The NHL In 3 Players: Carey Price Is The Most Valuable Player In Sports

For all its randomness and streaks in play, the NHL is so often defined by a few players at a time. Throughout the 2016-17 season, The Sports Fan Journal will look at a trio of players whose performances hint at where the league stands and where it is going. Enjoy.

Carey Price: So Calm, So Casual, So Good

During the Montreal Canadiens’ 3-1 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers Monday night, I tweeted this:

Price, like Jones or Willie Mays or Ken Griffey Jr., et al, makes difficult saves look routine the same way those great fielders tracked fly balls with ease. (Recall Bob Feller in Ken Burns' 'Baseball' saying, “Willie made better catches” than the one in the 1954 World Series.) Price tracks pucks perfectly and has the athleticism to fight his way into position even if his initial movement takes him away from the crease. In the process, he makes good shooters look bad. Tell players to aim for the corners all you want, but realize they don’t exist in Price’s net.

Just ask Jake Voracek.

Or Shayne Gostisbehere.

My God, that looks like a video game glitch. Price reads the point shot to go to his blocker side. It deflects, and in a split second, he’s already making a push to the left.

This save is made all the more impressive considering earlier in the game, Flyers netminder Steve Mason allowed a deflected Shea Weber slap shot to go by without so much as peek.

Mason, who has played well since moving from Columbus to Philadelphia in 2013, was screened, but his positioning leaves something to be desired. There’s space on either side of him. He read the play without allowing for variances. Price doesn't make that mistake.

It’ll be interesting to see if the Canadiens can keep up their current pace. At 6-0-1, the Habs sit on top of the Eastern Conference when so many people thought they'd regress this season. Then again, Price, who ran away with the 2015 Hart Trophy as NHL MVP, is back, healthy — he played all of 12 games last year due to a knee injury — and in form.

In the last 81 games he’s started, Montreal is 57-18-6. The Canadiens went 28-36-6 without him in 2015-16. It’s time to stop asking if Price is the most valuable player in hockey and start wondering if he’s the most important player across team sports.

Auston Matthews: Better Than Advertised

If 2016 will go down as the year America allowed Donald Trump to take the microphone and not let go, let it also be remembered for all things anti-Trump. Insert Auston Matthews, a Mexican-American teenager who as of this writing is leading the NHL in goals with six.

Matthews, the top pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, memorably scored four times in his debut for the Toronto Maple Leafs. He has since followed up that performance with two goals and four assists. He's no fluke and better than we all thought he would be.

Hockey is a game of speed. More accurately, it's a game of rhythm. It's just played at a frenetic pace. The best players in the sport dictate that pace — think of Chris Pronger — or dare others to match their own: Sidney Crosby, Wayne Gretzky, Connor McDavid. The struggle with youngsters making the jump to the professional level is that they try to impose their speed without much thought to the rhythm.

So we see flashes or a go-go-go mentality that leaves these players in vulnerable positions. Matthews has had a few of those in the early going.

Tuesday night's contest against Tampa Bay showed the learning curve. Matthews starts a rush behind his own goal line, only to watch a hopeful backhand pass get picked off by Steven Stamkos. Stamkos converts the turnover into a 1-0 Lightning lead.

But for the most part, Matthews has shown a remarkable understanding of the game. After gifting the Lightning an early lead, he responded with a third-period goal to bring the Maple Leafs within two.

Matthews forces the defenseman into a pass up the middle, jumps on a loose puck and buries it within two stick handles. It's the kind of play you'd expect from a 50-goal scorer.

Toronto did lose the game 7-3. I expect the young Leafs will have plenty of nights like that. But with Matthews leading, they'll be on the right side of more than a few.

Cam Fowler And The Ducks' D

Cam Fowler scored 40 points as a 19-year-old, made the United States Olympic Team at 22 and has skated more than 20 minutes a game for an Anaheim Ducks club that has won four consecutive Pacific Division titles. Yet, Fowler remains a confounding figure in hockey. Stat heads point to his mediocre possession numbers as a sign that we overrate the young defenseman. On the other hand, he is still a reliable blue liner for a Stanley Cup contender.

That seems just fine for someone who won't turn 25 until December, especially considering Fowler's start to 2016. As of this writing, he's tied for second in the NHL in points by a defenseman with seven. Moreover, he's improved his possession stats — he boasts a Corsi of 54.59 after posting 48.78 a season ago — while averaging 24:21 of ice time. Fowler is playing the best hockey of his career and will be getting help soon.

Teammate Hampus Lindholm, a true No. 1 defenseman at 22, re-signed with Anaheim Thursday after missing the first eight games of the season negotiating a new contract. With Lindholm and Sami Vatanen (age 25, six points in 2016) in the fold, Fowler can assume a role more suited to him: a minutes-eater who can chip in offensively. He'd be the Ducks' version of San Jose's Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

That's not a bad blue line for Anaheim this season and going forward.

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