The 5 Toughest Players I’ve Ever Faced

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Mark Scheifele, Center / Winnipeg Jets - The Players' Tribune

Hockey, man. It’s the best. I truly love it. There are a lot of guys in the league who will tell you, “I like to leave it all at the rink. I don’t watch much hockey when I get home.”
Yeah … That’s definitely not me.

I’m what you might call a full-on hockey nerd. I can watch hockey all day. Like, when we’re headed to the airport after a game, I’ll pull out my phone right on the bus and just start streaming the late games. I’m always fascinated by why guys are playing a certain way, or taking chances in certain moments, or adding little tricks to their game. You watch any hockey game closely enough, and there’s going to be something you can pick up.

I see a guy like Sid winning two Stanley Cups in a row, and he’s still loving everything about the game, still working on new things. That’s inspiring to me. I wake up every day and try to eat, breathe, and sleep hockey. And I figure — why not add “write hockey” to that list?

This is my attempt at taking you a little deeper inside the game that I love. Honestly, I probably could have made this 20 players long — but here are the five toughest guys I’ve ever faced.


Erik Karlsson

 

Why He’s Unreal:
Unbelievable. The true definition of a two-way defenseman. In the playoffs, the guy was playing with a fractured heel bone, and he was still the best player on the ice. I really can’t even comprehend it. Obviously, your foot is locked into the boot, and probably wrapped with five pounds of tape, but I know that every time he was taking a stride, it had to be excruciating. And yet somehow he’s out there flying around, making it all look effortless. It just shows his character and mental toughness. His playoff run was one of the most impressive performances I’ve ever seen. I mean, 18 points in 19 games, and a +13 with a fractured heel? Come on.

He’s almost like this urban legend. Like the NHL version of Bill Murray.

Why Hockey Players Appreciate Him:
There are all those stories from the playoffs about him going to play 18 holes on his off day and his own coach saying that he’s is the only guy in the NHL who doesn’t have to practice. He’s almost like this urban legend. Like the NHL version of Bill Murray. But I’ve talked to a few of the guys in Ottawa, and I’ve just asked them straight up, like, “I don’t understand. He makes it look so easy. What’s the deal?” And they all say that he’s pound-for-pound one of the strongest guys in the league.

His skills are obviously next-level, but the thing I appreciate is that he looks so calm doing everything. He never looks like he’s in a rush with the puck on his stick. I think their whole team gets so much confidence from his ability to make the perfect breakout pass. This is especially crucial in the playoffs when the space is so tight and you can’t afford to turn the puck over. When you can come out of your zone flying instead of having to muscle it out, it makes such a difference, and that’s why Karlsson is so valuable. He’s the best in the world at it.

And maybe the craziest thing of all is that the guy was second in the NHL in blocked shots last season. Sixth in the league in assists and second in blocked shots? That’s a complete player.

Let’s Go to the Tape:
For me, the play that says it all is the one where he walked the entire blue line against Boston in round 1.

 

First of all, how is he skating that fast? But second of all, how is he able to see Brassard across his body, and through a whole lane of traffic, make that pass right on his tape? And finally, how does he have the presence of mind to freeze the goalie with the little head fake before sliding it across?

How? I’m asking you. I honestly don’t know. Someone tell me.


Carey Price

 

Why He’s Unreal:
I will gladly embarrass myself for the sake of this article, as long as you guys are retweeting this. I remember during my second year in the league, we were playing up in Montreal. Obviously, you know going in against Price that you’re gonna need some high-quality chances. So at some point during the game, I got the puck in the high slot, and I got a step on the defenseman and pulled around him. I got a clear lane. Perfect scoring opportunity. Just me and Price. And I got everything on the shot. Sometimes, you just know right as it’s coming off your stick. And as this one is coming off my stick, I’m thinking, That’s bardown. I’m almost mentally getting ready to celebrate.

Then I look up, and all I see is red. Carey’s standing straight up, in perfect position, and the puck hits him square in the chest.

Not only does it hit him square in the chest, but it hits him and then drops right into his glove. And then he calmly hands it to the ref. He never went down into the butterfly. Literally, 99 out of 100 goalies would’ve gone down in that situation. But Carey is so smart that he reads exactly what you’re going to do in a fraction of a second. He’s so good that he’ll make you look like an idiot.

