Before last week’s game between the Lightning and Philadelphia Flyers, the Flyers honored Peter Forsberg, who recently was voted into the Hockey Hall Of Fame. For most of Forsberg’s career, I was not yet in the NHL. Before becoming the Lightning’s radio broadcaster, I was, as many of you may know, announcing games for the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League. It was only in the last few years of Forsberg’s career that I saw him play live – and those occasions were limited to the games that his teams played against the Lightning. When I was still calling games in the minors, though, I watched a lot more of Forsberg – on TV. Catching NHL games over the course of a busy AHL schedule isn’t always easy, but there were a couple of reasons why I saw so much of Forsberg. First, Hershey was the affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche for six of my eight seasons with the Bears, so I paid more than a little attention to the Avs’ fortunes during that time. Also, as Colorado was one of the league’s top teams during the mid-to-late ‘90s and early 2000s, the Avs were always in the playoffs. Even if Hershey was still playing in the AHL playoffs, those games didn’t always overlap with the NHL’s postseason schedule. So the Avs were on often enough that I could watch the games.
In that era, there was no player I enjoyed watching more than Peter Forsberg. He possessed an incredible combination of skill and strength. The puck looked like a yo-yo on his stick. There were times, watching Forsberg stickhandle past – or through – multiple defenders, that I actually laughed out loud in disbelief. Players who tried to pokecheck the puck away would end up looking foolish, as Forsberg danced around them. Others who tried to knock him off the puck would end up on their back, after taking the brunt of the contact. He was joy to watch.
By the time he arrived in Philadelphia, at the start of the 2005-06 season, chronic foot problems were slowing him down. In reading some of the press coverage detailing his time with the Flyers, it was clear that he didn’t feel like himself – and it was equally clear that he was dissatisfied with his overall play. Still, Forsberg, in nearly two seasons with the Flyers, amassed 115 points in 100 games. Imagine what those totals would have been had he not been debilitated by the foot issues. (Of course, he could have played a lot more than those 100 games in an orange jersey. The Flyers had initially drafted him, but sent him to Quebec as part of the Eric Lindros deal.)
The Forsberg ceremony last week led me to think about players I love watching now. Calling Lightning games in 2014 has its benefits. I get to see, on a regular basis, Steven Stamkos’ blistering shot, Tyler Johnson’s speed, Nikita Kucherov’s creativity, Valtteri Filppula’s stickhandling, Ondrej Palat’s two-way game, Ryan Callahan’s tenacity, Victor Hedman’s skating, Jonathan Drouin’s vision, Anton Stralman’s puck poise – and more. About Hedman, by the way, Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness, who has been in the game for a long time and has seen many players come and go, has stated multiple times that he’s never seen a big man skate as well as Victor Hedman does.
The NHL is filled with amazing players with incredible talents. A few years ago, I wrote a column about opposition players I love to watch. Here’s a small sample of an updated version, though two players have made both lists.
Sidney Crosby: What I love about watching Crosby isn’t only his skill level, which is off-the-charts high, but also his compete-level. Even though he’s not the biggest man, he plays big. The next time you watch the Penguins – and they play the Bolts on Tuesday at Amalie Arena – track how many puck battles Crosby loses. I can predict that there won’t be many. Combining overwhelming talent with an unrelenting drive is a lethal combination (for the opposition). Not surprisingly, he was also on my first list.
Jonathan Toews: When the Lightning faced the Blackhawks in Chicago on November 11, Toews was held without a point and finished with a minus two rating. He was still one of the best players (if not the best) on the ice. That’s usually the case in any game Toews plays. There seems to be nothing that he doesn’t do well. He wins faceoffs. He produces goals and assists. He wins puck battles. He kills penalties. His hockey IQ, like Crosby’s, is very high, so he is always in the right place at the right time. He may be the most complete player in today’s game.
Pavel Datsyuk: He’s the other player who was on my first list. Datsyuk’s puck skills remind me of Forsberg’s. When he has the puck, he never seems to lose it. And when he has a chance to steal the puck, he’ll swipe it right off an opponent’s stick. (I don’t like the subjectivity of the “takeaway” stat, but I am not surprised that Datsyuk is among the league leaders every season). His teammates call him “the Magic Man” because he can really make magic when the puck is on his stick.
P.K. Subban: The dynamic defenseman is one of the most polarizing figures in the league. In Ben McGrath’s excellent profile on Subban in a recent edition of The New Yorker, he details how Subban’s flair doesn’t make him popular among all of his peers. Personally, I like it. In particular, I love watching Subban skate. I recall a game between the Lightning and Canadiens recently in which, during a four-on-four, Subban put on a skating, puck-possession clinic. He seemed to cover every inch of ice in the offensive zone, all while protecting the puck. At the Bell Centre during Montreal home games, there is always a buzz in the crowd. That buzz gets louder whenever Subban picks up the puck and starts to skate up ice. He is a flat-out exciting player to watch.
Jeff Skinner: Skinner’s experience in figure skates, which he wore as a child, help make him the slipperiest player in the league. A defender thinks he’s got Skinner pinned against the boards, then, whoops! Skinner eludes the check. He can splay his skates, like a figure skater might, to cross up defenders. When he gets the puck in the offensive zone near the opposition net, he can utilize one of the many unorthodox moves in his bag of tricks to free himself for an open look.