Winter Classic: Players to watch

December, 31, 2008
If you don't get to watch too much hockey, you'll be looking to see how the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks respond to the unusual conditions at Wrigley Field. Based on Thursday's weather forecast (which is pretty good at this point), the sunshine might be the most significant element to impact the players.

So, we figure you'll probably want a tip on which players to watch. With that in mind, we offer a look at five guys on each side who should stand out.

1. Henrik Zetterberg: The Swedish dynamo earned Conn Smythe Trophy honors for his terrific two-way work during the Wings' championship run in the spring. The 28-year-old forward has nifty offensive skills and works diligently in all three zones. As such, he can be used in all game situations. This season, he has 14 goals and 17 assists in 34 games. He works particularly well with sometimes linemate Pavel Datsyuk. Coach Mike Babcock can use Zetterberg and Datsyuk together or on different lines to cause matchup problems for opponents.

2. Pavel Datsyuk: The Russian-born star stands among the most skilled players in the game. He can dazzle with his slick stickhandling or with an unexpected pass. Last season, the 30-year-old Datsyuk enjoyed a career year with 97 points, and his plus-41 was a testimony to his commitment to work at both ends of the ice. This season, Datsyuk has 15 goals and 26 assists (41 points) in 36 games.

3. Marian Hossa: Hossa surprised just about everyone with his summertime decision to sign a one-year free-agent deal in Detroit, passing on several multiyear, multimillion-dollar offers from other clubs. Most figured he might re-sign with the Penguins, who had acquired him from Atlanta in a trade-deadline deal. Hossa proved a great fit in Pittsburgh on a line with stud center Sidney Crosby and helped lead the Pens to the Cup finals, where they lost to the Wings. The 29-year-old Slovakian sniper has been just as successful in Hockeytown, posting 17 goals and 34 points in 36 games. Hossa is the rare combination of size (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) and skill. That's why he's among the top wingers in the league.

4. Johan Franzen: Another of the Wings' many Swedish-born stars, the late-blooming 28-year-old really came into his own during the second half of the 2007-08 season. He scored at nearly a goal-per-game pace down the stretch and during the playoffs. At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, Franzen is blessed with good size to go along with his strong puck skills. He can play in traffic and likes to drive to the net. He scored two goals against the Hawks in a 4-0 win Tuesday night and figures to be just as pesky outdoors.

5. Ty Conklin: Six different teams have played in the league's three outdoor games. There has, however, been one constant: Alaskan-born goalie Ty Conklin, who has played in the two previous outdoor tilts (2003 Heritage Classic between the Oilers and Canadiens and last season's Pens-Sabres matchup). Conklin figures to get the start for the Wings on Thursday because Detroit starter Chris Osgood is sidelined with an injury. A journeyman stopper who seemed on his way out of the NHL, Conklin revived his career with a strong 2007-08 campaign in Pittsburgh and came to the Pens' rescue when a high-ankle sprain sidelined starter Marc-Andre Fleury. This season, the 32-year-old stopper is 12-5-1 with a .916 save percentage.

1. Patrick Kane: The Buffalo, N.Y., native might well be the best American-born skater in the league. Kane, 20, has piled up 16 goals and 41 points in 34 games. At that pace, he should challenge both the 40-goal and 100-point marks in just his second NHL season. The first pick in the 2007 draft, Kane is blessed with lightning-quick hands and always seems to be in the right place at the right time. You'll have to pay close attention to Kane when he's lurking around the net. The Wings certainly will.

2. Jonathan Toews: After a bit of a slow start, the Hawks' 20-year-old captain has rediscovered his scoring touch in recent weeks. In his past 15 games, Toews has put up 14 points. The Winnipeg native, selected with the third overall pick in the 2006 draft, starred at the University of North Dakota before joining the Hawks for the 2007-08 season. Toews has great puck skills. So much so that he's able to stick handle through tight traffic.

3. Duncan Keith: The 25-year-old defenseman won't be hard to find. He's almost always on the ice. Again this season, he leads the club with an average of 26:19 minutes per game. (He has led the Hawks in that department during each of his three previous NHL seasons.) In 34 games this season, Keith has 18 points and is an impressive plus-19. Most scouts see him as an improving two-way defender who might get consideration for a spot on Canada's 2010 Olympic team.

4. Patrick Sharp: A third-round pick by the Flyers in 2001, Sharp's career blossomed after a trade to the Hawks in 2005. Last season, the Ontario native netted personal bests with 36 goals, 62 points and a plus-23 rating. Sharp spent two seasons at the University of Vermont before turning pro in 2002. During the 2004-05 lockout, Sharp helped the Flyers' minor league affiliate, the Philadelphia Phantoms, to an AHL championship.

5. Brian Campbell: The swift puck-moving defenseman arrived in the Windy City via free agency during the summer. In his first season in Chicago, Campbell has six goals and 26 points in 34 games. The Ontario native has really helped the Hawks' power play, which ranks fifth in the league with a 22.7 success rate. A sixth-round pick by the Sabres in 1997, the 29-year-old Campbell started his career in Buffalo before a trade-deadline deal sent him to San Jose in February.

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.


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