Who is your favorite player to watch?
Greg Wyshynski: The best thing about this question, as a hockey fan, is that there are so many options. As recently as a decade ago, you could name 10 teams that were must see, but perhaps only four or five players who really earned your attention. Now, it's the opposite: When I'm firing up ye olde streaming of NHL games, it's usually to discover the new and exciting adventures of Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, Nikita Kucherov, Vladimir Tarasenko or old standard bearers Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos.
But my favorite player to watch isn't a forward, although he scores like one: It's defenseman Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators, a once-in-a-generation talent who would be lauded like a modern-day Bobby Orr were it not for the fact he played for the Ottawa Senators.
We're spoiled by speed now in the NHL, but for years it looked like Karlsson was skating at allegrissimo while the rest of the league was at allegro. No other defenseman could create offensively like Karlsson, whether it was distributing the puck after an offensive zone rush or deking an opponent out of his skates like he was a candidate for the Art Ross instead of (another) Norris. It all came back to that speed: Not only produced by his skates, but his level of anticipation, which probably doesn't get the credit it deserves even if it's Gretzky- and Crosby-like in its rapidity.
But there's also a guilty pleasure aspect to watching Karlsson, too, which is the occasional defensive lapses he makes. (I'm not here to bury his play in his own end. I'll leave that to Toronto Maple Leafs fans.) If he scrambles back to cover his own gaffe, it's thrilling. If his gaffe leads to an opponent's scoring chance, it's exciting. There are no losers here. Well, maybe the Senators are losing if Karlsson goes minus-6, but you get my point.
There was a perfect moment recently that captured the undeniable appeal of Karlsson's game. It was the start of the 3-on-3 overtime between the Senators and the Los Angeles Kings, and Karlsson was on the ice in his natural habitat. Dustin Brown turns to Drew Doughty, shakes his head and says "You cover him" before all three players break up laughing, as if the thought of what Karlsson might do was that entertaining in itself.
Most of all, I enjoy watching Karlsson because I know that I'm watching a player we'll tell the next generation we had the honor of watching, like the previous ones would rave about Orr. Karlsson is already one of the greatest of all time at 27, despite the NHL's idiotic snub of him on their top 100 all-time list. (Thankfully, others have corrected that mistake.)
Emily Kaplan: I apologize for the cop-out, but I have to pick two players: both Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid have become appointment television for me. There's a reason these guys are being pitted as the next great league rivalry, taking on the torch from Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. As of now (especially with the way the Edmonton Oilers have been playing), that narrative feels forced. Nonetheless, they're rivals in trying to one-up each other for wow moments on a night-by-night basis. Heck, on a shift-by-shift basis. Every time Matthews is on the ice, he's a threat to undress a defenseman and unleash a deceptive (and often ridiculous-angle) shot. His drag-and-pull is so unique, other players -- many, much older than him -- gush about it. That's the ultimate sign of respect. When I watch Matthews, I feel like I'm witnessing the maturation of a franchise No. 1 center, and it feels cool to be a part of it. Similarly with McDavid. When he came to Chicago a few weeks ago and deked out two of the best defensemen in the game (Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook) for a filthy, spin-o-rama no-look pass to set up Patrick Maroon for a goal, the entire United Center was buzzing about it. And let's just say there weren't many Oilers fans in Chicago. When I went to meet a friend in the concourse between periods, it's all he wanted to talk about. And he's a die-hard Blackhawks fan. The point is: McDavid's outrageous stickwork is a treat for any hockey fan. And he has generated even more viral moments since then, which somehow are just as impressive on a tiny Twitter video as they are on TV or in person. I know I picked the predictable answer, but I am always bummed any time I miss either of these guys play.
Chris Peters: Since he came into the league, Calgary Flames winger Johnny Gaudreau has been my favorite player to watch by a pretty large margin. I think he's the best and most creative puck handler in the game today, and combines that with spectacular vision and hockey sense. That mix, in addition to his quickness, has allowed the talented winger to overcome the fact that he stands at a generously listed 5-foot-9 and 157 pounds. It also makes him incredibly entertaining when the puck is on his stick.
He is best described as slippery, using his quick hands and feet to shake defenders and create separation. Defenders are often left merely slashing at him, often in vain (and now with stricter enforcement of penalties after one of those slashes broke Gaudreau's hand last season). His stickhandling ability gets him out of trouble, while his patience and poise with the puck allows him to extend plays until he sees something he likes. His assist on Sean Monahan's winning goal Sunday night against the Washington Capitals is a great example of this. Gaudreau bobbled the puck a little, so instead of making a panic play, he curled back away from a 2-on-1. Defenseman John Carlson had slid already in anticipation for a pass that didn't come, leaving Monahan all alone in front for an easy score off a perfect pass a second or so later. Even when a play seems broken, "Johnny Hockey" can make something out of it.
Gaudreau's assists are often more entertaining than his goals in general. His distribution skills are off the charts, which has greatly benefited linemates Monahan and Micheal Ferland. It all comes back to the hockey sense, which I think is his greatest overall asset. Gaudreau's physical tools allow him to make the plays, but it's his brain that keeps him finishing off those plays with a higher rate of success than your average forward. Gaudreau's offensive sense is right up there with the game's elite in my opinion.
I've been watching Gaudreau since his USHL days with the Dubuque Fighting Saints, when it was a big question whether or not he'd be drafted. You could see then that he was a different kind of player, but it wasn't obvious that he'd be a star in the NHL. He's been special at the game's highest level and, considering he's 24, he might get even better. By the way, if you're looking for some quality entertainment, there are plenty of Gaudreau highlight compilations on YouTube to enjoy.