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Weekes: NHL has provided some great gifts

by Kevin Weekes

It's the holiday season and plenty of people are turning their attention to the great gifts they received this year. With a holiday theme, I have to talk about some of the best gifts NHL fans have seen so far this season.

The best gift the League has received is that all three California-based teams are playing great. It's had a great impact on the state from a business level but also at the grass-roots level. There are a lot of great, young minor-league players now playing in California. That talent in California has been spurred by the great performance from all three California NHL teams.

The Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks have been so great this season that it's almost impossible to look at a major League statistic and not find a California-based player. At the Christmas break five of the top six players in plus/minus were Ducks: Hampus Lindholm, Francois Beauchemin, Dustin Penner, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. The only non-Duck in that group is another California-based player: Anze Kopitar of the Kings, who is tied with the Ducks' Dustin Penner for third at plus-20. Just about any category you look at right now there is a California-based player at the top. Look at 34-year-old Jumbo Joe Thornton, who leads the League with 35 assists at Christmas.

It's great for the League. And it's not only flourishing on one level in California; it's flourishing on every level. We're starting to see NHL draft picks who are California-born players. That state has 30 million people; Canada has 35 million. It just shows how great this can be for the game as a whole.

The Montreal Canadiens have received some nice gifts as well, especially Carey Price, who has been playing like an Olympic-caliber goalie. Based on the way he has played he is deserving of a spot in Sochi. They also have a gift in defenseman P.K. Subban, who has continued to play at a Norris-Trophy level and leads his team in scoring. The only other defenseman to do that this season is Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators. Price and Subban have helped carry the Canadiens this season.

For the Colorado Avalanche, coach Patrick Roy has been a real gift. He has come in and turned that team around. He's done a fantastic job not only changing the way a lot of those young, skilled players play, but just changing the attitude and expectations. The belief and the level of professionalism really have changed with that team, which really is such a young group. For the Avalanche the major change has been in their collective attitude, no doubt about it. Bringing Roy in as coach has been a major part of that.

Another gift we have to talk about is Alex Ovechkin and how great he has been. With 30 goals in 35 games he's on an incredible pace and his been leading the Washington Capitals all season. I think he's gone to a whole other level under coach Adam Oates. The key for me has been how he has been able to score in so many different ways. He scores from all over the rink. He can beat you from the outside, the inside, with a move, a deke, a slap shot, off a one-timer, tip-in, deflection, short rebounds. He's scoring in so many different ways right now, so I have to credit his willingness to evolve but I also credit Oates for cultivating that relationship. Ovechkin is more of an offensive threat now than ever because he can do it in so many different ways. He's not trying to force plays that aren't there. I just notice that his decision-making is better.

Finally, you have to add the gift that keeps on giving: Jaromir Jagr. How could you not? He's all hockey all the time and completely dialed-in. He approaches the game as if he was still that 18-year-old kid in Pittsburgh in spite of everything he has accomplished in his great career. That's pretty profound.

He's helped the New Jersey Devils win games, especially given what they lost when Ilya Kovalchuk left. He's generating offense and has made their top line great. He leads the team in goals, assists, points, plus/minus, game-winning goals and shots on goal. That's pretty amazing considering he turns 42 in February. I spoke to Devils coach Peter DeBoer recently and he couldn't stop gushing about Jagr.

I hope all of you got what you were hoping for this holiday season. If not, every hockey fan will get the ultimate gift Jan. 1, when the Toronto Maple Leafs face the Detroit Red Wings in the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic. And there is plenty more season to come after that.

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