Why Hockey Players Appreciate Him:
A lot of people think playing goalie is just all reflexes and rebound control, but that’s only 25% of the battle. At this level, 75% of it is reading the play and knowing guys’ tendencies and being the smartest guy on the ice.

I will gladly embarrass myself for the sake of this article, as long as you guys are retweeting this.

As a goalie, if your team turns the puck over and you’re facing a 3-on-2, your brain has to make all these little micro-decisions to read the play in the span of a few seconds. For example, you might first look at the open man and notice that he’s a left-handed shot on the left side. That means he can’t open his body up for the one-timer in the middle of the ice. If the pass comes across, it’s going to take him a half-second to control it and shoot from the outside of his body. So you might cheat a half-step over to the puck carrier’s side to take away his angle, because you know that the lefty getting it is the least-bad situation.

This is the kind of thinking that separates good goalies from great ones. There are a lot of unbelievable goalies in the NHL, but Price is the best because of his hockey intelligence. He reads plays unlike any goalie I’ve ever seen, and he does it night after night. I have such an appreciation for the elite goalies, because they can never turn their brains off. They have to do it every shift, every game, even if they’re sick or the bed in their hotel sucked, or they’re going through something at home. Goalies like Price, who are so consistent for so long, I don’t know how they do it.

Let’s go to the tape:
This save against the Rangers … what can you even say about it?

 


Sidney Crosby

 

Why He’s Unreal:
OK, so I could easily post that clip of Sid one-handing a backhander top-shelf against Buffalo and then we could all go home. But that’s not what I appreciate most about his game. The highlights are the highlights. They’re unreal. You’ve seen them. For me though, I watch Sid more than any other player, and it’s his mental consistency that blows my mind.

Every time he’s rushing the puck and a defenseman jumps into the rush behind him, I say to myself, “Is he gonna see him? There’s no way he’s gonna see him.”

And then of course he sees him, every single time. This is something that goes above and beyond stats. 99.9% of the time, Sid makes the right decision with the puck. As a player, I can’t tell you how hard it is to have that kind of vision. You see what he does on TV, and he makes it look so simple. But when you’re at ice level, things are really chaotic. Everything’s moving so fast around you. Maybe there’re ruts in the ice. Maybe there’s a defenseman stepping up on you, or you’re getting hacked from behind. You’re looking down at the puck in your periphery. You’re trying to process where your teammates are. And you’re trying to do all this at full-speed. To be able to make the right decision every time like Sid does, your brain has to be a supercomputer.

But even if you’re as smart as Sid, and as physically gifted, there are a million other variables going on. Maybe you’re on a back-to-back on the road. Maybe your coach is on you, or you got into an argument with your girlfriend, and you’re up in your own head. Can you do it every single night, for 82 games, plus the playoffs, for more than 10 years, without ever regressing?

This is what Sidney Crosby has done, and it really is mind-blowing.

Why Hockey Players Appreciate Him:
From a technical perspective, he skates the puck through the neutral zone better than anyone I’ve ever seen. His edge work and lower body strength are incredible. The guy can play keepaway in the corner for 15 seconds by himself. But to me, the most underrated thing about Sid is his willingness to make everybody around him better. You saw it in the playoffs the last two years. You could see Sheary and Guentzel learning from him on almost a game-by-game basis.

You’d see Sheary score these goals by doing exactly what Sid would do in that situation. Just look at the big goal Sheary scored in Game 1 of the Finals …

Let’s go to the tape:
To me, this is leadership. This is Sid rubbing off on his teammates.

 

First, Sid does what he always does — he gets down low below the goal line and makes a great pass to Kunitz despite getting hacked by the defenseman. But then as soon as the puck is sliding out to Kunitz, Sheary is already shifting his hips and going to the spot at the back post where Sid’s always waiting for the one-timer. Only instead of Sid, it’s Sheary. It’s almost interchangeable the way they all play together. You could tell just by the way Sheary moves that they’d practiced that sequence a million times. That’s why they’re the champs.

And that’s why Sid’s Sid.


