By Peter Christian
In Minnesota, we know hockey. Most kids learn to skate before they even master the whole walking thing. Even though I grew up here and have lived here for more than 20 of my 28 years, I’m still amazed at how many people have connections to world class hockey players. Everyone knows someone who was drafted or who has been invited to the Team USA Development team. Literally, everyone.
My neighbor scored a game winning goal in a national championship game; a buddy’s cousin played with Sidney Crosby at Shattuck-St. Mary; a former crosstown rival is now playing for the Colorado Avalanche. It seems like every Minnesotan has a couple of these anecdotes. Maybe it’s because we as a state keep churning out stud hockey prospects faster than General Mills pumps out boxes of Cheerios. Maybe it’s because we have an elite high school system to develop players.
No matter the reason, Minnesota rinks and ponds are a gold mine for future NHL talent and much of that talent is on display in the NHL right now.
However, with all the recent young talent the state has plugged into the NHL the question is, which Minnesotan was the best during the NHL’s darkest decade?
10. David Backes (2006 – Present)
David barely beat out a few other rising stars to get the distinction as the 10th best Minnesotan born player in this decade. Blake Wheeler and Peter Mueller both have impressive but short resumes, but neither add up to Backes’ stat lines since he joined the St. Louis Blues in 2006. He’s a gritty forward who isn’t afraid to get his knuckles bruised and play a little dirty but he has also increased his scoring each year in the league, capping off last season with a fantastic 54 point performance that established him as one of the premier young power forwards in the NHL. At 25, the Minneapolis native has plenty of red lamps and trips to the penalty box in his future.
9. Mark Parrish (2000-2009)
The Bloomington native and former St. Cloud State standout had his best years early in the decade with the New York Islanders, peaking with a 60 point season in 2001-02. His stats began to tail off a bit after he signed with the Minnesota Wild in 2006 but over the course of the decade he posted 7 seasons with 30 points or more and scored 20+ goals 4 times. His gutsy play in front of the net earned him the reputation as one of the best garbage goal scorers in the NHL during this decade.
8. Tom Gilbert (2006 – Present)
Gilbert is the least experienced player to make this list with only 203 NHL games under his belt but he has quickly become known for his solid defensive play and handy stick work in both ends. Also hailing from Bloomington, Gilbert reached the 40 assist plateau in only his second full season and provides the Edmonton Oilers with a powerful shot from the point as well as a big framed defenseman that opposing forwards don’t want to get tangled with.
7. Keith Ballard (2005 – Present)
Ballard is a hard skating defenseman that is working towards being one of the more reliable blue-liners in the game. Since his debut with Phoenix in 2005, Ballard has played in all but 13 games. His durability and consistent scoring presence (20+ assists in 3 of 4 seasons). The Baudette native is a top line defenseman in Florida and the 27 year old has a real good shot at being near the top of this list next decade.
6. Matt Cullen (2000 – Present)
The picture of consistency, Cullen just keeps bringing the same thing to the table year after year. Not prolific by any means but he is a lock to notch 40+ points and was a big time contributor to Carolina’s Stanley Cup run in 2006 (4 goals, 14 assists). Cullen, born in Virginia, is currently 2nd among active Minnesotan skaters in scoring with 428 points and counting.
5. Phil Housley (2000-03)
Possibly the greatest Minnesota born NHL player of the modern age, Housley held the record for both points and games played among U.S. born NHL players and is still 2nd on both those lists 7 years after his retirement. Even looking at only the 3 seasons he played in this decade, the St. Paul native posted respectable point totals to cap a Hall of Fame career (34, 39, 29) and still be listed among the best the Gopher State offered during the decade of the oughts.
4. Paul Martin (2003 – Present)
Martin won’t ever come close to Housley’s scoring totals but he is a very smooth effortless skater that makes few mistakes. Not blessed with a huge shot, Martin’s gift is to find the open skater and put the puck where it needs to be to create a scoring chance. Martin (from Elk River) will average 25-30 helpers per season and will be a guy to log 25 minutes of ice time to help the Devils or any team who lands him for another 10+ seasons.
3. Jamie Langenbrunner (2000 – Present)
You could make the case that Langenbrunner could be ranked #2 or #1 and I wouldn’t really argue as he and the next two guys are all extremely talented hockey players. The Cloquet native’s body of work from this decade includes one 70+ point season, two 60+ point seasons, two 50+ point seasons, a Stanley Cup and 48 playoff points in 8 playoff appearances. Langenbrunner is a 15 year veteran of the NHL but at age 34 he could continue to play well into the next decade.
2. Jason Blake (2000 – Present)
Blake has been playing in the NHL for the entire decade (one of only three on this list) but didn’t really make an impact until the 2002-03 season when he scored 25 times and totaled 55 points. Since 2002, the Moorhead born player has averaged 57 points per season including his career best 69 in 06-07 where he netted 40 goals (10th best in the NHL). The last two seasons have seen Blake increase his assist total increase to career highs (37 and 38) as he continues to be a player who appears to get better with age.
1. Zach Parise (2005 – Present)
It takes quite a bit for a player who only played in the NHL for half the decade to get the nod as the top Minnesotan for the decade, but Parise’s half decade is breathtakingly staggering when compared to the rest of the group. In four full seasons the Minneapolis native has increased his goal and assist total to more than that of the last season. Last season he bettered his 2007-08 season by nearly 30 total points, tallying 94 points in 82 games (5th best in the NHL). Parise’s 1.14 pts per game average doesn’t look like a flash in the pan either, as he’s already on pace to beat that this season (1.25 pts/game thru 24 games). His skill set is that of a high profile and clutch scorer who isn’t afraid to put the puck on net. At only 25, Zach has a very realistic chance to pass Housley as the most prolific scoring Minnesotan depending on how sweet his scoring touch gets.