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Spezza among East's best helpers

Senators centre rates high as one of top playmakers in conference

Thursday, 04.09.2008 / 12:02 PM / Features
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Spezza among East\'s best helpers
Most great goal scorers are in need of a little assistance. That\'s where these five players come into the equation, the Eastern Conference\'s best assistmen.

Sidney Crosby will enter his fourth NHL season, with 195 assists in 213 games. Watch Sidney Crosby highlight video
There are players in the NHL who haven’t met a pass they didn’t like, however small the opening may be.

They are the ones who will find you even when you’re not open. They will deliver the puck to a slab of open ice where only you can handle it.

While there are so many players in the NHL who pile up the assists, only a handful do it with such creativity. As we continue to preview the upcoming season, NHL.com has come up with its list of the top five assist men in the Eastern Conference.

Don’t sleep when these guys are on the ice. The puck may slide right past you.

1. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins – Among the NHL’s top 100 all-time assist leaders, only Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux retired with more assists than games played. Crosby has a chance to do just that if he just accelerates his current pace, which is already at an otherworldly level.

Crosby will enter the 2008-09 season, his fourth in the NHL, with 195 assists in 213 games. He had 48 assists in 53 games last season after registering 84 in 79 games the year before, when he led the NHL with 125 points and took home the Hart Trophy.

Crosby was slightly better than an assist-per-game player in last season’s Stanley Cup playoffs (21 in 20 games), when he led the Penguins to the final while also leading the NHL in assists and points (27).

He lost Marian Hossa from his line, and odds are Evgeni Malkin will centre his own line, but that just means Crosby will have to turn someone else – Miroslav Satan? Ruslan Fedotenko? – into a 30-goal scorer.

2. Marc Savard, Boston Bruins – Savard is one of only two players in the NHL who has more than 200 assists since 2005. Joe Thornton is the leader with 231, but Savard runs second with 206. In fact, last season was the first time since 2005 he didn’t register 70 assists.

He finished with 63 on a team that scored only 206 goals. But when Savard registered 74 assists in 2006-07, he also played to a minus-19 rating. While he was helping the team produce goals, he couldn’t help the Bruins keep the puck out of the net.

His assist total dipped by 11 last season, when his point total dropped by 18 from 96 to 78, but Savard was a plus-3 and the Bruins made the playoffs. He became more defensive-minded under coach Claude Julien, who preaches defence first.

This season, Savard could be centering a line that includes Michael Ryder, who is looking to regain his 30-goal form. He had only 14 goals last season, but Savard may be the antidote Ryder needs to pull out of his scoring slump.

3. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins – You all know the story by now: Crosby goes down with a high-ankle sprain in January. Malkin takes over his own line for the first time in his career. Malkin dominates and leads the Penguins surge to the top of the Eastern Conference. Crosby returns to lead the team to the Stanley Cup final. Malkin continues to centre his line.

Malkin finished last season with 59 assists to go along with his 47 goals. He finished second behind Alexander Ovechkin in points with 106 and sixth in the NHL in assists. He is truly one of the game’s most dynamic talents.

Malkin should enter the season centring his own line again. It’s likely that Petr Sykora is back on his right side, but with Ryan Malone in Tampa Bay, coach Michel Therrien could choose to slot Jordan Staal on the left.

Staal was the team’s third-line centre last season and one of its best faceoff guys, and he’s big, physical, rangy and fearless. He could be exactly what Malone was last season, when Malkin was getting him the puck and piling up the assists.

Jason Spezza has the third-most assists among Eastern Conference forwards trailing only Marc Savard and Sidney Crosby. VIDEO
4. Jason Spezza, Ottawa Senators – Spezza has the third- most assists among Eastern Conference forwards during the last three seasons, trailing Savard and Crosby. He has 182 after helping on 58 goals last season while playing a lot of the time with Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley, who each reached the 40-goal plateau.

If new coach Craig Hartsburg decides to keep that trio together – although it is lumping a lot of offense on one line – Spezza could see another season of 60-70 assists. The only reason he didn’t hit the 70-mark last season was because of injuries.

He missed six games while Alfredsson and Heatley combined to miss 23. Spezza’s 58 assists were seventh in the NHL and his 92 points were a career high.

5. Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals
– It took an unfortunate injury to fellow countrymen Michael Nylander, who was sort of Backstrom’s father figure in North America, for Backstrom to start running his own line with Alexander Ovechkin on his left side.

Ovechkin wound up pumping in 65 goals and Backstrom finished with 55 assists, the most among any rookie last season.

It remains to be seen if Backstrom, Nylander or Sergei Fedorov will centre Ovechkin this season, but Backstrom has become one of the leading passers in the game, which is how he was advertised as when Washington took him fourth overall in 2006.

Raw and lacking in confidence at the beginning of the season, Backstrom developed chemistry, both on and off the ice, with Ovechkin last season and he flourished. If he finds it again, he could easily reach 70 assists or more this season.

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com


Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Staff Writer

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