Editor’s Note: As we’ve reached the mid-way point for the overall hockey season, it’s time to select the mid-season All-America teams for each of the three major levels of hockey in the United States. If you’ll recall, at the beginning of the season, preseason All-America teams were named on United States of Hockey for the National Hockey League, NCAA and also a team featuring 2012 NHL Entry Draft-eligible players. Each team is made up of American-born players, with one player listed for each position, with a few honorable mentions for each as well. We kicked off the mid-season teams with the 2012 Draft-eligibles last Wednesday and unveiled the NCAA team on Tuesday. We wrap-up the mid-season honors with the NHL first and second teams today.
This has been a solid year for Americans in the National Hockey League. Many players have been highly productive and integral to their teams. With a higher American population in the NHL than ever before, it should be expected that American-born players will step up into the elite ranks of the league.
However, the U.S. has only one American in the top-10 in league scoring and only seven in the top 60. This is an area that certainly needs improvement. The United States is undoubtedly an elite hockey nation, but the lack of the consistently productive players is an area of concern.
Despite those concerns, there’s still tremendous depth among American players in the league. Several players that weren’t listed on the preseason All-America Team have stepped up and earned a spot on the first-team this time around. Plenty of tough decisions, to be sure.
Goaltending however is an overwhelmingly bright spot for the United States. Of the nine Americans named to the NHL All-Star Game, three are goaltenders. Not since Mike Richter, John Vanbiesbrouck and Tom Barrasso, has the United States enjoyed such high-end depth at the position.
Defense has also been a position of strength, and based on the number of talented young defenders coming up in the NHL ranks like Cam Fowler, Justin Faulk, Jake Gardiner and Kevin Shattenkirk, the U.S. could be pretty well set in that area for a long time.
While the present isn’t so bad, the future is very bright for USA Hockey in terms of producing high-end NHL players.
Coming up after the jump, a look at the best America has to offer in the NHL today.
Left Wing — Zach Parise — New Jersey Devils
Preseason: Zach Parise, New Jersey Devils
After missing most of last season due to injury, the Devils captain has seemingly picked up right where he left off in terms of production. Parise is the fourth leading scorer among American-born players in the NHL with 40.
Parise, currently third on the Devils in scoring, has New Jersey firmly in the playoff hunt and showing marked improvement as a whole this year with him in the lineup. The left winger hasn’t been held without a point for longer than three consecutive games, and that’s only happened twice this season. His consistent offensive presence and diligent work ethic at both ends of the ice easily put Parise in this first-team left wing spot.
His highly-publicized one-year deal with New Jersey has led some to believe he may be trade bait should the Devils fall out of contention. If he enters the trade market, he’d be one of the most highly sought after commodities in years.
2nd Team: Erik Cole — Montreal Canadiens
Preseason: James van Riemsdyk, Philadelphia Flyers
Erik Cole has quietly had a fantastic season, production wise for the Montreal Canadiens. He leads the Habs with 37 points including 19 goals. Though Montreal has struggled this season, Cole has been a bright spot.
Hampered by injuries throughout his career, Cole has appeared in all 48 games for the Canadiens, after completing the first 82-game season of his career in 2010-11. He is on pace for a career year, with a previous personal high of 61 points in an injury-shortened 2006-07 campaign.
Many weren’t sure how much gas the 33-year-old had in the tank after a pretty solid 26-goal season last year. Cole has proven he’s not done yet, far from it.
Honorable Mentions: Max Pacioretty, Montreal Canadiens; Nick Foligno, Ottawa Senators; R.J. Umberger, Columbus Blue Jackets
Center — David Backes — St. Louis Blues
Preseason: Ryan Kesler, Vancouver Canucks
The St. Louis Blues have been the comeback kids of the NHL since Ken Hitchcock took over, and they’ve been led by their captain the whole way. Backes paces the Blues with 37 points and an American-forward-leading plus-16 rating.
Backes is the definition of an all-around player. He can skate, he can score, he can hit, he’s responsible defensively and he has tremendous size. All of that has combined to make Backes one of the premier power centers in the National Hockey League.
A strong case could be made for Backes being the American most valuable to his team. In the hotly contested Central Division, St. Louis has traded the top spot with rivals Chicago and Detroit in recent weeks and currently sits fourth in the Western Conference. The Blues have only lost three times in regulation (four in overtime/shootout) on home ice and Backes has been a big part of pleasing the home fans with 26 points playing in the shadow of the Arch. That he’s not part of the All-Star festivities is a real shame. He certainly deserves to be there.
This 27-year-old is beginning to step into the spotlight in a market hungry for winning hockey.
