In the world of professional team sports, there is one thing that is true when going into a new season, the fact that there are always certain players that need to prove themselves, whether they play in the NBA, NHL, MLB, or NFL. There are several reasons why players need to prove themselves, with some examples being that they are coming off of an injury plagued or overall dismal season, they have just signed a huge contract, or they are trying to come out of retirement. Whichever happens to be the case however, does not really matter, what does matter though, is that they are able to prove themselves to the critics and fans that they are indeed capable of still playing their sport at a high level.
In its nearly one hundred year history, the National Hockey League has seen hundreds of players come through the ranks, whether they be high scoring superstar forwards, solid defensmen, outstanding goalies, or just average everyday players. This past offseason in particular though, has seen many players change teams, either through trade or free agency, and several of these players are believed not to be worth the contracts they are signed to, which is why they specifically have a lot to prove next season. Since the 2016-17 season is just around the corner, it seems fitting to mention some of the players who need to have a fairly big year, so here is a list of 15 NHL players that need to prove themselves this upcoming season.
15 Eric Staal
The Sutter family has had a total of nine members play professionally in the NHL, and because of that they are considered to be the most famous family in hockey. There was a time a few years ago though, when many experts and fans believed that the Staal brothers would be one of the sport’s next big families, and for a short time they in fact were. Eric is the oldest of the three brothers currently playing in the league, and he has been playing ever since being drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes in 2003. For most of his first twelve seasons, Staal played for Carolina, where for most of that time, he served as their best player, but for the past four seasons, his production has been in decline. Last season in particular was bad for Staal, as his lack of production became the main reason he was traded to the New York Rangers; and between both teams he only scored 39 points (the lowest since his rookie year). This past offseason, Staal signed a three year deal with Minnesota, and many believe that he will be released before the contract expires, so Staal, who is a former 100 point scorer has to prove that he can still play the game.
14 Nathan Mackinnon
The Colorado Avalanche have not had many first overall picks, including when the franchise was originally known as the Quebec Nordiques, but in 2013, they did possess the first draft pick, which they used to take centreman Nathan Mackinnon. Mackinnon joined the team the very next season, and since then he has played three seasons in the NHL where he has been one of Colorado’s top offensive threats. So far, Mackinnon has performed as well as can be expected from a number one draft choice, which is why the Avalanche awarded him with a seven year contract extension earlier this offseason which will see him earn just over 6 million per season. The reason why Nathan appears on this list is because he is still a very young player, and like all professional team sports, when a young player signs a big money contract, they sometimes let it get to their head and subsequently fail to live up to the production that garnered them the contract in the first place. This upcoming season, Mackinnon will have to demonstrate that he is indeed capable of fulfilling his contract.
13 Loui Eriksson
Loui Eriksson is a Swedish winger who was drafted by the Dallas Stars in 2003, and who eventually made it onto the main roster during the 2006-07 season. In total, Eriksson played in Dallas for the first seven years of his NHL career, and in five of those seasons, he was one of the team’s top scorers. During the 2013 offseason though, Dallas decided to part ways with Eriksson and traded him to the Boston Bruins where he spent the next three years. While with Boston, his numbers were not as impressive as they were in Dallas, with the exception of last season where he scored 63 points (the third most in his career), and it was those numbers that led the Vancouver Canucks to signing him to a six-year 36 million dollar contract this offseason. The problem with this contract is that Vancouver expects Eriksson to be the same player he was in Dallas, but he is now 31 years old, the age at which most players begin to slow down in regards to production. In order to prove that Vancouver did the right thing in signing him, Eriksson will need to have a very productive year next season.
12 Jimmy Howard
In order for a team to be truly successful and win championships, they not only need scoring and a good defense, but they also require a competent number one goaltender. The Detroit Red Wings have had several championship winning goalies in their history, and for a time, the team believed that they found their next championship caliber goalie in Jimmy Howard. The Wings drafted Howard in 2003, and even though they called him up a few times, he primarily spent the better part of six seasons in the minors; but it was his performance in the few NHL games he did play in, that convinced Detroit to make Howard their number one goalie for the 2009-10 season. Howard maintained the number one spot for four seasons, and was rewarded with a six-year contract extension at the end of the 2013 regular season; but since signing that deal, Howard has not performed all that well. The past two seasons, Howard has been dogged by stretches of bad play and injuries, resulting in freshman goalie Petr Mrazek challenging him for the starter’s role. This upcoming season is truly do or die for Howard because it will likely be his last to prove that he is capable of being a number one goalie in Detroit.
