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NHL.com looks at the best at doing the little things

Tuesday, 08.03.2010 / 4:25 PM / NHL Insider

By John Kreiser - NHL.com Columnist

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NHL.com looks at the best at doing the little things
Goal-scorers get the headlines, but guys who do the little things also make a big contribution to winning.
Alex Ovechkin is a hockey icon because of his offensive skills -- after all, the basic premise of hockey is that you have to put the puck in the net more than the other guy, and Ovi has been the best in the NHL over the past few years at doing just that.

But there's more to winning hockey games than just scoring goals, and not even the Great Eight can do everything. Doing the little things and the dirty work plays a big role in winning games as well.

Here's a look at some of the NHL's best players in a few of the least-appreciated categories:

Takeaways: Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit

Even if Datsyuk weren't a tremendously skilled offensive player (he is), he'd be a star for his defensive abilities alone. One of the abilities that helped him win the Selke Trophy as the NHL's top defensive forward in each of the last three seasons is his unparalleled skill as a puck thief.

Datsyuk ran away from the field again last season with 132 takeaways, 49 more than runner-up Ryan Kesler of the Vancouver Canucks. It's the third time in the past four seasons that Datsyuk led the NHL in takeaways -- he was second in 2008-09 with 89, five behind fellow Russian Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Datsyuk's total marked the third time in four seasons that he's been in triple digits in takeaways -- he's the only player ever to break 100 in the last five seasons. His total of 144 is the most since play resumed after the work stoppage in 2005.

"I'm happy to disappoint a guy and make him not score on us," said Datsyuk, who cited practicing against players such as Steve Yzerman, Igor Larionov and Sergei Fedorov as a big reason for his skill as a thief. "I want to score a lot, but I'm happy if they don't score on us.''

Hits: Cal Clutterbuck, Minnesota, and Dustin Brown, Los Angeles

Guys like Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby have their race for the scoring title. Clutterbuck and Brown have their own, much less-appreciated battle to be No. 1 in hits.

No one has been credited with more hits over the last four seasons than Brown, the captain of the Los Angeles Kings. Since 2006-07, he's been in the top three each season, finishing first in 2007-08 with 311 -- a number that's even more impressive when you consider he also put up 33 goals.

But Clutterbuck, a third-round pick by the Minnesota Wild in 2006, banged his way into the NHL in 2008 and has been hitting everything in sight ever since. He led all players in hits in 2008-09 with 356 (Brown was third with 285) and repeated as the NHL leader last season with 318 (Brown was the runner-up with 287).

Clutterbuck doesn't have Brown's offensive skills (Brown followed his 33-goal effort with back-to-back 24-goal seasons), but he's not useless offensively. He put up 11 goals and 18 points in 78 games as a rookie, then improved to 13 goals and 21 points last season -- during which the Wild signed him to a contract extension.

Perhaps most amazingly, neither player spends a lot of time in the penalty box. Clutterbuck had 76 PIM as a rookie and just 52 last season, while Brown's totals for the last three seasons are 54, 64 and 41 minutes. Both players learned quickly that you can't hit anyone from the penalty box.

Blocked shots: Anton Volchenkov, New Jersey

Not surprisingly, no player has repeated as the leader in this category since the NHL started listing real-time stats in 2005. After all, the blocked shots of today are the bruises of tomorrow, and standing up to slap shots time and again is no fun at all.

Still, there are those more willing to "take one for the team," and no one has taken more than defenseman Anton Volchenkov, who signed with New Jersey as a free agent this summer after piling up bruises in Ottawa.

Volchenkov has been credited with 1,051 blocked shots during the past five seasons, the most of anyone in the NHL. He set the one-year mark by getting in front of 273 shots in 2006-07 -- not coincidentally, that was the season the Senators made it to the Stanley Cup Final. Volchenkov collected a few more black-and-blues by blocking another 80 shots during Ottawa's 20 playoff games.

Volchenkov is the only player to make the top 10 in blocked shots in each of the statistic's five seasons. He was eighth in 2009-10 with 172, well behind the leader, Dennis Seidenberg, who had 215 while splitting the season with Florida and Boston. The Devils, who signed Volchenkov to a six-year deal this summer, hope he's got a lot more blocks in him.

Faceoffs: Scott Nichol, San Jose

Centers around the NHL can breathe a sigh of relief now that Rod Brind'Amour has finally left the faceoff circle for the last time. Carolina's captain led the League in faceoff percentage just once in the last five seasons (61.0 percent in 2008-09), but he was in the top five in all five seasons and was in the top three in faceoffs won four times in a row (missing in 09-10, though he was third in percentage at 58.8). Between his time with the Flyers and Hurricanes, Brind'Amour was part of five of the 10 best faceoff teams since 1997.

But Scott Nichol, a checking center now with the San Jose Sharks, has staked his own claim as an elite faceoff performer.

Nichol has led the NHL in faceoff percentage in two of the last three seasons, topping all qualifiers by winning 59.8 percent of his draws with Nashville in 2007-09 and finishing first this past season with San Jose by winning 60.6 percent of his 832 faceoffs.

Not surprisingly, the Sharks made sure Nichol didn't hit free agency by signing the 35-year-old before the market opened on July 1.

Nichol was part of one of the best faceoff groups of all time in 2009-10. San Jose's 55.6 percent showing was the second-best of any team in the past 13 years, and all five centers who took 600 or more faceoffs won at least 51 percent of them. If you're a puck-possession team like the Sharks, it helps to have the puck -- and Nichol & Co. were a big reason they had it a lot more than the opposition.



Quote of the Day

There was a lot of talk off the ice. From a player's standpoint, that's not the talk in the room. GMs make decisions, coaches make decisions, but as a team you have to come together and be ready to go, and we are.

— San Jose Sharks forward Tommy Wingels on his team's approach entering training camp