Saturday, November 10, 2007

Daniel Alfredsson is the best player in the NHL

To preface, there are plenty of NHLers who could lay a very legitimate claim to being the best player in the league at present. A player like Mats Sundin defies age and an inadequate supporting cast to slot among the league's leaders; Ilya Kovalchuk has reclaimed his position as the league's top goalscorer and is currently carrying a hopeless team back to respectability, even as his teammates don't seem to be that interested. Sidney Crosby, of course, has refound his offensive touch and it can't be argued last season's Hart winner and Art Ross recipient has lost any of his passion or creativity. Joe Sakic, while not burning up the stats sheet like others, provides the leadership and clutch play required of any superior player. Henrik Zetterberg, perhaps the greatest competition of all, has supplemented scoring dominance with some of the best defensive play in the league, continuing his torrid pace from last season.

And while all of the above might be superior to Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson on the stats sheet (if only by a measly point or two), it is hard to think of a player in the league who possesses all the qualities required of a great player, more than Alfredsson. Kovalchuk might be a better sniper, Sakic might be far more experienced, Sundin might be a more effective physical presence, but no one at present embodies all attributes more fully and completely than the Senators captain.

At the time of writing, Daniel Alfredsson is second in the league in goalscoring, and tied for third in points. He is third in the league in ice time among forwards. He leads the league in several statistical categories, including shorthanded goals and points. He leads the Ottawa Senators in every quantifiable fashion, from goals to post-game 3 star selections. While he began last season sluggishly, recording only one goal in his first month of play, it is no surprise that his revival coincided with the end of his team's slump. By the time of the Spezza injury in late 2006, Alfredsson was back on track and quickly earned player of the week honours, the start of a resurgence that would see his team recorded the best record for the second half of the season. He lead the Stanley Cup playoffs in goals and points, and was the odds on favourite to win the Conn Smythe should his team have won. In the 78 games he has played in 2007 (including playoffs), Alfredsson has recorded 46 goals and 55 assists for 101 points. If the preseason were included, the numbers jump to 51 goals, 57 assists, 108 points, in 81 games. He is on pace to finish in the top 10 in NHL scoring for the third time in four seasons, and to not only crack the 50 goal mark for the first time but obliterate it.

Offensively, there is simply little to criticize about Alfredsson this season. Even on a team with elite superstars like Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza, it is Alfredsson who leads the attack, who organises the entry into the opposition zone, who quaterbacks the powerplay from the point, the half-wall, the hashmarks - really, anywhere the coach wants him to be. It is he, not elite sniper in Dany Heatley or star playmaker Jason Spezza, who is counted on for the tying or go-ahead goal. More importantly, he provides it. When the team needs a spark, a clutch goal there isn't just a hope and a prayer that Alfredsson could, maybe, possibly provide it. He does it, and he's done it from the first drop of the puck October 3rd in Toronto to the final buzzer at Scotiabank Place this afternoon. And he'll do it again, and again, and again.

If offense were all that Alfredsson could provide, perhaps the argument might end there. Instead, he is also among the league's elite defensive players. If the Selke consideration year after year isn't convincing, his play this year certainly should be. At even-strength, he is the first forward back in the zone, and never stops hustling. Senators coach John Paddock matches strength against strength, and as such Alfredsson is expected to defend the league's best, matching up against the Ovechkins and Jagrs and Kovalchuks. While you might expect a poor +/- because of the dangerous (some might even say, unstoppable) stars he is forced to face, Alfredsson instead was second in the league in plus/minus last season, and is +8 so far this year. He plays a pivotal role on a top 10 penalty kill, turning it from a nail-biting opportunity for the opposition to capitalise, into an advantage from the Senators. Even if he doesn't score shorthanded (which he often does, by the way - he leads the league in short handed goals with 3 so far), he's being aggressive, putting the opposition on their heels, making them look over their shoulder, hesitate. He generates momentum just by stepping on the ice. Alfredsson is the first-choice forward to defend 5-on-3s, even though he is not a centreman, even though the team boasts Kelly and Vermette and Fisher and McAmmond, all peerless penalty killers in their own right.

Not only does Alfredsson play in all three situations, he does it more often then all but two forwards in the league. After Tampa Bay forwards Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards, Alfredsson leads all attackers in ice time, averaging 23:27 per game. Early in the season he was relied upon more heavily; while his ice time lowered as the team sorted out its line combinations enough to roll four with regularity, in the absence of #1 pivot Jason Spezza, Alfredsson has stepped up further. Against the Canadiens, Alfredsson logged almost 27 minutes; a handful for a defenseman, let alone a 34-year old forward. Still, it's no surprise. Alfredsson has consistently been among the top 10 in forwards for icetime, a fact that is routinely overlooked when assessing his impact on each and every Senators result (which, lately, has been a whole whack of victories).

