The NHL's five stealth MVPs
Sharks scouting director Tim Burke seems to find talent under rocks
Predators coach Barry Trotz continues to work wonders in obscurity
The Canucks have a better version of Sean Avery in Alex Burrows
This is On The Fly's second (and, perhaps, annual) Stealth List -- five people in hockey whom you barely know but who truly make a difference.
(Kindly pay attention, people. The first name on last year's list was Hakan Andersson, the Detroit Red Wings' European scout who had his fingerprints all over the 2008 Stanley Cup champions.)
No. 1.: Patrick Sharp, Chicago Blackhawks forward
The entire hockey world adores Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane -- and Washington's Alexander Semin famously prefers Kane to Sidney Crosby. It is always intriguing when someone tugs on Superman's cape while Sharp goes about his business virtually unnoticed.
Since being spirited away from the Philadelphia Flyers in an agate-type trade early in 2005-06, Sharp, whose statistics at the University of Vermont were hardly eye-catching, has turned into an offensive force. He had 20 goals in 2006-07 and 36 last season, only two fewer than Eric Staal, the more renowned forward from Sharp's hometown of Thunder Bay, Ont. Although Sharp did not start the season playing on a line with the Hawks' exceptional sophomores, the versatile forward, who plays center and left wing, has nine goals, second only to Buffalo's Thomas Vanek.
Sharp also has a presence to him, making him a captain without portfolio. In truth, he probably should have the job. While Toews has superb leadership skills -- most NHL scouts think he will have fewer points but a greater impact on a future Cup contender than Kane -- some of his early struggles could be associated with the new burden of the captaincy.
No. 2: Tim Burke, San Jose Sharks director of scouting
Burke is every bit as perspicacious as the more celebrated David Conte, who pulls rabbits out of the hat for the New Jersey Devils. Burke continually unearths talent whether the Sharks are drafting high -- Patrick Marleau, No. 2 in 1997 --or low -- goalie Evgeni Nabokov, 219th in 1994. (Burke was in Russia to scout another player, saw an ad for the goalie, and drafted Nabokov in the ninth round, sight unseen.)
In 2001, the Sharks actually ran the table: all six players they drafted -- Marcel Goc, Christian Ehrhoff, Dimitri Patzold, Tomas Plihal, Ryane Clowe and Tom Cavanagh -- have played in the NHL. In 2005, general manager Doug Wilson raised some eyebrows when he traded up from the 12th pick to the 8th in order to draft Devin Setoguchi, a Burke recommendation who has blossomed into a top-line winger with Marleau and Joe Thornton this season. If you were going to start a franchise, Burke would be among the first people you would hire.
No. 3: Barry Trotz, head coach, Nashville Predators
Through occasionally thick and often thin, the only coach in this franchise's history does an estimable job, nurturing his young players, wringing the most out of the talent that general manager David Poile finds, and leading the Predators to four straight playoff appearances. Because he plays in a market that is off the Canada/Original Six axis, Trotz's exemplary work over an extended period -- only Buffalo's Lindy Ruff has more seniority behind the same bench -- generally is overlooked.
Says St. Louis Blues left winger Paul Kariya, who spent two seasons with the Predators: "He's lasted so long because he knows how to deal with players. Everybody likes playing for him, even the players who find themselves in his doghouse once in a while."
With the 2010 Olympics looming in Vancouver, Canada GM Steve Yzerman, who had ample opportunity to see Trotz's work in the Central Division, should consider bringing this underrated coach onto the Team Canada staff as an assistant.
No. 4: Alexandre Burrows, Vancouver Canucks left winger
To get some recognition, maybe the fiery Burrows can claim an identical twin or borrow the C. On a team dominated by goalie (and captain) Roberto Luongo and featuring Daniel and Henrik Sedin, de facto first-line players, Burrows is a hard-working, under-the-radar guy. The Unnatural.
Burrows bounced around with three different ECHL franchises, slowly climbing his way to the AHL and then the NHL. He brings energy and attitude, in a good, non-Sean Avery kind of way while driving opponents to distraction. He spends more time in the penalty box than perhaps he should for a player with more than a modicum of skill -- he had four goals and nine points in Vancouver's first 12 games - but Burrows rarely takes retaliatory penalties. In a league where twosomes have overshadowed the traditional trio, he and center Ryan Kesler form one of the NHL's finest workingman's pairs.
No. 5: Roland Melanson, Montreal Canadiens goaltending instructor
Melanson has no system that can be attached to him like tin cans on the bride and groom's car. He simply gets results.
Melanson, who had a middling NHL career, helped José Théodore win the Hart Trophy in 2002. (Théodore then took a victory lap, wasting his time and talent; Melanson's failure to rebuild him back into a Vézina Trophy after the goalie wandered away is the one blemish on his record.) Melanson also helped turn Cristobal Huet, a former backup in Los Angeles, into a legitimate NHL No. 1, which led to the four-year, $22.5 million contract that Huet signed in Chicago after a fabulous late-season stretch last spring with Washington.
Now Melanson is molding a prodigy, Carey Price, while also developing another young goaltender, Jaroslav Halak, who is capable of pushing the preternaturally calm Price. Unlike the big-name Allaire brothers, Melanson's work with goalies has gone unnoticed everywhere, of course, but Montreal.