalty minutes, Dorsett has established a new career-high with 11 goals and has seen an increase in ice-time, particularly as head coach Todd Richards most trusted penalty-killing forward. An extremely hard-working and energetic player, the Kindersley, Saskatchewan native is building a nice career for himself in Columbus and is becoming a valuable component of the team’s rebuild.
Drew Miller, LW, Detroit Red Wings – In his third season with the Detroit Red Wings, Drew Miller is starting to make a name for himself. Often described first and foremost as Ryan Miller’s brother, Drew has delivered his finest NHL season despite continuing to be used primarily in a fourth-line role. In 74 games, the 28-year-old has set new personal bests with 14 goals and 25 points despite playing close to 13 minutes per game. As the post-season approaches, Miller and linemate Justin Abdelkader are two players that Detroit will be hoping can provide the team with quality minutes as well as chipping in some timely goals.
Matt Halischuk, RW, Nashville Predators – On a team that has been aided by a surprising amount of depth up front, Matt Halischuk’s play this season has been a very pleasant surprise. Having played a total of just 47 games in the previous two seasons split between New Jersey and Nashville, Halischuk has played in 70 of the Predators 77 games this year and has made the most of his 11 minutes of ice-time per game. The 23-year-old has found the back of the net 14 times, has dished out 12 assists and is a solid +7.
Vladimir Sobotka, LW, St. Louis Blues – In his second season with the Blues after a three-year stint in Boston, Sobotka’s experience as an energy player is paying huge dividends for the NHL’s top team. With St. Louis being very similar in both their style of play and team depth to the Bruins teams for which he played, the quick-skating Sobotka hasn’t had to change the way he plays. Despite being one of the Blues smallest forwards, the 24-year-old ranks fourth on the team with 142 hits and has used his quickness to become one of the club’s most effective checkers in all areas of the ice. Sobotka’s versatility has also been key for St. Louis as he has been able to move to the middle while the team dealt with injuries to their regular centers.
Central Division Notes
Chicago Blackhawks – Defenseman Steve Montador returned to the lineup on Tuesday vs. New Jersey but left the game after colliding with Mark Fayne and did not return. Montador will be out of the lineup indefinitely. The Blackhawks enter tonight’s game against St. Louis three points back of Nashville for fifth in the West and will look to claim the season series with the Blues in the final meeting of the season between the two teams.
Columbus Blue Jackets – After getting blown out in Detroit on Monday, Columbus exacted some revenge in front of the home fans on Wednesday night. In his second career start, Goaltender Allen York recorded the first victory of his career, making 29 saves in the Blue Jackets 4-2 win.
Detroit Red Wings – Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall scored Detroit’s two goals in the lackluster performance against the last-place Blue Jackets last night. In a second-period interview with NBC’s Pierre McGuire, head coach Mike Babcock voiced his displeasure with the team’s efforts and will certainly demand much more from his players as they prepare for a huge tilt with Nashville on Friday.
Nashville Predators – In what could very well be the most important game for both Nashville and Detroit on Friday, the Predators will hope to deliver a very special milestone to their head coach. The club’s next win will be the 500th of Barry Trotz’s impressive career as Nashville’s bench boss.
St. Louis Blues – Not since the days of Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger have the Blues had a potential Norris Trophy candidate. Second-year rearguard Alex Pietrangelo could very well change that as the sensational sophomore has put himself on the short-list for the award. Tied for second with Florida’s Brian Campbell in scoring among defensemen, it will be hard for anyone to beat out Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson, but just being mentioned as a candidate is a testament to Pietrangelo’s incredible season.