2nd Team: Ryan Kesler — Vancouver Canucks
Preseason: Paul Stastny, Colorado Avalanche
While Kesler hasn’t really lit it up offensively like he did in 2010-11, he’s still bringing his solid two-way game night in and night out. After starting the year on the IR, still recovering from hip surgery, Kesler is fourth for Vancouver with 33 points, while recording his typical high plus/minus rating, 27 takeaways and 62 hits.
Though he might be off the pace of his incredible 2010-11, Kesler remains one of the premier American-born players in the game.
Honorable Mention: David Legwand, Nashville Predators; Paul Stastny, Colorado Avalanche; Derek Stepan, New York Rangers; Brandon Dubinsky, New York Rangers
Right Wing — Phil Kessel — Toronto Maple Leafs
Preseason: Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
In the absolute deepest position among American-born players, Phil Kessel is still the easy choice for the first-team All-America nod. His 51 points and 26 goals are tops among American-born players. His point total ranks ninth overall in the NHL and his 26 goals are tied for fourth. Kessel is on pace for an 84-point season, which would be the best by an American since Zach Parise’s 94-point campaign in 2008-09.
Undoubtedly the most natural goal-scorer among Americans in the NHL right now, Kessel has been consistent in that department. Closing in on his fourth consecutive 30-plus-goal season, Kessel is beginning to step into that upper-echelon in the NHL.
He isn’t the most popular player, but he’s one of the most talented and he’s shown every bit of his ability for much of this season. Playing in Toronto won’t make Kessel as big of a household name in the U.S. media markets, but he’s certainly made a huge impact on the way Americans are perceived in the game internationally. Phil Kessel, quite simply, is a star.
2nd Team: Jason Pominville — Buffalo Sabres
Preseason: TIE — Phil Kessel, Toronto Maple Leads; Bobby Ryan, Anaheim Ducks
I spent a lot of time thinking this one through between Pominville and Patrick Kane, who are awfully close in points, but gave the nod to the Sabres captain. It’s been a rough go in Buffalo this season as the team hovers around the basement of the Eastern Conference.
Pominville, however, has been an awfully bright spot for this lackluster team. Through it all, the captain has 17 goals and 30 assists for a team that has really struggled offensively. He leads the team in points and assists, while sitting 13th and 11th overall in the league in both categories, respectively.
Though born in Quebec, Pominville has represented the United States in international play as a dual citizen. He’s close to a career pace right now, despite all of the struggles around him. When the Sabres look back on this sorry year, they won’t have their captain to blame. He’s been outstanding this year and will represent the Sabres at the All-Star Game.
Honorable Mention: Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks; Ryan Callahan, New York Rangers; Bobby Ryan, Anaheim Ducks; T.J. Oshie, St. Louis Blues
Defense — Ryan Suter — Nashville Predators
Preseason: Ryan Suter, Nashville Predators
The best American defenseman in the NHL has continued to be the best American defenseman in the NHL in 2011-12. Ryan Suter might be overshadowed by teammate Shea Weber, but he is undoubtedly one of the best blueliners in the game and has continued to prove that this season.
Suter was named to the All-Star Game after posting 28 points in the first half. He’s currently on pace to meet or beat most of his career offensive stats. Additionally, Suter has put up a plus-8 rating on a team right in the thick of the Central Division race.
Suter hasn’t done a lot of hitting this year, but beats a lot of his opponents with his elite hockey sense and positioning. Suter has blocked 66 shots so far this season while logging an average of 26:28 a night.
The Predators will do all they can to lock up this 27-year-old star, but there’s going to be a lot of interest in Suter in both the trade market and, if he gets there, the free-agent market. He’s the type of player every team would love to have.
Defense — Keith Yandle — Phoenix Coyotes
Preseason: Jack Johnson, Los Angeles Kings
Yandle has really solidified himself as one of the best offensive defensemen in the NHL. He’ll represent the Coyotes at the NHL All-Star Game after putting up 29 points including 23 assists. He may not be on the same pace as a season ago, but has been a significant part of Phoenix’s attack.
Yandle has put 121 shots on net so far this year, but he’s also shown plenty of defensive responsibility with 52 blocked shots. He needs to limit turnovers, as he’s been guilty of 51 giveaways this year.
Either way, Yandle is a deserving All-Star and at just 25 years of age, he’s still not quite hit his prime. He’s going to be a solid defender for years to come and should remain as one of the elite American-born offensive defensemen in the game.
2nd Team: Dustin Byfuglien — Winnipeg Jets
Preseason: Keith Yandle, Phoenix Coyotes
Though he won’t be able to attend the All-Star Game due to injury, Byfuglien has been outstanding when in the lineup. In just 35 games, Byfuglien already has 24 points and has the Jets firmly in the playoff hunt.
