Why the term “underrated” has lost all meaning in the NHL

If there’s one thing that the average hockey fan loves more than hockey, it’s arguing about it. This can be applied to just about every hobby and interest on the planet, but there’s no denying the love for great debate amongst us.

As such, we tend to have conversation-starter questions, ones that are timeless and can be applied year after year. A popular well to draw from is the subject of overrated and underrated players, teams, executives… you get the idea. But most often, it’s the players – be it at the bar, around the water cooler (or the Zoom/Teams chat right now, I suppose), within our media, and even the players, who are often given the question as part of annual surveys.

Over the past few years, though, I’ve started to notice a pattern, that’s particularly prevalent with the “underrated” side of the coin. Specifically, it’s the lists barely change, the players are always agreed upon, and that the lists do a better job of uncovering the fact that we all think we’re the smartest people in the room than they do at uncovering diamonds in the rough.

This has been somewhat of a suspicion of mine for years, going back to my teens. If you remember the early 2010’s, the underrated crown belonged to Loui Eriksson. If one doesn’t remember that, such a statement would flabbergast you, given his play over the past four years with the Vancouver Canucks, where he has yet to crack 30 points despite a $6 million AAV. But from his 36-goal season in 2008/09 to shortly after his trade to Boston in the summer of 2013, he was near-universally considered the most underrated player in the game. Yes, that sounds oxymoronic, and it also 100% is oxymoronic. But it was an easy gambit to use on a casual fan – point to the young guy putting up 60-70 points a year as a second-fiddle on a team big enough to a bit about, but not big enough to truly care, and talk about how no one really gives him any attention. Quick sell and you now become the hockey expert in the room.

But it’s a quick sell the first year. Maybe the second. By the third, you’ve pretty much run out of people to sell the player to, and by the fourth, you start to wonder why you still run this gambit… but probably take a crack at it anyway, laughing in your head. Meanwhile, in the real world, Eriksson’s eight-year “peak”, from his breakout to his final year in Boston, saw him get nominated for the Lady Byng Trophy six times, the Selke trophy four times, and he got votes for the end-of-season All-Star Teams three times. Sure, that’s not getting him into the Hall of Fame, but that’s a pretty good voters resume for a guy who never put up a superstar-calibre season and was supposedly overlooked for years.

The remnants of Eriksson’s reign can be found in still be found in today’s voting structure – in short, being a high-end player on a team that doesn’t get regular airtime on the two respective National Broadcasters in North America (CBC and NBC), with some exception for players who play second or third fiddle on the most popular of those teams.

Curious to see if that idea passed the “smell test”, I pulled together as many “most underrated” posts from major outlets and communities as possible, including the players’ polls, over the last two years. I then searched for the players who got the most mention in these pieces. These were the 20 who stood out the most frequently.

Aleksander Barkov FLA Mark Giordano CGY
Anthony Cirelli TBL Mark Stone VGK
Blake Wheeler WPG Mattias Ekholm NSH
Brayden Point TBL Mikko Rantanen COL
Evgeni Malkin PIT Miro Heiskanen DAL
Jaccob Slavin CAR Nicklas Backstrom WSH
Jared Spurgeon MIN Patrice Bergeron BOS
John Klingberg DAL Roman Josi NSH
Jonathan Huberdeau FLA Ryan O’Reilly STL
Kyle Connor WPG Sebastian Aho CAR

Now, I know you might be looking at this list and saying “this wouldn’t look out of place as an All-Star team”, and that’s because, well, it wouldn’t look out of place as an All-Star team.

Let’s take Aleksander Barkov, for example. He’s the new Loui Eriksson, sweeping these polls just about everywhere he goes, including back-to-back wins in the NHL’s official survey. In this case, though, it’s even more absurd. Barkov came into the league as a highly-touted prospect, getting drafted second overall behind Nathan MacKinnon in 2013. He made the NHL in his Draft+1 year. He’s been on the voter’s sheet for at least one NHL award in every season he’s played, be it the Calder, Selke, Byng, or even Hart votes after his 96 point season last year. He’s been a multi-time All-Star representative.

Best of all, though, is watching a Panthers game from an opposing team’s feed, where you quickly realize that Barkov’s best comparable is Lord Voldemort, in the sense that everyone swears that this player is never named, and also that he is going to end your life if you make eye contact with him. The latter is mostly true, as we are talking about a perennial, point-per-game, two-way forward, but the point at large here is that¬†everyone who regularly watches hockey knows that.¬†

“Everyone?”

