"Best In Show" for Niagara IceDogs Alumni - 2021 NHL Season
Written by Brandon Caputo
Photo Credit: twitter.com/NHL
With the 145th Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on the horizon next weekend, what better way than to showcase the Niagara IceDogs who have been "Best In Show" as the term often used to award a dog who is judged as the best of all breeds in a given competition.
It was quite the case this year in the NHL, as we saw our fair share of Niagara IceDogs Alumni rise to greatness for the 2021 NHL season.
Photo Credit: flickr.com
Other than the usual suspects like Alex Pietrangelo, Dougie Hamilton, Ryan Strome, & Vince Dunn (just to name a few), we saw the emergence of 3 others who have established themselves to be in that conversation as the biggest success stories to come through our beloved OHL team here in the Niagara Region.
In this piece, we will be highlighting & recognizing the incredible accomplishments of a few of the more recent IceDogs Alumni who have graduated from great young junior hockey players into men who are now excelling in the most competitive form of hockey in the world, as National Hockey League professionals.
We will be ranking them as a standard 1st, 2nd, & 3rd podium finish that you would typically see in those canine competitions in order to hand out Gold, Silver, & Bronze medals to those outstanding performances this season.
*All statistics for today's article were gathered from elitesprospects.com
*NHL Line Combinations gathered from leftwinglock.com
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1st Place - Gold Medal
Jason Robertson LW - Dallas Stars
Photo Credit: Getty Images
As stated in our preseason article "10 Niagara IceDogs Alumni to watch" it was noted that J-Rob earned himself a great opportunity going into the season as he was slotted in on the Stars 2nd Line LW spot along with 2nd Line Powerplay time.
Robertson had a slower start out of the gate as the Stars finally started their regular season games after a long layoff to begin the season unfortunately due to a team-wide spread of COVID-19, as he had 6 points in 9 February games while not recording a point till his 4th game of the season (where he did not even record a shot on goal in the first 3 games).
Video Credit: Sportsnet.ca
That is where things took off, J-Rob went on an absolute tear in the month of March recording 16 points in 17 games, as Dallas finally started to get their legs going after what would have been a troubling layoff for any team in that scenario (like we also saw with teams like Vancouver & Buffalo this season).
March 9th against the Chicago Blackhawks was Robertson's best statistical game of his 2021 season,
as he had an astonishing 4 assist performance on route to a 6-1 Stars victory.
Just when people thought the peak had been reached for Robertson he proved that his March hot streak was not just a flash in the pan, as he went on to record 18 points in 17 games due to the bulk of Dallas' schedule being loaded into March & April because of the off-ice isolation to begin the season.
Photo Credit: NHL.com
By this time, J-Rob had established himself as Dallas' biggest Left Wing threat on the 1st Line & Top Powerplay unit while playing alongside future Hockey Hall of Famer: Joe Pavelski, who together developed a chemistry that was carrying the Stars offensively for a better part of 2 months during the season.
The Stars dealt with a revolving door most of the year due to key injuries to top "Stars" (pun intended) like Alex Radulov, Tyler Seguin, & Ben Bishop but to their credit the duo of Pavelski & Robertson stepped up in a major way almost catapulting Dallas into a playoff spot by seasons end.
Statistics provided by Eliteprospects.com
In what started off as a disastrous season for Robertson & his Dallas Stars team after a Stanley Cup appearance in the 2020 bubble season, the team managed to finish only 4 points back of Nashville for the final playoff spot in the Central Division and 5th out of 8 teams.
This was in part due to the incredible contribution & emergence of Robertson as a bonafide Top-6 forward for Dallas who will look to build on it next season & prove that he belongs to be in the "elite" level conversation.
Photo Credit: niagaraicedogs.net via Ontario Hockey League
To finish off, Robertson was named one of the 3 finalists for the NHL's Calder Trophy given to the leagues most outstanding rookie, thanks to an amazing progression in the 2021 season where he totalled 17 goals, 28 assists, for 45 points in a 51-game shortened season.
Who knows what kind of season Robertson would have finished with in a full 82-games & if the Stars would have been able to play their way into one of those final Central Division playoff spots.
