Who are those players who absolutely spark their team? The guy who takes an endless shift and inspires the rest of the team to play in their image. The guy who lights a fire onto the ice, effectively waking up the rest of the staff. We're going to take a look at the five best sparkplugs in the NHL.
1. Ryan Callahan, New York Rangers
Ryan Callahan is not tall in stature. Standing at a generous 5'11" this Rochester, NY, native has not only managed to make the NHL, but make a big impact for an Original Six organization.
This offseason, Callahan was awarded the captaincy by the New York Rangers, earning a distinction that only 25 other players have received over 86 years. While not the most talented, flashy or physical player on the team, he simply plays the game the way every coach draws it up. He blocks shots, hits everything that moves and can pay the price to score a goal. Last season he broke his hand and fractured his leg by getting in the way of lethal slap shots from Zdeno Chara and Kris Letang. More importantly, his effort in both games led to crucial wins.
His 22 blocked shots rank third in the NHL and he leads the team in shorthanded ice time and hits. Captain Callahan plays in all situations and exemplifies everything these hard-working Rangers are about. When the team needs offensive pressure he pushes the puck toward the net. When they need to hold a lead, he is the first player to stand in line of a shot. Not only is he their sparkplug, he's the heart and soul of the team.
2. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins
This 5'9" winger simply stirs the drink in Boston. When his Boston Bruins were down by two games to the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup Final, this sparkplug helped put the team up 3-0 with a pivotal shorthanded goal. Two rounds earlier, when the B's took on the heavily favored Philadelphia Flyers, he helped dominate a disjointed team with a three-point game followed by points in each subsequent win.
Nicknamed the 'honey badger', as well as many other names in the animal kingdom, Marchand is fearless with his trademark straight drive to the net. Unlike Callahan, he doesn't lead the team in shorthanded minutes or blocked shots, but his speed and tenacity forces turnovers with regularity. He's also no stranger to taking or dishing out a big hit when called upon.
As far as sparkplugs go, Marchand could be a very definition of our criteria. Pesky, willing to go to the dirty areas, physical, speedy and skilled to boot. He surprisingly made the team over Jordan Caron last season and stuck simply because of his higher level of play. Can you imagine what last year's Bruins would have been like without him?
3. Darren Helm, Detroit Red Wings
Like many young players in the Detroit organization, Helm was eased into the lineup. After playing parts of only two seasons with the Grand Rapid Griffins, Helm was granted cups of coffee with the big club in each of his first two professional seasons. He found his way into the lineup during the Wings Stanley Cup run and made a name for himself with the famous 'endless shift'
Following that run, he stuck, and the rest is history as he remains a vital part of the bottom two lines. The St. Andrews, Manitoba, native has speed to burn which kills the opposition during the penalty kill. In fact, he's led all forwards in shorthanded ice time for the past three seasons. Before him, Kris Draper held that distinction.
As the lineup continues to age, Helm brings life, energy and grit into a system that mostly focuses on puck possession. He can play that game, while landing hits and pushing the puck towards the net. Most importantly he helps eat minutes while playing solid defensive hockey which further energizes his numerous superstar teammates.
4. Dave Bolland, Chicago Blackhawks
Bolland might not be the most stereotypical candidate on this list as a shutdown center, but there are few players who can bring his unique game and energy to the table. Bolland hits, shadows the elite and agitates while potting roughly 20 goals per season.
If you need an example of this, look no further than last year's playoffs where he almost single-handedly led the Chicago Blackhawks to a first round upset over the Sedins and the Vancouver Canucks. "He gave us a huge boost," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said at the time. "Not just with his play, but with his enthusiasm." Certainly not the stereotypical shutdown pivot.
Bolland certainly helped the Blackhawks win Lord Stanley's Cup, but likely would have been higher on this list if it weren't for his other qualities and the efforts of our next candidate.
5. Adam Burish, Dallas Stars
Definitely the surprise pick of the bunch, Burish may be the one who got away in Chicago as his impact with the Dallas Stars is simply outstanding. The team barely won their season opener against the Blackhawks with Burish absent and has lost both of their two most recent games with their sparkplug out of the lineup.
The Madison, Wisc., native has missed significant chunks of each of the past three seasons due to how he plays, not necessarily being injury prone. Last season he missed 19 games in which the Stars were astounding bad, skating to the tune of a 4-11-4 record. Had he stayed healthy for more than 63 games they may have won another game or two -- a significant point when considering they finished two points out of a playoff berth.
Like many of the players above, Burish hits, blocks shots and drops the mitts while taking a regular shift. More importantly he plays a sound defensive game while doing all of that which energizes his club and sets an excellent example for his teammates.
Honorable Mention: Jordin Tootoo, Max Lapierre, Cal Clutterbuck
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images