Top 10 most impressive skaters

Vanek, Koivu rank among skaters off to hot starts despite tough playing time

Updated: February 14, 2013, 11:33 AM ET
By Rob Vollman | Hockey Prospectus

Putting points on the board and filling box scores is all well and good, but when it comes to evaluating the NHL's truly great players, you have to consider their production in a deeper context -- you must account for the degree of difficulty.

In truth, the NHL's most impressive players are those who are assigned the most difficult playing time and yet somehow find ways to make big contributions. That's why we are using player usage charts (see below), which graphically portray how players are being utilized and producing on the ice, to choose the 10 most impressive skaters to start this season.

Player usage charts measure three critical factors:

• The percentage of shifts they're starting in the offensive zone (the horizontal axis).
• The competition they're facing during those shifts (the vertical axis).
• How they are producing during those shifts (the size of the circle around a player's name).

Though each of these impressive-early players is primarily starting in the defensive zone against top-line competition, they are giving their teams a huge shot-based advantage relative to everyone else (the bubbles are sized according to the extent of those advantages). In making evaluations on certain high-performing lines -- for example the San Jose Shark's top trio -- we chose the key member of the line or pairing.

Based on playing conditions, here are the 10 players off to the most impressive starts this season.

1. Thomas Vanek, LW, Buffalo Sabres

One of the bright spots on an otherwise disappointing team is Buffalo's top line of Vanek, Jason Pominville and Cody Hodgson, all of whom have been among the league's leading scorers despite starting many shifts in their own zone against top opposing lines.