NHL Season Preview – Potential for plenty of ‘one-season wonders’ on the horizon?
E ach season, a small selection of hockey players become superstars in the blink of an eye, become world-beaters for their franchises at the perfect time and in the following off-season, those players are plagued by a burning question that plunges fiery doubts into the minds of fans selecting their fantasy teams and forces many a bead of sweat to traverse an anxious GM’s brow; can they do it again?
The fact of the matter is that the ancient vaults of NHL history are littered with names who had one sublime season followed by a career stewing in the obscure sporting cauldron of mediocrity and regret. Will they be welcoming a fresh batch of skaters to their eternally-maligned ranks?
This post takes a look at five players for whom the hockey world aligned during last season’s shortened campaign, whether that meant a change of scenery sparking award-winning form, a consistent performer suddenly churning out cup-winning difference-making numbers, a quiet addition from overseas taking everyone by surprise or perhaps just a predatory young lion striking to kill at the very first opportunity. With the free-agency climate distorting the picture a little more each second, is a repeat performance on the cards for any of them?
Note – Although I’ve used the ‘one-season wonder’ tag here, some of the players included may already be exempt from that particular association by virtue of having put up solid totals in the past, nevertheless they are still included. In the fickle world of the NHL, one stunning season can soon be forgotten if a player fails to reach that career pinnacle again.
Sergei Bobrovsky – goalie circus to hockey purgatory
W here else to start but with one of the more astonishing stories of the last year. Playing second fiddle to starting goaltender, fellow Russian, universe-gazer and inconsistency extraordinaire Ilya Bryzgalov at the Flyers, Sergei Bobrovsky made the surprising move to Columbus, in exchange for a second round and two fourth round picks. After his 2012/13 season, the decision to trade away ‘Bob’ may very well leave fans in Philadelphia feeling blue for a while and could haunt GM Paul Holmgren for the rest of his life, and as a man whose every horrendous decision so far should realistically haunt him, that is saying something.
After a low-key first month to his career with the Blue Jackets in which he split time with starter Steve Mason. An injury gifted Bobrovsky his first real chance in the limelight and he proceeded to post a 21-11-6 record with a 2.00 GAA and a .932 S%, it’s fair to say he took it. In fact, his form was so instrumental that the Blue Jackets’ storming run almost took them to the playoffs, ultimately falling just short with a 9th place finish in the Western Conference.
Most impressive about Bob’s play was the natural calm he seemed to exert over every play, diffusing the tensest of situations with apparent ease and the merest hint of arrogance; a hallmark exhibited by the very best goaltenders in the league. His performance did not go unnoticed by the highest echelons of the NHL and he was awarded the 2013 Vezina Trophy ahead of fellow Europeans Henrik Lundqvist and Antti Niemi.
Can he do it again?
N o. Well…maybe. But probably not. In many ways, things just seemed to work out perfectly for Bobrovsky last season, the move from Philly to Columbus looked horrific on paper but in reality, was exactly what he needed. Away from the berating, goalie-destroying stares of brotherly love to a hockey market with zero pressure and a timely injury to his main rival, the Russian goaltender thrived.
This year brings with it a number of contrasts; for starters, it will be an 82 game season, a long haul for a goalie who is still relatively unaccustomed to being a number one, albeit having dealt with the intensity of a shortened campaign and less recovery time. If that wasn’t bad enough, the realignment also means that the Blue Jackets’ division now contains the Penguins and Capitals, who how shall we put it delicately, have a few players quite capable of putting the puck in the net. A far cry from the Nashville Predators, whose offence simply did not return from the lockout.
Throw in the interruption of the Winter Olympics, in which Bobrovsky has an excellent chance of starting for Russia, his new $11.25M two-year contract extension and the crushing weight of expectation that being the Vezina winner brings, and what you have is a melting pot that couldn’t be any more different to last season. Though he has the sheer talent to have an outstanding career moving forward, I fear the distractions of this year could just prove too much too fast.
Bryan Bickell – Bruin hunter and playoff monster
W hen looking at the players for whom expectations will rocket into the sky this season, plunging them into a whole new world of pressure and fame, there is none more obvious than Bryan Bickell.
During the 2011/12 season, Bickell spent huge periods of time as a healthy scratch, unable to implement his power-game quite enough to become indispensable. Contrast that with 1:16 remaining in last season’s Stanley Cup Final game six, where his goal, whilst playing on the Chicago Blackhawk’s top line, tied the score at 2-2 and paved the way for Dave Bolland’s history-making game-winner.
