Being an NHL player is one of the more physically demanding sports to play professionally, no question. While most full contact sports only have games once a week, NHL players have to lace up the skates three or four times a week, and they often endure relentless physical abuse once those skates are on.
As such, being a consistent producer in the world’s best hockey league is a pretty spectacular accomplishment. It’s not very often that a player will go through his 15-20 year NHL career without having a few off years here and there. The ability to be consistently great is what separates the great players from the good ones.
Just because a player has an offseason or two doesn’t necessarily mean their career's doomed. In many cases, the player will bounce back the next season, becoming fantasy hockey boons for us hardcore fans who also happen to be problem gamblers.
Sometimes the cause of a player's poor season is bad coaching; sometimes it’s a nagging injury he never really recovered from all season long; and sometimes it’s plain old dumb luck, like a low shooting percentage or PDO rating. Without much further ado, here are 15 NHLers who could revive their careers in 2016-17.
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15 Semyon Varlamov
Semyon Varlamov is the first and only goalie to appear on this list, and he comes in at number 15. Varlamov had his best season in 2013-14, leading the league in wins with 41 and posting an impressive .927 SV% and a 2.41 GAA.
The following season saw his numbers dip slightly, but the Russian netminder suffered a major regression in performance in 2015-16. Varlamov won just 27 games last season, and his GAA shot up to 2.81, up from the previous season’s 2.56. What’s worse is his save percentage of .914 ranked him 38th out of all goalies who played at least 20 games.
Even if you consider his recent regressions, Varlamov seems like a good bounce-back candidate for 2016-17. It’s not to say his career is in desperate need of revitalization, but if he could just split the difference between his 2013-14 season and his 2015-16 season, the Avalanche will be in good shape in the crease for the upcoming season.
14 Justin Schultz
Justin Schultz became the whipping boy in Edmonton during his time there in 2015-16 (and prior), and his value declined to the point where Peter Chiarelli had to deal the formerly-heralded prospect for a third round pick at the 2016 trade deadline.
Schultz is of course now a Stanley Cup champion, much to the chagrin of butt-hurt Oilers fans everywhere. They also won’t like to hear this, but Schultz will likely continue to grow as a player in Pittsburgh, something he was unable to do in his three-and-a-half seasons in Edmonton.
The biggest reason to believe Schultz will improve in Pennsylvania is the Penguins’ ability to deploy him to his strengths. The blue line in Edmonton was much shallower than it was in Pittsburgh, and thus Schultz was put into a position to fail. If the Pens use him as a third-pairing option and on the second PP unit, he’ll excel in that role.
13 Colin Greening
By the time Ottawa dealt Colin Greening to Toronto in February of 2016, he’d fallen so far out of favor in Canada’s capital that he actually played 41 games for the AHL’s Bridgeport Senators. He was somewhat revitalized during his short stint in Toronto, scoring 15 points in his 30 games there.
His late offensive outburst (relatively speaking) was enough to earn him a pretty generous one-year, $2.65 million contract from the Leafs. The term is the key here, though; if Greening falters, that could be it for the 30-year-old winger from Newfoundland.
There’s no reason to believe Mike Babcock won’t be putting Greening in a position to succeed. Since Greening is a little older, has limited natural skill and is a reclamation project, he’ll be a good role model for the young players on Toronto—as long as he delivers in 2016-17. Him being on a one-year deal should give him plenty of motivation to deliver.
12 Jakub Voracek
There’s no question that Jakub Voracek is an elite talent, but if you judged him only by his numbers from 2015-16, that’s not the conclusion you’d come to. His numbers weren’t terrible (55 points in 73 games), but he did score just 11 goals after registering three consecutive 20-goal seasons.
Voracek is heading into the first season of an eight-year contract that will pay him an AAV of $8.25 million. For the Flyers' sake, they better hope that 2015-16 was an aberration rather than a regression for the Czech winger. The Flyers have a bad habit of getting stuck with declining forwards on bad contracts.
Luckily, there is evidence that points to Voracek’s lackluster season as an outlier. Voracek’s shooting percentage in 2015-16 was just 5.2%, which is almost 50% less than his career average of 9.5%. Right there, you pretty much make up the goal differential from his previous three seasons.
11 Joffrey Lupul
Jofrey Lupul’s career has been revitalized a few times already, but it’s safe to say it’s in need of yet another. Lupul only found his way into 46 games in 2015-16, and he’s played over 60 games just twice since 2009-10.
