October 14, 2012

Original Six: Best Hockey East alumni in NHL

By Jesse Connolly

As home to four of the last five national champions in college hockey, it goes without saying that Hockey East as a whole has had a wealth of success. Not surprisingly, its 10 members have churned out some of the brightest stars in the National Hockey League. With a nice blend of accomplished veterans and young stars making their mark, here are the best Hockey East alumni in the NHL today.

6. Kevin Shattenkirk

Boston University (2007-10)

I can’t even begin to count how many times an old friend of mine that covers the Avalanche, Aaron Musick, raved about Kevin Shattenkirk being “the future” for Colorado. Aaron waited three years for the blueliner to arrive from BU, and Shattenkirk didn’t disappoint, playing in the All-Star Game as a rookie. Unfortunately for Aaron and every other Avalanche fan, he spent just 46 games in Colorado.

At the time of the four-player swap that sent him to St. Louis, dealing Shattenkirk away so soon seemed foolish. Now, it just looks moronic in retrospect. The former Terrier has notched 43 points in each of his first two pro seasons, ranking among the game’s most potent rearguards. As part of a rising Blues’ squad, and at just 23, he’s only going to get better.

5. Hal Gill

Providence College (1993-97)

When the NHL came out of the lockout with new rules focused on curbing clutching and grabbing, many of Gill’s critics opined that the 6-foot-7 rearguard’s NHL career would soon be expiring. Since that time, the Bolton, Mass., native has played in 524 regular-season games, 74 playoff games and won a Stanley Cup — doing so with the Penguins in 2009.

A standout at Providence College for four seasons, the 37-year-old Gill expects to keep playing for at least two more seasons, as the former Bruin inked a two-year deal with the Predators this past summer. If the past seven seasons are any indication of what to expect, Gill will be a steady, top-four defender and a solid leader Nashville can count on to get the job done.

4. Brooks Orpik

Boston College (1998-2001)

Perhaps more than any player in the NHL today, Orpik is proof positive that offensive statistics aren’t the be-all, end-all way to measure a player’s importance to his team. The former BC Eagle is one of the best defenders and toughest customers in the game today. Anyone unlucky enough to see Orpik barreling in their direction knows they’re standing on the tracks and the train’s coming through.

The San Francisco native has led the Penguins in hits every season over the past seven years, and just about all of them have been of the bone-crushing variety. Always good for 20-plus minutes of ice time, Orpik is plus-62 over the past six seasons. The 31-year-old defenseman will continue to anchor the Pens’ blue line in pursuit of his second Stanley Cup.

3. Brian Gionta

Boston College (1997-2001)

Let’s just get the obligatory height pun out of the way: Listed at 5-foot-7 on paper, Gionta has shown time and time again that size truly doesn’t matter in the National Hockey League. The diminutive winger proved his doubters wrong at the college level — leading BC to glory while averaging more than 30 goals a season — and has done the same as a pro.

A seven-time, 20-plus goal scorer, the Canadiens’ captain had a rare run-in with the injury bug this past season and missed 51 games. Sans the pesky, gifted winger, Montreal missed the playoffs. It marked Gionta’s first spring without a trip to the postseason in his 10-year career. If he’s back in top form in 2012-13, there’s a good chance the Canadiens’ fortunes will change.

2. Jimmy Howard

Maine (2002-05)

After a stellar, three-year stint with the Black Bears, Howard spent four seasons in the AHL patiently waiting for an opportunity in Detroit. When the chance finally came in 2009, he made the most of it and hasn’t looked back. The 28-year-old backstop has racked up 109 victories over the past three seasons, ranking in the top 10 in the league each year.

Howard placed sixth in the NHL with a 2.13 goals-against average in 2011-12 and earned the first of what promises to be many trips to the All-Star Game. With the Wings in a state of transition following the retirement of Nick Lidstrom, Howard will be depended on even more if Detroit hopes to remain a playoff fixture. Don’t be surprised if he delivers.

1. Jonathan Quick

UMass (2005-07)

As the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner and Stanley Cup champion, Quick (Hamden, Conn.) isn’t just atop our little list — he’s on top of the hockey world right now. The former UMass standout could fly under the radar no longer this past spring, as he thrived on the biggest stage and led Los Angeles to glory with a performance for the ages during the postseason.

Only 26, Quick’s 131 wins are 14 behind Kelly Hrudey for second place in franchise history. In the past three seasons, only three goalies have recorded more regular-season victories. Now signed to a contract extension through 2022-23, we’ll likely see Quick and the Kings represent the Western Conference in the Cup finals often over the next decade.

This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Jesse Connolly is the Bruins beat writer for New England Hockey Journal and is the editor of hockeyjournal.com/

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ
Email: jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com