Byfuglien has plenty of offensive abilities, but has honed his defensive game in just his second year as a full-time defenseman in the NHL. The burly defenseman has 64 hits so far this year and is logging an average of 23-plus minutes a game. When he returns to health, he’ll be a force once again.
2nd Team: Kevin Shattenkirk — St. Louis Blues
Preseason: Alex Goligoski, Dallas Stars
In just his second season in the NHL, Kevin Shattenkirk has shown some incredible skills and is a big part of the Blues’ success this season. He has 23 points and a solid plus-17, while averaging more than 21 minutes a game in his sophomore campaign.
Shattenkirk is just 22 years old and appears to have a lot of great years ahead of him. He’s had success at both ends of the ice and looks like a seasoned vet out there. The Blues are looking like geniuses for picking up Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart for Erik Johnson and Jay McClement near the deadline last season. It could be a big reason the Blues are fighting for a Central Division title.
Honorable Mention: Matt Carle, Philadelphia Flyers; Jack Johnson, Los Angeles Kings; Ryan McDonagh, New York Rangers; John-Michael Liles, Toronto Maple Leafs
Goalie — Jonathan Quick — Los Angeles Kings
Preseason: Ryan Miller, Buffalo Sabres
The Kings are not yet a sure thing for the playoffs due to the lack of consistency in their offence, making Quick all-the-more important.
Quick has started 42 of of LA’s 50 games this year, posting a 21-12-9 record, 1.93 goals-against average and .934 save percentage. Quick ranks in the top five in most categories and boasts a league best six shutouts. He’s fourth in goals-against average and save percentage and fifth in minutes played.
Quick is looking like a contender for the Vezina and might have a shot at making this the fourth consecutive year of an American winning goaltending’s top award. There’s no telling what the second half will bring, but based on his first-half performance, expect a continued career-best effort from Quick.
2nd Team: Jimmy Howard — Detroit Red Wings
Preseason: Tim Thomas,
New England Patriots Boston Bruins
The NHL’s leader in wins often won’t get enough credit for the success he’s had with much of it being attributed to the team he’s on. Make no mistake, Jimmy Howard is becoming one of the premier goaltenders in the NHL and is contributing to the outstanding depth in the goaltending position for the United States.
With a 30-11-1 record, Howard hasn’t just been letting the wins piled up. His 2.03 goals-against average ranks fifth in the NHL, while his five shutouts put him behind only Quick. He also has a .924 save percentage, which ranks seventh in the league.
Only 27, Howard has plenty of time left in this league to continue building his reputation.
Honorable Mention: Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins; Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators
Mike Modano Award — American MVP
David Backes, St. Louis Blues — This may be a controversial choice, but Backes may be the player most valuable to his own team. Ken Hitchcock will deservingly get credit for the Blues turnaround, but without Backes, it’s simply not possible. The big centerman is the straw that stirs that drink.
A strong case could be made for both Quick and Kessel, but I gave Backes the nod for his all-around game and how important he has been to the success of the Blues.
First Runner Up: Jonathan Quick, LA Kings; Second Runner Up: Phil Kessel, Toronto Maple Leafs
Joe Mullen Award — Top American Scorer
Phil Kessel, Toronto Maple Leafs — 51 points — This one’s simple math. Phil Kessel has more goals and more points than any other American. Case closed.
First Runner-Up: Jason Pominville, Buffalo Sabres — 47 points; Second Runner-Up: Patrick Kane — 41 points
Brian Leetch Carl Voss Trophy — American Rookie of the Year (I don’t remember why I initially named this the Brian Leetch Trophy in the pre-season. The first player ever to win the Calder Memorial Trophy (in 1933) as the NHL’s rookie of the year was actually American. His name was Carl Voss. The (imaginary) trophy should be named for him.)
Craig Smith, Nashville Predators — A year removed from his junior season at the University of Wisconsin, Craig Smith has stepped right into the NHL and performed well. Save for one hilarious gaffe in the season, it’s been mostly positive. With 11 goals and 18 assists, Smith ranks 18th among all American-born NHLers this season with 29 points, while playing significant minutes for the Preds.
First Runner-Up: Jake Gardiner, Toronto Maple Leafs; Second Runner-Up: Justin Faulk, Carolina Hurricanes
Well that’s it for the mid-season team and awards. Feel free to leave your own thoughts about who should or shouldn’t be on the list in the comments.
The end-of-season NHL All-America team will be unveiled upon the conclusion of the Stanley Cup Finals in June.