The careers of great NHL players usually follow similar trajectories. In the early years, in their early twenties, they’re fast and ambitious but with glaring holes in their games. Over the next few years, they round out their games, hitting their prime in their late 20s. In their early thirties, they fit comfortably into a system where they can thrive as their athleticism and drive lessens, and most great hockey players retire some time in their late thirties. This isn’t the path that all players take of course. Some players are late bloomers, only really developing in the later stages of their careers. Other players are steady contributors who never see a decline in quality of their play.
And then there are the guys who fall off the face of the earth. One day, they’re putting up thirty or forty goals a season, making the all-star game, and winning Stanley Cups, and then, poof, they’ve vanished from the league, never to be heard from again. There are players on this list that have won scoring titles or Vezina Trophies one year, only to be not even playing in the NHL shortly after. There’s a variety of reasons why this can happen, which the most common being injuries. But some players just seem to lose their touch, becoming ineffective on the ice in the blink of an eye. Other players seem to lose the will to compete after landing huge contracts, and are happy to slip away. Let’s take a look at 15 guys who were very strong players in the NHL who disappeared before our very eyes.
15. Kristian Huselius
Kristian Huselius seems to be one of the great enigmas in the NHL in recent years. He was a pretty late draft pick, but came busting into the NHL, scoring more than 20 goals in his first season, making the All-Rookie team. He played pretty well for the Panthers before he was traded to the Calgary Flames where he really caught his stride, putting up over 30 goals in one season. Then he slowed down out of nowhere, apparently because of hip problems, and retired from the league at only 34. Back in 2005 during the lockout while he was playing in Sweden, he allegedly assaulted a 22 year old woman with two teammates, and was suspended from the Swedish national team for a year. He was later cleared of the charges, but the allegations probably hung over his head for his whole career.
14. Jonathan Cheechoo
The story of Jonathan Cheechoo is one of the weirder stories in recent NHL history, and it will probably be told for years to come as an example of a flash in the pan scorer. Scoring more than fifty goals in an NHL season is a huge accomplishment, achieved by only a couple of guys per year at best. Getting to 50 is an indication of elite scoring talent, so people truly went nuts when Cheechoo scored 56 in only his third NHL season, winning the Rocket Richard trophy. He had one more good season after that before entering a rapid decline, ending up spending years in the AHL and then KHL, where he currently plays for HC Slovan Bratislava. Yes, a lot of his goals during that one magical season were because of amazing passes by his line mate Joe Thornton, but it’s still hard to believe that a guy who lead the NHL in scoring could fade so fast.
13. Nik Antropov
In addition to his skill on the ice, Nik Antropov is well known for being one of the only NHL players to come from Kazakhstan, although he later became a Canadian citizen while he was playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was pretty funny to watch Kazakhstan play in international competitions with Antropov as their lone NHL talent. Throughout his NHL career, Antropov got a reputation as being a guy—like Alexei Yashin or Alexei Kovalev—who had an overabundance of skill but often did not seem to have the work ethic to take his game to the next level. He bounced around the league with varying degrees of success before spending a few seasons playing in the KHL. He’s still only 37, but he has been retired from hockey for years. We could have got a lot more out of Nik Antropov, but he decided to become a hockey dad to his son, Danil Antropov, currently playing with the Oshawa Generals.
12. Dany Heatley
Some of the players on this list were good but not great NHL players, but Dany Heatley was a legitimate superstar for years. He put up back to back 50-goal, 100-point NHL seasons, establishing himself as one of the league’s elite talents. He was dynamite in international play too, but there was always controversy hanging over his career. In his early days in Atlanta, he was speeding excessively in his Ferrari when he crashed the car, killing a teammate. He also requested multiple trades in his career, and ended up having to sue his business advisor for millions of dollars due to bad business deals. Now Heatley is still only 36-years-old but has been retired for years, playing his last disappointing season in the NHL back in 2015. One gets the sense that all the distractions in his personal life contributed to the way his play worsened.
11. Simon Gagne
It’s weird to consider Simon Gagne to have been an elite player in the league, but the numbers don’t lie. He was an impact player for the Flyers right away, averaging more than twenty goals a season in his first three season, becoming a reliable producer for the team. He never won a major award or was a very popular player, but he had back to back 40 goal seasons around the same time that he played for a Team Canada in the Olympics in 2006 on the team that lost early in the tournament to the Russians, failing to live up to their goal medal in 2002. Gagne’s play really dried up in the later stages of his time in Philadelphia, leading to him spending five seasons on four different teams, none of which he had much of an impact on. He had some injury problems too, but that can’t explain his long goal scoring draughts he suffered. It seemed more to be a lack of confidence.
10. Derek Roy
The decline in Derek Roy’s play was less surprising than some of the other guys on this list because of his tiny size; he was barely over five feet tall. Generally, short players in the NHL don’t have the same kind of longevity of bigger guys, because their bodies start to wear down after years of absorbing punishing hits. With the exception of Martin St. Louis and a few others, short guys last shorter than usual in the NHL. Derek Roy was a star on the Buffalo Sabres back when they were an exciting young team full of potential, with players like Jason Pominville and Maxim Afinogenov delighting fans with their speed and clutch performances. None of those players have been as good since those Buffalo days, and especially not Roy. He bounced around the league, constantly offering up disappointing showings for each new team, and now he’s only 34 and putting up OK numbers in a Swedish league.
