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League's best at doing some of the little things

by John Kreiser /
Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby are hockey icons because of their 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 Ovechkin and Crosby are better at doing that (or helping teammates do it) than just about anyone else around.

But there's more to winning hockey games than just scoring goals, and not even "Great 8" and "Sid the Kid" can do everything. Doing the dirty work and excelling at the little things plays a big role in winning games, as well.

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


Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit

The numbers say San Jose's Joe Thornton was the NHL leader in takeaways last season with 114, well ahead of runner-up Jonathan Toews of the Blackhawks (93). But Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk remains the NHL's top puck thief.

Datsyuk finished 11th in the League last season with 71 takeaways -- but he got them in just 56 games, missing the other 26 due to injuries. No one else in the top 30 in takeaways played fewer than 65 games; Thornton and Toews each played 80. The missed games were a big reason Datsyuk's three-year run as the Selke Trophy winner ended, though he was a finalist.

Prior to last season, Datsyuk had led the NHL in takeaways in three of the previous four seasons, including 2009-10, when he had 132 -- 49 more than runner-up Ryan Kesler of Vancouver. In 2008-09, the one season he didn't win, Datsyuk's 84 takeaways were second to Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin, who had 89.

Datsyuk's total of 144 in 2007-08 is the most since takeaways became an official stat in 2005. Until Thornton did it last season, Datsyuk had been the only player to reach triple figures.

"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.''


Cal Clutterbuck, Minnesota
Dustin Brown, Los Angeles

Players like Ovechkin and Crosby, the Sedin twins, Martin St. Louis and Corey Perry have their race for offensive honors. Clutterbuck and Brown, meanwhile, have their own under-the radar battle to be No. 1 in hits.

No one has been credited with more hits since they became an official stat in 2005-06 than Brown, the captain of the Los Angeles Kings. Since 2006-07, he's been in the top three each season, leading the League in 2007-08 with 311 -- a number that's even more impressive when you consider he also put up 33 goals.

But Clutterbuck has banged his way to the top of the NHL's hit parade since entering the League with the Minnesota Wild in 2008. Clutterbuck has led all players in hits in each of his three NHL seasons, including a League-high 336, well ahead of runner-up Tuomo Ruutu of Carolina (309). Brown was third with 300. Clutterbuck's 356 hits as a rookie in 2008-09 are the most ever by any player.

Brown is a far better offensive player -- he had 28 goals this past season and has 141 goals and 305 points in seven NHL seasons. But Clutterbuck is improving; his 19 goals and 34 points last season were career highs, and he's scored 43 goals and 73 points in three full seasons despite playing on the third and fourth lines.

Perhaps most amazingly, neither player spends a lot of time in the penalty box. Clutterbuck had 79 penalty minutes last season and has 207 in three seasons. Brown had 67 penalty minutes last season and has averaged just 54 in his seven seasons. Both players learned quickly that you can't hit anyone from the penalty box.


Dan Girardi, New York Rangers

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.

No one took one for the team more often last season than Girardi, who blocked 236 shots in 80 games -- just under three a game. Minnesota's Greg Zanon (212) was the only other player to block more than 200 shots.

Girardi, who also led the Rangers' defense corps in scoring with 31 points, leads all players in blocks during the past two seasons with 416, eight more than Zanon. However, Zanon has picked up more bruises than anyone else in the last five seasons, blocking 1,010 shots during that span. He's the only player to make the top 10 in all five seasons.

The leader since blocked shots became a recognized statistic in 2005-06 is Anton Volchenkov, who played five seasons with Ottawa before signing with New Jersey last summer. He's blocked 1,129 in six seasons -- but got in front of just 106 with the Devils last season while missing 25 games with injuries. Volchenkov set the single-season League record of 273 with the Senators in 2006-07.


Manny Malhotra, Vancouver

Technically, David Steckel is listed as the NHL's top faceoff man last season -- he won 62.3 percent of his 820 faceoffs in 75 games with Washington and New Jersey. But among players who took 1,000 or more draws, no one was better than Vancouver's Manny Malhotra, who was second in the rankings at 61.7 percent -- but was involved in 1,261 faceoffs despite missing the last 10 games of the season with a severe eye injury.

Malhotra's prowess in the circle is nothing new -- he won 62.5 percent of his 664 draws while playing for San Jose in 2009-10. In fact, his ability to win faceoffs was among the big reasons the Canucks signed him as a free agent last summer. Despite nearly doubling his workload, his winning percentage stayed nearly the same.

Not surprisingly, the arrival of Malhotra coincided with the Canucks' improvement from winning 51.4 percent of their faceoffs in 2009-10 to a League-leading 54.9 percent last season, when they won the first Presidents' Trophy in regular-season history and made it to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
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