They will look to prove that last seasons Western Conference Championship run was not a fluke and J-Rob will be one of those who will have a big role to play in that redemption for the Dallas Stars 2021-22 season.
Photo Credit: TSN.ca
J-Rob also went overseas to represent Team USA at the yearly World Championships tournament when the NHL season concluded and continued his strong play during the 2021 calendar.
Robertson accumulated 9 points in 10 games for Team USA with a +8 rating, while taking home a Bronze Medal this past weekend defeating Germany & capping off a strong 3rd place performance for J-Rob's Americans in Latvia for this years tournament.
It is the opinion of this piece that Robertson receives the honours of true "Best In Show" this season as far as IceDogs alumni, in a season that could not get much better from a personal statistics standpoint for a player who played in his 1st full National Hockey League season.
2nd Place - Silver Medal
Alex Nedeljkovic G - Carolina Hurricanes
Photo Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports
As the 2nd IceDog to be represented on the NHL's Calder Trophy ballot this year, it is quite obvious that Ned had to be recognized somewhere in this article. As someone who was not mentioned in our preseason "10 IceDogs Alumni to watch" article, Nedeljkovic pretty much took us all by storm (a Hurricane if you will) this season.
From someone who was projected to start the season as the AHL goaltender for the Canes AHL affiliate in Chicago or at best the 3rd taxi squad goaltender, Ned found his way into the Carolina crease due to injuries to their starter Petr Mrazek & their backup James Reimer.
Statistics provided by Eliteprospects.com
Ned's contributions helped catapult the Hurricanes to a Central Division title with the 3rd best record in all of the NHL this season, by outlasting the 2 strong Florida teams in their division. Out of many great performances this season (that included 3 shutouts) his best regular season outing came on March 1st in a 3-2 overtime victory over the Florida Panthers where he stopped 44 of 46 shots & stole the game for the Hurricanes.
Photo Credit: NHL.com
His Calder Trophy resume included a 15-5-3 record with a 1.90 Goals Against Average & a .932 Save Percentage in his 23 games started for Carolina. Without Ned being able to step in & take the reigns during a difficult stretch for the Hurricanes goaltending room due to injuries, it is quite possible that the team would not have been able to hold onto the top spot in the Central Division.
In the playoffs for Carolina, he held a 4-4 record & helped the team get passed Nashville who they played in the 1st round that included 3 straight overtime games & a 4-2 series win. The Hurricanes are currently in a "dogfight" (pun intended) with the defending champion & Central Division rival Tampa Bay Lightning,
where they are in danger of being eliminated at the time this article was written.
Video Credit: Sportsnet.ca
Regardless on if the season ends for Carolina after Round 2 of the playoffs, the future is very bright for this team with many young stars & a fantastic Head Coach in Rod Brind'Amour. As far as what to do between the pipes, Carolina will have some very difficult decisions to make in the offseason as all 3 of their NHL goaltenders are in need of new contracts.
Thanks to Ned's coming out party this season, it may make it easier for the Hurricanes brass to walk away from Reimer and/or Mrazek who will both be 30+ year old Unrestricted Free Agents & instead decide to hold onto their 25-year old Restricted Free Agent goaltender Nedeljkovic who proved that he is worthy of a longer term NHL Contract.
Salary Cap statistics provided by CapFriendly.com
The "Make Em See Ned" movement during his time in Niagara during the 2016 playoff run was something that he has been able to take with him down to Carolina with the same sort of jersey colour scheme as well as the Hurricane crowd getting behind him with the "Ned" chants during their well-known post-game celebrations that have been a staple the last few years, which has become an exciting hockey atmosphere down in Carolina.
Photo Credit: CHL Images
Goaltenders tend to hit their stride later as skaters do & sometimes don't become full-time NHL starters until they reach their mid-20's, exactly where Ned is at his goaltending journey as he showed the next step in his progression as a professional. The future is bright for the former IceDogs net-minder, who will hope to gain that contract from the Hurricanes this offseason in a fantastic rookie season that any goaltender would be proud of.
It is the opinion of this article that Alex Nedeljkovic is absolutely worthy of being on this list as the Top 3 IceDogs in the NHL this season and not only establishing himself as one of the best recent alumni to come from Niagara, but one of the best bright goaltender prospects in all of the National Hockey League.
