The National Hockey League (NHL) is much like the United States of America; chalk full of diversity and consisting of individuals who work harder than anyone else in the world. This country was founded by immigrants and its diverse culture is what makes the United States so unique.
Same with the NHL. The number of countries represented in the world’s best hockey league is abound, and it’s what makes international competition so exciting to watch.
But, the overwhelming number of “foreigners” compared to Americans in the NHL would have Nativists checking in to cardiac physicians. All the Canadians, and Russians, and Czechs, and Swedes are flooding into the United States and taking over this “American” game.
News flash: They’re here to stay. Commissioner Gary Bettman has no intention on reenacting an Alien & Sedition Act because these “immigrants” are good for the game of hockey and there will be more of them coming in the future (sorry Rep. Steve King (IA), that’s the ugly truth).
The actual truth is that Americans make up the second-most players in the NHL, with 23.9%. Canada makes up 53.3%.
Also true is that the United States has lacked star power in the league for a long time. An American has never led the league in points or goals. They haven’t won a gold medal since the “Miracle on Ice” team in 1980 and those players had amateur status.
Of the 23.9% of American players there is less than a handful of players in the top-tier. One of them is Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Most would say that its a two-man race for best American player today, with the Chicago Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane being Kessel’s opposition. Kane is a dynamic player, the kind you don’t see come around often, but there are a few reasons why Kessel gets the nod over the Blackhawks right-winger.
3. Better goal scorer
Last season Kessel scored 37 goals, which was sixth-best in the league. There were only two American players that reached the 30-goal mark last season: Max Pacioretty (MTR) had 39 and James van Riemsdyk, Kessel’s teammate in Toronto had 30. The Madison, WI native has scored 222 goals in his 8-year career and the only season that he hasn’t scored 30 or more goals since the 2008-09 season was the lockout shortened 2013 season (he was on pace to score 40 that season).
2. Bad team
Just imagine if Kessel had guys like Jonathan Toews and Joe Thornton setting him up every night. There would no doubt the former Minnesota Golden Gopher would become the first American to win the Rocket Richard. But, sadly, he plays in Toronto, a team that hasn’t had many players to complement the 6-foot, 202-pound right wing. Bringing in van Riemsdyk and Joffrey Lupul has taken the albatross off him slightly, but his team has made the playoffs just once since his arrival to Toronto, and that was the lockout-shortened season. The numbers he has put up despite being on a subpar team with subpar players is astounding and he doesn’t get much credit for that. He doesn’t have the luxuries Kane and Joe Pavelski do, with great players around to open the ice up and give him easy goals; he does it all on his own.
1. Olympic success
As an American, isn’t this compelling enough? He has 10 points in 12 Olympic contests and 6 of those are goals. He had a hat trick against Slovenia-the first US-born player to ever accomplish that in the Olympics- he was awarded the best forward in the entire tournament, and tied for the lead in goals with New York Islanders and Austrian forward Michael Grabner with 5. The Americans failed to medal in Sochi but not because of #81’s efforts. Like any good soldier, he steps up when his country needs him most.
Naming Kessel the best American skater over Kane may seem far-fetched, especially considering Kane has two Stanley Cups, a game-winning Stanley Cup clinching goal, a Conn Smyth award, and a myriad of highlight reel goals. Kane has played 515 games and has more points than Kessel had at that point in his career. But, Kane has had the luxury of playing with the likes of Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook. All of those guys are Olympians and some of the best players in the world. Kessel hasn’t had near the caliber of players around him.
He may not rack up the awards like Kane, but as goal-scorers go and what he’s accomplished in the NHL, it is clear Phil Kessel is the best American skater today. But, him and Kane, along with Pavelski and Pacioretty, comprise an offensive unit that could get the Americans a gold in 2018.
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