As we've been gearing up for the long haul towards training camp, I've started to work on several story ideas on the new direction of the Dallas Stars roster and just what the team dynamics are going to be in the wake of Brad Richards' departure. In looking at how certain players will need to step up and who might be an "underrated" player ready to take that next step, I found myself starting to debate just who might be the new "best" player on the Dallas Stars.
The past three years, the consensus has been overwhelmingly in favor of Brad Richards. This was the player that the team was going to build around and his offensive ability and production placed him as one of the top forwards in the NHL, and was unquestionably the best player on the Stars. While his two-way game perhaps left a bit to be desired, his offense was enough to offset any missteps in his game and made him the superstar on this hockey team.
Now that Brad Richards is gone, who is that player? Who is going to be the top player on this team, the one who leads the way both on offense and defense? The Stars have a number of very capable players who can help fill in the void left by Richards' departure on offense, but I find it interesting in trying to decide just who is the best overall player on this team.
It's an incredibly subjective and useless debate, but I find it fascinating. This isn't about marketability or superstardom, this is about who is the hands down best overall player on this hockey team at this moment in time.
To me, there is only one answer. Loui Eriksson.
Eriksson is never going to get the local or national attention the "best player on the hockey team" deserves. He's not a flashy guy who creates highlight-reel goals and he doesn't fight. He isn't outspoken and doesn't have the outward persona needed to be the "superstar" that teams love to build around and market. Eriksson is purely a quiet, steady hockey player who -- with absolutely zero fanfare -- placed himself as one of the top 20 forwards in the NHL.
Eriksson's journey to the NHL has been an extremely interesting one to follow, drafted in the 2nd round in 2003 but not making his way to North America until 2005. He was always an intriguing prospect, possessing great size and offensive potential that had scouts excited. After being drafted, however, Eriksson scored just 16 goals in 97 games in two seasons in Sweden and there were questions being raised about whether he'd make it to the NHL.
In 2005, Eriksson made the jump to the AHL and played in 78 games for the Iowa Stars, exploding offensively with 31 goals and putting to rest any questions about his ability to score. The next season, Les Jackson made the push for him to play full time for the Stars and in 2007 he became a regular player for the Dallas Stars. Immediately, Stars fans realized just how special Eriksson could be.
He has yet to come close to the 36 goals he scored in 2008-09, yet has consistently grown into a steady and more consistent hockey player on both ends of the ice. Last season he set career highs for assists (46) and points (73) and led the team with six game winning goals for the year. While he enjoyed his best career year offensively, it was his defense that finally began to be recognized, as well as his emergence as a legitimate two-way threat.
This past January, players from around the NHL voted Eriksson as the league's most underrated player. It's still amazing to think he was named to the All-Star game, as Eriksson is the type of player that people who truly follow the game realize how good he is while the general public is fascinated with the Ovechkin's and Sedin's of the world.
Eriksson is going to have a heap of pressure on his shoulders this season and enters this coming year as the reigning leader in point production on the team. His steady growth and improvement year after combined with his age (he's just 26), hint that Eriksson still has yet to reach his ceiling as a hockey player.
Last year, he showcased not only some of the best abilities to score close to the net as you'll find in the NHL but also emerged as perhaps one of the best defensive forwards on the team. Perhaps he be better regarded in this category if not for Marc Crawford's frustrating line choices at critical junctures of the game, but there is no denying just how effective Eriksson can be in the defensive zone. Despite playing on top minutes throughout the entire season, as well as taking on a bigger defensive role at times, Eriksson had just eight penalty minutes on the season.
Eriksson is going to be bumped up to an even bigger role this upcoming season, even if he's no longer on the "top line" -- as we suspect may happen. He'll likely be paired with Jamie Benn and be asked to not only provide a hard charging offensive push but will need to be able to take on the best the opposition has to offer in order to free up the Mike Ribeiro line. It's going to be a new role of sorts for Eriksson, who spent the past few years playing almost exclusively with Brad Richards, yet he has to be excited about playing regularly with one of the most dynamic forwards in the NHL.
As far as the questions about his ability to play without Richards, there won't be any answers until this season starts - although I contend that there should be no doubts about him, no matter who he's playing with. Eriksson played most of his time with Richards, but that should never be counted as a fault or a negative towards future production. We've seen that even if you play with Richards, there's no guarantee there will be consistent scoring (James Neal) and Eriksson scored at a point-per-game pace with Richards out anyways.
I'm sure there will be some who dispute this claim but when you consider the "overall" factor, I'm hard pressed to find a better player on the Dallas Stars right now. Considering we've yet to see exactly what his ceiling will be, there's no denying that Eriksson could continue to develop into one of the NHL's truly elite players.