So, from solid-performer to defence devastator. Truth be told, Bickell has been wonderful value for the Hawks for the past three seasons. With a ridiculously modest price of $600,000 a year, he has been reliable moving up and down the roster, not to mention putting up nice offence, including 17 goals in 2010/11. Nevertheless, his postseason explosion during the Hawks quest for glory was something very few people saw coming, let alone the opponents he dismantled along the away.
After putting up 9 goals (17 points) in 48 regular season games, he replicated that goal total during only 25 playoff games, forming a nightmarish line with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. His big body, great wrist-shot and physical presence proved the perfect foil for Toews’ rounded attributes and Kane’s flair, a combination used regularly by Joel Quenneville during both the conference final against the Kings and the final against Boston. All of a sudden, the hard-working guy we had all rooted for was in the spotlight and it suited him.
Chance of a repeat?
P retty good overall. Assuming he can keep his game simple. But as with Bobrovsky, a number of factors will also decide his fate.
With free agency looming and plenty of teams witnessing his playoff destruction, willing to offer Bickell big money, the Blackhawks had to move fast. They tied him up to a four-year $16 million contract that will either prove an excellent piece of business or a mammoth overpay.
One thing is for certain, the money now stalking his every move will come with the expectation to deliver on a regular basis, whichever line he may find himself on. With Chicago choosing to hang on to their stars in lieu of letting vital depth players such as Michael Frolik and Dave Bolland go, any points he can now produce will be worth far more to the defending champions; who despite having a core of unbelievable talent, could be saturated with youngsters in the near future.
If Bickell is to have any chance at maintaining his superb form from the playoffs however, he must ensure that his new contract does not dictate his play on the ice. Skating hard to the net, opportunism and delivering big hits in the offensive zone are the hallmarks of his success. Whilst he may be tempted to try and live up to his $4 million dollar billing by trying to introduce a new perimeter-orientated approach, this will not be what his coach, his line-mates or Hawks’ fans want to see. They just want the Bryan Bickell from last season. With confidence flowing through his veins, they may get back an even better version.
Viktor Fasth – super swede ducks beneath radar
T he Anaheim Ducks surprised a lot of people last season, following up a year in which they missed the playoffs by charging to the Pacific Division title. A major part of this success was the superb goaltending tandem behind them, consisting of stalwart Jonas Hiller and what could be one of the greatest additions they’ve ever made, 31-year old Viktor Fasth. After enjoying a blistering rookie campaign, the Swede will be expected to produce much of the same when October rolls around.
Appearing with a perfect name for pun headlines, the goaltender smashed his way onto the NHL scene, becoming only the third man in history to win his opening eight contests, joining Ray Emery and Bob Froese in that unique club. This start earned an immediate two-year contract extension, which will pay $2.4 million in the first year and $3.4 million in the second. A sharp move from GM Bob Murray.
Although he shared playing time with former all-star Hiller, a mid-season dip in the Swiss goalie’s form had some Ducks’ fans clamouring for Fasth to become the bona fide number one. No such rash decision was made however and soon, the Ducks were receiving great performances from both. After sealing a playoff berth, it was in Hiller’s direction that Bruce Boudreau nodded for the round one exit against Detroit, with previous experience being the key factor in his choice.
Despite not starting a single postseason game, Fasth had helped the Ducks to their best start since the 2006/7 Stanley Cup winning year and finished the regular campaign with 15-6-2 record, a 2.18 GAA and a .921 S%, wonderful stats for an NHL rookie, albeit an experienced one.
What stories are left to be told?
F or the future of the franchise, the form of Viktor Fasth next season could represent a major shift in a new direction for the Ducks, in terms of goaltending at least.
Although Jonas Hiller redeemed himself in the eyes of many by recapturing his best form against the Red Wings, question marks still persist over his rebound control and concentration on a nightly basis. Then there is the single year left on his contract, one that places him in a vulnerable position and sparks talk of a trade.
All of this being said, it should not be forgotten that Hiller is a pretty good goaltender and the difficulty for Fasth this year may be getting a long enough run in the team to showcase his talents. Together they form an impressive double act that the Ducks will want to tie down, but with the supremely talented U.S youngster John Gibson waiting in the wings for his shot, two goaltenders who pushed each-other to greater heights last season may suddenly become distinct rivals from October.
For hockey fans who keep a wary eye on Europe, Fasth’s success should not have come as a shock. He had been dominant in Sweden over the past few years before his big move and as long as he can stave off the frustration of having to split duties, which his character so far suggests he can do, I expect him to shine again next season.