Despite the frequent trips to the IR, has had spurts of pretty good productivity. In 2013-14, he managed 44 points in 66 games, which are good numbers for a second-line winger. Before that, in 2012-13 (lockout shortened season, also cut short due to injury), he scored 18 points in just 16 games.
In order for Lupul to bounce back in 2016-17, he first and foremost needs to stay healthy and play at least 70 games. That seems like a tall order, as he hasn’t done that since the 2008-09 season, but he’ll be looked up to in Toronto this year and it’s tough to make a positive impact from the IR.
10 Brandon Pirri
Before I write this, let me just make you aware that I’m aware that Brandon Pirri is still without a contract for the 2016-17 season. There is the possibility that the forward elects to pursue an opportunity in Europe or elsewhere, but that’s unlikely.
While he’s had trouble sticking in the NHL consistently throughout his fairly young career, Pirri has actually shown quite well in small doses. He scored 22 goals in 49 games in 2014-15 (albeit he had a startlingly low assist count of two to go with it), and his 80 points in 166 career games represents nearly a 0.5 points-per-game average, enough offense for a second line NHLer for sure.
Pirri was traded from Florida to Anaheim at the 2016 deadline, and he fell out of favor quick in Orange County. Bruce Boudreau obviously wasn’t a fan of Pirri (nor was Gerard Gallant in Florida, it would seem), and Boudreau hardly used Pirri for the remainder of the year (and literally never used him in the playoffs).
9 Trevor Daley
It looked like Trevor Daley was already on his way to reviving his career before he went down with an ankle injury en route to the Penguins' 2016 Stanley Cup win. With that in mind, Daley is a safe bet to revitalize what once seemed like a stalled career in 2015-16.
The struggles began in Chicago, which is where he started 2015-16. The Hawks picked him up in the previous offseason, but his brand of play never fit in in Chicago for whatever reason, and he was traded to Pittsburgh for Rob Scuderi.
The Pens won this trade, as Scuderi’s skating ability is not up to present-day NHL code. Daley, meanwhile, averaged over 20 minutes a night on the Pittsburgh blue for the remainder of the season until his injury. With a clean slate and a shiny new Stanley Cup ring, Daley will be much more motivated to start 2016-17 than he was for 2015-16.
8 Ryan Strome
Ryan Strome has been considered a strong prospect for what seems like far too long now. Just when it seems like the forward is about to break out of his shell, he takes a step back in his development. 2016-17 could be the year when he finally proves he belongs.
His professional development thus far has been bizarre. He played 37 games in his rookie year, managing a respectable 18 points. Then avoiding the dreaded sophomore slump, Strome played 81 games the following year and scored 50 points. In 2015-16, however, Strome regressed to just 28 points in 71 games.
It’s not like his career is over by any stretch, but to see such a sharp decline in production for a 23-year-old is concerning. He was even made a healthy scratch a few times for the Islanders during the postseason, which is a pretty big indictment of the winger who’s entering his fourth season in the NHL.
7 Brandon Sutter
When the Vancouver Canucks swapped Nick Bonino for Brandon Sutter in the 2015 offseason, they were sure they were getting a cornerstone center. Not known for producing offense, Sutter is a shutdown, penalty-killing centerman who had previously been extremely healthy prior to coming to Vancouver.
From 2010-11 to 2014-15, Sutter had only missed three regular season games. During his first season in Vancouver, Sutter only saw action in 20 games, which by far represents the lowest games played total in his professional career.
Expectations were high for Sutter entering 2015-16, and with his injuries he was more than a disappointment. Sutter will enter 2016-17 with a clean bill of health and something to prove—and you don’t usually like to bet against a Sutter who has something to prove.
6 Lars Eller
Like so many players do in Montreal, Lars Eller fell out of favor with the Canadiens’ coaching and management staff. After having played 435 of his 442 career NHL games in Montreal, he was dealt this offseason to Washington for a pair of draft picks.
Eller has enough games under his belt to be considered a veteran, but he was never able to take that next step in Montreal. He’d put up only third line numbers during a good season, and that’s never good for a player whose calling card is supposed to be offense (he’s not a great defensive forward).
