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Best United States-born player debated by NHL.com writers

Kane, Matthews, Wheeler among those considered

NHL.com @NHLdotcom

The Fourth of July is as good a day as any to celebrate United States hockey.

So who is the best American player in the NHL today? We asked 14 NHL.com staffers and it is not as clear-cut as it once might have been, as Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane has some company at the top of the list.

While Kane led with five votes, Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews received four votes and Winnipeg Jets forward Blake Wheeler had two. Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau and Pittsburgh Penguins forward Phil Kessel each received one vote.

 

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"His speed, his ability to take the fans out of their seats on every shift and his consistent production makes Kane the best U.S.-born player in the NHL," staff writer Brian Compton said.

Kane had 76 points (27 goals, 49 assists) in 82 games last season and has scored at least 20 goals in each of his 11 NHL seasons. Selected by the Blackhawks with the No. 1 pick in the 2007 NHL draft, he has 828 points (312 goals, 516 assists) in 822 regular-season games and 123 points (50 goals, 73 assists) in 127 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Video: WPG@CHI: Kane beats Comrie five-hole to open scoring

"He has won the Stanley Cup three times and he's one of four Americans to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs' most valuable player, with Brian Leetch, Tim Thomas and Jonathan Quick," NHL.com columnist Nick Cotsonika said. "He is the only American to win the Art Ross Trophy as NHL scoring champion and the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP."

Said staff writer Tracey Myers, "He's tremendous in clutch situations and can take on extra minutes. If there's ever a player Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville chooses to double shift, it's usually Kane." 

Columnist Dave Stubbs points to the trophy case.

"During a six-year span from 2010-15, Kane played a huge role in leading the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup championship three times, stocking his trophy case, which already held the 2008 Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL's top rookie," Stubbs said. "Kane added the 2013 Conn Smythe and three trophies in 2015-16: the Art Ross, the Hart and the Ted Lindsay Award, the MVP as voted by the players."

The Matthews supporters point to more recent form. Matthews, who was selected by the Maple Leafs with the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, had 63 points (34 goals, 29 assists) in 62 games last season.

"I'm going with the 20-year-old Matthews, as much for what he's done so far as what he will do and the future he has ahead of it," staff writer Amalie Benjamin said. "It's blinding. It's the way he shoots the puck and the way he gets in position to shoot it. It's the way he's already scored 74 goals in 144 games in his first two NHL seasons, with 132 points. It's his skating and his hands and his stickhandling and his hockey smarts."

Video: BOS@TOR, Gm3: Matthews goes top shelf on Rask

Senior fantasy editor Pete Jensen used analytics to bolster his argument.

"Matthews (0.51 goals per game) and Patrik Laine (0.52) are on similar goal-scoring tracks to Alex Ovechkin (0.60) through their first two NHL seasons," Jensen said. "Since Matthews entered the League, he's tied with Connor McDavid for the most even-strength goals (61) despite playing 20 fewer games."

The future could be even brighter for Matthews entering his third season after the Maple Leafs signed center John Tavares to a seven-year, $77 million contract on July 1.

"Let's not forget, Kane scored 30 goals for the first time in his third season, the same year he won the Stanley Cup for the first time," said Shawn Roarke, Director of Editorial. "Why can't Matthews do the same and more, especially with the supporting cast he now has?"

Wheeler, Winnipeg's captain, gained momentum after he had a career-high 91 points (23 goals, 68 assists) in 81 games last season, the first time he has topped 78 points in his 10-year NHL career. In the playoffs, he had 21 points (three goals, 18 assists) in 17 games.

"Wheeler's game is at its zenith," staff writer Tim Campbell said. "His team performed better than it ever has, earning 114 regular-season points and reaching the Western Conference Final before losing to the Vegas Golden Knights in five games. It is no accidental link.

"He's a fast power forward with great hands and vision and of all the candidates in this category, what puts Wheeler over the top for me is his increasing commitment without the puck."

Said senior writer Dan Rosen, "Wheeler wouldn't have been my pick last year, but he elevated his game and the Jets last season enough to push him to the head of the pack. Only Kane, with 404 points (163 goals, 241 assists), has more points than Wheeler's 373 (129 goals, 244 assists) among American skaters since 2013-14. But Wheeler had 15 more points than Kane last season, so he gets the nod from me."

Video: NSH@WPG, Gm3: Wheeler gives Jets late lead with PPG

Wheeler's teammate Hellebuyck earned one vote from staff writer Adam Kimelman.

"Hellebuyck had arguably the best season ever by a U.S.-born goaltender," Kimelman said. "His 44 wins passed Tom Barrasso's 43 for most by an American goalie, and tied Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning for the NHL lead. Among goalies to play at least 40 games last season, Hellebuyck was fourth with a 2.36 goals-against average, fifth with a .924 save percentage and third with six shutouts. He was just as good in helping the Jets reach the conference final for the first time with a 2.36 GAA and .922 save percentage in 17 playoff games."

Staff writer Mike Morreale went with Gaudreau, who had a career-high 84 points (24 goals, 60 assists) in 80 games last season and has 288 points (97 goals, 191 assists) in 312 regular season games.

Among United States-born players, he ranks third in points, points per 60 minutes (2.93) and primary assists (119), and first in assist per 60 minutes (1.95) and penalties drawn (126) since 2014-15. 

"He's become a leader and go-to performer for the young and improving Flames and, to me, is the most electrifying American-born player to watch right now," Morreale said. 

Staff writer David Satriano chose Kessel, who had 92 points (34 goals, 58 assists) in 82 games last season and has 741 points (330 goals, 411 assists) in 914 career NHL games. 

"There's no denying that Kane, a three-time Cup winner, and Quick, a two-time Cup winner, are two of the best American-born players of all time. But for me, Kessel is the best in the NHL right now," Satriano said. "His 92 points last season were an NHL career high and were tops among American-born players, and he's been the model of consistency, scoring at least 20 goals in 10 straight seasons, topping 30 six times."

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