Nazem Kadri – the price of patience
F or fans in Toronto, the wait to see the seventh overall pick in the 2009 entry draft become a permanent fixture in their line-up was almost as unbearable as watching playoff hockey allude them since 2004. Years passing with whispers floating endlessly from Ron Wilson’s changing room, from Brian Burke’s box in the Air Canada Centre, suggesting that Kadri still needed time to mature, that there were issues with his character, that the AHL was the best place for him to grow up as a player.
Well last season, Randy Carlyle decided that it was finally time to plunge Kadri into the NHL mix and the move couldn’t have paid off any better. The talented young centre scored 18 goals and put up 26 assists. Shortened campaign or not, 44 points in 48 games accounts to tremendous play. His points total, second only to Phil Kessel’s 52 on the Leafs roster, helped Toronto end their postseason drought. Although they fell to the Boston Bruins, they could and should have eliminated the eventual Stanley Cup finalists in a game 7 they essentially threw away. Team fortunes aside, that game also represented another milestone for Kadri, who registered his first career playoff goal.
In the harsh media spotlight of Toronto, a natural pressure that can crumble even the strongest of characters, a high-draft pick like Kadri will face a barrage of fan expectation next season. They see him as their chance at a return to glory days, but even for a player who seems to be moving from strength to strength, such a performance may be tough to replicate.
Is he just lucky?
S ome ridiculous articles, based solely on the wonderful world of stats, suggest Kadri was one of the luckiest players in the NHL last season. They quote his abnormally high shooting percentage of 16.8 as the main evidence to a theory that will see him fail to put up the same numbers this year.
Whilst NHL stats can be fascinating and so very useful at times, this is a case of people spending far too much time looking at spread-sheets instead of actually watching the Maple Leafs play. Kadri did indeed get huge slices of luck in certain games, but he also made plenty of his own fortune, through a desire to be energetic on the puck, getting into great positions, being sharp around the net and using his incredible skill to impact every shift.
I think Kadri may have a tough time being as prolific this year, but it will not be because the ‘hockey gods’ are abandoning him. Early projections have him as centre on a line between Joffrey Lupul and David Clarkson, two players who have $63 million tied up in contracts between them, an astonishing total. As players who should compliment his style, he will most certainly be a threat again this year. Plus, with the likes of Tyler Bozak, Phil Kessel and James Van Reimsdyk for Randy Carlyle to shuffle for plenty of options, Toronto’s offence can only improve overall, breeding an infectious confidence.
First things first however, as a current restricted free agent, the Leafs need to get Kadri’s contract sorted. Once they do, they have an exciting young player who may one day fulfil Stanley Cup dreams.
Torey Krug – a postseason revelation
S o, perhaps Torey Krug isn’t really in the same bracket as the players mentioned above, with only three NHL regular season games under his belt, it would be unfair to judge him purely on 15 playoff games. Nevertheless, his explosion into the Boston Bruins side during the 2013 Eastern Conference Semi-finals was a marvellous sight and his future is still worth a few moments of reflection.
Krug played with the freedom of youth, a free-skating, attacking style that was a joy to watch. After scoring his first playoff goal against the New York Rangers at the first time of asking, he followed that up by scoring four goals in five postseason games. The first rookie defenceman in the history of the NHL to ever achieve that feat, and against Henrik Lundqvist, who isn’t too bad at this goaltending business. He also looks to have an excellent hockey IQ and a nice change of pace.
Taming the cub?
W hen considering what will happen to Krug in the upcoming season, heading back to the Providence Bruins doesn’t seem beyond the realms of possibility. Although he received plenty of credit for playing so well in such an intense environment, there were still a lot of mistakes on show and a spell back in the minors may help him get rid of those costly habits. His Stanley Cup Final appearances for example, were littered with awful turnovers and spoke of a young player struggling with the pressure, pretty much as you would expect.
Then there is the issue of this being the ‘Boston Bruin defence’, a mix of world-class defencemen who love the art (e.g. Chara, Seidenberg) and solid players made to look better by their partners at the blue-line (e.g. McQuaid). Krug is also not the only youngster coming through, with the mature-beyond-his-years Dougie Hamilton having had a terrific rookie season and Matt Bartkowski looking the picture of reliability.
Bottom line, it really is too early to decide whether we’ve seen the fleeting best of Torey Krug and whether the necessity of the situation just heightened his abilities for that one series. One thing is for sure, he is built in the mould of the ‘future NHL defencemen’; a player that joys in offence from the blue-line and looks dangerous in rapid transition, and I can’t wait to see what he can produce in the years to come.