Fortunately, 2016-17 presents a fresh start for Eller, who will make his debut on the President’s Trophy champion Washington Capitals. D.C. is a very welcoming environment for Europeans, so perhaps this is finally the year the 27-year-old steps up his game. Playing in a winning environment will do wonders for him in rejuvenating his career.
5 Emerson Etem
At 24 years old, Emerson Etem better soon establish himself as a full-time NHL player, or else time will run out for the Long Beach native. Etem spent his first three pro seasons with the Ducks organization, splitting time fairly evenly between the NHL and AHL.
From there he went to New York to ply his trade with the Rangers, and he never broke out there either, playing in just 19 regular season games with the Blueshirts before being dealt to Vancouver for a prospect and a pick.
Etem showed well enough in British Columbia to earn a one-year contract extension, so this season could be make or break for Etem. If he falters, it’s unlikely he’ll be gifted another chance; if he succeeds, he could be a leader on this Vancouver team for years to come. Vancouver is in desperate need of some leadership and with the Sedins aging, the door will soon be open for Etem to take a huge step.
4 Tyler Ennis
Tyler Ennis has played all 368 games in his career with the Buffalo Sabres, and he’s had some pretty stellar seasons along the way. 2015-16 was definitely his most forgettable so far, as he found his way into just 23 games thanks to an ankle injury.
Heading into the 2016-17 season with a clean bill of health, Ennis has an opportunity to assert himself in upstate New York. With the forward crop in Buffalo looking more impressive every season, it will be up to Ennis and Ennis alone to establish a spot for himself in Buffalo’s top six.
With youngsters Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel breaking out in 2015-16 while Ennis sat in the press box, things are getting crowded in the Buffalo top six. That’s not to mention Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane (charges pending), Matt Moulson, and newcomer Kyle Okposo. Does Ennis fit in 2016-17? We’ll see.
3 Nick Foligno
The 2015-16 and 2014-15 seasons of Nick Foligno couldn’t be more different. Two seasons ago Foligno earned the captaincy in Columbus, putting together 73 points for a career year. Things were looking promising for Foligno and his Jackets heading into 2015-16, but it went awry pretty quickly.
The Jackets got off to an awful start. You can’t lay the blame at Foligno’s feet, as the whole team struggled, but six points in his first 16 games is a pretty good indication of how things were going for the captain. By the time 2015-16 was in the books for Columbus, Foligno had earned just 37 points.
Looking back at his entire body of work, it’s tough to argue that Foligno will return to his 73-point form, but it’s also unreasonable to expect him to stagnate at his 2015-16 production levels. His shooting percentage dropped big time last season, which is a huge reason he scored 19 fewer goals that in 2014-15.
2 Nail Yakupov
I know what you’re thinking: how can you revive a career that hasn’t really gotten off the ground in the first place? Well, I think many people forget that Nail Yakupov registered an impressive 17 goals in his rookie season, the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign. That extrapolates to a 30-goal season over 82 games.
Then, Oilers GM Craig MacTavish fired Ralph Krueger in favor of Dallas Eakins, and Eakins effectively ruined Yakupov. The fragile Russian never responded to Eakins’ tactics, and he progressively got worse under his watch. It’s possible that stretch shot his confidence for good, as he played pretty brutally under coach Todd McLellan in 2015-16.
I still think Yakupov is a good candidate for a career revitalization, and there are two reasons for that. One, he’s asked for a trade, and although there’s no guarantee that wish gets granted, a fresh start could prove to be enough to rejuvenate him. Two, if he does stick in Edmonton, I’d say there’s a decent chance he plays on Connor McDavid’s wing. Even I could have a productive season there.
1 Jonathan Drouin
Coming in as the most likely player to revitalize his career in 2016-17 is Lightning forward Jonathan Drouin. One might say the revitalization has already started, given his solid playoff performance this past spring in the absence of Steven Stamkos.
Still, though, with the way 2015-16 transpired for Drouin and the Lightning, I think there'll still be a little mending to do. First, he publicly complained about his ice time and deployment. Then, he was sent down to the farm to get more playing time in, at which point he refused to play for the organization altogether.
After an awkward month or so with no talks between the two sides, Drouin agreed to come back and play with the Lightning and let the past be water under the bridge, at least for the postseason. Despite the potential distraction, Drouin posted an impressive 14 points in 17 playoff games. If he picks up where he left off, he’ll most definitely be the biggest career revitalization of 2016-17.
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