In part 1 of this 3 part series, I unveil the backup goaltender, bottom defensive pairing, and fourth line.
Welcome to the sixth edition of my end-of-season Prime Cuts roster. To make this team, a player must have made a significant contribution to his respective NHL team in 2013 (especially relative to expectations). I want to reward players who came out of nowhere to produce, but at the same time I also want to recognize stellar performances from elite talents.
I used advanced stats, regular stats, and the “eye test” (watching games) when forming my analysis and opinions on the below players. I didn’t adhere to a salary cap, but I did my best to fit players into the proper role. You won’t find Erik Karlsson on the third defensive pairing, and you won’t find John Tavares centering line four.
Here are the previous five Prime Cuts rosters:
I (tried to) remove my own biases (players I like and dislike) when putting this team together, and the selections are 100% subjective. You may disagree on a player or two, but I hope my explanations provide enough reasoning for the “why” behind each pick.
I’m going to break down the roster into three parts – today is Part 1, which looks at the backup goaltender, the bottom pairing on defense, and the fourth line.
The Backup Goalie:
The best thing a backup can do is to give the team in front of him a chance to win most of the games he starts. Emery has done that – and much more – for the Blackhawks this season. It is amazing how he has been able to thrive after coming back from a very experimental and risky hip operation a few years ago (Emery had the same degenerative hip condition that forced Bo Jackson into retirement).
Emery plays with confidence, he plays within his limitations, and he is a mature and experienced NHL goaltender. He has earned this nomination with a phenomenal 2013 season.
The Bottom Pairing:
Patrick Wiercioch – Jake Muzzin
The LA Kings have been very good this season, but they have had to play all season without two of their defensive rocks from last year – Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene. Jonathan Quick’s caliber of play has been a few levels below what it was a year ago, and because of that the team in front of him has had to pick up the slack a bit. Not much was known about Muzzin before this season, but he quickly (and quietly) emerged as a very good NHL defenseman capable of playing in a variety of situations.
He is seeing relatively sheltered minutes, but is dominating from a possession standpoint. Muzzin has managed to hold on to a roster spot, even after the trade for Robyn Regehr and the return of Greene from injury. Three of his seven goals have come on the man advantage, and he also boasts a very good plus/minus rating. At 24, he is older than most rookies, and that experience has come in handy in the lockout-shortened season.
Bryan Murray and Paul MacLean have done a heck of a job guiding the Senators this season without Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson, and Craig Anderson for much of it. I don’t know if there are any other NHL teams that could hold down a playoff spot without its starting goaltender, top defenseman, and top forward all on the shelf at the same time.
One significant reason for that, outside of great coaching and management, has been the play of the young guys. And one of the best has been lanky defenseman Patrick Wiercioch. Wiercioch was a very good defenseman in the NCAA, but he struggled as a pro during his first few years. He worked hard to shore up his weaknesses, and has been a fantastic defenseman for Ottawa in 2013. He skates really well for his size (6-4, 200 pounds), and his defensive game has been very good, too. But he makes his money with his puck movement and how he sees the ice.
There are going to be a lot of assists in Wiercioch’s future – he makes a fantastic outlet pass and never puts his defensive partner in a bad situation. This is a very mobile and composed third pairing, as both Muzzin and Wiercioch are mature beyond their years.
The Fourth Line:
Brandon Prust – Boyd Gordon – Carl Hagelin
Any good fourth line needs to have toughness, defensive ability, and tenacity. And this trio has those attributes in spades.
Prust has been as advertised in Montreal – the Canadiens had to overpay for his services, but it is looking like a very smart overpayment. Prust can drop the gloves, but he can also play a regular shift, too. He has been great on the penalty kill, and he’s a very solid defensive winger, too. Prust is also a good skater, which allows him to get in on the forecheck and throw his weight around. He has a decent scoring touch for a grinding winger.
Boyd Gordon is the perfect fourth line center – he’s big and strong, he wins a ton of faceoffs, and he is a rock in his own zone. He doesn’t get much media attention because of how he plays (and where he plays), but he was one of the most highly sought after commodities at the trade deadline in early April. The Coyotes opted to keep him around, much to the chagrin of teams like Pittsburgh and Vancouver.
Carl Hagelin is one of a handful of Rangers who can say that they have brought their best effort all season long. He is one of the best skaters in the league, and he uses that speed to forecheck and to create scoring chances and turnovers. He’s a solid defensive forward, too. Hagelin should be a consistent 15-goal guy every season (with the potential for more), regardless of where he plays and how much he plays.
The final two parts of this series will be released over the next week or two. Spoiler alert - PK Subban is on the team.