Roman Josi

 

Why He’s Unreal:
There’s a sense of calm and poise about his play that he has in common with Karlsson. But I think there’s also something a lot of people don’t realize: Josi is just a pain in the butt to play against. He cross-checks you, he hits you, he wears you down. He’ll beat you senseless for the 30 seconds you’re in their zone — and then when Nashville gains possession, he’ll jump up as the fourth man in the rush. That’s rare: Usually guys who play with that kind of an edge in the d-zone don’t have the energy to jump up into the rush. I don’t know how he does it.

Josi is just a pain in the butt to play against.

Josi doesn’t get the points of a Karlsson or a Burns, but he’s a complete player on both ends. I think he’s still underrated. He doesn’t leap off the screen unless you’re watching Nashville all the time, because his game is to be positionally sound and just funnel you into a bad situation on the ice. To me, the defensemen who are the most frustrating to play against are the ones who are always in your face, keeping a really tight gap. When you see open ice, even for just two seconds, that’s when you’re licking your chops. When I’m playing against Josi, I’m seeing his yellow jersey in my face every single second — and if I’m in front of the net, then there’s a good chance he’s cross-checking me in the ribs.

Why Hockey Players Appreciate Him:
Josi is just one of those guys everyone would love to play with. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Ryan Ellis was one of the breakout players of the playoffs. When you have such a consistent, smart defensive partner like Josi, you can play with a lot of confidence. Josi is also extremely versatile as a defensive partner — I think that’s another aspect of his game that’s a little bit hard to quantify. But it matters a whole lot. The guy’s got chemistry with everyone. Whether it’s Shea Weber or P.K. Subban or Ryan Ellis, it seems like Josi is comfortable complementing any kind of play style.

Let’s go to the tape:
Josi always seems to know when to pick his spots and jump down low in the offensive zone. This goal against the Blues in the playoffs shows how well he reads the play and decides when to take a risk.

 

Josi splits the seam and then drifts to the back post to put himself in the perfect position for the great pass from Ekholm. You see him score so many goals from down low, even 5-on-5. That whole Nashville offense is built on constant motion, and Josi really makes them tick.

Now that I’ve praised him, did I mention how much he cross-checks you?


Connor McDavid

 

Why He’s Unreal:
The fastest guy in the league. The best hands in the league. Amazing hockey sense. And he’s 20 years old. It’s pretty scary.

I remember the first time I saw Connor skate in person, I was like, O.K., this guy was just born different. He’s genetically superior. He was created in a hockey lab. I mean, he’s taking the same amount of strides as everybody else … he’s wearing the same skates as everybody else … and somehow he’s going twice as fast? There’s not a single NHL team that has figured out how to handle his speed on the rush.

Technically, Connor’s got the ability to turn on a dime and then be back to full speed in a single stride. Which makes him pretty unique — it usually takes a normal player two or three strides. And even within the phrase full speed, Connor’s different. Because there’s really two different types of speed: skating speed, and then hockey speed. What I mean is, if you can skate really fast, that’s great, but there are a lot of things defenses can do to stop that. But if you skate fast and you think the game fast, then you’re almost impossible to defend. That’s hockey speed. And Connor’s hockey brain is next-level, just like Sid’s brain.

Why Hockey Players Appreciate Him:
I got a chance to play with Connor on Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey, and then I skated with him this summer, and he would do things on a daily basis that would make my jaw drop. Genetically, he was definitely born to play hockey, but the guy also works his butt off. It sounds like a cliché, but the best players in the world work as hard as they can at being the best. Even when they’re at the top, they love what they’re doing and they love to learn. With the way that Connor works, I can see him having a similar progression to Sid, where he adds new aspects to his game every summer.

But what’s so cool about hockey is that if you watch Sid play, and then you watch Connor, it’s like studying a totally different animal. Sid’s game is about leverage and vision and working down low with his back to the play. Connor’s game is about explosiveness and acceleration and getting you on your heels. The two best players in the world really don’t play anything alike. The common denominator is that they’re both animals.

Let’s go to the tape:
This might be the easiest assist of my life. We were playing against Russia at the World Cup, and I was on a line with Connor and Auston Matthews. (Not bad.) The puck came to me deep in our zone and I chipped it up to Connor. Then this happened …

 

He picks it up full speed, outmuscles Datsyuk, flies down the wing, and then throws a backhand sauce pass backdoor to Auston. That tournament was maybe the most fun I’ve ever had playing hockey.

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