11 James Reimer
James Reimer is the second and last goalie to appear on this list, and he will have a lot to prove next season during his first season as a member of the Florida Panthers. Reimer started his NHL career midway through the 2010-11 season when he was called up by the Toronto Maple Leafs who initially drafted him back in 2006. At one point, Toronto believed that Reimer would be their new number one goalie, but unfortunately, multiple injuries and declining stats the last three seasons put an end to that, and Reimer was subsequently traded to San Jose before last year’s trade deadline. During this year’s offseason though, the Panthers signed Reimer as a free agent to a five-year contract, with hopes that he will be able to take over the team’s number one goalie spot when veteran netminder Roberto Luongo is no longer able to start. Reimer will have to prove this upcoming season, that he does in fact have what it takes to be a winning goaltender.
10 Milan Lucic
For a good six year span, the Boston Bruins were arguably one of the best teams in the entire NHL, making it to the Stanley Cup Final twice, and winning one championship in that time, and a big reason for that success was their scoring potential and physicality. Milan Lucic was drafted by Boston in 2006, and he contributed heavily to the team from the time he earned a spot on the main roster at the beginning of the 2008-09 season. For six seasons, Lucic was a capable scorer as well as a fairly physical presence for the Bruins, which made him one of their better players, but in his last season with the team, it looked as though his offensive capabilities were starting to decline. During the 2015 offseason, Lucic was traded to the Los Angeles Kings where he was fairly productive last season with 55 points; and that production led to him signing a new seven-year 42 million dollar contract with the Edmonton Oilers this offseason. Many experts believe that Edmonton drastically overpaid for Lucic, who many also believe is already heading towards the tail-end of his career; which is why he needs to prove himself next season.
9 Frans Nielsen
For a long time, the New York Islanders found themselves near the bottom of the standings, a trend that continued up until recently when the team finally managed to get into the playoffs thanks to their offense which was led by John Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen. Nielsen was drafted by the Islanders in 2002, and despite making his team debut in the 2006-07 season, it was not until the 2008-09 season that he became a member of the team’s main roster. In total, Nielsen spent parts of ten seasons with the Islanders, where production wise, his best offensive seasons came the past four years, where he was one of the team’s top scorers. Last season, Nielsen scored 52 points (the second most in his career), which was impressive enough for the Detroit Red Wings to sign him to a six-year contract this offseason. The contract though is deemed to be problematic because of its length and value considering that Nielsen is currently 32 years old. It is also considered problematic because it is viewed that Nielsen’s numbers in New York were what they were because of his teammates, so this upcoming season, Nielsen has to prove that he is worth the contract and that he can play with different teammates.
8 David Backes
The St. Louis Blues went through a terrible stretch a few years ago where they were unable to make the playoffs for several years, but fortunately for them, the franchise was able to turn things around, and are now considered to be one of the best teams in the NHL. A big reason for this turnaround is thanks to their drafting and development system which helped to produce some good players like David Backes. The Blues drafted Backes in 2003, but chose not to call him up until midway through the 2006-07 season, and from the get go he was an effective player with enough leadership skills that he was eventually named the team’s captain. Backes spent the first ten years of his career with St. Louis, including last season which saw his production drop to a six-year low when he scored only 45 points. Based on his performance last season, many believe that Backes is now past his prime, which is why quite a few insiders were surprised that the Boston Bruins signed him to a five-year 30 million dollar contract on July 1st; which is why the 32 year old centerman will have to prove next season that he has not gotten too old to play the game.
7 Thomas Vanek
The Detroit Red Wings have several players that need to prove themselves next season, and two have already been talked about on this list, but during this year’s free agency, Detroit signed a former star player who next season needs to prove to his former team and critics that they are all wrong. Thomas Vanek was originally drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in 2003, but did not debut with the team until the start of the 2005-06 season, and for parts of the next nine seasons, he was likely their best scorer and player. Early on in the 2013-14 season though, Buffalo was forced to trade Vanek to the Islanders, who later on in that same season traded him to Montreal. When the 2014 offseason came about, Vanek decided to sign with the Minnesota Wild, which is the team he spent the last two seasons with, and even though he did fine the first year, he tied a career low in points last season when he scored only 41 points in 71 games. As a result of this decline in production, Minnesota decided Vanek’s contract was not worth the hit on the salary-sap, and bought out the last year of his contract, and now he has one year in Detroit to show that he is still an offensively productive player.
6 Kyle Okposo
As mentioned earlier, The New York Islanders have only just recently turned themselves around, becoming playoff contenders in the process, but a big part of that turnaround was indeed the fact that they had Tavares, Nielsen and Kyle Okposo on the ice together. The Islanders drafted Okposo in 2006, and even though he debuted with the team during the 2007-08 season, it was not until 2008-09 that he became a part of their main roster. From the start, Okposo’s scoring and playmaking potential became quite noticeable, which is why for the past three seasons, he was one of the team’s top two scorers, including last season where he finished second overall in team points with 64. After nine seasons with New York though, Okposo decided to sign a new seven-year 42 million dollar contract with the Buffalo Sabres this offseason. Buffalo is a young and quickly rising team in the NHL who will soon be in championship contention, and this upcoming season, Okposo will have to prove that not only is he worth the money, but that he can also help to lead a young team to victory.
