Toronto Maple Leafs v New York Rangers

Certain players in the NHL have specialized abilities that you periodically see and go “oh wow, he does that at a level better than everyone else.” It could be post-to-post speed by a goalie, it could be a heavy shot, it could be shot-blocking, whatever. Maybe it’s face-mashing, ala John Scott.

Those skills are easily identifiable though, and don’t go without praise from the general public.

One thing I don’t think you get as much of a sense for on TV is the guys who make the fans get out of their seats the second they get the puck and start cruising through the neutral zone. There’s a jump to their step and an air of danger, like the fact that it’s a one-on-two is irrelevant because somebody is going to have to stop this uber-talented human going mach five through the neutral zone at some point.

I thought it was time to pay homage to those most-electric players in the league, so today we’re looking at the 10 NHL most dangerous men through the neutral zone. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments, of course.

In no particular order:

Matt Duchene

He seems like a headache because if he gets so much as a half-step on you you’re starting to lose ground. He defines the difference between quickness and raw speed (though he has the latter too) with his first couple strides. I imagine defending him is a lot like dropping a glass of red wine on a white carpet. What’s it starts to get away from you, you can feel the nightmare unfolding in slow motion.

Phil Kessel

In person, Phil Kessel’s most obvious skill is his ability to make the entire crowd go ooooOOOOAAAAHAHHHHHH the second he flips the switch. Combine that with his ability to dent the post from anywhere inside the blueline with his snapshot, and defenders need to be reeeeally certain that they maintain good gap control.

Jaromir Jagr

He may not be in his prime anymore (he isn’t), and he may not do it with speed (he doesn’t), but you do get the impression that when Jagr is the puck carrier on a rush through the neutral zone just about anything could happen…save for a dump-in.

Sidney Crosby

He’s just such a good judge of weakness you have to be perfect when he’s moving in. He’ll use space if given a gap, push d-men wide if they’re too tight, and anticipates so well (to go along with his ability to do things like pick up bad passes with his skates) that there’s no right way to play him. Just you know…don’t mess up or you’ll get burned. Good luck with that.

Ilya Kovalchuk

Kovalchuk’s shot is so heavy that the first thing on your checklist is “don’t let him shoot,” so you have to play him tight, which means you’re more susceptible to getting your doors blown off. He’s leading the NHL in short-handed goals (four), so you can also be sure he’s more than decent in transition.

Taylor Hall

People have called Taylor Hall’s style of play “reckless” (that includes me), which I don’t necessarily think is a negative. The point is, he’s pedal to the metal at all times, pushing, churning, working, and making you match his effort-level, which isn’t easy to do. Also, he’s sort of skilled, which is another issue.

Patrick Kane

Kane: not an easy dude to deal with. Nasty stick skill, tons of creativity, good wheels…he’s a handful in every aspect offensively. Also, if you give him too much room, he’s not afraid to curl and delay, meaning that second wave of players might be coming in on the attack after defenders have backed in too deep, stopped, and find themselves flat-footed.

John Tavares

One of Tavares’ strengths is just pure decision-making ability and personal drive. I know the latter doesn’t sound like much (everyone wants to score!), but with Tavares, dude is like the Energizer bunny. He just keeps going, and going, and going…he wears guys down, and always knows when to dish, when to accelerate…he’s just flat-out smart.

Jonathan Toews

Smart like Tavares with a little more length, so we occasionally get to see him do things like…

And finally…

Alex Ovechkin

He may not be as much of a threat off the rush as he was in his early years, but as much as anyone in the league, he still presents two major problems for defenders: he’ll shoot it through you and score, he’ll drive wide and score. So like a few others mentioned, he still makes d-men place a premium on their gap, and will punish those who overplay him either way.