Five NHL players to be thankful for

National Hockey League teams and their fans have a lot to be thankful this holiday season.

Major labor problems are a thing of the past (at least for now). Until the NBA returns at Christmas, pucks are the only professional sport in town during the week, allowing unprecedented access to the sport for the average follower. The league’s biggest star ended his 10-month injury hiatus when Sidney Crosby returned to the Pittsburgh Penguins this past week.

However, Crosby is not the only player NHL fans should being showering their gratitude towards. Here are five more players teams should be grateful for:

1. Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit Red Wings

Nicklas LidstromFor the past 20 years, Detroit Red Wings supporters have thanked their lucky stars for having Lidstrom in red and white each night. As of Monday, the distinguished defenseman has played in 1,516 games, all with the Red Wings, amassing 259 goals, 865 assists and 1,124 points.

But Lidstrom’s incredible numbers are just part of the story. To date, the Swede has won four Stanley Cup championships. In 2008 he became the first European captain to ever hoist hockey’s most cherished trophy. Lidstrom has also earned six Norris trophies as the NHL’s top defenseman, one less than the all-time record of seven owned by the legendary Bobby Orr.

Lidstrom’s latest Norris came last season at age 40, when the Swede finished second on the Red Wings in scoring, racking up 16 goals and 46 assists.

After debating retirement during the off-season, Lidstrom returned for his 20th and potentially final NHL season. Even at age 41, Lidstrom already has six goals and 10 assists, good enough for fourth on the Red Wings in scoring. More importantly, he stands tied with Valterri Filppula for Detroit’s third best plus/minus at plus-8.

With former defense partner Brian Rafalski retiring over the summer, more than ever the Red Wings need Lidstrom’s future Hall of Fame presence on their blue line. So far Lidstrom has delivered.

“Nick had a tremendous year (last year) and (he) continues to be one of the elite defensemen in the game,” Red Wings general manager Ken Holland told reporters after Lidstrom made the decision to return to the NHL this summer.

2. Joffrey Lupul, Toronto Maple Leafs

Joffrey LupulOf all the difference-making players in the league, none have had a larger positive impact than Lupul with the Leafs.

Prior to Lupul’s stunning start to this season, the talented forward’s professional hockey resume featured little more than unrealized potential.

He arrived in Toronto via trade last season after checkered visits to Edmonton, Philadelphia and Anaheim. In his second go-around with the Ducks, the former first round pick (in 2002) hit rock-bottom, spending most of his days on injured reserve with a blood infection, a few days with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch on a rehab stint, and a few more days on the Ducks’ third line.

With his NHL career teetering, Lupul was given one last shot in Canada’s largest city.

After an injury plagued end to the 2010-11 season, Lupul has starred on this year’s surprising Leafs. Through 24 games to date, Lupul (11 goals and 18 assists) ranks tied for second in the NHL in overall points with 29, and helped Toronto grab a hold of the top spot in a competitive Northeast Division with a 14-8-2 record.

More impressively, Lupul has found tremendous chemistry with Toronto’s other enigmatic scorer, Phil Kessel. Playing alongside Lupul, Kessel leads the NHL with 16 goals and 31 assists. And for the first time since his trade from Boston, Kessel is a plus player (+4).

3. Milan Lucic, Boston Bruins

Milan LucicEver since the day power forward Cam Neely retired, the Boston Bruins have been searching for the Hall of Famer’s heir apparent.

Joe Thornton, the No. 1 overall pick in 1998, seemed to finally be the answer, but despite all of his offensive contributions (including a 101-point campaign in 2002-03), something seemed to be always missing with Thornton.  The 6-foot-4, 235-pound forward never quite lived up to his lofty physical potential, especially in several disappointing playoff appearances.

After Thornton was traded midseason in 2005-2006, Neely’s legacy remained unfulfilled.

Enter 19-year-old winger Milan Lucic. Drafted in the second round in the summer of 2006, Lucic earned a spot with the Bruins out of training camp the following year and quickly became a fan favorite, racking up 27 points and 89 penalty minutes in his debut campaign.

The 6-4, 220-pound forward took his game to whole new level in 2010-11, reaching career highs in goals (30), assists (32) and points (62) while helping the Bruins win the 2011 Stanley Cup in an epic seven-game battle against his hometown team Vancouver.

This season Lucic is again making his presence felt, picking up eight goals to date, while racking up 31 minutes in penalties in just 22 games. Meanwhile, up stairs in the owner’s box, Bruins team president Neely continues to look down with a smile watching his protégé dominate games.

“It’s always flattering (being compared to Cam Neely),” Lucic told reporters at the Stanley Cup Final media day. “He’s a hockey icon. The power forward position wasn’t created until he created it . . . To be mentioned in the same sentence as him is definitely a big honor for me.”

4. Shea Weber, Nashville Predators

Shea WeberWhenever a team lands a cornerstone defenseman, they have a lot to be thankful for. Nashville simply drafted theirs by picking Shea Weber in the second round of the 2003 entry draft.

Since that fateful day, the 26-year-old has enjoyed a meteoric rise with the Predators. Three years after playing 46 games in the AHL with the Milwaukee Admirals as a rookie in 2005-06, Weber reached career highs in goals (23) and points (53).

Last year the Predators captain took his game to a new level, racking up a career-high 32 assists while leading Nashville into the second round of the NHL playoffs for the first time in franchise history. For his efforts, Weber earned his second all-star game selection and was a finalist for the Norris Trophy for the first time in his career.

This season Weber is again off to a blazing start with the Predators, contributing 15 points in 22 games. He’s also tied for third in the league in plus/minus rating (plus-14).

The only question now is whether Weber can help Nashville finally get over the hump and make a deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

5. Tomas Vokoun, Washington Capitals.

Tomas VokounIt is rare when an NHL team can land a bona fide number one goaltender during the offseason via free agency. It is rarer still when that player comes at a price that allows a team plenty of salary-cap room to sign other stars.

That’s exactly what happened this summer when Tomas Vokoun came to terms with the Washington Capitals for $1.5 million on a one-year deal.

After four seasons of toiling with the playoff deprived Florida Panthers, the 35-year-old Vokoun just wanted a shot to play for a contender. Meanwhile, the Capitals wanted a new direction after their platoon of Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov failed to backstop a long playoff run in 2011.

Vokoun’s signing resulted in a match made in hockey heaven or at least in the District of Columbia.

To date Vokoun has racked up a 10-5-0 record, and helped Washington start the season with seven straight victories.

“It was unbelievable (that we) signed that kind of goalie (in Vokoun),” Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin told Mike Vogel of during the summer. “It’s nice he’s on our team and not a different team, because it’s really hard to play against him.”

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