5 Andrew Ladd
The Stanley Cup is probably the hardest trophy to win in all of professional sports, which is why many players consider themselves fortunate and extremely lucky when they finish their career with a at least one championship title. Andrew Ladd is doubly fortunate, as he has already won the Stanley Cup twice in his career, each with a different team. The first came in his rookie year with Carolina in 2006, with the second coming with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010. Following the 2010 championship, Chicago needed to trade Ladd due to cap issues, and ultimately sent him to Atlanta where he stayed one year before the team was relocated to Winnipeg. While with Winnipeg, Ladd managed to shine as one of the team’s top players and point scorers, which is why he spent his entire time with the franchise as its captain. He ended up being traded back to chicago last season, and when free agency started this offseason he signed a new seven-year 38.5 million dollar contract with the Islanders, which was not all that well regarded because many believe Ladd has already passed his prime. Next season, the now 30 year old winger will need to prove that he has plenty left in the tank to fulfil the length of his new contract.
4 Auston Matthews
Auston Matthews has not even played a single game in the NHL yet, but that does not mean that he does not have plenty to prove next season when he debuts with the Toronto Maple Leafs on opening night. At this year’s draft, Matthews was the consensus number one pick, and because of that, he will be under the microscope from the first time he steps on the ice, especially since Toronto has desperately needed a highly skilled first line centerman for over a decade. Despite being considered the best player in last year’s draft, there was one lingering issue regarding Matthews’ play style: the fact that he played his junior hockey in Europe which uses larger ice rinks compared to the NHL, which can sometimes inflate a scorer’s statistics. Like in every professional team sport, the first overall pick is supposed to represent a franchise’s future, and in the long history of professional sports, there have been many first overall picks who have turned out to be duds, and it is up to Matthews next season to prove that he will definitely be a star in the league.
3 P.K. Subban
This offseason was marked by what many people called a blockbuster of a trade, a trade which saw the Montreal Canadiens send star defenseman P.K. Subban to the Nashville Predators in exchange for fellow star defenseman Shea Weber. The Canadiens drafted Subban in 2007, and since his debut with the team during the 2009-10 season, he has gone on to become one of the most productive, skilled, and overall entertaining defensmen in the entire league. In his six full seasons with Montreal, Subban was without a doubt the team’s best blueliner, and even won the award for being the league’s best defenseman in 2013. Why would Montreal trade such a good player you ask? Well it turns out that Subban did not get along too well with some of his teammates and the head coach, which led to the front office shipping him off. P.K. will likely thrive in Nashville’s new offensive minded system, but he will still have to prove that he can be a great defenseman now that he is moving to the brutally tough Western Conference.
2 Shea Weber
On the other side of this year’s “blockbuster” trade is Shea Weber, who for the past eight years had not only been Nashville’s best defenseman, but also one of the best in the entire NHL. Weber was drafted by the Predators in 2003, and did not join the main roster until the last third of the 2005-06 season, where his defensive abilities were clearly evident from the beginning. As a result of his skill, Nashville signed Weber to a fourteen-year 110 million dollar contract extension in 2012, a contract that he indeed lived up to for the first four seasons. When he was traded to Montreal this offseason though, Canadiens fans went into an uproar, because unlike Subban who is in his prime, Weber is seen to be on the decline, especially after his terrible playoff performance last season. While with Nashville, Weber played incredibly long minutes against the best players from the opposing teams for many years, which is incredibly taxing on the body, and which would explain why some believe that his career as a whole is running out of steam; that is why next season he needs to prove that he still has plenty more left in the tank.
1 Alexander Radulov
At the top of this list is Alexander Radulov, and based on his last stint in the NHL, he has the most to prove this upcoming season, because if things do not go well for him in Montreal, he will likely not get a shot with any other team in the league again. Radulov was originally drafted by the Nashville Predators in 2004, and made it onto the main roster during the beginning of the 2006-07 season, and for the remainder of that season, as well as the following one, he was without a doubt the team’s best forward. During the 2008 offseason though, Radulov decided to leave Nashville and signed a multi-year contract with a team a Russia, even though he was still under contract with the Predators for one more season. He spent the next four years playing in Russia, and when his team’s 2011-12 season came to an end he decided to return to Nashville where he joined the team on their playoff run. During that postseason run, Radulov and other teammates were scolded for breaking the team’s curfew to go out drinking, which is why the team chose to not re-sign him that offseason. As a result, no team wanted Radulov, and the winger went back to Russia for another four years, where he was one of the leading scorers in the country’s league each season. Radulov made it clear he wanted to return to the NHL next season, and it was Montreal who took a shot at him with a one-year deal, and unless he shows next season that he has changed his ways, he will not stay in the league very long again.