Top U.S.-born player in Scotia North Division debated by NHL.com

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Much focus has been placed on the Scotia North Division and the uniqueness of having a division of all seven teams based in Canada has generated. In the spirit of a good border rivalry, seven NHL.com writers decided to look at the United States-born players helping to make the North division so interesting during the first two weeks of the season and debate who is the best among those playing for the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets.

Here are their answers: 

Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames

I know we’re only a handful of games into the season, but it seems that the talk of Gaudreau’s demise was a bit premature. Gaudreau has scored five points (two goals, three assists) in his first four games. It’s a great start after he scored 58 points (18 goals, 40 assists) in 70 games last season, a steep drop from the NHL career-high 99 points (36 goals, 63 assists) he scored in 2018-19. The 27-year-old has scored 450 points (153 goals, 297 assists) in 468 NHL games. He has plenty of game left and is among the best United States-born players regardless of division. — Tracey Myers, staff writer

 

Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets

One player born in the United States was voted the best at his position in 2019-20: Hellebuyck, who won the Vezina Trophy as the top goalie in the NHL. Hellebuyck also finished sixth in the voting for the Hart Trophy, which goes to the most valuable player in the NHL. The next-closest player born in the United States was Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel, who finished eighth. The next-closest player born in the United States who is now playing in the North was Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews, who finished 10th. Matthews might seem like the obvious choice here. He scored 47 goals in 70 games last season, one shy of Boston Bruins forward David Pastrnak and Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin for the NHL lead, but give me the guy who keeps the pucks out of the net. — Nicholas J. Cotsonika, columnist

Hellebuyck is someone who has more impact on more games than any other candidate mentioned. He has done that well enough to be a Vezina finalist in two of the past three seasons (he finished second in 2017-18), and he’s the only candidate who has been named an NHL First Team All-Star. He has also won two best-of-7 Stanley Cup Playoff series, more than any other candidate mentioned here. Wishful thinking, future projections and blossoming careers are all good for anticipation of the games and seasons to come, but Hellebuyck rises above with tangible accomplishments. — Tim Campbell, staff writer

Video: OTT@WPG: Hellebuyck denies Tkachuk’s one-timer 

 
Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks

I was in Vancouver last February, sitting in a row of scouts, and you could just tell how enthralled each was when Hughes touched the puck. You could feel — and a few even admitted in some off-the-record high praise — how impressed each was with the then-rookie defenseman, who would go on to finish second in voting for the Calder Trophy as the top rookie in the NHL behind defenseman Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche. Hughes has six assists in seven games this season after scoring 53 points (eight goals, 45 assists) in 68 games in 2019-20. He has talent. He has creativity. A little magic, too. — Amalie Benjamin, staff writer

 

Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs

Matthews is arguably a top-five player in the NHL already. Certainly, he’s top 10. I don’t think any other U.S.-born player in the division can say the same. He is without question one of the best goal-scorers in the NHL with 161 in 288 games. Only Ovechkin (182) has scored more goals since Matthews’ NHL debut, which was a four-goal game on Oct. 12, 2016. We’ll give it to Ovechkin since he’s the greatest goal-scorer in the past 25 years and arguably in NHL history, but Matthews has not been far off from that level of greatness in his first four-plus seasons. The one thing we haven’t seen Matthews do yet is put the Maple Leafs on his back and lead them to success in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’s coming. It took Ovechkin several tries before he broke through and won the Stanley Cup in 2018. I firmly believe Matthews will get to the top of the mountain with the Maple Leafs, and that he’ll be driving the bus all the way up. — Dan Rosen, senior writer

When Matthews scored four goals in his first NHL game, there were questions about what he could do for an encore. How’s this for a start? He’s the only U.S.-born player to begin an NHL career with four 30-goal seasons. But the 23-year-old doesn’t just pass the eye test, he passes the ear test as well. The sound of the puck slamming off the boards or clanking off the post from one of his blistering shots is unlike any I’ve heard in more than two decades of covering the NHL. If there is such a thing as a puck sounding “vicious” when it hits something, this is it. For me, this is a no-brainer. Matthews is easily the best U.S-born player in the Scotia North Division, if not the entire NHL, and he’s not even close to reaching his potential yet. — Mike Zeisberger, staff writer

Video: EDM@TOR: Matthews ties game from a tough angle

 

Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets

Often overlooked, Wheeler has consistently been one of the best NHL players born in the United States. The 34-year-old right wing’s 407 points (120 goals, 287 assists) since the start of the 2015-16 NHL season are second among players born in the United States behind Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks (472). Wheeler’s 287 assists are second in the NHL during that span, behind Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers (313), and he’s finished in the top three in assists among U.S. forwards in six of the past seven seasons, including an NHL career-high 71 in 2018-19. As Dan and Mike noted, Matthews seems to be the obvious choice here, but since Matthews entered the NHL in 2016-17, he has scored 291 points (161 goals, 130 assists) in 288 games for an average of 1.01 points per game. During that same span, Wheeler has scored 329 points (94 goals, 235 assists) in 322 games for an average of 1.02 points per game.  — Tom Gulitti, staff writer

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