Equally overlooked when assessing Alfredsson is his ability to be a catalyst. When Alfredsson is shuffled down to the second line, it is to provide a more balanced attack, as Fisher tends to score more when placed with Alfredsson. In fact, most players do. When the team is trailing and the top line is not clicking, it is Alfredsson who is moved around, not Heatley or Spezza. This is not a punishment to Alfredsson, or an approval of Heatley/Spezza's play. Quite the opposite. The coach simply knows that his other lines need a boost, and Alfredsson will inevitably provide it. Place Alfredsson on Heatley and Spezza's wing, and you have the best line in hockey. Place Alfredsson with Chris Kelly, and you've got yourself a 140 point player. Put Alfredsson with Vermette, or McAmmond, and you find instant chemistry. Put Alfredsson with Todd White, or Bryan Smolinski, or Magnus Arvedson, and you can fool yourself into thinking you've got more than scrubs. He makes poor offensive players competent; he makes star players elite. Alfredsson is the heart of the Senators offense, whatever line he's on, whoever he plays with.

Then there is leadership. While Alfredsson has had his knocks over the years, well documented, his leadership in 2007 is unquestionable, and anybody who opposes is simply misinformed. In late 2006, with his underperforming Senators reeling, Alfredsson rallied the troops. He identified his leadership core, assembled them, and laid it out bare - if the Senators did not improve their play on the ice, their commitment to team defense specifically, this team would not make the playoffs. Past accolades, pre-season projections, talent, none of it matter a lick. And he made another thing quite clear to his peers Heatley, Phillips, Fisher and Redden - if those five, Alfredsson included, weren't the ones to pick up the team by the bootstraps, nothing would improve. And so, following Alfredsson's lead both on the ice and off, the team rallied to a dominant second half, before storming through the Eastern Conference playoffs on the back of the captain. In game 5 against Anaheim, as the Cup drifted ever further out of reach, Alfredsson refused to give up, notching a marker. Even as Senators defenseman Chris Phillips responded by knocking the puck into his own net to put the Senators further behind, Alfredsson let his effort on the ice speak for itself. Shorthanded, Alfredsson fought through a mauling Ryan Getzlaf the length of the ice to pocket a goal over JS Giguere's shoulder. The look on his face afterward said it all - win or lose, Alfredsson was not going to go down without fighting, and he wouldn't accept his team to do otherwise.

Early in the 2007-08 season, as Senators GM Bryan Murray painlessly locked up his future core, all three of the major signings (Fisher, Heatley, and Spezza) identified the presence of Alfredsson, for the next few seasons at least, as a key reason why they were committed to remaining in Ottawa. The little things Alfredsson does as a leader are rarely noticeable. According to reputation, he's not one for pre-game speeches or intermission rallying cries. He acts by example on the ice, never giving a drop less than complete effort. While there have been criticisms of a too-quiet Senators locker room in the past (accurate or not? we fans will never know), but there have been revelations of late that indicate Alfredsson is getting vocal. With the Senators coming out flat in 2 consecutive games for the first time all season, and only a period remaining to wrest control of a still in reach game against Montreal, Alfredsson stood up in the Senators room and demanded more effort from his players. They delivered, of course, but it was mostly the effort of Alfredsson that made the difference. He is measured with his words, perhaps, but Daniel Alfredsson's on-ice leadership speaks for itself.

I pretend no lack of bias. I've seen every Senators game for the last number of years, and much as I try to pay attention to the other teams in the league, I won't pretend for an instance I watch enough of their games to truly notice the immeasurable contributions of all players league-wide. Like all passionate hockey fans, I have a place in my heart for the captain of my team, and it no doubt colours my viewpoint. But I see what I see, and in 2007, there is no better all-around player in my estimation than Daniel Alfredsson.


Anonymous said...

Someone is getting a little carried away. Alfredsson will show his true self down the stretch. Just like every other year. I understand you want to hype him while the going is good but come on.
Everyone know who the best player in the world is.... SIDNEY CROSBY and he is only 20.

No One Remembers #2 said...

Based on some arguments I got in on the boards, I think I failed to articulate clearly that I consider Alfredsson the most complete/best all-around player in the league. Crosby is by far the most skilled offensively and I wouldn't dare disagree. Still, I don't think it's a matter of Alfredsson being, by far, undisputably, the most complete player, with guys like Sakic, Lecavalier and Zetterberg clearly on equal, and some would say superior ground (though I disagree that they are undisputably better).

Just that Alfredsson is among the candidates who could grab the title of "best" on any given night.

By next season I'm pretty sure Crosby will be considered the best "best" in every definition without any debate whatsoever.