A well deserved Calder Trophy Finalist for the 2021 NHL season.
3rd Place - Bronze Medal
Carter Verhaeghe LW - Florida Panthers
Photo Credit: Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Last but certainly not least, Carter Verhaeghe a 2013 3rd round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs & someone who has scratched & clawed his way into an opportunity all these years later took the league by surprise this season.
After winning the Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning last season, he was rewarded with a multi-year NHL contract by the rival Florida Panthers worth 2 million dollars per season.
As we stated in the "10 Niagara IceDogs to watch" article before the season, it was announced that Verhaeghe was projected to slot in beside superstar centreman Alexsander Barkov on Florida's top line.
Although people didn't know what to expect from that move given that he had been an AHL player for most of his pro career before being able to crack the Tampa Bay Lightning lineup as a Bottom-6 forward, the move turned out to be anything but a short-term stopgap.
Video Credit: NHL.com
Verhaeghe went on to have 6 points in the first 4 games of the season, while receiving virtually no playing time on the Powerplay which made it even that much more impressive. He had many great performances this season, but Carter's best game is shown in the video above where he accumulated a hat trick by scoring 3 goals & adding 1 assist in a 4-3 OT victory over Jason Robertson's Dallas Stars.
Verhaehghe managed to score all 3 goals in a different way: 1 was even strength, 1 was a Powerplay Goal, & the other was a Shorthanded goal. I guess we can now refer to that as the "Carter Verhaeghe hat-trick" in reference to the "Gordie Howe" hat-trick, which Mr. Hockey only accomplished once during his career before it was later named after him.
Terry Wilson/OHL Images
After an incredible rise as a 25-year old professional hockey journeyman, Verhaeghe finally showed at 25 years old that the NHL dream could still be accomplished if you work hard and take advantage of your opportunities, which is what he did this season.
From start-to-finish Carter was a staple beside superstar Alexsander Barkov on Florida's 1st Line & although not receiving close to any Top Powerplay time, was still able to produce at a high level all season long.
Quite a confidence booster having a multiple time Stanley Cup winning coach like Joel Quenneville believing & trusting someone like Carter to not only earn but keep the spot as the teams 1st Line LW even with injuries forcing him out of the lineup at times.
Verhaeghe finished the 2021 season with 18 goals, 18 assists for 36 points & a +24 rating in only 36 games due to injury. A point-per-game pace for a player who is making only 2 million per season makes him one of the most underrated & undervalued contracts in all of the National Hockey League at this current juncture.
16 of those 18 goals came at even strength, which shows that his real value came when going up against the other teams best line and/or their best shutdown unit.
Statistics provided by Eliteprospects.com
The Panthers found themselves just behind the Hurricanes for the Central Division crown, which meant that Carter found himself facing off against the team that he had just helped win a Stanley Cup the previous year in the Florida rival Tampa Bay Lightning. Although the Panthers went into the series as the higher seed & home-ice advantage, the defending champion Lightning were just a little too much for this skilled but inexperienced Panthers squad.
Verhaeghe ended the playoff series with 2 goals & 1 assist in 6 games as the Panthers were defeated in the series by a score of 4-2. If Carter continues this momentum into the 2021-22 season, it will be no doubt that he will receive one of the highest pay increases in all of the NHL next July, for good reason. 2 million dollars for a point per game player, scoring 17 even strength goals, & playing as a teams top line winger is someone you'd hope the Panthers are looking at locking up long-term.
Video Credit: Bally Sports Florida
Carter has scratched & clawed his way like a hungry canine through the ranks of professional hockey & is now becoming a well known name to not only the Niagara IceDogs fanbase, but now the league-wide NHL audience as one of the best "late bloomer" feel-good stories to come through Niagara since Ryan Strome's turnaround.
Although obviously not eligible to be Calder Candidate like the 2 others in front of him on this list, it is the opinion of this article that Carter Verhaeghe has be mentioned as a no-doubt Top-3 IceDog alumni this season.
If it weren't for 2 outstanding rookie campaigns in front of him from Ned & J-Rob that virtually no one saw coming, we could have easily been here discussing Verhaeghe as the slam dunk best NHL season performance for 2021.