Everyone. Maybe not a literal 100% share, but close enough to it. Something we tend to forget about hockey is that it doesn’t have the brand power of Football, Basketball, or Baseball in North America unless you’re in a Canadian city where it’s the biggest game in town – and often, in that case, it usually means your primary interest is in a different league than the NHL. The NHL isn’t a league where people dip their toes in occasionally – they’re either out of the loop or invested. If you asked the average person on the street to name current three NHL players who have never played for the local team, you might still get your share of Gretzky responses.

If you’re beyond that, it usually means you’re giving the league at least a medium effort. You might not care about every team’s bottom line grinder or who has the best prospect depth chart, but you have a general idea of who the best players are on every team, who wins the awards, who gets the all-star nods. Who gets drafted the fastest in your fantasy league. Heaven forbid you read anything about the numbers side of the game (hello!), in which case these names are hammered into your head ad nauseam. There isn’t a middle ground with the above group of 20 – you’ve either never heard of any of them, or you’re quite familiar with 18-20 of them. If you’re at the level of interest where you care enough about finding out who the most underrated players are, you know every player on this list.

After all, it includes at least two first-ballot Hall of Famers and a few others who are on track to get there. It features six Top-10 draft picks. It features 18 players who got at least one vote for either an award or an end-of-season all-star team last year. The vast majority of the group makes over $5 million per season, with some players pushing towards the very top of the league. It features five players who have won major awards that they were voted for, including three multi-time winners. It features the only two players to get offer sheeted in the past 12 years. It features enough All-Star appearances for me to not bother counting up the exact number, but we’re closer to “dozens” than “handful”.

It’s a star-studded group of players who, again, mostly fit the simple guidelines – if we consider Winnipeg to be one of the two “small” Canadian markets (along with Ottawa), Giordano is the only Canadian big market player on this list – he was a case of genuinely being underrated early in his career (undrafted, played in Europe when he wasn’t getting NHL minutes, etc), but still carries that name into the twilight of his career, Norris Trophy in hand. For the big American Markets, you get Bergeron, Backstrom, and Malkin. Backstrom and Malkin have been big to huge names their entire careers, and gotten tons of recognition, but become “sleeper picks” just because they aren’t Ovechkin and Crosby. Bergeron has been a fan, scout, media, and staff darling for nearly his entire career, and literally centres a line called “The Perfection Line” that is considered the best in the league – his stock only dipped when concussions derailed his early-mid 20s, an era long past him now.

The best example of the stagnation of the “underrated” term might come from The Athletic, who have put out staff polls for each of the last two years. Compare the two:

2018/19 2019/20
1. Aleksander Barkov 1. Aleksander Barkov
2. Nicklas Backstrom 2. Jonathan Huberdeau
3. Brayden Point 3. Nicklas Backstrom
4. Jared Spurgeon 4. Brayden Point
5. Mark Giordano 5. Jared Spurgeon

Having trouble spotting the difference? That’s because there isn’t much of one; four players have been in The Athletic’s top-five most underrated players in consecutive seasons, with the only year-over-year difference being the replacement of Giordano (who “against all odds” ended up winning the Norris that year), with Jonathan Huberdeau, a former Top-3 pick and Calder Trophy winner who had a career-best season the year prior, reminding everyone that there are players besides Barkov on the Panthers.

That’s coming from the media outlet with the most PHWA writers by a considerable margin, and the highest volume of “mainstream” written content production by a similar margin. In other words, they’re essentially the ones doing the rating, and yet their own results haven’t changed. Not to single out The Athletic here, as they’re far from the only outlet or collective that falls into this trap, but it shows you just how much the conversation has shifted, and as a result, stagnated.

Underrated players still exist in today’s game, and will continue to – particularly as we learn more about the game and find players who are effective at inefficiencies we haven’t noticed yet. But in a climate where most hockey viewers are invested fans, and where most invested fans have more access to data, information, and video than ever, it becomes harder and harder for someone to fly under the radar. Lower-ranked prospects will often sneak up depth charts throughout their development, and those are the ones who truly embody the spirit of this conversation – but for now, there is a lot of noise leading the way, and the underrated moniker has become more of a “sorry your team isn’t on my TV that often” award than a pursuit of value.

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