9. Jason Blake
Jason Blake went from being an elite sniper in the NHL to a liability on the ice, but it is understandable considering the circumstances he faced. Coming off the best season of his career, in which he put up 40 goals on a bad Islanders team, he announced to the league that he had been playing with and would continue to play with a rare form of treatable cancer. He did continue to play, but his goal totals dropped off rapidly as he went from a forty goal scorer who a guy who had trouble breaking double digits in goals. He was awarded the Masterson trophy for perseverance, and is seen as a role model for his continued effort in the face of adversity, but there’s no doubt that he quickly slipped out of the league, not playing a full season since 2008, and retiring for good in 2012.
8. Wojtek Wolski
Wojtek Wolski has one of the coolest names of any NHL players, and he holds the distinction of being one of the only players from Poland to play in the NHL, although he moved to Canada when he was about three years old, and wasn’t eligible to play for Poland internationally because he grew up in the Canadian hockey system. There was controversy early in his career, as he beat someone up at a party as a youth while defending his girlfriend. He had an amazing junior career in the OHL, and has a good NHL player too, showing exceptional skill in the shootouts. After numerous disappointing seasons in the NHL, often shortened by injury, he moved to the KHL where he still plays and isn’t very effective.
7. Brad Boyes
Over the course of his career in the NHL, Brad Boyes got a reputation as being one of the quietest goal scorers in the league. He had a laser beam of a shot that could pick out the corners with pinpoint accuracy, but he wasn’t very fast or a physical presence, and he largely stayed off the highlight reels. He had a 43 and a 33 goal season back-to-back on the St. Louis Blues, but his play dropped off right after that, as he was traded from team to team, ending up on the Maple Leafs, where he disappointed fans. He’s only 35 but he has been retired from the NHL for a couple years now, and it’s hard not to feel that he could have given more.
6. Andrew Raycroft
Andrew Raycroft is unusually small for a modern goaltender at 6’0″. These days, many of the leagues top goalies are a good six inches taller than Raycroft, and if you watched Raycroft during any of his disappointing final seasons in the NHL, you’d have seen a guy who was swallowed up by the net, hardly stopping a thing. But it wasn’t always that way. In his first full season for the Boston Bruins, Raycroft was amazing, winning the Calder trophy for the best rookie. That season ended up being a weird fluke, though. He was traded to the Leafs for Tuukka Rask in what is considered one of their worst trades ever. He spent some seasons bouncing around the league as a backup goalie, played a season in Italy and a season in Sweden, and now he’s a volunteer coach for a college team, which has got to feel pretty crummy for a former Calder winner.
5. Sergei Samsonov
Sergei Samsonov really feels like a relic of the past, but he’s still only 39 years old, so if he had been able to manage to keep playing at a high level in the NHL, he could still be in the league. He ended up being very unreliable at the end of his career, however, and has been retired since 2011: a season in which he only played 20 games. One things I’ve noticed in writing this list is that many NHL players seem to play their last seasons in Florida, which is kind of funny, like they’re testing out an early retirement. Like Raycroft, Samsonov won the Calder trophy, and like Raycroft, he did it while playing for Boston. They must have had a great player development program in those days.
4. Ilya Bryzgalov
Everyone knows that goalies have a reputation for being weird guys, but Ilya Bryzgalov was one of the weirdest of them all. His post-game interviews often had the feel of some kind of abstract performance art, as he would give non-sequitur answers to questions, or talk about his place in the NHL like it was all a big funny joke to him. There was a time in which he was one of the best goalies in the league, though. He was a runner up for the Vezina once, and a finalist for the Hart trophy. He won a cup with the Ducks, and plenty of medals for Russia on the international stage, as they spent a period of time as the best international hockey team in the world around 2009. His play really dropped off in his later career, though, as he often got shelled and was repeatedly sent to the minors and bought out. When he lost his focus, he really lost his focus.
3. Eric Daze
Though he is largely forgotten now, Eric Daze was a legitimate star for the Chicago Blackhawks in the years in which they were constantly terrible, leading to the draft picks that turned into players like Toews and Kane that eventually lead them to multiple cup runs. Daze is a big guy and he was known for having a killer one-timer and for being clutch, scoring goals when they were really needed. He ran into some terrible back problems though, and he only ever played three complete NHL seasons. He was forced to retire in 2006, after a season in which he played only one game. His injury problems were a double edged sword for the history of the Blackhawks. They would have been better with him around, which might have meant they wouldn’t have been as good in the future.
2. Tim Connolly
It’s hard to really know what happened in the case of Tim Connolly. He was a very strong junior player—as were a lot of the guys on this list—which lead to him being selected fifth overall in the 1999 draft. He was pretty good for the Islanders in his early days, putting up respectable points and showing great flashes of skill and speed. Maybe the problem that he never found a team that he was a good fit on. He signed with the Maple Leafs, who frustrated him by barely playing him and assigning him to the minors, where fans and ownership were frustrated that he was being paid $5 million a year to play in the minors. He constantly got injured too, and played his last NHL season in 2012, retiring from hockey at the too-young age of 31.
1. Andy McDonald
Andy McDonald was a surprise success in the NHL. He was undrafted, which is rare for NHL players, and he didn’t seem to have a shot at the pros until the Anaheim Ducks signed him as a free agent back in 2000. He emerged as a great asset to the Ducks though, with some point-per-game seasons and reliable production for the team. Sadly, though, he suffered repeated hits to the head and was plagued by concussion symptoms throughout his career, causing his early retirement from hockey in 2013, after several seasons spent playing for the St. Louis Blues. He retired at 35, which isn’t bad, but almost all of his seasons prior to that were shortened by his injury problems, and one gets the sense that if he could have stayed healthy, he could have been a perennial all star.
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